Archive | May, 1997

May 1997 – album reviews – Blowpipe’s ‘First Circle’ (“the first impression of “cool-school jazz for acid housers” is too simplistic….breath-driven futurism”)

30 May

Blowpipe: 'First Circle'

Blowpipe: ‘First Circle’

The saxophone is the ultimate instrument, offering a unmatched degree of control. Mind you, that was a direct quote from a jazzer who had an unmistakeable sax slung round his neck. So perhaps it wasn’t an objective opinion. Nonetheless, he had a point – drawing most directly on the breath which embodies a person’s voice, the saxophone does have that extra human quality. If you want to score a thoughtful film noir tableau, you’re not gonna use a mandolin, are you?). I digress (and you could, but anyway…)

Robin Blick plays saxophone (as well as dabbling in orchestral horns, trumpets, flugelhorns and even the possibilities of industrial piping). His son Andrew Blick plays trumpet and manipulates sound treatments. Both are jazzers at heart. Both are also the heart of the disarmingly-named Blowpipe, an attempt to marry instrumental jazz to the electronic humanism of club culture dancefloors. Yes, yes, sounds familiar. But this isn’t just a case of glueing jazz horns down to a club beat; neither is it one of producing music to validate your own cappuccino-classiness to.

‘First Circle’ (on which the Blicks are teamed with sequencer whiz Stephen Watkins and guitarist Paul Reeson) is a sort of ‘Kind of Blue’ for the chillout room. This is what acid jazz could’ve been if it had been motivated by jazz rather than a deep desire to appear in liqueur adverts. Warm layers of Watkins’ quilted and deceptively digestible electronica interacting with the Blicks’ horns: bopping and undulating along in fine fashion, free as the air. It’s as if Gil Evans had met the Aphex Twin; if ‘In a Silent Way’ had been remodelled by Goldie; or if Squarepusher had been given an enforced Prozac overdose to turn down the heat on his flashy, glistening jazz fusion leanings.

Certainly it’s unmistakeably jazz-rooted, and not merely the product of jazz listeners. The amnesiac guitar shimmer, skittering boogie bass and toppy forebeat of Conc provide the base for Andrew’s sustained trumpet and Robin’s muted, sleepy soprano sax to weave fine brass threads around each other, and to pay homage along the way to Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, and Chet Baker. Prop blazes immediately into mariachi-funk action with an irrepressible verve: massed and chortling wah-wah trumpets, Robin’s reproving jazzy alto, and Reeson’s clotted McLaughlin-y solo and stratospheric guitar washes. On Chixalub the guitar and beats chop out a skinny, tight funk (with the occasional drum’n’bass echo trap), while the ranging trumpet is wah-ed and flanged to buggery. Only the sax is untreated here, dropping in late in the day with witty bebop twiddles; and long notes of flute hang in the background like Aztec decoration.

But Blowpipe are more than lite-jazzers squeezing themselves into clubbers’ catsuits. And the first impression of “cool-school jazz for acid housers” is too simplistic. Blowpipe might not be up for pugnacious, aggressively twisted modern jazz along the lines of Charles Mingus or Julius Hemphill, and they do aim at accessible melodies. But they’re still more than ready to explore outside the usual margins, in the tradition of true jazz mavericks.

The title track of ‘First Circle’ follows in the footsteps of Wynton Marsalis, Django Bates and Mark Anthony Turnage: a fascinating collision between modern jazz and contemporary classical. Beneath the randomly precise interjections of guitar and sax, and the corkscrewing Philip Glass runs of trumpets, trapped snippets of rock bass drum pin down the restless rhythm. Shredding violins teeter up the scale on high-wire atonality, wobbling higher, higher… and lurching out. On Toba, a modal tenor explores over electronic metallophone, Reeson’s tart Fripp-coloured sustained guitar swells, and a cymbals and high toms beat. Suddenly, there’s a crunch of hurricane-blast guitar noise before it all drops away into echoing, perturbed ambience: dead strings, echoing growls of trumpet, a few sparks of brass in the darkness.

It’s also sure that Blowpipe have an ear pressed against the connecting wall, listening to the electronic dabblings of that obsessive-looking teenager in the next flat. Why else the twinkly, computer noise/soft industry dub opening Trench, before the beautiful trumpet lines, minimalist string arpeggios and birdsong sax drift in like a warm front? On a moodier tip, the ascending brass duets of Kucou are wrapped in the same sort of ambience David Sylvian used in order to coax Kenny Wheeler, Percy Jones or David Torn into the arms of his misty balladry: a thoughtful snare beat, forest textures, Durutti Column guitar points and a minimal, thrumphing, clay-spattered bass sound. Even with the last minutes hijacked by quacking-duck cartoon trumpet, ambient sophisti-pop still leaves its mark.

Unkindness takes things the furthest, into more hostile atmosphere. A broody frown of menacing sound for openers, with sparse, warping antique sequencers and distant electronic booms. Arid knuckle-tapping hand drums, trumpet decorations fluttering down like flaking gold plaster, quiet robotic emissions from the tenor sax all hanging inside a vast bleak whoosh of ambience. It’s like being an ant trapped inside an enormous high altitude jet engine at cruising power, miles and miles above the earth: everything around you is far too big for you to comprehend, or to destroy you, but it can and does cause a profound sense of dislocation and discomfort. True, the jazz does win through when the ambience drops out to make way for trumpet, sax and conga, but it’s not long before things are back to the Moog-warping sounds of the intro. This is what you’d get if Labradford or Biosphere took up a residency at Birdland.

When they’re stretching themselves, or letting their sense of history shake hands with their zest for technology, Blowpipe are grasping at music far beyond simple genre; inhaling air and transmuting it via both electronics and manual valves into something new. You could call it all post-rock-jazz if that wasn’t such a stupid name. “Encryption fusion” might be a better way of putting it. ‘First Circle’ is certainly one to put up on the phuture-jazz shelf with Guru’s ‘Jazzmatazz’, Courtney Pine’s work with DJ Pogo, and Us3’s ‘Hand On the Torch’. This is breath-driven futurism: at their best, Blowpipe aim and – puff – hit the mark.

Blowpipe: ‘First Circle’
Needlework Records, STITCH6CD/LP (5 034061 000629)
CD/vinyl album
Released:
26th May 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand or streamed.
Blowpipe online:
MySpace Amazon Music
Additional notes: Robin Blick now leads Blick Trio; Andrew Blick leads Gyratory System.
 

May 1997 – album reviews – Mark Eitzel’s ‘Lovers’ Leap USA’ (“contains some of Eitzel’s best songs and some previously unseen directions for his art… a half-baked masterpiece”)

30 May

Mark Eitzel: 'Lover's Leap USA'

Mark Eitzel: ‘Lover’s Leap USA’

Culled and scraped up from Mark Eitzel‘s demo drawer in order to finance touring, ‘Lovers’ Leap USA’ is not exactly the album we’re hoping the former American Music Club frontman will make. In fact, most of it is apparently outtakes from Eitzel’s actual forthcoming album (which rejoices in the catchy, cheery title of ‘Caught in a Trap and I Can’t Back Out ‘Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby‘) plus what sounds like his final San Francisco demos (with AMC’s multi-instrumentalist Bruce Kaphan fleshing out the sound). Not always to Eitzel’s satisfaction, as he’s urged us to skip the first two “really awful” tracks. Well, he’s always been his own best publicist.

In spite of Eitzel’s deprecations and the album’s unpolished, occasionally sullen state (effectively, it’s a scrappy bootleg), ‘Lovers Leap USA’ contains some of Eitzel’s best songs and some previously unseen directions for his art, making it something of a half-baked masterpiece. Some songs – What Good is Love, The Big House, Have No Words – are little more than straight acoustic skeletons, on which Eitzel’s singing is either mesmeric or painfully flat and jumbled. Some (such as Leave Her Alone) sound more like exhausted Arab Strap trudges, with a drawerful of industrial grind muddying the atmosphere. In others, Eitzel drifts off into trip-hop atmospherics – easy- listening string loops, opiated piano touches, giant slow shadowy drums. And on the expansive feel of Lost and Lonely, Eitzel’s whispers sound uncannily like Chris Isaak, floating above the swish of passing cars and birdsong like a dawn haze.

‘Lovers Leap USA’ also shows that Eitzel remains in touch with the majestic tunes that floated or roared through American Music Club’s angst. How Will You Face Yourself in Sleep takes us back to the delicate traceries of fear that graced Gratitude Walks or Laughingstock. Red velvet curtains haunt the lyrics and the sounds of a song set in a hotel full of unspecified performers and travellers, restless “under a thin blanket, ’cause when you’re on the move you don’t need to be warm – / you pull another dark flood over your hidden form.” These people are worn down enough to see the machinery (“you can see through every plot, you know how they end… / Always said you would quit before you got fired. / Now you’re treading water, forgotten and tired…”) and trudge through their roles, only consoled by knowing which strings will pull on them.

Dream in Your Heart, with its dark burning fuzz of angry guitars, could’ve been one of AMC’s more aggressive moments, replete with classic Eitzel runaway metaphors (“the bitterness wears me like a chain, since I’m too Mark Eitzel vain for the Man of Steel I’ve become”) and the choruses which clasp frantically at elusive hopes (“I saw a dream in your heart / for a beauty beyond your eyes”). If people still sung protest songs at the enemy, you’d imagine a phalanx of indignant American feminists roaring Leave Her Alone at Pat Robertson. As it is, here we have a battle-scarred Eitzel limping defiantly across a bloodied drag of guitar and churned-up trash-noise to stick pins into a bigot. “You’re God’s little soldier, making sure his thunderbolts get thrown… / I just want to bang nails in your cross, I want to drive those nails home.” He’s never sung out with such positive pride before – “My sister never got credit for anything; / her life was just a constant second-guessing. / She doesn’t need your holy undressing, / and most of all, she doesn’t need your blessing.”

Two suspicious meditations on fame, The Big House and Nice Nice Nice, might have sprung from the bitter backwash of AMC’s brief encounter with the big time. The first, in cranky acoustic cynicism, strips the glitz from the glittering bubble at the top of the pile (“antique paintings from across the pond, chandeliers and porcelain figurines / an island in the calm of the storm, scattered meaningless shouted words and bored security guards,”), and sees Eitzel as spectator in a backstage zone “as hollow as King Tut’s womb”, munching cheerlessly on bar snacks and watching “this treadmill… moving the river of green, / …freedom slipping through the cracks.” It’s someone else in the spotlight this time, atop a fortress of speaker stacks, kidding himself he’s empowered; but Eitzel’s disgust is the scorn of a man who’s been close enough to get stained himself. “Let ’em weigh you and judge you, let ’em use you as their tool. / You give it away, you fool, you fool, you fool.”

Even more cuttingly, Nice Nice Nice deals with the artistic failure-turned-self-promoter – “This is the wall you broke your head on, / the one you’ve lied about so many times. / And now you’ll display a marvel for the ages, / a masterpiece of grace and design / with a meaning that no-one really finds.” Here mass acceptance comes with the price of knowing “you’re just like them, deep down”, but it’s impossible to know which side the alienated but notoriously anti-precious Eitzel’s really on.

There are some glimpses of a starker personal honesty. The spindly blues of What Good is Love (in which Eitzel’s clacking metronome sounds as if it’s snipping strips from his life) is an agnostic’s sleepless night, dismantling the articles of faith one by one and feeling the emptiness grow. “All my chicken-bone dreams left on a windowsill too long, / so easy to pull them apart… / And if it won’t set us free, and there’s nothing above, / then what good are we, and what good is love?”

Steve I Always Knew is Eitzel’s first open acknowledgement in song of his own bisexuality. But that’s less of a revelation than the way in which he strips himself bare in it. In the upfront world of gay pickups, he’s hard-put to swagger: “I guess all this means we’re going to sleep together – / outside I’m hard as a brick, inside I’m like a feather… / I guess in bed I was kind of a sweet nothing – / and for your money, you could’ve done much better.” Although Eitzel’s the one who’s first dumped, then denied (“You moved to New York to clean up, and came back married to a cop. / And when I saw you on the street, I could tell you didn’t want to stop,”) he ends up the strong one, able to face what his erstwhile lover recognises but can’t deal with. “You said the only way through fear is to give in, / and you were right, you were right.”


 
The most fascinating songs here are the ones where the borders of the problem are lost to view. In Lost and Lonely, Eitzel’s walking from dawn ’til dusk “like the ghost of a man… beyond the blessing of women and the shadow of doubt”, under “cruel summer starlight on a dark street.” The song unravels in murmuring drunken thought, a fumbling of fleeting images (“measure the life in miles forgotten”; “why hold a seance? I know you won’t call”; “who would chain the stars too heavy to walk?”) and a repeating mumble of “thought you were lonely as me.” Towards the end, Eitzel mutters a barely audible “thank you”, like a sleepwalking Fat Elvis.

It’s that particular Elvis who seems to haunt the remaining pieces, which are Eitzel’s hypnotically dissolving forays into trip hop. Like the narcotic but impenetrable lushness of Your Glass Jaw, in which strings, vibes and congas seem to be buoying up a deadweight singer “high in a bright light” who only sloughs off more of those cryptic, disconnected mumbles – “dissolve bright eyes”; “mosquito hunger, the blood of saints.” It might be the collapse of a champion, the same pulverised resistance that Scott Walker evoked on ‘Tilt’.

Pay It Back loops satellite chatter and rumbling gongs around Eitzel’s skinny strums, an irretrievably distant and uncaring brushoff from a frozen heart. “Do I owe you my soul for your heartbeat to inhabit? / Well you can have it… / Buried alive, better off dead. /… Whatever it is I owe you, I’ll pay you back.” And in Lost My Humor, Eitzel returns to double-bass’n’piano torch-song sounds, but submerges them in an obscuring post-rock drone. Likewise, his voice is a half- buried baritone whisper like gutter-trodden velvet, repeating “I lost my humor” as a cynical mantra, trailing it with clinchers from the self-mockingly spiteful (“I was bored to death by your song, and the rest of popular culture”) to the philosophical (“it means I give up any claim to being a voice for tomorrow”), to the cold (“don’t assume that they see you, don’t assume that they like you”) through to post-modern fatalism – “I’m doomed to live without – negotiate your sorrow.”

So far, so Zombie-David Byrne, the Prisoner of Vegas. But what gives this its frightening depth is the way in which, by the end, he’s trying to rouse himself. The chant has become “I lost my spirit”, and he’s casting around trying to make sense of it again “like the mirror I smashed, trying to fit it back together,” and realising what’s been lost: “I lost my spirit – someone put it in your pocket… / I lost my spirit…”

In the end, wherever Mark Eitzel goes, he’s lost. But no-one sends letters from the wilderness like he can.


 
Mark Eitzel: ‘Lovers Leap USA’
self-released, ME 1001 (no barcode)
CD-only album
Released:
May 1997
Get it from: (2004 update) Extremely rare and best obtained second-hand. ‘Lover’s Leap USA’ was sold exclusively by Mark Eitzel himself during his 1997 touring – only 500 copies were made and it has never been reissued.
Mark Eitzel online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

May 1997 – single & track reviews – Rialto’s ‘Untouchable’; Fiel Garvie’s ‘For What I Love’; Fingerfood’s ‘In a Broken Dream’

27 May

Rialto: ''Untouchable'

Rialto: ‘Untouchable’

Certain names conjure up seedy cinemas clinging on to shreds of glamour yet wallowing in fag‑ash, filled with emotional twitchers. Some people, though, still call themselves things like Automatic Tomato and conjure up fuck all. Never mind.

Rialto (who’ve levered themselves out of the wreckage of the never‑quite‑up‑to‑their‑own‑blueprint Kinky Machine) have chosen the first type of name, and appropriately give out a glorious, jangling, melancholy racket that never forgets to let go of (a) a lethal wistful/cynical melody and (b) the sharpest lyrics this side of Jarvis Cocker. Like Pulp, it’s pretty close to Roxy Music without the distancing Ferry preen. Also like Pulp, it’s about twisted, creepy, yet ultimately honest and revealing pop. It’s about the people who know they’re not going to light up the sky, but learn to burn brightly in their flawed and misshapen way anyway, even if it only ends in a gutter.

 
Sorry to continue to state the obvious: those distinctive hangdog‑but‑yearning voices are also going to shout Pulp at anyone who hears this single. But there’s as many echoes of other immaculate shots of British loser‑pop here as there are of the Sheffield polyester sex gods. Lloyd Cole, minus the library ticket; Colin Vearncombe’s woundedly lovely Black, Furniture at their most dazed (Song For A Doberman, Slow Motion Kisses). The drum-rolls, twangs and epic yearning of the Walker Brothers; Bluefood; a suspicion of a moonlit, sharply maudlin Ray Davies.

Untouchable itself ‑ clenched organ and double‑drum rattle ‑ claws vainly at the departing, flouncing buttocks of yet another blown chance. Louis Eliot’s threats (“If you were an angel, I would cut off your wings / To keep you with me, I would do anything”) give way to disgust (“D’you think I’ll defile you if you were to get too close? / D’you think I’ll infect you? D’you think I’ll give you a dose?”) and finally to clarity (“First you wash your hair, then you wash your hands / Oh yeah, I think I understand…”). Unsurprisingly it ends at the bottom of a bottle. “I’ll drink until my skin is full / and then I’ll be untouchable.” If you’re going to be an outcast, go the whole filthy hog and make yourself safe from any more pain.


 
Lipstick Letters is more urban loneliness: the resignation of the left-behind. Coming back to a lonely flat with, not for the first time, no‑one in it but a letter propped up against the kettle. The soundtrack to another vigil of slouching at a table leaning on the windowsill staring out into the rain and twitching at the thought of your own redundancy: “I don’t know where you’re going, but / I know you’re wearing your makeup…”


 
King Of Karaoke turns things around, placing our Rialto‑blokes right in the thick of things. Right at that point when you regret choosing life, laughter and too much booze: when that little voice cracks into your head just as you’ve turned into a whooping marionette, and murmurs “idiot.” There’s a thick, drunken blur of music; a tottering loop of chilly, cheery calliope, and the scene’s set. “Every night’s another drunken pantomime. / You get that sinking feeling, and reach for your lines. / …When you’ve chosen what you want to say / just open your mouth and spread your wings.” And trip over your feet, and the tongues of your badly‑tied clown shoes. The start of something big, blundering, blootered… and beautiful, in a permanently-rumpled sort of way. Take Rialto under your wing, but keep an escape clause handy.

Fiel Garvie: 'For What I Love'

Fiel Garvie: ‘For What I Love’

Maybe it’s the Norfolk fens, the influences drawn from a home where there’s more water in the ground than there should be… but somehow Fiel Garvie (a dark phoenix from the ashes of whispered‑about Norwich nearly‑weres Passing Clouds) make music that sucks you down, that pulls and distorts everyday cares and passions into the territories of something old and atavistic. Go to get your dreams read, and some will tell you that you’ll have to go into those woods in your nightmares to find what you’re looking for. Here, you’re about to find it in the marshes and quagmires.

Fiel Garvie produce treacherous, eddying song‑worlds that shift under your feet like rotting, disintegrating houseboat floors three steps away from plunging you into the murk. Tearing noise‑guitars hack out tangled chords behind beat‑slipping drums, fuzzed cellos, angry random stabs of piano. Relentless bass and struggling voice splutter and gasp to keep the song afloat. Verses are founded on perpetually slipping ground, on the verge of collapse. Music sometimes struggles free into jangling tunefulness before being sucked back. Like ROC, like bits of Tricky’s baleful Nearly God project, this can sound at root like small‑town indie‑pop taking on the avant‑garde… and losing. It also sounds like life suddenly, and horribly, opening up just as you thought you had it pinned down.

In the middle of all of this, meaning drifts down in layers; successive sediments of significance. Keep playing the record, and it slowly screws itself into your consciousness. The husky alto rawness of Anne Reekie’s voice ‑ strangled by her logjam of clogging emotions seeking the light ‑ might suggest Polly Harvey, but the shredded but piercing sentences that escape her are more Kristin Hersh. A handful of broken glass and reflections, a tumble of confessions and threats shaken out of any rational order by the force of feelings and events, as with Speakover’s crop of cupboard‑rattling skeletons. For What I Love, impaled on the question of whether to tell or not to tell, lunges back and forth between altruistic silence and the force of desire. She Dotes On Him’s rags of gossip and accusation build up a net of whispers from a girl’s infatuation to madness, collapse… graves.

Fingerfood: 'In A Broken Dream'

Fingerfood: ‘In a Broken Dream’

Fingerfood are a suspicious, mysterious union between instrumentalist John Wills (of Hair & Skin Trading Company) and singer Pinkie Maclure (whose 1995 solo album, ‘Favourite’, came across like Bjork submerged in a peat bog). They deal in trip‑hop and ambient torch, dressing up their songs in Portishead organs and Glory Box beats with itchy post‑rock noise sculptures behind ‑ zithers, mad splinters of trumpet, surface noises scraped off walls and the smoggy air like crosstalk sound in a crowded tower block.

In keeping with trip‑hop’s retro‑fetish, the title track’s an eerily discomfiting cover of an obscure Rod Stewart/Golden Earring track from the ’60s, sonically sleazed up and unbalanced. If you’re sick to the teeth of the proliferation of stoned beats, film samples and people desperately cooking up the Portishead recipe, you should know that there are two things separating Fingerfood from the usual trip‑hop blandout. The first is Pinkie’s voice, a bizarre thing with the mobility of a greased roller‑skate; oozing easily/queasily between bat‑squeak and alto diva, moan and sigh, it doesn’t so much caress as knead.


 
The second is their subtle but active embrace of… well, unhealthier excitement. If Portishead seem stalked by stress and hijacked by rage, fighting off their worst feelings, Pinkie and John are actively courting them. This is more ‘Cabaret’ than ‘Diamonds Are Forever’: I Love It When It Scares Me is a flirt round the edges of fear and complicity, rattling like a Geiger counter as Pinkie purrs herself up into a frisson over organs, hissing steam cymbals, a kicking Cocteaus guitar loop.

Suggestions of nasty seductive games abound, something If Only You Knew does nothing to distract from. You could admire the way they’ve got Labradford/Laika chinky noises mixing with lo‑tech string machines and percussion, but your attention’s fixed on Pinkie’s corrupted crooning: “What perversity / just when I thought I was for real. / It’s a typical twist, and I turn. / You make me hotter than hell / and I say burn me, burn me please. / What are these rules we break together?”

Could be as vampy as Peggy Lee on Fever, but Pinkie’s voice squeezes poisoned paradise into it. “Don’t stand too close, / you’ll see it inside my soul. / I just lie to myself / to make it all seem beautiful, / and now I’m going to turn it all around / …I never felt so alone… / If only you knew / the damage I can do…”

Fingers worm out of the dark, and caress. Your skin crawls. You like it like that.

Rialto: ‘Untouchable’
Warner Music UK/East West Records, EW 107CD (706301909829)
CD/10-inch vinyl/cassette single
Released:
26th May 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) original single best obtained second-hand; song appears on Rialto’s eponymous debut album and can be streamed via streaming services below.
Rialto online:
Homepage MySpace YouTube Last FM Deezer Google Play Spotify Amazon Music

Fiel Garvie: ‘For What I Love’
Foundling, CDS FOU 002 (5 021449 650224)
CD only single
Released:
26th May 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) original single best obtained second-hand; song appears on Fiel Garvie’s ‘¡Vuka Vuka!’ album and can be streamed via streaming services below.
Fiel Garvie online:
Homepage Twitter MySpace YouTube Last FM Pandora Spotify Amazon Music

Fingerfood: ‘In A Broken Dream’
Foam Sounds, FOAM 1 CDS/FOAM 1T
CD/12-inch vinyl single
Released:
May 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) original single best obtained second-hand; song can be streamed on YouTube and Last.fm.
Fingerfood (now Pumajaw) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Last FM YouTube Vimeo Deezer Pandora Spotify Amazon Music
 

May 1997 – album reviews – Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra’s ‘Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra’ (“music for Disney cartoon castles in the sky”)

24 May

Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra: 'Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra'

Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra: ‘Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra’

Do I have to do all the usual obvious journalistic crap about Iceland? Do I? Oh, if I must. They eat puffins, or something. They drink tons of cheap alcohol. It’s bloody cold there. It’s dark all winter, light all summer, or something. Magnus Magnússon. Mad elfin pixie Bjork… blah blah blah. Will this do?

Oh, and I have to act surprised that Iceland can produce such great music, and be really patronising about that in particular. Because we British love looking down on small nations, don’t we?

All that gone through, just because two-thirds of Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra are Icelandic. Ragga sang You Don’t on Tricky’s ‘Maxinquaye’ album – a track full of filmic strings, soloing flutes and slow shuffling beats -which casts some light on this album. Previously, Ragga and keyboardist Jakob Magnússon were in a successful Icelandic band together; when they ended up in London, Magnússon worked as Icelandic cultural attache while Ragga attended drama school. Later, they formed Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra with English sampling wizard Mark Davies from Voices Of Kwahn. With this debut, they bring all these diverse strands of experience together to produce a magical experience. Huge, colourful swathes of sound; music for Disney cartoon castles in the sky.


 
So – Fairy Godmother opens on a feather-bed of lapping sea, boat-horns, celeste chimes and toybox orchestra that scream “Disney”, before the trip-hop beats are introduced. But the JMO is always very natural, organic-sounding – no harsh electronica scraping here. And Ragga’s voice is a magical thing – Kate Bush in a lower register, with some of Bjork’s expressive stylings. Like Bjork, her lyrics tell strange stories, but she introduces Shot almost matter-of-factly: “I got shot in the head by a man / who had been aiming at me / for many days… / At the moment I got / the paper from my doorstep.” To an almost easy-listening palette of relaxing hues, jazzy woodwind and flutes, she philosophically concludes that “love can hurt…” Well, it would, wouldn’t it?

Daringly, styles keep shifting, track by track: somehow in keeping with the fairy-tale transformations of the lyrics and samples. Passion For Life has a soulful belted-out chorus (Ragga does brazen Broadway as easily as schmaltzy Hollywood), a slow, loping early-hours atmosphere of spooky keyboards and bone-rattles for beats, and brilliantly lifts an evocative passage from Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio For Strings’ (the music from “Platoon”, if your imagination’s still settled in the cinema after those Disney references). In Where Are They Now? – to surging orchestral strings, keyboard arpeggios and sparse but powerful metallic percussion – Ragga sings a torch-song elegy to the lost children of wars. Even when no lyrics intrude, Ragga’s evocative harmonies over a battalion of drums and stabbing strings are just as emotional.



 
The mix of folky guitars and flutes, East European violin and pleasantly shuffling beats on Turn It Off remind one of Beth Orton’s marriage of bedsit folk and electronica. Deep Down also has a deceptively simple sound: alternately hushed and passionate vocals over shifting sands of decaying electronics and a barrage of junkshop percussion. It hits a groove and stays there – perfectly. With the fairy-tale assertion that “sometimes I can breathe underwater / Sometimes I can fly around the sky”, Underwater features more Disney-like wonderment: reverberating drones, slippery strings lilting through the melody and expert percussion care of a Steve Jansen/Rain Tree Crow sample fluidly weaving in and around the programmed beats.

Despite its title and distorted electro-beats, Beatbox Controller isn’t some ’90s ode to the DJ/mixer in the manner of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life. The “beatbox” referred to is the heart – “you are my beatbox controller / A telepathic mixer of emotion…” Ragga’s vocals are almost helium-light and, musically, the track sounds like twenty-first century reggae-lite. In an extended coda where he duets with Jacob Magnússon’s improvising keyboards, Mark Davies makes beautiful music out of sampled percussion – this man’s going to be a figure to watch in the world of electronica, to rank alongside DJ Shadow or Howie B.

Indeed, Two Kisses is built on a disconcerting, clattering rhythm track of samples of god-knows-what. Buzzes, radio waves, ghostly fluttering flutes and Eastern pipes are all jammed into the mix. Ragga sings a multi-tracked ethereal chorus and her voice is, at one point, treated to sound – well, er – exactly like a Smurf, to be honest. Weird, peculiar – Laurie Anderson jamming with The Art Of Noise produced by Tricky is about the closest comparison. Close, but nowhere near. So, yes, if weirdness to the point of absurdity overtakes them every so often (Man In The Moon overdoes the lyrics on the wrong side of Kate Bush kooky pop, and the overblown melody reminds one of… Christ! The Thompson Twins!) it’s a price worth paying for the trio’s musical vision.



 
Music for your fairy-tale nightmares. A perfect accompaniment to drifting away while watching “Fantasia” for the hundredth time, safe in the knowledge that the good witch now works her magic with a sampler.

Touched by the wand of the sorcerer’s apprentice.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra: ‘Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra’
EMI Records Ltd., CDEMD 1107 (7243 8 56728 2 8)
CD/cassette album
Released: 19th May 1997

Get it from:
(updated 2018) buy original CD second-hand, or get the reissued download from Amazon or iTunes.

Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra online:
Soundcloud Last FM

May 1997 – live album reviews – King Crimson’s ‘Epitaph: Live in 1969’ (” maybe only rivalled, in their day, by The Doors at their peak”)

10 May

King Crimson: 'Epitaph: Live in 1969'

King Crimson: ‘Epitaph: Live in 1969’

With guitarist Robert Fripp as the only constant factor (he once memorably described himself as not so much the leader as “a kind of glue”), King Crimson have negotiated the peaks and troughs of a three-decade career in rock music and at least six distinct and differing incarnations. In the process, they’ve become one of those bands carrying a distinctly hazy reputation.

Where to place them? Not with the evergreen Beatles, Stones or Byrds; or with the narcotic, perversely cynical tradition of the Velvet Underground. Not in punk’s vigorous righteousness, or New Wave’s beat-smarts; or in the ever-credible European avant-rock field. Not even in old-school retro-rock (you won’t find Oasis ripping off one of their riffs). Outside of the healthy Crimson cult, the 1994 description in an LA newssheet (“prog-rock pond scum, set to bum you out”) seems to sum up the rough consensus. To many, King Crimson are and always will be one of the dinosaurs, if not the rotten egg that spawned the whole prog-rock movement. They’re pretentious, ludicrous, and sexless Mellotron fondlers; or they’re just a little too damn strange and perverse, winning your friendship only to kick you in the shins the next moment. Or they just don’t fit onto your party tape. Whatever.

‘Epitaph’ spearheads the series of archive live recordings which are just starting to sluice down the conduit of Fripp’s self-propelled record company (Discipline Global Mobile), each accompanied by the oft-prickly but ever-passionate guitarist’s commentary on the time, place and ethics of Crimson activity. Fripp’s hopes are obviously set on a fairer deal from history, or at least on providing a chance to reassess King Crimson in all of its painfully evolving forms.

His rogue-academic sleevenotes – witty and painstaking, pedantic and enlightening – might play a big part in reinstating this hidden legacy; but the superb “digital necromancy” of DGM engineer David Singleton is equally vital. On ‘Epitaph’, entrusted with the oldest and most variable Crimson live recordings, Singleton has spliced incomplete recording reels together to recreate concerts; wrestled listenable (even impressive) live sound from crumbling BBC master reels; and coaxed atmosphere and clarity from second-generation sound-desk recordings, unwanted overdubs, even crappy home recordings from interference-dogged radio broadcast.

But beyond the Frippertations, and even with the static and the eccentric degrees of muffling, ‘Epitaph’ is a welcome display of the power of the very first King Crimson. This is the band which bowled over Jimi Hendrix, who once approached Fripp saying “shake my left hand, man: it’s closer to my heart.” This is also the group who recorded 1969’s pivotal ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’, then gouged a magnificent trail of dates across Britain and America before fissioning at the end of the year. A band which original frontman Greg Lake still describes as being “without fear.” Perhaps it was the briefly-potent whiff of Faerie which fluttered around English psychedelia at the time, but King Crimson felt itself pervaded by something extraordinary and supernatural (which the members jokingly referred to as “the good fairy”). Of the five original Crims, only Fripp has subsequently regained the same artistic heights which he did here. Yet even he considers this version of the band to be particularly special, embodying a time when “music leant over and took us into its confidence.”

It’s certainly true that on ‘Epitaph’ King Crimson seems to be drawing from something beyond its members. Those mousy young English boys making shyly urbane stage announcements are also those inspired, demonic note-hammerers who are deforming your speakers by brute force. Racking rock’s power up several notches beyond any previous record, King Crimson swarmed like warrior ants through careering unison choruses and stabbing staccato assaults. Here you’ll hear pastoral flute pieces and folk ballads juxtaposed with brain-curdling electrics, jazz effects that scurry from lounge-y hokeyness to bebop and free-fired whiteouts. You’ll also hear the sound of Wagner and Bartok being wrung dry. Unlike many subsequent prog outings, King Crimson provided the feeling that, rather than being cuddled up to, classical music’s cage was being rattled until it screamed.


 
Fripp’s guitar playing is the closest thing that King Crimson have ever had to a trademark sound. Here, though, it’s merely part of the ensemble – it was an approach which was applied far more to underpinning the band’s hefty array of textures and sonics than to taking on the guru trappings it would later assume. And it was up against formidable, if beneficial, competition. Yet to become the self-satisfied face of ELP, a pre-pomp Greg Lake was already achieving a career best. Michael Giles was providing an object lesson in how to drum with subtle, taut complexity and economy rather than bombast, yet simultaneously make yourself unmissable.

Seen from the here and now, the overwhelming musicality of Ian McDonald is a particular shock. A few years later he’d be reduced to providing Foreigner with a horribly diluted version of Crimson’s hybrid sounds, but here he’s untouchable. His robotic Mellotron orchestras were a benchmark in violent grandeur – as structurally stressed and queasy as sailing ships, and played with demented intensity. Hearing him stabbing and slamming the ‘Tron into an inferno of junked but coherent string-death noise on Mars is little short of a revelation. As are the moments when he leads the band on a blazing, wailing saxophone that strained towards Albert Ayler’s fierce free jazz rather than British dance-bands or pirated Stax records.

Off in the wings, Peter Sinfield is the silent participant here – only audible in the odd buzz (since his then-revolutionary stage lights also affected the speakers). However, he was also present in the ornamental lyrics which – even at their most floridly Victorian and romantic – got to grips with the contradictions implied in the music and in the civilisation of its time.


 
The four BBC radio session recordings display a group already far more ambitious than even the ’60s norm – maybe only rivalled, in their day, by The Doors at their peak – and a good deal more haunted in outlook. 21st Century Schizoid Man is still one of the most calculatedly vicious pop songs ever – a ‘Mad Max’ duelling-car of a piece, studded with flails, razor blades and serpentine instrumentation – and one of the notable occasions on which Sinfield’s flamboyant verbosity hit the mark on every line. The inflated stateliness of In the Court of the Crimson King’s title track, soaked in mediaeval imagery (jesters, witches and all), may well have given the green light to every sub-Gothic fantasy that would blight prog during the ’70s. But here it still looms sad, bad, blood-soaked and as steeped in pitiless history as the Tower of London – a heavy, tattered tapestry of the creeping and destructive blights that come with civilisation. Lake delivers it with a wounded and disaffected majesty.


 
For all their pomp and ceremony, their purple filters, King Crimson were as political as any of their contemporaries. It seems odd to hear a group featuring the notoriously abstemious Fripp singing “let’s all get stoned” on their unexpected, woozy but ballsy cover of Donovan’s Get Thy Bearings. But Crimson – a band with strong working-class roots, despite the bourgeois tag prog-rock was to be lumbered with by punk revisionists – identified themselves far more with the ’60s counter-culture (drugs notwithstanding) than they did with the establishment. On one concert recording, Fripp pointedly dedicates Schizoid Man to Spiro Agnew. The shadows of Altamont’s rude awakening, Vietnam’s ongoing barbarities, and the precarious threat to a future Utopia are all present in the bleak scary screech of the band’s wilder moments and in the epic mourning of their ballads. Of which Epitaph itself takes the crown – ageless, with Fripp’s watchful guitars rolling out acoustic swathes and quietly brimming electric tears, Mellotrons sweeping across like opera house curtains, and Lake singing with trepidation into the face of an uncertain future.


 
The concert recordings stem from that first, final, fatal American tour, including the ’69 Crimson’s last bow in its entirety (the concerts at San Francisco’s Filmore West just before both McDonald and Giles quit). As expected, magnificent string-drenched versions of Epitaph and a couple of overwhelming breakneck runthroughs of Schizoid Man rear their heads; but you also get earlier, raw versions of evolving new material.


 
Drop In is a version of The Letters (the Jacobean nightmare from ‘Islands‘) with a different lyric. But the violent emotional sentiments remain the same – the form is lazy bluesy pop, the words are typically detached, sardonic Crimson menace. “Why don’t you just drop in, / and let the game begin? / You wished you’d learned to play, / and lived to die another day. / The rules you pick and you choose. / The odds are stacked for you to lose.” The music has a far nastier focus. Chopped and diced, riff-stamping, the sneer of McDonald’s deadly tenor sax and Giles’ explosive, spasmodic bop drums bring it closer to the level of a Coltrane scream.


 
A Man, a City would later evolve into Pictures of a City. Here, you can hear King Crimson attempting to blend New York’s pitiless industry with a Hieronymous Bosch nightmare, via a lurching Gothically-proportioned snarl of R’n’B sax riffs and metal-tearing guitar. On the road, their painstakingly written rock texts were transformed by interpretation and improvisation (from McDonald and Giles in particular). Though the results were inescapably lofty and English – and also rigidly stark – they make an interesting parallel to the electrified jazz-scapes Miles Davis and Tony Williams were pursuing on ‘In a Silent Way’ and ‘Lifetime’, or which John McLaughlin had already carved into for ‘Extrapolation’.


 
At Filmore West, in the home of the hippy movement, King Crimson opened up with In the Court of the Crimson King, lacing English roses into Haight-Ashbury hair. Typically, this was a sly and malevolent seduction to soften them up for the full Schizoid onslaught. Perhaps as an adjunct to this, Crimson also showed more of their softer, more fragrant side. Travel Weary Capricorn was one of their few moments of hippyish peace: a fragment of boppy Traffic-y pop, with Lake almost scatting and McDonald’s blissy jazz flute darting and scurrying like Herbie Mann over the band’s deconstructing, half-melted bluesiness.


 
Although Mantra shows its age (pleasant kaftan-y stuff with, admittedly, some ravishing flute solos – bits of it would later show up on Exiles), Travel Bleary Capricorn has them accidentally anticipating the post-modern dissections of the ’90s as they turn, briefly, into an improvising lounge act. Spanish guitar wobbles while McDonald pisses about on the Mellotron presets (cheesy piano and lounge rhythms), as King Crimson pay a quizzical visit back to their hideous apprenticeships in hotel dance groups, army bands and cabaret backings. Right from the start, Fripp’s humour was always a tad elliptical, and his glimpses into a future of “chance and hazard” are often surprising in retrospect.

But what you’ll remember most is the head-crunching power and violence in their improv treatments of Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’. Each version builds from a gentle bass and drum throb, with McDonald unwinding the harmonies out of the dark, bloodied guts of a Mellotron. Growing ever more loud, staccato and harsh, the theme is psychotically smacked against the back wall; and ends up in blistering ray-gun effects over the stabbing, splintering, deafening unison riffs – the first sighting of thrash-classical. You can hear the seeds of math-rock, Mogwai/Slint crunch, and Foetus-style orchestral-industrial here; and The Young Gods clearly owe Crimson everything.


 
What must those stoned California hippies have made of it, with their storybook pictures of England? It must have been like being stomped into the ground by a full-armour cavalry charge, just when you were expecting Maid Marion to give you an apple. Listen back to Crimson’s second, post-split album ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’, and you can catch a persistent flutter of Frippish hands clutching at the memories of that jaw-dropping tour.

Some music takes years to fade. For all its baroque bloodiness, this still sounds freshly minted. A remarkable rediscovery.

King Crimson: ‘Epitaph: Live in 1969’
Discipline Global Mobile, DGM 9607A (5 028676 900252)
CD-only double live album
Released:
6th May 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Burning Shed
King Crimson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

May 1997 – album reviews – State of Grace’s ‘Everyone Else’s Universe’ (“an oozing of tepid ambience”)

3 May

State Of Grace: 'Everyone Else's Universe'

State Of Grace: ‘Everyone Else’s Universe’

And this is 1997?

In the world of contemporary pop music, I thought ‑ hell, we all thought ‑ we had the equation worked out. Electronica = The Future. Trad Guitar Rock (Oasis + Kula Shaker + Cast + Ocean Colour Scene) = The Past. But State Of Grace, a Northampton electro‑ambient quartet now on their third album, are here to prove otherwise. It’s electronic, yes, but it’s also as retro and dated as Noel Gallagher’s Beatles pastiches.

Conspiracy is a six‑part concept track… or rather, it’s an obvious way to become immediately suspicious about an album just by looking at the track listing. (Six‑part concept tracks issue a subliminal message to me. That message is “run away!”). Part 1, Forest Fields Forever is horribly slick‑sounding trance, complete with weedy female vocal and obligatory ethnic voice sample. The parts seem often to be linked by ambient wind and water effects… oh no, sorry, that was Part 2. I dozed off for a moment. Part 3 (Single Spies) tries to be Dubstar, but with Sarah Simmond’s ultra‑forgettable voice and gibberish lyrics, plus powder‑puff electronics, it makes Dubstar sound like Nine Inch Nails. Part 4, Noel Street Blues, ups the tempo to a sleek techno and, by including the sampled combination of a warbling operatic diva, more generic‑ethnic wailing and an accordion, momentarily arouses some interest. But by this point I didn’t know which part I was listening to. It all continued in this insipid vein for a number of years, by which time I’d lost the will to live.

Perfect And Wild is more suffocatingly polite techno‑pop, with the joyful addition of a twee slide guitar. Still, as so often on this album, the awful lyrics offer a laugh. “And when love is calling / Like an open book” ‑ look, I’m sorry, but books don’t call; they’re inanimate objects! So innocuous and bland is this music that you could walk round supermarkets to its accompaniment.

Now where was I? I need a dozen eggs, some margarine, a packet of mini chicken kievs… oh, sorry. Right, then. Er, Sea‑Saw. Oh, mild trip‑hop. Sarah tries to sing with a lazy, underwater vibe, but only ends up sounding as disinterested as I am, like she’s about to drop off to sleep. And will somebody please alter that bloody drum machine pattern! Now! (If you think I’m losing patience, you’re right).


 
Be afraid. Be very afraid, for there are three versions of the track Hello on this album (they obviously place great faith in the song‑‑poor, deluded souls). This version, subtitled Fall Out The Lions (eh? Your guess is as good as mine…), is musically somewhat engaging: mournful violins and a rising/falling keyboard sequence over brushed electronic drums. But the words are more sixth-form gobbledegook: “In the silence / the colour is an island. / Fall out the lions, / take everybody with you.” What? Still, the chorus is one to join in on – “Is it so? Hello, hello. / Is it so? / Hello, hello.” Poetry, utter poetry.

Version two of Hello is a remix by Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto. To a clattering beat and a phased dub keyboard, plus Meat‑treated vocal, it all manages to sound at least vaguely contemporary, whilst hardly essential. Version three (gosh, you can have too much of a good thing, can’t you?) is an Aphex Twin‑style remix‑‑it dismisses all the elements of the original track save for a ghost of the vocals, and constructs a stomping bass‑heavy techno track. By now, it is so far from State Of Grace’s original that it hardly belongs to them at all. Consequently, it’s the best thing on the album.


 
Rose II begins and ends in an oozing of tepid ambience, but would potentially be an affecting minor‑chord‑laden melody if it hadn’t been subjected to another sheen of bland synthesizers and, worst of all, whining treated electronic guitar. By now, lost somewhere in a maddening nightmare, praying for this album to end, I suddenly sense a name appearing before me. M…? M…? M… M‑… M‑Mike Oldfield?! Jesus, it does ‑ it sounds like bleedin’ Mike Oldfield!! (Worse than that, Vaughan. It sounds like late ’80s Mike Oldfield, the stuff that not even Oldfield fans seem to have any more… ‑ PROG ED.)

State Of Grace are awfully, horribly dated. They are trying to be some sort of combination of modern ambient techno ‑ for which the music sounds simply too out‑of‑date‑‑and the pristine machine pop of, say, Propaganda… yet lacking that group’s excellent song constructions. The lyrics are abysmal, too. The hip new title State Of Grace would like to have conferred on them ‑ electronica ‑ is redundant. This is, being as kind as possible, what used to be known in the pop world as “electronic music”, which would firmly date it as being pre‑1987’s acid‑house revolution.

But let’s not be kind. Let’s be unkind. This is out‑of‑date, bad europop, bad trance, bad electro‑prog… get the idea?

I don’t want it in my universe.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

State Of Grace: ‘Everyone Else’s Universe’
3rd Stone Ltd., STONE 028CD (5023693002828)
CD‑only compilation album
Released: 28th April 1997

Get it from:
(2018 update) best obtained second-hand.

State Of Grace/Fatal Charm online:
Homepage Facebook Soundcloud Last FM YouTube

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