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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:
Homepage

Hans-Joachim Roedelius online:
HomepageFacebookTwitterMySpaceLast FMYou TubeiTunes

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:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

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

19 Nov

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
Released:
17th November 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Cynical Smile online:
Homepage Last FM
Additional notes: (2020 update) This was Cynical Smile’s only full album.
 

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”)

27 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
Released:
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:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

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
Released:
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.
 

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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
Released:
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
Released:
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.

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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
Released:
September 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Cornucopia Recordings.
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September 1997 – album reviews – R.O.C.’s ‘Virgin’ (“from the surreal and experimental to pure pop and simple emotion”)

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

R.O.C.: ‘Virgin’

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

Hallelujah! R.O.C. are back.

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

R.O.C. Still utterly beguiling.

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

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

R.O.C. online:
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