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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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December 1997 – album reviews – Cynical Smile’s ‘Stupas’ (“it’s what’s firing off underneath the distortion that counts”)

1 Dec
Cynical Smile: 'Stupas'

Cynical Smile: ‘Stupas’

It often occurs to me, while watching a punk band play or having my ears pinned back by the roar of a punk record, how much drive is vibrating within such narrow confines. Such motivation compressed into such a rigid structure, number balls clattering in violent frustration in the rigged rock lottery machine. How there’s so much rebellion and desire for expression nailing itself down to fast 4/4, power chords and punishing speed when it should be expanding outwards.

Hearing Cynical Smile‘s debut album brings this idea back to me again. Southend punks they may be, but rattling around in “Stupas” are the seeds of something far more interesting than another moshing four-piece crammed into a Transit van. They’re usually compared to Rage Against the Machine, which is about equal parts helpful and bollocks. All right, they’re multi-racial (singer Ed is black, the other three white) and they have a similar luxurious, lunging approach to their in-your-face riffing. But though Matt Shears’ bullscraper guitar does test the edges of the envelope, there’s little in it to suggest the punk-Belew experiments of Tom Morello, and Ed’s spitting vocal is less brattish and polemical than that of Zack de la Rocha. Cynical Smile have less texture than Rage Against the Machine; their big advantage, though, is that they’re a lot less irritating. Both bands have a broader reach than most of their contemporaries: but Cynical Smile’s is, crucially, born of instinct rather than craft. It’s what’s firing off underneath the distortion that counts.

This Cynical Smile isn’t a smirk: it’s a snarl, “the grin on a shotgun.” The thrumming didge-drone on The Circle builds up into a roar – “You got to make a stand as they try to control ya… / I get ripped off again… / Let the ritual begin” – and they stalk out of the garage to test themselves against a harsh, booby-trapped world; whether it’s illustrated in Stitch’s aggressive con-man swagger, the way When Friends Become Enemies waltzes around Ed’s paranoid suspicions (“Enemies will get straight to you / when friends become enemies. / Your hopes won’t bring them back… / and if you die they’ll kill you again”), or how Killing Bugs growls “why am I trying to make sense out of things you don’t believe? / Don’t even think of wanting me to go – ‘cos I was leaving. / …I know you and see through you: your ignorance is my shield.”

This time though, fighting the fight leads the band out onto further musical limbs. Gunga Din’s basic bolshiness sounds like a junior Bad Brains (“move! move aside!”), and the eye- rolling power-riffing and punk-funk bass pops of Scum throb and crash like Living Colour’s hardcore experiments on the neglected ‘Stain’. Live 4 mixes hip hop (in the voice and rhythms) with Nirvana squalls, making the most of Matt Russell’s growling Billy Gould bass boings, Dan’s swat-splash of drumming and Shears’ sneaky bit of jazzed-up guitar. Even Feeling Retarded (with Tony Maddocks’ sea-monster backing vocals upping the hardcore) switches rapidly through a series of quick-change modes.

At the peak of Cynical Smile’s battling, their music is at its most balefully triumphant. On Methadone, Ed frothes and sneers against junkie delusions, as the riff yells like an alarm – “you justify; you wanna lie. / You justify to die. / “No, these things will not change me” – you feel it take control” – and finally, witheringly, he sketches a junkie death in broad slashes. “I can’t feel my body, I can’t choose my eyes, I don’t hear them screaming, my brain starts to die. / Left on the block of pain, someone else to take the blame. / You think you’re all different / but you’re fucking well the same.” Shear’s bizarre solo kicks the song into a Van der Graff Generator-shaped finale: a melange of voices, sounds and murmurs swarm around the life support bleeps that inevitably stretch out into the long continous goodbye tone.

With a whine of lonely data, Limbo follows Cynical Smile’s battling logic to a philosophical extreme, locking Ed into an existential battle. “I try to touch, I try to grasp, / …feels like nothing there, a vacuum of air. / …Book me in young, before you kill me: / tear out my soul before you leave me, / make sure I don’t get up when you knock me down – / build yourself a condo in limbo…” The guitar drops out, letting the hushed bass and drums etch a bleak picture on their own.

But they finish with a battered victory. Give Up the Ghost struggles valiantly against the draining of life from fighting bodies, as Shears’ guitar rings out like Keith Levene’s: “They called… / No, the time is not today! / I know it’s killing me…” Though ‘Stupas’ will probably be just the ticket for those in love with the sweat and flail of the moshpit, it drops hints of something greater.

Cynical Smile: ‘Stupas’
Org Records, ORGAN 035CD
CD-only album
1st December 1997
Get it from: (2022 update), Tidal, Spotify, Amazon Music – CD best obtained second-hand.
Cynical Smile online:
Homepage,, Spotify
Additional notes: (2020 update) This was Cynical Smile’s only full album.

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 – EP reviews – Amberman’s ‘The Smells Farmers Make’ (“three collar-grabbingly urgent spurts of song”)

25 Oct

Amberman are wrigglers, twitchers. The youngest beasts from the Earzone management stables (who’ve also brought us The Monsoon Bassoon and Magnilda) are also by far the most commercial, crashing pop hooks into each other like a batch of kids running riot with the paddle-boats on a park lake. Spicing up the indie/power-pop noise with swerving pronky gearshifts, Amberman could pass for a teenaged, rather more skeletal Super Furry Animals, with the same echoes of Love’s intense, brittle, psychedelic urgency and with the shortage of SFA-style textural playfulness covered up by the slap and bang of Martin Young’s guitar.

And like Super Furry Animals, Amberman’s singer Richard Harris (a man bawled hoarse) has more on his agenda than simply kicking up dust and sparks. Granted, Pop-Pop is a burst of spiky rebellion that shouts “Stop what you’re doing, and close the schools.” But what’s it really raging against? “You give me nothing, I’ll give you nothing” is either a brush-off, or it’s an accusation. Sold out, and down in the dust of the social experiments, Harris’ fist-shaking seems to come from genuine, outraged betrayal. And Pop-Pop contains enough just enough faith for a dignified, generous bargain (“You give me something, anything… give you everything”) and ends on a promise – “You give me anything, anything to care about – I’ll give you the same.”

This – plus something in Harris’ raucous nasal buzz of a voice – reminds me of the John Lennon that hasn’t been hijacked by the Britpop posers: the man who (whatever his failings) ultimately cared more about life than showing off, and showed that best when he opened up his throat. Waiting in the Rain grabs more of that memory even as – ironically – it also grabs at the muscular musical scramble of Faith No More, that most brilliantly cynical of bands. Like Lennon, Harris may flash-flood into rage, but like Lennon he’ll question himself over it: “I write these words, sick of the profanity; / scream burning rage, unleashing my insanity, / as the storm bursts… / as the clock chimes, I’m waiting in the rain.” And his conclusions are mature ones – “I know myself a little deeper, my climb a little steeper.”

Co-Operate also explores the struggles of life, but on a more microscopic or physical level rather than a metaphysical one, stripping the layers of sophistication from the city to reveal the vulnerabilities and dependencies of a rumbling, chaotic herd of animals. “Things catch the sun, / things drink rain, / some things run, / some fall on their hands and knees… / Feeding on the air, / faces everywhere…” A mad desperate scramble, ending in a weird proggy breakdown.

Going by these three collar-grabbingly urgent spurts of song, Amberman are bubbling with promise… and just waiting for that green light.

Amberman: ‘The Smells Farmers Make’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette-only EP
October 1997
Amberman online:
(no online presence)
Additional notes: (2004 update) Amberman split up before releasing anything else – I have no more news on them.

October 1997 – live album reviews – Porcupine Tree’s ‘Coma Divine (“driving performances, captured with crystal clarity… showing what the band can be like when removed from Wilson’s zealous studio-bound quality control”)

20 Oct
Porcupine Tree: 'Coma Divine'

Porcupine Tree: ‘Coma Divine’

In the eleven years that he’s been developing it, Steven Wilson has guided his Porcupine Tree project along a path of sinuous, gentle, considered swerves. We’ve seen it emerge from a clutch of playful one-man bedroom-band attempts to emulate the psychedelic heroism of the Gong/Floyd/Hillage/Can era, and go on to flirt with the wide-eyed double dawn of acid-house and rave while dipping in and out of experimental sonic abstractions. Eventually it established itself as a full-figured four-man contemporary rock group, and today’s band is a much sleeker, more professional thing than its origins suggested. Solid and melodic, rocking effortlessly, drawing on the pellucid visions of psychedelic sound and the soaring space-blues solos of ‘Wish You Were Here’, reweaving them into the starfield sweeps of ’90s rave and trance-techno, and allowing them to blossom out of the heart of spectral English pop and folk dreams.

Wilson has an ambiguous, on-off relationship with progressive rock. One month he’ll be asserting himself as the British prog scene’s lone saviour amongst a swill of sub-Genesis, the next rebranding his work as “modern rock” among the likes of The Verve, Korn or Mansun. Something which belies the simple truth that Porcupine Tree are, in essence, a contemporary prog-rock band. But if so, they’re one which is practising what the scene ought to be practising. They’re leaning to past traditions of impeccable extended musicianship and structural ambition, but eschewing podgy FM blandness and looking instead to contemporary musical motifs, technologies and methodologies.

That said, 1996’s ‘Signify’ was almost too accomplished. Sixty-odd minutes of polished, grooving songs and sleek instrumental blowouts that went down like a little pinch of manna with a worldwide prog audience, but which also ensured the Porkies’ ascendency at the expense (to this reviewer, at least) of their warmth and their mutable possibilities. ‘Coma Divine’ redresses the balance a bit – not just by being a particularly good live album (driving performances, captured with crystal clarity) but by showing what the band can be like when removed from Wilson’s zealous studio-bound quality control. Recorded during the band’s Italian tour in 1997, it captures them in ripping form, tearing through the likes of ravening distorted acid-rocker Not Beautiful Anymore and the stabbing, mathematical Neu!-style thrash of Signify, expounding on the dreamy rock tone-poem of The Sky Moves Sideways, and delivering a poised, hypnotic Radioactive Toy to an ecstatic audience.

Porcupine Tree draw frequent Pink Floyd comparisons, invited by the band’s preference for atmosphere and solid construction over any temptations to proggy twiddles and busyness. And also by the cushioning synthesizers, Wilson’s quiet vocals and his protracted, articulate bluesy guitar leads. When you hear them live, the parallels don’t hold nearly as much water. Floyd have never really rocked out with such intensity as this band, and have always possessed a certain English stolidity which Porcupine Tree avoid (in spite of Wilson’s nonchalant approach to front-man duties). Waiting – previously no more than a Tree-by-numbers single – is reborn here, jauntified by Wilson’s jangling electric twelve-string. And even if The Sleep of No Dreaming strays dangerously near to the despised neo-prog (it’s just a little too close to a half-hearted ‘Dark Side of the Moon’), Wilson’s unusually raw wail on the chorus gives the live version all the authority it needs.

It’s the live freedom offered to other members of the band that makes the most difference. Colin Edwin‘s fretless bass, reliable but uninspired on record, becomes a looming stretchy presence on ‘The Sky Moves Sideways’. When he steps on his mutron pedal, he’s more Bootsy Collins than Roger Waters. Dislocated Day (always one of the Tree’s most thrilling moments) gets a huge boost from his interaction with Chris Maitland‘s hissing cymbals and turbocharged drums, the rhythm section taking the song and running with it. Although it’s keyboardist Richard Barbieri who proves to be the Tree’s ace-in-the-hole when he’s let off the leash. He matches Wilson blast for blast as he wrenches blistering melodies, frayed foaming tones and astonishingly vocal burbles out of his armoury of old analogue synths; or embraces the band in a sea of marble-sheened electronics.

And while Wilson’s guitar takes centre stage, it’s Barbieri’s utter mastery of sonics which gives Porcupine Tree their robe of starlight as – at their most liberated – they swell through the long, trancey second section of Waiting, the mesmerised improvisations that extend Radioactive Toy. Or the highlight of ‘Coma Divine’: a beautifully fluid journey through Moonloop which evolves through honey-warm ambience, glittering astronomical detail, guitar explorations that sleepwalk and levitate, to the final joyous rampage through spacey, ornamental, Ozrics-y riffing at the climax. Splendid.

Porcupine Tree: ‘Coma Divine’
Delerium Records, DELEC CD 067 (5 032966 096723)
CD-only album
20th October 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Original CD best obtained second-hand; expanded 2016 double CD edition available from Burning Shed.
Porcupine Tree online:
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October 1997 – album reviews – Indigo Falls’ ‘Indigo Falls’ (“luxuriates in rich, sensual detail and blooms into a hothouse of musical perfumes”)

16 Oct

Indigo Falls: 'Indigo Falls'

Indigo Falls: ‘Indigo Falls’

This is as lovely as the insensuous smoke from a joss stick… and, in many respects, suffers from the same flaws and failings. But we’ll come to that later.

Indigo Falls are the husband and wife songwriting team of Richard and Suzanne Barbieri. He provides a mass of detailed keyboard fabric, she leads with a voice of immense clarity (a sort of cleaned-up, smoothed-over, less affected mixture of Kate Bush, Holly Penfield, and Sarah Brightman). And though the phrase “New Age songwriter album” may be loaded with suspicion, that’s precisely what this is, despite efforts to sell them as a pop duo or the noisy, mannered rock gestures of Only Forwards. All of the tell-tale signs are here: a soft delicacy of sounds, a rejection of urban tensions (and inspirations) in favour of vague spiritual atmospheres, and – inescapably – an unmistakeable ingenuous desire to play earnest folk music on synths, to touch the fragrant earth but keep your twenty-four-track studio regardless. Plenty of people have slid into waffle on those premises.

However, Richard Barbieri’s astonishing sonics elevate Indigo Falls far above the genre’s usual weediness. From his Mary Quant-ed days behind the Japan keyboards back in the early ’80s, through his ethnological textures with Rain Tree Crow and his contemporaneous dreamy synthwork as part of Porcupine Tree, he’s been one of the absolute masters of textured electronics. And ‘Indigo Falls’ is no disappointment in this department. Check out the undersea music boxes and the froth of musical bubbles building up the aquamarine tints of World’s End: and mixing with the inevitable organs are jangling harp sounds, harmonious turbojet squalls; swathes of thick, scalding distorted guitarry smears; the sounds of the air being sliced with a palette knife and refracted into traces of luminous colour.

The synths here have an organic tenderness, merging flesh-on-flesh with Jakko Jakszyk‘s lyrical, passionate guitar flourishes and Theo Travis‘ verdant saxophone. Consequently, ‘Indigo Falls’ luxuriates in rich, sensual detail and blooms into a hothouse of musical perfumes. Tunes flutter, soothe and arch like lazy ecstatic cats – in particular on Falling Into Years – where sax notes flutter down like rose petals, and which melts into an instrumental coda of sublime sensuality, breaking down out of its gentle pop rigour into fragmented little archipelagos; islands of sax, piano, bells and trade-wind electrophonics.

But even if Richard provides whatever big name cachet there is (as well as most of the duo’s sound) this is very much Suzanne Barbieri’s album. Her lyrical preoccupations shape and define the songs for better or worse, and whether or not you go for them will depend very much on whether you see eye to eye with her vision. And – unfortunately – relentless, vaporous symbolism dominates these songs. Shadows, nights, seas; dreamers, Babylon, totem animals; inner children. None of which are explored so much as checked off, as if the album was a spotter’s guide to mystical furnishings.

Let’s be fair, sometimes it works well. As on The Wilderness, where Richard’s sounds and Suzanne’s words mesh together most effectively. Sandstorm-under-stars synth, a big lazy open-skinned clatter of percussion, and Suzanne’s most direct singing: “no sign of life, just sand on sand / and hollow bloodless trees”. Steve Wilson‘s sparse acoustic guitar shadow-boxes with Suzanne’s rituals. Bones rattle, shadows pass overhead, past lives regress before our eyes… The magic works. But…

The thing about incense is that it transforms rooms and moods, making you feel as if you’re in touch with something… but it’s only smoke in the air. You’re being moved by something insubstantial. Immaterial. And if such a thing reaches towards profundity, and fails, it’s glaringly obvious. Feed the Fire obviously wants to fly with Rain Tree Crow: a thick percussive pulse propelled by Mick Karn‘s muddy bassline while Suzanne delivers her throaty take on Native American chanting (“The burning birds in spiral flights. / The hide within breaks through the skin. / The beast inside, the silent guide… / Muscles stretch and sinews snap / and spirits rise. / Sundancing…”). But unlike Rain Tree Crow’s immersive cultural explorations, this feels more like tourism: someone trying on a feathered headdress in one of those sad little souvenir shops scattered round the edge of the Navajo Nation.

The Achilles’ heel of Indigo Falls is the sheer bathetic naivety that slinks in under the cover of beauty. On Towards the Light, the ambition in Jakko’s yearning wails of aspirant guitar and Richard’s stratospheric synths (mountains carving notes out of the wind – oh, please, indulge me: here I can genuinely enthuse) is brought low by Suzanne’s beautifully-sung codswallop about sleepwalkers and her lurches into mediocre therapy speak. “We are all children, we are all crying”. No, we aren’t all crying: some of us are just griping because we want the nice lady to start singing something we can relate to. Music this sensuous should be devoted to something human, something real. Not to supernatural, psycho-babbling vagueness.

And if Indigo Falls ditched the New Age posing and got down to the nitty-gritty, they’d truly be on to what the sound of the record only hints at. There is a suggestion of what this could be like: on Sky Fall, which closes the album. The ghosts of beats sway sleepily, a pillowing organ and soprano sax curve gently around the melody as Suzanne sings. The hippy-chick histrionics are sloughed off. Instead, in comes a swathe of human vulnerability: the naked relief and wonder at the risks of love paying off. “We crossed a line, but the world still turns / The sky didn’t fall, and nothing has changed… we’re home again, home again.” There are flickers of doubt (“should I believe this is real? Should I believe in you?…”) and the knowledge of fallibility (“Keep a light in your heart for me / I’m not as strong as you think / I could slip away so easily.”) A whole album like this could melt the most cynical heart. Most of the songwriting on ‘Indigo Falls’, sadly, provides the cynical heart with as much ammunition as it requires.

Undoubtedly very beautiful. But is that enough? After the smoke clears, we need a genuine vision.

Indigo Falls: ‘Indigo Falls
Medium Productions Ltd., MPCD5 (6 04388 42402 3)
CD/download album
13th October 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand; download version and some CDs available from Bandcamp.
Indigo Falls online:
Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Amazon Music

October 1997 – album reviews – Saro Cosentino’s ‘Ones and Zeros’ (“a swirl of poly-cultural textures and emotive adult pop”)

15 Oct

Saro Cosentino: 'Ones and Zeros'

Saro Cosentino: ‘Ones and Zeros’

Saro Cosentino – an art-rocker with a knack for cinematic arrangement – sees himself as the musical equivalent of a film director. This seems to be more humble than it’d suggest: it means that he masterminds the writing and production for his songs but stays in the background, passing the final responsibility for voices and lyrics to selected singers and instrumentalists.

As he puts it, “a director coordinates and selects the roles for the actors… I chose the singers and musicians for the pieces”. Perhaps a rather precious way of saying “I wrote outlines of songs for various kinds of singers, then went looking for them”, but it does give us the opportunity to play around with his metaphor.

OK. Let’s do that.

Saro, if viewed as The Great Director, reminds me of one of those European cinema auteurs – one of those talents whose childhood was inspired by Hollywood, whose initial own-language triumphs were led by a highly personal vision; but who’s now working uneasily between Hollywood and home. His true drive seems to be towards smoky, luxurious romance. Long pans across emotive vistas filled with meticulous detail, where the very light that flickers off the faces and corners of the camera’s subjects has a tangible element; the creation of bank-busting sets and tableaux to call new environments into existence, against which romantic protagonists play out their personal dramas as the world smoulders behind them.

However, at the same time he’s tempted and pressured (by studio heads? by test groups?) to go for something brasher, more obvious. Hence the same album that can boast 9:47 PM Eastern Time (twelve minutes of trading ambient loops with the Chapman Stick of King Crimson‘s Trey Gunn) can also boast the FM blare of Bite the Bullet, in which Karen Eden power-bleats the sort of hand-wringing, state-of-the-world pop hogwash that Tears for Fears cornered when they went shit in the late ’80s. Harrumph.

Well, whatever else one might find fault with, it can’t be disputed that Saro has assembled a high-powered instrumental cast to flesh out his own detailed wash of synths and guitars. Cellos and Anglo-Indian percussion (from Dizrhythmia’s Pandit Dinesh and Gavin Harrison) join with the works a whole crowd of Peter Gabriel regulars. There’s David Rhodes’ unorthodox, chameleonic art-guitar; the eerie wails Shankar gets from both his double electric violin and his voice; there’s the watery keen of Kudsi Erguner’s Turkish ney flute, and John Giblin’s extraordinarily vocal fretless bass – as well as the presence of regular Gabriel engineer Richard Blair to help with programming and holding it all together.

Perhaps inevitably, ‘Ones and Zeros’ emerges as a less wracked, less personal, poppier echo of Gabriel’s ‘Us’, or of Kate Bush’s ‘Sensual World’. It’s a swirl of poly-cultural textures and emotive adult pop, with a profound love of instrumental colorations and orchestrated with sounds of the human condition taken from all over the globe. And it does sound lovely, meticulously embroidered in luminescent glittering threads of melody.

Enter the Saro Multiplex, then. Pay the elegantly cropped man on the door, who’s thumbing through the Italian Art Rock Quarterly. Pick up your packet of art-popcorn from Mozo ‘n’ Rael’s Snack Shack, and take your look at the choices on offer on the different screen. I think you can assume that Bite the Bullet is the second-string drama: the one with the C-list hairdo-actress in peril, the sort that’s been sold as nail-biting but is actually more nail-varnishing. (Hear Karen Eden twitter about TV and dreamlife, wince at her gooey harmonies, dodge the pretty bomb: note the fleeting brilliance of the arrangement, and stroll out halfway through.) Go on to calculate that 9:47 PM Eastern Time is the slow-moving ‘Koyaanisquatsi’-type visual study – it’ll be playing in the room with the art students, shots tracking up skyscrapers and speculating upon the bright streak of dawn. Set aside some time to see that one right the way through. And look at the posters again.

Well, with cellos at the ready, you’ve got the choice of a slightly superior mainstream drama (maybe a maverick cop film, maybe a Joe-Bloke-in-peril job) with Defying Gravity. The one forged from the stuff of determination (“Just for an instant / of our forever, / this beggar would be King…”) and the refusal to give up, the one where you can share, for a moment, the pain of the trouper. Art-rock journeyman Jakko Jakszyk delivers one of his trademark tight, passionate vocals – the most immediate performance on the album, full of regret and a simmering outrage, the last flare of anger before resignation sets in.

Give Karen Eden a chance to wipe out many of the feeble memories of Bite the Bullet with Behind the Glass, on which she sounds more like Briana Corrigan than Stevie Nicks, and feels more like Juliette Binoche in ‘Three Colours: Blue’ than Sandra Bullock in a straight-to-video. Here she’s a lone, withdrawn observer, near-impassive, watching the injustices the world deals out but this time refraining from protesting. Merely letting the reaction flow out silent and free from the core of her, like a long stream of cigarette smoke. Strings poise; Giblin’s bass growls, a peril held in check and lurking. The moment passes by. Beat; cut; quick fade into black.

As accomplished as they are, those are the studio money-spinners, the comparative rush jobs. If you want to go for something a little more rhapsodic, you’ll have to move up a level; up to what’s showing in the smaller cinemas, where the eyes fixed on the screens are more intent.

When, as in these, ‘Ones and Zeros’ is good, it’s seriously good. Peter Hammill (playing against a reputation as abrasive art-rock bruiser via one of two appearances as romantic lead) offers an extraordinarily moving performance on From Far Away. You can even picture the close-up – eyes wide and bright, awestruck with the force of his own passion, breathing sheer faith into the well-worn love words; an English Sinatra without the arrogance. On Days of Flaming Youth, Shankar’s spooky keen and bright Japan-styled flecks of guitar and electronics gust in slo-mo circles while Tim Bowness takes time out from No-Man to sigh tenderness all over a song of the betrayals of younger days. It prowls and flickers, disturbing piles of trash in the corners of your memory as his voice rises to a throaty howl and gasp: “It feels so real, it feels so true, / the theft of the world that you knew / by slaves of flaming youth…”

Or you can enter Saro’s cinematic visions by the most inspirational way. You can just walk in off the street, numbed by loss and cradling a broken heart in hands gone suddenly cold (as I’ve just done) and find the core of your predicament captured and held, mirrored, onscreen. This is Phosphorescence – a ‘Brief Encounter’ for the art-rock set, and the album’s crowning glory. Hammill again, under a black velvet dome of sky, afloat on a sea of reflected starlight and rippling fluorescent eel-trails with reed-flutes undulating past, a thrill and a breeze on the cheek. And a lyric of something almost unbearably affecting. A love that hits in one slow flash (“this moment lasts a thousand years, this look is longer than our lives…”), changes you irrevocably then passes on, never to be caught or held again. “We will never pass this way again / But we’ll always feel each other’s presence… Ships pass in the night, / and in their wake they leave just phosphorescence…”

And you’re left stunned in the dark as the credits roll, unable to move from your seat for the things that are crowding up in you. Hit to the heart. Light-struck.

Saro Cosentino: ‘Ones and Zeros’
Resurgence, RES 129CD (604388203222)
CD-only album
13th October 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Original album best obtained second-hand. ‘Ones and Zeros’ was reissued in 2015 in remixed and remastered form as ‘Ones and Zeros Reloaded’: all videos included in this review are from the ‘Reloaded’ version.
Saro Cosentino 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 – John Law’s ‘The Hours’ (“a vision of a musician dissecting an act of faith for its structure alone”)

29 Sep

John Law: 'The Hours'

John Law: ‘The Hours’

“This music is dedicated to the spirit that moved the first humans to speak the unspeakable, and thus to sing”. Thus spake John Law, improvising pianist and British free-scene eminence gris. And the audience did open their ears, with a subtle flip of their hopeful hearts, and did prepare to receive his wisdom.

As Law explains in the liner notes, this is the third of a trio of recordings for which he’s written piano music in the form of plainchant. On this occasion, inspired by the ‘Liber Usualis’ devotional prayer-chants of Benedictine monks, he’s adapted and extrapolated a set of vocal melodies to correspond with the eight hours of prayer the monks observe. So, in effect, he’s set himself the task of portraying a whole community’s profoundest expression in music. Moreover, a community who’ve secluded themselves from the world specifically to perform that expression. Tall order.

‘The Hours’ is split into two eight-section parts. Firstly, an exposition of eight “chants”, all but one under a minute in length, each a single melody line or parallel harmony with minimal chordal support. Secondly, ‘The Hours’ proper: eight extrapolations of the preceding chants in which Law’s freed up to add his own interpretations and textures. So for the first half, we get a lone piano in the middle distance playing (with heavy use of the muting pedal) dutifully uninflected melodies with all the emotion of a canning plant: the beauty of the lines frosted over, clean as an abandoned cloister. For the second, the piano’s intended to take on a life of its own, expounding off the original melodies.

In the first of the improvising pieces, Matins/Vigilae, this doesn’t amount to much more besides the odd syncopated jazz twitch, surprisingly crass after the sterile beauty of the naked themes. For the superior Lauds it’s the decoration of the theme of Chant II by a sprinkle of high treble notes from the top of the piano, a subtly emotive sea-swell of tenor phrasing from below. For Prime, a Keith Jarrett-y stroll during which Law transmutes Chant III into a whirling spiral of shifting arpeggios that tumble somewhere between György Ligeti and Allan Holdsworth. Terce (one of the most successful pieces) staggers echoes of Chant IV – vibraphone-like – with occasional flashes of beauty when Law lets his guard down: then moves into peculiar John Cage mutes as he interferes with the strings in the piano frame, letting buzzes and flutters distort with the fluttering trills.

The problems really start to arise after this, when Sext’s boogie-woogie serialism (which moves into more of those acrobatic arpeggios) sounds a little too comical to take seriously, and the stomp of Nones has taken the feel so far from the original source that you’ll have forgotten you began this recording ostensibly listening to chants in an abbey. Vespers turns its own source, inexplicably, into stammered staccato pseudo-stride piano with spurts of hammering, constrained exploration. None of which would matter were it not for Law’s efforts in the liner notes to link his music to the devotional, whereas what he’s actually done is link it to the architectural. Like it or not, plainchant ain’t gospel, and its beauty doesn’t survive the transition into jazz unless – as Jan Garbarek proved with the Hilliard Ensemble on ‘Officium’ – you allow the jazz to meet it on its own territory and terms.

Compline makes some belated amends by being a gentle Bill Evans-style study of the final chant, but it’s the necessary little coming far too late. ‘The Hours’ is just too academic, too dryly sophisticated, too damn measured in its intent to take to heart. Law’s sophisticated, he avoids corniness, he has discipline. Oh God, does he have discipline. That, in itself, is what sinks this fine but soulless recording. Finally, for all the concentration, seriousness and cleverness of ‘The Hours’ it leaves you with no vision of God, no vision even of devotion; just a vision of a musician dissecting an act of faith for its structure alone. What it also leave you with is the impression that John Law – rather like the monks he’s allegedly saluting with this music – should really get out more often.

John Law: ‘The Hours’
Future Music Records, FMR CD41-V0697 (7 86497 26352 3)
CD-only album
September 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Cornucopia Recordings.
John Law 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).
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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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September 1997 – album reviews – R.O.C.’s ‘Virgin’ (“from the surreal and experimental to pure pop and simple emotion”)

8 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: 8th 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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August 1997 – album reviews – Ramshackle’s ‘Chin On the Kerb’ (“rocking and poised on the balls of their heels, preparing to take the blow and meet the challenge whenever it snakes out of nowhere to catch them”)

18 Aug
Ramshackle: 'Chin On the Kerb'

Ramshackle: ‘Chin On the Kerb’

Ramshackle‘s second album amply displays the fact that they’re stars in waiting. Or straining at the starting gate, perhaps; as ‘Chin On the Kerb’ feels like someone pacing in anticipation, winding up in order to lash out, someone containing so much but unsure of their moment.

Steve Roberts, Johnson Somerset and Ben Chapman make up Ramshackle. With their previous album ‘Depthology’ they sent admiring ripples through the midground of the blues and soul scene, yet so far they’ve eclipsed by the Bristol superstars on one hand and the steamroller marketing of American R&B on the other. A pity – because the longer you listen to this album the more impressive Ramshackle sound. Compare it to the successive waves of smug, self-satisfied vocal stars that carpet-bomb our soul shelves. It’s like the difference between listening to the shouts of a bandstanding actor and eavesdropping on an intense conversation in the corner of a bar. This band are smooth, but they never sound like they’re big-E Entertainment paste.

The central axis is Roberts’ British/Caribbean voice, bowled in somewhere between the edgy sweetness of Horace Andy, Austin Howard’s lushly muscular prowl and the testifying tenor roar of Doug Pinnick. And Ramshackle seem to have their initial foundations on whatever boundary lines there may be between Massive Attack, On-U Sound and Ellis, Beggs & Howard, but let themselves roam a good deal further. The ranked and sussed electro-acoustic instrumentation touches on trip-hop, on U2 Big Music rock and on techno, on soul and R&B, on church singing, Jamaica dub-juice and slow funk shakedown. Ramshackle are letting it all come to them, nourished by the convergence of those rich streams similar to the all-embracing muse of their Brit-soul contemporary Lewis Taylor, or – in intent, if not manner – to the Prince of The Cross or Symbol.

Certainly they’ve sheathed their black-pop instincts in richly crafted clothing. From My Mind emerges from cloudy electronic shapes to a sweet spartan R&B groove and tiny, intent piano kisses. Works of Devotion lounges on the dubbier ingredient of padded bass, high echoing Jericho trumpet flickers and bouncy toasting; Roberts blazes with quiet righteousness, balancing out the snaky threat of the industrial synth that slides through the song like the worm in the apple. And they’ve got a knack with uplifting ballad pop. The acoustic strum and sweet-rocking sway of Don’t Turn Me Away; the bluesy plaint of (What About) Tomorrow with its hip-hop beats and train-whistle wastelands; the joyous, sunny gospel sighs and carnival brass that ripple through the blissed-out single, Freshly Rained-On Grass; or Eden’s gospelly piano’n’beats, laden with dangling glittery sounds like harmonica memories and a family of chorus vocals.

But ‘Chin On the Kerb’ is shadowed by palpable alarm – “Let me tell you / I smell blood in the water.” Even when they’re taking the air and laughing into the sunlight on Freshly Rained-On Grass, there’s a sense of Ramshackle rocking and poised on the balls of their heels, preparing to take the blow and meet the challenge whenever it snakes out of nowhere to catch them. Granted, it’s no ‘Mezzanine’ – it lacks the spookiness, the seductive alienation, the naked rage Massive Attack are allowing themselves. And what darkness exists in this album happens to Roberts’ protagonists, it’s not of them. But there’s a religious sense of right and wrong driving this, which sets up a particular tension in Ramshackle’s tales of life on the rough edge. Just as Roberts can flick lightly between street-sly patois and preacher pomp, Ramshackle’s moods are volatile beneath the smoothness.

If there’s anything you take away from the album, it’s the impression of a hot-headed and contrary man paying a loyal personal tribute to the resilience of the beleaguered black experience. The pomp-rock-tinged Temple – piano and bass from house music meeting a Tackhead-style forcefulness, Roberts’ voice fracturing into sweet choruses and torn-up foreboding roars – warns of hostile worlds outside the church doors. No Touchi”s tales of a crime-ridden community on the last scraps of its pride (“I see less clearly in these advancing years.. / No touchi’ rock, combat bad intentions”) touch on Gaye’s Inner City Blues, ragga inflections dodging the drilling whine of synth and the discreet knife-play of scratching.

Though the above is mild compared to the vengeful slash at brotherhood betrayed on Broken Soul. Or to the vipers-nest atmosphere of the album’s loping title track, where the guitars clot and loom like hangovers, and the synths gleam like yellowed morning-after teeth: “The Judas kiss / of cold glass to my lips / tells me I’m gonna keep doing this all of the time.” Roberts sounds as if he’s washed up against a pissed-on wall, torn pants fouled and down round bruised thighs, surfacing into one of those horrible moments of absolute truth when there’s nothing between you and the raddled wound that you called your soul before you got lost on the dirty side.

Still, even while lying in the gutter, the old line about looking at the stars still applies. In the end, it’s about the determination of faith-under-fire, as in the hymnal, luscious-as-tears Let Em Go and in the way the devotional vision in Lament bears as much witness to the devastation of black communities by alcoholism and self-hating violence as it does to the landscape of promised redemption; Roberts’ voice embracing all of this.

The closer, Safe (with its unexpected crest of sumptuous weeping violas), is a soldier’s song. Fraternal and distressing as a lost harmonica left on a torn battlefield, and acknowledging the brutalisation of young boys into fighting men – “and when I met the enemy / it was just a boy’s eyes, cold and distant. / Such savagery / coming from a man like me.” But when the last words come, they aren’t just a plea for support, but a resolution to find one’s way back to truth: “I wish to be safe in the arms of the Lord / I want to be faithful in deeds and words.”

They might believe that love will triumph over rage, but they don’t treat that rage lightly. Ramshackle? Anything but. Rich and rewarding.

Ramshackle: ‘Chin On the Kerb’
Edel UK Records/Whatever… Records, EDEL 098602WHE (4009880986028)
CD-only album
18th April 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Ramshackle 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

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July 1997 – album reviews – Barry Black’s ‘Tragic Animal Stories’ (“playing off an all-American goofiness against a frowning European sternness”)

29 Jul
Barry Black: 'Tragic Animal Stories'

Barry Black: ‘Tragic Animal Stories’

When he’s not fronting the infamously shambolic noise merchants Archers of Loaf, Eric Bachmann is apparently found holed up in the practise rooms at North Carolina School of the Arts claiming he’s actually someone else. If ‘Tragic Animal Stories’ is anything to go by he is, in fact, several other people. But if they all want to call themselves “Barry Black” to save time, that’s fine by me. Hi, Barry. What’s in that box you’re clutching, then?

Originally just a collection of soundboard experiments – the sort of thing that’s invariably going to sprout up if you leave a couple of musicians in a room with a new toy – Barry Black has evolved into an after-hours mess-about-with-intent which has previously been graced by such wilful eccentrics as Ben Folds (another guy who thinks he’s three different people) or the Clodfelter brothers from Geezer Lake. For this second album, though, Eric Bachman’s instrumentation and samples are augmented by the enthusiastic mess of Chris Waibach’s drums and tuned percussion, and by Sebadoh producer Bob Weston’s guitar, trumpet and engineering.

Half of ‘Tragic Animal Stories’ is shambling takes on dark loungecore soundtrack cheese, with the other half a collection of sound-puzzles that seem to have been extracted from the gaps between instruments. Eric’s music leans as precariously like a tumbledown shack – as ramshackle and oddly comforting as the spattered bloops of Morse code keyboard that usher in and wave out the album – and floats in a kind of fluid dusky haze, in which movement in any direction is possible as long as you’re not hung up about how fast you get there.

It doesn’t take long for the cheerful schizophrenia of ‘Tragic Animal Stories’ to make itself felt. The Horrible Truth About Plankton goes from being hypnotic and enwebbed in the suffocating, shuddering dust of an organ straight out of a Czech horror film to being relieved by falling-apart slacker-jazz drums and sweet shambling melodies carried on Waibach’s cheerful vibes, and ends up as easy listening on a slight O.D of random tranquillisers. Chimps sounds like Startled Insects in gigglesome mood: mechanical pings and stringy high life guitar jostling with a cabaret wind band (brass and kazoo) and pushing it into ‘Threepenny Opera’ land, complete with wild skinny tremors of Jamie Muir-style xylophone.

The lovely, brave little tune of Slow Loris Lament clambers out of a shambling toybox orchestration, like a lo-fi Rick Wakeman among the Playpeople. A stylophone plays a fanfare over a radio whine. There are barking noises, ticklish steel drums and a bassoon. Don’t waste any time waiting for a hot guitar solo: Slash couldn’t make the session (and there’s a rumour that they’ve still got Joe Satriani locked up in a cupboard off the control room from the time when they opted to wipe off his lines in favour of a triangle track).

As expected, there’s a definite fuck-around element to all this, but thankfully without that wacky “nothing’s serious” sloppy buffoonery that hangs around many lo-fi groups like the gang joker’s B.O. It sounds as if Eric’s involved in a more serious game of his own, playing off an all-American goofiness against a frowning European sternness, arty soundtrack pretensions against musical jokes, flake against pose.

Duelling Elephants comes out like a darker sketch from ‘Carnival of the Animals’ that refused to take itself too seriously, and made a beeline for a cartoon Munich beerhall, dragging the remains of its menace behind it. The oompah bassline and trembling treble of the piano, mingled with close brass and bassoons has the sadistic comedy of Nickelodeon animation, but it also ripples as ominously as disturbed water. Drowning Spider emerges through an antique shellac crackle: walloped piano like Fats Waller having a nervous breakdown and careening off the edge of the recording reel. Iditarod Sleigh Dogs – a scratched rhythm from detuned banjos and tinkly, twitchy, plonky kiddie piano lines – sounds like Eric composed it with his head on upside-down. Cute.

Even with the playfulness, ‘Tragic Animal Stories’ always has its serious side. On When Sharks Smell Blood, dazed front-crawl piano swims and sways to shore, while rakes of ravenous solo and duo cellos wind around it and a deathly creak (a leaning rocking chair? a wind swing door? a murderer’s step on the verandah?) infiltrates the background. For the big picture, there’s the David Torn spaghetti western of Derelict Vultures, starting life with a harsh guitar scratch and limping Morricone melodies from a splitting, tortured, midrange electric guitar and a filtered swoosh of background, until harsh Russian horns take over the melody and pull it off the badlands onto the steppes.

Tropical Fish Revival sounds like Death approaching a lean-to in a Kingston shantytown. Eric’s mournful, indistinguishable sung words (his only vocal performance on the whole album) flutter above his clang of funereal piano, a shabby, heavy-footed drum loop and a fluting, buzzy keyboard flutter. A shimmer of vibrating steel pan reverbs off into the distance, and the light fades with it.

Snail Trail of Tears closes the album with the lullaby sound of a music-box vibraphone and an overdriven guitar drone melody like a stretchy harmonium. It sounds like Pram or Labradford revamping King Crimson‘s Starless on a heavy summer evening. The bass grumbles like a cello. An out-of-phase air extractor noise adds a layer of feathery sound like a heavenly choir, and then it drops away into those Morse bloops again. Over and out.

Small music from another place. I want to go there.

Barry Black: ‘Tragic Animal Stories’
Alias Records, A122 (0 93716 01222 1)
CD/vinyl album
29th July 1997
Get it from: Alias Records
Barry Black (Eric Bachmann) online:
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July 1997 – album reviews – Sadhappy’s ‘Good Day Bad Dream’ (“a contemporary progressive group that’s unafraid to mingle technique, horror, street-smarts and a mordant, lethal wit”)

4 Jul

Sadhappy: 'Good Day Bad Dream'

Sadhappy: ‘Good Day Bad Dream’

The voice on the telephone chuckles. “Sure, it all made sense to me. You just burn it out, past the pain. / Sure it’s all toxin: you just work it out of your system.” Somewhere between a Berklee College education, an Olympia punk statement and the world of woodshed ravings you’ll find this – rolling down a quiet highway like a fatal fog-wall.

For their fourth album, the alliance of drummer/sample mangler Evan Schiller and bassist/spoken-word freak Paul Hinklin has convulsed yet again to install a new Sadhappy lineup. Out goes eccentric Critters Buggin/Tuatara sax player Skerik. In comes Michael Manring, ’90s bass guitar genius, for a very different approach to the power trio. Two basses might sound like a recipe for disaster – ‘Jazz Odyssey’ doubled up, or cheesy slap-funk duels. Sadhappy get around this by realising the implicit power in the timbre of the bass guitar: the added resonance, the volcanic rumble it’s impossible to ignore, the sheer booty-shaking body. And they go for it full-bloodedly. In the resulting low-end carnage, saxes and guitars are not missed.

A lot of this is to do with Manring, who’s rivalled only by Tony Levin, Victor Wooten and Doug Wimbish as a contemporary redefiner of bass guitar. Not content with just a jaw-droppingly dextrous technique (whether grooving fingerstyle, slapping, tapping, or picking), he’s as liable to mutate melodies by abrading them with an EBow and/or in-flight retuning. And, as you’d expect, ‘Good Day Bad Dream’ is a treasure box of bass sounds – the levitational noises on Lost in Bass; the chainsaw punk rumble on Maintenance Pissed and Chronic Subsonic Tonic; the multitracked interplay of worming harmonics, chunky strums, and wolf-wails on The Kitchen Sink. But it’s no mere technique-fest.

Yes, for the most part it’s instrumental. And at its most basic (Home Lobotomy Kit, Honeymoon Deathbed) it tugs us through a darker edged and more credible fusion revamp via Hinklin’s brutally precise twanging, growling basslines, Schiller’s clattering, tight as a mantrap drums, and Manring’s distorted, storming, articulate leads. And there’s a strong element of the roaring hybrid of thrash, fusion and left field virtuosics that fuelled Manring’s last album ‘Thonk’, recorded as an attempt to escape his inconvenient reputation as a jazz-leaning New Age muso. But in meeting the streetwise intelligence of Schiller’s drumming and Hinklin’s sardonic New Music/punk’n’sarcasm influences, Manring’s restless and complex musicality has completed its journey away from the New Age racks.

‘Good Day Bad Dream’ emerges from this as an album blending multiple strands of modern electric music with surprising success. It’s an overlapping low end approach of eerie smoggy textures, wrapping up art punk, weird funk, jazz, dark ambience, sampledelia, progressive rock, sound massage, and a dash of psychological sewage. The trio nod to Mingus, the smouldering dark star of modern jazz, with a strutting and dextrous cover of his sarcastic II b.s. With the fifteen minutes of deathly textures and world-swallowing bass oceanics on The Death of Webern, they’ve got that scary isolationist-ambient game sown up too.

Evan Schiller’s light touch throughout ensures that the band are never bogged down. Within The Kitchen Sink’s light-fingered ostinatos, King Crimson riff choirs and E bow calls, his precise percussion approach rings, swooshes, crashes and drops out to leave perilous canyons in the texture of the music. On SBD, he shines with an array of sparse metallic taps and lethally timed buzz-rolls under a lowering cloud of bass, a dark canopy of wails and murmurs through which Manring winds skeletal insect-trails of overdriven bass, twisting and skirling like cyborg bagpipes.

But the key to Sadhappy’s success in reaching out beyond the fusion ghetto is Paul Hinklin’s acidic humour, which lurks somewhere in the triangle between Tom Waits, Frank Zappa and Bill Hicks. In the recurring, repulsive figure of Oscar (a forty-nine-year-old backwoods Beavis with a voice like a plastics bonfire), he gives Sadhappy their own all-American idiot guide, a lottery sweepstake winner with “money comin’ out of his ass” swaggering over a racket of bellowing grunge-garage art rock riffs. His new rich man’s horizons lead him only as far as the porn racks at the general store, or to the bar; a coarsened American Dreamer content to do nothing more than wallow in his own filth and boast about it (“Yeah, you gotta work for the rest of your life: I own the streets I piss in!”).

On False Information – a sort of post-Laswell take on a ‘Remain in Light’ groove, burrowing through post-rock and hip hop en route – Hinkler offers us a lighter look at the aches and absurdities of the modern human condition. “All the guilt, all the shames, all the blames, / all the payments that you pay for crimes you never even committed, / never even thought of – what’s up with that?”. Schiller’s pin-sharp sample-heavy beats jab and dodge like a lethal flyweight boxer as Hinklin’s sardonic voice chuckles at enlightenment: “You see past everything and you say, this is just me plus garbage. Hell, if I couldn’t see the garbage, then I would be the garbage. Thank God I can tell I’m not the garbage. “‘Scuse me, honey. I have to take myself out to the trash. What is truly me will come back to dinner. It’ll just be me minus garbage.””

Sometimes though, the humour goes darker. In the harsh fable of Hammering Man, the townsfolk turn out to watch the unveiling of a statue: “a testament to the nameless brave, to the unselfish, the holy slaves. The ones who gave their bodies and minds to the army, the ones that gave themselves to the might of the all powerful industrial machine. The ones that had made America strong, the ones that had made America beautiful. The ones that, through no fault of their own, had turned it into a wasteland.” Small wonder that the statue crumbles, toppling to pin the spectators to the earth.

In the brooding dusky groovescape of Oscar Gets Laid, we get to see a younger Oscar, callow and innocent, rubbing up for the first time against the world that’s going to corrupt him. Manring’s mixture of rattling ominous echoes and scritching, coppery industrial harmonics send a shiver down the spine, as Hinklin’s murmured vocals explore paranoia and fascination down the back alleyways of the mean streets – malevolent shadows, and the breath of heroin ghosting out of the skins of hookers. At last: a contemporary progressive group that’s unafraid to mingle technique, horror, street-smarts and a mordant, lethal wit.

It’s also one that’s firmly rooted in the present, soaking up the lessons of grunge, dance, and sampler culture, while still playing the arse off all comers. Even if ‘Good Day Bad Dream’ sometimes strains the limits of its excellence by being just a little too diffuse, too dependent on fusion fallback, Sadhappy move through their music with assurance, imagination, presence and a brutal vigour. And that’s an all too rare combination.

The smile on the face of a charming, constructive killer.

Sadhappy: ‘Good Day Bad Dream’
Periscope Recordings, PERISCOPE RECORDINGS CD04 (7 96873 00042 0)
CD/download album
Released: 2nd July 1997

Get it from: (2020 update) Original CD printed in a run of 1,000 – CD and download best obtained from Bandcamp.
Sadhappy online:
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July 1997 – album reviews – The Geraldine Fibbers’ ‘Butch’ (“a uninhibited maelstrom of ferocious guitars that lash like electrified hair… black humour in spades, but the Fibbers’ brand of fucked-up country keeps the ravaged heartland heartstrings and sour juice intact”)

3 Jul

The Geraldine Fibbers; 'Butch'

The Geraldine Fibbers; ‘Butch’

Various riot-on grrls and drama queens, once they’ve tired of punking up girl-group lisping, like to play with those oh so challenging images of junkies and whores. Well, good luck, kids. Play nicely. But while you try on the roles like they’re attention grabbing prom dresses, Carla Bozulich has genuinely Been There, Done That during her own harrowing past. And she’s brought back a mass of bone-breaking songs with her on her voyage back from the brink. And her band, The Geraldine Fibbers, bring them to life the way a flamethrower brightens up, oh, any social gathering where plenty of flammable frills are clustered together. Wake up time, you pretty things.

Oh yes. See them run for cover.

Whoever’s heard the previous Fibbers album, ‘Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home’, will have an idea of what to expect. Except that ‘Butch’ is to its predecessor what ‘Nevermind’ is to ‘Slippery When Wet’. Maybe it’s the recruitment of new guitarist Nels Cline, or maybe it’s just Carla finally diving full into the fray with both feet; but ‘Butch’ is a uninhibited maelstrom of ferocious guitars that lash like electrified hair, bass that booms like an iceberg smacking up the side of the Titanic, spasms of frenetic voodoo drumming and Jessy Greene’s violin flaying the skin off any ear that’s left unflattened.

Oh, and Carla’s voice. Emmylou Harris channeling Diamanda Galas doesn’t come halfway to this. As sharp and as powerful as a swung shoulderblade, as pointed as a knitting needle driven through the brain. The raw power of someone who’s lived through enough not to give a flying fuck about what anybody else thinks.

Of course in Fibberworld the fucks are probably flying. Like fists. Airborne, fast, rolling over; brutal, biting, clawing like rabid eagles. Sex permeates this album like river water in Ophelia’s bridegown, and while there’s a wild exhilaration to it, it’s never far from violence, meted out by Carla herself or by one of the other stark shadowy characters who ripple through her songs like sharks in a blood trail. There’s been nothing like this since that crack of psychic thunder that was the first Throwing Muses album twelve years ago. And if you’ve always missed that original, wantonly possessed Kristin Hersh since she mellowed into first a college rock icon and then an eldritch acoustic housewife, Carla beckons with a sharply bevelled fingernail and a mouthful of mercilessly shredded woman-words.

You think “Muses”, you think “X”; you think “Hole with talent instead of just posturing”; you think “early Velvets on nightmare acid, and with Nico convulsing out of that Teutonic cool for once.” And you also think country music, which soaks the fabric of “Butch” and ferments their Los Angeles punk hearts. But this is no joker’s cowpunk. It’s got black humour in spades, but the Fibbers’ brand of fucked-up country keeps the ravaged heartland heartstrings and sour juice intact.

Folks Like Me’s wooden, honky-tonk four-four has the inevitable slippery lap steel and plaintive weave of fiddle, the queasy bends of guitar and voice. But this is a tale of life off the highways, in the darkest and most twisted woods: Tammy Wynette via ‘Deliverance’ and ‘Angel Heart’. This time, the woman who can’t stand by her man comes of strange and sinister stock (“My heart wants to remain what I’ve become… / There’s no word for this where I come from”) and she knows that the idyll must end before her own blood catches up with her: “Your Lord knows I don’t want to leave here. / I’d like to stay in this little house and provide for you / and if I knew I’d only be risking my own life, / I’d stay until they came and struck me dead, / but I couldn’t stand to see them hurt a hair on your sweet head…”

Pet Angel gives us an American Gothic waltz with lyrics infested by wild wood romance and ‘Twins Peaks’ owls: “You cradle my body in sweetness and warmth, and a sweet wind blows through the trees… / The rain cracks the sky like tears of joy… makes mischief in her hair.” Love and death are inextricably combined (“You are my sunshine, I pull the drapes shut tight. / It’s curtains for you, goodbye. / The cat’s in the bag, the bag’s in the river, / the river makes me cry”), and out here, murder’s as natural as prayer: “To you, to you, straight up to you, / into your charitable hands/ Take care of him, Jesus, I know you’ll do what’s best / Lay his wicked soul to rest.”

Carla’s worldview is nightmarish, constantly under attack, with even the sun joining in with the warfare – on California Tuffy, she announces “a ball of light comes down / to bite me on the ass, the legs, the breasts / I’m falling from my nest.” And the answer is a swipe back with all the claws out, claiming “Yes I am just a tart, a heart on stilts. / Pick the flower and it will wilt, / to die in bliss, for a greedy lover’s kiss” before stinging back with a flail of electric noise and “you will never get my heart.” Toy Box is brutally, near unbearably graphic, a hall of distorting mirrors and wartime dispatches from the sex trade – “My shell on top of your knotty fist / with a speculum shoved up my cunt after hours… / For one lousy minute she felt like a queen. / I stand her naked at attention. Is this my only skill?”

Then there’s the metal hammering of I Killed the Cuckoo, as guitars screech, text goes through the mincer, fate and conflict body-slam in illegible shards. “The clock is dead for once and for all / until the next time I run in with you… / Lay me lower than I prayed for sweety heart… / In the end you crash into a milk truck. / I can see it in the tea leaves: you’re fucked.” In Arrow to My Drunken Eye there’s a flicker of incestuous horror in the warning “don’t be caught with your nightie mussed / and if you are questioned don’t tell them what we’ve discussed.”

Maybe it’s for respite from the rage, but scattered through ‘Butch’ are doorways to elsewhere as the band sink the odd claw into the avant-garde. There’s the drowned fairground ghosting of Heliotrope; or the venomous ambient murk enveloping Claudine’s New Orleans lurch, full of knuckly hideous life, like facehuggers trying to clamber out of a gumbo. And there’s a blood pulsing, amyl nitrate cover of Can’s You Doo Right – enough to scare the gloves off Holger Czukay and have aseptic contemporary Krautrock boys bricking it en masse.

However, it’s always Carla’s songs that snatch the attention; and rightly so. Here’s a reckless and merciless imagination at work, exploring the fragility of an ageing drag queen on the title track (“pushin’ thirty five under an answer blanket”) who’s “always a much prettier bird than any old girl bird… / Shades of light green, deep blue and just a touch of rouge / It’s funny how easy it is to lose / And all you’re left with is chaos and a dirty face.” Or diving into chaos with Seven or In 10 as she explodes around the body of a enemy lover, abandoning control and bringing down a foe with her: “I’ve gotta little trick for you. / I can split in two / or in seven / or in ten / little friends on whom I can depend… / We told you not to get inside our head or in our bed. / You wanna own this dish so you can eat it any time you wish… / Not so fast, fucker!”

But even as Carla delivers a full on primal punk scream of “you might think I hate you!”, she offers us no straight answers. Well, there aren’t any. Part of the impact of ‘Butch’ is that whatever Carla’s had to go through, she’s now so well adapted to it that you can’t imagine her living away from it. The world’s often built on chaos and violence; Carla’s found out more about that than most; and she’s now too much a part of it to ever escape. But if she’s ambiguously intertwined with the hand that beats, she’s also biting it ’til it bleeds.

Roll up the sunroof, mount rocket launchers on the beach buggy and hit Venice Beach with your anger clenched in your fist. Run down any fucker that gets in your way. It’s a sun ripped jungle out there, full of dangerous fruit. California dreaming will never be the same again.

The Geraldine Fibbers: ‘Butch’
Virgin Records America Inc., CDVUS 133 / 7243 8 44629 2 5 (724384462925)
CD-only album
1st July 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand or streamed.
The Geraldine Fibbers online:
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Additional notes: (2020 update) The Geraldine Fibbers split up after ‘Butch’. Carla Bozulich and Nels Cline went on to form Scarnella; more famously, Nels eventually joined Wilco. Carla now has a solo career as well as working with her band Evangelista.

June 1997 – album reviews – Blowpipe’s ‘First Circle’ (“the first impression of “cool-school jazz for acid housers” is too simplistic….breath-driven futurism”)

3 Jun
Blowpipe: 'First Circle'

Blowpipe: ‘First Circle’

The saxophone is the ultimate instrument, offering a unmatched degree of control. Mind you, that was a direct quote from a jazzer who had an unmistakeable sax slung round his neck. So perhaps it wasn’t an objective opinion. Nonetheless, he had a point – drawing most directly on the breath which embodies a person’s voice, the saxophone does have that extra human quality. If you want to score a thoughtful film noir tableau, you’re not gonna use a mandolin, are you?). I digress (and you could, but anyway…)

Robin Blick plays saxophone (as well as dabbling in orchestral horns, trumpets, flugelhorns and even the possibilities of industrial piping). His son Andrew Blick plays trumpet and manipulates sound treatments. Both are jazzers at heart. Both are also the heart of the disarmingly-named Blowpipe, an attempt to marry instrumental jazz to the electronic humanism of club culture dancefloors. Yes, yes, sounds familiar. But this isn’t just a case of glueing jazz horns down to a club beat; neither is it one of producing music to validate your own cappuccino-classiness to.

‘First Circle’ (on which the Blicks are teamed with sequencer whiz Stephen Watkins and guitarist Paul Reeson) is a sort of ‘Kind of Blue’ for the chillout room. This is what acid jazz could’ve been if it had been motivated by jazz rather than a deep desire to appear in liqueur adverts. Warm layers of Watkins’ quilted and deceptively digestible electronica interacting with the Blicks’ horns: bopping and undulating along in fine fashion, free as the air. It’s as if Gil Evans had met the Aphex Twin; if ‘In a Silent Way’ had been remodelled by Goldie; or if Squarepusher had been given an enforced Prozac overdose to turn down the heat on his flashy, glistening jazz fusion leanings.

Certainly it’s unmistakeably jazz-rooted, and not merely the product of jazz listeners. The amnesiac guitar shimmer, skittering boogie bass and toppy forebeat of Conc provide the base for Andrew’s sustained trumpet and Robin’s muted, sleepy soprano sax to weave fine brass threads around each other, and to pay homage along the way to Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, and Chet Baker. Prop blazes immediately into mariachi-funk action with an irrepressible verve: massed and chortling wah-wah trumpets, Robin’s reproving jazzy alto, and Reeson’s clotted McLaughlin-y solo and stratospheric guitar washes. On Chixalub the guitar and beats chop out a skinny, tight funk (with the occasional drum’n’bass echo trap), while the ranging trumpet is wah-ed and flanged to buggery. Only the sax is untreated here, dropping in late in the day with witty bebop twiddles; and long notes of flute hang in the background like Aztec decoration.

But Blowpipe are more than lite-jazzers squeezing themselves into clubbers’ catsuits. And the first impression of “cool-school jazz for acid housers” is too simplistic. Blowpipe might not be up for pugnacious, aggressively twisted modern jazz along the lines of Charles Mingus or Julius Hemphill, and they do aim at accessible melodies. But they’re still more than ready to explore outside the usual margins, in the tradition of true jazz mavericks.

The title track of ‘First Circle’ follows in the footsteps of Wynton Marsalis, Django Bates and Mark Anthony Turnage: a fascinating collision between modern jazz and contemporary classical. Beneath the randomly precise interjections of guitar and sax, and the corkscrewing Philip Glass runs of trumpets, trapped snippets of rock bass drum pin down the restless rhythm. Shredding violins teeter up the scale on high-wire atonality, wobbling higher, higher… and lurching out. On Toba, a modal tenor explores over electronic metallophone, Reeson’s tart Fripp-coloured sustained guitar swells, and a cymbals and high toms beat. Suddenly, there’s a crunch of hurricane-blast guitar noise before it all drops away into echoing, perturbed ambience: dead strings, echoing growls of trumpet, a few sparks of brass in the darkness.

It’s also sure that Blowpipe have an ear pressed against the connecting wall, listening to the electronic dabblings of that obsessive-looking teenager in the next flat. Why else the twinkly, computer noise/soft industry dub opening Trench, before the beautiful trumpet lines, minimalist string arpeggios and birdsong sax drift in like a warm front? On a moodier tip, the ascending brass duets of Kucou are wrapped in the same sort of ambience David Sylvian used in order to coax Kenny Wheeler, Percy Jones or David Torn into the arms of his misty balladry: a thoughtful snare beat, forest textures, Durutti Column guitar points and a minimal, thrumphing, clay-spattered bass sound. Even with the last minutes hijacked by quacking-duck cartoon trumpet, ambient sophisti-pop still leaves its mark.

Unkindness takes things the furthest, into more hostile atmosphere. A broody frown of menacing sound for openers, with sparse, warping antique sequencers and distant electronic booms. Arid knuckle-tapping hand drums, trumpet decorations fluttering down like flaking gold plaster, quiet robotic emissions from the tenor sax all hanging inside a vast bleak whoosh of ambience. It’s like being an ant trapped inside an enormous high altitude jet engine at cruising power, miles and miles above the earth: everything around you is far too big for you to comprehend, or to destroy you, but it can and does cause a profound sense of dislocation and discomfort. True, the jazz does win through when the ambience drops out to make way for trumpet, sax and conga, but it’s not long before things are back to the Moog-warping sounds of the intro. This is what you’d get if Labradford or Biosphere took up a residency at Birdland.

When they’re stretching themselves, or letting their sense of history shake hands with their zest for technology, Blowpipe are grasping at music far beyond simple genre; inhaling air and transmuting it via both electronics and manual valves into something new. You could call it all post-rock-jazz if that wasn’t such a stupid name. “Encryption fusion” might be a better way of putting it. ‘First Circle’ is certainly one to put up on the phuture-jazz shelf with Guru’s ‘Jazzmatazz’, Courtney Pine’s work with DJ Pogo, and Us3’s ‘Hand On the Torch’. This is breath-driven futurism: at their best, Blowpipe aim and – puff – hit the mark.

Blowpipe: ‘First Circle’
Needlework Records, STITCH6CD/LP (5 034061 000629)
CD/vinyl album
2nd June 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand or streamed.
Blowpipe online:
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Additional notes: Robin Blick now leads Blick Trio; Andrew Blick leads Gyratory System.

May 1997 – album reviews – Mark Eitzel’s ‘Lovers’ Leap USA’ (“contains some of Eitzel’s best songs and some previously unseen directions for his art… a half-baked masterpiece”)

30 May

Mark Eitzel: 'Lover's Leap USA'

Mark Eitzel: ‘Lover’s Leap USA’

Culled and scraped up from Mark Eitzel‘s demo drawer in order to finance touring, ‘Lovers’ Leap USA’ is not exactly the album we’re hoping the former American Music Club frontman will make. In fact, most of it is apparently outtakes from Eitzel’s actual forthcoming album (which rejoices in the catchy, cheery title of ‘Caught in a Trap and I Can’t Back Out ‘Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby‘) plus what sounds like his final San Francisco demos (with AMC’s multi-instrumentalist Bruce Kaphan fleshing out the sound). Not always to Eitzel’s satisfaction, as he’s urged us to skip the first two “really awful” tracks. Well, he’s always been his own best publicist.

In spite of Eitzel’s deprecations and the album’s unpolished, occasionally sullen state (effectively, it’s a scrappy bootleg), ‘Lovers Leap USA’ contains some of Eitzel’s best songs and some previously unseen directions for his art, making it something of a half-baked masterpiece. Some songs – What Good is Love, The Big House, Have No Words – are little more than straight acoustic skeletons, on which Eitzel’s singing is either mesmeric or painfully flat and jumbled. Some (such as Leave Her Alone) sound more like exhausted Arab Strap trudges, with a drawerful of industrial grind muddying the atmosphere. In others, Eitzel drifts off into trip-hop atmospherics – easy- listening string loops, opiated piano touches, giant slow shadowy drums. And on the expansive feel of Lost and Lonely, Eitzel’s whispers sound uncannily like Chris Isaak, floating above the swish of passing cars and birdsong like a dawn haze.

‘Lovers Leap USA’ also shows that Eitzel remains in touch with the majestic tunes that floated or roared through American Music Club’s angst. How Will You Face Yourself in Sleep takes us back to the delicate traceries of fear that graced Gratitude Walks or Laughingstock. Red velvet curtains haunt the lyrics and the sounds of a song set in a hotel full of unspecified performers and travellers, restless “under a thin blanket, ’cause when you’re on the move you don’t need to be warm – / you pull another dark flood over your hidden form.” These people are worn down enough to see the machinery (“you can see through every plot, you know how they end… / Always said you would quit before you got fired. / Now you’re treading water, forgotten and tired…”) and trudge through their roles, only consoled by knowing which strings will pull on them.

Dream in Your Heart, with its dark burning fuzz of angry guitars, could’ve been one of AMC’s more aggressive moments, replete with classic Eitzel runaway metaphors (“the bitterness wears me like a chain, since I’m too Mark Eitzel vain for the Man of Steel I’ve become”) and the choruses which clasp frantically at elusive hopes (“I saw a dream in your heart / for a beauty beyond your eyes”). If people still sung protest songs at the enemy, you’d imagine a phalanx of indignant American feminists roaring Leave Her Alone at Pat Robertson. As it is, here we have a battle-scarred Eitzel limping defiantly across a bloodied drag of guitar and churned-up trash-noise to stick pins into a bigot. “You’re God’s little soldier, making sure his thunderbolts get thrown… / I just want to bang nails in your cross, I want to drive those nails home.” He’s never sung out with such positive pride before – “My sister never got credit for anything; / her life was just a constant second-guessing. / She doesn’t need your holy undressing, / and most of all, she doesn’t need your blessing.”

Two suspicious meditations on fame, The Big House and Nice Nice Nice, might have sprung from the bitter backwash of AMC’s brief encounter with the big time. The first, in cranky acoustic cynicism, strips the glitz from the glittering bubble at the top of the pile (“antique paintings from across the pond, chandeliers and porcelain figurines / an island in the calm of the storm, scattered meaningless shouted words and bored security guards,”), and sees Eitzel as spectator in a backstage zone “as hollow as King Tut’s womb”, munching cheerlessly on bar snacks and watching “this treadmill… moving the river of green, / …freedom slipping through the cracks.” It’s someone else in the spotlight this time, atop a fortress of speaker stacks, kidding himself he’s empowered; but Eitzel’s disgust is the scorn of a man who’s been close enough to get stained himself. “Let ’em weigh you and judge you, let ’em use you as their tool. / You give it away, you fool, you fool, you fool.”

Even more cuttingly, Nice Nice Nice deals with the artistic failure-turned-self-promoter – “This is the wall you broke your head on, / the one you’ve lied about so many times. / And now you’ll display a marvel for the ages, / a masterpiece of grace and design / with a meaning that no-one really finds.” Here mass acceptance comes with the price of knowing “you’re just like them, deep down”, but it’s impossible to know which side the alienated but notoriously anti-precious Eitzel’s really on.

There are some glimpses of a starker personal honesty. The spindly blues of What Good is Love (in which Eitzel’s clacking metronome sounds as if it’s snipping strips from his life) is an agnostic’s sleepless night, dismantling the articles of faith one by one and feeling the emptiness grow. “All my chicken-bone dreams left on a windowsill too long, / so easy to pull them apart… / And if it won’t set us free, and there’s nothing above, / then what good are we, and what good is love?”

Steve I Always Knew is Eitzel’s first open acknowledgement in song of his own bisexuality. But that’s less of a revelation than the way in which he strips himself bare in it. In the upfront world of gay pickups, he’s hard-put to swagger: “I guess all this means we’re going to sleep together – / outside I’m hard as a brick, inside I’m like a feather… / I guess in bed I was kind of a sweet nothing – / and for your money, you could’ve done much better.” Although Eitzel’s the one who’s first dumped, then denied (“You moved to New York to clean up, and came back married to a cop. / And when I saw you on the street, I could tell you didn’t want to stop,”) he ends up the strong one, able to face what his erstwhile lover recognises but can’t deal with. “You said the only way through fear is to give in, / and you were right, you were right.”

The most fascinating songs here are the ones where the borders of the problem are lost to view. In Lost and Lonely, Eitzel’s walking from dawn ’til dusk “like the ghost of a man… beyond the blessing of women and the shadow of doubt”, under “cruel summer starlight on a dark street.” The song unravels in murmuring drunken thought, a fumbling of fleeting images (“measure the life in miles forgotten”; “why hold a seance? I know you won’t call”; “who would chain the stars too heavy to walk?”) and a repeating mumble of “thought you were lonely as me.” Towards the end, Eitzel mutters a barely audible “thank you”, like a sleepwalking Fat Elvis.

It’s that particular Elvis who seems to haunt the remaining pieces, which are Eitzel’s hypnotically dissolving forays into trip hop. Like the narcotic but impenetrable lushness of Your Glass Jaw, in which strings, vibes and congas seem to be buoying up a deadweight singer “high in a bright light” who only sloughs off more of those cryptic, disconnected mumbles – “dissolve bright eyes”; “mosquito hunger, the blood of saints.” It might be the collapse of a champion, the same pulverised resistance that Scott Walker evoked on ‘Tilt’.

Pay It Back loops satellite chatter and rumbling gongs around Eitzel’s skinny strums, an irretrievably distant and uncaring brushoff from a frozen heart. “Do I owe you my soul for your heartbeat to inhabit? / Well you can have it… / Buried alive, better off dead. /… Whatever it is I owe you, I’ll pay you back.” And in Lost My Humor, Eitzel returns to double-bass’n’piano torch-song sounds, but submerges them in an obscuring post-rock drone. Likewise, his voice is a half- buried baritone whisper like gutter-trodden velvet, repeating “I lost my humor” as a cynical mantra, trailing it with clinchers from the self-mockingly spiteful (“I was bored to death by your song, and the rest of popular culture”) to the philosophical (“it means I give up any claim to being a voice for tomorrow”), to the cold (“don’t assume that they see you, don’t assume that they like you”) through to post-modern fatalism – “I’m doomed to live without – negotiate your sorrow.”

So far, so Zombie-David Byrne, the Prisoner of Vegas. But what gives this its frightening depth is the way in which, by the end, he’s trying to rouse himself. The chant has become “I lost my spirit”, and he’s casting around trying to make sense of it again “like the mirror I smashed, trying to fit it back together,” and realising what’s been lost: “I lost my spirit – someone put it in your pocket… / I lost my spirit…”

In the end, wherever Mark Eitzel goes, he’s lost. But no-one sends letters from the wilderness like he can.

Mark Eitzel: ‘Lovers Leap USA’
self-released, ME 1001 (no barcode)
CD-only album
May 1997
Get it from: (2004 update) Extremely rare and best obtained second-hand. ‘Lover’s Leap USA’ was sold exclusively by Mark Eitzel himself during his 1997 touring – only 500 copies were made and it has never been reissued.
Mark Eitzel 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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May 1997 – live album reviews – King Crimson’s ‘Epitaph: Live in 1969’ (” maybe only rivalled, in their day, by The Doors at their peak”)

10 May

King Crimson: 'Epitaph: Live in 1969'

King Crimson: ‘Epitaph: Live in 1969’

With guitarist Robert Fripp as the only constant factor (he once memorably described himself as not so much the leader as “a kind of glue”), King Crimson have negotiated the peaks and troughs of a three-decade career in rock music and at least six distinct and differing incarnations. In the process, they’ve become one of those bands carrying a distinctly hazy reputation.

Where to place them? Not with the evergreen Beatles, Stones or Byrds; or with the narcotic, perversely cynical tradition of the Velvet Underground. Not in punk’s vigorous righteousness, or New Wave’s beat-smarts; or in the ever-credible European avant-rock field. Not even in old-school retro-rock (you won’t find Oasis ripping off one of their riffs). Outside of the healthy Crimson cult, the 1994 description in an LA newssheet (“prog-rock pond scum, set to bum you out”) seems to sum up the rough consensus. To many, King Crimson are and always will be one of the dinosaurs, if not the rotten egg that spawned the whole prog-rock movement. They’re pretentious, ludicrous, and sexless Mellotron fondlers; or they’re just a little too damn strange and perverse, winning your friendship only to kick you in the shins the next moment. Or they just don’t fit onto your party tape. Whatever.

‘Epitaph’ spearheads the series of archive live recordings which are just starting to sluice down the conduit of Fripp’s self-propelled record company (Discipline Global Mobile), each accompanied by the oft-prickly but ever-passionate guitarist’s commentary on the time, place and ethics of Crimson activity. Fripp’s hopes are obviously set on a fairer deal from history, or at least on providing a chance to reassess King Crimson in all of its painfully evolving forms.

His rogue-academic sleevenotes – witty and painstaking, pedantic and enlightening – might play a big part in reinstating this hidden legacy; but the superb “digital necromancy” of DGM engineer David Singleton is equally vital. On ‘Epitaph’, entrusted with the oldest and most variable Crimson live recordings, Singleton has spliced incomplete recording reels together to recreate concerts; wrestled listenable (even impressive) live sound from crumbling BBC master reels; and coaxed atmosphere and clarity from second-generation sound-desk recordings, unwanted overdubs, even crappy home recordings from interference-dogged radio broadcast.

But beyond the Frippertations, and even with the static and the eccentric degrees of muffling, ‘Epitaph’ is a welcome display of the power of the very first King Crimson. This is the band which bowled over Jimi Hendrix, who once approached Fripp saying “shake my left hand, man: it’s closer to my heart.” This is also the group who recorded 1969’s pivotal ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’, then gouged a magnificent trail of dates across Britain and America before fissioning at the end of the year. A band which original frontman Greg Lake still describes as being “without fear.” Perhaps it was the briefly-potent whiff of Faerie which fluttered around English psychedelia at the time, but King Crimson felt itself pervaded by something extraordinary and supernatural (which the members jokingly referred to as “the good fairy”). Of the five original Crims, only Fripp has subsequently regained the same artistic heights which he did here. Yet even he considers this version of the band to be particularly special, embodying a time when “music leant over and took us into its confidence.”

It’s certainly true that on ‘Epitaph’ King Crimson seems to be drawing from something beyond its members. Those mousy young English boys making shyly urbane stage announcements are also those inspired, demonic note-hammerers who are deforming your speakers by brute force. Racking rock’s power up several notches beyond any previous record, King Crimson swarmed like warrior ants through careering unison choruses and stabbing staccato assaults. Here you’ll hear pastoral flute pieces and folk ballads juxtaposed with brain-curdling electrics, jazz effects that scurry from lounge-y hokeyness to bebop and free-fired whiteouts. You’ll also hear the sound of Wagner and Bartok being wrung dry. Unlike many subsequent prog outings, King Crimson provided the feeling that, rather than being cuddled up to, classical music’s cage was being rattled until it screamed.

Fripp’s guitar playing is the closest thing that King Crimson have ever had to a trademark sound. Here, though, it’s merely part of the ensemble – it was an approach which was applied far more to underpinning the band’s hefty array of textures and sonics than to taking on the guru trappings it would later assume. And it was up against formidable, if beneficial, competition. Yet to become the self-satisfied face of ELP, a pre-pomp Greg Lake was already achieving a career best. Michael Giles was providing an object lesson in how to drum with subtle, taut complexity and economy rather than bombast, yet simultaneously make yourself unmissable.

Seen from the here and now, the overwhelming musicality of Ian McDonald is a particular shock. A few years later he’d be reduced to providing Foreigner with a horribly diluted version of Crimson’s hybrid sounds, but here he’s untouchable. His robotic Mellotron orchestras were a benchmark in violent grandeur – as structurally stressed and queasy as sailing ships, and played with demented intensity. Hearing him stabbing and slamming the ‘Tron into an inferno of junked but coherent string-death noise on Mars is little short of a revelation. As are the moments when he leads the band on a blazing, wailing saxophone that strained towards Albert Ayler’s fierce free jazz rather than British dance-bands or pirated Stax records.

Off in the wings, Peter Sinfield is the silent participant here – only audible in the odd buzz (since his then-revolutionary stage lights also affected the speakers). However, he was also present in the ornamental lyrics which – even at their most floridly Victorian and romantic – got to grips with the contradictions implied in the music and in the civilisation of its time.

The four BBC radio session recordings display a group already far more ambitious than even the ’60s norm – maybe only rivalled, in their day, by The Doors at their peak – and a good deal more haunted in outlook. 21st Century Schizoid Man is still one of the most calculatedly vicious pop songs ever – a ‘Mad Max’ duelling-car of a piece, studded with flails, razor blades and serpentine instrumentation – and one of the notable occasions on which Sinfield’s flamboyant verbosity hit the mark on every line. The inflated stateliness of In the Court of the Crimson King’s title track, soaked in mediaeval imagery (jesters, witches and all), may well have given the green light to every sub-Gothic fantasy that would blight prog during the ’70s. But here it still looms sad, bad, blood-soaked and as steeped in pitiless history as the Tower of London – a heavy, tattered tapestry of the creeping and destructive blights that come with civilisation. Lake delivers it with a wounded and disaffected majesty.

For all their pomp and ceremony, their purple filters, King Crimson were as political as any of their contemporaries. It seems odd to hear a group featuring the notoriously abstemious Fripp singing “let’s all get stoned” on their unexpected, woozy but ballsy cover of Donovan’s Get Thy Bearings. But Crimson – a band with strong working-class roots, despite the bourgeois tag prog-rock was to be lumbered with by punk revisionists – identified themselves far more with the ’60s counter-culture (drugs notwithstanding) than they did with the establishment. On one concert recording, Fripp pointedly dedicates Schizoid Man to Spiro Agnew. The shadows of Altamont’s rude awakening, Vietnam’s ongoing barbarities, and the precarious threat to a future Utopia are all present in the bleak scary screech of the band’s wilder moments and in the epic mourning of their ballads. Of which Epitaph itself takes the crown – ageless, with Fripp’s watchful guitars rolling out acoustic swathes and quietly brimming electric tears, Mellotrons sweeping across like opera house curtains, and Lake singing with trepidation into the face of an uncertain future.

The concert recordings stem from that first, final, fatal American tour, including the ’69 Crimson’s last bow in its entirety (the concerts at San Francisco’s Filmore West just before both McDonald and Giles quit). As expected, magnificent string-drenched versions of Epitaph and a couple of overwhelming breakneck runthroughs of Schizoid Man rear their heads; but you also get earlier, raw versions of evolving new material.

Drop In is a version of The Letters (the Jacobean nightmare from ‘Islands‘) with a different lyric. But the violent emotional sentiments remain the same – the form is lazy bluesy pop, the words are typically detached, sardonic Crimson menace. “Why don’t you just drop in, / and let the game begin? / You wished you’d learned to play, / and lived to die another day. / The rules you pick and you choose. / The odds are stacked for you to lose.” The music has a far nastier focus. Chopped and diced, riff-stamping, the sneer of McDonald’s deadly tenor sax and Giles’ explosive, spasmodic bop drums bring it closer to the level of a Coltrane scream.

A Man, a City would later evolve into Pictures of a City. Here, you can hear King Crimson attempting to blend New York’s pitiless industry with a Hieronymous Bosch nightmare, via a lurching Gothically-proportioned snarl of R’n’B sax riffs and metal-tearing guitar. On the road, their painstakingly written rock texts were transformed by interpretation and improvisation (from McDonald and Giles in particular). Though the results were inescapably lofty and English – and also rigidly stark – they make an interesting parallel to the electrified jazz-scapes Miles Davis and Tony Williams were pursuing on ‘In a Silent Way’ and ‘Lifetime’, or which John McLaughlin had already carved into for ‘Extrapolation’.

At Filmore West, in the home of the hippy movement, King Crimson opened up with In the Court of the Crimson King, lacing English roses into Haight-Ashbury hair. Typically, this was a sly and malevolent seduction to soften them up for the full Schizoid onslaught. Perhaps as an adjunct to this, Crimson also showed more of their softer, more fragrant side. Travel Weary Capricorn was one of their few moments of hippyish peace: a fragment of boppy Traffic-y pop, with Lake almost scatting and McDonald’s blissy jazz flute darting and scurrying like Herbie Mann over the band’s deconstructing, half-melted bluesiness.

Although Mantra shows its age (pleasant kaftan-y stuff with, admittedly, some ravishing flute solos – bits of it would later show up on Exiles), Travel Bleary Capricorn has them accidentally anticipating the post-modern dissections of the ’90s as they turn, briefly, into an improvising lounge act. Spanish guitar wobbles while McDonald pisses about on the Mellotron presets (cheesy piano and lounge rhythms), as King Crimson pay a quizzical visit back to their hideous apprenticeships in hotel dance groups, army bands and cabaret backings. Right from the start, Fripp’s humour was always a tad elliptical, and his glimpses into a future of “chance and hazard” are often surprising in retrospect.

But what you’ll remember most is the head-crunching power and violence in their improv treatments of Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’. Each version builds from a gentle bass and drum throb, with McDonald unwinding the harmonies out of the dark, bloodied guts of a Mellotron. Growing ever more loud, staccato and harsh, the theme is psychotically smacked against the back wall; and ends up in blistering ray-gun effects over the stabbing, splintering, deafening unison riffs – the first sighting of thrash-classical. You can hear the seeds of math-rock, Mogwai/Slint crunch, and Foetus-style orchestral-industrial here; and The Young Gods clearly owe Crimson everything.

What must those stoned California hippies have made of it, with their storybook pictures of England? It must have been like being stomped into the ground by a full-armour cavalry charge, just when you were expecting Maid Marion to give you an apple. Listen back to Crimson’s second, post-split album ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’, and you can catch a persistent flutter of Frippish hands clutching at the memories of that jaw-dropping tour.

Some music takes years to fade. For all its baroque bloodiness, this still sounds freshly minted. A remarkable rediscovery.

King Crimson: ‘Epitaph: Live in 1969’
Discipline Global Mobile, DGM 9607A (5 028676 900252)
CD-only double live album
6th May 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Burning Shed
King Crimson online:
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May 1997 – album reviews – State of Grace’s ‘Everyone Else’s Universe’ (“an oozing of tepid ambience”)

3 May

State Of Grace: 'Everyone Else's Universe'

State Of Grace: ‘Everyone Else’s Universe’

And this is 1997?

In the world of contemporary pop music, I thought ‑ hell, we all thought ‑ we had the equation worked out. Electronica = The Future. Trad Guitar Rock (Oasis + Kula Shaker + Cast + Ocean Colour Scene) = The Past. But State Of Grace, a Northampton electro‑ambient quartet now on their third album, are here to prove otherwise. It’s electronic, yes, but it’s also as retro and dated as Noel Gallagher’s Beatles pastiches.

Conspiracy is a six‑part concept track… or rather, it’s an obvious way to become immediately suspicious about an album just by looking at the track listing. (Six‑part concept tracks issue a subliminal message to me. That message is “run away!”). Part 1, Forest Fields Forever is horribly slick‑sounding trance, complete with weedy female vocal and obligatory ethnic voice sample. The parts seem often to be linked by ambient wind and water effects… oh no, sorry, that was Part 2. I dozed off for a moment. Part 3 (Single Spies) tries to be Dubstar, but with Sarah Simmond’s ultra‑forgettable voice and gibberish lyrics, plus powder‑puff electronics, it makes Dubstar sound like Nine Inch Nails. Part 4, Noel Street Blues, ups the tempo to a sleek techno and, by including the sampled combination of a warbling operatic diva, more generic‑ethnic wailing and an accordion, momentarily arouses some interest. But by this point I didn’t know which part I was listening to. It all continued in this insipid vein for a number of years, by which time I’d lost the will to live.

Perfect And Wild is more suffocatingly polite techno‑pop, with the joyful addition of a twee slide guitar. Still, as so often on this album, the awful lyrics offer a laugh. “And when love is calling / Like an open book” ‑ look, I’m sorry, but books don’t call; they’re inanimate objects! So innocuous and bland is this music that you could walk round supermarkets to its accompaniment.

Now where was I? I need a dozen eggs, some margarine, a packet of mini chicken kievs… oh, sorry. Right, then. Er, Sea‑Saw. Oh, mild trip‑hop. Sarah tries to sing with a lazy, underwater vibe, but only ends up sounding as disinterested as I am, like she’s about to drop off to sleep. And will somebody please alter that bloody drum machine pattern! Now! (If you think I’m losing patience, you’re right).

Be afraid. Be very afraid, for there are three versions of the track Hello on this album (they obviously place great faith in the song‑‑poor, deluded souls). This version, subtitled Fall Out The Lions (eh? Your guess is as good as mine…), is musically somewhat engaging: mournful violins and a rising/falling keyboard sequence over brushed electronic drums. But the words are more sixth-form gobbledegook: “In the silence / the colour is an island. / Fall out the lions, / take everybody with you.” What? Still, the chorus is one to join in on – “Is it so? Hello, hello. / Is it so? / Hello, hello.” Poetry, utter poetry.

Version two of Hello is a remix by Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto. To a clattering beat and a phased dub keyboard, plus Meat‑treated vocal, it all manages to sound at least vaguely contemporary, whilst hardly essential. Version three (gosh, you can have too much of a good thing, can’t you?) is an Aphex Twin‑style remix‑‑it dismisses all the elements of the original track save for a ghost of the vocals, and constructs a stomping bass‑heavy techno track. By now, it is so far from State Of Grace’s original that it hardly belongs to them at all. Consequently, it’s the best thing on the album.

Rose II begins and ends in an oozing of tepid ambience, but would potentially be an affecting minor‑chord‑laden melody if it hadn’t been subjected to another sheen of bland synthesizers and, worst of all, whining treated electronic guitar. By now, lost somewhere in a maddening nightmare, praying for this album to end, I suddenly sense a name appearing before me. M…? M…? M… M‑… M‑Mike Oldfield?! Jesus, it does ‑ it sounds like bleedin’ Mike Oldfield!! (Worse than that, Vaughan. It sounds like late ’80s Mike Oldfield, the stuff that not even Oldfield fans seem to have any more… ‑ PROG ED.)

State Of Grace are awfully, horribly dated. They are trying to be some sort of combination of modern ambient techno ‑ for which the music sounds simply too out‑of‑date‑‑and the pristine machine pop of, say, Propaganda… yet lacking that group’s excellent song constructions. The lyrics are abysmal, too. The hip new title State Of Grace would like to have conferred on them ‑ electronica ‑ is redundant. This is, being as kind as possible, what used to be known in the pop world as “electronic music”, which would firmly date it as being pre‑1987’s acid‑house revolution.

But let’s not be kind. Let’s be unkind. This is out‑of‑date, bad europop, bad trance, bad electro‑prog… get the idea?

I don’t want it in my universe.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

State Of Grace: ‘Everyone Else’s Universe’
3rd Stone Ltd., STONE 028CD (5023693002828)
CD‑only compilation album
Released: 28th April 1997

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

State Of Grace/Fatal Charm online:
Homepage Facebook Soundcloud Last FM YouTube

April 1997 – album reviews – Matt Keating’s ‘Killjoy’ (“one of those people who speaks openly of the little wounds we all Band-Aid our souls over and shut up about”)

10 Apr

Matt Keating: 'Killjoy'

Matt Keating: ‘Killjoy’

Heard it all before, but I can always hear it again.

Matt Keating is one of those characters who’s always to be found blowing in off the road and settling himself on the stage. The sort of guy who could quite easily survive in a world made up merely of roads, acoustic guitars, small vans, and at every stop a bar with a stage. His music’s of that well-worn style that’s like those magical rock star jeans Springsteen’s patented that never wear out, just go on weathering forever.

You’ve heard what it’s like many times before, in a world where guitars are sharp, to the point, and preferably recorded in one take in a converted potato shed (or a basement eight track in Matt’s case) and where Neil Young, Tom Petty et al still have the last word in what something should sound like. But with ‘Killjoy’, where it’s at is in what he’s saying, not how he sounds.

‘Killjoy’ is a bleak, wistful record. Memories of apartments and arguments, knowing that you’re too smart to deserve the fate you’re doling out to yourself, but too much pulled down by slack to get out of it. The travelogue of a not-so-beautiful loser, punctuated by cracks of sharp, self-aware laughter: “you wanted a man of substance, you got one with substance abuse”, or “once in a while I lose control, and gain my soul.” Matt’s world is one where it’s a constant struggle to crawl out from under the rocks: shame, despondency, the baggage of the past. In the dozen songs on this record, he drags himself about halfway out. The beaky stare he’s giving me off the back of the album seems to say “well, I try, but it’s life that slumps.”

That said, it’s not one of those whinging therapy records, even if The L Word’s chunky garage guitar and swamp-bird slide hints otherwise. In a post-breakdown breakdown of all the denials in a life, Matt explores the words for the ideas which people forbid themselves to say out of fear, and thereby condemn themselves to ignorance and incapability. Suicide, the mysteries of sex, the terrors of commitment – all end up edged around in language reducing them from human situations to “specimens / floating in formaldehyde.”

Far better to try to get your message across, though more people seem to be spending their time escaping from the obligation to do this. You and Me and This TV has Matt and his girlfriend cheek-to-cheek in a small room, numbed out of conversation by the telly (“stranded on a cathode sea, surfing channels for days, / fixing our gaze – not on each other”), as he pleads “just hit the remote and read what I wrote / before the rays erase me.” Not that getting through is easy with the other things crawling out from under those rocks, too. Like the sour small town working man in While We Fiddle whose discontent leads him into the arms of right wing revolt: or the girl in Just to Feel Something who starts off cutting herself and ends up cutting off her own hope.

The perversity of human nature is on display everywhere. In the Leonard Cohen-ish drawl of The Fruit You Can’t Eat, Matt sourly comments “young people wish they were old, the old folks all wish they were young, / and some people wish they were dead, but most would just settle to see someone hung / for a crime they dream of committing, but commitment’s what they’re afraid of. / In this case the punishment’s fitting to wring your own hands ’til your fingers are numb.” Against this wounded cynicism you can set his compassion, continually coming through like cracks in a stone face – “I wouldn’t trade a day for the moments I’ve wasted / listening to your heart pound like a sad drummer’s beat.”

Like Mark Eitzel or Morrissey, he continually stares into the abyss yawning behind humanity’s tiny fractures, unable to ignore it. Transcendent despair and anger isn’t his way, though: more a sturdy refusal to give in. On By the Way, Matt might complain that “the pieces fit, but I’m still puzzled”, but he knows that to be alive means having to constantly deal with the swinging inconsistent gaps between aspiration, failure and effort: to recognise sometimes that “what you’ve mistaken for peaceful / is only the sound of good and evil’s uneasy truce.” And that being alive and caring about all this means that you’re stuck with the bittersweet burden.

On Happy Again, rolling around the outskirts of the Trees Lounge to the accompaniment of near-comatose piano, he announces “I don’t ever want to be happy again, I’m feeling too free. / I don’t ever want to feel something someone could steal. / But just between you and me I’m happy again again, and so terribly / ‘Cos I can’t even pretend that happiness won’t come to an end.”

In other words, he’s one of those people who speaks openly of the little wounds we all Band-Aid our souls over and shut up about: one of those people whom we handle with a little admiration, a little fear, both too intimate for comfort. Later, I’ll speak to Matt at the bar. I’ll buy him a drink when it’s my turn. We’ll spend about fifteen minutes chatting, but no more. When we part, we’ll have recognised a lot in each other; there’ll be a lot of sympathy, even. But we’ll probably not meet again. He’ll be back on the road, taking his tales of working TVs and broken relationships on to some new town and waking up fellow spirits there. I’ll go home with this album. Brief, shrugged encounter.

Matt Keating: ‘Killjoy’
Alias Records, A093 ADV (093716009320)
CD/LP album
8th April 1997
Get it from: Alias Records
Matt Keating online:
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March 1997 – album reviews – Jocelyn Pook’s ‘Deluge’ (“a suite of stunning invention and sheer beauty”)

1 Mar

Jocelyn Pook: 'Deluge'

Jocelyn Pook: ‘Deluge’

The elegant grace of tragedy is often linked with the splat of farce. This album’s major selling point (on some copies of the CD, it’s trumpeted by a sticker ‑ I kid you not) is that it features the music from last year’s TV ads for Orange mobile phones, namely Jocelyn Pook’s setting of “Blow The Wind Southerly” sung by Kathleen Ferrier.

Sigh. It’s sad but true that increasingly weird and wonderful music is getting picked up and co‑opted by advertising agencies for their campaigns. Your average ‘Coronation Street’ ad‑break may currently play to a soundtrack of Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Aphex Twin, U‑Ziq, Cocteau Twins… and Pook. They’re selling their souls for the filthy lucre from red‑braced ad execs. Of course they are: rampant fucking capitalism is bringing us the best that post‑modern music has to offer. It’s art selling out!

But… Mr or Ms Normal Music Fan are going into Our Price and humming this music over the counter to Shop Assistant. Consequently, they’re getting turned on to (at least relatively) experimental music, er, man… And as Jocelyn Pook joins the hideous capitalist gravy train (look, I’m not being cruel: my tongue is in my cheek) from obscurity to the CD racks, the musos among us will smugly tell that Pook is widely known as the leader of the Electra Strings (along with Caroline Lavelle, Sonia Slaney and others), who have no doubt been rushed off their feet in the past couple of years as every British pop act decided they must show their serious side by having at least one strings‑based track in their repertoire (I think we call it “hiring in a touch of class”).

But here ‑ ably backed by the Electras, knife‑edged art‑scene soprano Melanie Pappenheim and a pocketful of exotic musicians and sounds ‑ Jocelyn Pook shows herself as being beyond simply a viola player. She’s a composer of emotion and invention and, in the best traditions of post‑modernism, introduces classical and traditional musics to the brave new world of samples and electronics. OK, so it has to be admitted that Dead Can Dance are an immediate and convenient comparison, but ‘Deluge’ is warmer, more emotional: less monumentally impressive, perhaps, but also nowhere near as harsh and Wagnerian.

The twelve tracks of ‘Deluge’ (germinating from a clutch of “post‑modern hymns” written for a Canadian dance‑theatre project) are best appreciated as one pre‑millennial suite with recurring themes (the emotions drawn from the year 1000, the methodology from 2000). Requiem Aeternam, like many elements of the other tracks, opens the album with solo and multitracked singing of a traditional requiem over one sustained root note. Post‑modern chamber plainsong, in other words, founded upon a sense of inevitability that’s unchanged by the impact of technology.

Technology, in fact, might even be hastening that grand inevitable. Oppenheimer is undoubtedly one of the central parts of ‘Deluge’. It opens with a disturbing sample of Robert Oppenheimer talking (he seems heavy with emotion, a man with the weight of his discovery of nuclear destruction bearing down upon him) surrounded by a foreboding nuclear wind: this merges into the poignant but more hopeful sound of the Jewish call to prayer and a dawn chorus of birds. As the central sung theme from the first track returns with a supporting string section, a haunting, heartbreaking elegy is created.

For Oppenheimer himself, this could be the emotions created by his dread and foresight at what he had created. More powerfully, however, this piece stands as a requiem for a world forever changed by the knowledge of possible nuclear annihilation. A post‑Cold War planet we may now be, but his music took me right back to the nervousness of the mid‑’80s and its accompanying, tangible dread of nuclear war.

Lightening the mood and returning to the music, Blow The Wind (subtitled Pie Jesu) does indeed feature that Orange ad music again. Heard without those connotations, however, this is a brilliant interweaving of samples and live sound, as Kathleen Ferrier’s familiar rendition of the traditional vocal is interspersed with Pappenheim and Pook’s plangent vocal counterpoint, the echoing sounds of children playing, and more soaring strings. As in hip‑hop, the form that originally used sampling to such great effect and historic importance, the sample of Ferrier is used as a basis to build other musical sequences, instrumentation and vocals. It’s humble, beautiful, and ends far too soon.

The lessons in the new technology of music Jocelyn Pook has gained will undoubtedly further influence the writing and performance of her music for her own instrument ‑ strings. The penultimate piece, La Blanche Traversée, appears to be a fairly standard chamber‑piece setting of words by Racine, but more remarkable is the subtle instrumental backing. Pook and the Electra Strings play a slightly off‑rhythm pattern of oscillating notes that, to any DJ or mixer who knows his decks, would be regarded as a loop. I feel that it is safe to assume that the original hip‑hop DJs never had this development in mind when they crafted scratching and looping. ‘Deluge’ is a long way from being electronica, but the ’90s cross‑pollination continues.

While music has broken all the boundaries of genre in the ’90s, the end products have resulted in albums of naked emotion or sonic inventiveness. But rarely both together. ‘Deluge’ is a suite of stunning invention and sheer beauty in its music, but with all the necessary emotion of a requiem for the post‑nuclear age. The wind blows cold, with the sound of ravens on the air, but it tugs your whole life right to the surface of your skin.

Never mind the politics of how you got to hear of Jocelyn Pook or ‘Deluge’. Open your mind to it.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Jocelyn Pook: ‘Deluge’
Virgin Records, CDVE 933 7243 (7 24384 29632 2)
CD-only album
Released: 24th February 1997

Get it from:
(2018 update) long out-of-print, so best picked up second-hand. Most of the tracks on ‘Deluge’ were remixed and reissued on the ‘Flood’ album in 1999.

Jocelyn Pook online:
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