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January 1997 – live reviews – Podsdarapomuk @ The Hope & Anchor, Islington, London, November 13th 1996 & January 23rd 1997 (“passages of dreamlike contemplation with surges of magnificently tangled art-rock splurge”)

29 Jan

Podsdarapomuk - concerted action (photographer unknown).

Podsdarapomuk onstage (photographer unknown).

On an early-November afternoon in 1996, I’d hopped out of a car travelling up from Kent and made my way to one of ‘Organ’ magazine’s “Vital Organ” gigs at the London Astoria 2. As usual, I was following their lead on where newer progressive and psychedelic rock was pushing at the door. At the moment I can’t quite remember who was playing. Some scribbled notes somewhere might tell me that it was Sleepy People (still tootling, yelping and gamely plugging away at their foothold on the capital), or Porcupine Tree (keeping a sharp grip on themselves and gathering speed at their own pace). Or perhaps it was Terry Bickers continuing on the slow, injured trajectory out of his House of Love and Levitation stardom – winding out ashy cigarette-coils of dream guitar with his recently trimmed-down, soon-to-vanish Cradle, he was avoiding eye contact, preparing to evaporate. However, that’s a story for another time, if I can dig the details up.

Over at the merchandise stall, I was leafing through the Organ stock of colour-splashed vinyl and obscure demo tapes – a typically eclectic, magical crop from bands with unknown names, complex influences and musical agendas ignored elsewhere (people were concentrating on Oasis’ gobby bloat, and on the sorry disintegration of The Stone Roses). It was then that I was collared by an earnest young German drummer called Claas Sandbothe: wiry limbs and granny glasses, a schoolboy’s fringe, a grinful of persistent little teeth. He tried to talk me into buying something by his band, Podsdarapomuk; an enthusiastic rave about it from Marina at ‘Organ’ clinched the deal. So I bought Claas’ band’s EP, and it just knocked me out.

Ten days later, and I’m in a pub cellar in Islington as the group takes the stage. Podsdarapomuk turn out to be five young gentlemen-longhairs in suits and ties; German-born (hailing from an out-of-the-way little town near Stuttgart) but London-based (up near Leyton, home to many an intriguing left-field band of late). They look like a young undertaker’s convention. They grin shyly, and sound like…

Daniel Klemm in contemplative mood. (photographer unknown).

Daniel Klemm in contemplative mood. (photographer unknown).

…well, hell, we really are onto something here. Imagine a band with the nervous jazzy edge and contemporary noisy indie-cum-art-rock punch of dEUS, but which also sounds like every period of King Crimson from 1969 to 1996 all rolled into one; apparently taking its melodic cues from Gentle Giant and its double-back musical bungee-jumping from Mr. Bungle or Primus, and stirring in more than a smidgin of John Zorn. That’s what we have here – something complex, wearing its hungry tonal erudition on its sleeve.

But don’t expect wackiness or calisthenics; and while there’s a strong dose of prog to the band, it’s the crepuscular kind. While Podsdarapomuk may have left home, they’ve also brought it with them – trailing sombre Germanic influences, their music prowls rather than jiggles. It has a peculiar, rickety-ghost-house unease to it. Studied, grotesque expressionism wells through the lyrics – images of puppets, of ships in peril, of flowers and beautiful paintings about to have huge, horrible shadows cast over them. Elusive, sinister pictures are etched by the beautiful haunted wail of Daniel Klemm, which rooftop-hops over Lars Puder’s sinewy bass, Klaas’ stalk-and-pat drumming and the dual punch of clawing guitars from brooding main tunesmith/spine-provider Thorsten Pachur and his sweeter foil Christian Schmidt. Debra Scacco (one of London’s art-school journeywomen), guests on flute, offering a sunny smile and journeying melodies which seem to follow their own sweetly oblivious path on top of the raging electric music underneath.

They’re scrupulously polite and smiling throughout: solicitously ensuring that we’re comfortable before they tear into our eardrums. A Dream & Rage In A Cage teeters briefly on Daniel’s eerie chant before the band plunge down into concerted action and a succession of metallic talon feints, as they were trying to blowtorch and harrow fresh life King Crimson’s ‘VROOOM’ via Captain Beefheart restlessness. Heavy jazz-electric riffage ransacks the room on A Fool’s Smile, like a threesome of John McLaughlin, Fred Frith and Hendrix turned bad, all stalking each other with Bowie knives. The punks in the room are confused and sulking. The little knot of proggies present are jamming themselves up near the front to drink it all in. They get it. Crimson-like, the Pods alternate passages of dreamlike contemplation with surges of magnificently tangled art-rock splurge.

Podsdarapomuk's Christian Schmidt conjures a noise (photographer unknown).

Podsdarapomuk’s Christian Schmidt conjures a noise (photographer unknown).

The effect is a bit like unscrewing the back of a magnificent antique clock, only for the clockwork to burst out and ambush you in a chaotic explosion of precision parts. Torn Puppet Without Hands Nor Tongue tumbles into grungy post-Fripp shapes, lunging haphazardly over Daniel’s slice’n’dice vocals and the bebop-y spine of Claas and Lars’ rhythms. On the hunched, hanging Make The King Laugh ( which sometimes sounds like the Shulman brothers soundtracking ‘Twin Peaks’ by way of stuttering trip hop), Christian adds to the unsettling shimmer by tricking alien insect-calls out of his guitar with his slide and the jack-plug.

Podsdarapomuk close the set with the comparative calm of Is It? – a spindled and vulnerable bit of near-acoustica which, again, is reminiscent of Gentle Giant, but which also has the ravaged prayer-feeling of Kurt Cobain. On the final whispering, jazzy chord, it’s as if a door has shut on a world of ever-so-slightly dangerous wonder: one you know you’ll soon want to open again.

*********

Two months and four gigs later… It’s January 1997, and I’m back at the Hope & Anchor watching a group that’s evolving at a frightening speed. Personally, they’re still as polite and amiable as ever, still given to mild surreal humour and little comedies of manners. (In a nod to ‘Don’t Look Back’, Daniel is now holding up cards with the song titles printed on them). In contrast, Podsdarapomuk’s mutable music seems about as stable as nitro-glycerine these days. Watching it go off is a rare thrill. Sometimes the band’s music explodes in a jagged flash of brightness: sometimes it’s just an ominous smoke-cloud rolling out from the stage, filled with glowing cinders and embers.

Thorsten Pachur - Podsdarapomuk's brooding heart (photographer unknown).

Thorsten Pachur – Podsdarapomuk’s brooding heart (photographer unknown).

There’s plenty of new material. The chippy guitar intro of Waiting For God leads into a mating of jazzy-walking with Beefheart word-slicing, and even if you could brush this off as being a little shapeless and jammy, they rock you back on your heels with the following I’m Your Dog, a blistering blast that could have come off the most ferocious moments of ‘Exposure’ via The Jesus Lizard. Another new song swerves along like a sprinter weaving through a minefield, Thorsten and Christian morse-coding their guitars over the kind of skittish body-blocking drum patterns that’d make Bill Bruford weep with joy. Later, they’ll be telling me that they’ve been saving every penny to catch Bob Berg gigs at Ronnie Scott’s: that they’ve been studying with Talvin Singh, and listening to Portishead.

It’s clear that their studies and their omnivorous hunger is flourishing into new creative heights. Most evidently, the restless electric jazz that was always percolating deep down in the Podsdaramomuk sound is starting to flood up now, raising the boats and crowding in at the windows. Songs are evolving – Make The King Laugh has somehow deepened, added layers of delirium and almost become a new genre of dub-prog. When A Dream & Rage In A Cage makes a reappearance, it’s been seductively greased and funked-up; Torn Puppet Without Hands Nor Tongue has become tighter, fiercer. Another new piece, Biscuit Murder Blues, is full of forbidding Bark Psychosis jazz-guitar swells, and effortlessly morphs from Daniel’s sleazeball lounge-lizard singing to frenetic pogo-punk in an eyeblink.

They finish up with the tap-dancing metal-mathcore of Little Bombs, with a shriek of John Coltrane saxophone flown in on tape. I finish up with a dawning belief that Podsdarapomuk could go anywhere from here. Unfortunately, it looks as if it’s going to be Berlin – they’re already planning for the end of their London sojourn, and we’ll only have them until the middle of the year. It’ll take us that long to remember how to pronounce their name properly. Perhaps we should spend the time appreciating what we’ve got, while we have it.

Podsdarapomuk - concerted action (photographer unknown).

Podsdarapomuk – concerted action (photographer unknown).

Podsdarapomuk online:
Homepage MySpace Last FM

The Hope & Anchor online:
Homepage Facebook

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
Released:
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
Released:
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:
LastFM

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
Released:
28th October 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Yes online:
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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:
Various suppliers, or second-hand.

Moonshake online:
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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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Sinéad Lohan 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
Released:
1st October 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) CD best obtained second-hand.
Eddie Parker online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Last FM YouTube Vimeo Google Play Amazon Music
 

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
Released:
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 MySpace Soundcloud LastFM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Instagram Amazon Music
 

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