Archive | October, 1997

October 1997 – live album reviews – Porcupine Tree’s ‘Coma Divine (“driving performances, captured with crystal clarity… showing what the band can be like when removed from Wilson’s zealous studio-bound quality control”)

27 Oct

Porcupine Tree: 'Coma Divine'

Porcupine Tree: ‘Coma Divine’

In the eleven years that he’s been developing it, Steven Wilson has guided his Porcupine Tree project along a path of sinuous, gentle, considered swerves. We’ve seen it emerge from a clutch of playful one-man bedroom-band attempts to emulate the psychedelic heroism of the Gong/Floyd/Hillage/Can era, and go on to flirt with the wide-eyed double dawn of acid-house and rave while dipping in and out of experimental sonic abstractions. Eventually it established itself as a full-figured four-man contemporary rock group, and today’s band is a much sleeker, more professional thing than its origins suggested. Solid and melodic, rocking effortlessly, drawing on the pellucid visions of psychedelic sound and the soaring space-blues solos of ‘Wish You Were Here’, reweaving them into the starfield sweeps of ’90s rave and trance-techno, and allowing them to blossom out of the heart of spectral English pop and folk dreams.

Wilson has an ambiguous, on-off relationship with progressive rock. One month he’ll be asserting himself as the British prog scene’s lone saviour amongst a swill of sub-Genesis, the next rebranding his work as “modern rock” among the likes of The Verve, Korn or Mansun. Something which belies the simple truth that Porcupine Tree are, in essence, a contemporary prog-rock band. But if so, they’re one which is practising what the scene ought to be practising. They’re leaning to past traditions of impeccable extended musicianship and structural ambition, but eschewing podgy FM blandness and looking instead to contemporary musical motifs, technologies and methodologies.


 
That said, 1996’s ‘Signify’ was almost too accomplished. Sixty-odd minutes of polished, grooving songs and sleek instrumental blowouts that went down like a little pinch of manna with a worldwide prog audience, but which also ensured the Porkies’ ascendency at the expense (to this reviewer, at least) of their warmth and their mutable possibilities. ‘Coma Divine’ redresses the balance a bit – not just by being a particularly good live album (driving performances, captured with crystal clarity) but by showing what the band can be like when removed from Wilson’s zealous studio-bound quality control. Recorded during the band’s Italian tour in 1997, it captures them in ripping form, tearing through the likes of ravening distorted acid-rocker Not Beautiful Anymore and the stabbing, mathematical Neu!-style thrash of Signify, expounding on the dreamy rock tone-poem of The Sky Moves Sideways, and delivering a poised, hypnotic Radioactive Toy to an ecstatic audience.



 
Porcupine Tree draw frequent Pink Floyd comparisons, invited by the band’s preference for atmosphere and solid construction over any temptations to proggy twiddles and busyness. And also by the cushioning synthesizers, Wilson’s quiet vocals and his protracted, articulate bluesy guitar leads. When you hear them live, the parallels don’t hold nearly as much water. Floyd have never really rocked out with such intensity as this band, and have always possessed a certain English stolidity which Porcupine Tree avoid (in spite of Wilson’s nonchalant approach to front-man duties). Waiting – previously no more than a Tree-by-numbers single – is reborn here, jauntified by Wilson’s jangling electric twelve-string. And even if The Sleep of No Dreaming strays dangerously near to the despised neo-prog (it’s just a little too close to a half-hearted ‘Dark Side of the Moon’), Wilson’s unusually raw wail on the chorus gives the live version all the authority it needs.



 
It’s the live freedom offered to other members of the band that makes the most difference. Colin Edwin‘s fretless bass, reliable but uninspired on record, becomes a looming stretchy presence on ‘The Sky Moves Sideways’. When he steps on his mutron pedal, he’s more Bootsy Collins than Roger Waters. Dislocated Day (always one of the Tree’s most thrilling moments) gets a huge boost from his interaction with Chris Maitland‘s hissing cymbals and turbocharged drums, the rhythm section taking the song and running with it. Although it’s keyboardist Richard Barbieri who proves to be the Tree’s ace-in-the-hole when he’s let off the leash. He matches Wilson blast for blast as he wrenches blistering melodies, frayed foaming tones and astonishingly vocal burbles out of his armoury of old analogue synths; or embraces the band in a sea of marble-sheened electronics.


 
And while Wilson’s guitar takes centre stage, it’s Barbieri’s utter mastery of sonics which gives Porcupine Tree their robe of starlight as – at their most liberated – they swell through the long, trancey second section of Waiting, the mesmerised improvisations that extend Radioactive Toy. Or the highlight of ‘Coma Divine’: a beautifully fluid journey through Moonloop which evolves through honey-warm ambience, glittering astronomical detail, guitar explorations that sleepwalk and levitate, to the final joyous rampage through spacey, ornamental, Ozrics-y riffing at the climax. Splendid.

Porcupine Tree: ‘Coma Divine’
Delerium Records, DELEC CD 067 (5 032966 096723)
CD-only album
Released:
October 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Original CD best obtained second-hand; expanded 2016 double CD edition available from Burning Shed.
Porcupine Tree online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

October 1997 – EP reviews – Amberman’s ‘The Smells Farmers Make’ (“three collar-grabbingly urgent spurts of song”)

25 Oct

Amberman are wrigglers, twitchers. The youngest beasts from the Earzone management stables (who’ve also brought us The Monsoon Bassoon and Magnilda) are also by far the most commercial, crashing pop hooks into each other like a batch of kids running riot with the paddle-boats on a park lake. Spicing up the indie/power-pop noise with swerving pronky gearshifts, Amberman could pass for a teenaged, rather more skeletal Super Furry Animals, with the same echoes of Love’s intense, brittle, psychedelic urgency and with the shortage of SFA-style textural playfulness covered up by the slap and bang of Martin Young’s guitar.

And like Super Furry Animals, Amberman’s singer Richard Harris (a man bawled hoarse) has more on his agenda than simply kicking up dust and sparks. Granted, Pop-Pop is a burst of spiky rebellion that shouts “Stop what you’re doing, and close the schools.” But what’s it really raging against? “You give me nothing, I’ll give you nothing” is either a brush-off, or it’s an accusation. Sold out, and down in the dust of the social experiments, Harris’ fist-shaking seems to come from genuine, outraged betrayal. And Pop-Pop contains enough just enough faith for a dignified, generous bargain (“You give me something, anything… give you everything”) and ends on a promise – “You give me anything, anything to care about – I’ll give you the same.”

This – plus something in Harris’ raucous nasal buzz of a voice – reminds me of the John Lennon that hasn’t been hijacked by the Britpop posers: the man who (whatever his failings) ultimately cared more about life than showing off, and showed that best when he opened up his throat. Waiting in the Rain grabs more of that memory even as – ironically – it also grabs at the muscular musical scramble of Faith No More, that most brilliantly cynical of bands. Like Lennon, Harris may flash-flood into rage, but like Lennon he’ll question himself over it: “I write these words, sick of the profanity; / scream burning rage, unleashing my insanity, / as the storm bursts… / as the clock chimes, I’m waiting in the rain.” And his conclusions are mature ones – “I know myself a little deeper, my climb a little steeper.”

Co-Operate also explores the struggles of life, but on a more microscopic or physical level rather than a metaphysical one, stripping the layers of sophistication from the city to reveal the vulnerabilities and dependencies of a rumbling, chaotic herd of animals. “Things catch the sun, / things drink rain, / some things run, / some fall on their hands and knees… / Feeding on the air, / faces everywhere…” A mad desperate scramble, ending in a weird proggy breakdown.

Going by these three collar-grabbingly urgent spurts of song, Amberman are bubbling with promise… and just waiting for that green light.

Amberman: ‘The Smells Farmers Make’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette-only EP
Released:
October 1997
Amberman online:
(no online presence)
Additional notes: (2004 update) Amberman split up before releasing anything else – I have no more news on them.
 

Image

October 1997 – album reviews – Indigo Falls’ ‘Indigo Falls’ (“luxuriates in rich, sensual detail and blooms into a hothouse of musical perfumes”)

16 Oct

Indigo Falls: 'Indigo Falls'

Indigo Falls: ‘Indigo Falls’

This is as lovely as the insensuous smoke from a joss stick… and, in many respects, suffers from the same flaws and failings. But we’ll come to that later.

Indigo Falls are the husband and wife songwriting team of Richard and Suzanne Barbieri. He provides a mass of detailed keyboard fabric, she leads with a voice of immense clarity (a sort of cleaned-up, smoothed-over, less affected mixture of Kate Bush, Holly Penfield, and Sarah Brightman). And though the phrase “New Age songwriter album” may be loaded with suspicion, that’s precisely what this is, despite efforts to sell them as a pop duo or the noisy, mannered rock gestures of Only Forwards. All of the tell-tale signs are here: a soft delicacy of sounds, a rejection of urban tensions (and inspirations) in favour of vague spiritual atmospheres, and – inescapably – an unmistakeable ingenuous desire to play earnest folk music on synths, to touch the fragrant earth but keep your twenty-four-track studio regardless. Plenty of people have slid into waffle on those premises.


 
However, Richard Barbieri’s astonishing sonics elevate Indigo Falls far above the genre’s usual weediness. From his Mary Quant-ed days behind the Japan keyboards back in the early ’80s, through his ethnological textures with Rain Tree Crow and his contemporaneous dreamy synthwork as part of Porcupine Tree, he’s been one of the absolute masters of textured electronics. And ‘Indigo Falls’ is no disappointment in this department. Check out the undersea music boxes and the froth of musical bubbles building up the aquamarine tints of World’s End: and mixing with the inevitable organs are jangling harp sounds, harmonious turbojet squalls; swathes of thick, scalding distorted guitarry smears; the sounds of the air being sliced with a palette knife and refracted into traces of luminous colour.


 
The synths here have an organic tenderness, merging flesh-on-flesh with Jakko Jakszyk‘s lyrical, passionate guitar flourishes and Theo Travis‘ verdant saxophone. Consequently, ‘Indigo Falls’ luxuriates in rich, sensual detail and blooms into a hothouse of musical perfumes. Tunes flutter, soothe and arch like lazy ecstatic cats – in particular on Falling Into Years – where sax notes flutter down like rose petals, and which melts into an instrumental coda of sublime sensuality, breaking down out of its gentle pop rigour into fragmented little archipelagos; islands of sax, piano, bells and trade-wind electrophonics.


 
But even if Richard provides whatever big name cachet there is (as well as most of the duo’s sound) this is very much Suzanne Barbieri’s album. Her lyrical preoccupations shape and define the songs for better or worse, and whether or not you go for them will depend very much on whether you see eye to eye with her vision. And – unfortunately – relentless, vaporous symbolism dominates these songs. Shadows, nights, seas; dreamers, Babylon, totem animals; inner children. None of which are explored so much as checked off, as if the album was a spotter’s guide to mystical furnishings.

Let’s be fair, sometimes it works well. As on The Wilderness, where Richard’s sounds and Suzanne’s words mesh together most effectively. Sandstorm-under-stars synth, a big lazy open-skinned clatter of percussion, and Suzanne’s most direct singing: “no sign of life, just sand on sand / and hollow bloodless trees”. Steve Wilson‘s sparse acoustic guitar shadow-boxes with Suzanne’s rituals. Bones rattle, shadows pass overhead, past lives regress before our eyes… The magic works. But…


 
The thing about incense is that it transforms rooms and moods, making you feel as if you’re in touch with something… but it’s only smoke in the air. You’re being moved by something insubstantial. Immaterial. And if such a thing reaches towards profundity, and fails, it’s glaringly obvious. Feed the Fire obviously wants to fly with Rain Tree Crow: a thick percussive pulse propelled by Mick Karn‘s muddy bassline while Suzanne delivers her throaty take on Native American chanting (“The burning birds in spiral flights. / The hide within breaks through the skin. / The beast inside, the silent guide… / Muscles stretch and sinews snap / and spirits rise. / Sundancing…”). But unlike Rain Tree Crow’s immersive cultural explorations, this feels more like tourism: someone trying on a feathered headdress in one of those sad little souvenir shops scattered round the edge of the Navajo Nation.


 
The Achilles’ heel of Indigo Falls is the sheer bathetic naivety that slinks in under the cover of beauty. On Towards the Light, the ambition in Jakko’s yearning wails of aspirant guitar and Richard’s stratospheric synths (mountains carving notes out of the wind – oh, please, indulge me: here I can genuinely enthuse) is brought low by Suzanne’s beautifully-sung codswallop about sleepwalkers and her lurches into mediocre therapy speak. “We are all children, we are all crying”. No, we aren’t all crying: some of us are just griping because we want the nice lady to start singing something we can relate to. Music this sensuous should be devoted to something human, something real. Not to supernatural, psycho-babbling vagueness.


 
And if Indigo Falls ditched the New Age posing and got down to the nitty-gritty, they’d truly be on to what the sound of the record only hints at. There is a suggestion of what this could be like: on Sky Fall, which closes the album. The ghosts of beats sway sleepily, a pillowing organ and soprano sax curve gently around the melody as Suzanne sings. The hippy-chick histrionics are sloughed off. Instead, in comes a swathe of human vulnerability: the naked relief and wonder at the risks of love paying off. “We crossed a line, but the world still turns / The sky didn’t fall, and nothing has changed… we’re home again, home again.” There are flickers of doubt (“should I believe this is real? Should I believe in you?…”) and the knowledge of fallibility (“Keep a light in your heart for me / I’m not as strong as you think / I could slip away so easily.”) A whole album like this could melt the most cynical heart. Most of the songwriting on ‘Indigo Falls’, sadly, provides the cynical heart with as much ammunition as it requires.

Undoubtedly very beautiful. But is that enough? After the smoke clears, we need a genuine vision.

Indigo Falls: ‘Indigo Falls
Medium Productions Ltd., MPCD5 (6 04388 42402 3)
CD/download album
Released:
13th October 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand; download version and some CDs available from Bandcamp.
Indigo Falls online:
Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Amazon Music
 

October 1997 – album reviews – Saro Cosentino’s ‘Ones and Zeros’ (“a swirl of poly-cultural textures and emotive adult pop”)

15 Oct

Saro Cosentino: 'Ones and Zeros'

Saro Cosentino: ‘Ones and Zeros’

Saro Cosentino – an art-rocker with a knack for cinematic arrangement – sees himself as the musical equivalent of a film director. This seems to be more humble than it’d suggest: it means that he masterminds the writing and production for his songs but stays in the background, passing the final responsibility for voices and lyrics to selected singers and instrumentalists.

As he puts it, “a director coordinates and selects the roles for the actors… I chose the singers and musicians for the pieces”. Perhaps a rather precious way of saying “I wrote outlines of songs for various kinds of singers, then went looking for them”, but it does give us the opportunity to play around with his metaphor.

OK. Let’s do that.

Saro, if viewed as The Great Director, reminds me of one of those European cinema auteurs – one of those talents whose childhood was inspired by Hollywood, whose initial own-language triumphs were led by a highly personal vision; but who’s now working uneasily between Hollywood and home. His true drive seems to be towards smoky, luxurious romance. Long pans across emotive vistas filled with meticulous detail, where the very light that flickers off the faces and corners of the camera’s subjects has a tangible element; the creation of bank-busting sets and tableaux to call new environments into existence, against which romantic protagonists play out their personal dramas as the world smoulders behind them.

However, at the same time he’s tempted and pressured (by studio heads? by test groups?) to go for something brasher, more obvious. Hence the same album that can boast 9:47 PM Eastern Time (twelve minutes of trading ambient loops with the Chapman Stick of King Crimson‘s Trey Gunn) can also boast the FM blare of Bite the Bullet, in which Karen Eden power-bleats the sort of hand-wringing, state-of-the-world pop hogwash that Tears for Fears cornered when they went shit in the late ’80s. Harrumph.


 
Well, whatever else one might find fault with, it can’t be disputed that Saro has assembled a high-powered instrumental cast to flesh out his own detailed wash of synths and guitars. Cellos and Anglo-Indian percussion (from Dizrhythmia’s Pandit Dinesh and Gavin Harrison) join with the works a whole crowd of Peter Gabriel regulars. There’s David Rhodes’ unorthodox, chameleonic art-guitar; the eerie wails Shankar gets from both his double electric violin and his voice; there’s the watery keen of Kudsi Erguner’s Turkish ney flute, and John Giblin’s extraordinarily vocal fretless bass – as well as the presence of regular Gabriel engineer Richard Blair to help with programming and holding it all together.

Perhaps inevitably, ‘Ones and Zeros’ emerges as a less wracked, less personal, poppier echo of Gabriel’s ‘Us’, or of Kate Bush’s ‘Sensual World’. It’s a swirl of poly-cultural textures and emotive adult pop, with a profound love of instrumental colorations and orchestrated with sounds of the human condition taken from all over the globe. And it does sound lovely, meticulously embroidered in luminescent glittering threads of melody.


 
Enter the Saro Multiplex, then. Pay the elegantly cropped man on the door, who’s thumbing through the Italian Art Rock Quarterly. Pick up your packet of art-popcorn from Mozo ‘n’ Rael’s Snack Shack, and take your look at the choices on offer on the different screen. I think you can assume that Bite the Bullet is the second-string drama: the one with the C-list hairdo-actress in peril, the sort that’s been sold as nail-biting but is actually more nail-varnishing. (Hear Karen Eden twitter about TV and dreamlife, wince at her gooey harmonies, dodge the pretty bomb: note the fleeting brilliance of the arrangement, and stroll out halfway through.) Go on to calculate that 9:47 PM Eastern Time is the slow-moving ‘Koyaanisquatsi’-type visual study – it’ll be playing in the room with the art students, shots tracking up skyscrapers and speculating upon the bright streak of dawn. Set aside some time to see that one right the way through. And look at the posters again.

Well, with cellos at the ready, you’ve got the choice of a slightly superior mainstream drama (maybe a maverick cop film, maybe a Joe-Bloke-in-peril job) with Defying Gravity. The one forged from the stuff of determination (“Just for an instant / of our forever, / this beggar would be King…”) and the refusal to give up, the one where you can share, for a moment, the pain of the trouper. Art-rock journeyman Jakko Jakszyk delivers one of his trademark tight, passionate vocals – the most immediate performance on the album, full of regret and a simmering outrage, the last flare of anger before resignation sets in.


 
Give Karen Eden a chance to wipe out many of the feeble memories of Bite the Bullet with Behind the Glass, on which she sounds more like Briana Corrigan than Stevie Nicks, and feels more like Juliette Binoche in ‘Three Colours: Blue’ than Sandra Bullock in a straight-to-video. Here she’s a lone, withdrawn observer, near-impassive, watching the injustices the world deals out but this time refraining from protesting. Merely letting the reaction flow out silent and free from the core of her, like a long stream of cigarette smoke. Strings poise; Giblin’s bass growls, a peril held in check and lurking. The moment passes by. Beat; cut; quick fade into black.


 
As accomplished as they are, those are the studio money-spinners, the comparative rush jobs. If you want to go for something a little more rhapsodic, you’ll have to move up a level; up to what’s showing in the smaller cinemas, where the eyes fixed on the screens are more intent.


 
When, as in these, ‘Ones and Zeros’ is good, it’s seriously good. Peter Hammill (playing against a reputation as abrasive art-rock bruiser via one of two appearances as romantic lead) offers an extraordinarily moving performance on From Far Away. You can even picture the close-up – eyes wide and bright, awestruck with the force of his own passion, breathing sheer faith into the well-worn love words; an English Sinatra without the arrogance. On Days of Flaming Youth, Shankar’s spooky keen and bright Japan-styled flecks of guitar and electronics gust in slo-mo circles while Tim Bowness takes time out from No-Man to sigh tenderness all over a song of the betrayals of younger days. It prowls and flickers, disturbing piles of trash in the corners of your memory as his voice rises to a throaty howl and gasp: “It feels so real, it feels so true, / the theft of the world that you knew / by slaves of flaming youth…”


 
Or you can enter Saro’s cinematic visions by the most inspirational way. You can just walk in off the street, numbed by loss and cradling a broken heart in hands gone suddenly cold (as I’ve just done) and find the core of your predicament captured and held, mirrored, onscreen. This is Phosphorescence – a ‘Brief Encounter’ for the art-rock set, and the album’s crowning glory. Hammill again, under a black velvet dome of sky, afloat on a sea of reflected starlight and rippling fluorescent eel-trails with reed-flutes undulating past, a thrill and a breeze on the cheek. And a lyric of something almost unbearably affecting. A love that hits in one slow flash (“this moment lasts a thousand years, this look is longer than our lives…”), changes you irrevocably then passes on, never to be caught or held again. “We will never pass this way again / But we’ll always feel each other’s presence… Ships pass in the night, / and in their wake they leave just phosphorescence…”


 
And you’re left stunned in the dark as the credits roll, unable to move from your seat for the things that are crowding up in you. Hit to the heart. Light-struck.

Saro Cosentino: ‘Ones and Zeros’
Resurgence, RES 129CD (604388203222)
CD-only album
Released:
13th October 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Original album best obtained second-hand. ‘Ones and Zeros’ was reissued in 2015 in remixed and remastered form as ‘Ones and Zeros Reloaded’: all videos included in this review are from the ‘Reloaded’ version.
Saro Cosentino online:
Facebook MySpace YouTube Spotify Amazon Music
 

October 1997 – live reviews – Django Bates’ Human Chain @ The Vortex Jazz Bar, Stoke Newington, London, sometime in 1997 (“joyous, brilliantly constructed bacchanalia”)

13 Oct

Next time I’ll bring my platforms. As per usual with Django Bates gigs, the Vortex is packed out and it’s standing room only. To enable the bar staff to make the perilous weaving journey between the crowded tables, the only place I can park myself and my aching feet is up against a wall, craning my neck to peer over the obligatory taller person in front. Plenty of other people are in the same boat. No one complains.

Well… apart from the couple I speak to afterwards, with their heads full of Parisian Latin Quarter memories and a taste for acid-jazz, looking in to see what a Jazzpar Prize winner plays like. They’ve decided that they hate Django Bates. Can’t stand him, can’t see what the fuss is about, can’t see the point. In their eyes, something’s wrong with the whole thing.

While I completely disagree with them, I can see their point. If you’re coming from an established jazz perspective (certain moves, a certain closet full of set patterns, a certain desire to be pleased in a traditional way), then what do you make of Django Bates? A man of many hats, most of them odd-shaped (tonight’s being a reasonably modest ski-hat which doesn’t even get to make it onstage). A man who’s wearing a faded T-shirt marked “Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian”. Someone who reinvents the sacred New York, New York as a volley of bloody-minded bop, assault and battery (via vicious drums and sound effects – fire-engines, road drills and machine guns). Who then insults the memory of Sinatra by singing as if he’s in the shower; and finally throws in a rapturous applause sample during which the entire band punch the air like Motley Crue?

Or how about Hyphen’s forthright Coltrane-isms scratched into a hypermanic bass walk? Django yelps a string of “yeah!”s in parodic hammy Americanese; yet he later delivers a sprightly piano solo as the piece’s main moment of reflection. It’s peculiar but assured – like Victor Borges hosting the Jazz Club on ‘The Fast Show’. It’s not so much Duke Ellington as Frank Zappa hitting the lounge wall. Hard.

“N.Y., N.Y. – nice, yet nihilistic, yobs. That’s us,” says Django, faux-innocently. “Respect.”

It’s this sort of English ridiculousness that puts the originality and oomph into Bates’ muse, yet simultaneously blights his career. However much people are drawn to the joyous, brilliantly constructed bacchanalia of his music, many of them still struggle to accept the humour.  In another life, Django would have been an eccentric Oxford don setting his callow students another brainteaser. But jazz aristocrats are supposed to be enigmatic, not possessed of an absurdist schoolboy imagination. For all of his enthusiastic following, Bates’ refusal to wear a legend’s weighty clothes (or to deny his own genuinely playful nature), has tended to place him out in the cold within the jazz world, as opposed to in at the heart of the cool.

For this reason alone, it’s good to see that he finally seems to be growing up a bit. There’s a feeling of “less is more” tonight. The once-astronomical note count is down, and some of the exuberance has been pared off to let the expression come through more easily. The Human Chain four-piece has always been the purest conduit for Bates music, anyway. Django’s three lieutenants spar dextrously with his carnival of keyboards and the loopy bonhomie of his peck horn. Michael Mondesir expands his crabbed, funk-impossible groove approach on bass guitar, in partnership with Martin France’s ever-fresh polylingual drumming. Iain Ballamy serves as the moral centre and hidden authority for the group, his frowning bulldog visage set firm as he navigates his saxophones through the convoluted maps of Batesworld.

There’s a lot to find along the way, here in Human Chain’s haphazardly hilly country between Weather Report, Mingus, Naked City and Ivor Cutler. For instance,  the intriguingly sprained prog-rock samba of Three Architects Called Gabrielle; or And A Golden Pear’s long mixture of rhetorical questioning and querulous demand (this time given a Carlos Jobim calypso lilt). On Powder Room Collapse, France and Mondesir smack and swat away at the hidden angles of the rhythm. Bates expounds on his wah-wah’ed horn or squeezes electrified duck calls out of the keyboards. Underfelt slips from mode to mode, like a trapeze artiste on an endless series of loop stunts.

Keeping a single mood – other than an amused giddy elation – is next to impossible, especially while Django is continuing to toy with traditions. “We’d like to change the mood now,” he muses, and pauses a second. “And now we’d like to change it back again.” This continual deflation of expectations has got to be deliberate, a way of disarming and confounding our prejudices, freeing us up so that we can react naturally to the great and mischievous “perhaps” of jazz that Bates spends so much of his life illustrating. Thus, Food For Plankton – always an especially joyful party hop, working around a melody of delirious happiness and zipping soprano sax. Tonight it clicks its shoes to exceptionally pointed accents. It gives way,  during Potato Pickers, to a long and glorious slow flood of horn over wintery electronics.

The same players that sing, straight-faced, a frivolous primer for tea-making called The Importance of Boiling Water will also melt into the detached loneliness of Is There Anyone Up There?, Bates chiming the hours beneath Ballamy’s frayed alto saxophone thread. With incredible delicacy, his piano spills into the solo, becoming tiny notes afloat on a cymbal’s breath, so quiet that you can hear the measured hum of the fridge behind the bar as easily as you can Martin France’s brushes. Backed by the comforting yawn of Ballamy’s alto, Bates croons and mumbles bits of melody into the mike, narrates a story of a young man starved to death by TV, before France breaks it up with a colossal bang on the drums, triggering the final electronic runaway.

Best of all, the band can handle the frail beauty of Further Away with a compressed excitement. While focussing on Ballamy’s powdery-soft, open-hearted melody (echoing over itself), you only just notice how the band have sustained the spartan expectant atmosphere while simultaneously playing the hell out of it; whispering and yelling, dogs on the leash around Ballamy’s delicately determined oasis.

But perhaps, in the end, you genuinely just don’t get it. What the hell… your loss. No pork pie hats; showbiz that’s more ‘Call My Bluff’ than ‘The Cotton Club’. Respect, but not submission, to the black saints; a tendency to move the ground instead of the hips. Perhaps none of the above is your idea of jazz. But whatever you think, Django Bates is continuing to blow the dust off jazz’s spirit of adventure and letting it out to run. Whatever the humour here, there’s absolutely no joke in that.

Django Bates online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Amazon Music

The Vortex Jazz Bar online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

October 1997 – album reviews – The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’ (“one of the few times recently where rockers with an eye on the past have come up with its substance as well as its shape”)

7 Oct

The Verve: 'Urban Hymns'

The Verve: ‘Urban Hymns’

There’s classic and there’s Classic. I guess you could say that “classic” refers to whatever emerges from the past and underpins the future, something that becomes part of the way things are done, things are thought. Something that is there, to be tapped into. Archetypes.

On the other hand, there’s “Classic”. A sort of snob’s trademark; a lovingly-restored, polished artifact from the past, like fleets of Model T Fords puttering around a private racetrack in 1998. Something you can buy, like horse-brasses or fake-Tudor house frontage. Hired vintage suits.

That’s why it will always be utterly incomprehensible to me how The Verve are compared to Oasis; are hangers-on in that awful Weller/Ocean Colour Scene/Creation band circle of “friends of Oasis”. A scene where all inspiration has been submerged in encroaching conservatism; where authenticity is no more than off-the-peg habit; where you imagine that by thieving the possessions and the poses of the great, you can become great. A beggar’s court of stained carpets, grubby heirlooms… and “Classic” songwriting. You would’ve thought that by now The Verve would’ve wiped the sleep from their eyes, taken an incredulous look around themselves at that pack of plodding duffers, and buggered off out of there.

Look, with this mighty album, The Verve are well clear of that paltry, inflated “Noelrock” equation. The battle for greatest guitar rock album of ’97 was between Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ and ‘Urban Hymns’. While Radiohead’s more experimental approach has created an album for the exposed and overloaded pre-millennial soul, arguably this album is pure music for the timeless, stripped heart. Songs, surging choruses, swelling strings, drenched in emotion. Yes, it is a “classic rock” thing. Yes, the basic shapes are extremely familiar, even timeworn sometimes. Yes, guitars do swagger between romantic and pugnacious, and lads still sing out the untidy facets of their rough-diamond hearts. But even with all this, it’s still somehow an album of the moment.

And while I defy any intelligent person to listen to Don’t Look Back In Anger without bursting into derisive laughter, Richard Ashcroft and the rest of The Verve seem somehow able to plug directly into the genuine classic rock tradition. You know, that one which Noel Gallagher can only wear like a little boy swiping his parents’ clothes, waddling into the front room with sleeves flapping a foot below his hands and shoes dangling around his tiny feet – “Look at me! I’m a grown-up too!”

Enough of that. Leave it behind. The Verve have, whether they’ll acknowledge it or not. ‘Urban Hymns’ may ease its broad shoulders into certain well-known-and-namechecked spaces: The Rolling Stones, Lennon, Hendrix, The Doors, a hint of Pink Floyd in ’69 or ’71, The Stone Roses… But there’s more to this than the aspirations of a bunch of Wigan pub-rockers. A lot more.

Bitter Sweet Symphony, of course, everyone knows by now. But hold on, this is a piece of systems music if I’ve ever heard one. (Um, aren’t you supposed to be going on about Northern Soul like everybody else, Col? – ED.) The strings sequence slides in (courtesy of Andrew Loog Oldham’s orchestral version of the Stones’ The Last Time) complete with bells (bells! glorious!), the staccato drum pattern motors off… and, basically, that’s it. The structure builds subtly, but there’s no real bridge or chorus. Ashcroft leads the melody by weaving around and harmonising with the band’s hypnotic spatial groove. The video had the feel just right – put the track on headphones, follow the walking-pace rhythm, and you immediately Do The Ashcroft. Tunnel vision, walking straight ahead, oblivious. Magical.


 
Both here and throughout ‘Urban Hymns’, the crucial ingredient is in the detail. Behind the familiar riffage, behind Ashcroft’s raw and tender delivery, there stretches a vast depth of sound, like a field of stars seen from high above. And Nick McCabe lives in this space, manipulating a guitar like Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ paintbrush: moans, swooshes, calls, swathes of colour and musical dialogue. It’s easy to see why The Verve could not be such a magical band without him. Most lead guitarists stick to one spot, on stage or one record: but McCabe seems to be fucking everywhere, cut loose from gravity, from his body, from everything. It’s a bit “Floyd”, a bit “Jimi”, a bit space-rock, but it’s always intensely, dynamically involved; never adrift in a haze of selfish narcosis.


 
Space And Time, though, swaps the lush atmospherics for a more straightforwardly guitar-based sound with an anthemic chorus, but still parades Ashcroft’s insecurity like a beacon for those with similar feelings: “I just can’t make it alone.” Within weeks, then, this track will have established itself as a rallying call to legions of insecure fans. Just wait and see. And, yes, one could be cynical about such identification with mere pop songs, but how many artists wouldn’t sell their soul for such emotional power? Many bands have one such song (Sit Down, A Design For Life). The Verve have just written virtually a whole album of them.


 
Sonnet utilises, not for the only time on this album, a romantically lush, almost country sound. A simple electric rhythm guitar and tinkling piano accompany the verses, before the full Verve power blooms in the life-affirming chorus – “Yes, there’s love if you want it…”

The Drugs Don’t Work is the massive morning comedown after what seemed to be the best night of your life – chemically enhanced, of course – and you’ve realised that you can’t block everything out, no matter how hard you try. Beautiful strings, subtly countrified lead from McCabe, Ashcroft’s emotionally affecting vocal – this song is so finely constructed, with an ear for peaks and lows, that it already has the feel of a timeless standard that’s always existed within some heavenly rock canon. It also contains one of the most eloquent avowals of unstinting, devoted love that I’ve ever heard in my life – “If heaven falls, I’m coming too / Just like you said / ‘You leave my life, I’m better off dead.'” Make no mistake, this is one song that’s gonna feature in those 3-a.m.-highly-emotional-end-to-a-party situations for years to come.


 
But it’s not all dark nights of the soul. “Happiness, / more or less, / it’s just a change in me. / Something in my liberty… / But I’m a lucky man…” – Lucky Man is a song of hope and thanks for the crowd to sing, too. Another classic melody, performed by this oddly timeless band – another strings-laden track where The Verve perform with subtle, understated grace. Unlike so many other bands who witlessly drag in a string section to add a touch of authenticity, The Verve understand the dynamics of strings and orchestra and throughout the album they perfectly complement the sound rather than compete with it.


 
Well, look, if this is getting too romantic, lush and orchestral… the thumping intro to The Rolling People leads into a swaggering Doors-style guitars’n’rhythm assault. This song also allows greater opportunity for Nick McCabe to let fly on lead guitar, proving again that he’s as skilled in delicate atmospherics as well as able to play with great power. On Neon Wilderness (on which he takes the lead writing credit) he takes The Verve back to the ambient rock of ‘A Storm In Heaven’ as he builds stately shifting ice-floes of guitar submerged in the band’s watery echoes and Ashcroft’s vocals appear to free-associate in a waking dream.



 
The album’s only weak link is This Time, the only track that noticeably breaks the medium-slow tempo. It attempts an awkward mix of The Verve’s new melodicism with a “guitar-dance” feel (shuffling percussion, treated vocals, funky guitars, you know the score) but in contrast to the rest of the album’s majestic assurance it just sounds directionless, with Ashcroft’s most loose-limbed lyrics just filling up space. Better baggy, basically. It would have been a revelation in 1991; now, it just sounds like one of The Verve’s few concessions to their own nostalgia.


 
Come On, the final track, is the rawest we hear The Verve on ‘Urban Hymns’. Powerfully self-assured and confident, it is a barrage of full-on band attack, rock guitars leading the charge plus the return of the “Mad Richard” of the band’s fledgling years – holding forth, shouting, challenging (and frankly, probably talking bollocks) atop the sonic attack. Glorious it is too. “Come along with our sound / Let the spirit move you…” Indeed.


 
This is one of the few times recently where rockers with an eye on the past have come up with its substance as well as its shape. As Come On, and the album itself, spirals noisily towards its climax (there is one hidden track, a swelling soundscape of studio clatter, radio interference, feedback, a crying baby and a haunting deliquescent guitar line: as if The Verve have grabbed so much inspired sound from nature that it demands to be given birth to, song or no song) the scale and magnitude of what The Verve have achieved in the past thirteen tracks all gets a bit much for “Mad Richard” as he shouts out “Fuck you! This is a myth!” That’s what I heard, anyway.

I hope that’s what he says. It should be what he says. Against all odds, a mythical, legendary album.

(review by Col Ainsley)

The Verve: ‘Urban Hymns’
Virgin Records/Hut Recordings, CD HUT 45 (7 24384 49132 1)
CD/cassette album
Released: 29th September 1997

Get it from:
on general release.

The Verve online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Last FM

Post-Punk Monk

Searching for divinity in records from '78-'85 or so…

Get In Her Ears

Promoting and Supporting Women in Music

The Music Aficionado

Quality articles about the golden age of music

ATTN:Magazine

Not from concentrate.

Xposed Club

improvised/experimental/music

I Quite Like Gigs

Music Reviews, music thoughts and musical wonderings

A jumped-up pantry boy

To say the least, oh truly disappointed

PROOF POSITIVE

A new semi-regular gig in London

We need no swords

Organized sounds. If you like.

:::::::::::: Ekho :::::::::::: Women in Sonic Art

Celebrating the Work of Women within Sonic Art: an expanding archive promoting equality in the sonic field

Ned Raggett Ponders It All

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Headphone Commute

honest words on honest music

Yeah I Know It Sucks

an absurdist review blog

Pop Lifer

Waiting for the gift of sound and vision

Good Music Speaks

A music blog written by Rich Brown

Archived Music Press

Scans from the Melody Maker and N.M.E. circa 1987-1996

OLD SCHOOL RECORD REVIEW

Where You Are Always Wrong

Fragile or Possibly Extinct

Life Outside the Womb

a closer listen

a home for instrumental and experimental music

Bird is the Worm

New Jazz: We Search. We Recommend. You Listen.

Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

eyesplinters

Just another WordPress.com site

FormerConformer

Striving for Difference

%d bloggers like this: