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November 1996 – album reviews – Various Artists’ ‘Radio Hepcats’ compilation (“a strong whiff of dark-toned, filigreed, 4AD style introspection… heady, winning underground music”

26 Nov
Various Artists: 'Radio Hepcats'

Various Artists: ‘Radio Hepcats’

Can you can imagine a sort of cross between ‘Friends’ and a pre-job-market ‘This Life’, in which all the characters appear to be played by close relatives of those odd, unclassifiable, button nosed mammals (what the hell were they, then? bear/possum crossbreeds? doughboys?) who got perpetually stuck with the supporting roles in Disney Club comics?

If so, then you’ll have a fair (if reductionist) idea of Martin Wagner’s ongoing graphic novel ‘Hepcats’. Along with its darker and more tragic sister strip ‘Snowblind’, this warm, witty, compassionate and beautifully drawn adult strip – set on the campus of the University of Texas – follows the fortunes of a small group of students (Erica, Joey, Gunther, and Arnie) and their perpetual struggle of balancing friendships and growing maturity with an acceptable level of fun and the freedom to make mistakes. Sounds familiar? In Martin’s hands it’s both recognisable and sparkling.

Currently celebrating a new linkup with Antarctic Press and the consequent release from the headaches and pitfalls of self publishing, Martin’s just expanded the “Hepcats” world by releasing the first in a set of companion CDs: not so much a ‘Hepcats’ soundtrack as just a set of, as Martin puts it, “damn good songs that seem right at home with Erica and the gang.” But if you’re expecting another college beerkeg singalong album, think again.

Despite the tendency of the Hepcats cast to engage in animated chat as opposed to holing up in their bedrooms brooding over a Walkman, there’s a strong whiff of dark-toned, filigreed, 4AD style introspection to this compilation. It’s the tendency of the bands involved to spice their music with a little darkness, a little ornateness: and as a result ‘Radio Hepcats’ is generally closer to the sombre and unsettling shades of ‘Snowblind’ than the lively sun-washed tints of ‘Hepcats’ itself. Green Day’s pogo party this ain’t: it’s more like Ivo Watts-Russell’s children coming home to roost.

Explicitly, sometimes. The Curtain Society‘s waltzing Ferris Wheel has that familiar sound of twangling Cocteau Twins bass and grumbling spiky washes of guitar under the melancholic push-and-pull vocals. More of those queasy, giggling, Robin Guthrie-ish guitars show up on Siddal‘s Secrets of the Blind, a two parter that swings unexpectedly from chirpy drunken-fairy pop into one of those Cocteaus alien piano ballads that dislocate you from your own consciousness.

And if you’ve ever wondered what a troubled hermit’s answer to the arresting, barren grandeur of Dead Can Dance might be like, look no further than Soul Whirling Somewhere. Unhittable – utterly isolated and beautiful darkwave – drifts up as if from the bottom of a well: Michael Planter’s ashy, yearning voice floating out from its shrouds of tolling Joy Division bass and dark persuasive ambience, which caress and pull it down like water saturating the clothes of a drowner. It lulls you with sepulchral beauty while draining the warmth out of the room: you can all but see ice forming on the speakers.

But let’s not nit-pick. Even if the 4AD pointers can sometimes be pretty self evident, this is – at the very least – an album of heady, winning underground music. They might have some obvious forebears, but the bands on ‘Radio Hepcats’ also possess persuasive and seductive sounds, which are especially welcome in the current atmosphere of half asleep indie and heritage Britpop. With The Red Dots, An April March plunge down into their own thunderous take on guitar heavy dream pop with enough force to squish any of their British shoegazer ancestors (Chapterhouse, Slowdive). This stuff rides on a natural internal dynamic as much as on any phaser pedal setting, and coasts in on a dark thrum of guitar as impersonal and unstoppable as a typhoon.

Martin’s offered us the odd surprise, too. Visible Shivers have the sort of name to suggest more of the same chilly darkwave as Soul Whirling Somewhere but prove, in fact, to have the same sort of Southern States nerviness as their near brothers in name, Shudder to Think. Lo-fi country-flavoured twelve-string jangle pop, complete with plaintive harmonica and plonky bass, which on After Glory prances closer to the Appalachian chirp of Robbie Robertson, Dr Hook or ‘Fables…’-era REM than to the stonecarved artiness of much of the rest of the ‘Radio Hepcats’ broadcast. Then there’s William McGinney‘s ‘Hepcats’-themed snatch of filmic lo-fi piano and synthwork, halfway between ‘Knotts Landing’ and Angelo Badalamenti. And to silence any remaining doubts, there’s two more bands on here – the shimmeringly lovely Mistle Thrush and the ever-magnificent No-Man – who transcend genrework altogether.

Mistle Thrush open the CD with a soulful seduction, giving us Wake Up (The Sleep Song). First it curls into our hearts like a gorgeously soporific Julee Cruise ballad, and then suddenly expands into a huge cathedralline Bark Psychosis space where Valerie Fargione’s voice strips itself of anxious sugar and powers up into a huge, majestic Patsy Cline alto, as if the lump in our throats has finally gulped them into a place more fit for their bewitching talents. Further on, No-Man provide two wildly different and divergent contributions: the industrial, near incomprehensible clatter pop of Infant Phenomenon (which powers along on a rattling log drum beat, offensively dirty guitars and gasped, abstract lyrics), and the all embracing Steve Reich-ian trance funk of Heaven Taste; a sweetly slumbering twenty plus minute ambient monster with a bellyful of twinkling lights, sky tickling violin, leviathan Mick Karn bass and perhaps a couple of bites of Chartres Cathedral.

Martin Wagner’s not only compiled a beautifully-paced compilation album, he’s also given much deserved space to a clutch of very under-regarded bands. And the latest activity on the ‘Hepcats’ site suggests that an even more captivating follow-up compilation is on the way. The whole ‘Hepcats’ affair, both on and off record, is looking like a series well worth tuning in to. Cool for cats and everyone else.

Various Artists: ‘Radio Hepcats’
Antarctic Press, RHCD1 (no barcode)
CD-only album
November 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Long out of-print, rare, and best obtained second-hand. Originally came free with deluxe edition of “Hepcats” #0.
Hepcats online:
Martin Wagner’s Hepcats blog, and online reprints of the original comic at Comic Genesis.
Additional notes: (2020 update) Of the artists on this album, The Curtain Society and No-Man are both still active; Visible Shivers enjoyed a ten year career between 1990 and 2000; Mistle Thrush’s Valerie Forgione was later in Van Elk, while Soul Whirling Somewhere’s Michael Plaster resurfaced in Yttriphie and An April March’s Danella Hocevar later worked as Danellatron. William McGinney has divided his time between film music and academia.

November 1996 – EP reviews – Pram’s ‘Music for Your Movies’ (“profundity stretched over that soap-bubble surface”)

18 Nov

Pram: 'Music for Your Movies'

Pram: ‘Music for Your Movies’

A tangible relief. You know when you treasure a band whose very awkwardness is their spur to genius? And you dread the day when they inevitably develop, move on, make that breakthrough? How you torture yourself with wondering exactly how they’re going to sell out, which part of their off-the-wall wonder is going to be sloughed off like an old coat or an outgrown friend? And how wonderful (and how rare) it is, when they make that leap while still swinging all of that weird and precious baggage.

Over four albums and assorted spring showers of invention, Pram have made music which sounds like daydreams captured in rented rooms and played on dolls-house instruments. Tinkly, tiny and exquisite: beautifully fragile songs, with profundity stretched over that soap-bubble surface. Music recorded in the kitchen sink during those sparkling times an hour or so before noon or dusk sets in; dusted by trumpets and cobwebs, and licked by ebbtides of slide guitar. They’ve got only the flakiest of reference points – tranquillised ’50s lounge-music echoes, say; or the ferment of polycultural Birmingham nightclubs; or Can’s immersive and unlikely groove; or the deliquescing pop of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd on See Emily Play (it’s that sustained, wobbly organ, and that obstinate un-rock twitchiness to Daren Garratt’s drumming: free-jazz leanings, or dodgy-but-compelling technique?). They’ve none of the portentousness of yer Sylvians or Cures, and none of the slackitudes of post-rockers: nor the inhumanity of those ambient characters who sound as if they’re wearing their eyeballs back-to-front. Pram’s music has always been winningly human: frail, sensual, intimate, and very lovely.

The last time we heard from them (on ‘Sargasso Sea’), Pram had drifted aground and drew wonder even from that, rattling like a wind-harp as they moulded music out of disappointment, sleep and stranded hearts. On ‘Music for Your Movies’, they’ve kept their home-made clatter and every scrap of their inventiveness, but have tightened up their pop. Everything falls into place now instead of merely stumbling together, weaving in delicate threads of dub, drum’n’bass, cinema organ. Rosie’s voice, though still weary conversationalist rather than acrobatic diva, has a new bounce and a lilt to it. And her lyrics (while still existing in the reverie that the white page lends so many poems, crucially detaching them from registering as real life) have a new zest.

There’s something celebratory about these songs. The Sargasso that trapped is now a playground for her to transform with enchantment in Sea Jungle’s free-floating love song, while Silver Nitrate celebrates the transforming imaginative power of film as a feminist liberation: “The woman who discovered light / was dazzled by her ingenuity /…With silver nitrate she could make time wait / she could gather all of her hopes and her dreams and make them her destiny / …and spun her thoughts like spiders webs / and with these delicate chains was set free.” On Eggshells it might be Rosie who suffers, locked out from her lover by his own absorption in his past wounds, but she’s the stronger, the more loyal, despite her exposure. Only Carnival of Souls sees Rosie failing to escape the net of her own entrapments, with figures from her past parading through her sleeping head (“feels like I’m living / in a zombie movie”).

Pram have already made stagnation seductive. Now, wheels oiled, they’re rolling forward to explore the waking world. Lucky world.

Pram: ‘Music for Your Movies’
Duophonic Super 45s, DS45-CD15 (5024545032727)
CD/vinyl EP
18th November 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Pram online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Tidal Amazon Music

November 1996 – mini-album reviews – Bunty Chunks’ ‘Brain Ep’ (“violent eccentricity and an atmosphere of coded warning”)

16 Nov
Bunty Chunks: 'Brain Ep'

Bunty Chunks: ‘Brain Ep’

A bizarre, triple-jointed noise, ‘Brain Ep’ is twenty-two minutes worth of sixteen razor-honed two-minute songs. Any band of indie stoners could copy this note for note, slow it down by two-thirds and still end up with enough music for three years of releases. Bunty Chunks slam it all out at once. They’re probably one of the only groups who could deliver you a full concept album using only a split 7-inch with Napalm Death. And the Ep is short for Epilepsy.

So what kind of band would name themselves after a dismembered issue of a long-defunct girl’s comic? Well, theirs is a sound of seriously intense stunt guitar, twitchy hardcore tub-bashing and voice-of-doom Valkyrie vocals from Lisa Bailey. It’s as if Steve Vai (during his Zappa tenure, not his metal stardom) had skidded on the soap during bathtime, crashed through the window dripping and naked as a newborn, and finally fallen splat through next door’s roof, straigh into the middle of a women-only workshop of opera lessons. (Yeah, well, things like that happen to me most weeks…) I could also suggest L7 doing a jigsaw with Wire, Slapp Happy being forced to speak after being shut away and mainlining espresso for a solid month, or a Public Image Ltd. lineup with a Zappa complexity fetish. Otherwise there don’t seem to be many precedents for Bunty Chunks’ music. Which is a shame, because then life would be a lot more interesting than it actually is.

‘Brain Ep’ delivers a fruit salad stunt-punk, where the guitar weaves ridiculously complicated loops as Lisa vomits up hairball blasts of surrealist rhetoric. These in turn are decorated with scattered ad-slogans, one-liners and dismembered moments of sharp poetry. Seemingly taking as much influence from random cartoons and Rorschach blots as from real life, Bunty Chunks lean heavily into a disturbed world of childlike imagination and often topple into ludicrous playroom weirdness. Songs sport titles like Dog Made of Foam, Kojak Ring of Confidence or Fly Away Sausage Boy. Lisa’s lyrics are full of sinister, comical transformations: feet turn into chickens, stirrup pumps hurl abuse, and even Pavarotti reveals a hideous alter-ego. Yet there are stories in there too (embedded in the word-rashes) even if they do seem to have been tied in knots by a Turkish masseur and forced through a shattered kaleidoscope.

Lisa’s unstoppable voice – iron-hard and utterly committed, with a car-alarm urgency – is key to this. Taking what could otherwise be colourful whimsy, she pushes it out sounding like no-nonsense observation. She can navigate the paranoid mutterings and memories of a vagrant (in Hobo) or hurl out chattering expressions of rage at the demands of scrounging friends and partners (in Pay Up Ape). Similarly, she can also handle the put-upon fretting that sizzles in The Cat Tooth; the feverish dreams of mortality and aging in We Grow Up With Bones; and all of the bizarre characters that these songs suggest are marching in and out of her memory and life like a plague of amorphous, opportunistic aliens. (“Years later I would say I realise then, the only thing you can sell and still own… he was not a cripple, but he could pretend to be like no other.”)

While there’s little variety in her arresting, confrontational tone, its sheer conviction nails Bunty Chunks’ apparent flights of fancy down hard to the tarmac, rendering them as gritty as life in a rotting tower block. Despite the hallucinatory feel of the band’s songs, her edge gives them a visionary clarity. Lisa’s simultaneously the person who urgently buttonholes you for attention in the wasteland, and the woman who’s guarding and watching at the door, keeping a hard eye on the inside and the outside. Balanced between violent eccentricity and an atmosphere of coded warning, ‘Brain Ep’ comes across like a lifetime of very tricky parallel-dimension social work, carried out in a city of grotesques.

Considering that they’re the ones who got us into this, Bunty Chunks make pretty good guides to get us through. This in spite of the fact that they’ve junked verse-chorus-verse, and you’d better come in strapped up for a relentless (sometimes irritating) barrage of storm-tossed notes. But it’s worth the visit. At the very least you get to see Lisa and the other ‘Chunks playing with giddy intent: within sight of a million tunes yet never settling on any particular one, with eyes and ears stretched far too wide open to settle for anything as simple as boy-meets-girl. “Brain ep convulsions.” You said it, Lisa. Fits for a queen. So where’s the sixty-minute triple album, then?

Bunty Chunks: ‘Brain Ep’
Noiseburger Records, NB5 (5019148710073)
CD-only mini-album
Released: 1996

Buy it from:
Long deleted – look for this second-hand.

Bunty Chunks online:

November 1996 – album reviews – Labradford’s ‘Labradford’ (“aural massage never sounded so nerve-wracking”)

15 Nov

Labradford: 'Labradford'

Labradford: ‘Labradford’

With two albums already behind them, it’s time to stop lumping Labradford in with Tortoise as the only two notable examples of American post-rock. Post-rock is an uncomfortable catch-all that can’t really adequately describe a spectrum that takes in the noisy Trans Am at one end and the classical minimalism of Rachel’s at the other. And where Tortoise approach from an obviously jazzy direction, Labradford’s methods are ice-cold developments on ambience that now seem to be reaching a creative peak.

When a known band suddenly gives, say, their third album the name of the band (the way one would usually do for a debut), you can generally guess that they’re making a pointed statement of identity and distancing themselves from much of what went before. And – appropriately – ‘Labradford’ is Labradford’s most fulfilling statement so far; showing a fully-developed band consolidating the intriguing (but ultimately frustrating and insubstantial) thumbnail sketches they provided on ‘Prazision’ and ‘A Stable Reference’.

Experiments like the deep sub-frequency bass – straight out of acid house – dropping into the chilling ambience of The Cipher or the dissonant tones that break up the background of Lake Speed are perhaps signs of ears being opened to electronica; although this also leads to a loss of the band’s shared interest in the ancient music and religious plainsong which influenced their earlier albums. And which kept me listening past the point where I’d gotten infuriated by their sheer collegiate lethargy, the way they sounded like something made by people who only got out of bed to turn their Neu! record over.

That spectral and distinctly European quality is missing from this year’s model to be replaced by more obviously technologically produced atmospherics, and better production has separated out the sounds from the claustrophobia of ‘A Stable Reference’. The addition of rhythms, albeit perfunctory and not necessarily conventional drum sounds, makes a big difference to the progress of the pieces. Where previously Labradford songs started, hung in stasis in a foggy air and then disappeared, there is now a definite propulsion, a moving forward. Reassuringly, though, we’re not talking 120 bpm…

For a group dealing in mainly instrumental ambient atmospheres, it comes as something of a joy to come across titles that, for once, bear some relation to the sounds being heard. The first track really does sound like a Phantom Channel Crossing – the most nightmarish vision imaginable of a midnight journey in a tin hulk of a ferry. The engines, the chains, the metallic resonances, the emptiness – all there. Maybe I’m imagining things. Painting my own picture for the sounds I’m hearing.

But if that’s not what Labradford’s all about, then there’s no point. This is a gallery of sound, rather than music. And yes, Midrange really does appear to exist all in that spectrum. It’s claustrophobic. While Mark Nelson’s voice mouths more of his usual indecipherable profundities over the group’s ghostly atmospherics, it is noticeable that more light is seeping into the sonic palette – distant violins and, most distinct from the usual swirling morass, a subtly tapped-out rhythm. It still ends with the growing unease of that Labradford noise, however – the closest description being the amplified sound of air ventilation.

Lake Speed is underpinned by a metronomic, surprisingly insistent bass drum rhythm, like a niggling thought tapping constantly on the wall of your brain. “Like a clock / In pieces / On the floor / I try to fix it fast / So I don’t lose too much time” – and as the clock ticks, all manner of worryingly gentle alarms go off in the background. It gives the impression of a David Lynch piece that is seeking to add to your feelings of paranoia. Aural massage never sounded so nerve-wracking. One of the track’s twisted and elongated effects sounds like a man giving vent to a low, painful scream. It’s buried deep in the mix… but it’s there. How appropriate.

Scenic Recovery retains much of the sound and atmosphere of Lake Speed. But still the thoughts keep churning away inside. The tap-tap-tapping rhythm has altered slightly – suddenly it’s the regular but ineffectual pulse of a coma patient. As the mire of sound envelops you, and tension hangs in the air, a solitary violin carries a melody through the ether. Pico is one of Labradford’s “songs”; rather than just shifting atmospheres. Almost hymnal in its simplicity – a sequence of heartbreaking chords, a melody that is played by a friendly alien on a space-age tin whistle, a barely-there whisper of a vocal and another minimalist, almost endearingly clumsy rhythm. The pace is processional, almost holy.

Oh God, how does one describe The Cipher? It is just there. It exists, like sounds exist even in the most silent of nights. Look, this is the sound of digital and analogue air rustling chains. Ghostly. Calming. It is all of these things. But mostly, it just is.

Battered, the closer, is almost eventful. Delicately balanced on a hesitant mandolin-like guitar, a brightly melodic riff, and with a beep providing the rhythm – coma patients again, nurse – it hits a Cocteaus-like bliss-out at the end. Perfect pop for Prozac people.

The last notes we hear are desert guitars drifting into the night. Death Valley, here we come…

(review by Col Ainsley)

Labradford: ‘Labradford’
Mute Liberation Technologies/Blast First Records, BFFP 136CD (5 016027 611360)
CD/download album
Released: 12th November 1996

Get it from:
(2018 update) CD best obtained second-hand, or download from Bandcamp.

Labradford online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

October 1996 – live album reviews – Yes’ ‘Keys to Ascension’ (“Yes have perpetrated their fair share of folly, but that’s not the whole story by any means.”)

30 Oct

Yes: 'Keys to Ascension'

Yes: ‘Keys to Ascension’

Bands are volatile, and when people form them they need to deal carefully with the possibility of a built in death sentence. It happens, and it can leave scars. All over the world, sitting quietly in little bedsits, are former musicians still shattered by the breakup of their first and only band.

Conversely, some bands seem to shrug off splits and explosions as if they’d been no more than sneezes. During their on again/off again three-decade career, Yes have been no strangers to such events. The fallout from the innumerable bust-ups and drop-outs now seems to obscure the band for three years out of every five, ensuring they don’t so much keep jumping on the reunion bandwagon as never being quite stable enough to get off the damn thing in the first place.

After years of mostly being stadium pop-rockers (albeit tremendously accomplished, envelope-pushing ones), as of 1995 Yes are back to the extraordinarily popular 1970s lineup which held sway in arenas and stadia. High-pitched Accrington-seraph singer Jon Anderson, epic bassist Chris Squire and heavy-deft drummer Alan White have brought two of the other ’70s members back into the fold (eclecti-guitarist Steve Howe and ultra-flamboyant keyboardist icon Rick Wakeman). Despite the lofty title, though, the ‘Keys to Ascension’ double album is basically a holding exercise while Classic Yes glue themselves back together again. It’s an attempt to catch up on whatever ground may have been lost during fifteen years enmired in a Los Angelis rocker’s honeytrap with one foot jammed firmly in the AOR arenas.

So… there’s (two and a half hours) of live Yes classics from the ’70s, taken from the San Luis Obispo concerts earlier this year in which Yes took it to a smaller-scale theatre stage. Give or take a bit of backdrop projections, these were devoid of the band’s previous synaesthesic live trappings of lasers, revolves, or Roger Dean crystal outcroppings – for the most part, Yes just let the music speak for itself. There’s also about half a disc of new music appended onto the end. The odds aren’t on the project being a classic, but what it does look like is a fine and overdue opportunity to re-evaluate Yes, after they’ve spent twenty years in the critical doghouse as the target for any stroppy reviewer with a chip on his shoulder about being a middle-class honky under all of his street talk. Yes have perpetrated their fair share of folly, but that’s not the whole story by any means.

If you’re already properly familiar with Yes music – complex, electric and revelatory when it hits its peak – then you’ll know what to expect, and you get it in spades. Fragile their alliance may be (Anderson has often compared the band to a football team of pushy talents needing to be marshalled, as opposed to a mythic rock gang or sentimental brotherhood) but they’re sounding better than they have for ages. Apart from Wakeman’s dodgy new digital keyboard sounds – if you’re going for that full-on classic-prog majesty, it’s essential that you should also go for some blurry 1970s warmth – the Yes sonic armoury has been reinvigorated. Squire’s grinding sinewy bass is roaring back with a vengeance, and Howe’s back in the saddle with his elegant yet fiery mongrelised guitar styles. The rhythms still kick and charge like a mule on a diet of angel dust and Dada; many of Anderson’s baffling lyrics and fluting vocals are still a mystical jumble of tossed salad word-sounds, and the whole band’s playing as a unit again at long last.

If you’re not familiar with Yes – or if you’ve been suckered by all of that self-righteous punk bullshit about the worthlessness of the prog bands – there’s enough wonder on here to make you reconsider their legacy. For a start, ‘Keys to Ascension’ is laden with blazing melodies even in its most convoluted moments. It confirms Yes’ love for a mighty pop tune, as evidenced in the resurrection of their driving, pinwheeling and elaborately vibrant cover of Paul Simon’s America or on the surprise revisitation of 1978’s hymnal ballad Onwards (drawn from Squire’s formative experiences as part of an English cathedral choir, and rearranged here as an acoustic display of Yes’ uplifting harmonies).

As ever, Yes’ musical peaks sound timeless. Despite their flashy/esoteric/unpalatable reputation, during their first wind, they were actually a mainstream band: ferociously musical pop lovers with a weird streak who were restless to blow open the envelope and expand the possibilities, but who were always too abstractly sensual and romantic to tie in with modernism or the politics of underground music culture. That said, they were busily transgressing musical boundaries in a way that the mainstream is only now daring to attempt again.

Siberian Khatru remains a bucketing roar of jazzy harmonies and of splintered time and space; Anderson’s welter of images spurt like one of J.G. Ballard’s crystallised rivers. In the soaring, furious ritual of Awaken, hovering pouncing piano leads into a stark sunrise ceremony dominated by Anderson’s ascending liturgies and Howe’s guitar hurling itself upwards in an assault on the mountains. An interlude of Wakeman’s sedate celestial church organ, before another push upwards by the ensemble leaves Anderson triumphant on the summit, singing his faith into a clear sky. Monolithic, esoteric fantasia perhaps, but it strikes as many complex emotional chord as it does musical ones. It might not work as clear literature or as the amplified folk music of the classic songwriters, but this is nonetheless spiritual music in its ambitions and effect, ultimately serving a greater aim than to merely showcase the virtuosity of Yes members.

Elsewhere, there’s the rhythm-and-blues-meets-skywatchers coil of Starship Trooper; and the inevitable Roundabout. The latter in particular is despatched with the usual Yes flair – glitteringly elegant classical guitar, corkscrewing Hammond organ, Anderson’s joyfully kaleidoscopic lyrics and the best bass line which no one’s yet ripped off for a dance track. There’s even a chunk of that infamous folly ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ which (even if it does sound far bittier than everything else on the record) has been reclaimed from an overcooked mush of windy symphonic chanting and has become a sort of wobbly musical dragon kite. It’s still unwieldy and inescapably over-ambitious (Yes attempted to net the whole world and its metaphysical forces with that particular album, and they didn’t succeed) yet now there’s an odd grace and buoyancy to it. And that’s something I never thought I’d catch myself saying.

So far so good. But if Yes are to be taken seriously as a contemporary creative force then current work’s got to be taken into account. And listening to the new tracks can’t help but set a few alarm bells ringing. For a start, it sounds as if Yes are attempting to arbitrarily erase the intervening seventeen years since this line-up last played together, and to go back to the glitzy tail-end-of-first-generation prog they were doing in 1979 just when the rot first set in (and when cocaine, disco and attempts to steal a march on New Wave first began to interfere).

Right now, they seem to be writing off the stadium rock years led by former guitarist (and broad-spectrum producer-pop enthusiast) Trevor Rabin as if they were a temporary embarrassment, while simultaneously ditching everything which they learnt from those years. Into the bin goes the multi-track layering, MTV rock hooks and chart-teasing love songs. Out of the setlist and onto the shelf goes their early ’80s mega-hit Owner of a Lonely Heart. Also, it also seems as if Yes have gone from attempting to please the commercial market to attempting to indulge the 1970s fanbase. (Yes, choose your own route to potential artistic death, lads. Well done.)

The new tracks are indubitably a stopgap to keep those fans happy, pulling out all of the expected Yes ingredients. Classical guitar web-work, tight ensemble soloing; a structure as convoluted and precariously balanced as an orchid, dashes of classical structures and jazz harmony and an exploded concept that’s at least five times as big and bright as the world around it.

The problem is that Yes no longer sound haunting: they sound haunted. By their own past, no less. Hearing them continual harking back to ‘Topographic’ ambitions (fucking hell, you’d’ve thought they’d’ve learnt their lesson the first time round), dredging up old circus tricks and even incestuously close cousins of old riffs, one’s forced to think of an old acrobat slathering himself with liniment to handwalk the high wire in front of a cheering audience of young rivals and comeback rubberneckers… and then forgetting to wipe his hands before he takes hold of the rope.

Be the One kicks off with all the peak Yes joyousness, but sinks rapidly into baroque burbling and inflated pomp, Anderson’s melodies stretched to breaking point over slabby slices of ’70s seriousness. At nineteen minutes and seven sections, That, That Is sets itself up to be today’s Yes epic: and it nearly succeeds, with Chris Squire’s slithery bass riff capturing the blazing driven rush of On The Silent Wings Of Freedom and the whole swishing along in a set of colourful swerves you’d never have imagined could’ve come from a bunch of fifty year olds. Taking on contemporary concerns of crack in the cities and gang warfare, as if they were conscious hip hoppers, Yes conspicuous fail to do anything more to dress them up in cosmic flash and hurl them into orbit along with all of their old giant fish props and Roger Dean spacecraft.

It’s a bit like watching the Pope and all his cardinals trying to wrest control of a street football match. Anderson’s probably sincere, but he should leave this sort of thing to the hip hop nation… or at least to people who don’t point to New Age therapy as the obvious solution. Much ado about something important, achieving nothing despite its densely packed music. “Disjointed, but with purpose…” Yeah, Jon. You wish. Trying to force this flimsy, gaudy conceptual sheath onto a much knottier and uglier problem comes across as foolish at best, and as actively insulting at worst.

A prime old mixed bag then. There’s enough wanton brilliance on here to remind us of just what, in their chequered past, made Yes such a fantastic band and such a strong fusion of musical forces. There’s also enough rancid old codswallop to remind us just what insufferable heights of folly they can reach when they turn off their bullshit detector. Same old story… and it’s worrying that the codswallop counter is pointing more at the new stuff than at the old. But Yes’ often-naïve but unashamedly, sometimes transformatively beautiful light is shining brighter these days; and that’s definitely something to be glad about.

Where now, though?

Yes: ‘Keys to Ascension’
Castle Communications/Essential Records, GAS 0000417 EDF (5 017615 841725)
CD-only double album
28th October 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Yes online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music

October 1996 – album reviews – Moonshake’s ‘Dirty and Divine’ (“like ghost trains – whistling and rattling across the room”)

10 Oct
Moonshake: 'Dirty And Divine'

Moonshake: ‘Dirty And Divine’

Even as a small chunk of mid-’90s London rediscovered how to swing and posed for Time Magazine, life carried on as usual for most of the rest of us. The weeks of quiet desperation, the litter in the corners, the urges and the grinds that don’t match up. While the Britpop scene whooped it up in the happening neighbourhoods, Moonshake were sitting up late with whitened knuckles in rented high-rise rooms, or prowling the mean streets spitting out stories.

Moonshake’s intensely visual songwriting and soundcraft always seemed born of hard-boiled cinematic overload. On 1994’s stunning ‘The Sound Your Eyes Can Follow’, lead ‘Shake Dave Callahan rubbed the unsparing urban soul-mining of The The up against The Young Gods’ overpowering walls of sampled sound, and beat both of them for sheer grit and presence. Determinedly guitar-free, taking their cornered-rat savagery from Callahan’s paint-stripping sneer and Raymond Dickaty’s ferocious arsenal of treated saxes and flutes, Moonshake’s harrowing street-literature songs were heavily sample-textured: but they travelled light and fast, drawing on tooth-rattling, uptight, Can-inflected dub grooves. They were twenty-first-century urban blues, as tough and unyielding as steel wire. Most importantly, sound was everywhere: cramming into the ears, surrounding the head with a blurred, terrifying out-of-scale world.

For some, the methodology of post-rock has served as an excuse to get lost, to unshackle yourself from precision, swallow your own guitar, womb yourself up in universal sonic tissue and drop out of language altogether. For Moonshake, it goes the other way. Callahan’s bitter, precise, dramatic language – shading his harsh sorties into hard-times lives with a poetic flair reminiscent of a punk Dickens, or of Brecht and Weill – is central. It’s just that rock instrumentation is too imprecise, too blunt to do it justice. Post-rock possibilities, and the overwhelming landscapes regurgitated by samplers is the only sensible framework for the way this band captures the world. Moonshake songs are like ghost trains – whistling and rattling across the room on forbidding, chilling loops of warped and mangled sampled sound, whirling you through a clatter of noise; dropping you into the thick of things; fucking with your sense of placement and angles, and thrusting gritty reality into your face.

‘Dirty And Divine’ is – at first hearing, anyway – more modest in its scope than ‘The Sound Your Eyes Can Follow’, That album lunged out of the speakers and went for your throat, both the epic stinking script and score for a vast, hideous film about the downside of the London experience. In comparison, ‘Dirty And Divine’ is more Mike Leigh to its predecessor’s Terry Gilliam. The ram-raided orchestra samples are pared back in favour of metallic whooshes and industrial-sump bubbling; Dickaty’s been given a free rein to mutate himself into an ensemble of mangled brass and breath. Centrally, Callahan’s songwriting emphasis has narrowed down. The clank and snap of Cranes sets the agenda, capturing the ebb and flow of a locked-down, clock-watching workforce in widescreen: “the builders are earning their daily bread / and they make sure they eat it every day at one o’clock… / The housewife’s dreams evaporate / as her husband’s nightshift ends at eight.”

Yet ‘Dirty And Divine’ also provides the backdrop for rebellions against the timeclock and the grind. Most of the album homes in on the stories of individuals. Where previous songs were a pageant of strain, entrapment and stagnation (a whore and her regulars, a protracted divorce) this record deals with what happens when frustration breaks out and escalates into quests for further, greater stimulation. The chance-addict of Gambler’s Blues gropes for a chance to be empowered, to face a challenge he can respect (“sometimes I pluck order out of the form – / I slack for a moment, the moment is gone”) but pays the price anyway: “I’m a gambler, and sometimes I lose, / but the kick’s in the playing, not paying the dues. / Always an offer I cannot refuse, / always a time-bomb I cannot defuse.”

In Exotic Siren Song, a young man hits the wide world for a perilous life of opium-dens, brothels and high stakes, keeping company with gun-runners and fraudsters, dodging pirates and police. Initially rejoicing at the chance to live by his wits, he ends up jaded, complaining “nothing now is really new.” The adrenalin-hooked petty crook on Up For Anything lives by his instincts and his appetites – “I’ll balance on the balcony, twenty-one floors high, / swinging from the vapour trails, ropes in the sky… / I can’t count the conquests and I can’t tell the time.” The buzz is still strong enough for him to dismiss the damage that will come, when “in ten year’s time I’ll be the boy with the mashed potato body. / All this champagne living on beer money, / out among the bumper-car people who never say sorry.” His counterpart, the elusive criminal in House On Fire (think Nine Inch Nails meets ‘Badlands’) has perfected the art of living on the edge. His wife may break under police questioning, his invisibility may evaporate and the law pounce on him, but he’s already working on plans for manipulating his fellow jailbirds.

He’s the exception – in most songs the downslide is never far away. Throughout the album, speed and appetite are portrayed as a drive that becomes a monkey on the back. Yet while it lasts it’s a hell of a ride. Another of Callahan’s savage stress-head characters snarls: “You’re too open, and you’re too easy. / When I’m out, I do as I damn well pleasey… / The only light I need sweeps through the window… / Keeping a monster comes in handy. / Hard candy…” To stop and think in this rolling, callous world is to invite despair.

To do him credit, Callahan unflinchingly represents this as well, offering up a couple of his most intimate songs. The make-or-break musings of Nothing But Time ponder the next step (“now I come to a fork in the road”) and weigh up possibilities: “Shall I cause some destruction that none shall understand, / undyke my finger and flood the whole land?… / I let you go and then you come back. / Shall I pick at your nature until you react?” Ultimately, plans are left perpetually hanging in weary, lonely resignation (“I’ve got my own design for something quite grand… / You can appreciate even if you don’t understand,”) all wrapped in rolling Arabian horns and the gonging sound of empty vessels.

Too late. The Taboo (swathed in flugelhorn and rippling harpstrings) surfaces at the end of the album: the last moment of awful drunken clarity before the final fall. It’s a lament for the loss of honesty – for the lost ability to be vulnerable and unveil the tender truth of yourself. Cards should be on the table, but no-one will make the move. “If I were to be really careful, / and take pride in everything I do, / I would show you what ‘really’ is – / and I can’t, ‘cos it’s taboo.” The seasick backing music swirls: vision flattens. The loved one recedes across the table, behind a wall of well- worn gambling chips and smeared shot-glasses. “If I were to show you how I feel, / would you call me blue? / If we could reach out and touch each other? / But we can’t, ‘cos it’s taboo.” Almost touching, but out of sight. House wins.

This album is a brutally compassionate mausoleum to burnout, made from raw words and cracked sinews. Lay those dusty dreams to rest.

Moonshake: ‘Dirty And Divine’
C/Z Records/World Domination Records, WDOM028CD (5032059002822)
CD-only album
Released: 4th October 1996

Buy it from:
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October 1996 – live reviews – The Blue Nile + Sinéad Lohan @ The Palladium, London, 8th October

10 Oct

Wait in any given place for a long time and reckon up the odds. Which are you more likely to see passing by – Bigfoot, Lord Lucan, or a member of The Blue Nile? The chances are about equal each way.

In a business that thrives and surfeits on over-exposure, The Blue Nile only sidle into view when they absolutely have to. In fourteen years of tenuous existence, this reclusive biz-shy Glaswegian trio has offered up no more than three short albums of exquisite ambient Celtic soul; stripping away the armour of the heart with cheap drum machines, breathing synths and skeletal guitars, and the scalded, mournful grace of Paul Buchanan’s desperately romantic deep-tenor voice, leaving us flat on the floor and then departing so quietly we don’t hear the door shut.

While they’ve had stiff competition from Kate Bush and Scott Walker in the stakes for lying quietly in the long grass, sometimes The Blue Nile are out of view for so long that they seem no more than the shadows of our own heartbreaks. Three phantoms whom we can fill with the overflow of our ruined, hopeless good intentions and the agonising rush of a love with nothing and nowhere to ground itself on. Every now and then, though, they surface – as they have tonight – put out a record, and those shadows take on flesh.

But first we have Sinéad Lohan; a Cork lass with beaded hair, a salving murmur of a voice, and the composure of a marble Madonna figurine. From out of nowhere to the grandiosity of the Palladium, and still she’s not batting an eyelid as she delivers her soft thrumming folky songs to a warm reception. She even invites questions, and gets them. She has that atmosphere that some quietly private people have, the stillness that invites fascination.

From up here her eyes seem sleepy, focussed inwards, and her songs are the same, ripples of feeling reflected in still pools that make you feel like a privileged eavesdropper. All of this and the quietness makes her seem like an Irish Tanita Tikaram without the air of lazy resentment. After she’s left the stage, I realise I can’t actually remember what any of the songs were about, but the impressions of the emotions involved remain etched lightly on my imagination. She’s as subtle and strong a carver as smooth river water.

After seven years out of the public eye, most bands would return to the stage in a blaze of glory. The Blue Nile don’t even turn the lights out properly first as they slope onstage like reluctant supply teachers. I mistake them for roadies until I recognise Paul Buchanan’s pained, elegant features among the men fumbling to pick up the instruments, all but flinching at the applause and the eyes trained on them. But it’s something they’ll have to deal with.

For all of their heart-stricken loneliness, The Blue Nile carry a very special feeling of empathy and homecoming around with them. Literally, in some respects: tonight’s audience ripples with the voices of Glaswegian emigres. And when one Scots voice, brought to a pitch of excitement, calls out “Glasgow Celtic!” it’s followed as fast as a counterpunch by a Rangers fan’s disgusted “fuck off!” Rather than a slit face, this results in a ripple of laughter and recognition around the auditorium. There are wry, self-conscious chuckles from the band as they finally launch into the Van Morrison-gone-synth-pop chug’n’whoop of Body and Soul.

All of this civility (and this nod to a respectable musical touchstone) prompts the question. Have The Blue Nile, for all their cult status, ended up as another branch of hoary pop tradition for the impeccably adult? Certainly they shy away from sarky pop irony, and they’ve a sheepish but determined commitment to presenting their songs unvarnished by gimmicks. Don’t even try looking for Pet Shop Boys cleverness here.

And then there’s the impeccable cleanliness of their sound – the clipped white-gold ring of it, the slow stretch of the falling-evening keyboards, even the live drums compressed to stiff Linn thuds… Or, on the other hand, the occasional hints of country in the songs from the new ‘Peace At Last’ album and how Stay’s heartbroken synth pointillism develops from a Scottish electro-pop lament to a finale with suspicious hints of rockabilly or hoedown. And, of course, there’s the way Paul’s huge voice draws from Frank Sinatra’s warm cocooning sound, rather than any from any obvious rock source.

Sinatra, though, never sounded this touched; this blown through by overpowering feelings. Even behind the theatrics of his saddest songs there was a man preening in his power; the guy who was laughing now; the honorary Mob capo whose very tone was a muscle. Behind these songs are a man who winces; who knows the scuffed concrete in the buildings he walks past will outlive him. Who’s haunted by the moments where decisions rest before they fall into becoming facts, and who’s never short of melody but is often stripped of words. And who, on this occasion, is swigging Lemsip by the gallon to beat off a vicious cold. It brings the vulnerability of The Blue Nile’s songs into sharper focus.

But then they’ve never suggested that the business of being adult is supposed to be easy, or even make much sense. ‘Peace At Last’ made that as explicit as anything ever is in the Blue Nile universe – a middle-aged album (Paul Buchanan turned forty while recording it) which showed youthful, domestic and spiritual certainties past their flush and breaking down into a unflattering mirror of doubts and shaky illusions. A new testing ground after their landscapes of young men’s fears had slipped away back into the years. While The Blue Nile don’t go so far as to drag middle-aged trappings – such as chipped crucifixes or well-dusted-yet-unloved three-piece suites – onstage with them, they wouldn’t need them. The words to these songs swim to the surface in flashes; brief snatches and sketches of anguished images that settle into the heart’s eye as if their places had been waiting for them forever.

A couple of songs from 1989’s peerlessly lovelorn ‘Hats’ album illustrate this – Over The Hillside fumbles through the burden of day-to-day failure and the pull away from home; Headlights On The Parade sees Paul lose himself in night-haunted reverie, borne on by the serpentine romantic curve of the melody over the mechanistic drumming. Tonight’s rendition of Happiness, a song already riven by doubt (“Now that I’ve found peace at last, / tell me, Jesus, / will it last?”) has to replace the soaring black gospel chorus that boosts it on record with three uneasy white men murmuring into shared mikes. You wouldn’t have thought that it could reach the same hymnal level, but it does, albeit becoming more of a private prayer.

Another ‘Hats’ classic, The Downtown Lights, has the transcending, unresolved journey-feel of a crying fit; heart-stricken keyboard swells giving way to beautifully sad reflection and back again, rising to a frantic crescendo of loss. The atmospheric abstractions of A Walk Across The Rooftops don’t give away much in the way of clues, but they do give a night-time stroll a tint of darkest foreboding.

And Family Life just overwhelms – a mid-life crisis set to song. Echoes of Tom Waits, Randy Newman and crumbling Hollywood Christmases coming together in the heartbroken drunken pleas of a man whose marriage is unravelling, whose boyhood innocence is rising to ask bewildered questions. Paul, singing like a man suddenly and shockingly shrunken, plays the role to the hilt. But there’s no storytelling, no plot; just feelings and the alcohol dissolving reasoning down to more questions and a blurred, blundering comprehension. “Say, you know, / no honeymoons, / just separate chairs in separate rooms. / Jesus, please, / make us happy sometime – / no more shout, / no more fight…” As the last scraps of piano dissolve in the hush, the frenzied applause seems to spray tears of recognition and relief.

It’s still as un-showbiz as you can get. All of these emotions are being let off on a very tight leash. The magisterial Robert Bell doesn’t crack his stern kirkman’s expression all evening, whether he’s forcing compelling crabbed funk lines out of a bass, keening his rare backing vocals into Buchanan’s mike, or crouched cross-legged onstage beating out patterns from the tiny synth in his lap. Over on stage right, P.J. Moore plays with an abstracted serenity as the Blue Nile’s bare, effective colorations flood out from his keyboards. The supplemental three on drums, guitar and synths play with their heads slightly bowed – more quiet men. So it’s the hunched, embarrassed Buchanan that’s the reluctant centre of attention; muttering wry Glasgow “let’s-get-this-over-with” asides between the songs, but singing his heart out of his chest and punching it up at the sky every time the music rises.

I guess that even with embarrassment weighing at his coat-tails, he can’t help it. There’s often a desperate strand of hope-against-hope in The Blue Nile. The near-delirious Sentimental Man ascends out of a jumble of chippy funk facets to hit gospelly heights; the intently energised strum of Tomorrow Morning rushes towards the light as if Buchanan was trying to beat the pain off by hurtling towards hope. Tinseltown in the Rain – which belts along as if it was the peak of some uncompleted Glaswegian street-opera – bursts up to a plateau of emotion, aggressive certainty struggling with a sense of doom. (“do I love you? Yes, I love you! / Will we always be happy-go- lucky?… / But it’s easy come, and it’s easy go. / All this talking – / talking is only bravado”) before exploding in a carillon of stammering, tear-jerking guitar.

And on Saturday Night you can feel the blessed surge of relief at a simple romance – “an ordinary girl” hymned with a incredulous delight, an everyday date turned into a haven from the wracked, exhausting, damn-near-religious romantic angst of the Nile songbook – turning out right for once. As the last swooning joyous chimes mount the air, I hear a ecstatic voice screaming “Yes!”. It’s my own. I can’t help it either.

Later, Bell and Moore take up positions at the synths on each side of the stage, waiting to play Easter Parade. White-clad, calmly watching each other for the cue, they have the assured and tranquil air of surgeons waiting to lay on the hands and bring out the pain. Then the song comes – plangent clutchings of piano, gushes of night-breeze synth and Buchanan singing of being alone in a rapt crowd, carried along like a solitary bubble in their exhilaration. And the empathy is summoned up and floods through us like medicine.

They can still touch the pressure points of the soul like no-one else. In another few months they’ll be hiding from us again, but that touch is going to stay with us until they feel able to venture out into the world again, blinking with trepidation at the looming feelings waiting to catch them.

The Blue Nile online:
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October 1996 – album reviews – Eddie Parker Group’s ‘Everything You Do to Me’ (“while the warmth of Parker’s compositional personality remains consistent, here the group is cat-stepping through traps”)

4 Oct

Eddie Parker Group: 'Everything You Do to Me'

Eddie Parker Group: ‘Everything You Do to Me’

When they’re performing, flute players always look as if they’ve got a small, mysterious smile on their lips. Perhaps it just comes with the technique, but it’s an expression which seems to sit more appropriately on the faces of certain flautists than on others.

On the face of Eddie Parker, for instance: one of Django Bates‘ circle of contemporary British jazzers, and therefore an affable, witty maverick able to call on the services of a whole gang of other affable, witty mavericks. He’s spent time with Bates in the gloriously rowdy Loose Tubes (where he first made his mark as a writer) and in Delightful Precipice, contributing to a wealth of exuberant, contortionistic musical moments. Outside of the Loose Tubes alumni circle he’s blown away hardened New York jazz execs as the secret weapon on Bheki Mseleku’s ‘Celebration’, and has notched up work with Jazz Umbrella and with John Stevens’ Freebop along the way.

His 1994 solo debut, ‘Transformations of the Lamp’, brought his effervescent writing skills and bandleader’s warmth to the fore in a group partnering him with a couple of animated yet unsung heroes of the British new jazz crowd (journeyman pianist Pete Saberton and Perfect Houseplants drummer Mike Pickering) and two of his fellow Loose Tubes (saxophonist Julian Nicholas and double bassist Steve Watts). This follow-up – adding guitarist John Parricelli, a third ex-Tube – takes the celebratory warmth and involvement of Parker’s music even further.

If there’s one image that an Eddie Parker tune (usually blending Latin-American liveliness and township jazz celebration with a gently mischievous, cheeky British disrespectfulness) tends to bring to mind, it’s a picture of the Thames Valley suffused by bright Brazilian light and carnival energy. As perfectly illustrated on Mystery in Three: an opening of swimming, dreamy ringing melting with a airborne swish into Saberton’s animated, bunny-hopping piano and Parricelli’s sliding Larry Carlton guitar swells, while Parker and Nicholas trade off sprightly, interlocking, chatty dialogues of flute and soprano sax.

But with Parker’s background, you can’t expect even music this breezy to stay altogether straight, and part of the group’s skill is to mix up the virtuoso complexity of the tunes with a reckless, teasing sense of ridiculous good humour. Wonky Chorino – an animated, loose limbed Brazilian frolic, ambling back and forth like a seven legged donkey loose in the town square – lurches teasingly towards parody while always, laughingly, pulling itself back on the lifeline of its own breezy wit. It’s paired with Twerp, a bouncing bop disguised as light elevator funk continually landing on the wrong foot: sunny, carefree, fool on the hill flute leads, an alto sax nattering cheerfully to itself, and Parricelli’s soft interjections on wah-wah guitar. Lovably bewildered, like one of those endearingly clumsy guys who survive life by means of their unconscious, innocent charm.

But beyond this bubbling vivacity there’s a new quality to Parker’s work. Much of his previous writing seems to have rushed along with a crowded yet joyful clarity, but half of ‘Everything You Do to Me’ slips off sideways into a much less sturdy, unstable region fraught with deadfalls, pits, tricky space. While the warmth of Parker’s compositional personality remains consistent, here the group is cat-stepping through traps, delighting in their own agility, yet disorientated by the vanishing of landmarks.

Brocken Spectre emerges from a spiky snaggled mass of intersecting bebop melody ettes; mountaineering via long, leaping polyangular flute runs, taking the lead over staggered piano and ride cymbal and Parricelli’s distractedly comping guitar. It’s named after a high-altitude illusion, and sounds like it, with the music breaking down into instrumental doppelganging piano ornaments, crash cymbal swells, eerie flickery unisons of flute, tenor sax and guitar; a battle between abstract spikiness and propulsive swing. A tumble of sax leads to a crash, and then silence. Finally, a bass flute breathing fractured, forgetful waltz patterns, lilting back and forward in mirror images over spurts of confused piano.

It gets odder. Variable Geometry is a perilous quicksand of shifting rhythms, accents and tempos, Parker’s flute cautiously peeping out into a landscape of terse guitar blares and edgy piano. Mike Pickering (an excellent yet strangely self effacing presence throughout the album) works and manipulates the band with subtly sadistic tricks of timing and rogue beats as the band flit between free jazz games of chicken and acerbic electric keyboard workouts (like a cut-up Headhunters or Stevie Wonder in one of his occasional bouts of synth rage).

Auster, named after the Greek god of the south west wind, moves like fresh green leaves in a swirl of gently disturbed, randomised air. A free time feel, a cryptic ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ bass clarinet; Frisell-style yawns of guitar, disconnected piano; Parker drawing out high, shut eye musings over the top. Gradually it gets more involved and intense, finally clenching down to Derek Bailey guitar clicks and high tom skitters.

At last the flirtation with confusion becomes a full-blown affair on Delirium, which you can trace as you listen to it. The initial dazed Wayne Shorter pronouncements of Nicholas’ sax, sitting at the centre of the music, while flutes and arpeggiated guitar reel dizzily around it. The entry of the piano, displacing the drums: Parricelli’s guitar working away with the disorientated determination of John McLaughlin staggering away from a whirling carousel. The tripping melody establishing itself on the wind instruments as piano and guitar take up the reeling duties. A few moments of unified group arpeggios. Then a halt, then delirium transforming into vision as Parker gently soars lark like over Saberton’s floridly romantic piano, eventually joined by Nicholas’ sober tenor, resting from its delirium. A return to the melody, this time led by a forthright, exuberantly overdriven Parricelli. Finally a triumphant and conclusive unified chord, as the haze clears and resolution’s achieved.

After these journeys through chaotic freedom there’s a return to security, solidity, and faith, handled with as much sensitivity and control as all of Parker’s previous brinkmanship. Everything You Do to Me’s title track is a soft, wondering expression of utter love; a John Coltrane ballad refracted through Django Bates at his most delicate, up there with A Remark You Made as a modern classic. The sleepy, post-coital embrace of Parricelli’s guitar and the tender, barely-there burr of Nicholas’ tenor mingle with Parker’s gently lyrical piano lines, like a feathery caress of the fingertips along the back of a sleeping lover.

Music that embraces you, yes… but look out for that small enigmatic smile on its lips.

Eddie Parker Group: ‘Everything You Do to Me’
Future Music Records, FMR CD29 E0496 (7 86497 18202 2)
CD-only album
1st October 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) CD best obtained second-hand.
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September 1996 – album reviews – No-Man’s ‘Wild Opera’ (“fraying the edges of beauty to reveal a poignant discontent”)

11 Sep
No-Man: 'Wild Opera'

No-Man: ‘Wild Opera’

Late hours. Some velvety-dark bar in a city somewhere. Black décor, with sweeps of curved white delineating the spaces between floor and ceiling. Nearly deserted but for the last human fixtures, fixed to their bar stools, sunk in their own little drunken universes. Forefront: an ex-couple in an alcove, locked in mutual antipathy; maybe a month past the sharp, splintering anger of the break-up, yet now attempting to divine the reason why. He’s trying to explain.

“We talked for such a long time / That it seemed to mean a lot. / I was yours, and you were mine…”

Pause, just long enough for him to light a cigarette. The lighter clicks like a cocked pistol. Unyielding eyes meet again.

“Then the feeling stopped.”

No-Man aren’t singing about heaven and sunsets any more. Not that they ever did, exactly. For all of the limpid, luminescent, swooning beauty of past albums, there was always something rather darker going on under there. 1994’s rhapsodic, magnificent ‘Flowermouth’ (graced and expanded by chamber jazz, by majestic Robert Fripp guest solos by and creamy violins) concealed tales of anguished stagnation and defeat, the sharp edges of lovers’ memories, the simple and inescapable pain of being left behind. And No-Man have always chosen to orbit at the point where an absolute beauty intersects with a resonant pain. On ‘Wild Opera’ (their first album for 3rd Stone since the lingering death of their relationship with One Little Indian), these feelings have never been closer to the surface. Here are a procession of characters in extremis glimpsed for a moment through our veils of indifference, illuminated briefly by No Man’s peculiar mixture of compassion and alienation.

They make an odd couple, do the No Man pair. Steven Wilson is the technological wunderkind, crafting all round evolutionary pop wonder with fluent guitars and samples, sensuous beats and expansive sonic backgrounds. Tim Bowness is the baleful and reluctant dark star on the horizon breathing a chilly, beautiful wind of song across the people enmeshed in the gorgeous, sad eyed arches of songs that No Man put together. Between them they’re putting together some of today’s finest art pop, poised somewhere between Tricky, The Blue Nile, Robert Wyatt, Portishead’s ‘Dummy’ crossed with Scott Walker’s alarmingly skewed ‘Tilt’.

With ‘Wild Opera’ you pretty much get the lot. The ghostly, reflective atmospheres and introspection of trip hop. A sound as deep, lonely and full of frightening possibilities as 3a.m on a city backstreet. Jazz noise (pings of death knell Rhodes, hovering cymbals) mixing it up with blasting or whispering rock, and sliding up to sampleadelic dance impetus. Classy yet eloquently, exquisitely understated songwriter pop which never strays into mawkishnessness or worthy stodge. Violent, abrasive industrial dance, as on the bellowing rush of Radiant City or the jagged confusions of Infant Phenomenon. Delayed by a couple of years, in many respects ‘Wild Opera’ is closer to the sleekly disruptive post-rock efforts of Laika, Moonshake or Disco Inferno than it is to the elegantly-mannered theatrical art pop of No-Man’s beginnings or to the luxuriant high-end dance-pop of their One Little Indian years. And with the continued involvement of Fripp plus Richard Barbieri and Mel Collins (frequently via sampler cut-ups), you get the exploratory edge of the best progressive/evolutionary rock.

And all of this is fraying the edges of beauty to reveal a poignant discontent. Though Taste My Dream is a nod to familiar, naked No Man love balladry (a curve of soft tears and piano chords), such simple and direct love is rare on “Wild Opera” compared to its more dangerous flipsides. Pretty Genius is a trip-hop sigh of desire merging with a sense of disaster, its object (“you could lose your little mind, / never knowing what to find… / Don’t hide beneath the covers / don’t sit around…”) as likely to disintegrate as inspire.

To a background of ghostly Badalamenti swing and haunted vibes, Sheeploop sketches a portrait of a calculating, defensive, free floating swinger (“this loving is easy, this loving is free, this loving demands no part of me”), while laying bare the losses sustained with withdrawal from commitments (“you never know how people grow, become a part of something…”). Housewives Hooked On Heroin – the unlikely-titled single – is like a sliver of glass through the heart, a backhanded slap in the face of contentment which few others could pull off (excepting Andrew Eldritch, perhaps). It’s not about drugged out drudges, but millionaires growing listless in their air conditioned capsules; aging artists selling empty platitudes to complicit audiences; and a seething, jaded resentment turning towards perversity.

Rooting around too deeply in this shadowy, suspicious world throws up disturbing questions. Libertine Libretto (imagine Trent Reznor masterminding a jazz rock quartet while Tim’s clenched vocal scatters a string of broken, filmic images in the foreground) spews out a slew of fragmented, desperate Hollywood stories (“Arthur sheds his pheromones in fifteen thousand mobile homes / In the grip of grand emotion, Julia drowns in tanning lotion”). On Sinister Jazz, Tim pounds the streets alone chased by a swarm of disconnected, dysfunctional, fatal memories: “Wendy got it in the throat, Linda died in Alan’s coat, you read it all in Brian’s note… Robert lost the plot in Greece, the Jesus Army stole your niece, but all you ever do is eat.” The past is a foreign country – vivid, shocking, and now impossible to touch (“You’re never going home.”).

On Time Travel in Texas, horror-struck mellotron strings and flutes drift through a desert wind over a bone-scraping dub beat and scourging divebombing guitar. A soprano flutters tattered amnesiac rags of sound: Tim is either murmuring dazed recollections, grubbing thoughts out of the void (“all I can remember, that noise in my ear / and then there was silence / and then there was fear”) or bellowing a terrified lament in the background. You never know exactly what’s going on, but you know something’s coming to the surface, and that it will wreak havoc when it emerges. The last sounds on the track are a wail, a crash of bass piano, a string of hysterical sobs…

If all of this sounds like dead-end miserablism, think again. Like Radiohead, No-Man have a fascination for looking into the void. Like Radiohead, they save us from utter despondency by redemptively beautiful melodies and a passionate, irresistable concern for the state of the human being. In the end, they suggest that any choices leading us to disaster are ours alone, rather than mewling about the burden laid on us by a malicious world. On ‘Wild Opera’, it’s self deception that bites the hardest – as Wilson’s guitars belch and roil acidicly, My Rival Trevor lays bare the vacuum residing in the hometown stud, the masterly lady-fucker whose bedroom assurance is just so much short-term gymnastics as he “bids for beauty unknown, kills the seeds he has sown, always ends up alone.”. On Dry Cleaning Ray (musically, Massive Attack playing catch with a nifty organ sample from Dave Stewart’s Egg), the subject’s a wannabe who hasn’t yet realised that he’s aged into a never was, a working stiff whose dreams have become shopworn routines. “It’s the same old thing / it’s the same old shit. / Thirty years without a hit.”

Notably, No-Man are not above asking themselves similar questions. Once tagged as “conceivably the most important British group since The Smiths”… “Maybe there’s more to life than just writing songs. / Maybe not,” Tim muses on My Revenge On Seattle (which swims along on an exquisite shimmer and strum of acoustic guitar, a sleepy chatter of blushing Reichian keyboard pulse). Steamrollered by the grunge boom of the early ’90s and by brutal record industry politics, their reaction is one of hope: “My revenge on Seattle / I retreat from the battle. / Won’t you stay?”. A response that manages to be dignified, witty and touching all in one, and with a ravishing melody to clinch it.

No fat lady sings. Things change, things continue, some things disappear. Deep into the late hours, No Man continue to shine a captivating light on it all.

No-Man: ‘Wild Opera’
3rd Stone Ltd, STONE 027CD (5023693002729)
CD-only album
9th September 1996

Get it from: (2020 update) Original album best obtained second-hand or from Burning Shed; ‘Wild Opera’ was reissued as a deluxe expanded edition in 2010, also available from Burning Shed.

No-Man online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud,, YouTube, Instagram, online store, Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

September 1996 – album reviews – John Greaves/David Cunningham’s ‘Greaves, Cunningham’ reissue (“a muted treasure”)

10 Sep

John Greaves, David Cunningham: 'Greaves, Cunningham'

John Greaves, David Cunningham: ‘Greaves, Cunningham’

Too much information.

I’ll own up to being the occasional sad muso, the sort of person who wants to know which guest musician banged the tambourine on the second (unused) take of The Beatles’ Revolution on June 24, 1968, and what colour trousers they were wearing. (Look, it’s a hypothetical. Don’t send your replies).

It’s refreshing, then, to be recommended an album and know little or nothing about the artist. David Cunningham I am familiar with as the person behind The Flying Lizards, purveyors of bizarre‑sounding kitchen‑sink electronics who had a surprise hit in the ’70s with a version of early Motown hit Money, and has since produced much of Michael Nyman’s work. John Greaves? Search me. My excellent editor will no doubt insert a knowledgeable mini‑biog here. I think John Greaves may have been in some way involved in prog. God help us… (Near enough. He used to be in Henry Cow ‑ an enthralling but demanding gang of ferociously complex Maoist art‑rockers in the ’70s ‑ playing bass on revolutionary stuff that was far too twisty to sing over. Perhaps as a reaction, he’s been a song‑albums man ever since. Prog by default, I guess: the difference isn’t as wide as some would like to imply ‑ ED.).

So I didn’t know what to expect. What I found is a delicate and intensely beautiful curio. Totally motionless. Ice cold. Pure electronics, free of the distortion and sampling that we so associate with the form now, and only occasionally breathed upon by natural sounds. And a voice that sings of emotion but remains, almost intriguingly, detached.

The Mirage is a less than promising opening, though. It almost justifies the accusation that much avant‑garde music is simply nice melodies and good singers ruined by someone working randomly through all the programs on their synth in the background. But one is immediately struck by the voice of John Greaves: somewhere between Dominic Appleton of Breathless (and, more famously, This Mortal Coil) and John Cale ‑ appropriately, Greaves is also a Welsh tenor. The sort of voice, frankly, that is only ever heard in art‑rock. It’s heard to great effect on one of the stand‑out tracks, The Magical Building. A beautiful melody and a peculiarly touching analogy ‑ “Oh darling, it’s all so mysterious / The magical building that is us” ‑ despite its unusually clinical feel. Cunningham’s stark, clean electronic backing evokes further This Mortal Coil comparisons.

One Summer allows about the most human emotion on this album. Regret. The harmonies are all‑too‑real in beautifully surrounding Greaves’ voice as he regrets: “Swimming all around and never getting closer / To the one damn thing you knew we needed most…/ In a way, we never happened / In a way, we were never there / In a way, we were phantoms / In a way, we were fish in air…/ In a way, we didn’t care / And there’s nobody left to tell the tale.” If that doesn’t get you weeping over summer love affairs long gone, you are truly heartless.

In between the longer vocal tracks, there are a number of short ambient pieces. Whilst all retain the icy atmosphere of the album, the vocals elsewhere are so stunning one longs for their return. Nevertheless, the instrumentals are arresting in their own way, several of them sharing similarities with the recent work of Jansen and Barbieri; particularly the final track, The Map Of The Mountains, where marimbas play a softly rhythmic motif over an evolving ambient sequence. The Red Sand is a rhythmic instrumental of pulsating piano, percussion, strange dislocated vocal snatches, parping saxes and clarinet. The Other World ‑ due to its instrumentation in particular ‑ proves to be a more substantial interruption to the flow of the songs. The acoustic guitars and saxophone bring a more laid‑back feel when the steel‑cold otherworldly electronics have just got you entranced. One big flaw, though ‑ the sax player is given far too many solos whilst suffering from avant‑garditis. He doesn’t so much play the tune so much as parp strange caterwauling noises. Cheers, mate ‑ do ruin the atmosphere. Anyway…

The Voice returns. The Inside, penned by Greaves alone, is (apart from a recurring, majestic‑bubblegum hook of “oh, baby, oh”) sung entirely in French. So, no, I have no idea what it’s about: suffice to say that it appears an unwritten rule of art‑rock albums that they must feature a track sung in French. Whatever the content, this is an achingly simple torch song, so standard in its verse‑chorus‑verse‑bridge structure that it emerges as a feat of understatement when the temptation to load on the sounds would have been all too easy. The Same Way, also a Greaves‑penned track, is another song about lost love, finding love, insecurity about love ‑ “You could say I’m way off course / You could say I love you.” Indeed, it ends in the same way it began.

This is an album, a muted treasure, to discover as autumn ends. Music for a midwinter morning ‑ intensely cold, but intensely beautiful.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

John Greaves/David Cunningham: ‘Greaves, Cunningham’
Piano, PIANO 506 (604388401024)
CD-only album reissue
Released: 1996

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

John Greaves online:
Homepage Facebook Soundcloud Last FM

David Cunningham online:
Homepage Last FM

August 1996 – album reviews – Aqueous’ ‘Tall Cloudtrees Falling’ (“ambient emotional blackmail”)

24 Aug
Aqueous: 'Tall Cloudtrees Falling'

Aqueous: ‘Tall Cloudtrees Falling’

One thing ambient music is supposed to do is to be passive and let you play the unlistener. That way, you know where you stand. Put on an ambient record, flood yourself with the pastel light or shadow of your choice, lie back and just relax into it like a big cushion of sound waves. There might or might not be some gentle beats involved, you might get the odd trumpet or whale-song, it might be dark or it might be light… Whatever it is, you’ve got control and it’s tailored to one-size-fits-all. No problems. No thinking necessary.

Aqueous: ‘Catching Sight of Land’

At first hearing, Aqueous’ ‘Tall Cloudtrees Falling’ sounds as if it’s going to be one of those archetypal ambient throw-pillows. Listening to Andrew Heath and Felix Jay gently ping and buzz their way through Catching Sight of Land (whole-tone scale digital abstractions; robotic bass blobbing up in gentle ruminant belches) or Under a Heavy Sky’s dewdrops of Rhodes piano and wowing buzzes, you can settle down, open your book, drift off…

Hang about. Brain message, confused. Surely there should be something here to latch on to? The reassuring melody-ette, the heartbeat to the ambient womb? Either someone’s made off with it, or Aqueous have folded it up like origami – all the expected angles in the wrong place. You can’t read the book; there are gaps in the music which your subconscious is forcing you to listen to. Ambient emotional blackmail.

And eventually you have to respond. You put down the book, and you listen to this wandering, gentle collection of electronic shapes. A third of it makes sense. The remainder refuses to stay in your grasp, melting off into the air like an evasive scent. The ice has melted in your drink.

Back to the book. This time, the music creeps up behind you and gently, insistently – maddeningly – tugs at your shoulder. It demands, ever so gently that you listen to it: but as soon as you turn around, it’s gone again. Sub-audible – in the night-breaths of Antarctica as insubstantial, yet as unmistakeably there, as the shape a leaf-laden branch makes in the breeze. In Les Trois Jours D’Ete, capturing the silence of a sun-washed garden… with the eyes drawn up over the top of the wall in expectation of sudden, silent summer events. You shelter in it. It slowly sags and gives way at unexpected angles beneath you: turning you round, dropping you into Sweet Santoor’s zither of icicles and Stylophonic buzzes (amid snatches of disintegrating Satie).

Aqueous: ‘Within This Dream I Awake’

This carpet-slippered game of cat and mouse could go on for ever, while you attempt to either pursue or ignore Aqueous’ essence. You can draw a few comparisons if you like. The mingling, exchanging, misty patterns in Leaving Alexandria in the Cold Light of Dawn mixes Harold Budd’s still-air vistas with the insidious kind of fluting, droning analogue shapes that Vangelis cooked up during his mid-’70s Nemo peak, during quieter moments. The whole album has echoes of Cluster.

But attempting to pin Aqueous music down to absolutes is as futile as trying to pull that unlistening ambient-consumer’s trick on it. Like the various states of water, this music can both give and refuse to give; and it infiltrates the environment it enters, with the insidiousness of transient vapour or with the unyielding fragility of an ice sheath over a pond.

Aqueous: ‘Tall Cloudtrees Falling’
Hermetic Recordings, HERM 2222
CD album
Released: 19th August 1996

Buy it from:
Aqueous homepage store

Aqueous online:

August 1996 – album reviews – Disco Inferno’s ‘Technicolour’ (“a poignant, if a touch unsatisfactory, monument to a band who did a most remarkable thing”)

5 Aug

Disco Inferno: 'Technicolour'

Disco Inferno: ‘Technicolour’

They were going to change the world with their world‑weary lyrics, noisy guitars and random artillery of samples.

As the USA brings us an ever more inventive and experimental range of post‑rock bands, it is sobering to reflect that, whether you like that all‑embracing genre‑heading or not, the UK could not sustain such a futuristic leap in pop music for long. Disco Inferno, Bark Psychosis, Seefeel, Insides and their ilk were just a temporary blip in the inexorable rise of ’60s revivalism.

Disco Inferno, in particular, had the cruellest of brief careers. Picked up and lauded by the likes of ‘The Wire’ and ‘Mixing It’, and used as a constant token of their superior musical taste by ‘NME’ and ‘Melody Maker’ journalists (a secret for them to keep and drop into reviews as an esoteric influence) Disco Inferno didn’t stand a chance of taking their unique vision to where they wanted it to be: the pop world.

This album nearly became the great “lost” work ‑ curtailed by the demise of the band, publishing difficulties made it uncertain if ‘Technicolour’ would ever see the light of day. Finally released months later, it stands as a poignant, if a touch unsatisfactory, monument to a band who did a most remarkable thing. Whilst producing truly “experimental” music, they didn’t forget the need for (well, it’s almost heresy to some chin‑stroking musical aesthetes) emotionally‑involving lyrics and a damn good melody.

So, for a sampladelic band, the opening two tracks scare the sheep with noisy guitar abandon. The title track, blasts in with a none‑more‑guitar‑and‑distortion start, but the unique invention soon creeps in ‑ a shuddering rhythm supplied by car horns, dog barks, shouts and breaking glass. A collision between The Art Of Noise and the glycerine melodies of The Lightning Seeds, with an end result comparable to late‑’80s Wire. Things Move Fast lives up to the title, and is a delirious noise‑guitar and beat‑fuelled rush through modern society. It ends with a sample of rapturous crowd noise. Truly, these guys lived in hope ’til the last.

I’m Still In Love reasserts DI’s passionate belief that a tender love song and futuristic sound could be combined: Ian Crause devoting himself to someone as they seal themselves away from the harsh iniquities of the world outside, with fireworks exploding and crackling during the exhilarating noise‑upon‑noise of the chorus. Lovely.

Sleight Of Hand is another hymn to the jaded view of the world as seen through Crause’s eyes ‑ “and once you see the sleight of hand / it’s never the same. / Once you see the cards are marked / it’s all in the game.” It’s the adult version of realising Santa Claus is actually your father dressed up in a red coat and cotton wool, pissed on cheap sherry. We’ve all been there. The feather cushion is provided by the swirling, tumbling harps, heavenly harmonies and chiming synth‑drums ‑ straight out of the ’70s ‑ in the chorus.

Don’t You Know is a sample sequel to Footprints In Snow from the band’s stunning 1994 album, ‘DI Go Pop’. This tine the rhythm is provided by the sound of heels on pavement, surrounded by the ethereal and enveloping electronica that features on so many of DI’s utterly entrancing slower tracks ‑ it really is best described by the contradictory term “acoustic sampledelia”. It’s a truly indefinable sound that I have only heard once before: in the unforgettable work of AR Kane in the late ’80s, another band who sounded like they were piecing together from the music and sound elements of a nuclear event. That is the spirit of Disco Inferno.

It’s A Kid’s World was the “big” single. That’s irony, by the way. It’s based on that Lust For Life drum intro. Kids’ TV themes ‑ ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Playschool’ ‑ are plundered for samples. There are even self‑referential samples from earlier DI tracks. It’s a veritable junkshop of found sounds. By any other standards, a triumph. By Ian Crause’s standards, this sounds like an attempt to produce what people expect post‑modern sampledelia to sound like ‑ knowingly ironic, dischordant brain music for ‘Wire’ readers and other musical eggheads.

But it lacks the tangible human emotions of most of the group’s material, unlike When The Story Breaks, which is perhaps the closest DI get to pop music for the twenty‑second century. The clattering synthetic drum breaks, harsh electronic ambience and (of all things) a sequence played on a touch‑tone telephone shows that some attention had undoubtedly been paid to the ten‑fledgling sound of drum’n’bass but applied to their melodic song‑based outlook.

Similarly, Can’t See Through It is almost a Blue Nile sound for the ’90s, a beautifully hushed marriage of natural acoustics and electronics. But more than anything, it is a song that sounds broken and exhausted. The lyrics state Crause’s dilemma at Disco Inferno’s situation: utter belief in the musical path they are following (“nothing can touch us / ‘cos everything in us / is digital cold”), but clear frustration that they’re not getting their vision across (“I can’t see through it / There’s no way back / I can’t get home…”).

It’s a lyrical concern that is developed in the final track. Devastating emotion soaked into its words, Over And Over is by far the most simply-recorded track Disco Inferno ever did ‑ just Crause’s voice, a guitar and a haunting drone in the background (more acoustic sampledelia…) It’s pure assumption, but it sounds like it was performed solo, after the split. The lyrics are undeniably concerned with the band’s demise ‑ “So many plans, so little time, / I can’t shake the feeling I’ve watched it all back from the end / Every missed chance and mistake / I hear when we’re playing / Forever in my head.” The man obviously lived for this project. It’s our loss that we didn’t sign up to it in droves.

I, for one, sincerely hope that Ian Crause and Disco Inferno soon find that they can’t bear not to present their music to the world, whether in a reformed group or a new set‑up (rumours abound of a new Crause band called Floorshow…). Perhaps the musical environment will be right this time ‑ more open minds, more adventurous listeners. Well, you live in hope. But it would be a tragedy for Disco Inferno to enter the files of Great Lost Hopes populated by Furniture, Kevin Rowlands, Bark Psychosis and… insert your own choice here.

Ian Crause’s last words on Over And Over are “it’s always, it’s always the same. / It’s never the way that you dream, / it’s never complete…” Disco Inferno, RIP.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Disco Inferno: ‘Technicolour’
Rough Trade Records, R4102 (5022781204106)
CD‑only album
Released: 22nd July 1996

Get it from: (updated 2018) pick up the reissue (on vinyl and CD) from One Little Indian.

Disco Inferno online:
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August 1996 – EP reviews – Andrea Parker’s ‘The Rocking Chair’ (“sounds like the dark shadow of club culture”)

5 Aug

Andrea Parker: 'The Rocking Chair'

Andrea Parker: ‘The Rocking Chair’

The club’s gone cold and the dancing has come to a halt. Something’s lurking in the chill-out room, and the chill’s gone down several notches.

The word was that Andrea Parker‘s ‘The Rocking Chair’ was the missing link between Goldie, Mahler and Kate Bush. It’s not quite like that. You could think of Cranes at their most ornate and ambitious (and a couple of merciful octaves lower), you could think of a decidedly deeper Portishead or, at a pinch, Bjork’s Play Dead, but you’d have to add the loomingness of prime Dead Can Dance, or Gorecki’s weight of suffering. There’s no dance beat whatsoever, though the seismic bassiness sounds like the dark shadow of club culture. No trancey twinkles, even. Just that bleak blood-smudged thread of vocal. And the slow-motion-nightmare modern-classical strings, strings, strings, all swallowed up in a huge cavern of electronic space and suffocatingly close reverb.

Bloody moody. Bloody scary. Try playing this sucker to a crowd of E’d-up ravers at Heaven. Shivering wrecks four-deep on the floor, I think.

The Rocking Chair has an overwhelming horror-bound beauty. Like a swelling, building mushroom cloud, or the spume of the avalanche as it blots out your sun for good. But what’s it all about? Andrea is singing as if she was stretched flat on her back in a coffin, with an eerily drained and colourless calmness to her voice. It sounds like a paean to nothing; to a kind of amnesia where memories stay and it’s the present that’s blanked out. And only flashes of coherence seep from those lips: “so far in the distance, yet so close to my heart.” All I know is that what I can hear – quiet, and far off in the distance – are what sound like blades being sharpened. And Andrea’s singing “Behind you…”

I suppose I should tell you that you get a thirty-five-minute suite for your money. There are two remixes. Attica Blues‘ DR55 Mix drapes Andrea in drivelling pianos over runaway tango-tinsel techno and human-beatboxing. The Major Force West one adds twangs, sitars and ‘Doctor Who’ radiophonic burbles to take her off to one of those space-age batchelor pads. There’s a little spinback track to give another nod to the clubbers. There’s a strings-only version for the Michael Nyman fans. Quality control is at an all-time high, but none of them really alter the impact of the original.

If this is the reputed great club-generation comedown, I want to be watching from the other side of the room. The terrible beauty of something ending, and a genuine frightener. Who is this Ms. Parker? What huge, hungry night skies hang in her mind’s eye? Well, until I find out…

I want more. Now.

I demand my terminal tape loop.

Andrea Parker: ‘The Rocking Chair’
Mo’Wax Recordings/A&M Records. MW045CD/S (7 31458 15692 5)
CD/12-inch vinyl EP
5th August 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Andrea Parker online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music

July 1996 – album reviews – Eyeless In Gaza’s ‘All Under The Leaves, The Leaves Of Life’ (“rings the sonic changes track by track”)

25 Jul

Eyeless In Gaza: 'All Under The Leaves, The Leaves Of Life'

Eyeless In Gaza: ‘All Under The Leaves, The Leaves Of Life’

Still undimmed after years of following a winding path from visionary post-punk to surreal pop, and through to a beautiful breed of semi-ambient outsider-folk, Eyeless In Gaza continue to blossom in their triumphant 1990s renaissance. They’re also as restless as ever – following soon after their ‘Bitter Apples‘ album (with its sustained autumnal mood) ‘All Under The Leaves, The Leaves Of Life’ rings the sonic changes track by track.

Indeed, Eyeless seem as happy to draw on their post-punk past as they are to explore the ghostly folk that’s left an impressive stamp on their recent music. Monstrous Joy opens the album and… God help us, it’s 1981 again! Joy Division bass rumbles, spindly single-note synths, buzzingly active electronic drums. Yet despite the timewarp, this is no Xerox copy of those years. Instrumentally, it’s a skilfully layered slice of pop atmospherics: lyrically, emotions are conveyed much more directly. Gone are the allusions to nature, but the atmosphere holds a definite frost in the air – “here is a sorrow that owns me, here is a sorrow that speaks.”

Struck Like Jacob Marley (despite the Dickensian title, a highly contemporary standout) does nothing to ease the chill. Led by rumbling bass guitar and defiantly noisy and distorted electric guitar, the lyrics are upfront advice to a friend consumed by cynicism – “it’s almost as though you have no positive view / and the old warmth is going, even though you don’t wish it to.” Hard words.

Meanwhile, the sonic adventures just keep on coming. Fracture Track is a mesmerising and bloody assault on the Eyeless sound. A violently struck, hypnotic rhythm guitar riff is blasted on all sides by discordant drones and buzzes: there are no drums, yet it sounds huge, and Martyn Bates pushes out a harsh-edged, ferocious vocal. “Blasted and blinded to chaos… / riding an animal hatred… / forcing such a numb and wasting path for you to blithely tread.” The violent and nihilistic imagery only adds towards making this the darkest, most fearsome track Eyeless In Gaza have ever recorded.

The traditional Leaves Of Life, as arranged by Eyeless, sounds like a less wasted Flying Saucer Attack turned on their heads. The vocals and spartan folk acoustics take place up close, whilst the unsettling ambience – provided mainly by startlingly severe treatment and distortion of electric guitars and other electrical interferences – scares the life out of you in the background. Gothic folk at its best. And trip-hop? Well, OK, nearly. Answer Song And Dance definitely possesses a dark, nervous trip-hop undercarriage, with a slow, menacing beat, cool electronic sheen and Martyn’s vocals relayed through digital effects and compression: more experiments in new sound are going on here.

Three Ships, another arrangement of a traditional piece, is perhaps the most reassuringly familiar Eyeless In Gaza track here, comprising a solo vocal over Peter Becker’s long churchy organ notes (“all the black keys”, as they once called it). Even here, though, the second part of the track becomes subject to the unsettling aural sculptures of pervasive otherworldly drones, sonic interferences and sinister electronic pulses. It sounds like a late 90’s version of one of the frankly peculiar little improvised instrumentals that have littered Eyeless B-sides and rarities in the past: but, satisfyingly, it’s an example of technology finally catching up with the duo’s ambitious musical vision, so that they can finally express their experimental sides to the full.

It’s tempting to see this album as the second side of the coin flipped by ‘Bitter Apples’ last year. If the former was the familiar world of acoustic alchemy, natural imagery and the avant-folk song, then ‘All Under The Leaves…’ sees Eyeless In Gaza striking out for new challenges: testing their own musical limits, and casting off the gauze of allusion and allegory to put forward sometimes difficult lyrical statements directly. And while, on ‘Bitter Apples’, vibrant colours were all around and there was a last gasp of summer’s warmth, ‘…Leaves…’ is winter-cold. Challenging, but ultimately beautiful when viewed in the harshest of frosts.

Since unexpectedly bursting back into life in 1993, Eyeless In Gaza have been immensely prolific. But as their continuing string of albums in the comeback sequence show, quality has remained high: and Bates and Becker’s desire to move forward and experiment – while retaining Eyeless’ essential character – remains intact and proud.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Eyeless In Gaza: ‘All Under The Leaves, The Leaves Of Life’
Ambivalent Scale Recording, A‑SCALE 021 (5 021958 463025)
CD‑only album
Released: 19th July 1996

Get it from:
(2018 update) original CD and 2009 Cherry Red Records reissue best obtained second-hand.

Eyeless In Gaza online:
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July 1996 – album reviews – Cradle’s ‘Baba Yaga’ (“infinite shades of smoke rather than supernovae”)

1 Jul
Cradle: 'Baba Yaga'

Cradle: ‘Baba Yaga’

Three years ago, towards the end of an especially fraught Levitation concert, singer/guitarist Terry Bickers finally gave vent to his dissatisfaction, announcing to an astonished audience “oh dear, we’ve really lost it, haven’t we?” He bailed out of the band immediately afterwards, effectively scuppering two years of new progressive explorations, and disappeared to God knows where. Some said hermitages, some said a reclusive existence in Brighton. Rumours began to circulate about name changes, new ways of approaching music, and finally a new band called Cradle, which surfaced with an obscure one-off single called Earth Belly, played with Canterbury-techno act Ultramarine and disappeared again before we’d had time to blink, off to spend two years incubating and recording this debut.

According to Bickers, Cradle is not so much a band as a way of doing things, a loose musical collective of shifting personnel which changes depending on what the music needs. Perhaps this is just his way of saying that, following the tensions of Levitation, he doesn’t want to work within a formal band structure. Although Cradle does centre around Bickers – he’s the only person who plays throughout – you can never quite pin him down as the leader of the other five contributors, the most prominent of whom is singer Caroline Tree. It helps that while most of the music retains a Bickers flavour, it’s entirely the same as before. Compared to the eerie guitar attack of his days in The House of Love, or the head-expanding maximal space-prog of Levitation, Cradle is a definite retreat – music coming from a distant dusk-lit field or a big shadowy attic. There’s still some of the same eerie Bickers guitar textures, there’s still the Levitation fixation on hypnotic minimalist riff cycles and a childlike sense of wonder, but Cradle is introverted, quiet; infinite shades of smoke rather than supernovae.

The songs are slower, more influenced by the threads of Early and mediaeval music, perhaps; the turbulent anxiety of previous years is now leashed. It enables the beauty previously swathed in alarm to emerge. The ethereal Gifts of Unknown Things is the loveliest thing Bickers has ever done – Clannad meets ‘Ummagumma’ in a sort of Gregorian trance-rock, layers of harp-like guitars, the noise of birdsong and a distant helicopter, the swooning voices of Terry and Caroline delicately harmonising and overlapping. Baby Heart is a ravishing, rambling love ballad, relaxed to the point of disjointedness; sleepy Hammonds, piano and woozy acoustic guitars. The Clangers and the Moomins has the same slo-mo aquamarine instrumental grace as Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross or Adrian Belew‘s underwater instrumental Ballet for a Blue Whale. Consequences echoes George Harrison’s Indian-inflected mantra pop, while Immortal goes for jumpier prog rhythms, although its amoeboid atmosphere soon boils them down to a psychedelic jam with Tree hoots and mumbles over the top.

Although a darker sense of damage occasionally rears its head (most obviously on the spooky, funereal Home, where Bickers turns his book on the world and burrows into his own soul), for the most part ‘Baba Yaga’ is meditative, reflective and – in a deserted-city kind of a way – pastoral. A healing record, although as with all healing records it has its undercurrents of pain and wrongness; ambient-ish; sometimes lovely… not mellow.

Still, the album’s got its flaws, and all too often the sticking point is Caroline Tree. She rocks the Cradle boat for half of the record: where other Cradle-ers would pull together, she obstinately pulls away, and those songs with her firm stamp on them tug the group in a none-too-successful alternative direction. The clanging New Wave/psychedelic cross of Second Nature sounds like Elastica gone hippy; while In the Forest may celebrate flower-children running naked in the woods, but Caroline comes across more as Siouxsie Sioux than Sally Oldfield or Melanie. Then there’s Goodnight Eloise’s gooey fantasy of jellyflowers, trees of dreams, gingerbread men and paddling in stardust, set to a cobwebby space-blues chug. The sound of Caroline’s icy, unyielding voice declaiming childlike verses about cloud, trees, bread and peaches over Hammond organs and fizzing Bickers guitars is disorientating in the extreme – you feel as if you’re being set up for a sarcastic sucker punch which never arrives. Black Tea is no more than a slavish imitation of PJ Harvey’s granite-y swamp-blues, down to the last raddled moan.

Despite the hippy lyrics, Tree seems iron-willed and probably thinks that her wilful contrary hold on Cradle steers the project towards diversity; but instead she tends to run it aground, chasing ideas and idols without any genuine understanding of how to achieve her ideas, and scattering laboured spiritual references everywhere to no great effect. Bickers, meanwhile, seems to exude wide-eyed otherworldly mysticism as part of his everyday life. The result is an uneven and misshapen album lurching between churchy minimalist proggiedelia and whichever heroine or bit of aggressive New Agery that Tree’s decided to emulate that week. It has its brilliant moments, but this Cradle is far from balanced yet.

For now, there’s a happy ending. Chloe’s Room, the album’s final sixteen-minute epic, unifies the Tree and Bickers strand and works. Guitars, Mellotrons, organs and drums make a luminous fog around Tree’s gentle whispers – a ghostly two-chord thrum, a dream-mist of psychedelic textures, part Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, part The End, and a fair part Lewis Carroll (since they’ve raided his ‘Hunting of the Snark’ as lyrical fuel for the journey. Space-rock me to sleep.

Cradle: ‘Baba Yaga’
Ultimate Records, TOPPCD 042 (5018791600564)
CD/double vinyl album
1st July 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
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Additional notes: (2020 update) Cradle was a short-lived band and didn’t survive for long. Terry Bickers remains musically active with a variety of projects, most visibly a reformed House of Love, Americana band Montana Rain and an ongoing collaboration with ex-Adorable frontman Pete Fij.

June 1996 – live reviews – Francis Dunnery @ The Borderline, Soho, London, 1st June (“bursting at the seams with music”)

4 Jun

From the moment he first strides gawkily on stage, grinning from ear to ear, Francis Dunnery radiates joyful energy. On last year’s low-profile British acoustic tours he was cautiously sticking his head up over the parapet to find out, to his surprise and delight, that he hadn’t been forgotten. This year it’s different. Perhaps it’s the success he’s finally been garnering in other corners of the world, or perhaps the reasons are closer to the heart, but Frank’s gotten a second wind and new fire. With a vengeance.

There’s less of the jokes this time around. Now, he’s bursting at the seams with music, so much that there’s less time for chat. As before, he’s armed with just an acoustic guitar (plus a cheap fuzzbox for those moments when only a dirty burst of distortion will do) but he makes both of them deliver as much as any full band would as he blasts straight into the positivity avalanche of I Believe I Can Change My World to kick off an evening drawing mostly from the new ‘Tall Blonde Helicopter’ album, his simplest and most joyous work to date.

Although he’s started playing fluent solos again – with a newly haphazard glee – the irrepressible energy with which he once drove It Bites is now harnessed to less cosmic, more essential ends and powered by faith rather than amplifier wattage. So are the songs. The raucous, overdriven joy-and-salvation of The Way Things Are; Grateful and Thankful’s humble confessional folk; the breezy Latin-flavoured pop of Rain or Shine; and the brand new Crazy Little Heart of Mine which has everyone yelping along to the scatting chorus like a pack of blissed-out Muppets.

True, there’s one moment of comparative darkness: Frank’s raw, stormy lament for his father, Feel Like Kissing You Again. As he dives into a wrenching, angry acoustic solo, shredding savagely at his own technique, he parades through trademark Dunnery riffs and those infamous looping fretboard licks, but now with a scalding discontent. It’s as if he’s saying “all of this skill… but still I couldn’t do anything to save him.” For a moment, some of the old pain comes through, and I find myself holding my breath…

For the most part, though, the concert is given over to the positivity spilling from Frank’s mouth in the “universal laws” which he’s declaiming from the stage – part Californian New Age-ery, but several more parts blunt northern-English honesty. Somehow he manages to restore faith in those old positive-thinking clichés; perhaps this is because, in this little subterranean music club, they don’t come across as corny arena-rock “put-cha-hands-tu-getha” sentiment, but as the testament of a man who’s won the war against his own dark side, making the pinwheeling, euphoric In My Dreams and the fragile unconditional devotion of Sunshine ring all the truer.

But it’s not just the smaller venues that are making Dunnery shows more intimate. It’s three-hundred-odd people packing the floor and clogging the stairs, still singing along to the anthemic moments like Everyone’s a Star and Still Too Young to Remember… but as if they were at a front-room party rather than a football stadium. It’s smaller things, like people filling in missing vocal harmonies. Or Frank extending his guitar audience-ward to let a fan strum a final chord; asking our opinion on a new riff; or bringing a child onstage (his nephew Charlie) to help out with singing Little Snake. It’s the wistful generosity of Good Life. It’s the people who, to Frank’s astonishment, already know the brand-new single B-side Just a Man and can sing along with its family-of-man message, joining him in flicking the finger at the bigots.

Most of all, though, it’s the new feeling that Francis Dunnery exudes: the feeling that he and all of us no longer have to be imprisoned in guilt and sin, that we can all be forgiven. Homegrown has somehow lost its sourness and emphasises freedom. He delivers the sly have-your-cake-and-eat-it self-portrait of The Johnny Podell Song with such a disarming mix of laddish swagger and rueful self-awareness that its roguishness is more irresistible, more forgivable then before. Conversely, its savagely witty and acerbic flipside Too Much Saturn is played much more gently than expected.

Perhaps it’s this same sense of redemption which induces Frank to perform a sparkling, beautifully appropriate cover of Peter Gabriel‘s Solsbury Hill – one of the several moments tonight that suggests a rapprochement with his proggie days. More It Bites material is being woven back into his setlist, too. Here’s a snatch of the old Tapboard extravaganza Reprise popping up in American Life in the Summertime; there’s a brief snippet of I’ll Meet You in the Spring sneaking into Still Too Young to Remember. More obvious and touching is a complete version of the acoustic version of Yellow Christian, which surfaced on a couple of dates last year; although the biggest surprise of the evening is Frank’s brief resurrection, out of the blue, of Once Around the World. Even if, in the end, he goes no further than the pastoral intro… to gleeful yells of “chicken!” from an audience that still remembers all the words. He grins. No problem – it’s all his music now, and if it feels right, why not play it?

And it does feel right. Francis Dunnery’s stubborn sticking to his guns, through right and wrong, is finally beginning to pay off both inside and out. He’s practically glowing up there. “Absolutely fuckin’ refuse to go under,” he exhorts from the stage, “and you can do absolutely anything you want to.” Another simple message. And – tonight at least – worth much more than a fifteen-minute suite.

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May 1996 – EP reviews – No-Man’s ‘Housewives Hooked on Heroin’ (“turning away from the light to embroil themselves in a polluted twilight”)

30 May
No-Man: 'Housewives Hooked on Heroin' EP

No-Man: ‘Housewives Hooked on Heroin’ EP

Mumsy cover art, titillating tabloid title and five tracks of wilful wrongfooting? For their first new material in two years, No-Man are not relying on the comforts of familiarity. Compared to the ornate, orchestrated silkiness of their first three albums, the No-Man sound of ’96 is much more confrontational. Bigger, noisier, dirtier; a swamp rather than a garden; these aesthetes are turning away from the light to embroil themselves in a polluted twilight.

‘Housewives Hooked on Heroin’ is the baleful first single from the forthcoming ‘Wild Opera‘ album – downbeat, low-key, opening on a bed of twangy guitar and suffocated electric piano chimes like a smog-ridden dawn over Las Vegas. A disaffected gasp of vocal pans over a landscape of weathered, weary icons – ageing pop starts, Howard Hughes – before enormous sour guitars slide in and drag it into a rolling chorus with the deathly beat-driven wallop of Sisters of Mercy. “Not even housewives hooked on heroin / could match my appetite for sin…”

No-Man come on like a flattened, ever-so-slightly Gothic Bowie, full of the empty hunger which you get on those evenings when there’s nothing you want to do, the heat’s pressing down and the light of day is stained by a sodium glow. Fittingly, Scanner’s Housewives Hooked on Methadone remix recasts the song in a fuzzy cloud of radio static, sirens and dusky synths hovering over a dry, frenetic junglist beat. I do miss his usual trademark dialogue samples, though, snatched illicitly from hidden conversations on mobile phones. Perhaps the housewives were on hold that evening.

If you’re already missing the thought of that departed beauty, No-Man do allow a nod to their more recent past with Where I’m Calling From, another fragile, obscure No-Man ballad connecting the stagnation of the earthbound and isolated with the loneliness of the stars. Tingling Robert Fripp Soundscapes meld with a limpid Steven Wilson Stars Die melody and the bitter, uncertain comment of Ian Carr’s reedy trumpet. Tim Bowness sings as if encapsulated in a phone box, wheeling through the outskirts of the Milky Way, making one final disaffected farewell call. “Where I’m calling from, you wouldn’t want to know…/ Where I’m calling from, you wouldn’t want to go.” A dog barks suddenly in the middle of all of this – it’s like the real world trying to get a last foothold in this dangerous reverie.

But that’s about as familiar as it gets. The spidery twitch of Hit the Ceiling (written and recorded, from start to finish, in one hour) hurls the spontaneous risks of current No-Man working strategies straight into our faces. Breakneck rattling drum track, skeletal guitar and the reverberating coloratura of a disembodied diva – Halloween in the attic of the Paris Opera. Urban Disco deepens their dance content with a dystopian shadowy blur of suffocating beats and whispering, glancing lyrical swipes at the self-satisfaction of hedonism, leaving the solipsis of previous No-Man behind in order to flit like a malevolent ghost around the cigarette-ends of the high life.

The ‘Wild Opera’ overture has been played. People seduced by the warm caresses of ‘Flowermouth’ and ‘Heaven Taste’ look set to be in for a rude awakening, but an interesting trip.

No-Man: ‘Housewives Hooked on Heroin’
3rd Stone Ltd, STONE 026CD (5023693002651)
CD-only EP
28th May 1996

Get it from: (2020 update) Original EP best obtained second-hand or from Burning Shed; Housewives Hooked on Heroin appears on No-Man’s ‘Wild Opera’ album, while Urban Disco reappeared on the ‘Dry Cleaning Ray’ mini-album. All of the EP tracks bar Housewives Hooked on Methadone were included on the 2010 double CD remaster of ‘Wild Opera’.

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March 1996 – album reviews – Nicola Alesini & Pier Luigi Andreoni’s ‘Marco Polo’ (“like diving into a tapestry”)

24 Mar

Nicola Alesini & Pier Paulo Andreoni: 'Marco Polo'

Nicola Alesini & Pier Paulo Andreoni: ‘Marco Polo’

Listening to this album is like diving into a tapestry. Well, I guess a lot of prog and ambient-related music is, given its emphasis on the visual qualities of music and the proggy tendency (in particular) to fixate on the past; and that counts for even more at the crossover point. Nicola Alesini and Pier Luigi Andreoni, though, do it that much better. ‘Marco Polo’ – based loosely on the adventures of said merchant, explorer and diplomatic in the mediaeval Cathay of Kublai Khan – is a journey on the silkiest of roads, one on which you could really lose yourself in the billowing, drifting shapes which reality assumes.

Even while rising in the world of Italian jazz, saxophonist Alesini has also frequently been drawn into the world of art rock, kosmische music and ambient electronica. Andreoni’s already had a two-decade history as a multi-instrumentalist – starting out with Piacenzan comedy rockers La Pattona in the mid-’70s and passing through New Wave, experimental folk and minimalist synthing via The Doubling Riders and A.T.R.O.X. during the ’80s. Most recently, he’s been making a showing in the experimental ambient Andreolina duo during the ’90s. Much of the latter (with the exception of the comedy) leaves its mark on ‘Marco Polo’, although arguably the defining musical voice is Alesini’s upfront, intimate soprano sax – breathy, sweet and fragile, yet possessing a white-flame passion.

Andreoni, meanwhile, reveals himself to be a master of ambient keyboarding following the Brian Eno and Richard Barbieri path, using his instruments as subtle invisible chisels for sculpting electrons and the air into a colossal romantic spectrum of sound. Between the two of them they craft a set of compositions that phase slowly across the face of the world, colouring their own instrumental textures with the careful deployment of harmoniums and bouzoukis, cello and atmosphere guitar. This is an album of travelling, of seeing heartstopping landscapes for the first time, of releasing those feelings that the wanderer knows, of attempting to paint all of this in music.

This they do in glowing detail; the snake-charmer sax of Sumatra, the warped radio-chat and disassociated sway of Buchara, the metallophone Chinese chiming and fluting reeds of Quinsai, La Citta’del Cielo. With this type of thought being brought to bear on it, ‘Marco Polo’ is very much a deep-shaded ambient dreamscape album of the David Sylvian school, filled with sweeps of electronic space and shade, and immeasurably elevated when other musicians drift into the mix to stir up Alesini and Andreoni’s immaculate studies. David Torn‘s contribution of guitars, for instance, which bellow like yaks or hover like the promise of avalanches in Yangchow or M. Polo; or when Harold Budd places his sparse Himalayan points of piano into Samarca or The Valley of Pamir.

Roger Eno is on board as well, his less polished keyboard approach adding a wonderfully naïve human touch to the lambent, warmly aloof perfection (in particular on the aquamarine piano study of Il Libro dell’Incessante Accordo con Il Cielo). The pale vulnerable tones of his voice carry reedily through the twinkling spectral travel-songs of M. Polo and Samarca. Arturo Stalteri (the New Age keyboardist who originally made his name in progressive Italian folk duo Pierrot Lunaire) adds harmonium to the former, buried deep in the mix somewhere. The best moments come, though, when David Sylvian himself is brought in to sing on three tracks; his luminous baritone wreathing through the misty dawn-music of Come Morning (Stalteri’s bouzouki adding a glimmering coda), fluttering above the vague rattling sketches of Maya, or brooding (over cello, sax and a rippling ghost of electronic percussion) on dreamy images of god-games on The Golden Way.

And yet, in spite of all of the talent squeezed onto the album, somehow ‘Marco Polo’ doesn’t completely satisfy. It’s a little too remote, too self-contained and preoccupied with its own panoramic reveries. Behind the rich melodies and atmospheres, there’s only the vaguest engagement with the historical Marco Polo and Cathay; there’s not quite enough substance behind the shimmering surface of the album’s undeniable loveliness. Maybe it’s best viewed from the other end of a room, from a distance where the threads in the tapestry blue together into a captivating portrait which defies laws of time and space, where it can give such a convincingly four-dimensional performance that its audience can forget its two-dimensional thinness. But if you can live with that, ‘Marco Polo’ makes a wonderful tapestry.

Nicola Alesini & Pier Luigi Andreoni: ‘Marco Polo’
Materiali Sonori, MASO CD 90069 (8012957006921)
CD-only album
22nd March 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Get CD from Materiali Sonori, or second-hand; stream from, Apple Music, Google Play or Spotify.
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March 1996 – live reviews – Robert Fripp’s South Bank Soundscapes @ Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer, South Bank, London, 10th March (“more challenging abstractions than Fripp’s ever attempted before”)

12 Mar

'Now You See It...':  Robert Fripp Soundscapes, 10th March 1996

‘Now You See It…’: Robert Fripp Soundscapes, 10th March 1996

Tucked against a curving concrete wall, under a sweep of plate-glass windows, there’s the familiar stool with a beautiful rock-fetishist’s dream of a Les Paul guitar, flanked by rack-mounted gizmos like a gaggle of worshipful Artoo Detoos and a flat henge of volume pedals and multi-purpose stomp-boxes. Over to the right, David Singleton sits at the mixing desk, quite the portrait of the calm fixer for the artist’s determined leaps. Arranged in a long staggered curve in front of the opposite wall, lining the long walk between the entrance and the Purcell Room, are at least eight tall speaker cabinets. Occasionally in residence is the sleek, compact form of Wimborne’s most formidable musical son.

These Soundscapes are part of the ‘Now You See It…’ season of contemporary performance art, sharing the building with the Hypermusic Symposium (in which Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, David Toop and others debate the future of music, and people nervously finger such unorthodox instruments as literally musical chairs and picture frames or the Interactive Baton) while avant-garde dance groups hijack the Purcell Room and stick the audience on the stage, and (less happily) over at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith an appallingly pretentious bunch of Euro-thespians do a vandalistic mixed-media Schubert performance.

In these surroundings, Robert Fripp‘s increasingly out-there journeys in solo sound fit in surprisingly well, both physically and intellectually. When a squadron of incredibly young women in bare feet and little black dresses trot busily past (every quarter of an hour, on the dot) to meet their cues in a back-to-front theatre piece next door, it seems inexplicably appropriate. Tonight – Sunday 10th – is the fourth of Fripp’s residencies, a mere four-hour performance compared to the rear-numbing six- and even ten-hour marathons he’s performed earlier in the week. Some people have returned, regardless. Within that length of time, anything could happen: the music that Fripp claims to channel rather than compose could lead him anywhere.

Soundscapes, the successor to the layered sound-loops of Frippertronics, is a major leap forwards, sideways, anyways from its progenitor: the digital technology stores his patterns and transforms his tones to the point where there isn’t a single recognisable Crimsonic guitar sound to be heard all evening. In effect, Fripp and Singleton are playing a wholly new collective instrument, a community of speakers, desk, guitar and digital cyberspace. The end results are a swathe of overlapping, opposing electrophonic voices, sometimes beautiful and sometimes disturbing – polytextural hums; a sound like a seventy-foot high piece of glass being torn like cloth; wailing, spectral swells like American freight trains blowing a blue whistle into a desert of ghosts; aquatic, gem-faceted calls of a Loch Ness Monster; tingling pianistic or xylophonic ringing; squiggling crystal-bat chitters. It emerges as a sound that’s on the brink of being recognisable, somewhere deep down in the soul… but not quite.

As it rolls on, evolving like strata, burying what’s come before like the march of ages, you may find it impossible to concentrate on (four hours is a long time) but it saturates your mind regardless: you’ll sure as hell be thinking differently. While I’m here, I meet somebody who ascribes near-mystical powers to the first Soundscapes album, ‘A Blessing of Tears’ – “any pain you have, any problem, it will heal it…” Even on the basis of what I’m personally experiencing in the music tonight (the rollers, breakers, capricious tides and immense flickering lulls of an alien sea under a midnight-blue sky, occasionally rent by sheets of violet lightning and mile-wide twists in the current… I think I’m in for a night on the ocean wave) I can believe him. This isn’t New Age pretty-stuff.

And so the Soundscapes are installed, piece by lambent unsettling piece, more challenging abstractions than Fripp’s ever attempted before. But most of the people here seem to have missed the point – sitting deferentially in the arc of chairs facing Robert and his little cliffs of winking lights, watching him silently manipulate his gold-top Les Paul or peer into his effects racks, they pay a silent tribute. This isn’t how to do it. When Fripp calls what he does “Soundscapes”, he means it literally. There’s a fifth element in that communal instrumentation: three-dimensional space. Each of the eight speakers arranged in an arc behind the audience is fed by a slightly different sound source. Walking slowly back and forth across the foyer, one passes in and out of phase with the sounds: a different listening angle provides a different piece, an ability and opportunity to concentrate on a different section of the Fripp orchestra. Music to literally explore.

I feel a bit of a fool, though, pacing up and down the floor to curious glances from the audience; it’s not quite the same as hanging around, in gig-approved fashion, with a drink in your hand and lunging up and down gently to your favourite song. Mind you, the rest of the audience are behaving exactly in the way you’d expect at a Fripp-related gig or an art installation. Here are a couple snogging vigorously, French-kissing amidst the unsettling washes of the music; three rows in from the front, a man appears to have passed out, lolling over the back of his chair with his wide-open mouth pointing wetly at the ceiling. Music to intoxicate? Perhaps: it ignores standard musical dimensions in a way that one only otherwise hears in the most deliriously spaced-out Lee Perry dubscapes, although the notoriously drug-free Fripp looks more composed than I’ve even seen him before.

'Now You See It...':  Robert Fripp Soundscapes, 10th March 1996 (programme)

‘Now You See It…’: Robert Fripp Soundscapes, 10th March 1996 (programme)

But then perhaps once the music slips beyond the control of his fretting fingers, flexing feet and console-fondling fingers, it ceases to be his responsibility anyway. The nature of Soundscapes is such that Fripp’s very presence can become little more than a trigger. Turn away at the wrong time and you’ll turn back to find the guitar leaned against the stool and Fripp gone, sipping at a cup of coffee over by the mixing desk as the music wreathes onwards without him, or wandering out through the audience to check a corner of the sound. It’s a little disturbing when, conversing quietly and walking around the circuit of speakers to experience the different sounds, one comes within six inches of Fripp padding lightly in the opposite direction, close enough for you to sense the implacability of his will, pushing at the realms of the possible like a smooth arrowhead.

The element of hazard plays its role too. Sometimes, amongst the layers of harmonic tissue that Fripp is laying down, a mismatch occurs. Or a part decays too soon, or a speaker refuses to cooperate with the vision, and the musical organism is deformed, loses balance, develops cancer. At such times Fripp shrugs in frustration and looks over to Singleton, or out to the audience in the only acknowledgement he ever gives them, lets go of the guitar with palms turned upwards in the universal gesture of helplessness. The music thins out and he begins to build his organism again.

This continues for four hours: time to get several drinks, chat quietly in the background, arrange assignations with other musicians and writers, even formulate whole arguments about what we’re seeing (in other words, make our own contributions to the Soundscape ambience), and still not miss out on the crystallising veils of sound that drift around the foyer, perplexing this evening’s Mozart concertgoers, putting thoughtful expressions on the faces of the cloakroom attendants as it numbs their resistance. At the end, Fripp puts the guitar down, as he’s done so many times before during the evening, and walks slowly away to vanish down the passageway leading to the dressing rooms. The applause that follows his retreating back is sincere, but oddly unfocussed, as if the audience is unsure whether they should be applauding him or the air that’s been buoying up the music and carrying it around like a whispered ritual, I catch the train home, as I usually do; things seem just a touch sharper than normal. Soundscapes don’t so much take you to another world as grant you a shimmering new lens to experience this one through.

Robert Fripp online:
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March 1996 – live reviews – Tori Amos @ Royal Albert Hall, Knightsbridge, London, 9th March (“the Raisin Girl is not communicating”)

11 Mar

It shouldn’t be like this. Call Tori Amos kooky, pretentious, over-precious, almost anything you like – but don’t call her boring. Not possible. A woman whose mouth and piano strive to out-motor each other, a torrent of perverse creativity, a handful of sharp pins in satin – Tori is riveting even when she’s being irritating.

So why am I spending so much time – up here in the balcony seats – bored? Why the itching urge to check my watch, when on previous tours I’ve been hanging on the edge of my seat?

The reason is that tonight the Raisin Girl is not communicating. Webbed up in the twinkling Santa’s-grotto lights of her stage set, leaning hungrily into her piano or capering over the keys of her harpsichord, Tori is playing resolutely inwards. Hips raked backwards, fingers thundering out melody, head and neck curved to the hovering mike, her face is turned out to us with that familiar elfin, ever-so-slightly ruthless expression. Despite the thrumming love emanating out to her from the capacity crowd, despite the on-stage company of Steve Caton and the soft, sly voices of his textural guitar, she’s never seemed so alone.

For someone who’s opened herself up to us as much as Tori has, this is sad. It’s particularly sad when you consider that she’s playing in Britain, the country that cradled her when she was the unknown émigré and winced as it took the charged barbs of ‘Little Earthquakes’ to its heart. At certain gigs you can feel the heart of the audience, as if it were one huge collective animal. Here, as at all of the Tori Amos gigs I’ve been to, it feels like the love borne for someone you know intimately, quietly, unreservedly.

Tori, though, is having none of it. We sit patiently through some of her recent interminable doodlings (Little Amsterdam is not longer slinky, just tedious; Not The Red Baron is beauty in search of obscurity) and specks of nonsense (the pointless verbal confetti of Space Dog). She plays on. This year, she’s not responding.

No, it’s not blandness that she’s offering us. The fury in her songbook is served well: a scorching rampage through Precious Things with a carnal girl-growl, a twitchy Crucify. The demanding sarcasm of Leather and the tingling, surfing buzz of Cornflake Girl (in which Caton kicks up a silvery storm of rhythm guitar) kick in with that familiar strength. But the sharing that used to set Tori apart from the herd… gone. That grueling romantic break-up with her engineer and onetime confidante Eric Rosse; the red-tinged and ruthless period which spawned the ‘Boys For Pele’ album; both seem to have left her wired and defensive. There have been too many considered steps back from the poised-tenterhook tenderness of Silent All These Years (which, significantly, she doesn’t play tonight.

Maybe this is why Bells For Her – previously a trembling inward coil of twisted, conflicting love played out on a treated piano – has somehow changed into a horrifying banshee curse now that she’s conjuring it out of her harpsichord. Maybe this is why few songs tonight sound as flat-out relished as the vicious, vampiric Blood Roses; why the more restrained snarl of Doughnut Song falls flat; why her infamous, languorous cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit (still missing that essential final verse, but this time with a capricious insert from ‘South Pacific’) seems like a letter abandoned too soon. Oh denial, oh denial.

Tori can still touch and be touched, though. We’re reminded of this in a mutually terrifying moment, one that we’d rather have avoided. Her first-person rape account, Me And A Gun, brings an absolute silence down into this huge hall – and a sense of stretched, time-slowing horror. Suddenly, about four-fifths of the way through, she stops. Dead. Her hand moves to her face in a movement that seems to take forever. A century passes – a terrifying gap into which our attention tumbles. Then she pulls herself together, finishes the song. Swallows the last word, stumbles offstage into darkness and tears.

At a time when she’s professing the most arrogant creative strength, Tori actually seems to be – more than ever before – walking wounded. Despite an assured China, the encores fail to restore confidence. Putting The Damage On trembles and falters; the love-regrets in Baker Baker now seem as detached as a pallid watercolour. Sweet Dreams breaks off as she drums out the rhythm on the lid of the harpsichord and the words slump out of her memory. A harmonium finale of Hey Jupiter is broken-backed, limping off-pitch, beaten down beyond the point of hope. She may have claimed to grab the perverse power of the volcano goddess – from here, it looks as if it’s burning her up from within.

But… so much love filling that enormous Victorian barn. If only she could have brought herself to reach out and accept it.

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February 1996 – album reviews – Fruit’s ‘Hark At Her’ (“this bold, brash, noisy, fun, emotional tour‑de‑force”)

2 Feb

Fruit: 'Hark At Her'

Fruit: ‘Hark At Her’

Fruit is Patrick Fitzgerald (and friends). He, for those who care about such things, was the vocalist with the sadly underrated ‑ and sadly no more ‑ Kitchens Of Distinction, a trio of rather serious‑looking young men producing doomily arty, swirling guitar rock. (Digression: while Fruit is a terrific ‑ and more fun ‑ project, the Kitchens shouldn’t have been mercilessly dropped by One Little Indian. So much for the eclectic, egalitarian indies! OLI should get it together ‑ they dumped both No‑Man and Kitchens, unwilling to give them a little leeway to produce their own music. Basically, they now just exist to market Bjork. Idiots.)

So, as Kitchens Of Distinction… er… got out of the kitchen, Patrick set about producing this bold, brash, noisy, fun, emotional tour‑de‑force of (mainly) gay life. From the start, he was working against the prevailing musical current ‑ Fruit’s debut single, an evocation of gay life and death called The Queen Of Old Compton Street (not included here) came out in the same week as Oasis’ Live Forever. Such irony made me laugh until I choked.

Let Patrick educate you. Proceedings open with What Is Fruit?, sounding like one of The Fall’s chuck‑it‑all‑in‑the‑mix takes on crunchy guitar dance‑pop, but with a brighter sensibility from the start. Exotic voices and foreign tongues fly thick and fast with their interjections to that essential question. “Films, actors, addicts, vermin, / Friends, filth ‑ everyone I’ve ever met” ‑ out of the ghetto and all around us ‑ “not forgetting the two coppers in the kitchen.” This is gleeful and exuberant. Hell, the bright pop mix is even down to Pascal Gabriel.

Pleasure Yourself continues the fun, with much the same thrilling electric‑guitars‑plus‑electronics backing, as Patrick cheekily suggests: “Take my pleasure seriously / So come on baby and pleasure me / While you pleasure yourself.” Its wonderful directness can’t be avoided, and the same is true of Sally’s Car. To a ‘Diamond Dogs’‑era Bowie glam feel, Patrick remembers: “In Sally’s car we go too far… / lying on the back seat watching the meteors from Mars.” No, if you want subtlety, forget it. Then they drive away ‑ “put the roof down, turn the noise up.” Oh, come on! It’s corny, yes, but whoever your sexual partner, you’ve known that feeling.

But hey, if this is all getting too happy for you…

Starring Relationship ‑ featuring yet more dialogue, partly from Lush’s gleeful harpy Miki Berenyi ‑ is Patrick sounding as frankly pissed off as you always wish you could get when, at a party, you’ve got trapped into a corner with some misery of a person sitting on the stairs, bending your ear. “Don’t want to hear about your fucking relationship / The way you feel when he doesn’t think of you… / Just deal with it!” Patrick has got every whinging item of complaint in such talk nailed down and, to a soundtrack of suitably scratchy, edgy guitars, he’s spitting them all back at you ‑ with added bile.

The two central tracks of the album are not only the most musically dissimilar, but display the two sides of the gay experience. Prowler features the star‑shooting, to die‑for harmonies of David McAlmont: to a smooth late‑night soundtrack of lush acoustic guitars, husky organ and reedy trumpet, he and Patrick celebrate freedom and the opportunity to practice one’s desires without fear. It’s glorious. Through the music the sound of thunder breaks into the sweaty heat of a summer’s night outdoors. Such freedom is Shangri‑La…

The other side of the coin is Leather Jacket. To a Tricky‑ish soundtrack of kettle drums and nervously plucked guitars, Patrick relates an absolutely terrifying tale of gay‑bashing on the street. With increasing terror, he repeats the central line: “I hear the zip of his leather jacket / See the flashing of gun metallic…” The lads want to bash him up to impress their girlfriends, while he desperately prays to be spirited away by clicking his Doc Martened heels three times. Last time now: “I hear the…” Gunshot.

But there’s a reprise. Over the returning kettle drums, a certain Paul McGlone narrates his memories of a karate‑kicking and beating from two scum. Paul’s a survivor, though. He’s got the right idea. He wants justice ‑ to identify them in a police station‑‑and simple revenge ‑ the humane solution of a bullet through their heads. What with Lorne Burrell’s lethally camp, RuPaul‑ish delivery of a threat to kick the bully boys into paradise, the message is clear: the survivors are waiting…

The final track, Scatter Me, ends with death. Though these funerals of young men, AIDS victims, are now all too common – the same songs are sung, the same careful sideways looks to see who’s noticeably losing weight ‑ the proud defiance is still there: “The dead are so loud / Their monuments are so proud.” As he looks up to heaven and sees all the souls gazing down, Patrick’s naked, almost scarred voice surges with power and defiant strength, over a bare acoustic guitar and water effects.

So many voices and so many words, sung and spoken, populate this album that, at times, the music does rather take second place and search for a personality among many differing styles. But what the hell, this is such an amazing walk through relationships and experiences that such a criticism is unimportant for a fun project, a masterful achievement and a life‑defining catalogue of all those highs and lows.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Fruit: ‘Hark At Her’
One Little Indian Records, TPLP75CD (5 016958 029524)
CD-only album
Released: January 1996

Get it from:
(2018 update) Out-of-print – best obtained second-hand, or downloaded from Bleep.

Fruit (Patrick Fitzgerald/Stephen Hero) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

January 1996 – mini-album reviews – Andrew Booker’s ‘Ahead’ (“a psychological night journey through a cold city”)

15 Jan

Andrew Booker: 'Ahead'

Andrew Booker: ‘Ahead’

If you know the sound of the wind of doubt whipping around tower blocks and insinuating itself through your double glazing, you’ll know this. Andrew Booker‘s twenty-three minute suite of cold lights chills you through your protection in just that way.

Despite the persuasive depth of the production, the simple sound-palette of ‘Ahead’ could have worked against it. The music is little more than chilly sequenced waterfalls of keyboards, restless prog-rock drums, and a voice which blends a boyish purity with the swelling sadness of a man who’s grown up just enough to look over the wall and see the void beyond it. Andrew knows precisely what he’s doing, though, and he leans into it with a passion and honesty that transcends the sonic limitations. With this limited arsenal he etches out the thoughts of a man hermetically sealed into the sterile environment of his car, trapped on a psychological night journey through a cold city, with his stiff English upper lip trembling as he slowly starts going to pieces.

There is tenderness (a moment of open romance on the shy, beguilingly lovely Dreaming Of a Night in Winter) but mostly this is a testament to loneliness: a soundtrack to empty e-mail servers, abandoned urban showcases, untouchable ghost-town neighbourhoods. As the dusk folds around the teeming city blocks in No Fit State, Andrew can find no place to welcome him, no place to shelter from the grind: “there are no more places left for me to fill…”

Walk sees love whip past and away, like a leaf batting a motorway windshield only to be snatched by the slipstream. Vague, disassociated expressions clutch at the tail-end of an affair that’s come apart like a cheap plastic furnishing: “We fought, and we touched, and we hardly met… / The touch of your love chills my jellified flesh… / Don’t lose your mind, a terrible waste…” And the scene is set for a swing away into midnight driving on Run – thrumming with lonesome muzak harmonies, tumbling vocal melodies, a chorus of freezing pilgrims in the background marking time as Andrew journeys on. It’s a case of travel hopefully… but only just.

If motion seems to provide no answers, neither does stasis. Airports has Andrew at the mercy of arbitrary forces: stuck in life’s queue and seething with frustration at the proscribed directions and hold-ups, he flings sarcasm at the consumer sedatives thrust at him in an attempt to shut him up and keep him out of trouble. Twinkling tunes and spooky Latin pop riffage sugar up the stifling messages put forward by “ground control”, but mock where they should soothe.

And by Waiting, Andrew’s rebelling with a howl (talk to me!”) as the live drums thunder and stab at the limits of the sequencers: but his plea for communication gets swallowed up in a tide of garbage, junk mail, and the continuous running (and little close-downs) of the world machine. The little man puts up a fight, steps out and speaks, but can’t escape from his role as a cog. His passionate voice, though, reminds you how urgent it is to make the stand and fight the fight. You get the feeling here of someone who’ll never give up, who one of these days will hurl himself against the imprisoning wall and break it down.

For something so short, ‘Ahead’ is many things. It’s a tribute to cottage industry (Andrew wrote, arranged and produced ‘Ahead’, played every note except for one guitar line, handled all the artwork and only stopped short of refining the plastic to make the CD). It’s an uptight English answer to The Blue Nile; it’s Buggles minus the whimsy. It’s Jon Anderson with his head pulled out of the stars and his heart thrumming with an urban panic attack. It’s the missing link between Tubeway Army’s immaculate electropop, Underworld’s motorway pulse and the fears in Nick Drake’s Black- Eyed Dog.

But above all, it’s very wonderful: hymns to an urban, urbane alienation. A head full of doubt rarely sounded this good.

Andrew Booker: ‘Ahead’
EA Records, EARCD1 (no barcode )
CD-only mini-album
January 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Andrew Booker online:
Homepage Facebook Bandcamp Last FM


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