May 2009 – album reviews – Tom Slatter’s ‘Spinning the Compass’ (“…the heart amongst the wheels…”)

1 May
Tom Slatter: 'Spinning the Compass'
Tom Slatter: ‘Spinning the Compass’

Previously half of the obscure “post-apocalyptic quasi-acoustic indie-folk” duo Comrade Robot, Tom Slatter now marches off on his own, cogs a-whirring, with a short debut solo album mixing the macabre, the jolly and the poignant… all in the manner of a brainy kid’s puppet show. In part, the latter is down to the theatrical delivery: Tom’s ringmaster-next-door vocals, simultaneously declamatory and humble. In part, it’s due to the Cabaret Mechanical nature of the music itself – the lo-fi clack of programmed drums, the keyboards which are rarely far from stiff calliope posturing; the George Stephenson rattle of (mostly) acoustic guitar and piano; the steam-whistle synths. But a lot of it, frankly, is the robot-men.

Yes; lyrically, at least, ‘Spinning the Compass’ is a steampunk album: Victorian in tone, and riddled with altered, augmented characters who click and wheeze with gears, lenses, bellows and casements. Given the plumminess and the ambitions in the music, “steamprog” might be a better tag. The lone instrumental here pitches hooty synth against classical sounding guitarpeggios marching rapidly across a strange chord progression, disruptive but fluid.

What do you do with Tom Slatter: a man who leans towards the musical and lyrical complications of a Roy Harper, a Thomas Dolby or a Peter Hammill, but who also runs his scenarios like a cardboard pop-up theatre; and who could put a warm grin on the face of the ghost of Jim Henson? You settle back in your comfy chair and you listen to him, that’s what you do. You enjoy the jiggling figures. You laugh along with the stage whispers.

Regarding Tom’s song romps, the aforementioned Hammill is the easiest comparison to make. More specifically, the deliberately boyish songs Hammill (with fellow Van Der Graaf Generator alumnus Judge Smith) wrote about Vikings and airships on ‘Fool’s Mate’, with their whiff of yellowing comics pages and pulp ink. As with the more baroque Hammill moments, there’s a deliberate antiquity to this music. Tom, too, seems to love machines and dashing adventures, and the neurotic pomp of Empire. More accurately, as a storyteller he enjoys the twists and kinks and predicaments into which they place people. He’s got an interest in the way that the ponderous, increasingly amoral gravity of such things – of such seductive opportunities – warps both a person’s culture and their choices; even their ability, beyond a certain point, to choose at all.

Not all of ‘Spinning the Compass’ digs that deep. Some of it is simple, geeky fun. Aspects of Comrade Robot’s gleeful pulpiness remain in ‘Gaslight’, a triumphantly romantic love song which turns out to be set in a world plunged into eternal darkness – “even if they got on their knees and prayed for the dawn to come, / if they screamed to the heavens the night would never end / and you’d stay there beside me in the chill glow of the night.” A few other songs are straightforwardly robust Gothic nightmares, most obviously ‘Bad Dream’ with its flourishing Cardiacs-y guitar lines; and also the hammering ‘Lines Overheard at a Seance’ which builds its atmosphere of creepy weird-fiction madness while edging around the indescribable specifics. (“On a cold cold night I saw something evil – / turned the red, red walls a deep shade of grey, / and I’m not breaking down.”)

Throughout the album, Tom switches from hat to hat, playing individual characters in quirky situations or struggling, knowingly or otherwise, with their own moral choices and compromises. The balloon-riding Victorian hunter in the parlour-jazzy ‘Home’, for instance, lives a privileged, gun-toting ‘Boys’ Own’ life as one of the “kings of the great game, on top of the sky”, but he yearns to escape his macho, beast-slaughtering environment and reunite with his sweetheart. This, however, is a rare example of a ‘Spinning the Compass’ character choosing human-scaled love or humility over some form of devious power, or a hideous longevity. Most of Tom’s protagonists are sinking into (or already condemning themselves to) something far more horrible, whether they recognise it or not; and the further they commit themselves, the worse it gets.

For example, the triumphantly augmented Dickensian cyborg who narrates ‘Ingenious Devices’ is an oblivious monster; sardonic, and horribly selfish. As he watches lovers and family perish of old age, he himself revels in the engineering that keeps him alive (“My heart beats by pendulum. / I’ve filled grave with cogs and wheels, / so there’s no room.”) Ultimately his triumph resides in a post-human callousness, a reptilian dismissal – “I’ve seen them, with cracking skin, / greying hair, yellow teeth / and haunted eyes. / I’ll not be one of them. / I’ll fill my lungs with oil and steam /and never die.” In ‘I Still Smile’, Tom takes machine-man uncanniness to greater heights as (over a ghostly, stately, scintillating instrumental part) he plays the role of someone’s automated love-puppet, its memories and motivations mere shallow simulacrums of emotions and responsibilities – “My arms are always here / to make you feel complete / My face is fixed in a permanent grin / My latex skin never frowns / You bought me, to make you feel complete / And I’ll always be here. / Even when you’re crying, I still smile. /And your last touch of real skin hurt too much. / But I have all the time you need / My love never dies.”

As Tom warns elsewhere, though, “roses in the chains, / burning a pilot light / isn’t carrying a flame.” Even as early as the opening track, he’s flying the cautionary flags about how the mechanistic life dehumanises us all. “This mechanism, it’s driving us apart. / It shines a prism on the kind of love we share. / This mechanism is making passion spoil / It tastes of something, the cloying tang of wine and oil. /Our love relies on clockwork, / the careful use of gears and wheel – / this mechanism, it isn’t how we feel.” On a surface level, he’s playing that old trope of how horrible it is to become a Cyberman, or to be hijacked by the Maschinenmensch from ‘Metropolis’. On another, less geeky level, he’s singing about harbouring the wrong kind of awareness – analytics and risk assessments killing your spontaneity; cultivated programming replacing reactions, your arousals and your sympathies. Willingly importing programs into your mind can be as bad as literally forcing machinery into your flesh.

In the concluding song – the album’s title track – Tom addresses this while also ending up with the narrator’s role which is perhaps closest to himself. ‘Spinning the Compass’ is also his proggiest cut: ominous, wandering across assorted minor keys, and showing off his compositional strengths during a protracted acoustic guitar passage. The words, however, are what gives it its true core. Abandoning the previous metaphors of iron lungs and mannequin features, Tom sings about disintegrating crosswords and uncontrolled acceleration, about a gradual deterioration of sense and coherent structure.

At the end of the album, he’s placing himself as the human being now pinned (helplessly, and to his own horror) in the centre of an unbalanced and out-of-scale world, conned and gaslit into relinquishing his own corner of control within it. “Changing the rules while I was looking away, / five paths in the same dial. / Like living in a world of your own / all the time shrinking till all the roads meet. / White lines dashing past at speed / And up is left, east is west and no-one cares… / Like living in a mind not your own, / thinking thoughts you don’t understand… Do you get the feeling we’re running out time? / Have you heard the rumours of war planes in the skies? / With this spinning the end is surely nigh?” Apprehensive and pessimistic as it is, it’s a reaffirmation of the heart amongst the wheels, a shout out from the rose enmeshed in the chains.

Tom Slatter: ‘Spinning the Compass’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only album
1st May 2009
Get/stream it from:
(2022 update) Currently available as remastered 2016 edition with two extra tracks – stream/download from Bandcamp, Apple Music, Deezer and Spotify 

Tom Slatter online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Instagram, Bandcamp,, Apple Music, YouTube, Vimeo, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music   

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