Archive | 1999 RSS feed for this section

November 2016 – upcoming gigs – Spratleys Japs recreated live in Brighton, co-starring Stephen Evens, Emily Jones and sundry Brighton psychedelic talent (19th November)

16 Nov

'Spratleys Japs Live', 19th November 2016Though it’s long sold out (Facebook and local word-of-mouth rendering any blog efforts unnecessary), I thought I’d tip the hat to Saturday’s Brighton revival-cum-recreation of the obscure and short-lived Spratleys Japs, the first full live outing that the project’s songs have ever had.

Nominally a band, one which first wormed its way out into the light back in 1999, Spratleys Japs were one of the more enigmatic branches of the Cardiacs family. Head Cardiac Tim Smith composed the cryptic bulk of it, played bass guitar and organ, and added scratchy vocals; his then-girlfriend Jo Spratley sang bright and artless (like an urchin sparrow) and dabbled in theremin and flugelhorn. Tone and shape was inspired by a gloriously malfunctioning Mellotron keyboard on loan from ‘Tron historian Andy Thompson – its antique tape-replay system disrupted; its brass and string sounds invaded and polluted by grand staggers, stammers and dark blarts.

The rest of the instrumental roles were filled by the Rev-Ups, a Mexican desert band transplanted across the Atlantic and camping out in the New Forest. Dibbling around in Spratleys history brings you more information, albeit in baffling crepuscular fashion. There are stories of cutlery-hoarding obsessives hunched over humming home-made electronics; of a dilapidated old valve-tech recording studio buried deep in the Hampshire woods (“a bit rotten and a bit covered in leaves and rats, and rats spiders… ‘Doctor Who’ stylee control room… wiring swung between olden telegraph poles…”); and of vocals recorded “at dusk, in the drizzle”, bounced off the surface of a stagnant pond.


 
All very interesting, but probably spurious. It’s true about the ailing ‘Tron (and some elements of the dank forest sessions story might even be based on reality) but Spratleys were, in all likelihood, a Jo and Tim duo project: something cooked up through Smith production wizardry and swathed with the usual Cardiacs thicket of playful disinformation and purposefully eccentric mythology. In the decade following the album release, there was occasional talk about taking Spratleys to the stage, none of which came to anything: Tim’s near-fatal stroke and heart attack in 2008 finally put paid even to the talk.

What was left was the music – one album, one single with extra scraps – and very interesting it was too, be it the twinkling, seething, termite’s-nets funk of Fanny, the nursery piano and Wagnerian choir of Sparrows or Tim whispering an endless meandering verse over a strummed bass in Oh. Half of Cardiacs’ songbook had always been weirdly Arcadian, yearning out and away from regimented urban suburbia into a half-imagined clotted English greenwood full of growing things. Spratleys suggests what might have happened if Cardiacs had escaped there only to find out that it was a swamp, vegetation, trash and identity alike inexorably decaying into fertile sludge.


 
The grand, precarious staircases of extended harmony are pure Smith: parkour chord progressions racing on to destination unknown, delighting in the unpredictable terrain underfoot. The glue and ingredients which surround them are different, or at the very least repurpose and re-examine previous Smithian influences. Looking back at it now, it resembles nothing so much as various Cardiacs urges bumping up against the make-do, repurpose-and-discover influence of Faust, recoiling a little dazed and reconsidering. Creatures rustle; flashes of crude bayou guitar and ’50s rock’n’roll lick set up home with spluttering electronics. Vinyl pops; lyrics torn from malfunctioning phrasebooks float and spin in the eddies; all of the vocals sound as if they’ve been transposed from worn vellum. Jo, too, leaves her mark on proceedings – tugging Tim’s obsessive tendencies into more abstract, wandering territories, her childlike voice and delivery a perfect foil for his.

Regards this weekend’s recreation, Jo is the only original Spratley left standing. Though he’s recovered sufficiently to recently disinter and prepare a long-shelved Sea Nymphs album for release, Tim is still a long, long, unlikely way from playing live again. The Rev-Ups have long since dispersed and disappeared (probably back into the realms of Tim’s imagination); and as for the crumbling Mellotron, Andy Thompson (the entirely entitled bastard) has long since callously repaired it without a thought to history. There have been efforts to keep the project in the family, one way or another: Jo’s son Jesse Cutts (of Heavy Lamb) is backing her on guitar, and remaining roles are filled by sundry Brighton multi-instrumentalists and Cardiacs sympathisers. In the bag for the band are Étienne Rodes of Clowwns, his brother Adrien Rodes (once of Rect.angle, now playing with Étienne in Brother Twain) and the frighteningly busy Damo Waters (drummer for Clowwns, ZOFFF, Brother Twain and Slug; organist for Crayola Lectern; sessioneer for Field Music, British Sea Power, Chris T-T and plenty of others; everything-ist for his own project Muddy Suzuki when he has a spare moment).

At the moment, it’s not yet clear whether all of this is going to be a one-off amplified and extended celebration; or whether it’s going to become part of that eagerly growing body of post-Cardiacs musical life, joining the massing bands and solo artists which throng the increasingly regular Tim Smith fundraisers. Meanwhile, some indication as to what’s coming on the night could be found here – a kind of dry run, as Jo and Heavy Lamb take a rockier, punkified crack at the Spratleys song Vine at last year’s Alphabet Business Convention.


 

‘Spratleys Japs Performed Live’ (featuring members of Spratleys Japs, Crayola Lectern, Clowwns, Brother Twain, Muddy Suzuki) + Stephen Evens + Emily Jones
The Green Door Store, 2-4 Trafalgar Arches, Lower Goods Yard, Brighton Train Station, Brighton BN1 4FQ, England
Saturday 19th November 2016, 7.30pm
– information here and here

In support are Stephen EvEns (the current solo project by thoughtfully-hangdog drummer and multi-instrumental songwriter Steve Gilchrist – that’s Jo playing the therapist in his video below) and Cornish psychedelic folkie Emily Jones, whose own work shows a (possibly accidental) affinity with the softer end of Smithiana both in its occasional odd-corner harmonies and changeability, and in its occasional fascination with small, obscurely significant things.



 
If you’re not discouraged by that “sold-old” sign, see links above for the tickets that might become available… or just show up on the door with some cash on the night and hope for the best. If the Green Door Store has windows, crane up against them; fog them with sorry breath; make the kind of forest-creature creeling noises which you’d suspect might be just out of earshot on the Spratleys Japs album. They might take pity on you, and let you in.


 

November 2015 – upcoming London gigs – The End Festival in Crouch End, part 2

15 Nov

As promised, here’s the second rundown of people playing Crouch End’s The End Festival here in London this month (in fact, this week). It’s serving as my self-imposed penance for having been stupid enough to have missed the festival’s existence for so many years, especially as it’s been only a fairly short walk from where I live.

In case you’re interested at who’s already played this year, last week’s rundown is here (from math-rock heroes to underground pop hopefuls to assorted folk noises), but here’s who’s performing from tomorrow until the end of next Sunday…

* * * * * * *

The Mae Trio + Patch & The Giant + Elephants & Castles (Downstairs @ The Kings Head, 2 Crouch End Hill, Crouch End, London, N8 8AA, UK, Monday 16th November 2015, 7.00pm) – £10.75 – information

Much-garlanded Melbourne chamber-folksters The Mae Trio are a great example of can-do Australian vivacity – three women who juggle multiple instruments (banjo, ukulele, guitar, marimba, violin, cello and bass). While delivering spring-fresh, sparkling three-part harmonies and witty stage banter, they also volley songs at us which merge the whip-smart compassionate edge of Indigo Girls, and the dizzy chatter of The Bush The Tree And Me. Londoners aim plenty of jokes at Aussie visitors, but if they will keep on coming here and showing us up like this… Well, the city’s home-grown alt.folk scene is at least holding its own, since it can produce bands like Patch & The Giant, another gang of multi-instrumentalists (throwing cello, accordion, flugelhorn and violin in with the usual mix) who come up with a ‘Fisherman’s Blues’-era Waterboys mingling of Irish, Balkan and American country influences plus New Orleans funeral-band razz, rolling off heady spirit-in-the-everyday songs for a potential singalong everywhere they go.


The second of the two London bands, Elephants & Castles, might not share the direct folkiness of the rest of the night’s bill (being more of a brash and perky power-pop idea at root, with fat synth and chatty peals of electric guitar) but the band does have an acoustic side (which they might be bringing along on this occasion). Also, a closer look at their songs reveals a strand of outrightly folky protest and character witness, with songs about gentrification, the lot of manufacturing workers and the ordeals and victimhood of Justin Fashanu showing up in their setlist.

 

* * * * * * *

Howe Gelb (The Crypt Studio, 145a Crouch Hill, Crouch End, London, N8 9QH, UK, Monday 16th & Tuesday 17th November 2015, 7.00pm) – £22.00 – information

Tireless alt.country legend and multi-project workaholic Howe Gelb (the frontman for Giant Sand, Sno Angel and Arizon Amp & Alternator) takes in two dates in Crouch End as part of his ongoing tour. The first of Howe’s dates will be solo, but Nadine Khouri (fresh from her Hornsey Town Hall megagig appearance on the preceding Saturday) will be playing support on the 16th, with an extra surprise guest promised at some point in the proceedings.


* * * * * * * *

Romeo Stodart & Ren Harvieu (Earl Haig Hall, 18 Elder Avenue, Crouch End, London, N8 9TH, UK, Thursday 19th November 2015, 7.00pm) – £13.75 – information

Romeo Stodart (half of the frontline for familial, Mercury-nominated, cuddly-bear band The Magic Numbers) has been taking time out from his main group to write and sing with Salford soul-pop singer Ren Harvieu as R N R. This performance gives both singers a chance to show us what they’ve come up with. Expect a full-potential set: reinterpretations of both Ren songs and Magic Numbers numbers, reworkings of standards (as defined and chosen by the duo) and the full song fruits of their new partnership. One or two examples of the latter have sneaked out into the public eye previously, so here’s a taste – via YouTube – of what’s on offer.

 

* * * * * * *

Before the Goldrush presents Green Diesel + Tom Hyatt + Horatio James (The Haberdashery, 22 Middle Lane, Crouch End, London, N8 8PL, UK, Friday 20th November 2015, 8.00pm) – £5.00 – information

Kentish folk-rock sextet Green Diesel happily embrace a spiritual descent from an earlier ‘70s wave of English folk-rockers – Fairport Convention, Mr Fox, The Albion Band, Steeleye Span). As those bands did, they conflate dazzling electric guitar, a mass of acoustic folk instrumentation and a sheaf of traditional tunes mixed in with new songs (“old-fashioned, new-fangled”). In the same spirit, they’re enthusiasts and honourers of the old forms, but are never shy of splicing in others (“a reggae twist into an old sea shanty… spicing up a jig with a touch of jazz funk”) in order to communicate the songs to a fresher and perhaps less reverent audience during one of the frenetic and joyous live gigs which they’re becoming increasingly famous for.

If you’re a bunch of Londoners going for that country-flavoured Neil Young lonesomeness, then you’ll need the conviction, you need a certain selflessness and freedom from posing, and you’ll need the songs. Horatio James have all of this, carrying it off without slipping either into pastiche or into a faux-Laurel Canyon slickness, offering “songs of estrangement, heartbreak and malevolence” floating like dust off a pair of snakeskin boots. A cut-down version of the band charmed me at a Smile Acoustic live session in Shoreditch: the full band ought to be even better.


Tom Hyatt tends to work solo, delivering his clarion tenor voice and songs from behind a propulsive, percussive acoustic guitar or from the stool of a fluid, contemplative piano. There are strains of Tim Buckley and John Martyn in what he does, perhaps a little of the young Van Morrison (and, judging by his taste in covers, a dash of ABBA as well) but with their boozy, visionary slurs and blurs replaced by a clear-headed, clear-witted take on matters. Some might reckon that this was missing the point: if you don’t, Tom – heart and mind engaged – is certainly your man:. At this gig, he’ll be playing with a regular collaborator, cellist Maya McCourt (also of Euro-American folk collision Various Guises and bluegrass belle Dana Immanuel’s Stolen Band).


* * * * * * *

The Apple Of My Eye + Michael Garrett + The August List(SoftlySoftly @ Kiss The Sky, 18-20 Park Road, Crouch End, London, N8 8TD, UK, Sunday 22nd November 2015, 3.00pm) – £4.40/£5.00 – information

Of course SoftlySoftly – who present regular unplugged folky gigs in Crouch End – fit perfectly into the festival, and present one of their acoustic afternoons (which are adults only, for reasons of booze rather than scabrousness) with barely a blip in their stride Offering “folk music for the drunk, the drowned and the lost at sea”, Bristolian-via-London sextet Apple Of My Eye write thoughtful, contemplative alt.folk songs tinged with country harmonies and displacement (mellow but slightly homesick, in the manner of the itinerant and accepting). Michael Garrett is another rising star on the London acoustic scene, usually performing with a backing band of Chums to back up his voice and guitar with viola, cello and cajon although this occasion looks as if it may well be a solo gig. There’s not much of Michael’s open, unaffected songcraft online, although I did find a video of him taking on Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years, as well as a brief homemade clip of one of his own songs. Husband-and-wife duo The August List belt out a take on Carter-classic stripped country with honey-and-bitter-molasses vocals, shading into occasional rock clangour and odd instrumentation stylophones – hardbitten songs of hardbitten ordinary folk, sometimes driven into cruel situations.


 
* * * * * * * *

The Feast of St Cecilia: The Memory Band + The Lords Of Thyme + Elliott Morris + The Mae Trio + You Are Wolf + Collectress + Spectral Chorus + DJ Jeanette Leech (Earl Haig Hall, 18 Elder Avenue, Crouch End, London, N8 9TH, UK, Sunday 22nd November 2015, 1.00pm) – £11.00 – information

The second and last of The End’s big gigs is also the festival closer. Apart from The Mae Trio (making a mid-bill return after their Monday performance) it’s a once-only grouping of End talent – “a fitting folk finale, a weird folk all dayer” with a wealth of bands tapping into or springing out of folk forms across the spectrum, plus DJ-ing by Jeanette Leech (scene authority and writer of ‘The Seasons They Change – The Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk’).

The Memory Band is a folktronica project with a difference. Rather than clothing old or new folk songs in electronic textures, Stephen Cracknell builds new folk pieces up from scratch, assembling them via computer and a virtual “imaginary band” succession of guest players, Instead of smoothing the gaps, though, he makes the most of the eerie collage effect of digital sampling and patchwork. Some Memory Band pieces are familiar guitar and slap hollers with a folk baroque smoky swirl – hard-drive recordings with a trad air. Others are tapescape instrumentals, like an English-folk translation of Bomb Squad hip hop techniques: old-sounding folk airs carried on acoustic instruments against drones and percussion snippets like jingling reins, while backing tracks are made entirely out of ancient tune snatches and Sussex field recordings (hedgerow birds and bleating sheep, tractors, skyborne seagulls, landscape echoes; the tracery of air, wind and sky over downs). The live arrangements may lean more towards the acoustic and traditional style, but if they capture any of the vivid reimaginings of the recorded efforts they’ll still be well worth seeing.


The Lords Of Thyme are what you get when musicians from the wild psychedelic folk cyclone of Circulus decide that they want to slow down a little but go deeper. Joe Woolley, Tali Trow and Pat Kenneally (three Circulus players, former or current – it’s always hard to tell which) bonded with singer Michelle Griffiths over shared musical loves and have gone on to play and record songs which draw and build on the quartet’s steepings in both psychedelic esoterica and better known touchstones: Wizz Jones and Nick Drake, Sandy Denny’s Fotheringay, Nico, Davy Graham, early ’70s prog (Soft Machine and Yes) and even New York post-punk (Television). The results are a shimmering but solid acid-folk songbook, perfect for recapturing the tail-end of a half-imagined, cider-golden summer in these dank November days.


 

Celtic Connections award-winner Elliott Morris is the kind of young folk musician who makes both his peers and older musicians wince ruefully into their beers. Not only does he play fingerstyle guitar with the dazzling, percussive, ping-pong-match-in-a-belfry attack of Michael Hedges, Antonio Forcione or Jon Gomm, but he simultaneously sings with the controlled passion of a teenaged Martin Furey and writes like a youthful John Martyn. There’s something quite magical here.

Like The Memory Band, Kerry Andrew – who works as You Are Wolf – is a folk reinventor, taking ideas from current technology, leftfield pop, contemporary classical music and spoken word recording and then applying them to folk music. Her current album, ‘Hawk To The Hunting Gone’ is an invigorating cut-up of melodies and Kerry’s extensive vocal and production techniques, sounding like lost ethnology tapes of Anglo-American folk strands from a parallel history.

To call Collectress an alternative string quartet sells them too short – it suggests that the London-Brighton foursome can be summarised as an English take on Kronos. Aside from the fact that that any such position has already been taken (and reinvented, flipped and superseded) by the Smith and Elysian Quartets, Collectress just don’t play the same pattern as regards repertoire or instruments. They’re more of a quartet-plus, with musical saw, keyboards, woodwind, guitar, software, field recordings and singing as much in their armoury as their strings. Citing the Necks, Rachels, Bach and John Adams in their puzzlebox of influences, the group offer four very individual women musicians, a knack for full improvisation, and a sense of narrative that imbues everything from their songs to their suggestive spontaneous pieces.



 

Finally, Merseyside trio Spectral Chorus seem to have emerged from a post-dole background of disintegration, drifting and life lived one long ominous step away from the black. Their tale of sharing one hovel and a single bed as they honed their craft, living off pawn money from putting their instruments in and out of hock, and of nourishing themselves solely with spare hotel breakfasts from one member’s work as a caterer sounds like a grim joke: in these unsparing days, of course, it could well be true. Now homed at Skeleton Key Records (the Liverpool-based label-of-love set up by The Coral), they’re releasing their spooky semi-hymnal urban folk songs – part Shack and part Brendan Perry – to a waiting world, and there’s evidently enough in the kitty for live appearances too.

* * * * * * * *

And that’s it. More on the End Festival next year, when I’ll know what to expect.

August 2001 – EP reviews – Spratleys Japs’ ‘Hazel’ (“halted by the tiniest thing”)

10 Aug
Spratleys Japs: 'Hazel'

Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’

More songs brought out of the woods in a bloody enormous bucket, then? A bucket that’s small enough and big enough to hold the moon and all the stars in the night sky, in one drink of water…

‘Hazel’ is a single, of sorts. It’s a little taste of Spratleys Japs, the youngest bud on the twisty family tree of Cardiacs. If you believe some of the yarns being spun about them, then they’re a cunning trans-Atlantic bud, gene-splicing Cardiacs’ abrasive brand of psychedelia (in which punk squawk and London brick-ends collide with a particularly rowdy mediaeval minstrels gallery) with singing urchin Jo Spratley and a gaggle of American high-desert rockers called the Rev-Ups. If you believe some of the other rumours, the hybrid songs that resulted were recorded in a spooky little shack deep in damp, spidery New Forest darkness: head Cardiac Tim Smith going outlaw as he pulled them all together with an audience of rats and a tenuous umbilical of dodgy power lines. Hence my strange intro back there. Hence the babbling.

(Anyway, Cardiacs lie. It’s best to remember that.)

Regardless of rats or forests, Hazel sounds neither young nor American. It’s a stately, ghostly, mouldering-castle fanfare – tear-blown strings, brass, kettle-drums and harps. It wheels massively in the sky like a planetarium show, or booms out low and ponderous like a ritual march. Just as it seems to have settled into its dinosaur vastness, it’s halted by the tiniest thing… Jo’s child-size voice, squished and distorted to a ghost-broadcast tinniness. She sounds seasick, she sounds strained and flattened as wallpaper; and she’s keening out a desperate minimal anti-tune from some dusty corner, words smeared beyond recognition. Everything (bar a shimmering, failing wall of high Mellotron) just stops – dead. Then the Jo-ghost fades, nervous guitars stir the air, and the orchestra pours in again. It’s the same tune, but transmuted somehow from its original pomp into something overwhelmingly compassionate. Then it all happens again. Then it happens no more. What they’re getting at defies the workings of my brain; but it digs up my emotions, as if it’s forking up mulch.

Two other songs – Curfew and the sleepy, knotted Secret, both voiced scratchily by Tim – are closer to the usual Cardiacs bashes. They clamber, jagged and monkey-like, around the whole-tone scale. They’re like folk songs forgotten in the womb, carrying a scolding kind of order in their baroque keyboard structures and the little child-choir voices. Perhaps they deal with more complete stories, on a more human scale: one of the Gothic scenarios which bubbles up is about a woman desperately trying to muffle a pealing bell, using her own body to hold off her husband’s execution. But it’s elsewhere that Spratleys Japs are really active on the borders of instinct: where they’re at their most stimulating. No answers. Exposure. A little fear. Good medicine?

A jarring change of gear after the spooky grandeur of Hazel, Home is just upsetting. There’s not much to it – just some captured seconds of studio chatter during which Jo breaks down into a panic attack, whimpering and gulping like a scalded child. Tim and sundry other SpratJaps leave the tape rolling, heartlessly, as they prepare for the next song. It’s intrusive, it’s claustrophobic, it’s horribly naked. It could well be a prank. But along with Hazel, it does get to the back-ways of the heart. Sometimes Spratleys Japs do this with a soothe, sometimes with a jolt, but they do it as if they’re twitching a curtain aside to reveal something outside the normal angle of view: something beautiful, terrifying or wondrous, but unquestionably there. Something which changes you just by being seen.

Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’
All My Eye And Betty Martin Music, AME CD002 (502127203848)
CD-only EP
Released: 2001

Get it from:
Cardiacs official store or second-hand.

Spratleys Japs online:
Homepage MySpace Last FM

November 1999 – album reviews – Sneaker Pimps’ ‘Splinter’ album, 1999 (“half in love with the idea of beautiful corpses and wanton failures”)

5 Nov

Sneaker Pimps: 'Splinter'

Sneaker Pimps: ‘Splinter’

Smack.

Its presence ghosts off this record like chill off the sea. The more you listen, the more obvious it gets; the more appropriate it seems. Twelve songs about different levels of letdown – alienation and betrayal; shortfall and disgust, “high fives and corporate anthems” – but always, always possessing an ability to be lifted above it; to float in a strange and tragic euphoria in which pain and torment are overwhelmed. A rush of transcendent languorous bliss while the mind hovers above, intact and unmarked.

Even if Sneaker Pimps weren’t so candid about backstage recreation (or didn’t drop lyrical hints like “my aim’s so weak that I’d fail to get into my arm”), you can’t escape the fact that their second album is a heroin album par excellence. Admittedly, a smarter and more professional brand of smack music – no William Burroughs squalor, no Needle Park lowlife. The spike goes in beside a penthouse window, lying on a sleek leather couch; no dust on the floor. But then, as a pop group, Sneaker Pimps always seemed far too smart for the daytime shows and MTV gladhandings.

Well, some of them did. I saw an Sneaker Pimps interview in which Kelli Dayton – their original Goth pixie-ette singer – sat flirting and babbling on a sofa, flanked by Chris Corner and Liam Howe. When not answering their own questions, with a cool intelligence, they observed her with the bored and slightly amazed looks of gentleman experts faced with a posturing child. The hapless Kelli isn’t part of Sneaker Pimps any more. She’s been dropped out – as if via hidden trapdoor – or simply excised.

For ‘Splinter’, Chris Corner glides forward like Dracula to take over the mic. His slackly sensual looks (young Johnny Thunders and Ronnie Wood, with a wild crow’s nest of dyed-black hair) lounge all over the artwork of ‘Splinter’, much as his lisping, artfully-forlorn whisper floats ahead of the music’s tide. Perhaps it’s just extra clarity – with Kelli no longer an oblivious mouthpiece – but ‘Splinter’ feels like cresting a roller-coaster. A swelling build of dawning clarity, darker- toned, which sets you up for the plunge.


 
‘Splinter’ is also the most seductive pop record I’ve heard in a long time. Not coy winks or overblown soul-boy mating calls, not even on the acid-coated, Suede-stinging-Cameo-to-death stamp of Ten To Twenty. This is a more abstract seduction, the lure of rich fabric, sweet smoke or smouldering looks. It’s born not just from the unveiling of secrets but from Liam Howe’s shockingly opulent backdrop. Creamy, orchestrated synths and samplers traced with beautifully disturbing sound. Pianos echo, fretful in the cavernous dark. ‘Omen’ choirs or wailing-wall chants lunge out at Chris, trying to lassoo him. Small slivers of Oriental melody glitter in the fabric, and beyond the luscious trip-hop grooves eerie Bernard Hermann strings are trembling, bursting, warning. Female singers, disturbingly blank, shadow Chris’ pinched tones.

The whole album’s in a state of sensual motion, like restless waters or billowing tapestries. As for mood and motif, it’s always ominous – always half in love with the idea of beautiful corpses and wanton failures; with sultry sicknesses and the bloody romance of despair. Kelli or no Kelli, there’s always been a Goth undercurrent to Sneaker Pimps (and not just because the industrial-tinged, reverberant rock of Superbug also has a distinct tang of The Mission). When Chris sings “strike me down, give me everything you’ve got. / Strike me down, I’ll be everything I’m not,” on Lightning Field, he sounds bright-eyed, waiting for the lash.


 
For Half Life’s liquid, trembling swirl of pianos and ghost orchestras, Chris muses at the syringe or at the lover he’s failing with – “half life wastes before it goes – / it’s funny how your bee-sting touch never leaves me whole. / It’s not enough to stay here, almost trying. / You kept your last laugh, watch this dying.” On the magnificently disdainful, disgusted ‘Low Five’ he delicately spits back corporate language and schmooze-talk with savage grace – “Kite-marked for true low standards / where more wants all and no less. / Just change with no real progress… / I’m a low five downsize no-one else. / Do you love yourself?”

Bad relationships. With the biz, with the needle or with girlfriends – all three bleed together in Sneaker Pimps’ crafted disaffection. Only on Cute Sushi Lunches does this seem brattish, as Chris sneers “nineteen steps out from under your feet. / Can’t eat, won’t eat… / Hate like a child hates his hair cut,” and the instruments obstruct each other, stubbornly refusing to gel… but not quite enough to derail the song.


 
It’s a suspect confessional, a cunning blind to absorb attack while Sneaker Pimps slip the rest of the album past your resistance. The worm-turning cruelty of Curl, popping with funk under its lustrous ballad verses, stung by zithers and pulsating psychedelic grind – “I curl to break consent… / and I curl now to help me find you out.” And the little thrusts and revelations like “never compromise – you’re just always weak”; “it takes too much to please me – / attached but no real feeling,”; and (most killingly) “failure was on me, / but your ideals bore me.” All of it wrapped in that dark and dreamy music.

Beyond the sensual overkill – that luxuriant death-by-soundtrack – the rich nightlife sounds are sometimes folded away in favour of small rooms dominated by Chris’ spider-legged acoustic guitar. Flowers And Silence is the most explicit trip to the shooting gallery. Skeletal slow jazz waltzing among the radar blips somewhere between Scott Walker and John Lydon, moth-wing vibrations of synth, and a dry-mouthed Chris murmuring “she’s nowhere, she mainlines, / helps me out – now I can speak… / So nothing’s free. / Ghost-drunk, out of reach.”


 
Behind the dogged strum and distant alarms of Destroying Angel, strings slither down – blood trickling across a window – while Chris turns in the most sinister performance on the record. “The stones beneath the water that you walk on to be taller, / the hands you stuck together ‘cos you prayed you’d wait forever,”, he whispers, picking apart a dying affair full of desperate power games and scams, and ruthlessly stripping it away from himself, right down to the tattoos (“the words beneath my skin / the ink that you put in, / destroying all the things you left around.”). There’s torch music on Empathy Low – as well as a rich sleazy purr of double bass – but if so it’s torch reduced to clammy ashes, as Chris stares into the recesses of his soul and finds them disturbingly bare. “Proves herself to be closer, / but not me forever, not me… / My memory’s so / Empathy low.”


 
And there’s Splinter itself, the guitar zinging and slapping while things prowl in the shadows – growling, creaking double bass, moaning and scraping; boiling, ghostly noises from Liam Howe’s black boxes. Then there’s Chris, flint-eyed and flint- voiced – “Does it take the fireworks to make you look in wonder? / Would you give reaction to the cause I’m under? / So coloured by you, but your monkey messed it up – / surrounded by you, your monkey’s long-while had enough.” If David Sylvian had stayed in London, corrupted by the smoke and cynicism, he might have ended up this sleekly poisonous: enveloped in beautiful, cultured ambient sound and existential melancholy, but honing a small silvery sleeve-dagger for the right moment.

The final song – Wife By Two Thousand – could be a subway busk, with one of Chris’ faceless women singing back at him from further down the tunnel. A draught sucks at it, pulling Liam’s subliminal buzzes and celesta clinks away into the oblivious sounds of a crowd. While Chris strings phrases from I Can Sing A Rainbow into the chorus (as if trying to get back to childhood assurance), the song’s an attempted seduction, in spite of everything that’s gone before. Chris is playing the vulnerable card this time, with a cynical, pleading desperation. “Never so complete, just failing on its feet… / I think that I need working on, so work on me / I feel that nothing’s getting though, so get to me.”


 
But the last we hear of him is a nonchalant nothing-can- hurt-me whistle. He’s disappearing into the city with his bag of secrets closed up again, leaving you to make your guesses. The kind of doomed, fascinating bastard whom your eyes still follow, and whom your hands reach out to in spite of yourself. Damn.

Trust a junkie? Never. But they can be as compelling as their habits.

Sneaker Pimps: ‘Splinter’
Clean Up Records Ltd., CUP 040CD (5029271004024)
CD/download album
Released: 25th October 1999

Buy it from:
Available from most sources.

Sneaker Pimps online:
Homepage FacebookMySpace Last FM

October 1999 – album reviews – Cipher’s ‘No Ordinary Man’ (“its own burning chill, changing the air around it”)

10 Oct
Cipher: 'No Ordinary Man'

Cipher: ‘No Ordinary Man’

Coldness and the lack of feeling – an odd association to make, if you can remember the feel of a fragment of ice held in the intimacy of your mouth or your hand. Something not lacking but, rather, almost too intense; shocking the flesh so that you can only touch it by degrees. Something that slowly changes as it becomes closer to what you are, and is consumed by the process.

By these standards, as well as by immediate impressions, Cipher’s ‘No Ordinary Man’ is a very cold album – it’s something intimate, but in an unusual way. Unquestionably this is beautiful music, but it’s the kind of music which would play in your mind while you lay immobilized on an Arctic snowbank, watching, with a hypnotized joy, the glow of the Northern Lights even as you slipped deeper and deeper into exposure and a chilly coma. Cipher’s music is unadorned, passive, slow and sparse in resolution (if it ever resolves at all) and it’s quiet: but it also has its own burning chill, changing the air around it. Former Jade Warrior Dave Sturt’s minimal, expressive forays on fretless bass float upfront or squash deep valleys into the music. Theo Travis‘ pale and lovely lines on soprano sax and flute hang like solitary albatrosses, beyond the programmed loops and sounds which both men come up with together.

There’s a lot of Nordic-style ECM clarity and mournfulness here: Jan Garbarek is certainly a constant touchstone for listeners, if not necessarily for the players. The slow, measured bleeding-in of Theo’s psychedelic influences (along with Dave’s leaning towards both electronic ambience and Celtic airs) means that there’s more to Cipher’s music than you could find from simply haunting Garbarek’s footsteps from fjord to fjord. However, these additional elements end up tinting the music rather than colouring it. It retains its own arresting static integrity while remaining entirely open to the outside; so that even when such superbly individual guest texturalists as Steven Wilson and Richard Barbieri are linked to the Cipher core they blend in perfectly, adding another layer of ever-so-slightly disturbing atmosphere.

Cipher’s particular skill is to balance lightly and enigmatically on the cusp between that obvious ECM-flavoured tastefulness and the more psychoactive disturbances of dark electronica. As such they constantly, subtly, put the listener on the wrong foot with a delightful unease. Given that it’s a contemporary soundtrack not just to an early Jack the Ripper film but to one by the young Alfred Hitchcock, The Lodger is appropriately creepy. Theo haunts the upper air past the smokily building, menacing wind patterns: Dave offers glassy, melodic spindles of rotating bass.

A Far Cry deliberately undermines associations. The trapped gaiety of a looped-and-buried fairground calliope contradicts the sad, syncopated stagger of backwards tones that makes up the body of the track and underlays Dave and Theo’s unusually intense, bloodshot calling. Dank electronic drips and shades from Richard Barbieri form the environment of Canyon, beneath the dreamy electronic ripples and the drifts of sax and bass. The foreboding swells of Dusk suggest a disturbance just out of memory range, probed in shifting tones.

It’s the panorama of landscapes, both material and psychological, which predominates. Listening to Bodhidharma, with its little glitters of distant guitar, is like watching vapour ascend slowly out of a crater; while it shares something with Robert Fripp’s diaphanous Soundscapes, it’s also the point where unconnected post-rock bands like Labradford and Bark Psychosis suddenly meet, blink away tears and touch. Desert Song, in contrast, dips more obviously towards New Age. In its flamboyance, it recalls the underrated mystic-Mexicana of Alquimia with its extended slow-motion boom of synth and its garnish of throat-singing samples: however, the passionate tug of Rabbi Gaddy Zerbib’s devotional Hebrew vocals pulls it forcefully back into the real world. White Cloud, Blue Sky sees Theo playing bleakly over disintegrating tones somewhere between disturbed wind-chime and the expansive empty-gallery guitar Bill Frisell uses to paint his pictures of America.

The Waiting, though, is pure dreamscape. A simple shaker and cymbal rhythm is joined by Theo’s moody searching sax gliding in the sky. Dave’s tingling gulp of bass swallows at the ground, and a growing textural bristle of ringing tones and alien electronics builds in some blurry area between birdcall and gauze. Eventually all is submerged in a hallucinatory backwards dissolve.

It’s left to the title track (the straightest piece on the album, and also the finale) to bridge the ever-shifting gap between Cipher’s abstraction and their empathy. Essentially a free-floating blue-haze trio of bass, piano and ravishing alto flute, it hearkens back to a clutch of comparisons: Bill Evans, Miroslav Vitous, the spacey world-jazz of Dizrhythmia and – finally – Rain Tree Crow’s pattering, mysterious finale, Cries And Whispers (enclosed as it is both in sensous brushes of electronic air and a distant-walled cavern echo of Eastern-sounding percussion). Far from ordinary, and far from freeze-dried. Cold fingers can stimulate too.

Cipher: ‘No Ordinary Man’
Voiceprint/Hidden Art (HI-ART 5, 60438845732)
CD/download album
Released: 1st October 1999

Buy it from:
Burning Shed

Cipher online:
Homepage MySpace YouTube

October 1999 – album reviews – Des de Moor’s ‘Water of Europe’ (“a cherubic smart bomb of chanson”)

1 Oct
Des de Moor: 'Water Of Europe'

Des de Moor: ‘Water Of Europe’

Like a cherubic smart bomb, Des de Moor has popped up whenever London needs a sniff of wicked European song. In his time, he’s helmed the Pirate Jenny’s cabaret club, fought for chanson and acidic cabaret old and new, or made a public case for tying together songwriters as diverse as Boris Vian, Georges Brassens, Martin Jacques of The Tigerlillies, David Bowie and The Magnetic Fields maestro of puckish gloom, Stephen Merritt.

When Des can fit in an album of his own, it’s recorded in bursts of enthusiasm in between all these other burst of enthusiasm. As with everything else he does, it bears the stamp of that sweep of songcraft and resistance he’s devoted himself to, as he elbows his way into his own niche and into the history of chanson. When “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” has become our most famous protest lyric, and our concept of resistance-in-song is measured by the PC-baiting and broody solipsism of Eminem, Marilyn Manson or Wu-Tang Clan, it’s good to hear a dash of genuinely sharp social writing – even if it comes couched in a musical language nearly a century old (which in turn suggests that we might have been missing a lot since we cut those particular stylings out of the popular consciousness).

‘Water Of Europe’ must’ve been recorded for tuppence, and sometimes sounds as if it was lashed together with parcel string. No Dagmar Krause big-budget political cabaret job this, all respectably outrageous and state-concert-hall friendly. It’s sealed and sold on the vigorous punky pocket-orchestra enthusiasm of the players – bumped guitars, cellos, pianos, snapping percussion, Daniel “Boum!” Teper’s accordion.

Des’ voice is the common key – a florid, unusual mixture of madrigal tenor and soapbox preacher; or a grown-up, apostate choirboy in the political thick of a pub argument. It sits at the heart of the de Moor way of working, and is as pugnacious and theatrical as his barbed lyrics. Each word is bitten into shape and flung out with flair. Although most of his music could’ve easily have strolled straight out of the 1930s (Des might have drawn on punk’s assertive spirit of questioning, but he clearly finds more verve and expressiveness in a mix of jazz, folk and cafe singalong), his lyrics are less time-locked. They dig into the dirt and humanity of yesterday, today and tomorrow, exploring themes of exploitation and injustice, politics and deception, war and its wounds, gay life and its hauntings.

Des de Moor: ‘Dirty Pictures’ (preview)

Skidding and acerbic, the punchy accordion tango of Dirty Pictures tears into public figures embroiled in the noisy scams of censorship and social decency, taking forthright aim at their implicit hypocrisy, their encroaching voyeurism and their lust for personal exhibition (“You’ve seen the camera, it’s seen you… / you’ve wanked in front of mirrors too.”) With a sarcastic zest, Des savages the double standard of class and education – “Let middle classes get their kicks: / subtitled sex in foreign flicks / can’t cause infection. / The masses, couch potatoes all, / whose dishes sprout from every wall: / they need protection.” He also spotlights broader horrors for which there’s less willpower for banning (“Pot-bellied children / rooting in rubbish / as food mountains rot; / The obscene, often-seen, / ultimate snuff scene / between have and have-not.”)

Des de Moor: ‘Heart Of A Heartless World’ (preview)

On a more mythological scale, Heart Of A Heartless World (which sounds something like a state-of-the-world take on Fairytale Of New York) takes on the compromised cultures of colonialism, famine relief and the points where they intertwine. Retelling a sweep of human history as a journey from a lost African paradise into a famine filled by suspicious prophets and priests (“vultures that pick at the corpse of the poor”), Des suggests that the journey has bequeathed us a present-day of false hearts, superstition and moralistic humbug where “priests and prime ministers pray for our sins / and mystics on telly guess lottery wins.”

Des de Moor: ‘Margins’ (preview)

Des’ words spit and crackle even when – Germanically – they cluster, fight and split the envelope of the tune. The magnificent Margins (just waspish accordion, Des in marvellously stroppy voice and the bitter backdrop of the Bosnian conflict) jumps out at you, laying waste to the complicity of media and state interests in the parceling-up and selective suppressions of a world in conflict. “Believe what you hear and believe what you’re willing: / a severed head here, and there a mass killing. / We’ll print it provided / it’s clearly one-sided / and something is left to the margins, / at the bottom of the page in the margins.” In this song, little escapes the de Moor tonguelashing – not the journalists who “roam far and wide collecting tales of atrocities / from regular soldiers and mercenaries” and not the conferences that re-order things, ratifying the mess the way the biggest powers want it. Certainly not the scapegoating stories that thrive “so long as they’re hearsay, undated, / uncorroborated / and blame the right side… / We’ve forgot the Ustashe and found the new Nazis / in Belgrade this time.”

A debt to the history of chanson and folk is paid via a handful of gutsy covers and interpretations. Terry Callier’s Ordinary Joe is one, boasting gloriously hooded trombone from Dave Keech and a guarded, evasive street philosophy – “Down here on the ground, / when you find folks are giving you the runaround, / keep your game uptight / – and if you must, just take your secrets underground.” A rough’n’ready, guitar’n’free-verse declamation of Brecht and Eisler’s To Those Born After (An Die Nachtboren) is another, exploring the crummier details of toiling in the revolution. “I ate my dinners between the battles, / I lay down to sleep among the murderers, / I didn’t care for much for love / and for nature’s beauties I had little patience… / Oh we, who wished to lay for the foundations for peace and friendliness, / could never be friendly ourselves… / In the future, when no longer / do human beings still treat themselves as animals, / look back on us with indulgence.”

Des de Moor: ‘To Those Born After’ (preview)

Most impressively, a new translation of Jacques Brel’s My Father Said polishes Des’ claim to be the best English-speaking Brel interpreter – in either sense of the word. The song explicitly links Britain and Europe: a legend of kinship, of severance by high North winds and high water (both brought to musical life by Kev Hopper’s magnificent solo on musical saw), and of humanity blown before the rough and beautiful forces of nature. “The earth was rent / between Zeebrugge and the cliffs of Kent: / and London’s left cut loose and free, / with the Bruges headland taunting the sea. / And London’s left to forever be / a suburb of Bruges, lost in the sea.”

Des de Moor: ‘My Father Said’ (preview)

My Father Said stands as a counterweight to Des’ own Water Of Europe itself – another exploration of kinship. Here, Des places himself on a fantastical odyssey of his own, sending his thoughts out from Britain and around Europe. He finds first an island, and then a continent, locked in a common defensiveness and an ugly sense of purity. Each exploits “the Other” but denies them harbourage – “If they desire a water of Europe / it is the cold grey sea that divides. / Or the deep and inviolable water / taking and making sides.” Against this he calls on the forces and floods of history, hoping for the day when “truth decontaminates water supplies”, and “the fracturing chains of the workers of Europe / have strangled the boy with his thumb in the dijk.” Whips snap, castanets rattle, accordions and guitars throw punches. There’s going to be a party out there when the storm breaks.

Des de Moor: ‘Water Of Europe’ (preview)

Some of Des’ gestures aren’t carried nearly so well. However musical he is, he’s a man of words first and foremost, and this can mean that in his forthright sincerity the songs scramble across an imbalance of text and melody, like a flapping banner dragged by the wind. In the squabbling, tricky surveillance satire of Big Sister, for instance, his voice drowns in his densely-packed lyric: “More cameras than Hollywood, more tape than Scotch, / more logs than Canada, much more to watch… /I am your friend in the fight against crime. / Won’t you be safe when I’m there all the time – / minding your kitchen and minding your bed, / and, for extra security, / minding your head?”

Des de Moor: ‘Big Sister’

The Fairground Attraction swing of Grandmother Was A Hero, with its perceptive picture of human flaws, also should have been better as a standalone song. Over-pressured by words, it lacks smoothness and poise. Yet if you can accept that Des’ prime aim is to get his tales across, it has a lot to offer. Weighing up his monstrous grandmother’s peacetime behaviour, Des offsets it against her tireless protection and concealment of refugee Jews during wartime. “She didn’t have much wit or grace, / nor brains in large amounts. / But Grandmother was a human / and being human counts.” In telling her story, in a voice and lyric that build, ebb and resurge through a complex knot of anger, admiration and pity, Des finally arrives at solidarity, and presents his memorial:

“Just think how it must have been / as a hausfrau in poor Holland when the Wehrmacht goose-stepped in / With a husband that you hate, but there is nothing you can do: / It’s an emergency situation, and your man’s your comrade too. / In that fearful hunger winter when all your two kids have to eat / is potato peelings, pea pods and the snow from off the street – / and they’re handing out the yellow stars that one by one blink out, / and you know you have to help them, and there is no time for doubt. / Until the Gestapo knock on your door, and you find yourself alone / and in the settled dust you’re just a German widow / far from home.”

Des de Moor: ‘Grandmother Was A Hero’

Elsewhere, a loose trilogy about workers in London merges a realist’s acceptance with the strong protest of an angry survivor. In Avocado, Des examines the gritty detail of the kitchen worker’s desperate struggle between hopes and exhaustion – memories crumpled in the heat and hubbub, but not yet devoid of the sting of style. In doing so, he etches a picture of life of triumphs and traps. “Choose a plump, ripe avocado, just like on your first exam / at a college back in Glasgow. Stop the memories if you can. / Take that plump, ripe avocado, slice it with the sharpest knife, / Smile and summon your bravado: it’s a cold, raw kind of life.”

Des de Moor: ‘Avocado’

In Joey’s Dreams, Des delivers a rock song turned back into seething left-wing folk ballad, the story of a gentle working bloke who’s gradually ground into resentment by hard times and defeat – “a beast that’s pacing in a pen / at the edge of a feast for rather richer men.” He goes on to trace how resentment leads to poison, and frustration to an ugly fall, shading it into a larger picture of a caste crushed down from honour into malevolence. “Joey’s cramped contractor’s terms, / that force his crawl among the worms, / create a breeding ground for germs: / opinions that the world confirms… The clots of rot clog up each bend, / the queues for casualty don’t end. / You can’t believe in your MP – now Joey’s voting BNP.”

Des de Moor: ‘Joey’s Dreams’ (preview)

Beyond these small fierce sketches, there’s the fractured battlement of Sleaze City. Des takes an uneasy stroll through his beloved south-east London, past strangled docks and thriving bailiffs, sniffing and frowning at the muggy wind of corruption shrouding Westminster even as homeless beggars huddle in sleeping bags, a stone’s throw away over in the Strand. Throughout, a sweep of history – compromise, an age-old London scrabble and a sense of loss – provides depth. “At Surrey Quays, saluting the seas / sets flags bobbing. Along the shores ex-stevedores / watch gulls mobbing… /The last leaking hulks have long furled their sheets / at Woodpecker, Evelyn, Crossfields and Pepys…. / There’s whole careers / in chasing arrears, still shivers / though shirts are soaking. / Sleaze City’s choking / in the ozone.”

Des de Moor: ‘Sleaze City’ (preview)

For more personal struggles, there’s Sharp Contradictions and Last Orders Please. On the former, Julia Doyle’s double bass and David Harrod’s needling piano pick out itchy broken harmonies like the stab of toothache. Des anatomises the terrifying wonder of a fall into love, like an attacking scalpel or virus winding to the very centre of a person. “Alive and kicking, awake, aware / with a billion lights that sparkle and flare / in the brain above. / But put in the knife and start to twist – / the lizard hisses and lashes a fist. / The world goes runny when you get pissed. / And then there’s love.” Surreal spiraling rhymes paint the upheaval, with a dark coda of sombre feeling – “And it is the time I spend sinking / that sharpens and tempers my thinking. / And it is this feeling you give / that reminds me just how much I live.”

Des de Moor:’Sharp Contradictions’ (preview)

In contrast, Last Orders Please is a death song of the kind you get only in cabaret, filled with defiance and fear. It’s also the only outright gay song which Des has allowed himself for the record; overshadowed by the horrific harvest of AIDS, the hollowing, slithering sense of time passing too fast and too hard, and of youth becoming a strange, sinister and heartless territory. “Now I’m older, Death is a young man, not the skull-faced spook from ‘The Seventh Seal’ / but a bronze Adonis with eyes as blank / as a half-filled diary’s empty pages.”

Des de Moor: ‘Last Orders Please’

Yet although the song starts in a rumble of melodrama, it bursts into a fiery salsa – “At close of day, there’s burning rages / for a hundred loose ends, / for the lovers and friends, / for the wind into which we were pissing / when we never knew what we were missing, / for the might-have-been, could-have-been, never-was life we’ve been living.” Des has the energy – and more – to spit out a last rallying call for the scared and threatened: “We’ve nothing to lose in the trying. / If life is a bitch unless you’re fucking rich, / no wonder we’re frightened of dying.”

The bloodstream of folk music also harbours germs of resistance. Des de Moor’s very much part of that particular flow, provocatively pumping heart and all.

Des de Moor: ‘Water Of Europe’
Irregular Records, IRR038 (5036265000078)
CD-only album
Released: 22nd September 1999

Buy it from:
Irregular Records (or Amazon).

Des de Moor online:
HomepageFacebookTwitterMySpaceLast FM

September 1999 – album reviews – Edwige’s ‘Keep the Change’ (“nebulous, pine-forest cleanliness”)

30 Sep

Edwige: 'Keep The Change'

Edwige: ‘Keep The Change’

Edwige is a true original and determined with it, outspoken in her contemplative pantheism and in reaching towards the divine spirit that binds her universe together. It’s difficult to pin her down to any songwriter school – even within the eccentric fringes of spiritual folk, French chamber-chanson and psychedelic New Age she seems to incline to, she’s an odd customer and obviously wants it no other way.

You’ll either love or hate her unorthodox and uneasily captivating voice as it zooms and dodges (like a brilliantly coloured, elusive dragonfly) over her baroque and mystical songs. It’s more unpredictable now than ever – zigzagging through melodies, it’s never quite where you expect it to be. She’ll carol, coo, stick you with a sharp note. She’ll shiver herself into blocks of eerie harmonies flickering between celestial and dischordant. She’ll double back on herself, frustrate you, salve you; and finally dissolve into a lovely swarm of voice-clouds.

The voice remains the same, but the music has moved on since her jaunty, budget-recorded debut album. Faithful keyboardist Joe Evans is still on board, but admitting Alexander Zuchrow (guitarist, engineer and, most crucially, arranger) to the heart of the music means that Edwige’s songs have been framed and fleshed out in richer textures. Harpsichord and dream-pad sounds replace the previous tinny synth presets. Gentle bluesy guitars add new body; cellos, Appalachian fiddles and soft saxophones peep out of the corners. ‘Keep The Change’ possesses the nebulous, pine-forest cleanliness of Narada Records, or of Windham Hill folk.

If the first album was postcards from Edwige’s imagination, ‘Keep The Change’ brings you a breath of countryside as well as further maps of her spiritual landscape. Edwige’s themes of continuance and connection, of inner illumination and the dispelling of fear, sit in leaf-green settings. A puff of baby-Clannad folk in Water; tinkling Vivaldi pop for Reflection. The lyrics (and the rootsier atmospheres) are permeated by rain-mists and mermaids, wind and light. Via perky fiddles and banjo, the gracious Joy Song (both a letdown and a thank-you to a luckless admirer) threads country and Irish airs around Edwige’s serenity. The bizarre falsetto-waltz melody of No Two Ways bobs balloon-like over strings and harpsichord (which could’ve come from ‘Five Leaves Left’) and a clink of lounge vibraphone (which definitely didn’t).

Sometimes Edwige brushes up against the exquisite. On the contemplative ethereal anthem, Something Deep she mixes her “everywhere god” faith with a touch of Duke Ellington gospel shapes plus lemon-flavoured jazz cello. On He Only Knows (over yielding beds of keyboards, clarinets, luscious classical guitar ripples and soprano sax) she sings of journeying – “an arm coming from nowhere / far away has taken him. / Now he changes his road again,” – and then sets the seal on it with her own signature swim of voices. On I’m Out she sings of passing through peril to attain faith. A tapestry of Enya-esque chanting and the urgent wire-tang of a Jantsch-y folk guitar finally dissolves down into another magnificently luscious voicescape, though it basks a little too contentedly in the warmth of fuzzy piano and sax along the way.

Equally, sometimes she misses the mark. Her tendency to overbalance into tweeness is one thing (the popcorn cafe-jazz of Leave Your Mind At The Gate being the worst offender). It’s worse when the same determination that stretches Edwige’s songs towards dizzy heights sometimes leads her to stretch them out of shape. Eager to illustrate, she pushes too hard, letting her lyrics crowd out the melody and garble the song. At such times, she bustles against the delicate arrangements instead of nestling in them. For example, amongst the chirruping violins and Spanish guitars of So They Say, her message of opting for instinct (over demands for hard facts, or superstitions) is smothered by the tangled, forced and fussy words.

It’s all far better when Edwige relinquishes the strict and portentous hippy lectures and just lets her songs breathe; when she stops banging against aspirational truths and taps into the grace she sings about. This happens on Wherever It Is (a sparkling ballad of devotion) and on Light Energy Love, where a sweet, open melody (reminiscent of Bryan Maclean’s gossamer hums on Love’s ‘Forever Changes’) merges with a champagne tingle of fiddles, guitars and harmoniums and with Zuchrow’s gently gurgling psychedelic streams. It’s in songs like this that her determination pays off and her quest progresses.

On the final song, Something Deep, she sings with an equal measure of frustration, patience and commitment. “You keep plugging your ears so you won’t hear my song… / Something deep inside of me knows / I still sing for you.” Going down fighting, or transcending closed minds? The little soul warrior with the effervescing voice isn’t going to give up.

Edwige: ‘Keep The Change’
Quasar Music, EDW2CD (634479464935)
CD/download/cassette album
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Quasar Music or CD Baby.

Edwige online:
Homepage YouTube

REVIEW – Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Belisha’ single, 1999 (“smudged and ever-so-slightly stifling”)

27 Sep

Forty Shades Of Black rear up with the dirty, sticky, galumphing riffs of Belisha – an elephantine math-rock construction with stubble somewhere that’s annoying it. It lumbers around, red-eyed and furious, tearing a few trees up in fits of fiery rage. It also provides a way for the spiky London post-rockers Delicate AWOL to let off steam (Forty Shades Of Black is basically a handy alter-ego for them when they don’t want to sing).

We’ve met Belisha before, on Delicate AWOL’s ‘Random Blinking Lights‘ EP. Put centre-stage, its grind’n’chop, Mogwai-meets-Ruins sardine-can shapes bang aggressively against your eardrums, and look set to dominate. That is, until the band unveil the smudged and ever-so-slightly stifling sound-painted dreams of the other tracks. These reveal themselves gradually, like disintegrating lacework peeling off an old dressmaker’s dummy.

The soft explorations of Sidings are a post-rocker’s picture of a shunting yard being swallowed by the encroaching dark. Intermittent bass throbs mutter alongside shivering guitar. Caroline’s quiet moans float past alongside feathery passes of brushes on drumskins. Notes slide by, softly massive and indifferent – red lanterns looming out of the darkness. Much less of a reverie, Advanced Formula is as fragile and awkwardly stretched as a crane fly. Spidery math-rock chording scratches out a place to sit: an E-Bowed solo paints a long wavering strip of electric-blue Bill Nelson light across the cloud cover, while the shapes give way to a relaxed out-of-synch swing.

I’ve mentioned before how Delicate AWOL seem hung up on disintegration. This time, watching things decay and fall apart seems somehow satisfying – the return of something to its disassociated elements, instead of the fraying of desires. Whichever is your favourite collapse, inside or out, this band can orchestrate both.

Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Belisha’
day Release Records Ltd., DR102 (no barcode)
7-inch vinyl-only single
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Long-deleted – try to find this second-hand.

Delicate AWOL (Forty Shades Of Black) online:
MySpace

REVIEW – David Hurn: ‘Sick Of Hate’ single, 1999 (“drained of energy but not of humanity”)

26 Sep
David Hurn: 'Sick Of Hate'

David Hurn: ‘Sick Of Hate’

For better or worse, former Ever-Opening Flower frontman David Hurn left behind a lot when he quit that band’s deep-blue, textured shades and unusual blend of Rain Tree Crow, Rush and Morrissey. It wasn’t just the rock-band muscle and ghostly electronics that Ever-Opening Flower offered, but the aggressiveness of the detail; the assertion and meaty impersonality offered by a pushing bass, rock drumming and high amplification… the way it can obstruct and drown any soft brush of associations which you might want to imply rather than state outright. Pros and cons.

Left to his own devices, Hurn’s songs are hushed, internalized, almost entirely acoustic; and none of them rises much above a whisper. His guitar and the wistfully resigned tones of his low-tenor voice are joined by droplets of detached, forgetful piano and the sorrowful whistle of detuned radios. Sick Of Hate is a spare, isolated, note-picking thing; drained of energy but not of humanity. It’s the soft, tired noise left behind after the London bustle has passed and the frantic energy has ebbed. “I’m sick and tired of hate, / Of rain on the streets./ You and me are far too small to make a difference…” If it fights back, it fights back like the grass – bent back by hostile forces but refusing to be shaped by them.

There are some shades of Red House Painters (and the perennial Nike Drake) in there. It’s the sighing gloom, the mouse-like quiet; the way you have to focus yourself in on the story, to have to want to care before you can get anything out of it. You’re eavesdropping on the final deterioration of a love affair, the lack of conclusion after the arguments become meaningless. David murmurs “The mess that we made needs cleaning up for the last time. / Are you feeling weak and poor, or just tired?” In some ways Sick Of Hate also looks back towards Hurn’s old debt to David Sylvian; but where Sylvian wraps himself in impenetrable mystical robes and perfects the shamanic droop of his eyelids, the other David still cares about the realities ruling the strained existences of everyday people. “The value of our lives, that we would both die for – / but something’s telling me the truth matters more…”

The B-side – (For Missguided) – is Hurn at the ambient guitar sketchpad. He improvises with sombre, spinily picked chords on his acoustic and with moaning soundscapes of experimental string noise: pings, knocks and microtonal whale whispers. It’s like the spookier moments of Pink Floyd’s ‘Meddle’, or like Bill Nelson locked in with Bert Jansch during a rain-swept dusk. In its way, it continues Sick Of Hate’s autumnal atmosphere of regret, inertia and (with its empathic sense of resignation) even a touch of grace. While the bittersweet fog of sadcore usually blows, trapped, around the happysad streets of San Francisco (or wherever Will Oldham or Bill Callaghan might be hanging their battered hats), David Hurn, a prince of rueful shrugs, is establishing a bridgehead for it over here in the tired old brickwork of the Smoke.

David Hurn: ‘Sick Of Hate’
day Release Records Ltd., DR105
7-inch vinyl single
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
original vinyl single was a limited edition of 1,000 copies – buy it secondhand, or download from Bandcamp.

David Hurn online:
Homepage Facebook TwitterMySpaceSoundcloud Bandcamp Last FM

September 1999 – album reviews – John Ellis’ ‘Spic’n’Span’ (“a minor treasury of passing ideas”)

24 Sep
John Ellis: 'Spic'N'Span'

John Ellis: ‘Spic’N’Span’

The lifespans of pop musicians are usually measured in five-year units – generally just one each before they’re inserted into the “where are they now?” file. But for every ten who went into hostelry, college lecturing or millinery, one adapted and carried on the journey as best they could and perhaps saw how their talents and ideas could fit into the next stage.

As guitarist, songwriter and sound-shaper John Ellis is hardly a household name, but his work and adaptability have both been consistent. He’s already discreetly chameleoned his way through three decades of music. A founder member of The Vibrators during the punk era, he went on to play an integral role in the Peter Hammill and Peter Gabriel bands over the cusp of the ’70s and ’80s. Links with Jean-Jacques Burnel eventually led him (along with Paul Roberts) into the post-Hugh-Cornwell Stranglers line-up; he developed an electronica sideline via his digressions into gallery music, There’s even a touch of prog beyond Gabriel and Hammill: John also plays guitar for Judge Smith’s ongoing “song-story” projects.

John’s journeyman credentials are unquestionable, and to each position he’s brought his own supporting voice and particular marks. However, always being the lieutenant means some of your ideas bounce off the boss (or the inflexibility of circumstances) and get stashed away. ‘Spic’N’Span’ corralls together unheard odds’n’sods from John’s curvy journey through music, and consequently it’s a musical scrapbook rather than an album.

A third of the tunes are the kind of thing that many working musicians knock out for TV music library discs – bright jingles and “we’re going somewhere” music, executed on cupboard synth orchestras. The synthetic Euro-funk/perky testcard tunes of Wild Talent and Tune-O-Matic fall into this category; as do the flying-over- mountains melody of Early Riding Daddy, the New Age-y pop march of The Needs Of The Soul and the rather more ambitious baroque-jazz stylings of Running Through The Trees. Still… behind many of these you can hear little pop chicks trying to hatch out of the multi-track demos, hoping to drop into the collective lap of an ’80s boy band, to do that five-year round; and to then cheat death by popping up in a nostalgia DJs record box, taking a ride on a revival. It might not have actually happened, but then the business of selling songs has always been a bit of a lottery.

Another third of ‘Spic’N’Span’ is a set of genuine ’80s pop songs. All of these are produced in the squeaky-clean studio fashion of the time; but all are executed with the restraint, intelligence and puritanical zeal of post-punk. The pin-sharp shimmy of John’s guitar is the linking factor – wailing away on E-bow sustain, sparking off claw-hand finger-picking, or adroitly yanked from note to note.

Three of these songs are sung by Alex Legg – his spooky vocal resemblance to Peter Gabriel shows us how things might have been had Gabriel and Ellis joined forces and run off together into the showy pop territory eventually colonised by Tears For Fears instead. The Space Between Us (a soulful, regretful R’n’B lament of hostility, injustice and enmity) could easily have fitted onto an album like ‘So’. Similarly, Joe Jackson would have been proud to have written the pumping Monopoly (the biting list song of an abusive marriage, a woman’s increasingly desperate attempts to escape it, and the grim consequences). Off on its own, the John Greaves-ish piano song Mumble Jumble (pointing up the Ellis art-school/art-rock background) ponders the confusions and blocks of language.

Two more songs are sung by John himself. Giving Up The Ghost, with its airbrushed console-blues sound and phantom horn section, strives after the authenticity of roots Americana only to arrive as a Eurythmics B-side instead. But the glinty, polished Elevator Man (which sounds more like Steve Harley doing J-pop) works better, capturing the arch giddiness of stardom from a slight but crucial degree of separation. “I went from rags to riches, from riches to rags. / I was an overnight sensation.”

Then there’s a third section: a couple of tunes which seem to be trying for the early ’80s link between electro, hip-hop, and primitive British synth pop. Such is the buzz and piping of Stutter Gun with its earnest, uptight vocal samples and its synaesthesic theme: “it’s beautiful… the colours will flash… the sounds will embrace you.” Jimi Jam studs its gurgling electro with little sampled Hendrix asides – “Hey, what’s happening?… Oh no, I think I’m out of tune.” Discreetly decorated with wobbling wails of clean sustained feedback, it’s so cheerfully plastic when compared to Hendrix’s controlled brinksmanship that it has to be a piss-take.

There are also a couple of genuine, delightful misfit chunks in the stew. The panoramic zither chug of One Way Street walks in step with Trans-Global Underground in its mess of world beats, the spine-shivering harmonies of crowd hums from old Lomax recordings, and the Republic serial dialogue snippets (“All the streets are one way!”; “What better way to commemorate the dead?”). John performs a solo joke on The Best Part Of The Cabbage: woozy slide guitar and sleepy voice shambling out a ramshackle joke-blues on cannibalism. (“Looking at you, I lick my lips…”) The sensuous laziness of the tune offsets the wonderfully appalling humour: “If you ain’t got a fridge yet, there’s not much on a midget – / a mouthful, or two.”

A minor treasury of passing ideas, ‘Spic’N’Span’ will never be more than a curio, but one that remains open and friendly throughout.

John Ellis: ‘Spic’N’Span’
Furious Productions (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only album
Released: September 1999

Get it from:
Best obtained second-hand: this was released as a very-limited-edition run of 50 copies, so it’s extremely rare.

John Ellis online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud

The Nazgul: ‘Plujectories/Habitually’ single (“ugly things going about their business”)

18 Sep
The Nazgul: 'Plujectories/Habitually'

The Nazgul: ‘Plujectories/Habitually’

The Nazgul – shadowy figures from the most obscure Krautrock fringes of the ’70s – are back. And lurking in full public view.  They’ve been occasional housemates of Tom Waits, and probably got the chance to have a gnaw on his bone machine. They’ve been studio ghouls scratching atmospheres out of trash and implements down in the Turkish quarter of Cologne in the mid-’70s, and they’ve been people who don’t just seem to coax sound out of the most unlikely sources, but draw it out via seance. The rumour is that they’ve even developed a way of recording ghost voices from over-amplifying the signals impinging on bare wires. And these two tracks – crouching malignantly on a new slice of black vinyl – were recorded using only voice, twenty-foot drainpipe and 270 feet of microphone cable. Oh, plus an accordion, for that homely folk edge. As if.

Forget the motorik aspects of Krautrock; forget the shapes it scratches and growls, whatever its texture. The Nazgul have taken it to a point where there’s almost nothing but texture: a rhythmless, frighteningly impure cloud of sound shot through with disturbing noises. Plujectories is a thick worm of static hiss, whirring compressor grind and bass-bin hum, scratching through your ears like a fibreglass cotton swab. Lunging ghostlike through the centre are flattened steam-whistle screeches, the shrill treble songs of nerve-fibres being burnt through, sometimes a barely-recognisable voice stretched in a submerged roar. It’s the sort of sound you’re scared to imagine a microphone collecting, because of what that implies about the world it’s listening to. You close your eyes, and imagine the solar flares burning through your house.

Habitually is more accessible. Hmmm. As if that mattered at this stage of the game. Although as soon as it’s let you in, you feel as if something dark has closed in behind you and cut you off. It’s an experience, a sound picture of an unsteady walk along a polluted foreshore. The crunching and crackling noises that slide around you could be the sand crumbling beneath your feet and dissolving under the dirty water, could be the stone and mortar of the old dock wall disintegrating like perished rubber; could even be the air frying and corroding under the malignant fumes emanating from that squat, broad, frightening factory over the estuary. Distant boats slither past on the sullen greying surface of the water, no faces showing on deck. Occasionally harsh dark chords and dischords blow out, looming up to enormous foghorn dimensions – something to flinch at. There are slammings, as of giant train doors: and, always around, the barely-there voices. Whistling, rustling, wheezing and gasping, part of the architecture of this corner of nowhere good.

But The Nazgul somehow seem to make all of this sound like… just another dark day, ugly things going about their business as the world slowly chokes on the last polluted shreds of its poisoned lifetime. One of the scariest things to consider is the fact that people can get used to anything. The Nazgul are up on the harbour wall watching you as you come to realise this, while you’re knee-deep and imperceptibly sinking in the dull sand. And they’re wraithed in smiles.


The Nazgul: ‘Plujectories/Habitually’
day Release Records Ltd., DR103
12-inch vinyl-only single
Released: July 1999

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand.

The Nazgul online:
No dedicated websites available.

September 1999 – album reissue reviews – King Crimson’s ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ & ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’ 30th anniversary reissues (“an indisputable classic, but one which sits uncomfortably in the role: forever pulling at the seamless stylistic joins that hold it together, as if to test them to destruction”)

17 Sep

What can one say about a legendary record? Well, just have a look at the magazine racks in any record store and you’ll find that everyone’s got something to say about ‘Astral Weeks’, ‘Sergeant Pepper’, ‘Marquee Moon’, ‘Innervisions’… Dealing with the legend of King Crimson‘s debut is different, though. Partly because its impact is perpetually obscured by the revisionism of punk and current Americana; and partly because overtly literary qualities of legend are already there, squatting in the barbs of the flamboyant lyrics and present in every razz of saxophone.

King Crimson: 'In the Court of the Crimson King'

King Crimson: ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’

There are various legends about the making of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’. Collapsing producers. Good fairies with a taste for evil-sounding music, marching out of the astral plane to guide the compositions and performances. Even painter Barry Godber’s sudden death shortly after creating the distorted face that yells, horrified, from the cover. But then, few albums have engaged so flagrantly with the mythic straight from the first moment.

For better or for worse, ‘…Court…’ is the prog wellspring, responsible for all the dark castles, capering grotesques and mediaeval garments that’ve festooned its followers ever since. Whatever your expectations, you’ll find that it still sounds amazing. Remastering gives more savour to the feast, of course, but ‘…Court…’ has always been a record that jumps out and grabs you by the scruff of the ears.

No surprise here: that feverish pitch of attention has just been made a few inches larger all round, a bigger take on a picture that was big to begin with. It took, as its frame, a strongly European perspective – mediaeval-to-modern cities rubbed in the blood, flags and dirt of history and repeating cruelties, in which all that Tennysonian mooning around sundials and gardens is an integral, complementary part of that world. Later proggies fell in love with the idyll alone. Few besides Crimson had the capacity to engage with the violence that maintained that idyll, to relate it to modern-day realities so effectively, or to represent in music the confusing threads of history that made up that picture.

In the band’s sound you can hear the haughty, ghostly artificiality of Mellotron orchestras, the angry saxophone protest of Civil Rights jazz, and the squall of avant-garde chaos. However, it draws equally on hotel dance-bands from the wilderness of ’50s England and from the stormy wildness of Stravinsky, Bartok and the troubled classicism of the Eastern Frontier, with all the elements bound together by the expansive rock sensibility ruling the revolutionary roost at the time. And although Peter Sinfield‘s words are chock-a-block with excessively mannered Gothic metaphor and allusion, at their best they evoke plenty of the monstrosities that hung over the late ’60s. Spectres of Vietnam war trauma, twisted agriculture, political manipulation and malignant science all dance alongside his tarot-card shuffles of yellow jesters and purple pipers.

Although it’s guitar strategist Robert Fripp who’s forever seen as the boss of King Crimson, it was Ian McDonald who was the major player at this point. He’s the only musician listed on every single song credit, and he who left the band within a year because he felt (amongst other things) that Fripp was butchering his music. Standing between classical formality and jazz passion, he could leap readily into either with the intelligence to know just what to use. His fiery saxophones, elegant flutes and assured keyboards shaped King Crimson into the full-soundtrack monster they were, even now putting the lie to the idea that prog’s ornamentations were a flabby irrelevance. Michael Giles’s jazzy drumming is a masterclass in compressed percussive thinking: and as for Fripp, even this early glimpse of his playing displays a unique balance between cerebral focus and emotional demands – at least as intent as it is intense, from the humming wail of his electric solos to the spidery precision of his hooded acoustics.


 
The music itself has sustained pretty well across the album and across history. Perhaps its claws seem fussily manicured compared to the raw filth’n’fury The Stooges would unleash a few years later, and which would ultimately leave a stronger mark on today’s underground. But then again, the Stooges never flung their ideas as wide as Crimson did. 21st Century Schizoid Man remains among the most accurate and nasty rock pieces ever laid down on tape, as ferocious as any punk body-blow. McDonald’s brass-knuckled horn attack and the ugly strands of distortion add a raucous streetfighter’s edge, Sinfield contributes a tearing sketch of distress and conflict, and the entire band roar off across a delicious violent staccato charge like a murderous hunt closing in on the prey.

In contrast, Epitaph is a theatrical, lushly orchestrated anthem of doubt and foreboding – mannered by the standards of the bombast that’s followed (from Yes to Oasis), but universal enough for any era of coming trouble. Mellotron strings and kettle drums lumber into the darkness like the Flying Dutchman. While the young Greg Lake’s impeccably enunciated singing (still a year or two away from his ringmaster swagger with Emerson, Lake & Palmer) might’ve always been too formal, too educated to make him a real rock’n’roller, the apprehensive angst of his delivery here is perfect – “If we make it we can all sit back and laugh / But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying…”


 
Perhaps it was inevitable that ‘…Court…’ would be touched by the flower-strewn, Anglo-Celtic folk impressions that were also sweeping through pop music at the time – and this is possibly the album’s Achilles’ heel. I Talk to the Wind (midway between McCartney and Donovan, dominated by McDonald’s dusky flutes) ultimately proved universal enough to be reinvented for the ’90s dance crowd by Opus III, and the original still sounds as lovely today, a more melancholy existential take on Fool On The Hill. But Moonchild risks sending new Crimson initiates away snarling. Only Fripp’s eldritch vacuum-draining howl of guitar raises any question of a world outside this bubble of mediaeval English hippydom, winsomely sucking in its cheeks and playing at courtly love; its talk of silver wands and milk-white gowns only a whisker away from a simper.


 
And the excessively muted free improv that follows – broken whispers, pings and shuffles between guitar, drums and vibraphone – is guaranteed to piss off anyone who was fired up by Schizoid Man’s driven nerve or Epitaph’s towering romantic majesty. If you listen hard, though, the remaster reveals in full the telepathy of the Fripp/Giles/McDonald interplay, allowing you almost to hear the thoughts that kick out each nimble, abbreviated scurry of sub-audible notes… But you’ll need to listen. Even then, King Crimson could be uncompromising about the value of all of their music; and however much perspective thirty-odd years may have given us on their intentions, the consequent imbalances on their debut remain as frustrating to the floating musical voter as they ever did.


 
The title track of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ – also the finale – sets the seal on the album. For good or ill, it leaves us with another slab of McDonald/Sinfield orchestral folk balladry, closing the record with a mediaeval flavour (tootling pipe organs, choirs of monks, thunderheads of Early Music strings) and without a hint of the alchemical rock momentum to counterweight Sinfield’s Gothic metaphors of palaces and fire-witches.


 
‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ is an indisputable classic, but one which sits uncomfortably in the role: forever pulling at the seamless stylistic joins that hold it together, as if to test them to destruction. It’s one that forever splits the voters. As they watch the music pounce from peak to dissimilar peak, many realise that it suffers from the way it never entirely resolves the band’s magnificent talents for more than nine minutes at any one time.

King Crimson: 'In the Wake of Poseidon'

King Crimson: ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’

It’s odd to find that King Crimson’s second album ‘In The Wake Of Poseidon’ – recorded with a depleted band and a floating pool of guests, and usually seen as the debut’s feebler brother – should solve many of these problems. But solve them it does. Remastering, like the cleaning of an oil painting, has restored plenty of the innate presence of an album which always seemed to suffer from the whispers in between the shouts. It’s subdued compared to the brazen ambition of ‘…Court…’, with the recurring acoustic Peace theme sounding apologetic compared to former roarings.


 
There is, admittedly, a sense of people arranging things tidily before they leave. Ian McDonald – then seen as King Crimson’s heart – had already vanished by that point, off to fashion a lighter, more summery pastoral prog elsewhere. Mike Giles would shortly be off to join him, but – drumming on ‘…Poseidon…’ as a goodbye favour – he turns in a tremendously sympathetic farewell performance of subtlety and fire, far outshining his work on ‘…Court…’. Greg Lake, too, has his own hand on the doorknob, waiting to depart to the ‘Top Gun’ frolics of ELP (meaning that Gordon Haskell‘s soft bumblebee tones take over lead vocals for ‘Cadence And Cascade’). Only Fripp and Sinfield – guitar and lyrics’n’lights respectively – would still be travelling in Crimson once the tape reels stopped moving.

 
Whatever the weaknesses of a splitting band, though, they are countered by the strengths of the guest players. Peter Giles (the remaining part of the pre-Crimson Giles, Giles & Fripp trio) provides rich, intuitive bass playing. Mel Collins‘ saxophones and flutes are bold and assured in interpretation; and while most of the expansive ensemble keyboards on ‘…Court…’ departed with McDonald, the inspired British jazz pianist Keith Tippett provides perfect contributions wherever needed (with Fripp picking gamely up on Mellotron and celeste).

Ironically, King Crimson as enforced studio project recorded more convincingly on album than King Crimson as gigging band. The textures are fuller, the dynamics subtler and more secretive (check out Fripp’s near-inaudible fretboard sighs on the midsection of Pictures of a City). And although McDonald’s absence is felt, and his musical imprint haunts ‘…Poseidon…’ from beginning to end, King Crimson were learning more about consistent balance.


 
They were also learning about how to reconcile their taste for baroque fantasy with a closer reflection of reality. Pictures of a City, rejoicing in a delectably nasty jazz-horn vamp and razor-wire Fripp guitar, reinvents New York as an overground circle of Dante’s Inferno in which Sinfield runs wild with information overload (“bright light, scream, beam, brake and squeal / Red, white, green, white, neon wheel”). Cadence and Cascade’s sleepy song of groupie courtship sees Tippett and Fripp trading glimmers of piano and celeste beyond an atypically gentle acoustic guitar, anticipating Nick Drake’s riverside reveries by several years. And even if the huge title song’s laden with yet more layers of Mellotron and Edgar Allen Poe imagery (harlequins, hags, midnight queens, chains and madmen all jostled together), Greg Lake – in a last burst of empathy – cuts right through to the heart of Sinfield’s overwrought symbolism, and delivers it as a magnificently poignant galactic swan song.


 
The first half of ‘…Poseidon…’ might mirror that of the previous album (matching the violent/pastoral/symphonic alternation of Schizoid Man, I Talk to the Wind and Epitaph) but the second half is a very different story. There’s Cat Food, for instance – one of the few Crimson singles, and as tuneful and as cheeky as anything on ‘The White Album’. This pulls out all the stops so far left untouched. In one lateral-thinker’s spring, Tippett advances from sensitive accompanist to aggressive frontline collaborator, hammering out explosive scrambles of piano notes and barrelhouse staccato. Lake hollers an absurdist Sinfield supermarket tale, Fripp toots and yelps jazzily and the Giles brothers jump in and out of each others’ syncopated footprints. It winds down in an animated mixture of excited jazz stutter and beautiful Debussian piano flourish, having blown apart King Crimson’s po-faced reputation for a few minutes. At the same time, it’s given them access to pop’s wonderful holy-fool zone, where playful silliness cracks open a reservoir of sheer joyous inspiration.

 
Matters turn far more serious when Fripp – whose musical responsibilities were doubled and weighed heavy on him after McDonald’s departure – takes over the remainder of the album. For The Devil’s Triangle he’s left pretty much to his own devices, putting his guitar aside to lean heavily on occult Mellotron and keyboard textures. Although the initial results draw heavily on Crimson’s infamous live interpretation of Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’, they go far beyond it and into the dark shadows of avant-garde sound-sculpting and musique concrète.

Dark, trapped minor-key harmonies hover on the edge of terrifying dissonance, a constantly pitched battle march is suddenly hideously yanked up in pitch as Fripp assaults the tape speed, and found sounds (bits of orchestra, samples from the previous album) glint in the fog. Tippett contributes butcher’s piano, like a sledgehammer through glassware. At one point, hot wind scours the studio of all other sounds save that of an interrupted metronome. The full band return for an unresolved finale, surrounded by shrieks, whistles and a baroque circus melody on a tinny keyboard playing scratchily over the top of them, before Mel Collins’ cloud of flutes cast down the tension and bring it to a close as the Peace theme returns for a hushed (if ultimately unresolved) finale.


 
If the mark of a classic is tight conceptual continuity, then ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’ fares little better than ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’. But in a quieter way, it achieves its ambitions with greater consistency, taking on King Crimson’s multi-levelled world view and presenting it with less arriviste flash and a more mature grip on its latent chaos – something which Fripp and Sinfield would pursue further on the next album.

Beyond that, both albums still remain as another high-water mark (flaws notwithstanding) in rock’s assimilation of other musical forms. Held together, they’re a fascinating (if frequently stiff) European counterpart to the multi-media explorations of The Velvet Underground or Miles Davis’ polychromatic meltdown music on ‘Bitches’ Brew’. This music still sounds mythic, enrobed, and somehow atavistic; as if it was made for Old English giants to knock down the world’s cities to.

King Crimson: ‘In the Court of the Crimson King”
Virgin Records Ltd., CDVKCX1 (7243 8 48099 2 8)
King Crimson: ‘In the Wake of Poseidon”
Virgin Records Ltd., CDVKCX2 (7243 8 48948 2 5)
CD-only reissue albums
Released:
14th September 1999
Get them from: (2020 update) Both records have now been superseded by 40th Anniversary Editions with new remastering and additional tracks. Current or former versions can be obtained from the King Crimson stores at Burning Shed and the Schizoid Shop.
King Crimson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

LOOKBACKS – album reviews – Cindytalk’s ‘Wappinschaw’, 1994 (“one of 1994’s most intense, perverse and unusual lost albums”)

30 Aug

Cindytalk: 'Wappinschaw'

Cindytalk: ‘Wappinschaw’

For almost fourteen years now, Cindytalk have been forging a lonely path through the ever-changing styles of modern music. Despite the soft pink flush of their name, Cindytalk’s music has always been so out-there, so much a music of violent extremes, that they have (more or less by default – how much could you change when you touch both ends of the spectrum?) stayed the same – no bad thing – while refining their sound on each album.

Gordon Sharp, the mainstay of Cindytalk’s many line-ups, is perhaps best known as the voice of three haunting tracks on the first album by 4AD art-collective This Mortal Coil, which also spawned Elizabeth Fraser’s honey-drenched version of Tim Buckley’s Song To The Siren in 1983. Yet 4AD-ethereal was never really Sharp’s bag. Cindytalk operate in the same dark areas that Michael Gira and Swans did before they transformed into doom-laden acoustic hippies (no more titles like Raping A Slave, then, Michael? cheers, love!), or The Birthday Party before Nick Cave mellowed out into Satan’s crooner.

They’ve wilfully, awkwardly, pursued music of extremes. Their first album, ‘Camouflage Heart’, must rank somewhere alongside Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’ for sheer unlistenable music for (dis)pleasure, that has to be owned simply to piss people off. And the mammoth ‘In This World’ was a double album of contradictions – one record of near-industrial rock with razor-sharp guitar sounds (varying between tooth- extraction by electric power drill or sheet-metal white noise), and one record of near-ambient instrumentals and songs, mostly played on very soft piano like Erik Satie on Mogadon.

But it’s been a long time since any new Cindytalk material; perhaps because of artistic reclusiveness, perhaps through being a true cult act. Having already had a protracted recording between 1990 and 1992, this album took a further two years to emerge on a record label in 1994. A lone concert aside, we’ve heard nothing from them since (that’s what y-o-u think.. – ED.). Hence this five-years-after-the-event review: cults can always do with getting bigger while they wait for the resurrection.

So, ‘Wappinschaw’; one of 1994’s most intense, perverse and unusual lost albums…


 
It opens deceptively simply, with an a-capella reworking of Ewan MacColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, reflecting Gordon Sharp’s interest in folk idioms (especially his own native Scots). He’s singing solo, without echo or reverb, up close, right there in your darkened room. His voice – one of the most expressive at conveying rage, pain, fear – displays power here yet, somehow, also insecurity. A Song Of Changes is leaden-paced at first, but David Ros’ guitars are more blurry and hazed than previous industrial strength Cindytalk noise. Suddenly the guitars hit an almost bright riff around which Sharp fluctuates and soars. A song of changes, indeed – light is breaking into Cindytalk’s dark world: “Within the heart of everything, there is you…”


 
It doesn’t last, though. Return To Pain (hah!) lurches in on a mix of barely-scrubbed electric and slide guitars, creating an empty and menacing atmosphere as Sharp emotes through wordless high vocals. It’s nightmare swamp music, midnight in the Mississippi plains accompanied by the scariest of companions, before the tension explodes into a barrage of noise. Drums, shotgun guitars, and Sharp wailing that “everybody is Christ.” Y-e-e-es; whatever you say, Gordon.


 
Whichever expectations are set for them, Cindytalk trump them on this record. Wheesht is introduced by a tape of Alisdair Gray reading an extract from his mammoth Scottish psycho-epic ‘Lanark’: a story of a young boy dreaming about what lies beyond the clouds. Recorded over the sound of a ticking clock and a ghostly musical box, this exercise in unsettling atmospherics chills the spine and sets us up for Wheesht itself: a brutally short, non- musical violent collage of bass drones, sonic interferences, sampled voices, blood-curdling screams and other genuinely unnerving sounds.


 
To the looping, echoed scrapings of a low-tuned violin, Snowkiss restores some sense of calm with more of Cindytalk’s music for winter nights – Gordon’s vocals imploding out of their rage into delicate lines and wordless harmonies sung over the gentlest of chiming, raindrop pianos. The lyrics of Disappear evoke a painfully trapped life: “You’re in heaven now, / Inside your head. / No thoughts of flight, / Your wings are clipped…”, while a strongly martial beat provides the tracks only propulsion as guitars and sampled interference compete with each other in a swirling eddy of sound. The lively, echoing trumpet on Traumlose Nacht, mingled with delicate piano and evocative waves of rolling drums, provide some relief and a different sonic vocabulary – it sounds like incidental music for the dark magic and oppressive heat of ‘Angel Heart’.


 
The final track, Hush, starts as an guitar-and-solo-vocal acoustic lament (back to the folk singing of the opening track) but then gives way to influential voices from the heavens (including samples of Orson Welles and Joseph Beuys) before everything fades to leave a long passage of bagpipe music that is, after the tumult of Cindytalk in action, strangely beguiling and soothing… but wait. After a long pause, a final hidden track, Muster. An incendiary, veritably Napalm-Death’s- worth battery of hideous thrash-noise, over which Sharp’s passionate ragged voice issues forth evocations to notable spirits: “The Wappinschaw is an invocation of the spirits of Shiva: Rise, William Wallace, rise! Rise, Arthur Rimbaud, rise!” He goes on to summon the spirits of Pasolini, Sitting Bull, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, amongst others. So unearthly does Sharp sound, so compelling, that I have no doubt that the spirits responded. Quite the most disturbing sound heard on CD for some time.


 
I wouldn’t like to hazard too close a guess at what kind of emotional traumas Gordon Sharp purges from himself to make this music; all razor blades, blizzards and crow feathers. It’s enough to say that, after fourteen years on the extremes, Cindytalk demand your rapt attention, your horrified fascination…

(review by Col Ainsley)

Cindytalk: ‘Wappinschaw’
Touched Recordings, TOUCH 1 (5 021958 432021)
CD-only album
Released: 1994

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

Cindytalk online:
Homepage Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM

August 1999 – EP reviews – Schulte/Eriksson’s ‘For the Sake of Clarity/Answering Machine’ (“a loose cluster of stoned bees”)

24 Aug
Schulte/Eriksson: 'For The Sake Of Clarity'

Schulte/Eriksson: ‘For The Sake Of Clarity’

It’s an inviting idea. Anna Schulte and Lisa Eriksson sit around in a room in Liverpool with a couple of detuned guitars and some basic looping gear (plus a pair of rhythm-section men borrowed from Mersey psychedelics The Living Brain) to see what happens. They hum out songs and snatches of conversation in a way that’s always on the verge of crumbling to bits, but still holds together, like the immortality of crudded-up cobwebs – lots of interesting little fragments bound up in a tenuous snaggle.

Listening to the bits and pieces of lo-fi invention which they’ve kept on tape shows that Schulte/Eriksson have something in their music like the wobbly stagger of Captain Beefheart’s bloodshot jamming. Or like the scratchier bits of German science-rock that get played at you during music parties (the ones where the competitive art-freak boys are trying to uber-weird each other). But Anna and Lisa seem totally unconcerned with any of these fixations on pointers and signifiers. They’re an offbeat double act, sounding simultaneously bizarre and totally natural. It’s not just their German and Swedish accents as they bounce off English ears. When one of them asks the other “if I say the word ‘sexuality?’ to you, what do you think about that?” she’s met with an incredulous giggle (as if she’d asked “what sound does bread make?”) and neither of them come up with anything.

There’s something warm and alien about these women. Likeable but unreachable – like the futile task of trying to make a cat explain itself, trying to get beyond that affectionate and satisfied manner that displays nothing you can recognise and use for leverage. Interviews have (so far) revealed a pair of women totally detached from earnestness, preciousness or any other self-conscious qualities, and with a simple and unconcerned desire to just let music come.

The music, scribbling and swerving across the grooves of their single like a loose cluster of stoned bees, seems happy to oblige. The straightest that Schulte/Eriksson ever get is the bizarre jazz-train lurch of For The Sake Of Clarity. Their guitar (tuned with a kind of hummingbird logic) hop and pump ahead of the beat; their voices play up and down in stretchy harmonies. “Henry Kaiser playing a samba” is one possible description. I’m also wondering whether Sonic Youth might have produced something shaped like this, in the sweet muzziness after a Brazilian bender.

In Answering Machine the blokes from the Brain bash and stumble away manfully to give the song a bone structure, but in vain. All of the attention goes to the way Lisa and Anna’s voices tug up at their dismal otherworldly sag of guitar chords and take it to somewhere else. For the queasy First Ear Reset/Schaller/Riff, they sound like they’ve turned their guitars upside down: more perturbing jazz-punk chords and steam-whistle tweets yanked off the strings. A violent riff smashes in from another tape and shuts everything down. Their serene smiles probably didn’t drop a notch. But they were obviously laughing when they stuck a phony dance-pop title onto Bassline Loop/No. 1 Hit – it’s about a minute of drunken, tarry slide guitar and murmuring voices which are suddenly exposed as the instruments fall silent and intersect in lovely arcs like a tiny choir of mediaeval nuns… just as the tape runs out.

Scratching cheerfully at the join of subconscious and curiosity, Schulte/Eriksson might use a disorienting private language to run the dig – but you still feel invited to perch nearby. If you’ve ever felt like sitting in on the beginnings of music, here’s a chance to do it.

Schulte/Eriksson: ‘For the Sake of Clarity/Answering Machine’
Org Records, ORG 054
7-inch vinyl-only single
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Org Records, or look for it second-hand.

Schulte/Eriksson online:
MySpace

August 1999 – EP reviews – The Rob Beadle Triangle Band’s ‘A Different Kettle of Fish’ (“embarrassment, misadventures and eccentric desires “)

2 Aug

The Rob Beadle Triangle Band: 'A Different Kettle of Fish'

The Rob Beadle Triangle Band: ‘A Different Kettle of Fish’

Duck past the appalling name and the two obvious sub-Goodies joke tracks on here, and you’ll find there’s more to The Rob Beadle Triangle Band than their comedy-schtick image.

Yes, they’re student types from the University of Bath, laden down with flash gear and a taste for laddish zaniness that’s very British, very ’70s. No, that’s not all. Like Barenaked Ladies, the Bonzos and Frank Zappa (or Prince, if he’d had slapstick leanings), they’re musically skilled and canny enough to leap seamlessly between pop styles and come up with songs which can exist both as piss-takes and as serious efforts; regardless of the goofy laughter which comes with them.


 
If you picked key comparisons, they’d be the “belly-laughs, angst-quirks, ‘n’ serious playing” ethic of the long-lost 64 Spoons, or 10cc’s keen and unerring collective ear for tunes and parody filtered through studiedly cheesy wit – hence the near-perfect Bee Gees disco pastiche on The Face. Embarrassment, misadventures and eccentric desires are the Beadle boys’ main obsession. Nude gardening, suddenly finding your mum’s the star player in the porn film your friends are watching – that sort of thing.


 
The Bitch Grated My Thumb jumps between Jeff Lynne wussiness and panicky thrash; a tale of picking up a deranged bag-lady (“come to me, picture of beauty – lying in the gutter’s no place to be”) and of subsequently suffering assault by kitchenware. She Had No Teeth kicks off with ‘Mission Impossible’ kettledrums and rampaging funk-wah guitar, and deals with the horror of waking up next to the woman you’ve pulled and discovering her gums are as bare as Patrick Stewart’s scalp. As the band clatter on, whooping away on their Theremin synths, glassy jazz-funk organ riffs and Funkadelic party racket, a girl-group chorus airily sings “Things were different last night – she looked like a siren, he had his beer-goggles on” – while an anguished muffled voice yelps “Why me? Why me?”.


 
It’s all delivered with crisp production and flashes of superb musicianship (Hendrix/Hazel/Isleys-styled guitar, expert polyrhythmic drumming and keyboard swirls, Kristian Wood’s crucially light touch on voice and bass), and taking care not to let the silliness derail the winning flutter of pop. Thankfully, they’re closer to Space or Poisoned Electrick Head than to Barron Knights. The wiggly You Are Confusing Me sounds like the young Julian Cope spouting gibberish Gong lyrics, giggling his socks off in front of OMD synth overload.


 
And something better is hinted at by the quite lovely Strawberries and Cream. With flowing Spanish guitar, dancing flute lines and puffs of tremulous falsetto harmonies, it sounds like pastoral-period XTC and – in mischievous Andy Partridge tradition – is a lyrical love-song for food-fetishists, Kristian delicately murmuring “you, you’re the sweetest thing I’ve seen – / let me cover you with cream (and strawberries). / We could find new ways of keeping clean, / let me lick you til you gleam (and sparkle).”

A pocket 10cc, then, with an even more warped sense of humour, writing songs for a cleaned-up ‘Viz’.

The Rob Beadle Triangle Band; ‘A Different Kettle of Fish’
Teeth Records, RBTB 9901 (Barcode)
CD-only EP
Released:
2nd August 1999
Get it from: (2020 update) Original EP best obtained second-hand; stream via Spotify
The Rob Beadle Triangle Band online:
Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music
 

July 1999 – album reviews – Tony Harn’s ‘Lifebox’ (“settle into the music’s bright and rapid embrace”)

24 Jul
Tony Harn: 'Lifebox'

Tony Harn: ‘Lifebox’

Since striking out on his own with ‘From The Inside‘ in 1997, Warringtonian guitarist Tony Harn has gone from strength to strength. It’s not that ‘Lifebox’ is all that different from its predecessor. It’s the same recipe of glittering, admirably economical rock guitar arrangements backed up by simple keyboard sounds and lightly-cymballed percussion programming – the sort of thing that would have made Harn a hero of British instrumental rock in the 1970s, or even the ’80s. In the late ’90s, it makes him more of a finely-tuned curio. A guilty pleasure.

Still, being out-of-step with the times has little to do with your innate value; and Tony Harn’s got plenty of that. His concept of melodic rock moving towards a jazz vocabulary has had to pass through a Manchester filter first. There’s a lot of meticulousness and post-industrial reserve here, an underlying balance of sounds and patterns that’s got more to do with Factory-style Futurism than feet-on-monitors and flailing hair. Not that Harn’s cover photo – the purposefully-shaven skull and meaningful gaze – shows hair to flail anyway.

In a nutshell, Tony Harn is what Joe Satriani might have been if he’d had Durutti Column’s sensibilities. His full-blooded melody-metal tone, his tunefulness and his sweet tooth for rock romanticism is reined in by Northern English economies on gesture and gush. Except for a solitary Van Halen moment – a short-lived explosion of devil fingers called Reaction:Release (In One Motion) – all is controlled and thoughtful. Layers of staccato echoed phrasing and delicate flat-picked motifs interplay with tuneful, assured lead lines. Harn’s guitars can chatter and circle busily, or pine away in expressive overdriven wails, all without letting the music lose its well-suspended balance. It can be as dignified as fine civic architecture, or it can roll like a landscape of green English hills. Pastoral, but never pastel; surprisingly serene, but not soporific with it.

And (if all of this isn’t starting to sound too cute) proggy without being boggy. Since the sometimes-perfunctory tunes of ‘From The Inside’, Harn’s developed a well-deserved confidence in taking on longer-form compositions. The fifteen-minute, multi-phase Reaction:Repeat (In Six Motions) bubbles with understated invention – it’s a drawn-out, trance-y rockscape of shifting heroic tunes and dance pulses, bouncing off the same constellations as Porcupine Tree did on ‘Voyage 34’. Split The Sketch jumps from sleepy church music (cavernous swells, sweet-dream melody and the chink and whisper of string noise) into the sort of split-metred riffing and racing arpeggios that Steve Hackett would’ve been happy to set his name to. Blue Blazes doesn’t go for length, but for shimmering detail, weaving tiny repetitive phrases into sky-written spirals around an airborne ripple of synth.

Even if his silvery jazz-inflected chording doesn’t quite qualify these efforts as fusion, Harn’s push towards jazz is becoming easier to distinguish. You can hear him trying out conversations with the themes in Eve Of Obligation; and if you listen beyond the diamante guitars on Pseudotalk, you’ll hear a pretty, melting tune that wants to sit down with a jazz quintet and make friends. But if Harn does move into that world, it shouldn’t be at the expense of the straightforward and joyful way he expresses his melodies – the folkiness of Last Town, the wedding bell tumble of Twelve Years, or how his romantic heart sits self-evidently on his sleeve for Forgotten Summer as his guitars and bass court each other. It shouldn’t be at the expense of digressions into haunting soundscaping such as Dark Age; in which, through organ drift and dreaming guitar sculptures, a girl’s guilt-stricken voice murmurs “I never used to think about it before.”

This, after all, is that rare breed of rock guitar album – one which you play not to worship at the Church of Guitar but to settle into the music’s bright and rapid embrace, and to lean back into it. ‘Lifebox’. A good name for such an unassuming package, spilling out such fertile enthusiasm.

Tony Harn: ‘Lifebox’
Tony Harn, THCD2 (no barcode)
CD-only album
Released: 1999

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

Tony Harn online:
Facebook MySpace YouTube

July 1999 – album reviews – Darkroom’s ‘Seethrough’ (“dropping casual, vinegar-dry references while somehow maintaining a ghostly mystique”)

22 Jul
Darkroom: 'Seethrough'

Darkroom: ‘Seethrough’

Transparent neither in style nor intent, Darkroom’s second album is demanding, mysterious; trickily opaque. This is not an unfamiliar position for this most obscure, obscured and inexplicable of ambient/illbient groups. The billowing instrumentals of Darkroom’s first album, ‘Daylight‘, made their points obliquely through a spray of trip-hop grace, thick detail and industrial derangement. About half of ‘Seethrough’ follows a similar path – baleful/beautiful semi-improvised noisescapes of layered electronics, angrily-stewing loop guitar and naked caress-through-to-howl vocals.

Resident synth necromancer Os fires off ratlike background rattles and spectral drum’n’bass rhythm triggers on the glutinous and dubbed-up Galaxy Craze, a threatening arrhythmic undulation in which Tim Bowness’ minimal, wraith-like subway singing is menaced by a fretless bass guitar part which probes like a giant animal’s tongue. On Charisma Carpenter, old-school ’80s synthpop riffs underpin the dense aviary heat of Michael Bearpark’s textured guitar. These OMD-styled tinklings make an unexpectedly cheerful counterpart to Tim’s lustrous and vaporous vocal chanting, which remains the most bizarre aspect of Darkroom’s music. Singing mere tumbling vowels, or sounds on the edge of becoming words, Tim delivers them with an eerily precise and chilly diction: like droplets of love-song which freeze to alien sleet as soon as they leave his mouth.

In spite of the textural invention and intelligence at work, only Kaylenz hints at the shocking intensity of Darkroom at full, live, improvising intensity. It takes up fourteen sprawling, disorientating minutes of the album, during which the tension between the celestial and the pestilential growing ever more violent. Electronica loops shade upwards into alarm, distorted hospital bells shrill. Mike’s country-toned guitar tang gives way to sharp buzz-edged swarming, while Tim’s vocals travel from weary, loving sorrow to a hysterical pitch of recriminations and a dash of lyrical perversity. Just before Kaylenz steps up – or breaks down – into a chaotic torrent of frighteningly emotional randomness, we hear Tim singing in a lost corner of the studio: a bored, beautiful, detached whisper of “you again, you again – / who’s to blame, if it’s all the same?”


This brings us to the wild card of ‘Seethrough’ – the presentation of Darkroom’s songwriting side, in which they sketch withering surreal portraits of disenchantment and alienation helped along by spacey glissandos of electric slide guitar. They’ve dabbled in words before (on the drum’n’bass/Fripp & Eno soundclash of the Carpetworld single) but here it’s more leisurely, more controlled; more disturbing. In some ways it’s an extension of Tim’s work on the cryptic dark-city musings of No-Man’s ‘Wild Opera’. In others it reflects the burnt-out, amoral contemplations of Tricky’s surreal, spliff-fuelled ‘Maxinquaye’.

If so, this is Tricky as played by Alec Guinness, dropping casual, vinegar-dry references to both Def Leppard and Janet Frame while somehow maintaining a ghostly mystique unhindered by the flapping of library cards. On the bobbing Morricone-meets-Orb dub of King Of The Cowboy Singers, Tim’s guarded, musical speaking voice recites both nonsense and significance to the beat – “trying to find a new life in an old boot, / walking to the new place in your old suit – / the king of the cowboy singers, / the toast of the Old School dinners…” The roiling, improvised star-stuff that usually pools out of Darkroom’s speakers is swapped for Dada-tinged narratives of shifting identities and habits; of introverted, stiffly English insanity and implosions of a starchy order.

Having said that, although Darkroom no longer quite sound as if they’re playing live from the surface of the sun, they’ve only retreated as far as a ski-lodge on Mercury. The glimpses of sky are always a bright merciless glare, the ground always dry dust; the scenery just a few steps away from white-out. Surly and blinded, Bludgeon Riffola surfaces through a swimming of harness bells as a filthy punk-blues fed through post-rock processing and glowing tracer-paths of needling synth-noise, Tim’s petulant vocals rope-swung and curdled with distortion.

The album’s masterpiece – the ten-minute stretch of Bottleneck – is blindingly white and exposed; a sinister mixture of Aphex Twin and Bill Frisell. Sparse, desolate slide guitar is chewed at by Os’ echoing dead-sea-surf static and smeared brass textures. Tim’s lonesome vocal (once it finally arrives) rides a stately dance of plucked orchestra strings, drawing out the shapes of a puzzle of betrayal and disgust. The charges are clear – “You never really loved your wife… / you never really knew your boys… / you never even liked the girl you said had claimed your heart – restart, restart.” But the story’s obscured: gaps between snapshots swallow it up. The figure of a man is reduced to a hat, a cigarette; an unfinished meal; an absence.

Then again, Darkroom aren’t here to provide clarity. Seethrough itself seals the album in a light and feverish running pulse, frosted by far-off gilded sprays of reserved prog-rock guitar. It’s tremulously sweet and frantic – trance-techno that’s neurotic rather than narcotic – and with a blurred, vocoder-ed vocal that queries the giddy transcendence of the music. “Too much misunderstanding; too much, too little love. / Too much to keep your hand in, too much to float above.” Dancing lightly on its feet, it moves with the crowd only to slip away quietly as the dreams evaporate. “Too much deliberation, too much you want to be. / Too much anticipation, too much you’ll never see – see through, seethrough.”

Blink, and it’s gone. Darkroom tease us with clarity, but lead us to a vanishing in the end.

Darkroom: ‘Seethrough’
Peoplesound, ART 4249-CD01
CD-only album
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Original release deleted. 2003 remastered CD-R version available from Burning Shed; download version from Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

July 1999 – mini-album reviews – Philip Sheppard’s ‘The Glass Cathedral’ (“a whole chamber of cellos swimming off in a new direction”)

12 Jul
Philip Sheppard: 'The Glass Cathedral'

Philip Sheppard: ‘The Glass Cathedral’

Reluctantly, as the music finally dissipates into quiet, I surface for facts – and here they are.

Philip Sheppard is cellist with the Composers’ Ensemble and with The Smith Quartet (a London answer to New Music ensembles like Kronos Quartet). He’s taken on the knotty work of Michael Tippett and Oliver Knussen: his list of close collaborators outside the classical world have included Abdullah Ibrahim and Jeff Buckley. Freed from the demands of repertoire and support roles, his own music for solo cello leads into meditative, overlapping multi-tracked soundscapes.

That’s the definition, the bare bones of it. A modern-classical musician, as composer-performer, looping or patterning processed sounds in the path followed by Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Gavin Bryars, and by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno.

This doesn’t convey how far beyond the plain facts of the process Philip Sheppard gets – how he’s boiled down the structure of classical expression to small and beautiful hints in a sustained electrophonic atmosphere. The captivating, wonderfully played music on ‘The Glass Cathedral’ is close, in its way, to the devotional reachings of Fripp’s ‘A Blessing Of Tears’: but it’s more abstract, a music of suggestions and amnesia. Philip manages to suggest vistas of embracing vastness with simple and delicately executed elements gradually mixed into an ever-expanding palette of cello textures, running from a discordant plumbing-scrape to an overwhelming snatch of piercing, striving melody. There are only two pieces on here, both vastly different, both extraordinary.

Harrison’s Chronometer uses Philip’s electric cello – a custom-built five-string cyborg which readily sinks itself into an evanescent minor-chord drone, gradually resolving and passing through moods; a Mahler trance in multi-track. The name’s taken from the 18th century timepiece designed to revolutionise navigation and safety at sea; providing a fixed, reliable timekeeping process, aiding judgement of distance, mapping and location. Inspired by this, the music sounds like a steady, resolute voyage through half- known climes, as Philip fills the air with the sounds of beasts and uncertainties. String snarls slide and slink away, high harmonics keen and shiver. Low, rumbling deep sea monsters scrape away in the bass registers.

Living but impersonal detail builds up, as gorgeously and inhumanly hostile as a crystal jungle; and into this comes tentative tracings of order. There’s a high pulse; a sawing Greek riff of chorused cellos; snap-and-lock ostinatos in the bass recalling the clipped Mediterranean funk of Mick Karn. A melody materialises in the alto range, cleanly distorted – to the point where it finds a rough perfection – but it tails out. Nothing is resolved; eventually the music fades away into the dark, although its recognisable touches are still isolated within the surrounding chaos. Expressive to the last, they sit like lonely markers; or like humans in a small, fragile boat on brutally indifferent seas that have hardly even begun to yield their perilous secrets.

Compared to Harrison’s Chronometer, the title track of The Glass Cathedral is sublimely peaceful: though in its own way it’s just as deliquescent, just as much part of that territory where post- classical meets post-rock and where both begin to blend with the subtle dissolutional anarchy that is drift. It’s played on a vintage cello with a history implied rather than certain: a mid- 8th century instrument possessed of a rich verdant tone and traced back to an anonymous London craftsman. Whether its ambiguous story is true or false, I’d like to think it informs the piece, which has hints of more intimate John Taverner compositions but links back to the past via a quote from Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ which coalesces and dissolves throughout the composition.

Here, the music seems to wake itself in sensual, melodic stretches of cello, in exquisite glass-harmonica deviations of sound. It is like drowsing inside a translucent sacred building, allowing a whole day to become a time-exposure. Overdubbed drones and harmonies acting like light beams, branching off at odd angles, allowing the corners of the church to be lit gently and briefly before the source slides off somewhere else. A solo cello establishes itself in centre with a contemplative, yearning changing theme. It gives dominance over to the light angles and the Monteverdi fragment… then, as if shot through a prism, a whole chamber of cellos are swimming off in a new direction, embarking on a related theme, only to dissolve out gently in loosely woven trios.

I’d say more, but I’m already spewing too many abstractions. It’s enough to say that if it’s true that architecture is frozen music, then this is (just as equally) a beautiful, dissolving architecture.

Philip Sheppard: ‘The Glass Cathedral’
Blue Snow, BSNCD1 (no barcode)
CD/download mini-album
Released: 5th July 1999

Get it from:
CD version best obtained second-hand: download available via Bandcamp.

Philip Sheppard online:
Homepage Homepage Twitter Bandcamp

July 1999 – EP reviews – Cardiacs/Camp Blackfoot’s ‘Cardiacs Meet Camp Blackfoot’ EP (“an explosion in a fairground repair shop… a belting mixture of howling-for-vengeance free-jazz saxes, prog-from-hell and hardcore trash-blues”)

7 Jul

Cardiacs/Camp Blackfoot: 'Cardiacs Meet Camp Blackfoot' EP

Cardiacs/Camp Blackfoot: ‘Cardiacs Meet Camp Blackfoot’ EP

You already know Cardiacs, or you ought to. They’re that gang of besuited gentlemen from Chessington, Kingston and Milton Keynes – upsetters of pop rules known for busting out of tight waistcoats, with a sound like an explosion in a fairground repair shop. And who specialise in hatefully brilliant singles midway between masochism and ecstacy, as pleasurable as scratching a really luxurious, pestilential itch.

Sleep All Eyes Open doesn’t let that line of guilty pleasures down, tying knots in Super Furry Animals and The Glitter Band to make a glammy mess of noisy guitars and monkey-gland logic. Here’s something that really enjoys how gloriously dumb-to-the-max it is – listen to those handclaps, and that dum-dum riff bouncing its knuckles along the ground. Yet it evolves fast, ideas yomping around, running off into ever-more crowded angles and arguments while Tim Smith yelps like a circusful of trampolining dogs. Cardiacs always cram their songs to bursting point but never lose any of it to blind alleys or prog meandering. And if I still haven’t a clue what they’re singing about, I think there’s something in the back of my head which does, whooping and waving a flag whenever I hear them let something like this out of the box.


 
The five-year-old bonus tracks (from the mind-boggling ‘Sing to God’ album) haven’t worn badly either. Dirty Boy hammers and claws through seven minutes of huge black-metal guitars and ends up flailing against the wall in an ecstatic stuck groove of wailing choir and electric-shock organ. Foundling is a mediaeval creak of sleep, death and aching men’s feet, worthy of Robert Wyatt. And there’s a celebratory, singalongaTim instrumental mix of Insect Hooves on Lassie- and that’s so tuneful it could get a corpse up and idiot-dancing within seconds. These guys are old enough to be Blur’s granddads, for God’s sake – how come they still make almost any other British rock group sound half-hearted and half-asleep?




 
Camp Blackfoot, hanging onto the other half of this EP, grab the challenge with both hands and a ravening mouthful of teeth. It says here that they’ve chewed their way out of the corpse of Thirteen Ghosts (Oxford’s finest in thrash-improv… hmmm), and they don’t bother with all that business of the dichotomy between social discipline and chaotic emotions. They just hit the record button and scream. A belting mixture of howling-for-vengeance free-jazz saxes, prog-from- hell and hardcore trash-blues comes tumbling out onto the carpet and burns a huge hole in it. Somewhere, Lester Bangs is laughing his head off.


 
If you wanted to hear serious avant-garde psychobilly locked into a no-holds-barred deathmatch with art-noise, you’ve come to the right place. Ruins forcibly manhandling the Blues Explosion into a blender wouldn’t even come close to The Blue Hood’s shredding monster-movie music; while The Other Giaconda is what might’ve happened had King Crimson ever really exploded onstage in squalling Stooges style, neurotic precision blowing the safety valve a foot deep into the ceiling. And The Red Mist tops the lot- squiggly Morricone noises that burst into enormous barbed- wire riffing and an epically hallucinating murder song, a weird doomed narrative which sees a desperate man’s mutter rising to a horrified scream: “The street melts under my feet… I’m drowning in a boiling sea of salt,/ faces are ugly / I – Mother of God!”



 
Songs to crash your car to, and the soundtrack to strutting away from the blaze looking cooler than ever. Not really something that works with Coldplay, I think.

Cardiacs/Camp Blackfoot: ‘Cardiacs Meet Camp Blackfoot’
Org Records, ORG 056CD (5 028151 010568)
CD-only EP
Released: 5th July 1999

Get it from: (2020 update) Limited edition of 1,000 – best obtained second-hand.
Cardiacs online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Google Play Pandora Amazon Music
Camp Blackfoot online:
Homepage MySpace Last FM YouTube Amazon Music
 

June 1999 – album reviews – Cay’s ‘Nature Creates Freaks’ (“those red-hot gravelly tones”)

23 Jun
Cay: 'Nature Creates Freaks'

Cay: ‘Nature Creates Freaks’

On a quick listen you might be tempted to put Cay straight into the femme-noise box, however much you thrill to them. There’s the loose-wired slangy racket of the two guitars, the American-styled punk roars of instruments and voice, the general “let-off-the-leash”-ness of this album. Not least, there’s the striking vocal and visual presence of Anet Mook up front; defiantly anti-glam but compelling the attention anyway, ripping the frets out of her guitar and scorching her vocal chords with her flammable yell.

There’s also the album’s clutch of rackety singles. The mixture of pattering, jangling drag-racer suspension and blazing gasoline riffola in Better Than Myself; the pure punk venom of Princes And Princesses which all but drags a friend out of the comfort of collusion, spitting and chiding (“perverted decent little thing, I hate your guts cos they don’t exist”) prior to burning away with her down the road as if trying to rewrite ‘Thelma & Louise’ as guitar flare. The violence of Neurons Like Brandy, which feeds off a familiar Nirvana-ish alternation of quiet and loud, but sped up to a unnerving back’n’forth flick between stroke and punch; all to display the swerving of a love shot through with pills and booze, bonds and walls, focus and absence… of contradictions that won’t hold, but won’t break easily enough.

Not that the album tracks give much away to the singles, either. Reasonable Ease In Chilled Out Conditions leaps around its cage with enough aggression to punch out my speakers, and possibly my lights too. Cay attack the song as if they’re trying to singlehandedly relaunch punk in a shower of crunching bass and Uzi drum slams. Here, Anet sings like a suave skinning knife: her harsh, vicious slurs crack like a whip, and she chews words like gum. “And all the snow will melt away, / another week’ll come to stay, / to help you pull your little scam… / ‘Cos in the end you’re leaving like a sound! To be honest, I don’t know what the fuck she’s on about (cocaine madness, perhaps) but when Cay can fire it fifty miles up into the air via ten million volts of guitar I don’t particularly care.

There’s enough unleashed rage here to satisfy the grrlpunk board, though the fact that the other three Caypeople are men might brand them, to anyone drawing up the passports, as more Blondie than Bikini Kill. Yet… there sounds as if there’s more to Cay than just a femme-fronted burst of punk power which’ll burn itself out in a sorry gulp of lost fuel in a year or two. The truly compulsive thing about Anet’s voice isn’t the anger; it’s the permanent note of astonishment that cuts through those red-hot gravelly tones. It’s a yelp of instant reaction to anything (whether it’s introspection or copping an insult). It makes her someone who’s always on, always with the nerve to jump back or jump in.

In counterpart, there’s the detail work performed by Nicky Oloffson, Cay’s deceptively quiet-mannered guitarist and lateral thinker. He brings the odd noises, the jazz-chords that slip questions in; the art-textures that clink and keen in the mix, the sweet strums and battered song-sighs that break up the heat-blasts. Cay might have more of a chance of a commercial breakthrough than most – there’s an arresting hookyness balancing their controlled chaos – but there’s clearly an art-rock band evolving inside this tight, powerful metalcore package.

As well as the usual punky suspects, Cay’s love-list includes the evolving, protean King Crimson. This is a good sign, and explains how they can pull off such a wondrous effort as the album’s title track – a beautiful mix of punk power-chords, an ecstatically bruised and revelatory vocal from Anet, and a long moment when the rock rolls aside to reveal a heartfelt swathe of inner-space guitar melodies. On the rougher end, it also explains the parade of tempo-chopping riffs on Senseless – skirting points from Purple Haze and ‘Larks Tongues In Aspic’ through to Nomeansno and fully enraged hardcore punk, with a slam of alarm bells.

And then there are Anet’s lyrics, which dodge gesture politics or party rhetoric (of either kind). Most of the time they’re both simple and opaque. There’s some ragged individualism, some slippage between connections and independence. More often, though, they’re a discombobulated and shifting matrix of ideas, truths and motivations (with a hefty sprinkling of drug talk and quarrelling). They show life as it tends to appear to the over-curious – suspect; tenuously woven together. Something blurred by the changing loyalties and dependencies of unsettled lives where there are more questions and rejections than there are answers.

On the country-ish billow and scrub of Come Out, Anet is certainly questioning, though she’s questioning no-one in particular unless she’s trying to put a face onto the forces of chance. Cay seem to accept the unreliability and conflict in human flux… and unusually, they even accept their own. In the middle of the colossally aggressive guitar screams and sardonic vocal squalls in Reasonable Ease In Chilled Out Conditions, Cay slip gently into a embracing strum while Anet sighs “when we both come down, when we’re both worn out, / that’s where we should meet…”

A moment of unlikely grace, but then Cay are a band with unexpected depths.

Cay: ‘Nature Creates Freaks’
EastWest Records, 3984277462 / 3984277461
CD/vinyl album
Released: 17th June 1999

Get it from:
CD or vinyl best obtained second-hand; files streamable from Bandcamp.

Cay online:
Facebook Bandcamp Last FM

June 1999 – album reviews – The Monsoon Bassoon’s ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’ (“gloriously twisted tunes with gritty, testifying zeal”)

15 Jun

The Monsoon Bassoon: 'I Dig Your Voodoo'

The Monsoon Bassoon: ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’

You could say that The Monsoon Bassoon are like three train-tracks converging on a single set of points. Going full-tilt on the first is a savage, grinning, tuneful thing from that edgy end of indie-rock that spawned Pixies or Shudder To Think – one eye a gimlet, the other a Catherine wheel. Riding the second, there’s a rigorous interlocking mechanism poised like a mantis: its lifeblood a nerve-pumping mix of math-rock mesh and prog rock verve. Careening along the third track is a thrashing shotgun wedding of baroque black metal and head-fuck psychedelia, steam spurting out of every joint. High speed. Impact imminent. This could be messy.

In fact, it ends up as something wonderful. Where there should’ve been mangled smoking fragments strewn across the neighbourhood, an ornate and brand-new beast is racing ahead. Gleaming gears whirling, showering fat sparks – taking on the stodgy, mulchy, rotted-down state of guitar rock and carving an intricate furrow through it, smashing exuberantly through fences en route. Ten tracks of delirious celebratory intricacies, and explosive rock detonations, ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’ rejoices unashamed in the sheer excitement of motion. If you could fix it so that a tropical rainstorm blasted through a double reed, you’d probably end up with this kind of melodious shrapnel.

The very thought of latterday psychedelic rock can prompt a checklist: druggy sonic syrup, honeybee harmonies, static songs, ad-infinitum wobbly jamming… Forget that. Instead, and for starters, imagine a roller-coasting XTC arguing their way down the corkscrew. Imagine Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci if they’d been shorn of their Brian Wilson fixation, off their heads on chaos theory and frantically shagging a stapling machine. In The Monsoon Bassoon two duelling slashing guitars, a fat-geared-but-light-footed rhythm section and three urchin-meets-starchild singers (Sarah Measures, Dan Chudley and Kavus Torabi) fractalise their songs into manic battling melodies. There are pop hooks aplenty, generally on the verge of turning into egg-whisks and grappling irons: there’s an alphabet soup of puzzling riffs, quirks and blissful deranged woodwind. If the band are clearly enthralled by their own avid craftmanship, they’re also firing up their gloriously twisted tunes with gritty, testifying zeal, running the shoe-leather off the soul-punk poseurs.

Even so, managing to bag an NME Single of the Week with each of their three singles so far must have been as vividly strange for the Bassooners as their songs are to everyone else. At a time when artier British tastemakers generally save their praise for musicians across the Atlantic – Flaming Lips and Pavement, Jim O’Rourke, Godspeed, Dave Pajo and his ever-unwinding adventures – left-field rockers over here are rarely given many sniffs of approval. While there are some exceptions, the Bassoon doesn’t fit the gaps in the sorter. They lack the 1960s classic-pop castellations of the aforementioned Gorky’s or Super Furry Animals; nor do they have the latter’s comfortable indie pounding and canny dilution of experimental juices: nor do they ever resort to those sullen, reductive punk-gang posturings with which Mogwai feel they need to justify their own rugged sound-paintings. Operating right off the critical and commercial radar, driven by a stubborn and guileless enthusiasm, the Monsoon Bassoon give off the impression of a band mounting an unexpected coup which is as much of a surprise to them as it is to everyone else.

That said, a shortage of ambition – or of sheer bloody cheek – is the last thing that this band need to worry about. With joyous, inspirational disregard for their own dignity, The Monsoon Bassoon blow the lid off the whole shebang in a well-overdue explosion – and the last that I heard, it was still heading skywards. When The King Of Evil kicks in at Mach 3 (with its interweaving jitterbug melodies and Sarah purring her foxy way along the switch-backing melody) and when it closes in a welter of rough’n’ready choral excitement, giant celebratory chords and the sound of Kavus and Dan’s guitars utterly losing it, screaming in delight… you can hear liberation. This is rock music flowering into shape without the usual restrictions on decreed shape, or on fashion manifesto; and it’s all the better for it, yelling “fuck you, get out of my way!” while in the same breath flashing a brilliant grin and adding “but you can come too.”

There are left-field forebears to spot, for sure. Beyond the Naked City reed-punk and the manic gearshifting, there’s a chainmail of intent and disciplined guitar patterns (equal parts Television and Henry Cow) while their zeal for distressed chords and textures would do Sonic Youth proud. Blue Junction – in which meticulous chamber-minimalism suddenly explodes into New Wave thrash – anchors them to Steve Reich, as does their ‘Magic Roundabout’ way with a circling riff. Sometimes the band resemble a younger, more hyperactive King Crimson (those revolving guitars, Sarah’s daredevil flutes and reeds, the way the music booms back and forth between celestial minimalism and bellowing, screaming blasts of red-hot air) yet they have more of a sense of sheer fun and active dynamism. The lunatic shadow of Cardiacs walks alongside them too – unsurprisingly, as it’s Tim Smith’s jaggedy production that’s trimming off any of the album’s residual cuteness, feathering the guitars with a swarming shiver, and turning the music into a multi-coloured paintbomb blowing up in a garage.

But The Monsoon Bassoon are very much their own people – sporting their irrepressible pop edge; spin-drying their surreal, prismatic lyrics into motion-blurs; bouncing melodies off a riot-ballet of pummelling rhythms. The band’s collective readiness to go from ragged pop coo to thrash to heavy prog to freak-noise – all at the flick of a wrist – ensures that nothing has time to go stale. They could be strafing and racing, relentlessly hammering a metallic riff to death until it haemorrhages rainbows, as they do on The Constrictor and Commando. Or (as on Soda Pop And Ash) they could be fattening a snakey wisp of wistful melody on those knotty guitars and skewering your attention through your third eye. Or – as on the fragmentary, wonder-struck Volcano – they could be sliding off the edge of the world, pupils dilated, as a lone glissando guitar scribbles hazy colour across the sky. Whichever way they go, a brainstorm of invention is guaranteed to hit you in the ears at just the right moment, spinning the music into a fascinating new course.

Wise Guy was the first of their singles to wear a bizarre groove in London indie-radio playlists and has lost none of its ability to set your head dancing. Six minutes of choppy pop (as if they’d collided the best bits of ‘Red’, ‘Fear Of Music’, Living In The Past and Paranoid Android to audaciously tuneful effect), it periodically explodes like axe-heads coming through hotel-room doors, twirls pirouettes, and leaps up to a trumpeting, triumphant, speaker-melting fanfare. Kavus, Dan and Sarah babble about uncut diamonds and flashbulbs and gravity gone bored; about digging (perhaps into trouble, probably into revelation), and about “three silver sixes” (which might be about dice, and might be about something more occult). Both wild and meticulous, the music races away into a game of pouncing, quick swap grooves and joshing body-slams. Through the flashes, the song’s actual meaning is more elusive, more felt than voiced; it flirts around you and threads its way into your instincts, dancing on giddy splinters as it does.

Yet in spite of the tangled, giddy innocence their enthusiasm suggests, there’s more to the Monsoon Bassoon than just adrenalin art or an agreeably scrambled psychedelic circus. As their leaf-storm of lyrics tumbles by, it leaves scratches of faith, fear, things seen from the corners of eyes and in the corners of souls. Flashes of purgatory, intimations of danger – “lovely tornado, / who is such a fucking laugh, / turns up on my turf… Like glass I may crack. / Unlike glass I’ll not be replaced.” The menace lurking in the places where a glittering chord can’t hurl illumination. It’s all of a piece with the band’s fizzing, open spirit of inquiry: it’s the other side of the receiver. Their journey offers fractured glimpses of disturbing places – a kaleidoscopic stream of raw life-jolts, bad comedowns, metaphysical jitters and naked feelings all fusing together.

It takes guts and risk to walk the Bassoon’s kind of wayward line, to let yourself be carried along in the impulses of creating this music’s headlong rush. Towards the end of the gloriously-titled Fuck You Fuck Your Telescope, there’s a panicked, repeating wail of “wake up teetering everyday.” On Blue Junction the music bursts from serenity into pulsing frenzy as soon as Kavus blurts “he was out of the country and down on his luck / when you came out laughing and I came unstuck.” Among the chopping riffs and lofting spirals of Best Of Badluck 97, Kavus is seething and licking wounds. “I broke my neck to kiss her / The year this mother went up to 11. / Saddle-sore and still there’s more… / No sword of iron ever struck such blows. / Such a swarm of death, self-centred I… / Inside I’m six foot deep.” Shortly afterwards, the whole group carols “and I can’t catch up, / and I can’t wake up, / and I won’t grow up, / and I can’t stand up” as if their collective backs are against the wall, and all that they can do is sing the threat away: a harmony of defiance.

The forbidding tones of In The Iceman’s Back Garden (slow, pagan, cathedralline), closes the album like a shower of luminous earth hitting a coffin lid. It’s the sort of epic you’d expect from a band stuck into their fourth album, grown-up, newly spiritual and eager to wrestle with the indifferent savagery of the universe. A world away from the vivacious peekaboo of Wise Guy, it’s no less impressive. If the former was a firework display, Iceman is the glow on the lip of a volcano, showing that The Monsoon Bassoon are just as effective when rooted to the planet and letting something dark and troubling seep through them to the surface. It starts off as dark embers, slowly fanned and building up to destroying flame: an enormous iron clang, then a foreboding clarinet, intoning over the top of a massive, bells-of-doom guitar lattice that’s enough to send most of the Goth bands of the world running home to mother. And this time there’s an almost religious terror in the vocals – a fierce song commemorating the end of something as it has been known, and tinged with fear as to what will happen next.

The voices and lyrics are murky, mysterious, entranced. Faces, dirt, hair, stars, cries and eyes creep out of the word-darkness – little clues. In one of the few clear moments, they’re keening “He won’t dare…” There are a few moments of tumbling vocals, slashing guitars and urgent reeds during which the whole thing seems to whirl: then the guitars flail and the clarinet screams as a fierce, beautiful, terrible light pours down from above. A final, desperately beautiful chant, then they beat our hearts to death with a riff the size of the sky before bursting into a stream of starry feedback that sweeps all before it. If the apocalypse is going to be this beautiful, roll on Doomsday.

Stubborn, ludicrous, gloriously eccentric; ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’ is all these things: but it’s also one of the bravest, most exciting British rock albums of its time… by a long twisty neck. Jumping the tracks with style and a vengeance.

The Monsoon Bassoon: ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’
Weird Neighbourhood Records, WNRS4 (5 024545 078428)
CD-only album
Released:
7th June 1999
Buy it from: Best obtained second-hand. (Note, April 2013 – Believers Roast plan to reissue this along with the rest of the Monsoon Bassoon catalogue at some point in the next few years.)
The Monsoon Bassoon online:
MySpace Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music
 

May 1999 – mini-album reviews – Rudy Simone’s ‘Personal Cloud’ (“contradictory shards and half-formed knots of feeling”)

14 May

Rudy Simone: 'Personal Cloud'

Rudy Simone: ‘Personal Cloud’

“I wrap my lips around a cigarette / instead of you,” mourns Rudy Simone on the title track of ‘Personal Cloud’. Her voice pipes and teeters on a precipice of reproach. It’s gently, perpetually, pulled back by beautiful harp-like guitars and throaty bass synth. Here’s a lullaby for the betrayed, somewhere between the sweet hyper-conscious dissolve of a Jane Siberry ballad and a Rose Royce disco symphony. Clasping heartbreak to itself, like an addict in recovery, and gently rocking to soothe; while allowing all of the contradictory shards and half-formed knots of feeling to swim free for a moment, a float of voices and words knocking against each other.

“I thought I was drowning, it was only rain./ Thought I felt fire, it was only smoke. / Never leave me… / Oh, will this world take you from me? / I tried, I tried to leave it alone…”

‘Personal Cloud’ is all about this kind of mixed, eddying feeling. Intensities and unravellings. Throwing vitriol and clinging to loyalty. The need to stab the same person you might be begging to pick you up off the floor two hours later. And if it wavers dramatically – both in its musicality and in its consistency – that’s only in keeping with what it’s about, as Rudy explores her emotional devastation using various forms of music. Club elements invade baggily-hanging acoustic confessionals. Wobbly jazz singing gatecrashes trance-dance. Free association yanks a tune bloodily from its roots. Throughout, moods swing like road-signs in a gale, confusing direction.

 “I swear sometimes I wish an alien will take you from this planet / then I turn around, y’know, / I never meant it,” frets Rudy on Velvet, an all-over-the place straggle of guitar, cello and drums where jealousy, need and pride disrupt each other. At one moment, she’s showing the lover her boot and the door  (“Go on out / take your place and find the one who does it all for you,”). At the next, she’s turned the full blowtorch of greedy sexuality onto him to melt him back down again (“It don’t fit into your plans to be so selfish / when all that velvet is waiting for your kiss…”).

Puppet strings yank themselves; kissing lips bruise on gritted teeth. A foot slides, caressing, up a lover’s calf. The same foot turns and hammers a heel, hard, into his instep.

This kind of tense no-man’s land is a stressful place to be. Sometimes there’s a wordless protest, as expressed in Galactica – cosmic trance-techno, where the lonely cry of a star-burned keening synth is cheered up by a flamboyant crash of bells and bucked up by a roguish, tarry bubble of club bassline. Alternatively, Stronger Than You Know meanders along on its skinny guitar and string synths, changing its shape, like a girl dancing drunkenly across treacherous ground, knowing where to put her feet but lurching dangerously close to disaster. It seems fey, but only because it’s discovered a different kind of resistance, dissolving again to escape damage – “Oh, you’re kicking light, / you’re punching air.”

The militaristic Bjork-ish beat of Glimmer Of Hope, the tension of guitar and listing punchdrunk voice, belies its positivity – “I see a glimmer of hope in the clouds / and it’s all I need to see my way out of this.”  On Feel Like I Belong, the club electronics bang and bubble under one of Rudy’s sweetest bluesiest sighs, and bloody experience is weighed up – “memories can drown if you let them – / just because you can it doesn’t mean that you should.” Only the drunken brooding of surly fuzz-guitar suggests there’s something wrong behind this particular attempt at finding peace.

record-rudysimone-ktcocFar more satisfying (in terms of comfort, anyway) is the spooky guitar and spiralling trip-hop of the haunted single Kill The Cult Of Cool – remarkable in any context, particularly moving here, it sounds like a night’s spiritual battle committed to tape. On the single cover Rudy, visibly haunted, stared down fear out of a circle of tall, slender flames, and the song’s occult, speaking-in-tongues feel is still immediate. Over Gothic movie keyboards, Rudy delivers a Buffy-esque putdown in a cool, girl-with-a-mission voice – “I’ve got nothing but derision for your apocalyptic vision. / Anti-amorous, not glamorous. / Time to kill the cult of cool,” – before rolling off into a weird, syncopated mixture of American indie, sampledelia and trip-hop in which everything seems to slide gracefully in and out of time. Ruminative, sandpapery hip-hop beats do the slippery shuffle-and-collapse in the basement. Frail raga-trance vocal melodies drape themselves in irregular folds over the roof. White noise, static radio fizz and heart-monitor bleeps struggle in and out of the mix: a dreamy staircase of guitars (including a spaghetti-Western dobro) twangs at the heart of the chorus.

The rest is a weave of lost-girl chant and coos, a multiplicity of voices flipping backwards and forwards, a narcotic nuzzle towards solace. “Help up, I shall bless,” keens one line. “Ooh yes, honour – there’s no-one there…” murmurs another. Rudy duels weightlessly with other wounded voices (“I was the quiet one in school, never made any trouble…”) and absentee gods before declaring with quiet assurance, “I don’t care what you say, I’m not crazy.” The fact that this happens at the beginning of ‘Personal Cloud’ – and not as a tidy resolution at the end – suggests that this isn’t the first time she’s had to take up arms against her own crowded inner sea of troubles.

Uneven, unsettling, and mixing awkward un-coordination with gliding grace, ‘Personal Cloud’ reveals the wayward talent of a potential cult heroine – unafraid to grasp at the chaos and trash of the battered heart.

Rudy Simone: ‘Personal Cloud’
Phat Lady Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-R-only mini-album
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Extremely rare – best found second-hand.

Rudy Simone online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

April 1999 – album reviews – Michael Bearpark/Peter Chilvers’ ‘Thin Air’ (“scraping waves and langorous tides”)

10 Apr
Michael Bearpark/Peter Chilvers: 'Thin Air'

Michael Bearpark/Peter Chilvers: ‘Thin Air’

I could take the easy route first and say that if you’ve heard ‘No Pussyfooting’, you’ve more or less heard ‘Thin Air’. But that’d be a weaselling statement: technically correct but still untrue, and also of neither use nor value to you. As if I said that the most important defining characteristic of an apple was that it was round and green, and thought that that was all there was to it.

Yes – it is true that the Bearpark/Chilvers album is very Fripp & Eno (or a close musical cousin to Richard Pinhas). Its five tracks (titled, without fuss, One to Five) make up a little under an hour of droning, buzzing, looped Les Paul guitar textures and minimal synth. It comes in scraping waves and langorous tides, sometimes broken by a tightly-controlled welling of overdriven melody. The Frippertronics comparison is more than appropriate: it’s exact. Here is the same methodology, and similar equipment – although Peter Chilvers’ digital keyboards and hard-drive recording are far removed from Eno’s primitive VCS3 and Revoxes back in 1972.

But with that said, we can move on to the distinctions. It’s the same methodology, yes – but with a different intent. Fripp & Eno were taking a vacation from disciplined, cunningly constructed early ’70s art-rock when they made ‘No Pussyfooting’. While they’ll have absorbed the same influences second-hand (not least through Fripp and Eno themselves), Bearpark and Chilvers’ active roots lie in the lusher ambient fields of the ’80s, the small home thoughts of the ’90s, and elsewhere. For feeding grounds there’s been the avant-garde songwriter croon of Samuel Smiles (of which, together, they make up half the line); the ethereal, tranquillised nu-folk of Chilver’s Alias Grace project; and the remarkable extended electrophonic improvising of Darkroom in which Michael coaxes and abuses guitar, and in which Peter occasionally guests on subliminal bass noises.

Consequently, ‘Thin Air’ simply doesn’t have the same flavour as ‘No Pussyfooting’ – although there’s a case to be made for its relationship with the subsequent ‘Evening Star’ centerpiece Wind On Water, or indeed with David Sylvian’s Fripp-starring Gone To Earth. The music here is more accepting of meditative flows and of fallings-into-place than Fripp & Eno’s passive-aggressive merger of science and chance, where the tones bristled like affronted scholars even as they delivered their assertions. New Age it’s not, though; finding a rich and revealing depth as it surrenders to the floating moment. As One progresses, Peter’s keyboards become more predominant as well as more sacramental in tone; swelling in sermon-ish washes or setting out tiny, meditative piano lines like an English Roedelius. Three sees him levitate a celestial synth in a bathe of high, light sounds over a sawing, working guitar loop, ending in what feels oddly like a High Church benediction.

Michael Bearpark – though he’s a Fripp-ish soundpainter for sure – has a very different musical personality. Dirtier, more repressed and seething than Fripp’s near-religious passion and pilgrim’s drive to grace, his slow-hand playing is actually more bloody-handed; sometimes leaning on notes as if he was trying to crush them, or to push their heads underwater and drown them. And there’s a strong element of filtered, chemically refined blues welling through the music; an ultra-distilled moan of frustration and clenched force, adding an extra human bite to the industrial friction sounds that gnaw gently in the background. All of the above makes his ultimate surrender to the trance more affecting.

What’s most revealing is what the two musicians give to each other in this context. Michael’s drawn-out, demanding focus draws Peter away from his tendencies to sober prettiness. In turn, Peter’s thoughtful but assertive calm (the pastor to the guitarist’s restless congregation) helps Michael to allay his own wayward illbient tendencies. And fortunately the result’s a compound of the two, rather than a dilution. If Two has the tightest discipline (a deep comforting growl of a bass loop, a starlit synth chord journeying from space to space in the stretched weave of guitar patterns), Four is a fall-apart – a dissolving narcosis of disintegrating guitar arpeggios over the looping waft of a nearly-was organ. Five is an absent farewell, looped up and down like a slow-motion roller coaster at midnight. The attention is elsewhere, but it’s gently captivating.

Yes, in terms of equipment lists and step-by-step instructions, this is something you’ve heard before. But one thing Michael Bearpark and Peter Chilvers prove on ‘Thin Air’ is that, whatever the gear and gizmos, this kind of process music is formed first and foremost by personalities – not by equations, function maps or manuals.

Michael Bearpark/Peter Chilvers: ‘Thin Air’
PeopleSound, 270370 (no barcode)
CD-R-only album
Released: 1999

Get it from:
The original PeopleSound CD-R is now long-deleted and best obtained second-hand. The album has been reissued as a CD-R by Burning Shed.

Michael Bearpark online:
Homepage Facebook Last FM

Peter Chilvers online:
Homepage Facebook Soundcloud Last FM YouTube

March 1999 – EP reviews – Subvert’s ‘My Greater Energy’ (“you’re pulled some of the way into their siege, but finally you’re left stuck in the murk”)

15 Mar

Subvert: 'My Greater Energy'

Subvert: ‘My Greater Energy’

Choked, Device, Straitjacket – going on song titles alone, Norwich punks Subvert don’t just fear having to go down struggling, they’re positively certain of it. And with a final song declaring itself as My Greater Energy, they’re expecting some sort of victory at the end of it. Though as singer Jim Marten opts for an angst-lacerated, word-mangling punk howl most of the time, it’s difficult to work out exactly what form that takes. Steeped in the unforgiving heaviness and relentlessness of metalcore but rebelling against it from the inside, Subvert demand a lot of ear-time.

Subvert don’t behave quite as you’d expect. They hollow spaces out of punk structures; mostly via Nick Barker’s crafty drumming, which anchors songs in tommy-gun rattles and crushing rolls but constantly tugs at those anchors, creating gaps and new shapes for the band to exploit for atmosphere. Not that these are a relief – Subvert let the shadow of the world creep in behind their broken-up instrumentation. Clouds of heavy brown exhaust stain the light and lurk overhead like malignant genies. If you listen enough to their disaffected and resentful music, you’re pulled some of the way into their siege, but finally you’re left stuck in the murk.

My Greater Energy itself goes from a Motorhead crunch to a distorted and springy polyrhythmic challenge, spitting snakey cymbals. Jim’s demand of “why don’t you take another piece of me? / Have what you want, just get away from me” could’ve been a standard punk exploited-man’s challenge. When he follows it up with a bitter plea of “will someone save me from my friends?”, it’s clear that the struggle is much more central that that. As he grates “I don’t care… just want to run away from everyone… my thoughts are so distorted” over the slow pulsing grind of Choked, it’s obvious that we’re in a more deeply wounded place than the battlefield where we usually find our battered-but-unbowed punk heroes.

Subvert aren’t the first punks to find the blows that they’re delivering curling back in to become desperate blockages; the fight jumping inwards. But they’re damn honest about the panic of the struggle. Reuben Gotto’s thrashing counterpoint guitar riffs in Device are a helpless backward tumble – an arch in a constricting box, trapped with the knucklebone drums and bass – and are set off by the same sort of jarring chorus as Nirvana’s Blew or Radiohead‘s My Iron Lung. The same yank on the shoulder.

There’s a little respite in Blank Canvas: sullen bastard it may be, but it yearns towards anthems, unexpectedly breaks into hip-hop beats and anxious minor-chord strumming as Jim roars “d’you think that you know it all?…/ It made me so angry.” Still, as you’re drawn deeper into the heart of this EP, a conviction grows. At the very centre is a bleak testing-yard in which a man is roaring into the angle of a wall and gradually smashing himself into bits.

Subvert: ‘My Greater Energy’
Blank Canvas Records, CANVAS 01CD (no barcode)
CD-only EP
Released:
15th March 1999
Get it from: best obtained second-hand, or via Amazon
Subvert online:
Last FM
 

February 1999 – album reviews – Sebadoh’s ‘The Sebadoh’ (“their greatest strength (is) their talent for presenting us with soft-bodied, delicate songs of couplehood and everyday agony”)

23 Feb

Sebadoh: 'The Sebadoh'

Sebadoh: ‘The Sebadoh’

Among the awkward indie sods, few come with more of a reputation than long-serving Sebadoh. Lo-fi with a vengeance, prone to self-destruction and fucking up at festivals whenever they’ve got a hope of TV exposure. Painstakingly democratic instrument-swapping anti-stars, given to blasting themselves and their beloved audience with wilful destructive sarcasm to sabotage the climb. Glued to the underground as fervently as a cult-wedded couple, and rumoured to take umbrage at the slightest suggestion that they’ve taken a chart-friendly direction. And still A Success, with main Sebah-dude Lou Barlow scoring (bing!) a massive chart hit as Folk Implosion and the band recently joining him there with Flame, the single that heralded this new album.

“Herald” being the right word. All over the presskit, all over the media, you’ll find people trumpeting about the rebirth of Sebadoh. They’re using samples! They did ‘Top Of the Pops’! They sacked their old drummer because – wait for it – he wasn’t playing well enough (so much for punk values). They’ve gotten a serious case of polished songs, where once they only had Lou Barlow shambling knee-deep through uncut gems. They’re the underground gone overground (what? again? what’s new?). And you think “OK, cult-hero indie sloggers go for the cash, get in good producer and just become slightly better at what they do”, and you brace yourself for college rock.


 
But the big surprise is that ‘The Sebadoh’ is really much better than that. Never mind Flame. That was never much more than a Motown sample grafted onto a serviceable indie-Stones bash: Satisfaction with a topping of contemporary irony. Fine as far as it goes for student disco fodder, but nothing magical. It’s the rest of the album that makes you sit up and take notice. Thank God: the anointed indie underground isn’t all Silverchair and Jon Spencer’s Sluice Incursion. Barlow, Jason Loewenstein and new boy Russ Pollard do have good songs, and they didn’t have to bland down or muckrake to prove it.

They might kick off the album with a mighty feedback buzz for reassurance, but hiding behind dodgy sound is a mug’s game: Sebadoh have been in this game long enough to learn how to ride the gremlins. Their recipe randomly spices up the rough-honed American indie ingredients adding bits of Stax, a smidgin or two of classic British guitar pop, a helping of grunge stubble, occasional flinty piano and backroom electronics, a pinch of (hey!) classic rock, some barbed twists of good old middle-class revolt, and the odd joke.


 
And they still play like horny fifteen-year-olds. The slithery lo-fi synths, wild “whoop whoop” backing vocals and pronky guitar racket of It’s All You is like Supergrass on extra monkey glands; even if, at the core, it’s Lou fretting about love again. Pissed off because he can’t get her off his mind while she’s away; pissed off because he’s found something special that cuts him off from everything else. You can’t win in Sebadoh land.


 
Which is odd, given Sebadoh’s particular gifts; their greatest strength being their talent for presenting us with soft-bodied, delicate songs of couplehood and everyday agony, providing honesty without preciousness. Like Tree’s exquisite, subtly psychedelic sweetness, tapping into the same folk vein REM drank from for ‘Out of Time’: a lightfooted dance of acoustic guitars and lapping textures, gardening representing couplehood, and talk of earth and growing things that never makes you think “hippy”.


 
The heart-breaking Love is Stronger is another orchards-worth of tremulous guitars and murmuring noises, as Lou pleads “please give me back my life / if you plan to let this die” while trying to brave it out: “I said I don’t mind, when I do – ‘cos I’d do anything for you, / and watch us waste away, if you smile – / and if we lose it all in style.” The final, hardest irony is the song’s gloriously optimistic title; when Lou’s discovery is that the only thing love overpowers is his ability to deal with the truth and the falling apart of things.


 
Between the soft bits, there’s still enough fuzz’n’grime on ‘The Sebadoh’ to satisfy that have-a-go-indie fetish. Sebadoh can probably do this in their sleep now, though it’s to their credit that when they do chuck up a hairball of noise it’s uncontrived. Drag Down fits the bill nicely – dirty big riff pieces, sloppy tunings, wayward vocals lurching into hardcore screeches when the tension jacks up a notch, and foaming-mouthed jaded-boyfriend words. Or Bird in the Hand’s yells, berserk-spin-dryer feedback noises and noisy crashing; or Nick of Time with its disconnected drumming fitting onto the song like a back-to-front coat.


 
The mopey cave of sullen pop noise in So Long is the only thing that sounds like it made it on as a lazy bet. Skip it for the horror-movie insults in Decide’s wracked, speedhappy swat of psychedelic garage: “love, hate; expression of your dead weight… / You give faith to deadly snakes… / I made a mistake, trusting you with what I make.” Or for the highpoints of Sebadoh’s slap-happier side: Cuban’s smashed, smudged crash into salsa – worthy of dEUS – and the hangdog Sugar gripe of Sorry. The latter’s impatient and unrepentant anti-hero is at least honest enough to admit that, for him, American manners are no more than cheap lubrication (“working for a sex life, climbing a mountain – and I think I’m losing my grip. / Once I’m falling (and I think I’m falling), there’s no getting back on it”) and humiliating embarrassment: “when my face makes that sorry shape, I know what I am but I lost my grace… / I want you to know that the more that I say it, the less it means in the end…”


 
Certainly part of Sebadoh involves spitting back some of the pieties of the America they’re living in. Not punk shock tactics, but an espousal of the inner revolution – maybe half-hearted, half-cocked, but at least a halfway step. On one song Lou advises “you’re threatened by this little town. / So lock your door, and break free.” The angry edge of Colourblind (another kickback to the Stones, but this time to their psychotic end-of-the-’60s buzz) has him seething at the turn things have taken, sampled crunches of protest songs rolling under his guitar: “black and white and beautiful – why’d they make it ugly? / Crackers in their camouflage, headed for the hills… / Wish we were colourblind, we could heal ourselves. / Wish I was invisible – I’d sink into myself.”

Sebadoh might be cradled in the heart of the nation of success; yet they’re holding hands, in resigned solidarity, with its deadbeats and disaffected. It takes Thrive – with its bristly guitars like sardonic eyelids – to fully express Sebadoh’s touchy, ungracious honesty. Their acceptance of failings (“pick a habit you can trust, we all need the reassurance”), and their knowledge that living with the partial failure of life isn’t such a disaster. “Back when I was young and clever and traced a pattern in the world / I thought I’d get my shit together – now I know I never could… / But we still thrive.” Indeed, knowing that that’s increasingly the way we live. And that we no longer have to justify it.


 
All together now: follow the Lou in one last comfortable bird-flip as we supplant our parents in those scruffy armchairs. “We’re too old to apologise” Awkward buggers rule.

Sebadoh: ‘The Sebadoh’
Domino Recording Co. Ltd , WIGCD 57 (5034202005728) / WIGLP 57 (5034202005711)
CD/vinyl album
Released:
22nd February 1999
Get it from: Domino Recordings store, Amazon Music or Google Play; stream via Soundcloud, Deezer, Apple Music or Spotify
Sebadoh online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music