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March 2011 – album reviews – Heath/Jay/Roedelius’ ‘Meeting the Magus’ reissue (“a varnish of mysticism cracks”)

29 Mar
Heath/Jay/Roedelius: 'Meeting The Magus'

Heath/Jay/Roedelius: ‘Meeting The Magus’

Even by the standards of beatless ambient electronica, the work made by Andrew Heath and Felix Jay under the name of Aqueous specializes in being elusive. Their serene, virtually weightless debut album often gave the impression that it was hiding behind itself as it flowed gently out of your speakers: a slender, slightly icy haze of suggestion.

In this 1997 team-up with a longtime Aqueous hero, the Krautrock synth-alchemist Hans-Joachim Roedelius (formerly of Cluster, and to whose Aquarello project Jay had contributed earlier in the decade) their music took on a different kind of transparency. It became easier to follow: even eager to help you along. Reissued by Roedelius fourteen years later, ‘Meeting The Magus’ remains an album on which a varnish of mysticism cracks to reveal a quiet understated joy.

Heath/Jay/Roedelius: 'First Lesson – To Renounce'

Admittedly, at first glance the album can send out a cloying message of cloistered, monastic posing. There’s a four-part Aqueous/Roedelius collaboration of “Lessons”, with titles like To Renounce and To Remember. But beyond the holy smokescreen set up by Heath and Jay (via the buzzing chanting intro tones of This Waiting Earth) lies a clearly enjoyable session. It seems that the two British synthesists came to their inspirational German counterpart more for warmth and common purpose than for instruction. It’s worth remembering that even monks, as they move around the cloisters, meet and smile – and brew things up. The original sleeve sported a profundity of meditative sky colours. The reissue humanizes the package by substituting a photo of a sculpted head with soft lines, blind sockets and terracotta-pink tone. It has the look of an amused, enigmatic toe.

While on Aqueous recordings the roles of Jay and Heath tend to blur together, the Lessons see them more clearly defined. While Roedelius plays more heavyweight digital piano and sample-rendered tones via his Kurzweil rig, Jay offers analogue sounds on older synths; plus a direct, electro-mechanical edge in the shape of Rhodes piano. Heath mediates (and meditates) in the middle with both analogue and digital keyboards, providing the reclusive structures for his collaborators to build on. It’s Jay’s decorations of Rhodes notes which silver the solemn analogue tolling on First Lesson; and which add skeletal, hopeful chords to the monastic walls of atmosphere on Second Lesson and to the ringing glass textures on Fourth.

Heath/Jay/Roedelius: 'Third Lesson – To Remember'

Roedelius comes more into his own by Third Lesson, laying swathes of amnesiac melody under Jay and Heath’s electronic abstractions. On Fourth Lesson, he lets tunes drip lightly from a harp-string setting. Throughout the Lessons the sound is reverent but revelatory, and turns playfully rebellious on Magister Interludi, which provides a playtime piece. Heath chinks and jingles while Roedelius wallops away at his keyboard drum-pads, and Jay cheerfully flails a one-note piano as if he’d trapped his finger in the strings. If the Lessons are ambient plainsong, then this is ambient garage rocking.

Although he doesn’t play any further part on the remainder of the album, Roedelius’ influence is written all over the rest of the pieces. Heath and Jay make up for his absence by imbuing tracks like Easter Sunday and Vergissmeinnicht with a new, more direct warmth and romanticism than they would have chosen previously. There’s a sense of Roedelius (even in absentia) adding zest and fresh melodic curves to the sounds, like a twist of flavour melting out of an ice-cube.

In general, attempting to get a grip on this music is still like trying to pick up water with a salad fork. But whereas most journeys to gurus or sacred mountains can mean development at the expense of the honesty and flaws which render us human, ‘Meeting the Magus’ shows that this particular journey left Heath and Jay’s Aqueous work a little thawed – and with greater humanity.

Heath/Jay/Roedelius: ‘Meeting The Magus’
Roedelius Musik, ROEDM001 (9120047330425)
Download-only album
Released: 24th March 2011 (album originally released 19th May 1997)

Buy it from:
Aqueous homepage store (original version), Digital-Tunes, Boomkat and others.

Aqueous (Andrew Heath/Felix Jay) online:

Hans-Joachim Roedelius online:
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November 1997 – album reviews – Labradford’s ‘Mi Media Naranja’ (“the sound of dust with blues”)

22 Nov

Labradford: 'Mi Media Naranja'

Labradford: ‘Mi Media Naranja’

Last year’s self-titled, scheme-solidifying Labradford album saw the Virginian post-rock doyens – as I put it at the time, playing “perfect pop for Prozac people” via “desert guitars drifting into the night.” As I also said, we seemed all set for a slide into Death Valley, Oops. Except we didn’t end up there after all.

Somewhere on the road along the way, Labradford seem to have pulled in at this little deserted Tex-Mex place called ‘Mi Media Naranja’, where they’ve ambled into the cobwebbed bar, dusted off some country band’s abandoned instruments and decided to record another album, just so that the year’s release schedules won’t forget them in a hurry. And suddenly classic rock seems to be on the agenda. Tunes are heard. Mark Nelson’s picked up a slide guitar, Carter Brown adds electric pianos to his armoury, two string players are brought in. To keep up that arty enigmatic quality, songs are given one- or two-letter titles (a strategy only topped by The Aphex Twin’s use of calx symbols a few years ago) to remove any hint of presupposition on our part. And we’re rolling.

And… it’s not the Allman Brothers (well, do surprise me). But this time, although the funereal pace remains a Labradford constant, the music mostly sounds like Ennio Morricone revamping Pink Floyd’s ‘Obscured By Clouds’, under Michael Nyman’s instructions. S being the perfect example – melancholy Pacific twang-guitar, chilly organ, sobre violas in a Rachel’s manner, and the definitive Labradford touch of a coldly beautiful and crystalline short-wave radio whine (off on the edge of hearing and pinking the edge of the ears, insinuating indifferent, mindless, slightly dysfunctional technology into the sound of the human players). Tinny-edged strings duet with a piquant, ever-so-slightly discoordinated accordion, EQ-ed up for subtle discomfort.

If ‘Mi Media Naranja’ could be summed up in one phrase, it’d be “the sound of dust with blues”: inertia melding with the memory of sadness. Spiritualized might be a handy comparison. But then, so’s Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross – that same tragically sad yet detached Peter Green-style slide guitar shows up on G, as a milk-bottle jingle melds with tinkly Gameboy morse-code squirts, lonely and insulated footsteps scuff in the background, and a Spanish guitar plays like a mantric harp. Nelson’s voice (when it makes an appearance) sounds like it’s travelling through half a mile of cupboard fluff. C is more like Angelo Badalamenti under heavy sedation: an excursion of subterranean Rhodes piano, prayer-bell clinking, and papery flutter.

Compared to the unquiet dreamscapes of ‘Labradford’ , there’s something almost domestic about ‘Mi Media Naranja’: something like the drowse of an abandoned family home during a pollen-y summer. A tinny spinning-top rattle rolls hollowly through I’s midground above watery organ and tides of static, as narcotic sleigh bells nod against four-note guitar. There are distant kiddie voices and sterile, fragile electric strings on WR; and guitar dust-bunnies on V, set against the reverberant pulse of a metal bowl while Nelson whispers a trickle of unsurety through the comforting lap of sound. “Too many give… / These insights will see right through your plans. / At the mouth of the highway tunnel, the decision waits for your next command… / Secret candles still can burn: / is it deep enough? / did you make it deep enough?” In the near-hush, Brown’s piano sketches in what remains of the still air.

P finally closes the sojourn with a dose of Harold Budd meets Hank B. Marvin. Low, sweet Rhodes and three- note piano-note, sustained, furry, quivering organ drones in a shimmery haze, with the dislocated thrummmm of bass against the slow rise of a second organ. You start listening to the album in an abandoned bar. You end it back among the coma patients, in the suffocatingly pure-white sheets of a hospital bed.

Compared to the beautiful frozen grimness of ‘97’s eponymous album, Labradford’s work on ‘Mi Media Naranja’ is a pretty fuzzy, lazy business. But, after a while, it becomes something that makes just as much introverted emotional sense as its predecessor. With these two albums Labradford have floated forwards, pinned between miraculous, lucidly speechless visions… and being lost in the cradle of their own inner fog.

(review by Col Ainsley)

Labradford: ‘Mi Media Naranja’
Mute Liberation Technologies/Blast First Records, BFFP 144CD (5 016027 611445)
CD/download album
Released: 19th November 1997

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

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

7 Oct

The Verve: 'Urban Hymns'

The Verve: ‘Urban Hymns’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(review by Col Ainsley)

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

Get it from:
on general release.

The Verve online:
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September 1997 – album reviews – R.O.C.’s ‘Virgin’ (“from the surreal and experimental to pure pop and simple emotion”)

29 Sep
R.O.C.: 'Virgin'

R.O.C.: ‘Virgin’

Cut‑ups are wonderful things. TV samples. Answering machines. Category‑defying noises. Harsh vocals. Scattershot free associations. Beautiful vocals. Hazy guitars. Clattering electro‑rhythms. A sense of the surreal. A sense of the melodic. Glorious eclecticism. The perfect post‑modern pop group.

Hallelujah! R.O.C. are back.

And against the odds, too. The debut album of this transatlantic trio (Fred Browning, Karen Sheridan and Patrick Nicholson, with roots in American, Ireland and Britain) welded pop music with a wilfully obscure grab‑bag of eclectic styles. Spookily emerging out of nowhere, it was critically hailed as the pinnacle of the ’90s zeitgeist, but the record‑buying public remained resolutely silent. Yet, here are R.O.C. ‑ back! ‑ on a new major record label deal (Good on you, Virgin, I take back everything I’ve ever said about the majors… well, almost…)

Dada opens the album with a statement of intent akin to the surreal art movement of the same name. Grasshoppers and various indecipherable speech samples give way to pounding, discordant and (very definitely) tuneless harsh electronica, accompanied by sinister laughter. Jeez, they’re such awkward people that you almost get the feeling that this is the spirit of ROC laughing at you for not understanding it, not getting it. Not very welcoming, either musically or emotionally. Thus, not for nothing does the oh‑so‑English conversation (too formal, too well‑accented to call rap) of the next track (Dis)Count Us In begin with the question “Are you still with me?” before Fred Browning relates a tale of watching a woman across a crowded room, to a backing of post‑modern electro‑pop.


All change. Mountain is R.O.C. as a slightly less comatose Mazzy Star performing to acoustic guitar and warm This Mortal Coil‑style atmospherics. Karen’s lyrics detail her observations ‑ highly emotional but somehow dispassionate ‑ of someone whose life has no direction and is spinning out of their control ‑ “Here we go again, / You’re going to take another rollercoaster ride through hell” ‑ in a beautifully recorded wash of womb‑like electronics.

Cheryl is a pop Suicide for the ’90s, an almost cheesy pop melody set to gleaming pulsating electronics and interludes of demolition percussion. Karen sings (Cheryl’s?) lyrics of a big fuck‑off to a man (antiquated sexist attitudes, thinks he’s God’s gift) and states her own terms for independence; “If it’s all the same / I think I’ll move on up… / I’m gonna get myself some dedication.”

Ever Since Yesterday starts as an acoustic‑guitar based lament to the departure of Fred Browning’s lover before all manner of randomly‑emitting Disco Inferno‑ish sampledelia and phased electronica makes its presence felt, distorting the whole sonic collage and moving it out into the realms of post‑rock. Instead of fading out, it collapses in on itself as the tape mangles. Gorgeous.

25 Reasons To Leave Me features Browning returning to his husky Shaun Ryder vocal style, set to a loping laid‑back musical backing not unlike a more uptight Happy Mondays; whilst K.C is a dry disconcerting, upfront recording, led by a simple and affecting sequence of organ chords, later joined by a soloing trumpet and brass accompanying a vocal of more third‑person observation from Sheridan. It’s no criticism to say that this track resembles late‑night bedsit pop at its best. Kind of a meeting between Prefab Sprout and The Cure, if you will.

Cold Chill Just Lately details the crossed wires, cross‑currents, accusations and arguments of a relationship break‑up. This rather harrowing subject is carried by the track’s broken, exhausted vocals. He’s not happy, but there is a certain black humour typical of R.O.C.: “But I guess it’s just a fucked‑up world we’re living in, / and you know it couldn’t get much worse. / But then it turns you over and fucks you in the ass… / She only cares about herself / She never cared about me.” Such bile is performed to an incongruous accompaniment of smoothly enveloping, ebbing waves of sound, a lurching rhythm, and throbbing strings adding a chamber‑pop element.

The final track, Ocean And England, opens with the sound of thunder and rain, and a bare strummed guitar‑‑the poignant musical lead is then swapped to a ringing electric piano and harpsichord before a huge sampled orchestra swoons in. Like many bravely experimental acts, ROC always remember that, sometimes, all one needs is a song and an affecting melody. “Ocean And England” is just that, and even includes a lovelorn lyric: “Hey you, / the ocean and England are so far away. / Won’t you consider coming home / to be with me again?”

Ultimately, though, this album lacks a little of the debut album’s magical Wonderland atmosphere ‑ swapping the feeling that anything could happen within the space of the next track for the feeling that yes, plenty will happen, but it will be more regimented and organised. Yet how many bands would have the sense of vision to travel, in one album, from the surreal and experimental to pure pop and simple emotion?

R.O.C. Still utterly beguiling.

R.O.C.: ‘Virgin’
Virgin Records, CDV 2829 (7 24384 29472 4)
CD-only album
Released: September 1997

Get it from:
(2018 update) quite a rare release these days, best obtained second-hand.

R.O.C. online:
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September 1997 – EP reviews – The Shrubbies’ ‘The Shrubbies’ (“bouncing up and down on a deep springy pile of autumn leaves”)

24 Sep

The Shrubbies: 'The Shrubbies' EP

The Shrubbies: ‘The Shrubbies’ EP

Should I name a shrub? Probably a blackberry bush on this occasion. Convoluted, stubborn, furnished with tricky little thorns so that you have to be careful how you approach it… but also blessed with tangy little knots of piquant fruit which make the effort and the odd scratch worthwhile.

The Shrubbies are yet another branch of the Cardiacs family tree. Here, Sharron Saddington and Craig Fortnam (both of whom have done time in Lake of Puppies, William D. Drake‘s genteel “acoustiCardiacs” band) are joined by two bona fide ex-Cardiacs, Dominic Luckman and Sarah Smith. Unsurprisingly, the influence of Cardiacs (or their original acoustic Sea Nymphs alter-ego) has left its mark on the music. Here are four complex and leaping songs, swinging through an adventure playground of sophisticated eccentric harmony based around Craig’s dextrous gut-strung acoustic guitars and Sharron’s fluffy chirrup – although it’s Sarah’s sax and keyboard riffs, as fat and jolly as laughing Buddhas, that you tend to remember.

But Cardiacs music is clenched, neurotic, compulsively driven. Listening to the Shrubbies is much more of a relaxing activity: more like bouncing up and down on a deep springy pile of autumn leaves. This is sort of like The Sundays might sound if Kevin Ayers was in the driving seat: innocent but wise as a tuned-in child listening to the wind, with a dollop of Caravan/Canterbury breeziness stirred in alongside a seasoning of Early Music and kitchen-folk singalong. It reminds me of nothing so much, though, as great lost London hopes The Wise Wound, some of whose visionary acoustic/psychedelic outlook they share.

Excepting the surreal, Barrett-ised Sabled Fur, these songs tap directly into nature, caught up in the passage of seasons (Carefree Clothes) while mainlining jumpy sap for hormones, and fascinated by the moment (Perfect Present, with its mariachi keyboards and sax). Most of all, they’re driven by the sheer animal spark of life, in particular on the intricate spiny Body Cried Alive with its dark stretchy Mellotron riffs and epiphany of survival: “spiral down to the ground / like a seed that flies through the air / and affix myself to the ground / crying I am alive! alive!

Small and marvellous; like the delicious shudder in the daylight when the sun and the clouds do their dance-of-the-seven-veils thing.

The Shrubbies: ‘The Shrubbies’
Merlin Audio, MER97028CD (no barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: 20th September 1997

Get it from: (2020 update – original EP is best picked up second-hand; all tracks reappeared on The Shrubbies’ lone 1999 album ‘Memphis in Texas’, from which all of the soundclips here are taken and which you can still download or order from Bandcamp).
The Shrubbies online:
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September 1997 – album reviews – Tony Harn’s ‘From the Inside’ (“hard-rock directness with intricate layering”)

18 Sep
Tony Harn: 'From The Inside'

Tony Harn: ‘From The Inside’

Tony Harn used to be in Spacematic, a Warrington duo who – had they survived – might’ve carved out a niche for themselves as music history’s only cross between Morrissey and Jeff Beck. Their 1996 demo was an odd and edgy marriage between Dave Harrison’s bleak bedsit lyrics and mournful vocals and Harn’s fluently melodic guitars (which mingled hard-rock directness with intricate layering). Imagine what their gigs might have been like. Two guys onstage in the throes of song and lost to the world – oblivious to the panicky expressions on the faces of their audience, as the tribal reps for the indie depressives and the rock hogs were forced to eye each other nervously across the clubroom floor, clutching their snakebites and beers for support. Ah, social awkwardness rattles its cage. Fine times. And – if they ever existed – gone times.

Parted from Harrison, Harn spent a year left to his own devices and ‘From The Inside’ is the result – an self-released instrumental guitar album which allows him to explore spaces of playing and composing which Spacematic could never have accommodated. Usually, rock guitar solo records are unparalleled opportunities for musical showing-off. While Harn’s got the necessary technical skill (and enough classic rock in his playing) to go for total guitar-hero blowout, ‘From The Inside’ is remarkably modest, and its musicality is expressed with unusual restraint. For instance, the title track’s Brian May explosion of passionate electric pomp and romance, lasts barely over a minute and fades out in a subdued loop of Vini Reilly arpeggios. Harn’s experiments in five- and seven-time are lilting, accessible and lovingly melodic: his lead lines are concise, memorable and authoritative. Acting as his own support musician, his crisp drum programming and sturdy work on bass and keyboards (as integrated as his guitar playing) lend the album a homely sound.

One of the best things about Harn’s playing is that, for all the skill of his fingers, not one note is superfluous or wasted. He’s more likely to sit comfortably on top of a bold tune than to play stuntman; he knows when to let exploration stop, and when to let silence stand. In a musical zone stuffed with supremely accomplished fret-wankers suffering from fingerboard diarrhoea, that’s a rare and cherishable talent. As far as obvious influences go, the above-mentioned Jeff Beck gets a look in (something in the attack, the indisputably British rock stylings); there’s a little of the ’80s Alex Lifeson in the hard-rock digital jangle; and sweet lyrical solos like Mike Oldfield or even Prince. Harn also has a strong touch of Joe Satriani’s out-and-out lyrical tone and way with a melody (most obviously on the sunny rush of Playsafe and Pseudoseven, or the echoing Room One which recalls Satriani’s Circles).

But what ‘From The Inside’ reminds me of most is the pair of albums Andy Summers and Robert Fripp recorded in the mid-80s – ‘I Advance Masked’ and ‘Bewitched’. Harn’s playing has neither Fripp’s intensity nor his academic sternness. Nor does it have Summers’ taste for textures on the guitar synth. But his fondness for the spangly echoes of the delay pedal, his exuberantly climbing note patterns and ear for counter-arranged, bell-toned rhythm-picking lines comes directly from their legacy. In Turning Time, guitars dodge and somersault cheerfully over the rising drones and evolving multiple rhythms. The cycling riff in Pseudopool recalls Talking Heads and I Zimbra: its long sweet smudge of a solo hearken back to Fripp’s New York years.

‘From The Inside’ does have its flaws, the most obvious one being that it carries the predictable symptoms of a guitarist’s showcase. Some pieces show this more blatantly than others (Beat The Bad, for example – a pretty superfluous bit of guitar-rock reggae style). You could also quibble about some slightly cheesy keyboard tones and parts, which pull some compositions a little too far towards travel-show soundtracks. Yet at least they err on the side of cuteness rather than flabbiness, and are essentially there to support the guitar work. Harn can be forgiven these lapses given that plenty of rock guitar soloists choose sixteen minutes of assorted widdly-widdly as a showcase, while his own offering is a well-worked-out album of tunes and interplaying.

In spite of Harn’s knack for those solid tuneful elements, many of the high points of the album come when he slows down and makes shapes. The eerie scrapings and siren wails which set the scene for the title track, for instance. Or Coloursound, in which ringing slow-swelling chords mingle gorgeously with the whispered sample on the voiceover: “Particularly at night, I have this incredible feeling of intense blackness… I mean, I’ve never experienced such darkness…” It could’ve sat comfortably on David Sylvian’s ‘Gone To Earth’, as could its drowsy vapour-trail of a melody.

I’d really love to hear Tony Harn working in a fuller band situation, or with collaborators who’d really bring out the best in him – but this’ll do for now. One of Britain’s finest undiscovered rock guitarists has left his calling-card, and I’d advise you to get in touch.

Tony Harn: ‘From The Inside’
Tony Harn, THCD1 (no barcode)
CD-only album
Released: 1997

Buy it from:
Limited availability – contact Tony Harn for information.

Tony Harn online:
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August 1997 – album reviews – G.P. Hall’s ‘Mar-Del-Plata’ (“ranges with restless compassion across a wide field”)

10 Aug
G.P. Hall: 'Mar-Del-Plata'

G.P. Hall: ‘Mar-Del-Plata’

Still clearing out the accumulated tapes of an inexplicably neglected career, Graham Peter Hall is continuing to come up with the goods. He’s been through thirty years of uneasy development on that rocky, unrewarding terrain between the simple sureties of the rock and roots instrumentalist and the often complacent indulgences of the full-on avant-garde blower. Marginalisation and bad luck might have ensured that he’s received little financial reward – nor has he gained the kind of brittle, precious reputation that marks out the darlings of the art-music intelligentsia – but it has resulted in a stock of lovely, emotive music in its own right.

Certainly Hall has managed to remain one of Britain’s most individual and complete guitarists over that time. Mastering a variety of styles from flamenco to rock to folk and blues, he’s also immersed himself in experimentation via technology – multiple speakers and pedal processors; vast, slow delay loops. Additionally, he draws on a repertoire of bizarre playing techniques and plectrum substitutes (involving battery fans, tiny psaltery bows, electric razors, toy cars and velcro, among others) which reflects the reinvention of guitar function explored by Fred Frith or Keith Rowe. With these methods in place, he’s explored sound through the textural suggestions of his “industrial sound sculptures”. Light industry, that is – Hall’s mimicry is closer to handsaws and governor motors rather than, say, Trent Reznor’s car-crushers and stamping presses.

Yet in amongst this, Hall has somehow never lost the ability to embrace expressive tunes; or to weave a handrail of familiarity into his sonic constructions. Perhaps that’s why ‘Wire’ types don’t seem to go for him; why he doesn’t have the kudos that the likes of Rowe, Frith, Eugene Chadbourne or Glenn Branca enjoy. He can get in your face – or wander off the usual path – with the best of them, but it’s generally in order to touch your sympathies. Ironically, in choosing to express his conservative and traditional side as equally important to (and entwined with) his avant-garde side, he’s gone too far for some.

‘Mar-Del-Plata’ is by far the most accessible and diverse of the compiled albums which Hall has been assembling this decade from deleted vinyl and assorted unreleased tapes. It’s a tour across a loose, but affecting, composing and performing imagination which ranges with restless compassion across a wide field. Sometimes you’re listening to a skittering, wilful flamenco performance. Sometimes it sounds like Cocteau Twins doing home improvements in the Mediterranean. Sometimes it’s the sort of individual, humanistic free improv/New Music result which you’d expect from Frith at his more lighthearted and relaxed, or from Simon H. Fell.

But though the record is full of experimentalism, Hall’s sense of melody is at the forefront – and the predominant voice on ‘Mar-Del-Plata’ is his masterfully expressive Spanish guitar playing. This can usually be found angling over long aching stretches of choral electronic humming, plangent violin and eerie ambient sounds called up from the industrial processors. In some ways it’s like a semi-unplugged take on a Robert Fripp Soundscape, in which guitar textures span out into infinity.

At other times, it takes on the simple directness of a folk tune: a dance of sparkling acoustic lights on Ionian Water, or the staccato accented Latin melodies of Mar-Del-Plata itself, underpinned by a geological murmur of bass. On the final hot gusting of Sierra Morena Dust Storm, the gut strings spit and scatter in rich melody, reaching new heights of sinewy passion. Here, Hall also bows some winnowing textures in his electric guitar accompaniment, using serrated steel bars from his box of implements.

Where technology plays a more direct role, Hall’s humanity doesn’t falter or go under. The hymnal swells of billowing electric warmth on Spirit Sky Montana (somewhere between Bill Frisell’s cinematic romance and David Torn’s eccentric string-warps) are the most beautiful and enveloping sound on the record, tapping deeply into church music and Romantic classical composing. The trickle of wind chimes, langorous piano, and enveloping sighs of Humidity Despair provide a gusting, luxurious impression of a sultry night: it’s lush enough to lean right back into.

Some tracks, fleshed out by Hall’s sound-loops and D.I.Y. treatments, are detailed, impressionistic oil-paintings in music and tone. Deep Blue sounds like someone chainsawing up a frozen Alpine lake, its jangling piano chords and thumping bass a mass of irregularities. The smear of bright spring-loaded colourflow on Charmouth Beach rings beautiful alarm bells. The menacing bass growl of Enigmatic is like a cave-bear thumping around in your dreams: squeaks and rattles from fingerboard and autoharp move around in slow disquiet, enclosed by knocking metal.

Plutonium Alert (in which Hall abandons guitar altogether in favour of soprano sax and the ring of auto-harps) treads similar territory to the ominous King Crimson improvisations from the mid-’70s. It goes for an all-out sensory mix of apocalyptic aftertones: angular bell-sounds and aggressive Grappelli violins entangling themselves with a spasmodically awkward funk rhythm. Weirdest (and most satisfying) of all is Fahrenheit 451 – juddering guitar, saw sounds, the shriek of a whistling kettle, and treble scratching all mix like toxic vapours under heavy pressure, pushing your head back against your rising hackles. Horribly enjoyable.

The scattered effects of the attempt to capture all of Hall’s ideas across a single CD does mean that ‘Mar-Del- Plata’ misses out on the cohesion which would render it excellent, but it’s a close-run thing. The centrepiece – a long-form creation called The Estates – pulls all the elements of the album together. A version of a 1975 long-form composition, it blends the chiming, restless clatter of its improv ensemble with Hall’s own quiveringly angry solo acoustic guitar. The brooding theme of The Estates is the crappiness and autocracy of post-war British urban programming. In thrall to modernism without being able to master it, its utopian vision (heartily botched and compromised) laid down a blight on communities, their architecture and their cohesion wrecked by the same tower blocks and support links designed to improve them.

Hall and co. express the disillusion and neurosis which resulted, with pulses of frustration and alienation hurl themselves against the confines of the music. Dulcimers, clarinets, and a huge array of percussion all seethe and pant over twenty-five minutes of desperate musical invocation; all overhung by the forbidding scrapes and alarm-clangs of two adapted metal piano frames (played like harps with assorted chains, wires, and implements). Hall’s panic-stricken guitar playing conjures the nightmare of a new, fatally-flawed sprawl of roads and buildings: swarming locust-like, unchecked and unconsidered, over beloved landscapes.

Incidentally, in the sleevenotes Hall gives a blood’n’guts description of the struggle it took to assemble and perform The Estates. Apparently, some of the manufactured instruments continue to drift through the art world with a life of their own. The piano frames – still counter-invading the architecture – were last seen as part of a “fire sculpture”. Meanwhile, the piece itself has an additional afterlife as a reflection on Hall’s own love/hate relationship with modernism; his own playing and arrangements echoing and championing the sounds of the traditional past even as they break them up in performance and execution.

As a body of work ‘Mar-Del-Plata’ has its faults – yet judged on its parts (and at its undisciplined best), it’s a touching, passionate and diverse album. Throughout, we get the sort of peek at Hall’s open heart (warts, gooey patches and all) which most experimental musicians, hard-wired into intellectual dryness, would never risk expressing.

G.P. Hall: ‘Mar-Del-Plata’
Future Music Records, FMR CD46-V0997 (7 86497 26442 1)
CD-only album
Released: 12 April 1997

Buy it from:
G.P. Hall homepage or Future Music Records

G.P. Hall online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp YouTube

June 1997 – album reviews – Spiritualized’s ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space’ (“a damaged hallelujah”)

22 Jun

Spiritualized: 'Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space'

Spiritualized: ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’

I never did like Spacemen 3. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Posh boys who’d taken too many drugs, as far as I’m concerned. Couldn’t stop writing bleeding songs about heroin, and constantly invoking Jesus in describing the drug‑induced high. Cheers, lads. Piss off.

And they did, thankfully. Sonic Boom (what sort of a name is that? ‑ “Hello, Mr Boom! How is Mrs Boom, and the little Boomers?”) continued mumbling away over guitar drones. But Spiritualized (headed by the other main Spaceman, Jason Pierce) have varied their output a little more, and this third album does, at times, dispense with that (frankly irritating) all‑pervasive one‑note drone. And the lyrical content is as much to do with the break‑up of Pierce’s relationship with Kate Radley, the band’s keyboardist (can you imagine the sessions for this album?), as it does with his perennial fascination with the ingestion of various illegal chemicals.

The change has produced songs one can finally empathise with, rather than just get stoned to. “All I want in life’s a little bit of love / to take the pain away. / Getting strong today, / I try a step each day…” That’s the insecure but repeated mantra of the title track, as the hushed airless opening explodes into a space‑age orchestra of woozy guitars, ethereal strings and a radio communications beep.

As Pierce’s voice harmonises with the multi‑tracked choir of his other vocal lines, it sounds like a contradiction of emotions ‑ spiritual exhaustion, but also strangely life‑affirming. And, in spite of the galactic scale of the arrangement (this is music for the psychological planetariums of the soul), this song sounds utterly naked. Jason is going out without his pressure suit. We can see the pulse at his throat, and the scared black glint of his pupils as he braves the exposure.

Much of this could be a conscious attempt on his part to strip himself of much of the obscuring Krautrock dirty‑cotton‑wool sound he and bands like Stereolab hide behind. On I Think I’m In Love, against a buzzing engaging organ drone and a syncopated sequence of piano, harmonica and dubby bass pulled together by a pulsating rhythm into a sort of beautiful intoxicating systems music, Pierce’s vocals play call‑and‑response in misery: “I think I’d like to tell someone / (probably not listening)… / I think I’m alive / (probably just breathing)…” Christ, but life’s hard around here. Still, compared to the zonked aloofness of previous output, it’s touching to see him stumbling blinking into the light.

Almost everywhere else, it’s reassuring to see that ‑ in musical terms, at least ‑ Jason Pierce still doesn’t know the meaning of the word “subtle”. On the pounding chorus of Come Together, he is joined by a blasting horn section, massed handclaps, the London Community Gospel Choir, Spiritualized’s own impressive full‑blown sonic armoury… and there may well be a string section in there somewhere. It’s the sort of track that puts other mid‑ paced overblown epics by certain bands to shame ‑ d’you know what I mean?

Stay With Me is a beautifully simple love song and, for once, there are no druggily wasted drones or held notes. At the start of the track, Jason’s voice is as naked as it’s ever been, over subtly plucked electric guitars and church organ. Then a Spector‑ish wall of sound descends ‑ every instrument playing a poignantly descending scale in unison to build a huge edifice of gorgeous noise, with pounding drums way back in the mix.

Jason hasn’t entirely parted company with his old ways. “Sometimes I have my breakfast right off a mirror / And sometimes I have it right out of a bottle…” You’re ahead of me here, aren’t you? That’s it, exactly what I was thinking ‑ what a very strange way to have your Rice Krispies. To be more serious, though: Pierce uses the lyrics of Home Of The Brave to say how he doesn’t miss her when he’s totally wasted. The “brave” of the title comes in confronting this awful reality honestly, and he does so to a paranoid musical backing of Day In The Life proportions: a crescendo of Spiritualized playing en masse, hitting, blowing, pressing every instrument in sight.

Without the cushioning and comfort of orchestras of sound around him on Broken Heart, Pierce’s naked voice once again faces reality. “And I’ve wasted all the time / I gotta drink you off my mind / I’ve been told that this will heal, given time / Lord, I have a broken heart.” The backing of a muted string section and the duetting of French horn and violin is Nyman‑esque in its feel and simplicity (violinists Alexander Balanescu and Clare Connors are regular Nyman Band stalwarts), hitting aching minor chords. Transfixing from start to finish, as is “Cool Waves”, a mildly‑stoned gospel lullaby. The bizarre combination of strings and harmonica (hey! sounds like Larry Adler! ‑ ED.) accompany the spartan verse, but the chorus floats on a luxuriant cloud of kettle drums and gospel choir ‑ “Cool waves wash over me / Lay your sweet hand on me / ‘Cos I love you.” A bird‑like solo flute joins the voices, horns and strings, lifting one’s eyes further to the heavens.

This must be reading like a half‑reluctant eulogy to a record I’m being slowly cajoled into adoring. And that’s probably the case: about two‑thirds of this album is a damaged hallelujah pushing hard at the door marked “heaven’s revelatory greatness”. Sadly ‑ as always with Spiritualized ‑ there are a couple of derivative up‑tempo numbers that send them slithering back down the ladder into junkie‑plodder land.

Electricity is another of their attempts at being the ‘White Light/White Heat’‑era Velvet Underground ‑ raucous guitars, garage studio dynamics and bad analogies to drugs and getting off one’s face. And Cop Shoot Cop is a directionless fifteen‑minute epic: starting as a laid‑ back, piano‑led, metronomic blues piece, coupled to an occasional interlude of noisy overheated guitar, it unfortunately lacks any of the passion or involvement of the blues. It also features a four‑minute interlude of “free” guitar distortion and band improvisation ‑ so passé, darling.

With the fissile, powerful marvels elsewhere on the record, it’s infuriating to find that Pierce still has a tendency to slouch down and take a long drawn‑out, indifferent crap into his own nest. It’s like someone creeping into Westminster Abbey to join in the transcendent singing for a while, then deciding he’s bored, spray‑painting a giant spliff‑puffing face onto the altar screen, and sniggering “huh huh, cool.” It’s this aspect of Spiritualized, their own concrete boots, that pulls ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’ back from the classic status it might otherwise warrant.

But let’s forgive these lapses, shall we? Through an obviously traumatic emotional event, Jason Pierce has found a more developed, challenging lyrical and musical voice for Spiritualized. Ladies and gentlemen; bar a few technical hitches, Spiritualized are indeed floating in space. Here’s the music for the intergalactic planet ride.

(review by Col Ainslie)

Spiritualized: ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’
Dedicated Records, DEDCD 034 (7 43214 81422 2)
CD‑only album
Released: 16th June 1997

Get it from:
Just about anywhere: it’s still on general release.

Spiritualized online:
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May 1997 – album reviews – Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra’s ‘Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra’ (“music for Disney cartoon castles in the sky”)

24 May

Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra: 'Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra'

Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra: ‘Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra’

Do I have to do all the usual obvious journalistic crap about Iceland? Do I? Oh, if I must. They eat puffins, or something. They drink tons of cheap alcohol. It’s bloody cold there. It’s dark all winter, light all summer, or something. Magnus Magnússon. Mad elfin pixie Bjork… blah blah blah. Will this do?

Oh, and I have to act surprised that Iceland can produce such great music, and be really patronising about that in particular. Because we British love looking down on small nations, don’t we?

All that gone through, just because two-thirds of Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra are Icelandic. Ragga sang You Don’t on Tricky’s ‘Maxinquaye’ album – a track full of filmic strings, soloing flutes and slow shuffling beats -which casts some light on this album. Previously, Ragga and keyboardist Jakob Magnússon were in a successful Icelandic band together; when they ended up in London, Magnússon worked as Icelandic cultural attache while Ragga attended drama school. Later, they formed Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra with English sampling wizard Mark Davies from Voices Of Kwahn. With this debut, they bring all these diverse strands of experience together to produce a magical experience. Huge, colourful swathes of sound; music for Disney cartoon castles in the sky.

So – Fairy Godmother opens on a feather-bed of lapping sea, boat-horns, celeste chimes and toybox orchestra that scream “Disney”, before the trip-hop beats are introduced. But the JMO is always very natural, organic-sounding – no harsh electronica scraping here. And Ragga’s voice is a magical thing – Kate Bush in a lower register, with some of Bjork’s expressive stylings. Like Bjork, her lyrics tell strange stories, but she introduces Shot almost matter-of-factly: “I got shot in the head by a man / who had been aiming at me / for many days… / At the moment I got / the paper from my doorstep.” To an almost easy-listening palette of relaxing hues, jazzy woodwind and flutes, she philosophically concludes that “love can hurt…” Well, it would, wouldn’t it?

Daringly, styles keep shifting, track by track: somehow in keeping with the fairy-tale transformations of the lyrics and samples. Passion For Life has a soulful belted-out chorus (Ragga does brazen Broadway as easily as schmaltzy Hollywood), a slow, loping early-hours atmosphere of spooky keyboards and bone-rattles for beats, and brilliantly lifts an evocative passage from Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio For Strings’ (the music from “Platoon”, if your imagination’s still settled in the cinema after those Disney references). In Where Are They Now? – to surging orchestral strings, keyboard arpeggios and sparse but powerful metallic percussion – Ragga sings a torch-song elegy to the lost children of wars. Even when no lyrics intrude, Ragga’s evocative harmonies over a battalion of drums and stabbing strings are just as emotional.

The mix of folky guitars and flutes, East European violin and pleasantly shuffling beats on Turn It Off remind one of Beth Orton’s marriage of bedsit folk and electronica. Deep Down also has a deceptively simple sound: alternately hushed and passionate vocals over shifting sands of decaying electronics and a barrage of junkshop percussion. It hits a groove and stays there – perfectly. With the fairy-tale assertion that “sometimes I can breathe underwater / Sometimes I can fly around the sky”, Underwater features more Disney-like wonderment: reverberating drones, slippery strings lilting through the melody and expert percussion care of a Steve Jansen/Rain Tree Crow sample fluidly weaving in and around the programmed beats.

Despite its title and distorted electro-beats, Beatbox Controller isn’t some ’90s ode to the DJ/mixer in the manner of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life. The “beatbox” referred to is the heart – “you are my beatbox controller / A telepathic mixer of emotion…” Ragga’s vocals are almost helium-light and, musically, the track sounds like twenty-first century reggae-lite. In an extended coda where he duets with Jacob Magnússon’s improvising keyboards, Mark Davies makes beautiful music out of sampled percussion – this man’s going to be a figure to watch in the world of electronica, to rank alongside DJ Shadow or Howie B.

Indeed, Two Kisses is built on a disconcerting, clattering rhythm track of samples of god-knows-what. Buzzes, radio waves, ghostly fluttering flutes and Eastern pipes are all jammed into the mix. Ragga sings a multi-tracked ethereal chorus and her voice is, at one point, treated to sound – well, er – exactly like a Smurf, to be honest. Weird, peculiar – Laurie Anderson jamming with The Art Of Noise produced by Tricky is about the closest comparison. Close, but nowhere near. So, yes, if weirdness to the point of absurdity overtakes them every so often (Man In The Moon overdoes the lyrics on the wrong side of Kate Bush kooky pop, and the overblown melody reminds one of… Christ! The Thompson Twins!) it’s a price worth paying for the trio’s musical vision.

Music for your fairy-tale nightmares. A perfect accompaniment to drifting away while watching “Fantasia” for the hundredth time, safe in the knowledge that the good witch now works her magic with a sampler.

Touched by the wand of the sorcerer’s apprentice.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra: ‘Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra’
EMI Records Ltd., CDEMD 1107 (7243 8 56728 2 8)
CD/cassette album
Released: 19th May 1997

Get it from:
(updated 2018) buy original CD second-hand, or get the reissued download from Amazon or iTunes.

Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra online:
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