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December 1998 – album reviews – Porcupine Tree’s ‘Metanoia’ (“the possibilities which the band’s music has while it’s still at the point of wide-eyed, newborn naivety”)

27 Dec

Porcupine Tree: 'Metanoia'

Porcupine Tree: ‘Metanoia’

As Porcupine Tree straighten out their more obviously exploratory aspects and firm up into a more solid rock configuration, Steven Wilson seems concerned to show us that although his psychedelic prog band is solidifying, it’s not becoming rigid. After last year’s live album ‘Coma Divine‘, here’s ‘Metanoia’: a collector’s set of band improvisations from the rehearsal studio during the making of ‘Signify’.

Obviously intended to illustrate the possibilities which the band’s music has while it’s still at the point of wide-eyed, newborn naivety, it’s also a window into the band’s uncensored enjoyment of music-making. At the beginning of Mesmer III you can hear drummer Chris Maitland enthusing like a schoolboy – “Brilliant, Richard… That’s really evil!” – while Richard Barbieri unwraps a particularly ominous electronic texture from his mysterious lash-up of analogue synths. Compared to the carefully-honed concert expansions of ‘Coma Divine’ (allowing the band to play out loud without ever getting too self-indulgent), ‘Metanoia’ takes Porcupine Tree’s live freedom off in a different direction, where the only limitations (or necessary brakes) are the musicians’ awareness of those specific moments in time.

Mesmer II is the most confident (and consequently least yielding) of the improvs. It begins as a Frippish guitar fanfare over Prince-style boom-bat drums; it gradually psyches itself up into more familar Porcupine Tree planetarium music, with orrery twinkles and rolls from Barbieri. But it’s an exploration in which the influences seem to have blended naturally into the moment – a good sign.


 
Of most obvious interest to regular Porcupine Tree followers will be the Metanoia I/Intermediate Jesus medley, featuring a first draft of the Intermediate Jesus instrumental from ‘Signify’. This version emerges out of a typical raw Porkies atmospheric. Dreamy, swampy psych-rock fragments flicker in and out of a quiet power-station ambience: Colin Edwin‘s small, arching bass hook becomes the keel over which Wilson decorates the distance with echo-guitar details. The music eventually settles down into a dark-tinged, broody, space-psych flavour with a backwash of drowsy sonic fabric: reminiscent of the beautiful golden haze which U2’s Eno-assisted ‘Unforgettable Fire’ revelled in, in between the rock hits. At this point, still uncertain of itself, the music of Porcupine Tree has an uncontrived innocence to it; something that’s rare anywhere in the current prog canon, let alone in their own history.


 
Mesmer I builds from minimal, grudging soundscapes of cymbal tones, electrosculpture and flanged guitar effects. Eventually, it’s been shaped into a disjointed groove (a gawkier, rockier take on ‘In A Silent Way’, maybe) up to the point where it’s hit U2 funk and a dance-groove recalling Porcupine Tree’s own ‘Voyage 34’. Here, Barbieri’s inventiveness plays foil to the brasher edge of Wilson’s stadium-rock guitar flourishes, brushing in and out of the mix with scratchily tender gusts of electronics like the wet coronas around streetlights. Metanoia II, like its predecessor, is anchored by a little Edwin bass hook around which Maitland lays haphazardly tremorous drumming, Wilson a fragmentary glissando, and Barbieri abuses his wibbling VCS3 in full On the Run tradition. This piece will subsequently (a) blossom lyrically and (b) accelerate into a kind of soft-edged speed-metal, with the same sort of instinctive flow as Porcupine Tree’s own ‘Moonloop’.


 
It’s Mesmer III/Coma Divine, though, that allows Porcupine Tree to insinuate themselves into the improvising tradition. “Do something completely different” suggests a restless Wilson. Time out for meditation – and already Steven is bored… Someone fiddles with a shortwave radio but, ending up with dull afternoon cut-ups, abandons it. Behind tiny touches from a dormant rhythm section, the band start to induce shifting planes of sound. A Barbieri noise (an orchestra haunting a train tunnel) ebbing in and out; hardly there, like kettle steam. A suspicion of an introverted ’70s jazz-rock, melted down in ’90s solvent, draining out in a Barbieri wing-flutter. A section which has the lonely looping meander of Bark Psychosis‘ Bloodrush. At last, a return to a very soft take on the band’s psych-rock drift, Wilson’s guitar trailing over rocking-chair drum and bass, transparent synth swathing a shroud of narcosis around it. A band usually lumped in with Marillion and Gong has just paid visits to the post-rock haunts of Tortoise, Labradford and beyond, without contrivance, drawing up natural sound from the source. When they finish, it’s like the shift in reality at the end of a sleepwalk.


 
As an afterthought, there’s Milan – Porcupine Tree out of the studio and captured in conversation during one of those bleached, interminable spare moments on tour. They’re uncomfortable, travel-blurred, in unfamiliar suits and ineptly trying to organise their Italian meal. In the “gastronomic capital of the world… known for its joi-de-vivre,” they’re ill-at-ease, messed around, trying to cope, teasing each other. “I just feel stupid,” is the final aggrieved statement of the album – a moment of Spinal Tap bathos to counter the explorations elsewhere. Displaced from normal patterns, they’re forced to improvise again, in the way we all have to. They’re surviving.

Porcupine Tree: ‘Metanoia’
Delerium Records/Chromatic Records, CHRM 003 (no barcode)
10-inch vinyl-only double album
Released:
December 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Original vinyl version best obtained second-hand; album was later reissued on CD.
Porcupine Tree online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

December 1998 – live reviews – The Sea Nymphs @ The Falcon, Camden Town, London, 13th December (“a long curving wave of sea-songs, swimming keyboards, children’s play-rhymes”)

18 Dec

In reality, the music room at The Falcon is a tumbledown concrete box shoved out onto a bit of waste ground. Right now, though, we could easily imagine it transformed by our collective warmth, enwebbed with flowered arbors and the hum of big lovable insects.

This is good. The air’s alive with a warm, fireside excitement and the sound of a zillion Christmas triangles. Up on stage, Tim Smith has just flicked us one of his weird little opening-envelope smiles. Bill Drake – goateed and woolly-hatted, somewhere between pharoah and trainspotter – settles in behind his keyboards, half-in and out of the parallel universe he normally inhabits. Someone bleats like a sheep. Everyone laughs. Sarah Smith – unreservedly sexy and wholesome, like a fairytale milkmaid – readies her saxophone, smiles mischievously.

As they make a showing for the first time in years, The Sea Nymphs bring us the same sense of unguarded wonder that we’d get from watching some obscure and exquisite little beast uncurl itself from hibernation or hatch out of a chrysalis. There’s that, and there’s their uncanny ability to awaken the sort of love that I haven’t felt sweep through a concert for ages. We’re crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder – on any other day, we’d be the usual indie-rock cattle, and we’d feel it. This time, it feels more like being a step away from holding hands.

It’s as if we’re all buoyed up on a long curving wave of sea-songs, swimming keyboards, children’s play-rhymes; of twinkle-fingered piano, folk fragments, and pale running saxophones; plus Edward Lear, Edward Gorey, and all the other unguarded wistful subconscious flickers that may (or may not) inform The Sea Nymphs’ music. Somehow, they’re managing to remove the tarnish that’s caked onto the joy that we’ve almost forgotten: that straightforward joy at being alive. Because this is music that disarms and rebuilds somehow – it’s ducking aside from the panicky hurtle of London neurosis that’s going on outside, and taking us with it.

This may seem a woolly cop-out; as if I’m just burbling. The truth is that The Sea Nymphs, in work and in performance, seem to be offering a mystery of creation that doesn’t bear too much thinking about. Too much breakdown won’t break the spell – it will just ease you out of it, painlessly, like a splinter; into the cold again. And that’s something which you don’t want to happen. Within Sea-Nymphs-space, we’ve all found a place in which we very much want to be. We want to rest in the anchoring embrace of Tim’s warm and rounded basslines, to cotton on to how the querying melody-hop of Little Creations sounds like a baby making its very first connections. We want to enjoy the unselfconscious way Sarah rejoices in striking a gong, as if she was dusting a clock.

As the tipsy near-waltzes sway around the air, as Tim, Sarah and Bill’s voices twine and alternate (from naked and frayed harmonies to scratchy yelps, to impossibly sweet helium coos) we’re given the opportunity to pig out on a different kind of instinct than that triggered off by the standard lash of rebellious rock noise. There’s something baptismal in that sound – the little lilts of Shaping The River, the cries of “sponge me clean again” vaulting over a chunky acoustic strum. Maybe it’s something to do with a natural, maternal comfort. The key line of Blind In Gaiety And Leafy In Love is “she smells just like you and she smells just like me”, while Appealing To Venus stretches out a begging hand to an absent goddess, pleading “dwell among the people. / Come back to us, we need you.”

Maybe – behind the celebratory music and those rosettes of voice and exhilarated sax, lofting toward the ceiling – the vulnerable flutter at the heart of it all is the fears. Fears at the treacherous terrain of potential fuck-ups and traps, opening up like a dirty promise before newborns as they begin their blundering pilgrimages onward from birth through a childhood and adulthood of busts and confusions. “Back to square one… / large as life and twice as natural… / Let’s not reinvent the wheel; open that can of worms…”

Still. Here and now Sea Nymphs restore our openness – our willingness to ride our curiosity. For a brief time, at least, it becomes our strength again; and when, in Mr Drake’s Big Heart, the band tell us “something’s going to happen today”, we all feel as if we’re a part of it. After tonight, at the very least, we’ll have been able to say that we were together for a while, and it was good.

The Sea Nymphs online:
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The Falcon, Camden online:
Homepage

November 1998 – album reviews – Cloud Chamber’s ‘Dark Matter’ (“unsettling beauty with an element of wild and joyous fear”)

20 Nov
Cloud Chamber: 'Dark Matter'

Cloud Chamber: ‘Dark Matter’

A cloud chamber is a device for measuring the existence of the intangible. Physicists use them – mapping out the paths that subatomic particles trace through a vapour, studying nuclear reactions and inferring the presence of other particles. There’s something about that last bit I particularly like: inferring the existence of something. Something you can only detect, or believe in, by seeing how it affects something else.

Cloud Chamber (with the capitals) is an improvising group allowing the convergence of several other exotic particles – these being guitarist Barry Cleveland, space-age bass guitarist Michael Manring, cellist Dan Reiter, percussionist Joe Venegoni and Michael Masley, who coaxes sounds out of a more esoteric set of instruments (panpipes, gobek, gobeon and the cymbalom dulcimer). Having come together as part of the Lodge improv evenings in Oakland, California following stints with employers as diverse as Michael Hedges, the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, Ry Cooder and Garbage (plus exploits in journalism and dance theater), Cloud Chamber’s collective past suggests that what they’re likely to condense together will be suckling blissfully on an inspiration of mind and music, devoid of barriers.

More accurately, outside of barriers. When listening to improvised music you’re all too often shoved back on your arse by the force of several musicians protesting their individuality as forcefully as possible, and playing off each other with all the subtlety of dodgem cars. Cloud Chamber, on the other hand, have nothing to do with ego. The fivesome’s music emerges like the interplay of ocean currents; a process of continual organic movement to which the musicians respond as if they’re no more than implements of a guiding force.

And that’s how it needs to be – the compound music that Cloud Chamber produce is as precarious and demanding as improv demands, but to release the life in that music it’s necessary for the musicians to let it play through them. Manring (a driving and devastatingly gifted bassist, as his solo records and work with Sadhappy testifies) keeps any hero-glitter under a bushel of humility here. He takes a step back, becoming just one of many element in the condensate: no more dominant then Reiter’s troubled, graceful cello or Venegoni’s poised rattlebag. Cleveland lurks in the background with his chameleonic guitar (playing a skeletal pattern of notes, a swarm of bees, a steel-shack sound, or an unknown language). Masley strokes and strikes gorgeously glassy shard-notes out of his cymbalom with his bowhammers and thumb-picks.

Patterns and presences take shape out of nothingness, drift around on the edge of perception, then suddenly and deeply solidify, impressing themselves on you as if they’ve been there for years. Half-familiar fragments of music (bits of Eastern European string quartet, Chinese and Asian music, a riff from King Crimson’s The Talking Drum) reveal themselves with an enigmatic smile while they’re well on the way to becoming something new.

This is also very beautiful music: though it’s a strung-out, unsettling beauty with an element of wild, joyous fear. The exquisite Blue Mass manifests itself like light twisting through a stained-glass prism, anchored on Reiter’s perplexing, precariously emotional cello calls above which the group fashion a soft, high night-sky of singing steel sounds. Radiant Curves is all looping contrails.

On Solar Nexus, singing bass guitar and cello interweave as Masley plucks and bows his cymbalom overhead: Cleveland’s guitar flies in out of left-field over popping, sliding, shadowy bass shapes, and everything ends in glittering, mirror-surfaced screams. As a listener, you become increasingly spooked and enchanted at the presences these sounds suggest. It feels like being stalked by the Easter Island statues in a swirling fog; or like hearing the sudden ring of an unknown voice in the haunted wind that cuts through high-tension wires overhead.

This disquietude doesn’t come from conflict. These musicians don’t battle each other. The thoughtful interview they provide in the booklet, and the watchful grace they exhibit in their interaction, amply proves the opposite. But something in the music that comes out of their alliance seems to suggest a rapt, fearful awe at the size and diversity of the cosmos; and that’s not just in the astronomer’s titles which the pieces sport.

Some music changes the way you see the world, and this is a full hour’s helping. Not so much a Big Music as a small music, something retreating into the details and filaments of unconfirmed suspicions. This could be in the rhythmic imperative of the baleful four-note Pink Floyd-ian riff in The Call, worried at by the rat-scurrying strings, space-gypsy fiddling and Manring’s anxious Jaco-in-retreat fingerwork. Or it could be in the cat’s-cradle of scrapes and rockets on cello, mingling with cymbalom mantras, on Full of Stars. Here, a tangle of miscellaneous alien squawks is surrounded by collapsing glassy percussion, fractured-tree bass noises and Cleveland’s guitar-talk, finally washing up on the shores of Chinese classical music.

The most obvious Cloud Chamber ever get is on the sketchy world-funk of Dithyramb. This is like an exploded version of the fake ethnography crafted by Byrne and Eno on ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, or by Rain Tree Crow, and passes into a high, stretched-out passage of cello and bass sustain. Travelling alongside, Cleveland’s mounting guitar journeys from sketching out cirrus cloud to lovely Vini Reilly-esque pointwork. But this is a rare moment of innocence and cheer. Much more characteristic is the air-on-a-G-string improv that bedrocks Ursa Minor, setting up tensions between pluck and sustain, between the percussive cello and phased, rapping bass; between the ominous restlessness of free open passages and the querulous, demanding blue notes of the cello solo.

The final (and untitled) experiment leaves no tone resolved – winding cello, seagull distortions and an irregular, antsy wash of noise. You’re left feeling that Cloud Chamber have dismantled the scenery between us and the infinite, leaving us losing track of time, of solidity. Falling through the world. Suddenly turning around to find the whole colossal starry wonder of the universe at your back, and thrilling with a terrible flinch of delight.
Somehow Cloud Chamber are picking up on something that most of us miss: revealing something unseen by reacting to it. Hearing ‘Dark Matter’, you feel as if you’ve been allowed to watch the ambiguous wonder of something changing, and changing decisively – a presence inferred – and that you’ve been allowed to be part of it.

Science, or magic? Doesn’t matter. Live within it.

Cloud Chamber: ‘Dark Matter’
Supersaturated Records, SUPERSATURATED 001
CD/download album
Released: 11th November 1998

Get it from:
CD Baby or iTunes.

Cloud Chamber (Barry Cleveland) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

October 1998 – EP reviews – The Isolationist’s ‘Hydrogen Slush’ (“this bleak, rolling, night-time piece of vinyl”)

27 Oct

The Isolationist: 'Hydrogen Slush'

The Isolationist: ‘Hydrogen Slush’

Beats go postal these days. Released by a small British label, The Isolationist is a project uniting American rappers (New York’s elusive Anti Pop Consortium) with producers from London (DJ Primecuts) and London-via-Russia (DJ Vadim); a company of strangers rather than a posse. Perhaps this explains why, by hip-hop standards, it carries a strange chill with it. The rappers fire off into clear, chiming, deathly voids as if they’re carving out the insides of giant floating ice-cubes with the warmth of their breath and the crackle of their thoughts.

There isn’t a comforting funk loop to be found anywhere on this bleak, rolling, night-time piece of vinyl: just the thinnest iciest slivers of the coolest, most spartan jazz, the sidewalk-pounding beats, and the feel of sound slipping back off chrome and concrete. The nod to electronica’s near-autistic Isolationism movement ain’t a hollow one, either. The DJs scratch in their snatches of old-school records and kung-fu soundtracks with the efficiency and flair of unsmiling master butchers. Their beats are audibly frosted; their backdrops are an unfriendly cliff of minimal tonal touches that seems to gaze down at the rappers as if to say “Show me…”. Collaboration may be challenge, but this one’s more of a staring match.


 
Held up against R’n’B’s e-e-easiness or the violent tag-team dynamics of Wu-Tang-style hardcore, The Isolationist’s modus operandi strikes an intriguingly perverse note – an implied, introverted refusal of cooperation, of support or brotherhood; an alliance of denial. Set against this is the feverishly lyrical excellence of the Anti Pop Consortium: criminally absent from hip-hop’s compilation industry, and perhaps best known in Britain for linkups with Vernon Reid, with Moa and with Attica Blues.

We only get two of them here – Beans and Priest (M. Sayid’s opted to sit this round out) – but for guys spirited out of the city that never sleeps and into Vadim’s glacial dream-darkness, they’re coping well; reeling out cunning, multi-levelled raps like levitating, metaphysical Last Poets on fast-forward, lit by flashes of black science and prophecy, and more likely to namedrop Stephen Hawking than Stagger Lee. And they make their position in hip-hop culture clear, boasting “bombs like voluptuous brown big breasts” and chucking their word-games of empowerment and enlightenment into the silence at the gangsta rap funerals, apparently in the hopes of shaking up a lasting, blooming, conscious golden age.


 
Pitted against cultural sickness, the A.P.C. are powerful antibodies. On B-side Timeless Void, Priest scorns the inadequacy of “MCs’ band-aids for bullet-holes / under an umbrella for nuclear fallout from toxic water-balloons… / Your flatness and one-dimensional portrayal / is a betrayal / of my legacy” Urging us to “feel free to escape your entrapment: rapwards! / Over your head, hard to catch, like a bouquet made of thorns on a course for the laws of sentiment” he hits prophetic highs with “build and destroy again, restart civilisation from an amoeba / firm believer in perceiving extra-sensory signals, / my insignia the inscription in the clouds at dusk / – the fall of man…”


 
For Hydrogen Slush itself, Beans slams down the gauntlet with a staggering set of rhymes to scatter light across the wounds on black America’s soul. Some are metaphysical (“your ears are my punching-bag”); some earthy (“a hustla turned horsemeat / befitted the amoeba in a spit-puddle”). Some are poetically ominous – “sunbathing without an ozone layer / the sense you’re burning ants under glass. / UV suffering – no reason to go on, a desire to be by the beating wings but their arms are tired” – and some are consumed by a rage against the breakdown of the spirit: “these things sink deep into the flesh of the tormented: / unity of the ego is shattered, / indiscriminate sensibility debilitated by the winners of impending emptiness”. His words land righteous hyper-literate blows on the nihilistic greed of playa-culture. As cultural champions, they obviously feel there’s more to success than just buying it. Behind them, though, the cold cityscape rolls on.

This EP is like a graffiti artist rolling up his sleeves in front of a cold, stark-white wall, and launching an explosive artistic assault with a bagful of sharp colours. Motormouth MCs versus stonewaller DJs; quick tongues versus clenched teeth; involved dialogue up against cold silences The Isolationist is a bizarre marriage which looks like it’ll lead to some compelling arguments. You’ll find me next door, eavesdropping.


 
The Isolationist: ‘Hydrogen Slush’
Jazz Fudge Recordings, JFR012 (5030433001263)
10-inch vinyl-only EP
Released:
26th October 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) original vinyl EP best obtained second-hand. Some tracks are downloadable or streamable from Bandcamp and Spotify
The Isolationist online:
MySpace Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music

Anti Pop Consortium online:
Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music

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

DJ Primecuts online:
Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Deezer Pandora Spotify Instagram Amazon Music
 

October 1998 – album reviews – Michael Manring’s ‘The Book of Flame’ (“to get on the good foot while booting great clusters of noise about with the other”)

15 Oct

Michael Manring: 'The Book of Flame'

Michael Manring: ‘The Book of Flame’

If you’re already at the top of the tree, technique-wise – as Michael Manring is – you risk losing yourself in the skill, reheating old ideas with the energy you should be using to take yourself somewhere new. Thankfully, Manring’s smarter than that.

The meticulous, mellifluous bass guitarist who flowed his way through graceful jazz/New Age composites a decade ago has evolved into a much broader musician. His central playing style (a clean blend of Jaco Pastorius’ near-vocal virtuosity and the late Michael Hedges’ percussive contrapuntal bounce) remains intact, as do his harmonically dense tapping skills and fondness for stretching things out with the EBow sustainer. But having evolved a wider arsenal of bass noises – giant distorted trunks of feedback, fretboard noise, infinite-sustain drones, occasional On-U-Sound-a-like dub effects – he’s put them to compositional use, pushing out the envelope that way.

‘The Book of Flame’ continues the process begun on 1994’s ‘Thonk’: despite its good points, essentially a reaction record jumping vigorously into noisy heavy-metal fusion to ensure Manring wasn’t tagged with the “dextrous-wimp” label. Subsequent band work – dystopian prog-funk with Sadhappy, jazz-metal with Attention Deficit, more spacious experimental improv with Cloud Chamber – has seen Manring developing the side of his playing that looks towards “why” rather than “how”.

Though ‘The Book of Flame’ uses familiar colleagues (Michael Masley; Tim Alexander; Oregon reedsman Paul McCandless) as well as a few unfamiliar ones, it’s emphatically a solo album, with two-thirds of the tracks exclusively Manring-performed. And it’s his timeliest album to date, the one best attuned to its contemporary contexts. Although he hasn’t abandoned playing for computers and pure beat-science, Manring has discovered samplers, dance methodology and loop-culture with a vengeance, and battened onto them ravenously.


 
Having said that, there are enough real-time bass solos to satisfy technique-junkies: as usual with Manring, extending the instrument’s parameters. The Fire Sermon – executed on Manring’s ten-string bass, each string individually tuned – sounds like a squad of Terminators tap-dancing down a Busby Berkeley stairway, red eyes twinkling, chromium top hats waggling aloft. La Sagrada Familia hangs slippery fretless shapes in tuneful, trapeze-act harmonics patterns; and blurs from sustained notes to clusters of aggressive tapping (similar to Red Right Returning from 1992’s ‘Drastic Measures’). And there’s an echo of Stanley Clarke’s pluck’n’pop on No Wontons for Elvis, mingling athletic bluesiness with impossible tangles of contrapuntal squeaks.

Best of all is The Book of Living and Dying, a beautiful memorial and tribute to the late Hedges in the shape of a mournful lilting tune which shoots off to Hedges’ aspirant, meteor-popping celestial heights but then pulls itself back with a lump in its throat. But these are pretty much a sideline to the real business of ‘The Book of Flame’, which is to get on the good foot while booting great clusters of noise about with the other.


 
While there’s a lot of sonic experimentation on hand, this is also Manring’s most danceable record yet, with a set of busy tunes that shake their booties over cheeky, compressed, Prince-flavoured funk grooves with that tight, offhanded boom-blat rhythm. Adult Content/Brief Nudity has that, when it’s not breaking step into narcotic stumble-shuffling trip-hop ambience. Manring’s gang of basses converse with each other and McCandless’s bass clarinet, which explores and comments like Johnny Hodges taking the air in Paisley Park. Theseus in the Rains never entirely loses its hand-clappy purple groove-chat, even when Manring brings in skirling EBowed whines, percussive string bangs like abused filing-cabinets, and an assemblage of scrapes, pops and whines like an ailing flying saucer.


 
The approach goes furthest on Your Ad Here, which sets out like Adhan from ‘Thonk’ (high and low EBow drones like pipes and ney-flutes), but soon develops the legs of a tinny hip-hop beat. Manring exchanges singing Prince-y riffettes (descending from high plucked bass) and sharp, contrasting beat-science breakdowns – earthquake-wobbles, psychedelic space-echoes, drum shadows and computer noise. Closer to Tackhead than to Stu Hamm, anyhow, and with a similar dystopian flavour to its irresistible dance impulses.


 
‘The Book of Flame’ also sees Manring’s compositional and arranging diversity at its peak. Most misleading track award goes to The Adamski Photographs, both straight and twisted. Dave Tweedie’s violent heavy-Cobham drumming and the belligerent Allan Holdsworth-ish choruses could’ve tied it down to mainstream fusion, but Manring’s bass attacks (sputtering, clattering, playing a solo like someone molding tarmac) and the jarring groove (centred on Barry Gurley’s lurching, Thelonious Monk piano) ensure otherwise. In contrast, Ephemeris is a clean, almost inhumanly perfect two-minute phase of cyclical process music. A duo of basses playing in rolling, cascading minimalist harmony: each moving in and out, in-step, in a build-and-fade composition like a jazzed-up take on Philip Glass.



 
Booming swells of sustained cosmos-bass open The Book of Lies: an undulating atmospheric weave of drillbit melodies, tight clusters of clipped Jaco harmonics and thrumming prayer-like vocal groans before Alexander’s thunderous upfront drumming drags in Manring’s distorted heavy-metal lead bass, spluttering into all kinds of squealing feedback. And eventually it falls to Dromedary to bridge all the previous directions together: a framework of heavy funk and kitchen-sink-contents percussion regularly kicked in by distorted noisecore riffs and outer-space sample weirdness, around which Manring darts bubbling, talkative solo lines.


 
Accessible, yet challenging – and far too open-ended/minded to settle into the role of self-conscious masterpiece – ‘The Book of Flame’ is the best evidence yet of Michael Manring’s importance. Juggling high art and down-to-earth fun, he’s evolved from a rarified treasure into a broader pleasure, and seems set on the road to continue that way for a long time.

Michael Manring: ‘The Book of Flame’
Alchemy Records Ltd., ALCD 1015 (607387101520)
CD-only album
Released:
13th October 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) CD best obtained from large online dealers or second-hand.
Michael Manring online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Instagram Amazon Music
 

October 1998 – live reviews – ‘The Sound Of Satellite’ (featuring Sand, Lucha Libre, Yossarian, Karamazov, Heavy Q) @ Notre Dame Hall, London, Friday 9th October (“The Young Gods meet ‘Rugrats’…”)

13 Oct

This time, I’ve done it.

For once, I’ve arrived on time… and Notre Dame Hall is so empty that I reckon I’m going to be outnumbered by the bands. Above me, a glitterball spins very, very slowly. Off to stage-right, a slide is projected onto the wall back-to-front. Smoke drifts across from the other side of the stage, as if one of the boxes of gear has quietly caught fire. Horace Andy plays over the sound system. I’ve never noticed that squirmy edge to the sweetness of his voice; or how well it suits embarrassment.

No. It doesn’t go on like that. In fact, and independently of tonight’s acts, it ends up as one of the friendliest concerts I’ve been to in ages. But that first half-hour – of me as the lone non-label person in the house – gives me an idea of the risk which labels like Satellite take on whenever they put a night like this together. If you’re a mainstream label with a nice little crop of pushable guitar pop bands, and you want to hire out some dedicated pub for a concert party: well, fine, you’re probably onto a winner. If, alternatively, you’re a small label best known for fringe electronica such as Fridge, Rothko, and Add N To X (one of whom is DJ-ing tonight) and you’re hiring this big cinematic ballroom… then you must be trying not to sneak nervous, sidelong glances into the looming face of failure.

When I befriend Pete, the Satellite house photographer, he tells me that as soon as tonight is finished they’re taking the whole thing – lock, stock and barrel – over to Paris, to repeat the concert. Within the day. Gluttons for punishment. Or people who believe in what they have to offer.

* * * * * * * *

What they offer (or unleash) first is Heavy Q, whom I know from a single truly bizarre piece of experimental vinyl. He/she/it/they?… He. One Japanese guy, Lee Young Sin, in a glitterscaled wrestlers mask, hunched over a pair of samplers as if preparing to split them in half by sheer willpower (one of them, appropriately, is labelled “Quasimidi”). We’ll see him later as part of Lucha Libre, the other members of whom are tracing his every move with Handycams.

What he’s up to right now is squeezing out slice’n’dice anti-dance music as the hall begins to fill up; a scary dead-funk cyborg strop interspersed with cut-ups of Japanese telly chatter and cheering. At one point a sampled announcer burbles a bit of plain English – “breaking the earth for us tonight” – with the cheesy enthusiasm of someone who knows the next bit of hype which they can stick in their arm will be along in another few minutes. That same hysterically enthusiastic announcer will be weaving in and out of Lee’s music like a persistent hiccup; a glassy, untrustable ringmaster to his sonic circus.

Heavy Q’s second piece is a randomised assault of backbreaking drum sounds; drum’n’bass minus the calming balance of the bass. His third is a children’s chant, slapped up against a deathly brutal industrial tom rattle. As he moves over to rummage on his table of electronic debris, the sound runs on without him, mutating into Bollywood singsong, strangled by tortured electronics. By the end of it, Lee has turned himself into a vast, vulgar techno-god statue on top of the table. Arching back and moaning a deep thick bass vocal into his microphone, he’s almost at one with his sampler. He drinks from a sparkle ray-gun; he adjusts his electronics like he’s tying his shoelaces. Throwing a sarcastic cock-rock pose, he waves a theremin aerial around at phallus height.

Is this the answer to the problem of the personality void in electronica? Living up to the gigantic sonics by taking onto yourself the aspects of a monster movie?

* * * * * * * *

Talking of the personality void… things are working out contrary to expectations. At any given unpretentious, good-time indie gig, I’ll be out in the cold, a blip on the doorlist among self-satisfied strangers. Here, on a night that ought to smack of exclusive club, a night which you’d expect to exclude, I’m making ceaseless cheerful conversation. Buoyed by camaraderie, I and my new friends agree that, in contrast to Heavy Q’s theatrics, Karamasov have the slightly bored, stiff look of too many art-scene bands.

Perhaps it’s that old cliche of Teutonic cool: half of the band is genuinely German (guitarist/cellist Johannes von Weizsacker and stately blonde percussionist Berit Immig), while the London half (bassist Harry Rambaut and synth player Adam Stewart) aren’t exactly Essex ravers. Certainly their music’s lodged in European post-rock cool rather than Pacific rim commercial frenzy, their set opener wheeling along on Harry’s sproingy pre-jazz bass, Jonathan’s phased guitar scrub, and a lonely, farting-Dalek riff on Moogbass. They look at each other as if they’re setting up lab equipment; or preparing John Cage’s piano, like good little acolytes. Their second piece is something from the chillier end of Stereolab‘s science school, albeit with a few sniffs of quiet humanity appended. Echo-slapping cello effects, and skinny Moog squirts something like Philly soul strings, sketched and autopsied. The cello scrapes like a worn wheel; Berit’s oddly heavy-metal drumming is rookie-tense, but snaps tight regardless. On the beady-eyed Roadsnack, she switches to spiky organ against Jonathan’s piano-ping guitar.

Out on the floor, meanwhile, we’re waiting for them to enjoy themselves. I know, I know; there’s a certain credibility to that kind of icily unmoved, Euro-scientific music creation. But… Karamasov come across so much better when they drop it, hang out, and just play. It’s probably not intentional, but Uneven Surface sounds something like Genesis’ Watcher Of The Skies filtered through Faust. Hmmm. ‘The Wire’ would have a fit; but the bass stabs and drum riffs are received with joy by the Satellite audience. Happy Hour ain’t the Housemartins (which would’ve been interesting, come to think of it), but sounds more like Neu! reinventing lounge music, as Berit tinkles out melodies on the vibraphone. Most welcome of all is a piece I didn’t catch the name of, in which the increasingly impressive Berit sings in a detached Nico murmur (not unlike Elizabeth K.’s interjections for Eyeless In Gaza) over a tune not unlike a relaxed cross between Levitation and A.R. Kane (with a bit of the brisk arty hoppiness of a warmer German band, F.S.K).

During the next interval, the DJ plays Egg and Soft Machine rather than some fearsome tranche of blunt improv. A definite feeling of thaw is in the air.

* * * * * * * *

Yossarian turns out to be both a band (two keyboardists out of a ’50s B-movie and a drummer) and a bald mad-scientist character, looking not unlike Alan McGee. This is Tim London – Yossarian’s prime human body. In a previous life, he was the slightly warped pop brains behind Soho (if you remember the Smiths-sampling ‘Hippychick’, not that there was much else).
These days he’s wrapping his cortex round far artier pop shapes. One piece – all drones, cymballine drums and organ – sounds like Mark Hollis knitting together Labradford and Spiritualized; a chorus of “I will call, and you will come” and an unexpected blaze of harmonica. Other pieces sound like late ‘60s Scott Walker sitting down hard on late ‘80s Pet Shop Boys, and others…

Vocoders, yet! Those pained machine voices are back, along with Air-style pretty melodies served with an avant-garde hiss and a cheesy Bontempi beat under the flagrant detail. What is this nut trying to morph into and sell to us now? E.L.P.? The Glitter Band? By the time I’ve decided that it’s a sort of electronica ‘Parklife’ with car-crash keyboards, he’s exploring bleak Bowie ‘Low’-ies and hitching them up onto Prodigy-style wall-of-fire beatoramas like an erupting Las Vegas volcano.

All of a sudden, I see Tim London revealed as electronic art’s own John Shuttleworth, and relax a bit. It’s an impression carried in his archness, in his taste for a classically creaky lounge-pop tune, his self- conscious anti-cool (“I’ve never played in that time signature before”, he drawls), his total deadpan approach to the ridiculous or to any intimations of hubris, and most of all in the way that, having thrown electronics at us all evening, he encores by – get this – playing the spoons. Respect is due. My old man’s a Cyberman an’ all that.

* * * * * * * *

Osakan noisefreak-fusioneers Lucha Libre have bigger hats than anyone else. They also have bigger presence, taking the stage like EMF used to do. They possess a double-brass frontline – one capering trombonist leader (Teruhiko Heima) in a Kiss ‘Destroyer’ T-shirt; one surreally dignified sax player (Akifumi Minamimoto). There’s also a transplanted heavy metal core in the shape of Takashi Sakuma, a sampler-wielding guitarist with long tartan shorts, a serious Van Halen fixation, and one of those hilariously literal Japanese sweatshirts. This one reads “Pretty Tough Sport”. Finally, they have a digital heart on frantic overdrive – everyone except drummer Jun Tsutusui seems to be doubling on synth.

By their seventh number their bassist (Lee Young Sin, back in a different guise) is walking on his hands and playing the synth with his head amidst a hurricane of Coltrane-meets-Black-Sabbath saxophone. Before that, we’ve been privy to a Donington’s-worth of heavy-metal axe abuse; a swelter of industrial goofing and salsa horns; and a stage act best described as The Young Gods meet ‘Rugrats’. We’ve also, as a responsible audience, totally turned around received notions about arty label nights by absolutely loving it to bits and yelling for more, as the twit from ‘Melody Maker’ shakes his head and frets about missing ‘Friends’. Lucha Libre continue their delightful murder of cool regardless.

Now they sound like ships coming into a drunken docking on Mars – big trombone blurts, the rattle and squiggle of electronic timepieces, and phenomenal yowls and divebombs from the metal kid. Now they’re on a big, spacious, tricky funk beat: Akifumi an oasis of reedy calm as a funky harpsichord riff pops up from keyboardist Soichi Murota and the band head into the slabby, tottering, Theremin-ized jazz-funk of the ‘We Have No Our Groove’ single. Next, they pull out in order to plait Led Zeppelin into the ‘Mission Impossible’ theme.

By the encore, Teruhiko is hammering out a torn tom tattoo on a commandeered chunk of Jun’s drumkit. Stuck horn drones giggle at him; the sax thrashes – squalling and wailing – in a cauldron of frenzied bop, and Takahashi fires Heavy Q’s abandoned raygun into his guitar pickups. It’s like seeing a particularly extrovert software virus trash your screen, in blazes of grinning colour. As they settle into a long final lope, razzing trombone carrying the melody over the clipped sax and Durutti guitar picking, the air inexplicably fills with a powdery scent of flowers. This is some sort of Lucha Libre Japanese magic, I guess: the sort of thing which that passionately confused nation throws up so well.

* * * * * * * *

With a massive wall of dry-ice fog and a sound like Satan belching (it’s some sort of conch, in fact), Sand prepare to close the evening. A massive mound of frizzy dreadlocks hoves into view and starts growling Andean death-metal at us. Crops wither within a three-mile radius.

This thing is – to stretch the Trades Description Act a little – Sand’s singer. Whether it’s possible to declare a force of nature part of your band is a matter for Sand and their lawyers. They used to be called Germ, which is an understatement and a half. They should have been Epidemic. To put Sand into perspective, they are something of a return to normality after Lucha Libre’s mad playground display, even if they do both feature upfront trombone. Sand are also, by far, the most assured band on tonight – elastic harmonic bass from John Edwards, the precise touches on Rowan Oliver’s looping drums, the wash of ravishing electro-gale off Tim Wright’s keyboards: a bit like Rain Tree Crow with a trombone, but only if they’d been fronted by David Sylvian’s monster-from-the-Id. This is something which the Sonic Youth-style drumsticked drone guitar and the ‘Bitches Brew’ mute on Hilary Jeffery’s trombone only accentuates.

The monster on vocals – whose name is, apparently, George – evidently knows harmonic overtone chanting. His reverberating rasp blends in with the trombone’s blare, the slipping geological sample and the Bruford threes which Rowan is now shooting off the top of his kit. The mike slips deeper into that mane of dreads. From the unseen mouth the Devil pukes noise, sprawling and rolling: echoes of Diamanda Galas, balled’n’bassed up, or of Magma. If many of the smooth dream-rock tones of Sand suggest a vigorous muscle-flexing tone-up, that voice feels like being rolled hard in the gravel afterwards. Among other things, Sand offer a crushing world-music for the ever-so-slightly masochistic.

“You can dance to the next one,” comments band spokesman Hilary, draining the spit from his trombone as John brings on a double bass to play… well, some salsa from hell; the guitar and keyboard filling up the spaces in the music with an inspired patina of drone-trash. As another Sand piece forms (a reedy melodica, skullclick percussion, a lost wail from Mr Mountain as the band traverses a flat, disturning plain of atonal movement) you wonder whether this band would ever really make you want to dance. Why should you want them to, when instead you can suffer the perverse enjoyment of feeling Sand twitch the crust of the earth from under your feet?

* * * * * * * *

I don’t care. The liberating, socialising force of dance was the one aspect of electronic music that was ignored tonight; possibly because it was redundant. In between writing my notes I’ve filled my ears, had a doughnut, leafed through vinyl stalls, and spent an evening in the belly of the art-beast, chatting away to some of the nicest people I’ve met in ten years of making up gig numbers.

I finally let my tired eyelids swell, and turn my weary ankles homewards. Satellite are packing up, engrimed with cigarette smoke and fired up on the warmth of the evening, making ready to ship it all across the Channel to the City of Light.

This time, I don’t fear for them.

Sand online:
Homepage

Lucha Libre online:
Homepage

Yossarian online:
Homepage

Karamazov online:
Homepage

Heavy Q Connection online:
Homepage

Satellite Records online:
Homepage

(2018 update – after twenty years, it’s no surprise that most of those bands and projects have long since ended. Post-2001, Satellite Records was mostly reabsorbed into its ongoing parent label, Soul Jazz; and the Satellite, Yossarian, Lucha Libre and Heavy Q links above connect only to discographies. Yossarian’s Tim London (a.k.a. Tim Brinkhurst) now works as a film-maker, as a music lecturer at the British & Irish Modern Music Institute in Birmingham, and as producer, most notably with Young Fathers. The members of Karamazov are still friends and collaborators, working together in various combinations in The Chap and Omo. Sand also continues in various forms and names, generally helmed by Tim Wright and Hilary Jeffery. It’s unclear what’s become of the members of Lucha Libre, although saxophonist Akifumi Minamimoto did also put some time in with “jazz/R.I.O. progsters” Djamra. Meanwhile, Notre Dame Hall ended four decades of musical history covering beat pop to punk to avant-gardery in 2001, when it became first the Venue theatre and then the Leicester Square Theatre.

Oh – and sorry about the lack of pictures. When I got friendly with Satellite’s photographer, it clearly didn’t include me blagging post-concert photos out of him.)

October 1998 – live reviews – Holly Penfield’s ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’, Downstairs @ The Washington, Belsize Park, London, sometime in 1998 (“calling back the family”)

3 Oct

Usually, the stage is festooned with objects. Antique candlesticks, mutilated dolls, little aliens and masks and stuffed rats. Inflatable replicas of Munch’s ‘Scream’; drapes and toy guitars and candles and mirrors. A travelogue of places been, of people touched and gifts given and received. It’s like walking into a voodoo shrine when you go to one of Holly Penfield’s shows, with a Kurzweil keyboard synth as the altar and a most singular priestess creating sympathetic magic.

Tonight, though, it’s not like that – and, to tell you the truth, it hasn’t been for some time.

When I knew it in the early ’90s, the ‘Fragile Human Monster’ Show had set itself up as a Kilburn cult: blazing and guttering as a shredded star in the Black Lion’s lofty function room, an intense piece of performance art sitting oddly on the schedule among the jazz nights and the inevitable country and Irish bands. I used to be a regular, travelling an ungainly “v”-shape by Tube from Highgate to Kilburn via Charing Cross every few weeks to take in this precarious celebration of the outsider’s turmoil. I’d be hearing new audience members mutter “I’m absolutely fucking gobsmacked!” and “she’s a shaman, that’s what she is!” as Holly hauled her exhausted self offstage after the climax of every show, to meet the cluster of new converts. Or watching others sitting bolt-upright in their seats, uncertain as to whether they should move or breathe yet.

Kilburn has a long-standing reputation for nurturing street-fighters, poets and geniuses, but no-one was ever entirely prepared for the sheets of tumultuous emotion that blasted off that stage, winding the audience in out of their cloistered London selves. It was no crowd-pleasing assemblage of easy pieces. It was an exorcism, sung out of the psyche of an unstable California songwriter come to earth and berth as North London’s answer to Tori Amos, whose self-appointed mission was to celebrate the glorious awkwardness of being alive and being human.

She did it in style and with her whole heart, exploring our contradictory and troubled natures with her bag of striking songs and her full-on keyboards and singing. Part synth-pop diva, part 1970s rock siren, she came across like a full-throttle Stevie Nicks or Grace Slick invading and overwhelming a Laurie Anderson show-and-tell, and she brought a brace of personas with her. At times she was the enigmatic seductress, at others the knowing child or the wise fool, the little girl lost who sees with the clearest eye. Sometimes – especially in the wilder second half of the show – she was the liberating hysteric, encouraging the whole pub into primal screaming with her, or delving into the world of the compulsively needy in the sonic barrage of Cuddle Me.

Being a member of Holly’s audience meant being enticed into shedding those cloaks of cynicism and reserve we use to insulate ourselves, and opening your heart up to the rawest kind of sympathy and honesty. The show became a part of us, as much as we were a part of it, the church of the misfits she embraced. We dropped our guard, she sang: a voice for our odd angles and our visceral fears. OK, it wasn’t always successful. If you didn’t buy into her stylings and sounds, or suspected her for the years she’d clearly spent grinding away and trapped in the Los Angeles pop factory, you’d have been left cold from the start. Holly’s whimsical song-stories of peculiar goings-on down at the ranch burbled where they should enlighten. Her savage onslaughts on her inflatable Scream dolls did look like kids’ TV for psychos; and some songs fell across the line dividing the inspired from the self-indulgent. If you led with your sense of cool, or your cynicism, there was no chance.

But at full tilt, it was unmatchable. Banners unfurling, defining the nature of the misfit – and, years later, inspiring the name of this blog. The keyboard was caressed and hammered, abused and enchanted, responding with waves and roars of sound, chimes and ripples as those melodies cascaded out of it. Inevitably, the show would climax in a crash of sound and fury as Holly’s rage and passion reached a colossal peak and she smashed at keyboard and walls with terrifying fervour. Some evenings she’d pull herself up from the floor to let us off the hook with a song of redemption. Some evenings she’d given out so much that she couldn’t…

And eventually, it died a death. The show’s welcoming inclusiveness coagulated, and shrank to one woman’s neurosis replayed again and again on stage as a stubborn loop. Locked into her ritual of combat and confrontation, Holly became unapproachable: stopped listening. People, reduced from being family to being just punters, felt that; they stopped listening themselves; drifted away. Eventually, one evening (watching Holly run through a show that had become no more than a process, a jukebox for the disturbed) I realised that everything that had drawn me to attend the Fragile Human Monster Show – to be a part of the show – had slid out of Holly’s hands as they contorted on her keyboard, and drained away.

Quietly, and unmissed, I left. I heard that it ground on for maybe half a year longer – until Holly’s compulsion to keep performing it had finally ebbed – and then faded out. Radio silence.

That was then. Now… a tentative return to action. Holly’s show is no longer a monkey on her back, no longer a vampiric therapy devouring its own subject. And – by word of mouth, by phone – she’s calling back the family. There’s a new, one-off venue, in a more genteel neighbourhood. And there’s a gentler, shorter ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’. Less of a pitched battle this time. Testing the waters, for sharks and for soothing.

So… no decoration tonight. No Screams either. Just the keyboard, and Holly: still wand-slim, wispily blonde, petite; still looking as if you could break her between a couple of fingers. And, tonight, apprehensive as she works her way back into performing the show. When she takes the stage, however, she’s anything but insubstantial. That voice, that playing, those songs… are still intact. Little miracles of warmth and tension, instantly memorable as her astoundingly expressive voice curves little bluesy, jazzy curves round heartbreaking corners.

Penfieldia is a place to hide and be inspired, inhabited by characters like the homeless poet living in a box in Over The Edge or the unravelling lovers in the hollow urban landscape of City Of Lights. There’s familiarity to them, yes. These songs could conceivably have sat in the charts – or in piano bars. But, just as it all seems to be getting too straight, Holly twists it and it’s off in a different direction, or barbed with something unexpected that sneaks in and turns your heart like a doorknob.

Parts Of My Privacy unwraps the fears of the distrusting recluse. In Stay With Me slow coils of piano reach into the depths of loneliness, still the sound of a woman slowly sliding into the dark. Sea Of Love offers us respite with a slow sated love ballad and Don’t Hide sends out a rousing percussion call to faith. And Voices – a slow, winding sleepy version in which Holly leans on every note to push it home into the air – has the audience gently thrumming, always on the edge of a breath.

The clincher was always going to be the climactic ‘Misfit’ finale, the explosion which always blew the cork out of the frustration raging in the original shows. It still has that drama, that rage and stubbornness… but now it seems content to rest on its own worth, not to burst into hysteria and hallucinations. She’s keeping us guessing. Or, maybe, questioning herself about what her misfit resistance should be doing now and how its battle cry should sound, now that it’s escaped from the torments of the hall of mirrors.

Tonight, though, was something more important than just songs. It was the night that this most involving of shows gave itself back to the people who’d buoyed it up and who’d lived it as much as Holly Penfield herself. A collection of fragile human monsters found themselves, once again, with the sweet shared ache along the same shared faultlines.

No matter how much she could’ve dressed the show up, it would have been immeasurably poorer without that.

Holly Penfield online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music

The Washington, Belsize Park online:
HomepageTwitter

September 1998 – album reviews – Bill Nelson’s ‘Atom Shop’ (“freefalling away with the breakbeat imprint stamped onto the songs”)

20 Sep
Bill Nelson: 'Atom Shop'

Bill Nelson: ‘Atom Shop’

Compare and contrast. A while ago, Bowie – in a last-ditch attempt to prove he’s still relevant, still the musical chameleon of old – clambered aboard the drum’n’bass gravy train. That music’s normally made by lone bedsit technoheads; Bowie tried to do it with a bloated old rock band. Oops. Still, being Bowie, he could always pick up the phone and request the services of Goldie or some other jungle luminary. The end result sounded clumsy and desperate and – pointedly – as if Bowie had no real interest in drum’n’bass, since he kept dragging the music back towards the ever-more-familiar Bowierock. Not good.

On the other hand… Bill Nelson, him from ’70s Bowie contemporaries Be Bop Deluxe (and a man who mostly holed up in an ambient hermitage in Wakefield during the ’80s and ’90s) has also discovered drum’n’bass. A year before Bowie, too, with 1996’s rattlin’ good ‘After The Satellite Sings’, which sounded – unlike Bowie’s studied “so-how-do-I-do-jungle?” approach – like it had been a revelation and release to him, and without surrendering his own musical personality. Call me romantic, but I could imagine the middle-aged Nelson huddled over his radio each evening, tuning through the FM jungle pirate stations, listening in awe to the complex rhythms and then rushing to his music room to apply what he heard.

‘…Satellite…’ was a suave salvo of smartly retrofitted ’50s-accented art-pop with a bloodstream of “quintessentially English” drum’n’bass, if you can imagine such a thing – Nelson’s laid-back vocals (like a cross between David Sylvian and Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Mallinder) topping a very compacted sound, curiously lacking bass oomph but loaded with frenetic drum patterns, beatbox-assaulting jungle snares, burbling electronics and witty speech samples, including someone sounding suspiciously like Maggie Thatcher exclaiming “absolutely dazzled!” over the rush of beats. It was cheeky, it was damn cool, and it had a heart beating under its sharp starched creases.

‘Atom Shop’ is the follow-up; a boxload of demos that failed to get enough funding for the full studio treatment. All the better, ‘cos we know that that way lies ‘Earthling’, Bowie lumbering into a clumsy three-point turn and spilling his load. This album’s rougher edges help – not enough to convert a hardcore junglist, but evading the slickness of most crossover efforts. And it continues ‘…Satellite…’s so-quaint-it’s-cool eccentricity, from Nelson’s memories of being in hock to American glamour during his ’50s childhood and art-college ’60s in Yorkshire.

Pulp fiction, Beat writers, cartoons, natty bebop and cars with silver fins are all part of Atom Shop’s dream fabric. It kicks off with Wild & Dizzy’s swirl of trumpet mixups, dry drum’n’bass pulse, chill synths and blue guitar, peppered with ’50s dude voices. And one of the other songs is called Viva Le Voom-Voom, baby. There’s a lot of fanboy energy here: he’s knocking on 50, but Bill Nelson still sounds naïve and sparkling with enthusiasm, bless the old goat.


 
Though one thing you notice pretty fast is that ‘Atom Shop’ doesn’t have the hurtling clubby drive of ‘After the Satellite Sings’. Train With Fins looks back towards the more drum’n’bassed ‘…Satellite…’ songs like Flipside – fast and clattering upfront snare drum patterns, with a techno twang and banks of horn-like guitars calling up the ghosts of Stax – but, though speedy, it never breaks much of a sweat. Which is also true of Rocket Ship’s sliding jazz/d’n’b snake rattle and Trevor Horn stabs, or Popsicle Head Trip’s Ferry smooch and tight heavy-metal riffs – all mingling through the drum’n’bass dryness, but the beats ain’t so obvious as they could’ve been.


 
Magic Radio has a light d’n’b push to it, but ends up like The Orb doing Somewhere Over The Rainbow. ‘Atom Shop’ sounds more touched deeply in passing by drum’n’bass, rather than grabbed by it; as if it’s freefalling away with the breakbeat imprint stamped onto the songs, a teacher’s kiss. Here you’ll more often feel the pathways of d’n’b rather than the punch; the points where space has been prepared, the dynamics of the beat, waiting for the kick that never quite comes.

Oddly, though, ‘Atom Shop’s a much blacker album than its predecessor, even if it does sound less like a session on Massive FM. ‘…Satellite…’s most awkward point – the strafing, Fripp-like guitar solos – have been phased out for a bluesier approach. Nelson’s guitar is busy everywhere, and if there’s some of B.B.D.’s fluid finickiness to it, he can also sound like a sample-era John Lee Hooker, or the subtler detailing Hendrix of Little Wing and Up From The Sky. All this is dovetailed into the minimal trip-hop feel taken to the top of the charts by Garbage, Sneaker Pimps et al (especially for the more ominous Girlfriend With Miracles), but Nelson’s got a more developed musical sense.


 
So everywhere you look, there are things going on: elements of electronica, samples and live instruments in a complex, but never fussy or muso, interweaving. Dobros and slides are all over Pointing At The Moon’s sleepiness, little bits of rural blues and gospel organs jostle into the arrangements; and so do probably all the “s”s in Mississippi too, if you can find ’em. And jazz dances wherever there’s room; trippy Dizzy Gillespie trumpet cascades, cheeky clarinets, even a bit of scat. Bill Nelson’s found, and gone into, the future we’re starting to guess at from our Portishead records and big-beat singles. A glittering, malleable, disorienting wonderland built out of chewed-up scraps of our past and ghosts in the record players. Something which he pins down in the sizzling hip-hop/jazz hybrid of Spinning Dizzy On the Dial when he sings “I’ve seen the luminous stuff of dreams, / I know what’s going down… Awake to all eternity / with the jazziest ghosts in town.”


 
It’s about a sensibility, I guess, a feeling. Which leaves us with the preoccupations of Nelson’s sighed, sometimes stoned vocals through an album of songs that are mostly poised in dreaminess. ‘…Satellite…’ celebrated the liberation Nelson’s kinetic d’n’b exploits offered him, poked fun at those who thought he might be a little old to join the jungle massive (“I had my sonic youth / When you were lost in ether… / I’ve got nothing to say, and I’m saying it. / Yeah, that’s the stuff for me.”) and had an undercurrent of suspicion at the American dream (“Whither thou goest, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”). But ‘Atom Shop’s more content to bask in sighs about “the way things swing”, “moving stars spun from mirror ball”, “Chet Baker on the lo-hi-fi”, trippy kittens, glamour girls from Mars, and Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Perhaps he made his point the first time around.


 
Rest assured that it stays on the right side of Austin Powers, thanks to things like the Beat-rapping on Billy Infinity, the shuffling shoe-drag balladry and springy guitars of She Gave Me Memory, and the way in which My World Spins cooks everything together best – gospel emphasis, lucid little guitar and electric piano strums, pitter-pat drum’n’bass velocity, a Cars-style creaky hipness and Nelson’s determination to keep his head clear: “now everybody’s got their information / but none of it matches mine. / Saints preserve my reputation and keep my thoughts sublime.” The sense of a mind open to new sounds and influences pervades. Before the closing Jetsons-style supermarket jingle, Nelson’s declared himself to be “sending signals and leaving clues / from the hymns of history to the far-future blues.”


 
And aside from the excitement for the listener, part of the greatness of Nelson’s current trajectory is hearing a rejuvenated art-rocker enjoying exploring startlingly new musical forms and weaving them into his history. Doing it for himself, without a style guru or scenester shoving a batch of 12-inch white labels into his hands, saying “Sample some breaks from this – it’s what the kids are into.” Keep flicking through those FM stations, Mr Nelson…

(review by Col Ainsley)

Bill Nelson: ‘Atom Shop’
Discipline Global Mobile, DGM 9806 (633367980625)
CD-only album
Released: 15th September 1998

Get it from:
Best obtained second-hand.

Bill Nelson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM

September 1998 – EP reviews – Blowholy’s ‘Psalm 666’ (“a very young Trent Reznor chasing Tony Iommi down an endless cobbled alley”)

11 Sep
Blowholy: 'Psalm 666'

Blowholy: ‘Psalm 666’

For all the wild promo bluff (foaming descriptions of “’70s hell-riffing axe-gods having lo-fi nervous breakdowns whilst being sodomised by Satan’s own sampler under a layer of time-warped filth and modulated interference waves”) it’s easy to pin this one down. It was only a matter of time before someone copped on to the possibilities of fusing the rhythmical extremity of drum’n’bass junglism with the punch and theatrical flair of heavy metal. Strangely Brown (Blowholy’s one-man noise army) aims to be at the front of the queue to mate two musics more obsessed than most with extremity and big bangs.

If you can imagine a very young Trent Reznor chasing Tony Iommi down a narrow, endless cobbled alley, you’re halfway to imagining Blowholy. Knife-life guitar-riffs – pure Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, cored from their early ’70s pomp – ride on glittering junglist axles with a witchy, wiry vocal wound over the top. Electro-rattle meets bludgeon riffola – simple as that. Ministry did something similar with industrial techno at the start of the ’90s, and it’s fair to say that Blowholy owe them something. However, much of this EP springs from a distinctly British brand of humour and resentment.

Some of this is pulled from punk, some from the anarchic spirit of resistance in the free festivals, and some from the brutal rained-on sarcasm of the English cynic. Riding way back in the mix, crushed and distorted to a thin buzz, Strangely’s tones have a lip-smacking relish to them. He’s a rebellious and gleefully smart-arsed underdog, spitting out slap after slap to familiar targets, but with a engaging vigour. On the titular Psalm 666, he tears straight into consumerism (“Just buy what you’re told, / you are what you own. / Just do what you’re told and you’ll never be alone,”) and its pernicious work at frightening individuals into conformism. As with the metallic riffing, the song’s righteous punk disdain is tinged with Sabbath-style heavy-metal demonics (“Strip away the inane and just one voice remains. / It’s so subliminal, the devil’s own marching call: / ‘Come on, come on, come on, come on now, / fit in, fit in, fit in with the crowd’…”).

While Do As You’re Done By initially sounds more like personal revenge (“God, it gets me high to see the realisation dawn. / At last you’re facing someone you should really not have scorned!”) it’s more of a general roasting of the brainwashed – “I’ve had you here a year but you just never seem to learn. / So now it’s time to find out just what makes your flywheel turn. / If I open up your head I’ll see your tiny poisoned mind / I’m not expecting much, but I will see what I can find.” Beneath the occasional dungeon lyrics, it isn’t schoolboy sadism that drives Strangely: it’s ire at the smug, or the sheeplike, or the pretentious. ‘Dig Your Own’ (which mixes in some Mike Patton-style brat-rapping and a fistful of psychotically wiggling sax samples from Naked City) rips enthusiastic holes in some swell’s ballooning ego. “Claiming to bring the ultimate coup, / only to say what we already knew. / You’re going on so fast that you bring your own disaster. / En route from god to bastard, / so big; could not be vaster. / You’re going on so fast that it could never, ever last you…”

Scene & Herd charges back to the big unison Black Sabbath riffs, taking a sniff at speed-garage while it’s there. The dance elements are better integrated, wrapped in a grinning, glistening embrace with the guitars. This time, Strangely takes his knife to bandwagon-jumpers whose opportunism outstrips their knowledge or sincerity. “In all you do, it’s only you that you want to please… / There is no credence to the so-called words of wisdom that you sell. / But who can tell?” With great pleasure, he pronounces sentence: “It’s your fate to emulate / the world you think you have escaped / but merely aped.”

All well and good, but once the trick of drum’n’bass/metal fusion has become familiar, you do start hankering after some new tricks. Luckily, there’s Iconoplastic (Tzawai), in which Blowholy take a step on from the initial hybrid and produce something much more interesting. The power-riffing electric guitars are gone this time (occasionally replaced by scrabbles across a dislocated acoustic) and the stripes of waiting vacuum and rushing, balefully-textured noise stretched across the shuddering beat are more along the unrelenting sampledelic lines of Moonshake, Muslimgauze or The Young Gods than anything that finds its natural home in ‘Kerrang!’. The ominous Arabic samples (courtesy of Chalf Hassan) merge with the lo-fi percussive impulse, a jihad strike-force speeding across the sands. Meanwhile, the sardonic word-dancing has reached new levels of acidity. “Here we go again, with your self-important jive / about how you made a difference filling empty lives… / Well, it’s such a bed of roses with your collection of pet psychoses. / So tormented, like you meant it. / Oh, such a sensitive man!”

Blowholy are halfway there – they’re on the right track, but if they’re to become as musically interesting as the Naked City and Mr Bungle tracks they sample, they need the courage to consistently extend their own envelope. In other words, more Iconoplastics. But at least the drum’n’bass/metal crossover floodgates have been thrown open. That shaggy, long-in-the tooth rock monster has grown itself a new skeleton and is about to road-test it.

Blowholy: ‘Psalm 666’
Ketamine Leper Music, KETCDS 01 (no barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: 1998

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand, although CD versions will be extremely rare. Some tracks can be downloaded from Soundcloud as part of the ‘Church Bizarre’ album.

Blowholy online:
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August 1998 – EP reviews – No-Man’s ‘Carolina Skeletons’ (“loaded with meaning, swollen thick with suppressed tears”)

29 Aug

They claim it as “a totally new approach” for the band, but thankfully, this time they’re wrong. After the diverse experimentation of the ‘Wild Opera’ and ‘Dry Cleaning Ray’ albums, it’s more of a look back to their roots in the deceptively simple, poignant flush of ambiguous romance. No-Man are going home. And as they do, this falls – as if from a worn-out pocket – into our hands.

Carolina Skeletons could just be the finest single No-Man have ever released. A rhythm track like a weary hubcap rolling its way home; Steve Wilson’s lovelorn, restrained piano and sleepy, teary guitar touches. A simple, unchanging dynamic evoking both a state of grace and a state of stagnation. A set of chords that fall, question and resolve – heartbreakingly – around Tim Bowness’ quietly yearning vocal. A distant almost inaudible organ, hovering like a night scent. And a short glimpse of a few moments of a trapped life.


 
It’s a snapshot of a lonely woman paralysed by inertia, watching as time “strips the tinsel from her hair” and the mingled forces of gravity and grief tug her down. It has the same sketch-like quality of American Music Club or The Blue Nile – a few lines loaded with meaning, swollen thick with the suppressed tears – and breathes out, with its eyes closed, the same ineffably bruised air as Mark Hollis’ melancholy reveries. You get a feeling that for its solitary anti-heroine, Cowboy Kate, time is slowing but history has already halted.

So much for the lead track. But the whole EP shivers with an underlying, understated tension; the sort of slight ache that nags and means that at best only a flawed and brittle peace is possible. Caught up in the acoustic guitar webbing of Something Falls, Tim’s words are entangled and shivering in the anticipation of a shock to come: “You’re far too near it to feel it… / You’re far too near it to fear it…”


 
In Close Your Eyes (a swoonier, more grace-inspired take on their old Desert Heart epic) Mellotron strings hover near or retreat over rolling slot-drums: elegant stalkers on the uppers of their nerves. Twinkles and illuminations come and go like soft offshore lights – halfway through a guitar screams alone in the middle distance. Caressed, Tim sings a beatific, burnished chorus while the verses hint at love, violence and dependency: “His hands were hard, your face was soft. / He kissed your heavy head – and then you lost your strength…” It ends on a poised and prolonged outbreath, with Tim wailing passionately into the void up ahead: “You break, you swim alone, like a child…”

To close – a reverberant, distant, Budd-like reprise of the Carolina piano line in all of its beautiful worn-down dignity. The dust blows forward and the dust blows back. Sometimes all there is to do is to carry on, face set to the wind and tears stroked back towards where you’ve come from. Beautiful.

No-Man: ‘Carolina Skeletons’
3rd Stone Ltd., STONE037CD (5023693003757)
CD-only EP
Released: August 1998

Get it from: Best obtained second-hand. The title track (and a different version of Close Your Eyes) ended up on no-man‘s ‘Returning Jesus’ album in 2001: all of the EP tracks were also reissued on the triple-vinyl release of ‘Returning Jesus (The Complete Sessions)’ in 2006.
No-Man online:
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August 1998 – EP reviews – Magnilda’s ‘Clocks Are Like People’ demo EP (“slightly more mad cow-ards than Noel Cowards”)

20 Aug

Magnilda: 'Clocks Are Like People' EP

Magnilda: ‘Clocks Are Like People’ EP

Sing ho! for British beef!

This pops into my head because (a) Magnilda are so proudly chunky, beefy and muscular, especially Connon MacRae’s assured and dextrous lead guitar; and because (b) they’re ever-so-slightly deranged, weaving together pop that merges the wistful and the sly, the romantic and the easily distracted via a series of songs which build up like houses of cards, complex and always teetering on the edge of a tumble. Which leads us to (c) – the fact that their nutty drawing-room demeanour warrants a suitably Olde English exclamation. As with The Divine Comedy, these are songs best listened to while wearing a monocle and attempting to playfully clobber someone with a croquet mallet. In the library. With Miss Scarlet to hold your gloves for you.

Magnilda’s music has a particularly British ancestry. A strong flavour of XTC’s mischievous kaleidoscopic power-pop. Some of Blur’s Britpop-era mix of cheeriness over melancholy. More than a smidgin of Cardiacs’ preoccupation with Victorian and Edwardian imagery, plus their taste for an itchy riff. A love of metaphysical metaphors. And, perhaps somewhere, a bit of Freddie Mercury’s taste for cabaret pop? Or perhaps not: although Richard Larcombe’s amused, mellow drawl certainly suggests smoking jackets, cigarette holders and launching shafts of wit like paper darts across panelled rooms. But this is getting far too Merchant Ivory. Time to stop and take a look at the three songs ‘Clocks Are Like People’ offers us.

There’s She’s The Queen. A love song that’s Squeeze through finishing school, constantly undermining itself with sly bathos: rocketing guitars, handclaps, and a Poet Laureate lyrical approach that’s more ‘Blackadder II’ than Clapham bedsit. “And so, my Camden monarch, my defender / in true ultramarine. / Your manner and your aromatic splendour / live in me now, my Queen.” More and more courtly compliments slip over the top. It’s like being assaulted by garlands. Yet with all the playfulness there’s a pointed seducer’s agenda, however politely turned. “Your Highness, I stand humbled at your beauty. / Admit me, if you please.”

But at the other end of the flirtation you’ll find Loving The Way, in which Magnilda’s cleverness crumbles before their genuine pangs of heartache. However sophisticated Larcombe’s narrator is (“I’m posh, discreet, / I hate to compete. / Such stuff offends me greatly”), he’s still snagged on love’s rich, hard-to-swallow leftovers. And he spends the whole song trying to come to terms with that, without success. “To kiss her neck, her hands, / and stand where she stands: / I can’t see how it’s stealing…” Smart enough to be wise to himself – “Although the passion was strong, there, / I didn’t belong there,” – he’s only smart enough to be wise after the event, and is only capable now that it’s impossible to be so. “I’d have to die to forget her: I know when I met her / I was much too young, and I wasted her. / And now I can’t stop, can’t stop loving the way we were…” It dawdles reluctantly along, with a sour burr to MacRae’s guitars; hoping to delay the imploding, anticlimactic inevitable two years too late. The eccentric, well-dressed smoothie’s already showing crumples and the odd tearstain.

Somewhere in between, What’ll We Do In The Winter? fidgets with anticipation, halfway through the affair and already dreading the challenges to come. “Late September / finds me living with a reason. / But tell me, / will your eyes not be my guide / as we move into another season?” Panicky choruses struggle with angular guitars and paranoia over the fact that even nature seems to be dropping heavy hints that it’s all over: “Now I’m curtain-drawing early, / the light is fading fast, / my spirit fading too / The lamps have started burning / – they’re not the only ones. / I can’t live without you.” By the end it’s become the John Donne hit parade; metaphysics, quaint metaphors and all, as they carol “Oh, leaves are falling.. / the ladybird to her grave crawling. / Oh, tell me what’ll we do in the winter?”

Magnilda are dark horses: slightly more mad cow-ards than Noel Cowards, but only slightly. However much Richard Larcombe delivers his elegant lyrics off a frayed cuff with an arch wink, there’s something compulsively wrong here, something tragically composed and brittle in Magnilda’s poise. Like the guy with immaculate clothes and quips, living out of the unloved flat filled with dust and old tins. Why does Larcombe reckon clocks are like people? Too much studied marking of time, without ever being able to claim it, to live it?

For all the easy jokes, the recent history of British beef has been a tragedy inextricably mingled with pungent, helpless farce. Magnilda – rolling their eyes with exaggerated abandon – would probably appreciate that better than most.

Magnilda: ‘Clocks Are Like People’
Magnilda (no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette-only demo EP
Released: summer 1998

Magnilda online:
(2018 update – there never was a Magnilda web presence, but visit the following links for ongoing Richard Larcombe projects)

Lost Crowns online:
Facebook Bandcamp

Stars In Battledress online:
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August 1998 – album reviews – Darkroom’s ‘Daylight’ (“subtly distressed electronica”)

14 Aug

Darkroom: 'Daylight'

Darkroom: ‘Daylight’

To work out where Darkroom are coming from, you could do worse than take a look at ‘Daylight’s arresting cover. It’s a study of sturdy, corroded old industrial tanks, encircled by metal stairways and surrounded by a devil’s playground of battered, abandoned plastic drums. The drums are marked with hazard labels but yawn open, suggesting that their toxic contents have long since leached out into the environment.

Behind the towering tanks is a radiant blue sky and a slanting blanket of pure white fluffy cloud, against which they rear up like Reims Cathedral. It’s beautiful, in a warped way – the wreckage and castoffs of a once-bright new industry that, nonetheless, continue to assert themselves. Yet in this toxic paradise there’s not a person in sight.

No, this isn’t suggesting that Darkroom are the sort of electronica trio who revel in futurism, and who excise humanity from their orderly sequenced and oscillating musical vision of the world. The opposite is true. Darkroom’s music (in which Os’ sequences and textures are balanced by Michael Bearpark’s mutated post-industrial guitars and Tim Bowness’ naked swoony vocal wail) has humanity in spades. The live instrumentation and vocalising unites with the programmed sound and beats in a way that’s rare in over-purified electronic music, but in the music that emerges – one in which the technology provides uncertainty rather than comfortable form, and in which the threat of chaos and upset looms constantly in the background – the main note sounded is one of loss. One of the main qualities of daylight, after all, is its impermanence.

Via a previous EP, we’ve already heard the discontented seethe of Carpetworld: roof-skittering drum’n’bass with guttering snarls of wounded guitar and Tim’s voice reined in to a hooded whisper of acidic verbiage – the only lyrics on the record, and they’re about bad sex, looting and dodgy discos. We’ve also heard the beautiful flush of ‘Daylight’s title track: a tumbling chant (mournful but blissful) against a slow wallow of bass, the singing notes of Mike’s Frippertronical guitar, and Os’ dawn chorus of flickering sound. Darkroom can do in-yer-face, and they can do strokin’-yer-cheek. They do each of these in roughly equal amounts. Often they do both together, in an elusive blur of ambiguous emotion – the sort that makes you keep one eye on them and the other, anxiously, on the door; but which keeps you held in place, unable to resist the desire to see for yourself what comes next.

Ambiguity is in fact the keyword for this music. Brash, defined techno structures are missing, their place taken by sketchy outlines which the trio fill up with evolving, chaotic detail. The beats are light-footed: slow breaks languidly pacing the background, or pattering techno pulses like rats’ paws. The electronics hum like supercharged fridges close to bursting flamewards, or keen out lovely auroral shivers in the sky and in the shadowed spaces. Tim’s full-voiced mixture of blurred word-shapes and sub-verbal whoops are sometimes Buckley-ish in their tortured flamboyance, sometimes more like Liz Fraser’s outraged brother. Melodies drift, loop and contort: massy and queasily mutable, cloudscapes tortured out of their natural forms by the force of some cruel idiot god.

Sometimes Darkroom’s music sounds like Underworld (though tumbled from their throne and reeling with the impact of a massive nervous breakdown) or like Fripp and Eno sailing their boat into much more malevolent waters. Sprawl growls its overcast way past complex shifting slapping beats, squelched bass, crushed radio-talk and vocal frailties; a baleful camera scanning a wasteland. The opener, Crashed, is strung out, lovely but disfocussed, with a streak of elegant suffering running through it. The guitars rattle like motoring moon-buggies, the voice oppresses like a summer shower, and somewhere in the background, behind the throaty tick of percussion, a lone voice of optimism: a marimba chinking out its own little Steve Reich wavelet.

There are episodes of naked grace on board, beside the pollution, but ‘Daylight’ is still one of the most subtly distressed records to wriggle out of late ‘90s electronica. This is most obvious in the wrenching, frozen agony of Vladimir; but Died Inside seems to sob in anticipation for a collapse waiting to happen but never quite arriving. Looped calls, lilting gasps are answered across a chill and echoing gulf by the icy fuzz of a guarded guitar, prowling and snarling in its own isolation. Once, Tim’s voice reaches a rare degree of intelligibility – a panicked, unanswered plea of “d’you feel the same?”

The wonder that comes close in hand with this fear is laid out explicitly in No History. A soft hip-hop beat holds down the sky-stretchingly rapt vocal and the beautiful subterranean guitar moans: a soundtrack to the forever-flavoured moment when you lie stricken at the bottom of that fatal crevasse, watching the last and most brilliant stars of your lifetime pierce the beckoning void overhead. Like a fleeting memory of softer times, a snippet of (Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay slips in. The amplifier buzz at the end is a benediction.

If there’s a time when there’s resolution, it’s when those two questioning background voices reach out across the comforting pulse of Estragon – Michael’s guitar like a high, bowed bell, Tim toned down to a florid whisper. Still, as it sails on towards its hushed conclusion, the key feeling of ‘Daylight’ remains one of loss. A lament for something unknown, but something voiceable. Something long gone past but reaching out for you again, as the day goes down and fades off into the poisonous beauty of a industrial sunset haunted by old unquiet ghosts.

Darkroom: ‘Daylight’
3rd Stone Ltd./The Halloween Society, HAL 8002 CD (5 023693 800226)
CD-only album
Released: 7th August 1998

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp

Darkroom online:
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July 1998 – album reviews – G.P. Hall’s ‘Marks on the Air’ (“a rough’n’ready homemade ethos”)

20 Jul

G.P. Hall: 'Marks On The Air'

G.P. Hall: ‘Marks On The Air’


On ‘Marks On The Air’ (an album of live recordings from concerts in London and Wiltshire), the eccentricity and affections of British experimental guitarist G.P. Hall is presented wide open and unashamed.

To make the record, Hall teamed up with binaural recording whiz Mike Skeet. It’s Skeet’s voice you can hear bookending the concert – running up stairs and heading down in lifts, describing his surroundings with the nattering enthusiasm of a ‘Playschool’ presenter, and popping any remaining hopes of arty detachment. Still, it somehow adds to the warmth of the atmosphere which Hall’s live playing induces. Apart for the oddly truncated applause and the removal of Hall’s shy, uncontrived audience chat, it’s as close to one of his concerts as you’re going to get without leaving your home. Skeet’s superb recording techniques (his binaural miking technology directly mimicking the listening experience of ears on a human head) presents this music in the enveloping, directly tactile environment it requires.

Compared to the more assured sonic constructions you’ll find on a Hall album, ‘Marks On The Air’ is less sophisticated and more risky, but it’s equally ambitious. Skeet’s interjections aside, this is a one-man show. It relies entirely on how much Hall can get out of his hands and his immediate music loops while still keeping an audience entertained. With four separate speaker stacks, an assorted collection of guitars and effects pedals, and the armoury of unorthodox guitar-abusing sundries which he uses as playing implements (bows and battery fans, crocodile clips and Velcro, toy cars and electric razors), Hall is at least well-armed to do that, Even the clean, dated, digital rattle-and-thunk of his 1980s rhythm box lends the enterprise an endearing extra dimension of naivety.

Hall’s pictorial – even painterly – approach to music is consistent throughout. New England Woods is cut from the same lambent aural cloth which Hall made his own with Spirit Sky Montana – swelling curtains of sounds midway between country steel guitar and cello parts strolling and dallying in a soft adagio. Docklands attempts to recreate the brazenly lively colourfulness of a polluted industrial sunset – the shambling drums falling lopsided, the whooshing saw-sounds and lemon-sharp guitar echoes pressing out the shape of the skyline.

Live, however, Hall can be tempted away from his more elegant pastoral confections and into heavier statements. The impressionistic heavy metal of City Signals and Uncharted Territory both offer searing and swaggering chromium-blue lead lines, plenty of echoed backings and slow rolling pummels of drum-sound. Rippling, prolonged ambient humming and field recordings of indistinct conversation fill the gaps, like smog pouring into a heat-haze. For the tremendous scrunch of Flying Ants, Hall turns to his six-string bass and his flamenco knowledge. The result sounds like an over-scaled Gypsy guitar played with helicopter blades for fingernails. A delightfully yobbish take on the form, it flicks between tremendous chocolate-y gurgles of sound and (when Hall kicks in the distortion pedal) impenetrable hedges of distorted overload.

Much of this music is punctuated by clipped and plunking programmed synth-bass lines. Outside of mid-’80s chart hits, these ought to sound cheap and unpleasant. Instead, they fit surprisingly well into Hall’s musical sketches of the grubbier side of cities. They can be as brash and tacky as scattered burger boxes at your feet; as the failing neon signs and fly-by-night minicab firms gummed onto and into frowning old brickwork. On Flying Ants, they’re just appealingly cyborg. On Figments Of Imagination – where they’re working alongside metallic wails, hand-pumped stutters of echo and the rattle of crocodile clips – they add to the rough’n’ready homemade ethos of the music.

The hypnotic On Every Life (A Little Rain Must Fall) goes further into the wilderness. Nodding to Native American rhythm patterns, it calls up the feel of a parched Arizonan desert view. The delicate whine and rush of the guitar patterns swap between impressions of the dry, red heat and dust and of the shocking whiteness and colours of the tasselled fragments of cloud. Notes call and repeat, tranced out. Towards the end there’s a moment when it all stops. All but a faint swirling echo, as if the whole desert was looking upwards; and then the mass of sound crams back in again, like a cloudburst.

Best of all, perhaps, is the build- up of The Lonely Road, coalescing sustained, sorrowful coats of sound and small factory noises. Tinges of ambient-blues embrace a tired old worker’s knotted muscles at the end of the day. Part of the human focus comes in via the twanging, Frisell pluck’n’pang of Hall’s guitar. It’s capped, however, by the endearingly rough burst of busker’s harmonica which he wafts over the floating sorrow. Brave and defiant, it’s answered in kind by the elephant-trumpet of a rotary-saw sound.

Despite the odd bit of bluster, ‘Marks On The Air’ goes further towards expressing Hall’s gently appealing emotional nakedness as player and creator. What he sometimes loses in the grace stakes, he gains back in honesty and sympathy. There are a couple of unselfconscious, winning little cameos of “tiny music” which could have come from a children’s theatre. Drum sounds pop and clatter against the clipped melody and zither-blues intonation of Chinese Firecrackers. Suvi’s Little Crickets is built out of simple yet exquisite acoustic child-song patterns, which regularly rests while Hall circles a boxful of mechanical insects, chirping peacefully, around his microphone. Further hints into the private man are suggested by the deep pulsing chant of Alcharinga (in which guitars are abandoned altogether, in favour of throat-singing through an old answering machine mike). Marks On The Air itself is a long, mournful study on classical guitar – swept back and forth in eddies of echo, resigning itself beautifully to its own impermanence.

G.P. Hall manages to be many things. The garage player amongst the avant-garde; the warm-hearted soft touch among the arthouse players. The naive wonderstruck kid in the crowd of post-adolescent posers, the transfigurer of the straight, and the benevolent ghost in the machinery. Not a bad set of credentials, at that.

G.P. Hall: ‘Marks On The Air’
Future Music Records, FMR CD46-V0997 (7 86497 26442 1)
CD-only album
Released: 15th July 1998

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

G.P. Hall online:
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July 1998 – EP reviews – Darkroom’s ‘Carpetworld’ (“swathed in contradiction… one long, haunting slab of sonic terrorism”)

15 Jul

Darkroom: 'Carpetworld' EP

Darkroom: ‘Carpetworld’ EP

Darkroom come swathed in contradiction: daytime shoppers on the sleeve, savage nightlife in the music. And no credits, though apparently it’s another one of those confounded No-Man offshoots ‑ don’t these bloody people ever sleep or anything? Evidently not, if the tracks on this single serve as an example of the sounds pulsating through their brains.

Carpetworld itself breaks all the rules ‑ the rules that say you can’t put vocals and lyrics recalling Soft Cell‑era Marc Almond over churning, vicious Frippish guitar ambience and hard‑as‑nails mechanoid beats falling somewhere between jungle and hardcore techno. A knife in the side of the rave generation’s blissout, it’s elegant in its brutality (“taking a twirl with your best friend’s girl, while the rest of the gang torch Carpetworld”), hovering in tatty clubs and observing the rituals of nihilism unfold as the backwash of bad E and the not-so-gentle ’90s poison the clubbers’ dreams.

Dance darkhorse it might be (it doesn’t run with any obvious scene, and fuck knows which playlist it’ll fit on in the increasingly segregated world of dance radio) but this is still cutting‑edge contemporary, with absolutely no fluffiness and Tim Bowness spitting out lyrics the likes of which we’ve never heard fall from his previously poetic mouth ‑ “Have useless sex with your ugly ex… / You velvet‑sneakered chancer, you broken-fist romancer…” as the beats flutter like a death’s head moth trapped in the throat. I’ll stay well out of the disturbing urban nightmare Darkroom are living in, but I’ll happily live it vicariously through their warped imaginings. Dante’s disco inferno.

After that, the Carpetwarehouse reworking does lacks a certain spontaneity. The original sounds like it’s literally fallen together in a paranoid improv session after a thoroughly unpleasant experience: This – apart from simply not being different enough – simply sounds like Darkroom have tried too hard at the atmospherics. OK, the beats are even more frenetic and Bowness achieves something he’s previously never managed in previous recordings: i.e., sounding fucking terrifying as his distorted voice rasps out the repeated mantra “I’m coming after you!” If you ever thought, from listening to No-Man’s work, that you could have that Bowness chap in a fight ‑ think again… Nonetheless, one does yearn for a battering, bloody remix from the diseased mind of Jim ‘Foetus’ Thirlwell, or Aphex Twin.

But, hell, Darkroom’s maverick genius still encompasses enough space for much more roaming, ambient trips. Daylight, in particular. Tim Bowness (like Martyn Bates) has always had one of those voices that are perfect to use as an instrument integral to a piece such as this, weaving magical wordless nothings in and around underwater tones and splashes of electronica. Anchoring this thoughtful pause from drifting off into inconsequentiality, a beautifully melodic bass riff and eerily clattering percussion ‑ like the echoing sound of camera shutters ‑ keep proceedings somewhere near planet Earth.

Ardri, though (nonsensical title ‑ always a bad sign), reeks too much of late ’70s/early ’80s ambient ‑ the kind of stuff the BBC would choose to soundtrack beautiful nature footage. Look, it’s a personal thing ‑ until someone out there finds even a slightly new direction with ambient (and I would certainly not rule Darkroom out of this), then the only sounds that interest me are the ones that either completely chill me out, or those that make the hairs on the back of my neck rise. This final track (like too much else in the field) gets my mind wandering after the first minute and thinking “So? What’s next?”

So, a downbeat end to a marvellous debut from Darkroom. Buy it for the title track and (whatever my gripes) for the remix, and just treat them as one long, haunting slab of sonic terrorism. Brilliant.

(review by Col Ainsley)

Darkroom: ‘Carpetworld’
3rd Stone Ltd./The Halloween Society, HAL 8001CD (5023693800158)
CD-only EP
Released: 6th July 1998

Buy it from:
(2018 update) This is now one of the rarest Darkroom releases – best obtained second-hand or from iTunes.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud BandcampLastFM

July 1998 – mini-album reviews – Bob Burnett’s ‘Loops & Lines’ (“sample, hold’n’swing”)

13 Jul
Bob Burnett: 'Loops & Lines'

Bob Burnett: ‘Loops & Lines’

Santa Cruz jazzer Bob Burnett is an oddity, someone who’s ostensibly extremely straight but gets there in a puzzling way. He loves his semi-acoustic guitar – keeps it clean, plays it with an economical and modest Wes Montgomery twinkle – but he’ll dab in a few colours on guitar synth and is also very much into what digital sampling offers the modern composer.

This you’d expect in somewhere like New York City – hip-hop saturated, with digital cut-up/jazz crosstalk from the likes of M-Base or Q-Tip. Coming from Bob, it’s a little less of an obvious path – a transplanted New Jersey-ite now residing in roots-band heaven, he’s played with world-beat bands Kosono and Pele Juju for much of the past decade. With ‘Loops And Lines’ Bob’s giving his sample, hold’n’swing ideas their first recorded outing.

At root, these are pretty cosy ideas. Don’t come in expecting a cross between John Scofield and Disco Inferno, nor yet The Young Gods playing Gil Evans. That living-in-California easiness initially makes ‘Loops & Lines’ sound like an Acid Jazz comedown pleaser. But although the six pieces on the mini-album are sweet enough to be lounge-fare, they’re also lush enough for a lock-in. Bob’s music is refreshingly innocent of guile, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without a dash of wit: a quality which is a precious balance within sampler culture.

Together builds on a moment from John McLaughlin’s Peace One, as the guitarist skips spider-fashion across his low strings: joining in, Bob swings tastefully over the top while Rhan Wilson’s bells and assorted metals mist the edges. Igor plays a similar trick with a few phrases and deep string chops from Stravinsky’s ‘Soldier’s Tale’, Bob adding some Hawaiian lines over the top of the thudding march of deep strings and drums. For Out West he affectionately samples some local-band friends (Pipa & The Shapeshifters) to craft a little bit of Portishead spy music – Adrian Utley’s breed of Duane Eddy twang, with the big stoned swats at the drumkit and the sound of rain sifting down in the background.

Most successfully, there’s Home James in which Bob stitches together a dream jam between himself, Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Bright and cheerfully funky, it’s close to an Us3 moment. You expect a laid-back rapper to come strolling in at any moment, with rhymes about strolling by Electric Ladyland with a spliff and a sax case. Instead, what you get sounds more like Bob finding all three legends together at the same Harlem party; each in a separate conversation but still meshing, by happy chance, into a common thread and rhythm. The music – and the falls together with a simple eloquence. Trane throws out a sinous four-note tenor wave from Countdown; Bird counters with a acquiescent call from Night In Tunisia. Somewhere in the background Jimi chips in with a reverberant Band Of Gypsies clang. Bob’s sweet and skinny guitar bubbles throughout the whole thing, chatting merrily away on the breaks.

The only things missing are the “yeah!”s and the punctuation of hand-talk. In fact if it weren’t for the tall (and dead) shadows which that all-star trio cast, Home James would almost convince as a genuine studio jam. Surprisingly, it’s a humble piece: Bob never feels like he’s stealing from his three luminaries, nor as if he’s harbouring vain hopes of cutting them in competition. It’s all about making the links, making a might-have-been occasion; being the helpful guy in the middle.

In fact, on ‘Loops & Lines’ it’s not so easy to work out when, exactly, Bob has got his sampler switched on. He has a remarkably subtle touch as a samplist. In contrast to the way, say, Young Gods or Jesus Jones would proudly ride on the back of a blatant parade of loops, he’s more interested in the seamless interweaving of sample and solo, using temporary digital capture to get more musicians and voices flickering in and out of his virtual band. If, via the magic of samping, he can bring the amicable ghosts of the Johns and the Jimis round to his local bar for a few beers and a blow through one of his tunes, he’s happy.

For instance, Decoy might make use of another Coltrane sample, as well as drawing on snippets of American pop TV themes – ‘King Of The Hill’, ‘Teen Angel’ – but there’s no separation between those inserted elements, the light-footed touches of the live rhythm section, and Bob’s mellow-mischievous guitar skips taking centre stage throughout. The reggae-fied ripple of Lower Nile (the disc’s only cover version) brings back a live band, winds soprano sax through North African melodies… and uses no samples whatsover apart from a few jungle chirps and rustles.

In the end, “Loops & Lines’ is an announcement of relaxed intent; short, sweet and discreet. It’s interesting to indulge the thought of Bob Burnett taking it to slightly wilder climes – maybe coming on like Ronnie Jordan playing over found-sound backdrops. But I get the feeling that he’s happier just stretching loops round the barbeque, shooting the breeze with heroes and friends, providing small glows of warmth rather than burning it up with his music.

Bob Burnett: ‘Loops & Lines’
Bob Burnett, 9801 (no barcode)
CD-only mini album
Released: 1998

Get it from:
Bob Burnett.

Bob Burnett online:
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June 1998 – EP reviews – Mogwai’s ‘No Education=No Future (Fuck the Curfew)’ (“the politics are in the sound”)

30 Jun

Mogwai: 'No Education=No Future (Fuck the Curfew)' EP

Mogwai: ‘No Education=No Future (Fuck the Curfew)’ EP

Mogwai – Glasgow’s “young team” of guitar noise-puppies – are just drawing out of their teens, but they’re already two-and-a-half albums old, and tour veterans. The name’s appropriate – in the sleeve photos they may look a little cute and fresh-faced to an twenty-seven-year-old codger like me, but if ‘No Education…’ is any indication, they do change into something far scarier at night. (They beat Hanson’s burbling Ewoks, anyway).

The punch-card stabs of guitar are pure Slint, but whereas Slint would lay muttered, emotional stories over their six-stringed dots and dashes, Mogwai are vocal-free and rely on pure, bullish emotion as walloped out by plectrum and drumstick. The explicit political rage of the EP’s title isn’t spat out in teen-punk slogan songs, nor in Prodigy chants. It’s carried in the rushing up against the front of the beat: it’s in their surges against the decay of sound. It’s in the faith (which they share with Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine) in big dirty noise over a mediocre world. The politics are in the sound.

Perhaps it’s because of the sparse, distant, classical-in-rebellion melodies from Luke Sutherland’s guesting violin, but Xmas Steps carries an odd resemblance to King Crimson‘s Larks Tongues In Aspic. It emerges from a soft interlocking hush of irregular rolls of bass and barely-there guitars (similar to the tension-gatherings of Bark Psychosis) then rises – nerves preparing for the clench – to a building, slashing crescendo and an eventual scrubbing, screeching roar of amp-shredding overdrive and machine-gun spurts of snare, before unclenching its fists and subsiding down into peace again, calmed by the mothering voice of the violin. It nods to Neu!’s jerky rhythms of robot-thrash as much as to Slint or Crimson, but, crucially, it’s warmer than any of them. You can hear the exact moment when strummed guitars, under growing pressure, begin to rebel and distort. Towards the end there’s a papery bang of noise; perhaps an amp blowing up from suppressed rage and cutting across the quiet wind-down.


 
After Xmas Steps the other two tracks seem like little brothers, but maintain the interest. Rollerball’s a sort of classical Krautrock etude. Soft guitar figures, sub-audible tinkles of piano off on the fringes, rough points of drum decoration: the final sound is of the lads downing instruments and strolling out of the studio, and it’s as much a part of the piece as any of the notes were. Small Children in the Background lays its sleepy guitar glints over a glassy fuzz-trail. It rises, almost orchestral, to an emotional peak, then cuts out to small and precious ensemble playing as sensitive as an eyelash. Whispers of voice lap back and forth at the front of the mix.


 
Without words, without direct vocals, without even an individual signature to each player, Mogwai’s music is oddly impersonal… but still, somehow, powerfully emotional. As they glower out from behind their clanking guitars, they might place themselves among the Glasgow arties, but in fact they’re in another place altogether. They’ll hate me for mentioning the “prog” word, but – in the best sense – it’s there in the music already. They’re already far closer to the intensely shaped, angular expressionism of Rothko, Henry Cow or The Monsoon Bassoon than they are to The Delgados’ Velvet Undergound impressions or to Bis’ synthesised pogo-sticking.

At the moment, they’ve got all the dynamics, all the expressive intensity they need – all they need now is the technique, and they’ll break through to that level their music is yearning towards. Expect great things from them by the time they hit twenty-five. ‘Til then, the least we can do is to lift the curfew on them.

Mogwai: ‘No Education=No Future (Fuck the Curfew)’
Chemikal Underground Ltd., CHEM026CD (5 020667 342652)
CD-only EP
Released:
29th June 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Original EP best obtained second-hand; download available from Chemikal Underground
Mogwai online:
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June 1998 – single & track reviews – James’ ‘Runaground’; The Monsoon Bassoon’s ‘Wise Guy/28 Days in Rocket Ship’; Sleepy People’s ‘All Systems Fail/Every Wave is Higher on the Beach’

28 Jun

James: 'Runaground'

James: ‘Runaground’

OK, it’s a marketing trick, alright? James have a Greatest Hits album out and apparently need filler. So this is one of those irritatingly “exclusive” singles which bands now record especially to give obsessives a reason for buying their compilation albums. But, despite all the incentive to hate it for that reason, this is one of the few times when the phrase “bonus track” actually makes sense.

Runaground is more than satisfying in its own right. Here’s one of James’ occasional warmly blue-tinted songs, coming from one of the reflective lulls between their big anthems (Laid, Sit Down, She’s a Star)and their bursts of dervish doolally (Avalanche, Bring a Gun, Sometimes): with a soft bush of guitars rather than a wall of them, a lilting breathy melody, and Saul Davies’ thin sweet glow of violin coming through like light under a mother’s door. “For every woman you will leave an open door / You find yourself thinking “why can’t I have more?” “.


 
There’s a directness to Tim Booth at such moments, an unguarded wistful sadness to his herald’s voice as he ditches the metaphysics and the egghead bluster. Runaground’s one for the frightened fool, grasping for every tiny illusory chance in order not to get stuck, only to find they’ve dropped everything that’s worthwhile anyway just to grasp at shadows, and that they’ve gotten stuck anyway. “Oh no, she’s gone, back wherever she came from. / You watch her go, your reactions much too slow. / Let her go. / Runaground.”

Is it one of Booth’s flagellating stabs at his own unreliability, as with Come Home and Don’t Wait That Long? Maybe. One thing’s for sure as the waves of another great James chorale surge up: with this, the Manchester stadium-pop weirdos have touched down gently on the human feelings they neglected too much on the patchy techno moves of the ‘Whiplash‘ album. Experimentation’s nothing without soul and empathy. “You take for granted all the riches of the world / You may have oysters, but you’ll never find your pearls…” Almost a desert island disc.

The Monsoon Bassoon: 'Wise Guy/28 Days in Rocket Ship'

The Monsoon Bassoon: ‘Wise Guy/28 Days in Rocket Ship’

For some, it’s best to kick off with a statement rather than an insinuation. Especially when it’s one which no-one can argue with. This debut single’s a double-barrelled shotgun blast of twisted intent. The Monsoon Bassoon (who’ve been regularly carving up Camden indie-pubs for several years now) are allegedly “psychedelic pop”. But if that automatically makes you pull out a checklist and start ticking off (a) druggy sonic syrup, (b) honeybee harmonies, (c) kiddie songs and (d) wobbly blues guitar ad infinitum, forget it. If they’re anything to do with current psych-pop, the Bassoon are Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci shorn of their Brian Wilson fixation, off their heads on chaos theory and frantically shagging a stapling machine. If you could fix it so that a tropical rainstorm could blast through a double reed, you probably would end up with this sort of shrapnel.

Both tracks on this double A-side start out as songs. With the emphasis on “start”: two duelling, slashing guitars and three voices quickly fractalise the songs into manic battling melodies. You get plenty of pop hooks, but before too long they’ve turned into egg-whisks and grappling irons mounting a major assault on pop strongholds. The Monsoon Bassoon can take a song and turn it into a sort of Philip Glass No-Wave party during which The Pixies, Henry Cow, and Television all get smashed and then get caught up in an argument which they enjoy so much that it takes the police to get them out of the building.


 
The prog word rears its head too, but with any hint of cosiness snipped off by Tim “Cardiacs” Smith’s rough’n’ready garage-y production. If the Bassoon sometimes resemble a younger, more hyperactive King Crimson – those revolving guitars, Sarah Measures’ daredevil flutes and reeds, the way the music booms back and forth between celestial minimalism and bellowing, screaming blasts of red-hot air – they’ve also got a good deal more of a sense of sheer fun and dynamism than Crimson themselves are exhibiting these days.


 
You might not remember the tunes, but you’ll certainly remember the commotion en route. The choppy pop of Wise Guy explodes like axe-heads coming through hotel-room doors, twirls the odd piroutte as it does so, and leaps up to a trumpeting, triumphant, speaker-melting fanfare. 28 Days in Rocket Ship is superficially calmer until the monster bass riffs and bells rock the belfry to bits. This is hardcore pronk to the max, with a eerie sideswiping charm to compound its relentless ecstatic ferocity. This music yells “fuck you, get out of my way,” and in the same breath, flashing a brilliant grin, adds “but you can come too.” Dancing on giddy splinters.

Sleepy People: 'All Systems Fail/Every Wave is Higher on the Beach'

Sleepy People: ‘All Systems Fail/Every Wave is Higher on the Beach’

With the effusive Phil Sears – a.k.a “Earl Slick” – waltzing out of the band shortly after the release of their second album, Sleepy People have spent some time singerless. Not a band to take things lying down, they’ve recruited new teenaged singer Lee Haley, messed around in the engine room a bit, and got these two songs down on tape, battling on to maintain momentum and taking another look at the songwriting business while they’re at it.

Sleepy leader Paul Hope has never been one to back off from a challenge; and writing for Haley’s lighter, more fragrant tones (a clarinet compared to Sears’ brazen and operatic trumpet) has certainly brought out the best in his glowing psychedelic pop. All Systems Fail compresses and channels the Sleepies’ usual sprawling, ornamental music while losing none of its jack-in-the-box explosiveness. Moogs burble and fizz, Paul’s guitars snarl and swipe like fuzzed-up little kittens, the rhythms are as jumpy and cheekily punka as ska on itching powder, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were juggling the odd plate as they recorded (“What goes round / Must come down”).

Lee skates through the whole thing with a suspicious schoolboy insouciance. Angel-faced or not, this is a guy who managed to shoot himself through the liver while messing about with a pistol between rehearsals: and he warbles like a naughty chorister alongside Rachel’s moonbeam harmonies, while everyone else yelps like dogs on the chorus: “steaming creatures with violent features… wind them up and run!” It could almost be a proggy Bis: glittery hairslides, sherbet flying saucers’n’all.

Every Wave is Higher On the Beach is more familiar Sleepyfare. Epic, complicated, Gongpop stuff, as moonstruck as ever: Rachel sending her flute in rolling smoketrails through Anna’s spooky streaks of keyboard as the band drive through the night. But this time their eccentricity has a much more haunting edge to it. At his best, Paul Hope’s one of the few pop people who can capture the eerie wonder of someone’s more mystical, Fortean Times-y experiences. And this is him at his best – urging a langorous, hypnotised performance out of Lee as a man in the grip of an atavistic compulsion, pulling out and away from the world. “Although I’ve never been, / I know the sea’s not far away from here. / Rumours carried on the waves / will help me find the way that I should go… / Although I’ve never seen, / I know there’s something really big out there. / Is that the moon I see, / or harbour lights leading me astray?”

As the bass throbs and the guitar mounts in a spiral of pulsating alarm, Sleepy People seem to be taking a great leap in the dark, “across the never-ending sand” out upwards from their frequent foolery and into somewhere far more soul-stroking, more threatening. The madness behind the face-paint isn’t so theatrical this time, but is far more effective. Sleepy People have proved they can take another body-blow and come back grinning.

James: ‘Runaground’
Mercury Records, JIMCD 20 / 568 853-2
CD/cassette single
Released:
23rd June 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) original single best obtained second-hand; song appears on several James compilations – ‘The Best of’ and ‘Fresh As a Daisy – The Singles’.
James online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music

The Monsoon Bassoon: ‘Wise Guy/28 Days In Rocket Ship’
Weird Neighbourhood Recordings, WNRS 1 (no barcode)
7-inch vinyl-only double A-side single
Released:
June 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) original single best obtained second-hand; ‘Wise Guy’ appears on The Monsoon Bassoon’s ‘I Dig Your Voodoo‘ album.
The Monsoon Bassoon online:
MySpace Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music

Sleepy People: ‘All Systems Fail/Every Wave is Higher on the Beach’
The Soporific Foundation (no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette-only double-A-side single

Released: June 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) original single best obtained second-hand; original song versions currently unavailable, but different versions sung by Tiny Wood appear on the Blue Apple Boy album ‘Salient‘.
Sleepy People online:
Facebook Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Amazon Music
 

June 1998 – single & track reviews – Ultrasound’s ‘Stay Young’; Fiel Garvie’s ‘Colour You’; Greenship’s ‘Perfect Smile/Place to Hide’

22 Jun

Ultrasound: 'Stay Young'

Ultrasound: ‘Stay Young’

After the overstretched pomp and vacuous glamour of their second single, Best Wishes, the title of Ultrasound‘s follow-up – ‘Stay Young’ – makes your heart plummet. Just one word away from a Suede single: and when you start to listen, there’s an opening riff pinched from Good Times Bad Times and a chorus of “Hey kids, rock and roll is here, so scream all you like.”. Ultrasound seem about to plummet into the monster rock folly they’ve always threatened.

But – suitably for a song that starts with a struck match and fizzing fuse, and ends with the celebratory skybound bangs of fireworks – Stay Young is secret dynamite. Yes, it’s still closer to Suede than is comfortable; but if so it’s Suede doing Kashmir, leaning out into that giant sky-filling stretch with a Floyd-flood of organs, huge minor-key mellotron orchestrations, layers of ringing diva voices (from the throat of bassist Vanessa Best) and squiggly gold synth-spangles. It’s pomp rock with a huge, fascinating crack in it, right down to the great wind-down of the Guy Fawkes coda, held together by Tiny’s stridently awkward charisma. It’s both a parody and a culmination of Britpop’s clunky nostalgia: a massively overblown anthem (Marillion on raw vodka and pineal glands?) thriving on an unspoken understanding of the friction between hopes, drive and disaster. As aware of the fragility of idols (“Gary Glitter’s gone to seed / So who will lead us now?”) as it is of the power and desperation of naked adolescent yearnings (“I want to have fun, I want to go out / And never come back home…”).


 
However clumsy those feelings are, there’s no way they can’t move you: but it’s on the Vanessa-sung Underwater Love Story that Ultrasound really display their unearthly ability to regenerate rock. Wrapped in liquid nets of ringing, breathing psychedelic guitars, Vanessa’s voice begins kitten-small and ends up as an immense haze of terrified transcendence. It’s a song of faith, of fear, of literally drowning in love (“we’ll sleep together in this watery grave, / and if you let me I’ll drown, we’ll be found and be saved: / let’s be brave”); and, as the huge sound builds, of transfiguration (“she shines so brightly as she’s climbing the stairs / It takes her body, her thoughts and her cares / and she’s drowned…”). Finally, as a wall of guitars howl in a gale of derangement, it’s a song of immortality: “Stay hard and fast, and I’ll be proud of you. / As I sleep, be sure I’ll dream of you.”


 
On one side, the proudly flawed monument of Stay Young; on the other, the emotional bewitchment of Underwater Love Song. Sloshing around somewhere between them – a raw hunk of potential – is the essence of Ultrasound, waiting to earth itself. The jury’s out: this is the sort of rock band that could go gloriously supernova, but constantly risks a belly-flop. If they did go off boom, it’d be a colossal letdown to find that, instead of starstuff, they’d sprayed us with mere glitter.

Fiel Garvie: 'Colour You'

Fiel Garvie: ‘Colour You’

Although Fiel Garvie‘s ‘Colour You’ moves on from the precarious instrumentation of their last effort by embracing samplers, a propulsive tune and clipped New Order drum rhythms, that sense of chaotic freefall is still there. The scramble of textures remains – brutal piano, scrawling guitar – whipping up Anne Reekie’s tangled metaphors of dishonesty into a mess of furious resentment. The half-truths and diplomatic distortions of TV news are bleeding into a lovers’ relationship: “Behind a screen to lie to you / a real sham dividing tales of talks / too tired to keep, so I bust this nation wide / there’s more than viewer laze in this mask… / It’s surely time to break the news, it really is a tale unsaid, / so round and round and round you go, you live just like that little man; you dead…”

Fiel Garvie are still latched onto their obsession with the process of truth, its evasion, and the growing crisis that results. Even Swing’s straighter arrangement (almost chamber music, with spartan cello, piano and shakers picking out a plaintive melody and, for once, letting up on the claustrophobia) frames more deception. “All I ask you for is silence, all I want from you is loving… / You see, I know; see you laugh. / You say you try: here, you can’t. / You say I like it; I laugh; / you know I have to say I’m happy.” Behind the words, a kettle drum slowly fills up the spaces like a rising earth tremor. To the sound of Little Lie’s swatting heartbeat and bandsaw guitars – a lounge tune for a schizophrenic, wrenched at by swills of warbling My Bloody Valentine noise – Anne vacillates between contradictory hometown feelings (“This town holds it for miles; never could I have come from this little lie… / You don’t know anything; this town, what this life is. / You’re full today: did you laugh when I liked it?”). Marching behind her arguments, a whisper – “she can’t get out, she can’t get out…” The last squall of bilious guitar chokes out. I’m still stuck on a mudbank, wondering where the solid ground’s gone…

Greenship: 'Perfect Smile/Place to Hide'

Greenship: ‘Perfect Smile/Place to Hide’

Swirls of feedback; warbling atmospheres reminiscent of Pink Floyd frothing at the mouth on hormone tablets and sprouting body hair at an inch per minute, big sinewy slide guitars that sway and undulate like stoned kingsnakes dancing to a bluesman’s harmonica, riffs with tattoos on’ em… Ooh, someone’s been drinking deep from the well in rock heartlands this time. And it’s the excellent Greenship, who with a debut release are already vaulting over the obvious ploddings of yer Reefs and Gomezes and Kula Shakers, rebounding off The Black Crowes along the way, and nipping at the heels of Radiohead and Jeff Buckley. Yes, that good.

Two songs – Perfect Smile and Place to Hide – which stre-e-etch slow and unstoppable as lions in your bedroom, and then turn and eye you with a mad sensuality that blows everything else away. And they’ve managed to brush against rock touchstones – Led Zeppelin, Stooges, to name but two – without tripping over them. Greenship have tapped into the roots, yes, but have grown up out of them in an exciting new shape – still organic, but muscled in unusual places, eerily graceful, sporting strange flashes of glittering scales, fur, occasional surfaces of cyborg metal and science fiction atmospherics. And flowering at the top into Bnann’s voice, as incredible as his name: lucid, urgent, horny as hell, and swooping from bullish frenzy to a state of transfigured passion that has to be heard to be believed. Monsanto? Akira? Eat your fucking hearts out.

Let the vibraphone tickle your spine on Perfect Smile as Bnann straddles the defining stay-or-go moment in the whole precarious love affair. A thrum of potentials, all violence and tenderness. “I could pick you up, or I could push you down, down. / …I could pierce your skin, or I could crawl from deep within, child, / I could make you cry “It’s not real!”, or I could turn and run away.”. It’s power. It’s also peril – the surrender to a feeling that flies in the face of wisdom, the glitter of the odds that has the gambler limbering up for one last throw, the plunge into something you know will have you skidding on the lip of hell even as you seize the prize. Here, it’s that dangerous lurch of hope that halts the break for escape. “You turn me round again, you smile at me so perfectly. / You turn me round again – maybe I’ll stay here, maybe I’ll turn it round.”. It’s so poised that as the song gathers into a revolving mass of awestruck ranting and Herb’s screeching, twisted guitar babble (‘OK Computer’ with a new rush of neat testosterone), you can’t tell whether Bnann’s voice is a call of pain or a shout of jubilation.

It’s probably both – the last moment of free-fall before you discover what you’re about to hit. Place to Hide is what happens when you’ve hit something hard. Bnann sounds fatally bruised; shocked and angry, shuddering in the voice as the drums flail at him and the guitar seethes in the background. And now, too late, is the time to turn and run. “Heard what he said, and now I’ve heard enough to leave… / Fall to disgrace and stumble onto nothing real… /Take me away from everything I’ve said and done. / Can’t say, won’t say. / I’m sailing on ’til all my troubles come and gone./ Don’t wait for me.” Responsibility folds; the band sounds wracked – scraped and scalded, on the ropes for the pleading chorus, fighting back upright. “Wait until I cannot feel…” Two naked swipes at the numbed nerve of rock, sending life jolting back along it. Life hasn’t loomed so large in a song for a long time now.


 
Ultrasound: ‘Stay Young’
Nude Records, NUD35CD (5023687035122)
CD/cassette single
Released:
1st June 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) original single best obtained second-hand; ‘Stay Young’ appears on Ultrasound’s ‘Everything Picture’ album.
Ultrasound online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music

Fiel Garvie: ‘Colour You’
Foundling, CDS FOU 002 (5 021449 650224)
CD only single
Released:
15th June 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) original single best obtained second-hand; song appears on Fiel Garvie’s ‘¡Vuka Vuka!’ album and can be streamed via streaming services below.
Fiel Garvie online:
Homepage Twitter MySpace YouTube Last FM Pandora Spotify Amazon Music

Greenship: ‘Perfect Smile/Place to Hide’’
Camp Fabulous Ltd., CFAB 008CD (5 027731 5080)
CD-only single
Released:
22nd June 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) original CD limited to 500 copies only, and best obtained second-hand. This was Greenship’s only release.
Greenship online:
(2020 update) No websites – although there’s a Reverb Nation page and one for former Greenship frontman Bnann Watts.

June 1998 – EP reviews – The Sea Nymphs’ ‘Appealing to Venus’ (“(they) sound as if they’ve crawled their ungainly way out of a Vincent Ward peasant odyssey of quivering, shipwrecked dreams and prayers”)

3 Jun

The Sea Nymphs: 'Appealing to Venus' EP

The Sea Nymphs: ‘Appealing to Venus’ EP

There’s something about the ‘Appealing to Venus’ EP which sounds incredibly ancient. Not dated, as such – for all its leanings towards progginess, it’s nothing passe or stilted, and any awkwardness is an integral part of the charm. No, it’s the murky timelessness and pre-tech fragility of the songs. It’s music in the trembling, bewildered nude; emerging from its shell of strength to blink in the light. To voice, in a halting manner, its own concerns, as the bright lights and brash neon of the pop scene whirl around it, uncomprehending.

Not that it’s come from nowhere. The Sea Nymphs are an (almost) acoustic alter-ego for the manically electric and intense Cardiacs: a mass of scrawny acoustic guitars, ‘Rock Bottom’ harmoniums, mellotrons and melodicas, baroque Black Death keyboards, crumhorn saxes and touchingly scratchy singing. Cardiacs’ convoluted songs have always had threads of Early Music woven into them. With The Sea Nymphs, we get to wind back along those threads and see where they lead.


 
These four tracks (salvaged from the Nymphs’ criminally ignored debut album) exorcise, or exercise, Cardiacs’ curiosity about pre-pop. You can hear old folk melodies seeping into Low Church music, shreds of sea-shanties and work-song, ramshackle European fragments existing independently of the blues or classical traditions… the bits that pop forgot, in other words. Though compared to, say, Dead Can Dance’s lordly, haughty take on Early Music, The Sea Nymphs sound as if they’ve crawled their ungainly way out of a Vincent Ward peasant odyssey of quivering, shipwrecked dreams and prayers.


 
Listening to the reedy, march-y slog of careening organs, plodding piano and parping synth on the title track, you hear a heartbreakingly wistful devotion. In the giant cathedral boom of Up in Annie’s Room, string synths smear the shuddering air around Tim’s cracked, lost, voice, swallowing it up in a churchy swamp of sound. He sounds as if he’s trying to outshout a God who’s cold and indifference to his vulnerable defiance. The mediaeval shawm-sneeze of God’s Box – fifty people on comb, paper and bells – seems lighter, The Sea Nymphs – flotsam and jetsam but its skipping ward against evil (“God’s good, the Devil is bad – he always gives me money,”) sounds ambiguous in Sarah’s blank, gauzy, little-girl vocals. “Never Setting Things on Fire, / never bad,” she sings, as if considering her options.


 
It’s left to the exquisite Shaping the River (in which a lilting falsetto choir sways, shanty-like, behind watery spangles of piano) to bring us something to warm our bared hearts. A work-song, something shared; a relationship with nature even as you alter it: “River in the middle of / Nowhere / Three of us suck on its heart, / and its head. / …Plant the heart, all from the heart / … only in the heart.”


 
The skeletal bonus tracks – lifted from even older tapes by Mr & Mrs Smith & Mr Drake (the prototype Nymphs) – pull us further into blurry pasts. There’s Bill’s gentle, bemused Camouflage, a twelve-tone sprig on Syd Barrett’s nursery-rhyme legacy. The meandering but intensely purposeful tone poem Little Creations clambers like a drunken squirrel from branch to branch, complete with manuscript rustling and equipment fumbling. Hymn rounds everything off; a live bootleg of Tim blinking over an austere organ sound, a pagan taking his first faltering steps into the chapel. These songs, too, have that unnervingly ancient-but-ageless quality; the same indefinable, painful, yet suspect innocence that haunts the songs of Robert Wyatt or Elizabeth Fraser.



 
Which all means that The Sea Nymphs are both as frail and damp as a newborn, and as old as the hills. Just listening to them pulls you back that much closer to the original greenwood, little shoots cracking their way out of your hidden memories.

The Sea Nymphs: ‘Appealing to Venus’
Org Records Ltd., ORGAN 044CD (5 028151 010445)
CD-only EP
Released:
1st June 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Original EP best obtained second-hand. Appealing to Venus, God’s Box, Up in Annie’sRoom and Shaping the River all appear on the eponymous debut album by The Sea Nymphs (available as a download from The Alphabet Business Concern), while Little Creations and Camouflage appear on the lone eponymous album by Mr & Mrs Smith and Mr Drake. Hymn is in fact a Cardiacs song used as an early 1980s set closer: the version here was recorded at the 1984 Stonehenge Free Festival and appears nowhere else apart from on bootlegs.
The Sea Nymphs (Cardiacs) online:
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May 1998 – album reviews – Blowpipe’s ‘Pendulum’ (“half given over to Blowpipe’s previous grace, half to a new and more aggressive club attack”)

18 May

Blowpipe: 'Pendulum'

Blowpipe: ‘Pendulum’

In jazz, things move on, and Blowpipe are no exception to this. Father-and-son brass-and-reed players Robin and Andrew Blick joined forces last year, making a mark for themselves last year at the point between hips and heads for their own spin on jazz-meets-clubland, sliding in alongside acid jazz with something a little more sophisticated and challenging.

The enthralling ‘First Circle‘ was the outcome: a rich and rewarding chill-out-and-expand intertwining of busily-bubbling electronica with old-school jazz conversation. Alongside guitarist Paul Reeson and the remarkable electronic sound-weaver Stephen Watkins, the Blicks set up a heartfelt and fertile union of jazz expression and latter-day dance-floor pulse, a tapestry of burbling intelligent techno, deft horn dialogue and fluent electro-acoustic textures. It was a joy to listen to, and its success has been recognised in one direction, at least.

‘Pendulum’ (a hot-on-the-heels follow up to ‘First Circle’) comes after Blowpipe’s deeper welcome into the ongoing club revolution – they’ve played on the new album by drum’n’bass pioneer Grooverider – and a big line-up shake-up. Whether burnt, inquisitive or disillusioned, the Blicks have opted to change the band’s instrumental chemistry. Blowpipe’s armoury of blowables (which already featured the Blicks’ trumpets, saxes, assorted horns and abused pipework) has been expanded by the addition of Nick Reynolds’ harmonica; they’ve also added a steady bass player in Tom Harrison; and there are frequent guest appearances (and stronger links to the jazz world) from saxophonist/flautist John Burgess of the Harry Beckett band and the Tom Bancroft Orchestra. But most crucially, both Reeson and Watkins are now out of the picture (apparently, halfway through recording). Consequently, while half of ‘Pendulum’ is given over to Blowpipe’s previous acoustic/ambient/electronica grace, the other half is shaped by a new and more aggressive club attack.

Of the old school stuff, Airport Woman is the most graceful: a mass of beat-free, blurring big spaces: back-and-forth cello loops, rainy-night muted trumpets, glows of soprano sax and a brief return from Paul Reeson. The Spell is Broken is wrapped in a backwards bassy ostinato (padded up by Tycho Andrews’ wah-guitar) like an orchestra in a North Sea fog, thick hazy air through which Andrew Blick’s trumpet clarion cuts like a lone lighthouse beam. Muting down and vague-ening in the heavy atmosphere, it gently illuminates (above the clanking guitar rhythm and the creak-crunching sonics).

However, this album’s signature is definitely made by the harder breed of Blowpipe pieces, by the post-Grooverider drum’n’bass influences. This could have been a good thing, given that music’s ferociously intelligent, toppy rhythmic attack: the bebop of the club scene. But in practice? Um… maybe not.

The main problem is a loss of that crucial Blowpipe balance. Neither of Stephen Watkins’ on/off successors (Patrick Mosley and Mike Servent) possess any of his subtlety, meaning that the detailed electronic textures of ‘Full Circle’ have been overturned in favour of synth washes and more blatant beats. And while the Blicks remain as eloquent as ever, Nick Reynolds’ harmonica virtuosity is of the tinny, bullying breed: a soulless Mark Feltham cop. Sometimes the new marriage is a happy one, as on Avanti’s drowsy harmonica patina and cloudy brass blankets, mixing it up with breakbeats, Harrison’s Bootsy bass, and Andrew’s cold trumpet motif. But when it’s at its worst, the Blicks seem sidelined within their own project, locked down in the cages of snare drum.

The analogue gut gurgles and video games blippery of Usurper work quite well, as Reynolds’ sharp harmonica riffs mingle with fluent fluttering sax and muted trumpet. But Unravel’s tight fast rattle and saurian bass quakes are overcome by the belting raucous harmonica and brass. Robin Blick’s soprano scribbles too frantically, Andrew’s echoed trumpet sounds busy and sour. The raw power of Scorched Earth’s distorted breakbeat and Harrison Wobble-y bassline can’t make up for the yammering, overbearing harmonica overkill: Reynolds blowing flatulently all over the Blicks’ bitty chips of sax and trumpet and Katherine Blake’s skidding tremolo violin. And School Disco (working title or what?) is just clodhopping: a flatfooted stomp which sounds like it was recorded in an underpass. John Burgess’ guesting flute fights to keep grace going against the dirty swathes of distorted harmonica.

When Reynolds is kept on a tighter leash, things work out much better. On the climactic Phoenix, for example, where Burgess’ bass clarinet and Andrew’s dawning trumpet lines repeatedly criss-cross each other over didgeridoo droning and Robin’s sax hangings. Or on Pendulum itself, which uses power without clumsiness. Rising off a big Bonham-y stomp with overdriven trumpet and giant floppy bass, Robin laces in some ascending saxes and curtains of brass. There’s a guest tenor scrawl from John Burgess: then, amid the whale-song trumpets, an incongruous Scott Walker sample pops up to breathe in bluer air. “The little clocks stop ticking now…” Everything does stop ticking. Everything kicks off again. Marvellously perverse, and a particular highlight on an album which sometimes fails to live up to Blowpipe’s initial promise, reminding us of how good they can be once they’re back in focus.

Blowpipe: ‘Pendulum’
Robot Records, ROB 001 (5019148617297)
CD-only album
Released:
15th May 1998
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.
 

April 1998 – album reviews – Bass Communion’s ‘Bass Communion’ (“things flirt round the edges of familiarity”)

29 Apr

Bass Communion: 'Bass Communion' ('Bass Communion I')

Bass Communion: ‘Bass Communion’ (‘Bass Communion I’)

The potential for making noise, making our own personalised sound via brain, limb or breath, has always been with us. In the sampler age – where you can trap any sound in a digital jar and then play musical Darwin with it – the option range has hurtled up several levels in the space of half a generation, and the serious sound addict can now personalise any noise no matter who or what the source.

Which brings us to Bass Communion, the latest brainchild of studio wizard Steven Wilson. As if he weren’t busy enough psych-rocking with Porcupine Tree, cult- popping with No-Man, or working out his Kraut/post-rock urges with The Incredible Expanding Mindfuck. Let’s face it, few people are better qualified as a sound-addict.

Bass Communion (no thumpin’, pumpin’ house-music project, despite the suspicious name) is Wilson’s most direct attempt to date at riding this addiction. It’s also his most cryptic and esoteric, in which he rejects his usual battery of synthesizers in favour of the use of sounds “sampled, looped, transposed, layered, filtered, and processed into infinity” via electronic circuitry and sampler exploration. Wilson permits himself occasional real instruments (such as the skinny, echoing Bark Psychosis-style guitar on Drugged), but they sort of stand off to one side, like nervous uncles at parties. This isn’t really their show. For those who only skim the surface of Steven Wilson via the odd No-Man phuture-pop single, or hear the odd Porkies guitar blowout and maybe damn him as a wannabe Dave Gilmour, Bass Communion will come as a beautifully disorientating shock. This music shares secluded room-space with the work of Aphex Twin, Muslimgauze, Oval or Paul Schutze.

It might be a logical extension of Porcupine Tree’s ambient atmospherics or No-Man’s avant-garde leanings, but it’s also a giant leap of pure faith. There are no tunes, cheesy or otherwise. At all. And no attempts to please – there’s no equivalent to Aphex’s Come to Daddy on ‘Bass Communion’. Melodies, if they happen, seem to evolve almost by accident. Harmony is something that occurs occasionally when patterns coincide, rather than something that’s held to. Things flirt round the edges of familiarity, repeat and loop, but don’t so much hold the attention as massage it. When in doubt, it stays quiet. Actually, it’s always in doubt and always quiet, but never entirely at a loss about where to go. Bass Communion is profoundly experimental, but Wilson’s sharp, pop-attuned ear ensures that at least it never paints itself into a corner.


 
Shopping, the opener, deflects digital coldness from the off via its crackle and fluff of sampled vinyl noise: quiet, but almost drowning out the amnesiac wafts of melody which float, with disassociated loveliness, off to one side of the listening ear. They come in, they go; a wobbly snatch of Bach jumps out at you, trips over, cuts out. From then on, you’re on your own in Bass Communion’s subtly surreal electronic world.


 
Orphan Coal sounds like night in an abandoned telephone exchange. A clattering can drum pulses its elliptical way around and around. Echoing blips of voice trail after it – a hiccup in the system – and tones flicker irregularly like monitoring lights, going from ice to feather-stroke in seconds. Sheens of sound arch in ghostly fashion overhead: at peace, but disturbing yours. You almost expect HAL 9000 to be keeping a watchful red eye on it all. In which case the slow flood of Sleep Etc. is the digital limbo after the plugs are pulled and the lobotomy comes down, sending tides of electronic fluid trickling across the speakers, rising and implying a slow suffocation. Leafy rustles and long low scraping whale-like groans overlap deep subterranean booms and lost dizzy ringing sounds. Somewhere back in there there are hints of double basses, Rhodes pianos, and Mexican percussion – it could, conceivably, have started off as Wilson chopping up something like Weather Report and reducing it to sonic pulp for a new recipe. Whatever the source, now it sounds like icebergs having prolonged nightmares.


 
With all the experimentation going on, it’s almost a shame to admit that it’s the two versions of Drugged – apparently the first parts of an evolving sound series – that hit the spot best. How to define them? As “not-duets”, probably. Collaborations with live musicians that aren’t live, aren’t jams, weren’t composed, yet still sound like immediate and co-operative performances even though they’re manipulated and mutated bits of taped sound sent through Wilson’s cloud chamber. The effect is eerie: you feel that if you lent Steven Wilson your soul, he’d hand it back to you within days polished, cleaned and reconditioned, and with a few welcome surprises in the pockets.


 
On the first Drugged, Theo Travis‘ plaintive soprano saxophone replicates and proliferates, dozens of birdsinging reeds fluttering and fading over the warm upholstery of reverently pastoral organ chords. His playing is the most directly human and emotive on the record, yet here he sounds as if his personality is being melted down even as he makes his mark. There’s somehow something of the swan-song to what he’s doing, as if he and Wilson were carrying out a voluntary, luxuriant suicide pact.


 
The second Drugged, featuring the celestial guitar Soundscapes of Robert Fripp, is an especially inspired bit of audio piracy: a close cousin to the similar and marvellous Born Simple from No-Man’s ‘Flowermix’. Seven seconds of Fripp lifted from an old No-Man source tape, then refracted through Wilsonian concepts and gizmos for twenty-five minutes of protracted, blissful imagination. Frippophiles might notice that it equals about any genuine Soundscape they care to name: everyone else will be up with Steve ‘n’ Bob, nuzzling the starry skies.

A deep-down indulgence well worth sharing. Filter me another one, bass-boy.

Bass Communion: ‘Bass Communion’ (‘Bass Communion I’)
3rd Stone Ltd., STONE 036CD (Barcode)
CD-only album
Released:
April 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Bandcamp, Burning Shed or Amazon
Bass Communion:
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April 1998 – album reviews – Django Bates’ ‘Like Life’ (“placing his inquisitive, loopy and flamboyantly complex music in the hands of relative strangers”)

22 Apr

Django Bates: 'Like Life'

Django Bates: ‘Like Life’

When the most wilful, please-yourselves mavericks start winning awards, it ensures that – whether they like it or not – they can never again be quite the young turks they started out as. Whether you dismiss them or embrace them, awards ceremony transmute. They can chuck a bucket of seriousness over the winners, which can either damp them down or inflame them further. Smooth or savage, they’re plucked out of their milieu and put in a position where the loose and buoyant expectations which can hang on an artist will suddenly crystallise and weigh hard.

Django Bates won the Jazzpar Prize – jazz’s Nobel – in 1997. In some ways, dealing with that has been one of his biggest challenges. Bates’ career so far has been notable for his avoidance – mostly – of the company of international names. Instead he’s worked unhindered with his own London-based gang of congenial lunatics.

‘Like Life’ (documenting his Jazzpar performances) is different, placing his inquisitive, loopy and flamboyantly complex music in the hands of relative strangers. Though Bates’ usual quartet Human Chain travelled over with him (forming the core of the Jazzpar version of his Delightful Precipice big band) the remaining personnel were committed Danish jazzers. Fine players, but not in on the joke, if you know what I mean. At the height of Bates’ triumph he could’ve been sunk, had his music proved not to be the sort that can travel outside its own circle.


 
Happily, it works fairly well. This is most evidently when Bates is working with the fatter, more cohesive sound of the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra, who’ve toured Gil Evans’ repertoire and lead with a muscular frontline of brash trumpets and an armoury of trombones. The DRJO get to debut most of the new material, displaying a flourishing cabaret flair on the big-Bates favourite Nights At the Circus. They also generally ensure that the album has a more jolly and easygoing tinge to it than was heard on previous Bates bouts.

The aggressive drive that stalks behind the affable cartoonish facade of Bates’ mutant jazz seems to have been mellowed by the experience. By the time he’s leading the big band in convivial pubby chants about tea (on The Importance of Boiling Water), he sounds as if he’s befriended the lot of them personally. This is at its most valuable when he allows his more meditative side to emerge on the reflective, restrained theme of Misplaced Swans. Slow and gawky brass figures emerge in a delightfully vulnerable indigo mood, as a quiet panic attack on guitar sets Bates’ own lyrical, chipped piano solo into sharper focus.



 
However, that quirky inclusive mischief continues to rule the roost. Once a Penguin, Always a Penguin is a rollicking big-band march, full of the blurp of tubas and invigorating yells of high brass egging them on, laced together by Bates’ gurgling fairground organ. It sounds like Charles Mingus laughing his head off on a helium overdose. The joyous, waltzing Like Life itself is equally enjoyable. It’s a cheerful Ellingtonian argument at the peak of a party, which also draws in Bates’ perennial affection for the pride, pomp and community humour of English pit-brass bands.


 
Topping the lot is The Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, a twelve-minute Bates epic that pulses along and doubles back like Weather Report fighting over a squid. The real-life Crowhurst faked a round-the-world yacht journey, radio broadcasts and all. Bates was obviously tickled enough by the story to put his own fantastical spin on it. It’s busy and anxious music with a beautifully illustrated edge of self-importance and suppressed hysterical guilt, capturing the grabby energy and sheer panicky hard work that goes into forging. In some respects, it’s an ironic salute from one artist to another; and one which seems appropriate coming from the oddly rootless Bates. Morse-code synths fight the surf; seagulls fly past in chorus; and samples of excited press cameras chop up the earspace.


 
The Danish version of Delightful Precipice have the tougher job on ‘Like Life’. Shriller, emphasising reeds, flute and more of Bates’ subversive synth attack than their British counterpart, they’re dealing with established Bates repertoire and memories, warts-and-all. Although the pragmatic poise of the band is a novelty in Batesworld, their assured race through Tightrope’s tenterhook cascades (swoops, crowds, stops and quivering tensions) suggests they’re up to the job, but they do have a lot to keep under control.



 
At one extreme there’s the manic, beaming Irish jig of Peculiar Terms of Intimacy (recovered from the surrealist theatre score for ‘The Third Policeman’). At the other, there’s The Loneliness of Being Right; one of Bates’ most maddening tunes and dedicated to politicians with closed minds. In the latter, a rising, recurrent, hysterical phrase (buried in a thicket of strident and contradictory pointers) runs around like a rat trying to escape from an ever-shrinking maze of mirrors; and it never resolves except if it’s into yet another trap. Mid-way through, Iain Ballamy‘s soprano sax grapples with the unforgiving music, there’s a noise like a chicken being slaughtered, and you start to question the artistic value of irritation.


 
A warm journey through Armchair March (that catchy riffing tune that makes a virtue out of never getting properly started, but goes to any number of places around the starting blocks) settles things down after the indigestible. But there’s also a run through Bates’ infamously abrasive take on New York, New York. Memories of Sinatra are mugged and buried under an onslaught of cut-up expressionist jazz, hopscotching between melody and cacophony; laden with screaming twisted brass, cartoon sonics, jokes and Bates’ own musing bloke-in-the-shower vocal.



 
And it’s here that there’s a sudden flash of “what am I doing here?” in Bates’ invention: in the midst of the furious playing and the hard-handed humour, he suddenly sounds sheepish, as if he’s realised it’s time to leave this sort of thing behind. Rampant iconoclast and wag he may be, but winning the the Jazzpar sounds as if it has both changed and proved things for him. Perhaps it’s just the impact of the award, or perhaps the passage of time, but ‘Like Life’ sounds like some kind of turning-point for this brilliant jazz hooligan.

Django Bates: ‘Like Life’
Storyville Records, STCD 4221 (7 17101 42212 8)
CD-only album
Released:
20th April 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) get CD from Storyville Records; download from Apple Music and Google Play; stream from Deezer and Spotify.
Django Bates online:
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April 1998 – album reviews – G.P. Hall’s ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’ (“grand painterly instincts”)

7 Apr

G.P. Hall: 'Steel Storms & Tender Spirits'

G.P. Hall: ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’

Despite the luminous loveliness of much of his music, the career of style-hopping guitarist G.P. Hall hasn’t been smooth (even by the uneven standards of the experimental music he dips in and out of). Regardless, ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’ shows that he’s still up for taking a gamble.

A trust-risking double-album package, clearly intended to emphasize his dynamic musical dialectic, it also highlights the tension between his experimental side and his taste for romantic melody. There’s one disc of rough treatment (industrial noise-layering, screaming electricity) and one of ear-stroking pastoralism (the natural sound of wood and air, tickled by occasional breaths of spectral electronics). However, with Hall being who he is, the two ideas tend to bleed back together: in some cases, maybe more than was intended.

The ‘Steel Storms’ half of the set features a wealth of Hall’s “industrial sound sculptures”. Layered compositions played on his stock of prepared-and-processed guitars (via plectrum, fingertips, battery fans, velcro and more), they also make cunning use of assorted noise-makers ranging from scavenged autoharps and scrap metal to oven racks and household bricks. Texture is the predominant element in the music, but a surprising tunefulness and dark melodies often penetrate in the form of solemn classical adagios. It’s these which underpin the clattering chains, metallic rasps and harmonics of Industrial Sights, or the billowing clouds of rolling fragmented piano and wrenching distortion in Eye Saw It 2.

There’s an impressive documentary flamboyance at hand, too. When the insistently ringing, collapsing-steel groan-tones of Tsunami blend with both close-up atonal jangles of autoharp and with distant, skinny guitar-string shivers, the visual qualities of Hall’s music are particularly clear. Some of his work here wanders out to a distant edge. Two tracks in particular, Steel Storms and Steel Landscape, are almost wholly abstract – musical testaments to metal fatigue and the disorientating feel of post-industrial spaces. Grumbling, malignant loops and glittering boils of guitar drown in swills of rattling shard-metal and bass-drum booms. The pieces are laced with elephantine bursts of distortion; and with brief, dying surfacings of chemical-corroded blues playing.

Throughout, Hall’s grand painterly instincts tug the sound closer towards beauty – however twisted – than towards flat and impersonal horror. A whole album of such Hall industrialisms would be something to treasure. Unfortunately, ‘Steel Storms’ is continually gate-crashed by other sides of his musical personality. On River Flow, he revives one of his signature approaches: fluent Spanish guitar over detailed rolls of textural soundscaping. It’s as lovely as ever, but it’s misplaced here; and it’s anybody’s guess as to what Gypsy Gathering (a virtually straight piece of flamenco) is doing on the record.

In cases like these, Hall’s distracted eclecticism undermines the original intent of ‘Steel Storms’. Worse comes when that willing, stubborn naivety which lies at the heart of his music (giving it both its emotional strength and its core of idealism) becomes diluted into reproducing other people’s cliches. Since the mid-’90s, Hall has been an enthusiastic miner of his past work, dicing up his out-of-print albums to recombine their contents in new sequences. Often this has worked out well, juxtaposing his newer, tuneful solo tapestries with older, intriguing avant-jazz duets, trios and quartets (often featuring sundry members of Isotope, Gilgamesh or Nucleus). Unfortunately, on this occasion he’s pulled up some dross along with the gems.

Perhaps Hall’s work in library music during the lean years is to blame. He’s too interesting a musician to produce stock blandness (and even his failures have moments of interest) but on a record with a purpose, these lesser scraps should have stayed on the shelf. Yet several ‘Steel Storms’ tracks come from this lifeless batch, splotched with anonymous moves and tinny keyboard presets. No Man’s Land is drab robotic cop-chase stuff, the kind of thing a particularly cheesed-off Mark Knopfler might clunk out at the dull end of a soundtrack contract. The less said about the appalling Barbed Wire Bop (brittle ‘Seinfeld’ plastic-funk with the tones of a dodgy synth-demo) the better.

Happily, other ‘Steel Storms’ approaches are much more successful, toying fruitfully with the tight blare of fiesta horns, or with a kind of impressionistic stadium rock held together with paper-clips. The rainy-night drive of City Signals funnels determined loose-jointed funk elements through cascades of drumming, a marching-call trumpet leading the tune above Hall’s steel-saw guitar chops. On Docklands, an acoustic guitar explores and ranges over washing licks of soundscape; electric guitars swipe between factory-machine screeches and trumpet blasts; an echoing hip-hop beat – blind, gigantic and mechanical – stumbles through the landscape beyond.

Sometimes, everything comes together. Though centered on the aggressive, questioning rawness of an up-close flamenco guitar, B-E-trayed provides a discreet light-industrial twist to its traditional base, dragging its intermittent sheath of noises back into the realm of the personal. Already bouncing off tricky drumbox beats, it heads into more sinister areas when swarming, echoing drones and bitter laughter flicker across the speakers. At one point, Hall yells cathartically into the soundhole of his guitar.

All interesting, but the industrial theme becomes increasingly tenuous over the course of the record, though it does rally at points. Heavily overdriven cutting-blade sounds return for Fiya, in which blurred polluted riffs meet mournfully defiant Latin horns and gut-strung guitar. On Dancing On Cracking Ice the guitar plays a supporting role to mariachi horns (and to Sam Brown’s exploratory world-rock rattle of percussion), as Hall’s chopping slashing echoes and metal-fatigue string groans lead off into a leisurely Latin funk stretch. Funk is also one of the central elements of Battery Charger, colliding with big-band horns and space-rock as Hall’s snappy twang-melodies and jittering string harmonics are bounced through some serious Ash Ra Tempel echo.

While there’s no shortage of ideas and impressiveness on ‘Steel Storms’, as an album it’s a missed opportunity – too bitty, too unstructured, and not quite ruthless enough to do justice to its theme. You can dive in for the more thrilling patches – and hold your nose at the bad points – but at times it’s the wrong kind of bumpy ride. Fortunately, its companion album compensates for the missteps by being an experience of unqualified and perfectly integrated beauty.

Where ‘Steel Storms’ shows Hall straining after too many things at once, ‘Tender Spirits’ showcases a beautifully focused vision. Dominated by his acoustic playing and by the subtler side of his electrophonic treatments (sometimes heightened by softly resonant brass and drums), it sounds as if it was recorded under a great cool bowl of night sky. It also proves that, however much energy he puts into his experimentalism, he remains a superbly expressive guitarist once the trickery is removed. Here, the wise simplicity and romance at the center of his music come into their own, in full.

Judging by many of the pieces here, classical music lost a fine player and interpreter in Hall when he went left-field, not to mention a fine folk-fusion composer. Listen to those Spanish arpeggios (mournfully meditative on Love Lies Bleeding, restless and subtly unresolved on Slipstreams) or to the singing Irish ballad inflections of Patricia O’Leary. Alternatively, enjoy Hall’s subtle reunion with electricity on Shooting Stars, Ember or Dandelion Clocks. The first two are slow astral wheelers, their notes stroked into long, long, beautifully smudged trails and pining crystalline tubes of sound; the last is chuckling child-music, clean notes bubbled through a sparkling halo of echo.

Hall’s more multi-tracked and constructed compositions fit just as seamlessly into the mood. Some are familiar – here’s another outing for the thrumming bowed-bass winter scenery of Miles From No-Where (White Wilderness), a piece which Hall continually revisits. Similarly, there’s a new version of another favourite, Spirit Sky Montana, in which David Ford’s sleepy flugelhorn and Sam Brown’s slow swish of cymbal pull Hall’s stretched-bell guitar layers and church-music structure up to further heights of passionate serenity. A more ambiguous moment is granted on Incandescence, where a baroque six-string bass is smeared into dark and swollen horn sounds, voicing in shifting minor-key planes, searching for a place to settle.

However, it’s the magnificent Lonely Road which shows Hall at his very best. Loose, hanging drapes of luscious sound, distant detonating percussion, his Spanish guitar upfront again with a heart-tugging melody, and a final DIY touch – this time, a lonely and beautifully frail harmonica part. This is music you could live in. There’s a direct, emotional involvement in G.P. Hall’s work that’s rarely found among experimental musicians – probably because in spite of his gizmos and his taste for modernist expression he connects far deeper with the earthy roots of music than with the narrowed, exclusive intellectual demands of music as a science.

Ultimately, the main reason that ‘Tender Spirits’ is stronger than ‘Steel Storms’ is that in spite of Hall’s fascination with the impact of industrialism on our lives and senses, he knows it’s merely a part of our experience of the world: a relatively recent human-scale derangement overlaying much older terrain and themes. The two superb acoustic pieces which open and close ‘Tender Spirits’ could easily predate the factories, machinery and artefacts that inspire his industrial sound sculptures; both being intimately concerned with human survival within the simpler, starker hostilities of nature itself.

For the majestic impressionist-flamenco study of Sandstorm, Hall’s fingers slither out whips of string noise among the sharp and fluttering notes, conjuring up the flying dust. Sea Sorrow (Lament Of Lewis) is at the other end of the scale: a paean to shipwrecked souls in which Spanish guitar technique merges with a plaintive Celtic air. Within it, bitter bereavement struggles with acceptance and an awareness of continuance. Those who live with the sea are sustained by it and robbed by it, and this feeling lives in the music. As visual as anything Hall comes up with via loops and layers and implements, the plangent tones of this naked acoustic piece shape an image of someone alone and bleak on the headland, staring out at the ambiguous and often-merciless ocean which they must ultimately come to terms with.

It’s true that G.P. Hall’s road is, ultimately, a lonely one – sometimes assured, sometimes erratic, always marginalised. Yet it’s always one which he treads with a stubborn faith – wrong steps and slip-ups notwithstanding – and one that makes him all the more unique.

G.P. Hall: ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’
Future Music Records, FMR CD46-V0997 (786497264421)
CD/download double album
Released: 31st March 1998

Get it from:
Future Music Records (CD only) or Bandcamp (download-only, as two separate albums, ‘Steel Storms‘ and ‘Tender Spirits

G.P. Hall online:
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March 1998 – album reviews – Handsome Poets’ ‘Rebirth: The Best of the Handsome Poets’ (“sharp geeky wisdom with a trace of… clear, sparkling melancholy”)

26 Mar

Handsome Poets: 'Rebirth: The Best of the Handsome Poets'

Handsome Poets: ‘Rebirth: The Best of the Handsome Poets’

A lot of successful bands are made up of people who hunger towards grabbing the whole huge meaning of things and singing it out in 4/4, but who are too stupid to manage it by thinking it out. With the physical route mapped out in their bodies and nerves, they blunder there by blunt instinct, turning their brains off and shouting their way there.

Over in the cult corner, people like Californian popheads Handsome Poets (based around British ex-pats Stephen Duffy and Dale Ward) work in a slightly different way. Again, it’s their bodies that are the idiot savant side of the partnership: sneaking away from lofty pursuits to listen to pure pop, chew up chart singles and turn out chirpy tunes. It’s just that in this case Duffy and Ward have brains which tingle with too many possibilities, too many unsureties for them ever to believe in any one big shouty meaning. And in these cases instinct isn’t completely trusted: the brains feel a need to come down from their ivory condos and do something about what instinct has created.


 
To get to the point… on a superficial listen, ‘Rebirth’ (a compilation of the best of Handsome Poets’ cassette albums) seems to be a late resurgence of that strain of carefully crafted, earnest MTV pop rock that flourished in the early ’80s before getting nuked by dance, pop metal, rap and cynicism. The sort of airy, medium-sized, studio-tanned songs you’d get from guilelessly musical pop musicians – tidy white-funk guitars, shiny synth riffs and clear, breezy vocals. The occasional Latin drum loop. Soft-soul saxophone solos and argumentative violins pop up on occasion. Songs display painstaking intelligence, craft, and the other double-edged nouns used as weapons by the kangaroo courts of British rock journos who’d condemn this sort of stuff to death without a second thought.

Ah, but underneath…


 
Those brains have been getting to grips with what the bodies have cooked up. And are settling down like a large and decorative bird on a small nest. Some of it is as earnest as it appears. Both Gotta Get Up and Hope are pure synth pop for clean people, with enough billowing to enchant and enough boy-next-door humility to avoid plummeting into New Romantic pomposity. But much of the rest of ‘Rebirth’ sounds more like what Thomas Dolby’s lab techs might pull out of their lockers and work on quietly, once the Professor had packed up and gone home for the night.

Even as they pursue the naive thrill of a good old-fashioned song, the Poets’ brains are tinkering away at the workings like a pair of compulsive mechanics. Unusual instruments are factored in (kalimba, psaltery, tuba and didgeridoo all make their presence felt amongst the sequencers and loops), as are odd contrasts (the sprightly classical strings which bookend Drumsong, the tuba oompahs and tinkly metal percussion on Waiting For The Sun). Samples expand the sounds and themes. Bits of glazed-eye plastic gospel pop up. It’s clean cut ’80s. but gingerly dipping its perfect hairstyle in ’90s water. The journey wiggles away from the freeway and explores what’s going on in more out-of-the-way streets.


 
Like another set of transparently faux-naifs before them – Steely Dan – Handsome Poets cast a skeptical eye on American smoothness and vitality. While they’ve little of Steely Dan’s poisonous wit (being more like a melancholy Men At Work), they’re definitely dark horses under the light’n’polite pop funkiness. Handsome Poets’ pop cocktail is a mixture of sharp geeky wisdom with a trace of the clear, sparkling melancholy that Love let flow through ‘Forever Changes’: fed through squeaky-clean electronics it might be, but it’s there.


 
Take Everybody Knows, which sees Duffy haunting the edges of gatherings, nursing drinks in resentful, camouflaged desperation. “Everybody loves a party, but there’s always one who never leaves. / And it’s me…” Samples of cheerful party chatter swim through the mix as he reflects “one day I have the world in my hands, then it’s a downpour of lost souls. / And I occasionally belong. / In all honesty, I wonder, how often do I tell me lies? / Why not choose exhilaration, why not choose to see the light?”


 
Handsome Poet’s California (never specified, but unmistakeable) is a place that still brings bemusement to these transplanted and pop-bitten Brits. So Often’s savage catalogue of rip offs and scams (musically, Danny Wilson meets Prince with a touch of Japan’s arty, pernickety precision) stalks angrily through a rogue’s gallery of lifestyle conmen: “Watch out for the buggers in designer tie dye. / Grunge hippies dressed in black, eating souls for dinner, / incense burning sharks who cannot look you in the eye.” The atmosphere’s perfect for breeding phoneys (“your faded genius, one they’ll remember when you’re dead and gone. / My tongue’s in cheek, can’t you see?”).


 
On the uninhibited jazzy swing of Drumsong it’s difficult to make out whether they’re embracing the instinctive rhythms and redemptive power of dance, or lampooning its nouveaux hippy pretensions. By the fifth time those sunshiny choruses swing round and a muffled, earnest voice starts mumbling about “the song of the green rainbow”, you get the impression that Duffy’s gently puncturing someone’s mystical balloon. And what about Stephen Twist, who’s opted to reinvent himself in cult land? “No salt, no sugar, no coffee, no meat, no fun / Mmm… but the garden looked so good. / Would the real Stephen Twist please stand up? / Would the old Stephen Twist please stand down?”


 
In amongst these sketches of the parade of folly, small and genuine human stories still run. Too Much is a straightforward boy-loses-girl-and-gripes-about-it-in-a-bar scenario, but given an Eyeless in Gaza big-pop edge by Duffy’s arch upfront singing over a bath of rapid strumming, electrowashes and cushioning voices. Undersea’s opportunistic coward – slippery and suspect, beset by drones, baby cries and mirages – swims through an ocean in his dreams, flailing at his responsibilities and searching for isolation. Prez Bill hides under the acoustic bluffness of the ’80s political tub-thumper, but curls up at the edges to reveal a sharp (and very British) distrust of campaign gladhanding (“He shakes my hand and kissed my daughter. / Grin your grin, that’s our reward. / There’s just one thing I’d like to ask you – do you know me?”) and sarcastically asks “Is he all things to all men? Well, you tell me.” Sitting By the Ocean is a lonely beach vignette: a resigned stretch of slide guitar curves like the arc of pebbles chucked into the sea, as two people (one gently accepting, one hung up on being acceptable) utterly fail to make their connection – “I said “it doesn’t matter who they are, it’s who you are that really matters.” / She said “I want to come inside.”…”



 
With a name like Handsome Poets, you expect a gang of mumbling poseurs concentrating on perfecting the fall of their curls and couplets, or at least cultivating some Richard Ashcroft cheekbones. You actually get a couple of very human characters who’re more likely to blow their cool with an explosive (but compassionate) snigger at the ludicrousness of it all. You’d like them.

Handsome Poets: ‘Rebirth: The Best of the Handsome Poets’
Splendid Music, SPLENDID 005
CD-only album
Released:
23rd March 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Original CD best obtained second-hand, although I’ve found quite a lot of them on Amazon.
Handsome Poets online:
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Additional notes: (2020 update) This particular Handsome Poets shouldn’t be confused with the Dutch pop band of the same name, founded in 2009. Stephen Duffy (still not to be confused with the bloke with the same name out of The Lilac Time and Duran Duran) now plays with That Man Fantastic.
 

March 1998 – maxi-single reviews – Lo Fidelity Allstars’ ‘Vision Incision’ (“promises to blow our minds wide open, but falls well short of the promise”)

26 Mar

Lo Fidelity Allstars: 'Vision Incision' maxi-single

Lo Fidelity Allstars: ‘Vision Incision’ maxi-single

I had this lot down all wrong at first, I admit it. From the bragging “we’re the greatest” interviews, and the “dance music with real instruments” tag, even the look of the group, I had them down as (god forbid) the new baggy. I was fully prepared to go out and shoot them so I didn’t have to live through the horror that was baggy yet again. But a couple of odd tracks here and there have persuaded me to save my bullets… for now.

Sure, there’s a “real band” sound at the heart of the Lo Fidelity Allstars, but they can manage to make their take on turn‑of‑the‑millennium genre‑defying dance culture a gloriously uplifting thing. Their baggy forerunners (Happy Mondays, Stone Roses) always sounded like they were prevented from gliding to a higher musical plane by having their feet firmly stuck in the field of mud labelled “indie”. The Lo Fi’s, firmly centred on the sampler and decks, don’t have the same problem as they reel off ribbons and streams of sound, rather than chug doggedly away like an old pro dealing with a new fad. But…


 
Oh, the senseless waste. Vision Incision promises to blow our minds wide open, but falls well short of the promise. Good start, mind. Smooth beats, hedonistic keyboard riff, an infectious soul-diva backing hook, and the matter of the live band sound becomes irrelevant as the track lifts and soars smoothly like the most uplifting house or techno, boasting “As we travel at magnificent speeds around the universe…” At which point the Lo-Fi-s prime weak spot is revealed: Dave The Wrekked Train’s bland Speak’n’Spell vocals. Mashing up randomised texts, as he does on other Lo-Fi-s sonic collisions, they work fine. Faced with actual poetry, they creak like a ground axle. Please, if this is the way he carries on all the time, sack him. He has delusions of being a more hip Mark E. Smith, but ends up just sounding like a London cabbie – a monotone mumble grating over the divine music and pointing up the dreadful rhymes in some of his lyrics.

Perhaps he reckons he’s aiming at the street-level psychedelic lyricism of hip-hoppers like the Wu-Tang Clan: the thing is, those guys sound like they believe the weed-fuelled surreal-o-vision they’re raving about. Dave just sounds embarrassed, as if he’d rather have stayed in his siding and chatted to Thomas The Tank Engine this time around. Consequently, I can’t decide whether this is a successor to Orbital’s Chime for the genre‑busting, cross‑pollinating late ’90s dance scene, or just OMD meeting The Orb in a spot of megalomaniac galactic synthpop. Or, alternatively, the KLF doing Spinal Tap.


 
The remix is referred to as a “12” mix” ‑ how bloody Eighties. I suspect that, in homage to their record label, this is the Lo‑Fi-s’ attempt at the Big Beat remix. The Late Train has mutated (oh god!) into the slower‑talking brother of The Shamen’s Mr C. for the first part of this extended work‑out. Wisely, they quickly dispense of his services and crank up the heavy beats to provide a real tour de force instrumental for the band. Proving that if you like your beats big and bouncy, then this dissipated bunch can turn their devious minds to that too. The Midfield General Shorter mix is the sparse techno‑electronica version. A mechanistic, simple beat, overlaid by electronic squelches and interferences, as the original track is ripped to shreds and rebuilt, as elements and sequences of the original drift in and out of the mix. Oh, and Train-In-Vain is just a distant, distorted presence, way back in the ether. Wise move, guys.


 
By this stage, frankly, it’s difficult to tell whether Gringo’s Return To Punk Paste is, in fact, a new track, or yet another radical remix of the original. What it does prove, yet again, is that the Lo‑Fi-s can also turn their hands (deep breath) to a ’90s version of the sounds of early ’80s rap and electro. Skeletal beats and distorted, squelching basslines set the parameters for that unmistakeable sound, aided by some nifty no‑nonsense American speech samples.


 
Cunning remixes or no, even if feted as the best new band in Britain by ‘Melody Maker’ and handed The Future on a giant silver platter to play with, the Lo Fi’s are still going to bellyflop if they keep expecting that stuff like Vision Incision’s going to justify that reputation. It’s not that they’re talentless rip-off merchants. On the contrary, their sampledelic experimentation – when they’ve taken all the sounds of the world, scrunched them up and run with them – is at least as heart-jumpingly astounding as any other visionary pop cut-ups around, if not more so. Hype or no hype, they can bring the noise with a vengeance. This is a real Quality Street of a band – whatever your favourite tribe in the current cross‑cultural collision, there’s music for you here. And if this is the sort of open‑minded group that all the mess of sounds in the ’90s can produce, then the future is wearing some very cool shades.

But compared to their own mighty One Man’s Fear (the world being slowly and gloriously wrenched to sticky bits by Jim Morrison’s psychotic baby grandchild), this ain’t so much a vision incision as a mere blink. Someone had their eye on nothing more noble than a chart placing when they knocked this lot together. Just cut it out, OK? Show me stars, not hot gas.

(review by Col Ainsley)

Lo Fidelity Allstars: ‘Vision Incision’
Skint Records, SKINT 33CD (5025425503320)
CD/cassette/7- & 12-inch maxi single
Released: 23rd March 1998

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

Lo Fidelity Allstars online:
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