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December 1995 – live reviews – Anna Palm + Mandalay @ Upstairs at The Garage, Highbury, London, 20th December (“Anna Palm.. as full of explosive energy as a pan of popping corn (but) as far as being a singer-songwriter goes she still doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself… Mandalay’s style (is) stately, kaleidoscopic and coolly hallucinatory”)

22 Dec

Oops. I’ve come to what I thought was a serious, arty gig to find exotic scarves hanging from the ceiling and a little green-nylon Christmas tree sitting in the corner. What with this, the candle-lit tables and the cheerful little greetings flyers under said tree, I get the feeling that I’ve crashed someone else’s Christmas party.

This particular party’s being thrown by violinist-turned-singer-songwriter Anna Palm, known for a journey that started with busking in Covent Garden and Chelsea and went on to a stint with acoustic punk-folkers Nyah Fearties, a handful of albums and singles on One Little Indian, and support contributions to a variety of artists from YesSteve Howe to New Wave synth poet Anne Clark, ascerbic dream-pop realists Kitchens of Distinction and avant-Goth experimentalist Danielle Dax. It’s an interesting resume. Well, I hate to bad-mouth my hostess, and maybe it’s unfair to judge an artist from an event coming across very much as a fun gig, but I’m decidedly underwhelmed. Despite an indie all-star band (with various members of The Farm, Loop Guru and Kitchens of Distinction taking time out to back her up) she fails to shine.

It’s not as if she doesn’t try: a Violet Elizabeth figure in a frilly little-girl party dress, she’s as full of explosive energy as a pan of popping corn, exhorting people onto the floor to dance, singing with verve (if not always great pitch) and sawing acrobatically at her violin. But the band is under-rehearsed and scrappy, falling apart much too often. Anna’s songs, too, lack individuality and the delivery to make them memorable. A shame, as when she sets bow to strings some spirited and slyly lovable playing emerges.

Anna’s obviously a good player, but as far as being a singer-songwriter goes she still doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself. File under “needs work” and leave it at that for now. However, the mess does yield up one unexpected delight – a dance-groove version of Kites, compelling and grin-inducing, with Anna’s riotous violin scurrying over an early-’90s style baggy beat and the whole thing carrying a strong hint of I Will Survive. A novelty, perhaps, but it’s good to see Simon Dupree’s old hippy hit hopping onto a modern groove and feeling right at home. These particular Kites really fly. I wonder if the Shulman brothers (who notoriously hated their early Dupree-ism despite its success) might ease up and grin and bop along if they were here to hear this.

The real reason why I’m here is a duo called Mandalay, hiding further down the bill: it’s the new project by multi-instrumentalist and electronica aceSaul Freeman, who used to perform a similar role as half of the band Thieves alongside stratospheric singer David McAlmont. Thieves are long (and acrimoniously) split now, with what would have been their debut album a little uncomfortably repackaged as the stunning McAlmont debut (and if you haven’t heard that, you missed one of the most vitally progressive pop records of 1994).

Now Saul is quietly rematerializing, in partnership with singer Nicola Hitchcock, to reclaim some of his lost thunder. But although it shares the glittering crystalline texture of Thieves’ songs, Mandalay’s music is nowhere near as easy. As with Thieves, Cocteau Twins should be mentioned (especially when listening to the effects-swallowed guitars of Enough Love); so too should the frozen sadness of Portishead (especially on the chilly trilling of Enough Love). but Mandalay is more involved and intricate than either. These are multi-dimensional songs, Nicola’s frail but enthralling vocal melodies elevated from the ground on staggeringly complex musical architecture courtesy of interlocking blurry sequencers, obsessively repeating samples and eerie guitar treatments. Saul stands impassively amongst his host of computers and effects racks, gazing absently down at his guitar and its network of pedals. Every now and again he’ll tap and flick at the strings and a second later a whole web of music will swell from the speakers.

Mandalay’s style – stately, kaleidoscopic and coolly hallucinatory – is best exemplified by the silvery net of sampled vocals, the stabbing kick drum and the harmonica-skank guitar of More Than Venus: Nicola’s whispering Bush-y enunciation gives the perky melody an awkward, appealing sensuality. Walk By the Sea rumbles by on an ominous 3/4 riff, double-looped spiral claustrophobia and panic-pitch piano plinking. The Waiting gives full reign to Saul’s subtle space-age guitar work: cunningly-placed “brang”s and attenuated bell-notes amongst the fabric of a languorous techno-warble.

There’s plenty of pop in this (and, despite the duo’s clear and ineluctable whiteness of manner as well as appearance, more than a helping of trip-hop) but Mandalay are also decidedly post-rock. They’re part of the astonishing movement which also includes Moonshake, Laika and the late-lamented Disco Inferno, and which junks the conventional hierarchies of rock instrumentation in favour of the uncanny textures of digital sampling and electronic ensemble processing. This might not sound appealing to the traditionalists out there, but believe me, Mandalay are much more than noodling experimentalists. Try to think of their songs as angst-under-amber, refracted into confusing multiples by an unearthly light. Unsettling but beautiful pop for an uncertain info-saturated future. You want progression? It’s happening here.

Anna Palm online:
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Mandalay online:
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Additional notes: (2020 update) Anna Palm now lives and occasionally performs in Stroud. Mandalay recorded two albums for V2 Music before splitting in 2002: both Nicola Hitchcock and Saul Freeman have continued intermittent solo careers.
 

December 1995 – live reviews – Gordon Haskell @ The Unplugged Club, Bloomsbury, London, 7th December (“he takes his stand against the hostility of the world with a disarming, cunning humour, one mockingly rolled eye peering out to capture the madness and to look out for an escape route”)

9 Dec

Not even a minute into the show, and we hear it. He looks thoughtfully out at the mixed crowd and speaks. “I can usually tell whether an audience is going to be good or bad.” A pause. “Good night!” And then he lets it rip. That laugh – an untrammelled, hiccupping whoop of unbalanced joy, teetering on the edge of losing it. You may have heard in on King Crimson‘s ‘Lizard’, twitched into hysteria by studio electronics, a lone human voice in the sick, surreal circus. Twenty-five years on, in this intimate little acoustic club, it sounds like the redemptive, rueful peal of a free man, acknowledging the potholes of disaster that dog our footsteps in this world and cause some of us to drop into madness.

Strange to think that this grizzled and animated figure, eyes twinkling benevolently beneath a battered hat that’s the last word in Bohemian chic, is Gordon Haskell – singer with King Crimson for nine studio-bound months back in 1970. At an age where most ex-proggies are still squeezing themselves into the glad-rags and going through ever-more lifeless motions in small theatres, Haskell is donning comfortable clothes, picking up his acoustic guitar, playing tiny little places anywhere and enjoying himself. To tell the truth, the Crimson connection is misleading. All of that was a long time ago now. Gordon’s profile may have been lower than a bug’s belly since then, but now he’s swinging back into action with a vengeance… and he’s in better artistic shape than most of his more financially successful contemporaries.

Not only does he possess a brilliantly gutsy guitar style and a voice so rich and earthy that you could grow potatoes on it. but he has a bagful of excellent songs to offer. He now writes and plays like a combination of John Martyn and Leon Redbone, with a huge measure of the rawer joys of John Lee Hooker and Richard Thompson. He takes the vibrancy and gleeful survivor’s power of deep blues and blends it with an irreverent, eccentric, classically English strain of absurdism. Like the young Peter Gabriel, he takes his stand against the hostility of the world with a disarming, cunning humour, one mockingly rolled eye peering out to capture the madness and to look out for an escape route. It’s all as warm as a closely-held candle on a winter’s night… and as liable to suddenly scorch your fingers.

Thinking back to ‘Lizard’, one wonders what kind of more lively, organic record would have emerged had Robert Fripp and Peter Sinfield given Gordon a crack at the songwriting rather than just dovetailing his voice into their meisterwerk. There’s a vague hint of Sinfield’s verbal adventurousness in Haskell’s songs, although thankfully none of the attendant pretensions. The Hooker-like Wang Bang World captures life’s grim tendency to overrun us, but revels in a tumble of savagery and joking; conversely, Pelican Pie could be just a blur of absurdist imagery were it not for the beady-eyed thread of social critique running through it.

Haskell’s between-song banter may be a mixture of oddball wisdom and Eddie Izzard goofiness (“may you be blessed with many goats!”) but the humour in the songs is by no means pointless, pretentious silliness. Rather, Haskell’s a knowing jester holding his own and laughing in the face of life’s terrifying chaos. Hanging By a Thread (dedicated, tonight, to Fred West) is a mordantly hilarious parade of murderous, fatalistic comedy: “Gentle Jim got life for chopping up his wife / – said he needed warmth for the winter.”

The lack of preciousness is what really makes him great, though – he’s not out to prove to us what a clever musician he is. Sure, each song has enough teeth and gold to make us think about it, but it’s Gordon’s sheeer verve and ecstatic gutsiness that wins the audience over, captured in the luxuriant salaciousness of Chilli Chilli, the throbbing jungly blues of Test-Drive or the voodoo swamp-stomp of Alligator Man, a roaring clapalong portrait of the ruthless predatory wheeler-dealer, the sheepskin-coated hoodlum-salesman who’s becoming a spectre of the times.

Like those old bluesmen, Haskell knows how life and death, humour and horror walk side-by-side and share the same streets, and his work is not short of tenderness as well as carnality. The love song All My Life rasps like Louis Armstrong, and I Don’t Remember It Like This shows an Ian Anderson verve as it examines the misleading, misframed photos in the history of love: “whatever love is, it’s in the thrill of your kiss / and I don’t remember it like this.” There’s a real feel to the soulful sorrow of Tortured Heart and in the wry shrug of Mail Order Love, which mixes an organic bluesy swing with a handful of dissatisfied plastic metaphors, romance gone synthetic. The philosophical break-up song Go Tell Sarah is part goodbye, part lie, part promise.

In a dash of sheer music-hall, he tips his hat and beams at us with real pleasure, inviting us in to share both the fear and the laughter on his perspective on life. The return of Gordon Haskell is going to offer the scene a welcome dose of warmth, and 1996 could well be his year. A lost star is returning to dispense a special kind of mischievous twinkle.

Gordon Haskell online:
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Sometime in 1995 – album reviews – Dayna Kurtz’s ‘Footprints’ (“venturing into the faultlines between lovers which lurk in the most private places, and reporting back with full, proud honesty”)

30 Nov

Dayna Kurtz: 'Footprints'

Dayna Kurtz: ‘Footprints’

I’m not a stranger to heartbreak (either my own or that of others), but in all my experience of it, there are many things I haven’t done. I’ve never sat nursing a coffee in an all-night cafe as the dawn breaks, rearranging the cracked facets of my bitter smile. I’ve never composed the ultimate understanding kiss-off, writing the shapes and sentences to slide into a failed lover’s heart, to pat on the shoulder and slap upside the head with the same motion. I’ve never climbed the stairs of a Manhattan walk-up, trying to listen hard enough to trace the voices of memory infiltrating the walls and carrying memories of bitter love affairs, and of angry hearts temporarily exorcised at 3 a.m.

But ‘Footprints’ – a collection of songs from Dayna Kurtz, whom I first saw breathing a blue glow of melody in front of a transfixed DreamHouse audience at the Water Rats – gives me an idea of what it might have felt like if I had. Dayna explores the long deep pain of thwarted love with the same sort of delicious tension between voice and guitar as you get with Tuck & Patti or Jose Feliciano, but more raw, more direct, less decorated.

Her voice is an aching, defiant, yearning thing, sharing breath with both Billie Holiday and Joni Mitchell. Her guitar is terse, bluesy, jazzy, but with a stubborn bluntness that refuses to flow smooth and to comfort; choosing instead to smack the hooks of wounded desire further into the heart, to bleed out the regret and anguish or to force the protective badges of scars and knowledge into being. Her songs clap and fold about you like a Coltrane solo bouncing jaggedly off the walls of a tiny club; or slip into you like short stories that sink to the depths of the heart, then rise like surfacing mines, meaning expanding in soft slow explosions.

Pick almost any song on here and you’re drawn into a story of bitter tangles; of embracing arms that end in helplessly clenched fists; of awkward, looming personal baggage that blocks the way into shared rooms. Perhaps the brittle R&B, funk and electricity that amplify the two full-band songs on ‘Footprints’ (The Road You’re On, the title track) blunt the impact of Dayna’s writing. But catch her solo and you’re let in on something personal, painful, profound and beautifully defiant: “I threw my thoughts around, just for you to trip on.” She’s no fool: she’ll see through sentiment to the truth of the immediate (“once in a lifetime, this time – that’s what they sold me. / I don’t believe that, but it’s holy, holy,”) and she’s wise to vainglorious bullshit (“I got your picture at home: / you’re looking kinda cocky, with this wistful undertone, / like some cover has almost blown.”). Still, she seems ultimately to gravitate towards tension and friction in love.

In Lay Me Down a relationship starts in a healing calm – “help me remember my liquid heart, and the open mouth of painful parting… / I’m moved, I confess, by a heart that seems calmer than mine.” Yet it swallows its own tail, hung up on the suspicions that both lovers have brought to the bed. “I hover above some something you said, / ’til I can’t feel you at all.”

In Something/Nothing she attempts to immerse herself in a clasping at protection: “lost in the dark outside, I took your room to breathe, / and then I sealed all the cracks in me / then choked off my heart so cold and quick / and thought ‘it’s better this way’.” This, too, ends up in an indefinable and unexpected loss. “I lost my faith in something that I couldn’t name. / I thought you left with nothing… but I’m not the same.”

Dayna’s great songwriter’s gift – raising her above the usual horde of self-important dirty-linen washers – is the strength she brings to the table. A sense not of victimhood or self-righteousness, but of a strong woman of heart and mind, venturing into the faultlines between lovers which lurk in the most private places, and reporting back with full, proud honesty. “In my most helpless of hearts, I’ve been tearing up pictures of you,” she flares on Nowhere, made bloody-minded by another partner’s calculating shallowness and cowardice. “I gave my heart, an ocean; / showed you my soul to see. / And you just skimmed along the surface – but you’d swear you’d drowned in me… / When we’re good, we’re very good; / but when we’re bad, you’re nowhere.” On This Side of Eve (a live duet with South African singer Tsidii Le Loka, whose shivering, passionate vocals coil round Dayna’s like smoke trails on a winter’s night) she’s set her face forward, to move on: “This place doesn’t know me, so there’s nothing to leave.”


 
Yet, appropriately, it’s the broken, free-time lick and gentle licking of old wounds on Touchstone which I keep coming back to. A lonely, solo memory song (“I think of you, I think of you,”) surging and ebbing with the questions and longings that come too late (“Remember me? / I curve like a question mark. / And I’m lying home alone, / and I can almost hear you calling / like a saxophone…”). All the disappointments, yet couched in tenderness (“Remember me? / I came to you washed clean / and soft as a peach. / I said ‘let’s climb’, / but all you did was reach for me,”) and the frail wisps of old hopes, still held and treasured long after the hope has winked out of them – “I knew you’d be my touchstone, / I could see us getting old.”

Some old ghosts are now sitting with me. I think we’ll wait together, silently, until the sun comes up.

Dayna Kurtz: ‘Footprints’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette-only album
Released:
1995
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand; this album is never likely to be reissued. There’s a live version of Touchstone on Dayna’s ‘Otherwise Luscious Life‘ album.
Dayna Kurtz online:
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November 1995 – album reviews – Eyeless In Gaza’s ‘Bitter Apples’ (“an autumnal album in the most inspiring way”)

30 Nov

Eyeless In Gaza: 'Bitter Apples'

Eyeless In Gaza: ‘Bitter Apples’

After seventeen years on the wildest, furthest reaches of contemporary music, Eyeless In Gaza’s time may finally have come. With the British music scene proclaiming itself as boundary-free, cross-pollination of styles is the name of the game. Experimentation is the byword. Ears are open to new sounds.

Eyeless, of course, have been doing it for ages – from industrial electronics through early-80’s sparse electronic punk, bedsit acoustic folk, a stab at a big pop sound and experiments with mechanistic ambience. Then a seven-year abeyance followed by a shock return with the modern dance-pop of ‘Fabulous Library’ and by ‘Saw You In Reminding Pictures’ (an album of improvised, cinematic, ambient songs and atmospheres). Yet all, thanks to Martyn Bates’ distinctive, expressive voice and Peter Becker’s endlessly inventive musical collages, recognisably Eyeless In Gaza.

Much of Europe has been in on their greatness for years. Now that they have returned it is time that Britain listened in; particularly as, since Eyeless reformed, their career has been no nostalgic re-run of past styles, but a body of work that has engaged with the best of them in the camp marked “pre-millennial boundary-breaking zeitgeist experimentation”. Or something.


 
Following the head-expanding soundscape world of ‘Saw You In Reminding Pictures’, ‘Bitter Apples’ comes announced as a return to song structures and a live folk feel (acoustic guitars, bass, drums). The matured Eyeless In Gaza are now reinventing the brand of avant-folk song first heard on their Drumming The Beating Heart album over a decade ago. Lyrics such as those on Bushes And Briars immediately announce the folk influence – “through bushes and through briars / I lately made my way / all for to hear the young birds sing / and the lambs to skip and play.”

But any hint of preciousness about such a style is dispelled by the ghostly a-capella treatment of Bates’ voice, treated with vocal effects that make him sound like a possessed changeling, wrapped in his own tingling harmonies. Martyn Bates’ voice is unique – expressive in hushing to a sense of menace, or delicate and weary, or surging with the power to hit the rafters. He occasionally retains a slight rasp, an edge, to his voice from the first punk-inflected vocals of early Eyeless. A comparison? Impossible.


 
Year Dot demonstrates how Eyeless In Gaza can produce powerfully rhythmic, surging music from the basis of harsh acoustic riffs, Martyn letting his voice roam over the melodies with unfettered power. But technology is not anathema to such natural surroundings, though – the track closes in a sharp crescendo of electronic interference. Contemporary experimentation mixes it further with avant-folk on Jump To Glory Jane – zither passages are built upon bursts of white noise, klaxons, and improvised wordless vocal harmonies as just another instrument in the delicate construction. It’s a perfect demonstration of the duo’s implicit feel for building such atmospheres, and sets the tone for much of the rest of the album.

Perhaps the central track, though, is To Listen Across The Sands: powerful and urgent, built upon a crashing electronic drum pattern remorselessly pushing the rhythm forward and echoing the lyrical theme of listening to “all the mad, crashing waves.” The song would seem to be an allegory for a journey through a stormy life – “listen across the sands / to the waves drifting where you stand / and all their voices swallowing your life.” A theme that is returned to, lyrically and musically, on the title track. To an up-tempo soundtrack of syncopated guitar and percussion (plus a star appearance from a keyboard relic in Peter Becker’s armoury of sounds – the Wasp), nature’s imagery is once again summoned to describe the unpleasant aspects of life we sometimes have to wade through. “Such a bitter harvest, such a windfall falling that I can’t move… / all that I taste wastes me away – all that I’m succoured by and living on… / bitter apples…”

This is an autumnal album in the most inspiring way – new invigorating cooler winds provoking the falling leaves and scudding clouds. And Eyeless in Gaza are long-overdue for rediscovery, yet still ripe. Pluck.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Eyeless In Gaza: ‘Bitter Apples’
Ambivalent Scale Recording, A‑SCALE 020 (5021958453026)
CD‑only album
Released: autumn 1995

Get it from:
(2018 update) original CD best obtained second-hand. There was a 2011 reissue on Hand/Eye Records which might be easier to find.

Eyeless In Gaza online:
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November 1995 – live reviews – David Sylvian’s ‘Slow Fire – A Personal Retrospective’ @ Royal Festival Hall, Southbank, London, 4th November (“self-effacing chameleonics”)

6 Nov

David Sylvian: 'Slow Fire - A Personal Retrospective' 4th November 1995

David Sylvian: ‘Slow Fire – A Personal Retrospective’ 4th November 1995

With former Japan leader David Sylvian, a show or an album is rarely as simple as being just a show or an album. Since 1983 he’s swum in and out of focus on a collection of artistic cross-fertilisations (sombrely beautiful songs albums, collaborative ambient vaguenesses, art installations): a shadowed, near-invisible chameleon with an enigmatic past ranging from over-exposed greasepaint-and-trash glamour to composer-effacing sound-sculpture. Tonight’s show – given extra weight by its ponderous title of ‘Slow Fire’ – is billed as a solo retrospective plus work in progress. Given Sylvian’s occasional tendency to enmire himself in inconsequential sound-tapestries, this could be grim. But the reality of ‘Slow Fire’ is more straightforward. Since we last saw him, touring with Robert Fripp, David Sylvian (like so many progressive artists) has decided to re-examine himself, unplugged.

With any contemporary electric musician, this is a risk: for Sylvian, much more so. The man now best known, post-Japan, for wall-to-wall electronic shrouding spends most of tonight perched on a stool behind a classical guitar. It’s the old rebirth scenario: once a travelling encrypter of decadent European and subtle Oriental sensibilities, Sylvian’s currently settled down into domestic bliss in America with a new wife (Prince protégé Ingrid Chavez), a new accent (decidedly transatlantic) and – judging by the credits on the appallingly pretentious programme – a guru. This would explain the brilliant white kaftan (has Jon Anderson missed any clothes recently?) and the four-cornered bowing as he takes the stage.

Though he’s dropped a few clues about an acoustic direction on recent recordings (on the Sylvian/Fripp B-side Endgame, for example), accepting Sylvian as an acoustic musician is not so easy. That marvellous voice, deep and rich as fortified honey, is still there, but over the years he’s made so much mileage out of his electrophonic atmospheres that his actual songs have been able to camouflage any flaws within the soundcraft.

The often disappointing collaboration with Fripp laid bare the aridity that Sylvian songs can often shrink into – tonight, Jean the Birdman is tricky and interesting but (even with a ludicrous attempt at scat singing) ultimately uninvolving, and there’s nothing like an acoustic performance for exposing juicelessness. Unsurprisingly, material from Sylvian’s song-centric 1987 album ‘Secrets of the Beehive’ fare well (the lilting menace in the folk-premonitions of The Boy with the Gun, a magnificent Orpheus and a hushed Waterfront) as do the few treasured songs from the Rain Tree Crow project: a reverberant Every Colour You Are, and a version of Blackwater which releases the song’s submerged country elements.

There are even one or two surprises during the guitar set, such as a rich rendition of Before the Bullfight and the shocking reinvention of keystone Japan hit Ghosts. From the beatless, icy original, Sylvian turns it into a wry Latin pop-inflected shrug of acknowledged doubt, Gilberto Gil meets Scott Walker. Even more shockingly, it works. But material from the schizophrenic ‘Brilliant Trees’ era has a tougher time making the jump to simple gut strings. Twitchy artiness such as Red Guitar and a limp Pulling Punches stumble out as embarrassing feynesses. Weathered Wall becomes a dull drone when denied the support of Jon Hassell‘s vaporous trumpet. With his shamanic atmospheric arrangements missing, too much of Sylvian’s once-epochal material is revealed as mere spectral verbiage, irresistibly crooned but superficially moodist. “Words with the charlatan,” mutters someone next to me, sarcastically.

It’s when he’s at the keyboard, with renewed access to a broader range of textures, that Sylvian delivers real magic – the rueful piano balladry in September and Earthbound Starblind, or the swathes of synth around the frozen pain and stone tears of Damage. When he allows himself the luxury of backing tapes, the dream deepens. A medley of Maria and Rain Tree Crow sees him keening over a wafting mist of chilling ambience punctuated by a ghostly chuckle. The First Day (graced with a wisp of taped Fripp skysaw) is as lushly majestic as ever. The deep dark indigo melancholy of Let the Happiness In acquires a meditative drum loop along with the shadowy orchestras of synth: it becomes hymnal, filling the great yearning emptiness at its heart with a sense of renewal, of return and redemption. It’s at moments like these that faith returns, and we can remember the subtle yet profound impact that Sylvian’s music has made in the past.

The trouble is that that was the past; and that the present is looking decidedly lumpen. The keyboard is also where Sylvian unveils his new material. For work in progress, it seems suspiciously complete… and already possesses a distinct form. A piano version of Tim Hardin’s It’ll Never Happen Again is the touchstone, with the interminable Ingrid’s Wheels and the rambling I Do Nothing (the latter most notable for its repeated, listless “alleluia”s) sketching Sylvian’s way forwards. Dusky, Americanised ballads with a strong element of that empty piano-bar pomposity that’s invariably damned with the kiss-of-death tag “quality songwriting”. Superficial sheen generating superficial applause. It’s difficult to escape the thought that David Sylvian’s self-effacing chameleonics have finally led him into a trap, a territory where he can no longer find his own face, where he will blur into a line of indistinguishable piano-song hacks whose albums will receive polite plaudits and gather dust on the lower shelves, where the fire will slow to a flicker.

The old Japan acolytes queue up tonight to touch the hem of King David’s gown. He smiles and bows like a bashful messiah. I can appreciate his showman’s smoothness… but I’ve lost my faith. I have a horrible suspicion that despite the handful of wonderful moments held to the light this evening, the shaman has swapped his books and his wisdom for a Cadillac, and the tin drum which once sounded out a musical challenge has just stopped beating.

David Sylvian online:
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Additional notes: While there’s no footage available for the London ‘Slow Fire’ show, you can get an approximation of it from footage of the Bari show from the same tour, in Italy, which is compiled here.
 

October 1995 – live reviews – Organ presents Poisoned Electrick Head + Sleepy People @ The Monarch, Chalk Farm, London, 17th October (“another little banquet of progressive strangeness”)

20 Oct

Another little banquet of progressive strangeness is being laid on for us by those fine people at ‘Organ’ – unusual nourishment, as usual.

Newcastle’s Sleepy People are another from the expanding pool of bands under the giddy influence of Cardiacs. Those beloved warning signs are present: bizarre stares, a manic focus on the sort of music that ransacks your brain while it entertains you, frantic stop-start rhythms, and an obsessive love of cramming: cramming enough melodics for forty songs into the space of one, squeezing a whole orchestra’s-worth of sound into the kitchen-sinker of a rock band’s line-up. They don’t exactly look like your average clutch of prog-rockers, either. Two sane-looking people handling the rhythm section, some unholy cross between Bernard Cribbins and Sparks’ Ron Mael on synth, two impassive women doubling-up flutes and backing vocals, a singer who looks like the monster under Suede’s bed and a dead ringer for Uncle Fester Addams chopping away on guitar. More tea, Vicar?

The music itself starts out as Hammer Horror prog-punk and veers off to uncharted places: foggy treated flutes, yelping digressions, hallucinated carousel tunes, folk-classical suites composed by crazed cartoonists. I try and fail to write down coherent descriptions. The closest analogy to Sleepy People’s music is the glorious noise which you get when you knock over the music cupboard and everything falls out. If you can imagine that full-tilt chaos with intent and lunatic melodies, you’re halfway there. They announce songs with cheery, cosy titles like Home is Where Your Telly Is and Mr Marconi and His Unusual Theory, and they could write about paint drying and make it sound like the most fantastically surreal thing in the world. A band to cure the terminally bored.

We’re not out of Hammer Horror territory yet. Accompanied by hymnal keyboard invocations, a trio of fearsome skeletal masks take the stage and grin out at us. Poisoned Electrick Head have materialised. The singer (whom, for reasons best known to himself, chooses to travel under the name of Pee) comes skipping up through the audience in a devil mask, a sprightly little Old Scratch in a business suit. But although the masks may be other-worldly, the music is less so.

In contrast to Sleepy People’s cut’n’paste barrage of demented chops, Poisoned Electrick Head stick to a more familiar recipe of chunky geometric hard rock (not too far from prog metal, but light on the flashy virtuoso posing and stronger on the roughneck oil and grime), flavoured with a spicing of Hawkwind space rock and topped off with the kind of hooky, brassy keyboard spurts favoured by Devo (or by Asia, if they’d ever had a sense of humour). It’s diesel-powered music, sometimes close to biker territory, but always with wild colour and imagination spinning it clear of grease-pit stodgery and into far more delightful zones. The odd thrash-cello sound, thundering piano ostinato or blazing Marillion-style keyboard lick doesn’t hurt, either.

Just ask the people romping away down at the front. Poisoned Electrick Head are sturdily and definitely rock: but they’re also marvellously, bewilderingly poppy and absurdly danceable. Pee’s manic, acrobatic presence and cunning, theatrical vocals are a major part of the appeal. Even with the devil mask off, he may look a little Satanic; but this is a sly friendly off-duty Mephistopheles, here to give us a conspiratorial wink in a bar after working hours, and to tell us exactly how much we’ll be swindled in the end when we sell our souls.

Some such diabolical bargain might have gotten PEH their excellent songbook, though; packed with raucous intelligent liveliness and sardonic strangeness. Angular stalks through Amsterdam nightlife, songs about doublespeak or the infiltrations of technology. Crowd hysteria is reserved for the scathing Snobs, an urban class-driven savaging of privilege and pretention along the cartwheeling lines of Marillion’s Garden Party, complete with an assortment of silly noises of the patent Zappa kind.

As a genre, contemporary prog can get so humourless sometimes that it’s a rare delight to discover a band that can be funny, smart, sexy and a bit prog. If Poisoned Electrick Head were a motorbike, they’d be one of those sinister James Bond practical joke-machines – faster, brighter and gleamier than the competition, yet full of all sorts of deadly surprises; capable of dealing out mayhem with impeccable comic timing. Unmissable stuff.

Poisoned Electrick Head online:
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Sleepy People online:
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October 1995 – album reviews – No-Man’s ‘Heaven Taste’ (“indefinable sensations of love, conflict and suppressed yet dizzy and overwhelming sensuality”)

12 Oct

No-Man: 'Heaven Taste'

No-Man: ‘Heaven Taste’

B-sides are usually one of two things, Either they’re extra padding for a single release, using old material and pointless alternate versions; or they’re an artist’s playground, a place to have fun, to try out whims, to work out the ideas forbidden by the commercial and aesthetic demands of an album.

No-Man‘s B-sides and off-cuts tend to follow the latter path, and on ‘Heaven Taste’ some of them have been salvaged from an unwarranted obscurity. Those turned off by the dance-bolstered poppier leanings of No-Man albums may find this release a more palatable prospect. Dating from points between the ‘Lovesighs’ era of late 1991 and the ‘Flowermouth’ sessions of mid-’93, the five tracks on ‘Heaven Taste’ document No-Man’s dreamy, atmospherically lush side: a step on from the bedroom experiments on the band’s obscure might-have-been-debut (‘Speak: 1988-89’), they illustrate in greater – if hazier – detail No-Man’s position as thoughtful straddlers of the popular and the avant-garde, of art and heart. They explore further possibilities in Steven Wilson‘s instrumentation and sound worlds; touch the traces of feelings never completed clarified; and swim in the familiar No-Man territory of vague and indefinable sensations of love, conflict and suppressed yet dizzy and overwhelming sensuality.


 
Long Day Fall opens proceedings in ravishing style with the sound of playing children and Ben Coleman‘s impossibly lush violin cadenzas. Wilson builds up pointillistic, ringing instrumentation on synth, piano and echoing guitar as the violin ducks, soars, dives and cries around Tim Bowness‘ sensuous vocal reverie. Lyrics call up a languorous summer dusk, chants and the glow of wine in a long luxurious moment of sustained beauty. It’s one of those definitive No-Man pieces: avant-garde undercurrents, pop-balladry romance, electric synthesis and classical wood all meshing together, one of the original trio’s finest moments.

The following Babyship Blue (originally spotted as an instrumental on the original ‘Flowermix’ cassette) offers a somewhat less mannered emotional landscape. A muted, shattering computerised dub groove pounds under the paired, other-worldly voices of Wilson’s seagull guitar and the calling wah-wah tones of Coleman’s electric violin. Bowness sings a lost romantic fragment of lyrics before breaking into a distorted, aching chant of “it’s all I can do not to scream for you…” Wind-chimes tickle, synths waft, and we’re left with the faint taste of a distant yearning; another No-Man hunger that’s just out of reach.


 
The knotted tension of Bleed (originally a swishing and threatening violin-heavy B-side on the ‘Sweetheart Raw’ EP) makes its new remodelled appearance in a much more densely orchestrated form. The violin is banished in favour of a cyclone of circling synths and atmospheres; a slow-motion hurricane around the dry rattlesnake hiss of percussion. Bowness’ shadowy lyrics dissect the slow burn of an argument (“tell the truth, and tell it ‘til it makes me bleed. / Stretch your mouth and let your words fall over me… / Talk to me – I’ll bleed a little more for you. / Take the chance to watch red rise / from the white of my / wild, wild eyes”), shuddering through a chorus of desperate, confused denial (“No fight, no blame,. / No dream, no gain. / No try, no fame. / Blame, / blame, / blame…”) before the piece pulls itself up short only to charge full tilt into a ferocious industrial techno throb. Under the battering drums, undulating analogue-synth bass and muscular barks, Bowness’ distorted voice chants out destructive litanies – “I want you near me, / I want to feel free / to forget my history, / to destroy my memory…” The helpless fury of a passionate relationship writ large in dizzying music.

Sitting like an oasis in the middle of the record is a delicate reading of Nick Drake’s Road, opened out into a soft, caressing walk-rhythm. Stepping outside of his own hazy portraits for once, Bowness sings sweet, deep and velvety while Wilson accompanies on delicate piano, little ornamentations of guitar and the constant pattering loops of a frame drum: it all fades out over caressing lullaby “hey”s. After the dark dream passions of the previous songs, the elegant passivity of Road comes as a luxurious respite: No-Man reduced to a simplicity in which their own sensitivity carries the song into dream territory far more effectively than any studio bombast would.


 
Finally, there’s Heaven Taste itself, a 1992 instrumental from the ‘Painting Paradise’ EP on which Wilson’s ambient tendencies are given full reign. Bowness (credited on the original release with “saintly restraint” as well as the title) steps out of the picture to let Wilson and Coleman link up with Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri andMick Karn for twenty-one minutes of gentle celestial groove – part Steve Reich, part David Cross, part Westminster Abbey at dusk. Over Jansen’s steady meshwork of percussion, Wilson and Barbieri’s keyboards and samplers shine like distant lights, sing quiet little piano arpeggios and submarine melodies, summon up little muted choirs and envelop the piece in wintery, intimate chords.


 
Karn slides in two-thirds of the way through, first to add breathy whispers of treated saxophone and then to elasticate matters with stretchy fretless bass and querulous reedy lines on dida. Coleman, meanwhile, bows elongated calling melodies on electric violin. It’s as remote and comforting as the blanket of stars across the night sky, and about as unchanging: quite beautiful, and reassuringly unepic. The music gently goes where it pleases, riding upon the subtlest of grooves, winding down and fading out to the softest of twinkling finales.

So there you are: a No-Man record to dream to. ‘Heaven Taste’ offer a revisiting of softer, gorgeously luminescent scenery from No-Man’s more quietly beautiful territories, building up a lambent impression which the band are likely to rudely shatter with their next album, the wilfully experimental and unsettling ‘Wild Opera‘. But then, that’s No-Man for you. Poised coolly but uneasily between conflicting planes of commerce and innovation, between chartbound hummability and artistic credibility, and unwilling to nail their colours to any single mast. And we’re all the luckier for it.

No-Man: ‘Heaven Taste’
3rd Stone Ltd, STONE 027CD (5023693002729)
CD-only album
Released:
10th October 1995
Get it from: (2020 update) Original album best obtained second-hand; ‘Heaven Taste’ was also remastered and reissued in 2002.
No-Man online:
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September 1995 – live reviews – Organ Night: Lake of Puppies + The Monsoon Bassoon + Fear of Fear @ The Monarch, Chalk Farm, London, 19th September (“music to spin the brain like a top”)

24 Sep

Just across the road, the great decaying wheel of the Roundhouse is housing Cirque Surreal and Wakeman with Wakeman. Over here, in the less salubrious surroundings of the Monarch, a collection of various punks, proggies and other wonderful low-lifers (including myself) are cramped together to check out some rather lower-profile musicians. Somehow, I think we’ve got the better deal.

This is ‘Organ’ Night, so we’re guaranteed a rich feast of music from all directions, as exemplified by opening act Fear of Fear, whose Metallica-meets-PJ-Harvey take on the punk/funk thing is tight and excellent. But judging by the overwhelming number of Alphabet Business Concern T-shirts filling the room, plus Bic Hayes hanging around near the bar, it’s a pretty safe bet that tonight is going to have a strong Cardiacs flavour. And yes, those unjustifiably obscure prog/punk/music-hall eccentrics do have a lot to answer for as regards the shape of this evening. Some of the seeds they’ve sown during their lunatic nine-album career are springing up with a vengeance in this little Camden pub.

The Monsoon Bassoon are a real brain-skewing treat, and a demanding one. Their music has those Cardiacs components of mind-boggling tempo changes, raucous crashing melodies and cheerful gibberish in Cockney/Estuarine English (although they’re originally from Plymouth, so my ear must be out of tune). The War Between Banality and Interest is a fine example, a Cardiacs-type tossed rhythmic salad so perkily crazed that it makes ‘Larks’-period King Crimson sound like James Last. Aside from Cardiacs and King Crimson, The Monsoon Bassoon show an affinity with the wilder American side of things: the “anything goes” spirit of Captain Beefheart and (to pick a more recent example) Mercury Rev. The double voice-and-guitar team of Kavus and Dan, Sarah’s voice, flute and clarinet, and the rhythm section of Laurie and Jim offer us song titles to die for and music to spin the brain like a top.

How is it that they can play songs so insanely complex yet so insanely catchy? Five hundred hooks and time changes in each four-minute burst, it seems. And how can they play it with such unflappable cheerfulness, Kavus in particular finding the time for some Who-style scissor jumps? Forget it… just stand back and have your mind tickled… Oh, comparisons? well, if I must…

Some simplified examples: Bullfight in a China Shop is a stretchy boogie in 5/4 with Mercury Rev flute, Leyline PLA is like a crunchy thrashy Schizoid Man played by an unholy alliance of The Buzzcocks and Ian Anderson with the odd lick of harmonised Queen guitar. Bright Lucifer goes from a cataclysmic snare-roll opening to Cardiacs-meets-‘Thrak’ mayhem, while Aladdin mates Frame by Frame with Living in the Past. Tokmeh has elements of that wandering Frippy gamelan sound of the ’80s, but ends up as the sound of five instruments dancing separate dances to a common end – a freaky fugue. And that’s where The Monsoon Bassoon are at. A pure, wild, Dionysiac musicality with a roguish five-fold intelligence kicking it into gear: hung up on no scene, naturally sparking and kinking. Let them into your life and watch your world take on brighter, loopier colours.

Headlines Lake of Puppies have a more direct link to Cardiacs – they’re led by William D. Drake, who was formerly Cardiacs’ keyboard player, And yes, it does show – although the anarchic musical mayhem which is one of the central Cardiacs characteristics is absent here, Drake’s new band share that specifically English eccentricity. In fact, they take it down a few notches and on a few steps. If Cardiacs’ Tim Smith is the intense, slightly scary motormouth maniac on the rural bus, Bill is his refined elder cousin who restricts his own lunacy to deranged sessions on the tennis court. Lake of Puppies are like Cardiacs exhuming the ghost of Noel Coward for tea on the lawn: all summery waltzes, genteel harmonies from Bill and from singing bassist Sharron, easy-going nylon-string guitar (from Craig) and the cosy burr of baritone sax and clarinet. Kevin Ayers could get a mention on the influences list, as could the Kate Bush of Coffee Homeground.

All of this is not as harmlessly cuddly as it sounds. Although the lyrics are difficult to make out amidst the weaving melodies, I get the impression that Lake of Puppies are singing about trickier subjects than crustless sandwiches. There’s the occasional burst of noise when Bill abandons his piano for fuzzy organ and the band launch into gutsy cyclonic roaring, and the music is just too complex and cerebral to be entirely cosy. But in the prog environment of today – where bands tend to be either sickly, prissy and pompous or thrashily confrontational and noisy – Lake of Puppies stick out as a sunnily listenable and enjoyable alternative. And I wouldn’t be surprised if all of that gentility was a Trojan horse for something gloriously warped… definitely one to check out again.

Keep it up, ‘Organ’!

Lake of Puppies online:
Homepage Facebook Last FM

The Monsoon Bassoon online:
MySpace Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music

Fear of Fear online:
(no online presence)

Additional notes: (2020 update) Lake of Puppies didn’t last very long, with various bandmembers going on to The Shrubbies, North Sea Radio Orchestra and Quickspace while William D. Drake eventually started a solo career. There have been a couple of Lake of Puppies concert reunions over the years, with the latest one being at 2018’s ‘Spring Symposium‘. The Monsoon Bassoon lasted until 2001, with Kavus Torabi moving on to a multitude of projects including Knifeworld, Guapo, Cardiacs, Gong, The Utopia Strong and a solo career, while Laurie Osborne moved into dubstep with Appleblim. Daniel Chudley Le Corre also has an intermittent solo career. Several former Monsoon Bassoon members occasionally reunite in sea-shanty band Admirals Hard. I have no idea what happened to Fear of Fear.
 

September 1995 – live reviews – B. J. Cole & The Transparent Music Ensemble + Billy Currie & Blaine L. Reininger @ Upstairs at the Garage, Highbury, London, 20th September (“a classical dissection of folk, like Irish airs meeting New York minimalism… a beautiful translucent sound”)

23 Sep

A definite whiff of conservatoire rock tonight. Viola player Billy Currie used to be in Ultravox,: nowadays he looks more like an Irish pub musician, but his music has taken a more interesting turn, as has his choice of collaborators. Former Tuxedomoon violinist and occasional singer Blaine L. Reininger – with his unnerving bespectacled stare, lugubrious ironic drawl, Zappa face-fuzz and impeccable suit – looks like a college professor whom you wouldn’t allow near the children, and draws most of the attention this evening.

This unlikely pair perform a set of serious brow-furrowed John Cale-y string duets with a flavour of compressed folk, using an endearingly cheap sequencer to expand the instrumentation: clave and sweep piano program on Bittersweet, digital string orchestra on Overcast. On The Reach of Memory, sparse piano clumps, drum program and synth bass kicks into Currie and Reininger’s apparent take on Appalachian mountain music. The Thin End of the Wedge sees Reininger on trashy art-rock guitar for a Velvet Underground feel.

Their music has a strange, detachedly astringent feel; a classical dissection of folk, like Irish airs meeting New York minimalism. A sense of towering expression repressed, amplified, by Reininger’s menacing suavity: the set highlight is The Green Door, in which Reininger sings words from a documentary on schizophrenia to a strong melody over sparse drum program and organ. Seems wholly appropriate. I’m impressed, but I feel a little queasy.

In contrast, pedal steel guitarist B.J. Cole is a ridiculously normal-looking guy with a peculiar past. Back in the ’70s he was the leader of Cochise (probably the only prog/psychedelic band based around pedal steel) and subsequently explored psychedelic country music in 1973 on his ‘New Hovering Dog’ album. Over the years since then, he’s been the ubiquitous sideman and sessioneer to everyone who wants an open-minded pedal steel approach, from The Orb to Björk to Procul Harum to Scott Walker, and in particular John Cale. Since 1989 he’s also been leading this occasional band; the Transparent Music Ensemble, an ambient-flavoured chamber music quintet also featuring keyboards, cello, percussion and violin prodigy Bobby Valentino, best known for his London country music stardom.

Cole’s Transparent Music is a sedate, relaxing experience, pleasantly beautiful and unfussy, far too laid-back to be pretentious. Reflective melodic strings tie in with his steel lines, keyboards support gently, percussion shades rather than impels. Some people point out Brian Eno as the inventor of ambient music: others such as Cole know that it goes back to the days of Satie and Debussy, both of whole expressed ambient intentions long before the days of synths and tape loops, wishing to create music that merged with the tinkle of cutlery. Works by both are played tonight, along with a version of Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, a slow cloudy cover with Cole’s ringing pedal steel dreaming out the tune.

Transparent Music is unselfconsciously universal: if something fits in with that softly lustrous sound, Cole and co. play it and let someone else draw up the distinctions if they’ve got nothing better to do. The original pieces stream neatly into place alongside the classics: Indian Willow’s choppy subterranean strings, Promenade & Arabesque’s pizzicato accents. Throughout, Cole’s steel pines and slides gracefully. That is, when he hasn’t MIDI-processed it into another sound – sad film-noir saxophone on Adagio in Blue to contrast with Valentino’s passionate classical violin, or the fluting electronic sounds on Easter Cool counterpointing the piano and bass drum.

It isn’t exactly music to stir the blood. What it is is very accomplished classy atmosphere music, a beautiful translucent sound whose function is just to exist and to please. That may sound superficial, but if so it’s a refined and civilised pleasure of superficiality. Gentle classics stroked with electricity and with a sense of ambient context, reclaiming the sector where popular instrumental and classical cross, and with no hint of elevator music. Easy listening with a brain. Satie and Debussy would have approved.

B. J. Cole online:
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Billy Currie online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Pandora Spotify Tidal Amazon Music

Blaine L. Reininger online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music
 

September 1995 – live reviews – Shriekback + Holly Penfield @ Upstairs at the Garage, Highbury, London, 6th September (“madly danceable but bursting with wild and intriguing approaches”)

9 Sep

Holly Penfield, delayed by technical problems, is not having a great night. For those who haven’t previously seen the Diva of Dysfunction, this is maybe not an ideal introduction to her unnerving songbook of emotional explorations, cramped as it is into a shortened set-time opening for Shriekback.

Nonetheless, as she sings out her heart and wrings the notes out of her synth, her quality shines through as she leans on the more conventional songs of her standard set – the vulnerable unwindings of Parts of My Privacy, the clarion-blast of Calling All Hearts, Over the Edge’s stormy tribute to city derelicts. The long frozen yearn of Stay With Me is as potent as over; the climactic anthem and disintegration of Misfit still jolting and captivating. Tonight she may seem only a few degrees different from most mainstream songwriting women, but they’re important degrees.

Shriekback may be familiar to those of you who’ve followed the career of XTC. Frontman and lubricious singer Barry Andrews was once part of that band, although now – shaven-headed and muscular in black singlet and leather trousers – he looks more like an escapee from Right Said Fred. Watchers of the ’80s alternative scene might remember the band as being artily plastic white funkers (during the time when Dave Allen and Carl Marsh made up a fierce creative triumvirate alongside Andrews) but they’ve changed quite a bit since then.

Thronging the stage like a post-civilisation white road tribe from ‘Mad Max’ or Circus Archaos (and always seeming to be twice as numerous as they actually are) Shriekback still play what could be described as funk, but it’s a mutated progressive variant: still madly danceable but bursting with wild and intriguing approaches. The instrumentation has something to do with it. A vast array of percussion instruments played by the entire band (like a mongrelised salsa band) include giant mutant tambourines, Arabian dumbeks, Irish bodhrans, cymbal-clappers and what looks like an array of motor springs on a huge chunk of wood, in addition to the standard kit, congas and bongos. Guitarist Lu Edmonds has dumped six-string in favour of a couple of electrified Turkish instruments – the cümbüs (apparent bastard child of a banjo and a twelve-string guitar) and the saz (like a bouzouki with moveable frets) – chopping and rolling out subtly different parts. The bassist loops and taps on a full-toned fretless. Courtesy of Mark Raudva, didgeridoo and mandolin both make appearances during the evening. Andrews himself plays accordion as if he’s wrestling with a giant python, and somehow manages to extract an eerie sound for a wired-up tree root.

Funky it may be, but “get down y’all” is not on the agenda. Shriekback are progressive funk barbarians with a cunning primitivist edge, as happy with a sort of savage pagan sea shanty or primal drum throb as with a Prince-ly groove. Stately it isn’t: the wild percussive stomp that opens proceedings is as far from po-faced art seriousness as you can get, and they possess the super-greasy compulsive rhythms of prime funk. But their sheer enjoyment and eclectiveness in the ingredients they brew into their music marks them down as yet another oddball manifestation of the progressive spirit…. and who said barbarians had to be dumb? There’s a roiling intelligence in evidence throughout their set. Barry Andrews has always played the hooligan-intellectual card really well, and he’s not stopping now.

Shriekback follow a different and ever-so-slightly alien logic in the way that they look at the world, too, as in Un-Sound’s list of “un”-things (“unacceptable, unreliable, unheard”) or the semiotic question/percussion barrage of Signs in which traffic signs, car logos and football graffiti all become part of one great rush of urban information which you need to understand for survival. This comes to the fore on the nightmare didgeridoo-led parable Captain Cook Said, in which Andrews narrates the story of Cook’s omen-ridden first meeting with indigenous Australians back in the eighteenth century and of the destructive force of the civilisation which he trailed behind him – “we’re here to transmit the virus called the future…” Some XTC cleverness emerges, too, in the wryly cynical Pond Life and in the hard rhythm’n’blues/country-inspired wallop Seething, with its fierce accordion.

All of this plus the fact that you can dance to this band without having to leave your brain at home. On all counts, Shriekback deliver. If you occasionally need to let the barbarian out of yourself, there are few better bands to do it to.

Shriekback online:
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Holly Penfield online:
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