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The End Festival in Crouch End, part 2 (November 16th-23rd 2015)

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…

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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.

 

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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.


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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.

 

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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).


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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.


 
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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.

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

Through the feed – Sufjan Stevens reissues ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ with various goodie options

26 Jun

Sufjan Stevens: 'Enjoy Your Rabbit'

Sufjan Stevens: ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’

Assuming that you’ve not heard about this yet (I still have the sneaking suspicion that the majority of my readers are ahead of me as regards news)…

…that prolific, poly-instrumental singer-songwriter/critical darling Sufjan Stevens is reissuing one of his earliest and oddest albums. Originally released by Asthmatic Kitty back in 2001, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ was reissued a couple of days ago (June 24th) on limited-edition deluxe vinyl and as a download.

On initial hearing, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ doesn’t sound much like the work with which Sufjan later made his name. Despite the man’s reputation for assured eclectism, it seems out-of-place and unexpected – very different from the concept albums in which he codified his life and thoughts into the hopes, dreams and terrains of American states; or from his baroque-ified folk-Americana (in which you were as likely to hear a cor anglais as a banjo or harmonium); or from his combining of original film and symphony music for ‘The BQE’; or even his battery of Christmas albums.

Recorded during Sufjan’s first stint in New York, it’s almost entirely electronic – a fizzing post-modern cut-up built from digital work station noises, samples and tweaks of live sounds (including stray guitars, organs, the brassy lather of Tom Eaton’s trumpet and prelingual vocals from Liz Janes and Sufjan himself). There’s a running theme via the Chinese zodiac and its twelve-year cycle, each year of which lends its name to a track (Year Of The Dragon, Year Of The Rat and so on), although Sufjan muddies the waters with two extra pieces – the title track and The Year Of Our Lord. (Given his professed Christianity, the latter is as likely to be sincere as it is to be a tongue-in-cheek gag: given the nature of the album, it’s probably both.)

Over to his label, Asthmatic Kitty, for a fuller explanation (as Asthmatic Kitty appears to have a staff of two, one of whom is Sufjan, you can be pretty sure that this is a definitive statement):

“Departing from the singer-songwriter format of his first Asthmatic Kitty album, ‘A Sun Came’, this collection of fourteen colourful instrumental compositions combines Sufjan’s noted gift for melody with electronic sounds to create an unusually playful and human – not to mention humane – electronic experience. First released in 2001 on CD, 2014 — the Year of the Horse — brings the original recording back as a double-LP set, the first disc clear and the other left to fortune. And no one can foresee who will receive one of two very special boxes of fortune cookies, containing fortunes penned especially for this occasion by Sufjan himself.

‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is the most underrated and overlooked album in Sufjan’s discography. It contains in capsule form what he would later unpack into more palatable music. There are flashes of ‘Michigan’ and ‘Illinois’ in Year Of Our Lord, Year Of The Ox and Year Of The Dog, and shadows of ‘Age Of Adz’ in the darkest moments of Year Of The Boar, Year Of The Snake or Year Of The Dragon. ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is a harbinger. A precursor. A wink in the eye before the slight. You should have listened in the first place. We’ll forgive you though, because when an album is only available in wasteful jewel-case CD, how cool can it be? Jewel-cases are so 1998. But now that it’s in multi-colored limited-edition gimmick-ridden vinyl, you have no excuse. ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’, which Sufjan wrote and recorded in the innocence of a pre-9/11 2001, is Sufjan’s best work because it is Sufjan at his least self-aware.

In an alternate reality, Sufjan never made ‘Michigan’ or ‘Seven Swans’ or ‘Illinois’; he kept making electronic freakout albums like ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ in obscurity, until perhaps he just gave up and stayed in graphic design and some pitying barely-afloat label re-released ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ and sold a few dozen copies to a few scattered part-time record store employees. But here we are in this reality, where ‘Michigan’ is slated for an energy drink commercial, ‘Illinois’ is a backdrop to a pensive montage in a kickstarted blockbuster movie, and ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is relegated to a drunken purchase at Amazon.com.

Here at Asthmatic Kitty, where we often ignore reality as it’s presented, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is one of our most played records. We find ourselves in the small company of ballet choreographers, quartets, and occasional internet reviewers, but there should be more of us. So, as if we were in that alternate universe where “Sufjan” is more likely the name of a ‘Game of Thrones’ character than an indie star, we hope you’ll give this record a chance now that it’s available as vinyl. It is just as genius as anything Sufjan has released since. Everything’s been downhill since.”

To my own cranky ears, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is a fascinating, skillful blip in Sufjan’s career – a rare chance to see his singular talent from a specific angle. It’s a little similar to your first encounter with Frank Zappa’s cascading Synclavier cut-ups if all you’d previously heard was his catalogue of hairy, horse-laugh rock cabaret numbers about groupie misdemeanours and middle-America caught napping and dribbling. Another comparison is Adrian Belew’s 1986 one-off ‘Desire Caught By The Tail‘ – a snarling, abstract career swerve from a musician who’d previously satisfied his avant-garde leaning by blowing spacey textures and barnyard/traffic sound effects through art-rock songs, but was now sitting down with a crude guitar synth (plus a jumble of pedals and assorted things to hit with a stick) in order to create uncompromising Picasso-Hendrix shapes at heavy-metal volume. Did someone say ‘Metal Machine Music’? Not quite, although there are moments of crushing noise on ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ which recall Lou Reed’s own Marmite effort.

One thing which can be said for certain is that ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is a breathtakingly playful record which nonetheless exhibits Sufjan’s extraordinary breadth of influences and compositional skills. If you listen closely, his subsequent ways of building a song are all already present and correct. Though they’re sheathed and blurred within the blip-glitching video-Pong noises, Tibetan bells and drunken brass band textures of Year Of The Monkey, they’re definitely there: it’s a song, voiced with all the oddness of a Charles Ives let loose on a sampler.

Speaking of Zappa, some prime bogus pomp shows up on Year Of The Snake and Year Of The Boar. Amongst the larking bass-harmonium reed drone and the razzing fizz of Sufjan’s electronics, some weighty blimpery waddles and patters. I could have sworn that Year Of The Boar even quotes ‘The Phantom Of The Opera’ at one point. Sufjan’s certainly not slow to drop in a ‘Mission Impossible’ quote on the album’s title track, which is otherwise the odd song out – an angular, dissonant line of Rock-In-Opposition guitar fuzz joined by a cavalcade of pushy racket and chiptune burble.

As for the Chinese component, it’s not clear whether this is a gimmick (like Sufjan’s subsequent tall tales of a “50 States” concept project) or another little metajoke which he’s balled up and sent sailing over our heads. Scattered sparingly across the record, Mannar Wong adds some genuine spoken Chinese. In and around certain pieces, trilled Chinese melodies bump up against European string quartet tunes or (as on Year of the Tiger) flute around cabaret vocalese and bells over thudding shadow-tones. But at least as much is drawn through and worked in from other sources: Sufjan’s first years in the thick of New York’s cosmopolitanism must have been a greedy feast for his ears. Steam-organ and No Wave whomp, carefully orchestrated, collide with early-Genesis prog flourishes. Sewer-pulsations meet Bontempi organs and sample-heavy vocal murmurs, folded into Latin pop melodies. Silvery Krautrock turns into dinky, glitch-mauled castle music on Year Of The Rat. For Year of the Sheep, Sufjan turns the music into a battle between pulp and celestial. Against the birth-of-the-world vocalise which he and Liz Janes knit together, animal sounds yawp and rampage – angry pregnant elephants, excited pterodactyls.

Rat

The thirteen-minute Year Of The Horse – the piece on which Sufjan could really have come unstuck – instead shows him in full control: sustaining and mutating schools of ideas at greater length, like a post-techno Mike Oldfield. Despite its mongrel elements and its sense of hazard sources, over the course of its journey (minimalist piano figure in trio with vibrating mechanical sounds and out-of-focus kettledrums; panpipe-riffles marshalling around industrial squashing-tones; a finale of glitched/phased/near-atonal signal twitches), it’s not so dissimilar to those carefully-structured stretches of ‘Tubular Bells’ or ‘Ommadawn’ back in the 1970s. Not that Sufjan would necessarily agree: his time at New York’s New School (which he was attending while he wrote this album) would have exposed him to any number of inspirations from chance heroes to masters of structure. What’s clear is that under the capering and restless sonics, great swathes of ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ display Sufjan’s bedrock talent and the solidity of his musical placings. It’s a cliché that a single work by one artist can hold as many ideas as another artist’s entire career, but this is one of those cases where the old saw is true. I’ve heard plenty of electrophonic records eking out a single concept or a sparse few, albeit successfully. ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ makes most of them sound like lazy sketches.

You should judge for yourselves, though – this wasn’t supposed to be a review. You can get your copy of the album from Asthmatic Kitty or Bandcamp (both fixed-price vinyl or download) or from Noisetrade (pay-what-you-like download-only). For the possibility of fortune cookies, I’m guessing that you should pester Asthmatic Kitty directly. If you want the additional option of ordering a vinyl twosome of ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ and Osso String Quartet’s ‘Run Rabbit Run’ as a thirty-dollar special offer… well, that’s another thing to talk to Asthmatic Kitty about.

Sufjan Stevens online:
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REVIEW – Holy Roman Empire: ‘Dante’s Inferno’ single, 2001 (“a glorious Moulin Rouge gesture”)

27 Apr
Holy Roman Empire: 'Dante's Inferno'

Holy Roman Empire: ‘Dante’s Inferno’

“Well, you got so down you went to town and bought a brand-new top. / They can take your will to live but not your will to shop. / Try to eat more ‘cos you’re hungry, and less because you’re lonely, / and don’t let that feeling fade away…”

Oxford pop pixies Holy Roman Empire seem cheerful to sell themselves as being crap. Their press-kit is full of reviews slating their appalling clothes, their mimed performances, their (allegedly) pitiful singing and their clunky tape recorders hidden inexpertly under keyboard stands. Yet they don’t half shoot themselves in the foot by coming up with such good songs.

Bloody hell – if this had shown up in 1989 it would have swept all before it. Not every song blends – so successfully – lyrics like a playful junior Morrissey with mock-pomp Carter USM Casio orchestrations and rounds it off with the cruising freeway feel of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game. Back then this would have been a small Holy Grail for student radio, ghosting through every university bar across the land. Here and now it can only settle for being classic, timeless pop – whatever the clothing.

In case I’ve not made my point yet – Dante’s Inferno is marvellous. It’s one of those rare songs which fey critics, hung-up on the sublime disposability of pop, always whiffle on about. Well aware of the ludicrousness that lies at the heart of obsessive passion – and of the dramatic pretensions of pop music – it still goes at it full-tilt because it knows that that’s all that matters. (As a bonus, I can still believe in the song even as I reel off this kind of posturing shite… that’s high camp for you.)

Holy Roman Empire ‘s Ste Fleming and his two foils sigh as milkily as Prefab Sprout and deftly nail the paradox of all-consuming unrequited love. “You go to the doctor, and the doctor feeds you pills. / You know you need them, but you need the pain they kill. / All because you lost somebody, but never lost the feeling, / and daren’t let that feeling fade away.” Inevitably the other two songs are anticlimactic after this glorious Moulin Rouge gesture. After all, how do you follow up a song which has a ringmaster on the chorus?

Still, Holy Roman Empire can quick-march a long way on what they’ve got. What they’ve got happens to be a batch of cheesy keyboard puffs, an upbeat chirp of melody, a vocal style best compared to a pomp version of Rod, Jane & Freddy, and some of the sharpest lyrics this side of Paddy McAloon’s teenage-fluff drawer. I Bleed Petrol (punctuated by cute car-crash sound effects) could almost be a children’s singalong. Then again, there are lines like “city kids with sicknesses, and flowers placed by roads, / melting polar icecaps and the flooded southern coasts”, suggesting that the trio have made a noose out of a skipping rope and are trotting out in search of a symbolic motorist to lynch.

No Tomorrow is a bizarrely happy-sounding love song about… yes… everything turning out shit in the end. It’s a fiddling-about with goodbye ribbons as the city burns. “I was sort of wishing – yeah, I was kind of hoping, / as the ground got closer, that my parachute would open (but no…) / ‘You have to be strong now: you have to let me go,’ / so it’s off with my head and it’s on with the show.”

You have to reckon that as long as that tinselly backcloth is still there, Ste Fleming will stay happy. Supercheese wins out, then – and mighty tasty it is too.

Holy Roman Empire: ‘Dante’s Inferno’
Bluefire Records, BLU017
CD single
Released: 2001

Get it from:
Best obtained second-hand.

Artist online:
MySpace

EP reviews – Henry Fool: ‘The Free Henry Fool Download EP’ (“picking carefully through detailed instrumental weaves”)

19 Mar
Henry Fool: 'The Free Henry Fool Download EP'

Henry Fool: ‘The Free Henry Fool Download EP’

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue; and all in one package. Henry Fool (resurgent with the ‘Men Singing‘ album after over a decade of woodshedding) are offering a free look at what they do and what they’ve done. A four-minute edit of a rolling juggernaut from the new album; an exclusive, keyboard-led instrumental; two tracks lifted from the band’s 2001 debut album.

While the older tracks (touted via their expansive Steven Wilson mix) might pull in some attention, Henry Fool offer plenty on their own account. Like a number of their contemporaries (such as Sanguine Hum, with whom they currently share drummer Andrew Booker) the band pick carefully through the detailed instrumental weaves of progressive rock left behind by the likes of Soft Machine and Genesis during the early ’70s. Admittedly, they’ve also got the odd thing in common with the sometimes inspired, sometimes benighted neo-proggers of the 1980s. Keyboard whiz Stephen Bennett was one; while guitar puzzler and sometime singer Tim Bowness (better known for no-man) had his own mid-’80s brush with the genre via a bellowing one-night stand with Hertfordshire pompsters Gothique. However, the Fool’s music is churned and tinted by connections and cross-talk with jazz, Brian Eno, Cambridge, avant-garde texture loops and post-rock, making it a subtler and more diverse stew.

For the most part Henry Fool are reappraising that old-school prog fabric, re-cutting it via thinking shaped by four more decades of musical developments, step-backs and parallels. At no point does it feel that they’re simply replicating the old vintage – still less watering it down. It’s more as if they’re inhabiting it; as if they’d moved into an old house, given the interiors a fresh coat of paint, and are now at the stage where they’re hanging bright new pictures and squinting at them, trying to see if they fit with the lines of the beams. Plucked from ‘Men Singing’, the four-minute edit of Everyone In Sweden (trimmed down from its original fourteen) keeps much of its vigour and its cunning ancestry: slow-motion Soft Machine keyboard cascades married to the rapid aggressive wobble of a 1976 Genesis groove, layered with scribbling synth lines which scurry over the structure like a gang of weasels. While clipped, wrangling guitars (part-post-punk, part-post-rock) hack against the smoothness, the edit brings out aspects less evident in the long version – the chippy funk in Peter Chilvers’ fretless bass, or the ghost-train lean of the chords.

As you might expect from the punning title, the Bennett-led A Canterbury Scene (exclusive to the EP) reveals more Soft Machine elements. Centred around the brittle tones of electric piano – wah-ed and echoed in the style of late ’60s Miles Davis bands – it gradually shifts to more Egg-like territories collided with grand Yes string parts. Lurking in the shadows of pomp, it edges its way around the outside, never setting a foot in the brasher spotlight. Written in a dicey 25/8, Poppy Q (its counterpart from those 2001 tracks) is a careful pick-through of electric piano, like a tiptoe through a prog minefield. One minimal keyboard figure arches over odd chords and a faux-Mellotron counterpoint, before the whole band step up into a stately twitching rhythm, keyboards interplaying with a bass part which pulls its shape from the original piano line.

Heartattack (also from the 2001 album) is the only track on which Tim Bowness unleashes his whispered, impeccably English spring-water croon. It’s also the song that best shows how Henry Fool differ from the standard prog approaches. While so many bands in the genre expand everything from ballad to suite into a mass of crammed lyrics and grand significance, Tim opts for a quick peep-show look into a life more ordinary, with a jolt of inner panic. “Stone-in-love and lost again, / you’re walking through the fields. / Summer fresh, your life’s a mess, / you’re wearing down your heels. / Don’t look back, / you’ll have a heart attack.” Thirty-five syllables of narrative, and that’s it. The rest is your own guess, to be worked out against a backdrop of clover-burst keyboard chords, discreet-but-urgent guitar peals and clenching rhythms. Prog balladry from the leanest side, in which the musical scenery is as much the story as the words are, but in which the delicacy asserts a refusal to hammer home the meaning.

Henry Fool: ‘The Free Henry Fool Download EP’
Burning Shed (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only EP
Released: 8th March 2013

Get it from:
Free download from Burning Shed

Henry Fool online:
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REVIEW – Darkroom: ‘Fallout One’ album, 2001 (“like a small corpse flattened onto a moving tyre”)

13 Jan
Darkroom: 'Fallout One'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout One’

Maybe it’s due to simply not being on the right label (they’re homed neither at Warp Records nor at Rephlex, nor at any of the other established electronica houses who provide a credible passport to attention). Maybe it’s the frustration of continually bouncing, disregarded and unloved, off the defense radar at ‘The Wire’. Maybe it’s simply the usual difficulties regarding working on and playing an abstract, thickly electronic music with even fewer anchors than most of the buzzing, bleeping efforts in that particular field.

Whatever it is, while the mightily amorphous Darkroom should have been a serious avant-garde cult act by now. Instead, they’ve been in retreat since their initial late ‘90s rising and since those times when they brought their galactic rumble-and-wail to some of the artier club-nights around London. It’s dispiriting – but at least this has been a strategic retreat rather than slinking off, defeated, to lick their wounded diodes.

Darkroom remain active, particularly in their native Cambridge. They still haunt basements, galleries and art-house cinemas whenever they can, recording hours and hours of live material. They’re still more or less unknown: but they’ve been making the most of this anonymity. At least it allows them to continue to explore their own unsettling take on ambient music, unencumbered by the demands of the more familiar electronica clubs or by any micro-cultures other than their own. The ‘Fallout’ trilogy (of which this is the first installment) is the result.

These recordings present an unadulterated Darkroom, live and in the raw – a sound of boiling sea-stuff, of natural chaos, of expansively stewing noise. They’ve abandoned the song experiments and the more disciplined, streamlined aspects of their previous album ‘Seethrough‘ in order to embrace more of the chaotic, massy, polytextural wanderings that they touched on in their ‘Daylight’ debut. Each of the tracks on ‘Fallout One’ is functionally numbered: One to Seven. None are graced with any more of a name, nor indeed any more clues of any kind. There are no sine-wave surfing references, no snippets of French or intimations of disturbance, no jokes (unless you count the press release name-checking both Photek and Satan). There aren’t even any nods to the collective’s old Samuel Beckett fetish.

Darkroom don’t guide anymore. They drift remotely through their music with a mixture of utter authority and confusing haphazardness, stirring ideas in and spinning them out. You can’t place yourself with this music: you can only live with it. Any associations which you care to make are now entirely your own.

‘Fallout One’ also emphasizes an increasing musical dominance by Andrew Ostler, the keyboard-and-programming corner of the Darkroom triangle. Freshly returned from his solo project Carbon Boy, Os brings back plenty – he adds a glut of shortwave radio voices; he disrupts Darkroom’s light-footed beats and breaks them up into free-jazz stumbles. His relentless mutations of dense electronics regularly distort and destroy any settled landscapes that the group might have settled on. Lurking in the background, Michael Bearpark concentrates on turning his guitar into a slow-hand blur of inscrutable forbidding noise. When he’s not doing that he’s building up a succession of aquamarine loops, sounding like a coldly psychotic take on Michael Brook.

By comparison, singer Tim Bowness seems more displaced than ever. Already abstract, whenever his vocals appear now they take the form of shocked, drowning, incoherent whoops and keens, half-submerged in the swirl of choking ambience and psychedelic space echo which his collaborators are cooking up. As ever, the effect is similar to the contorted vocal tapestries of Tim Buckley’s ‘Starsailor’. This time, though, Bowness sounds as if he’s gradually being sucked down a black hole, protesting all the way. It’s a far cry from the measured, beautifully-finished art-pop tones and diction of his day-job in no-man. Still, he seems to thrive on the chance to unleash this kind of utterly unguarded noise.

Caught as live as this, Darkroom’s music is more disorientating and disturbing than it’s ever been before on album. Though always too lushly endowed with timbre and detail to be unrelentingly hostile, it offers little in the way of chill-out calm or methodical reassurance. Even the gentler tracks such as Three or Four regularly see Darkroom’s more pastoral landscapes bent out of shape. A desperate, looping Bowness mantra of “say” will be overcome by data squirts and snippets of Gregorian chant; a hum of guitar will be scratched over by a violently juddering, reedy electronic screech; clicking needles will have a strange banana-boat yodel stretched across them.

Throughout, Os’ sculpting of the sounds induces sonic meltdown. Hiccups of sounds, whale song, a mutilated loop of geothermal Mellotron or a dignified broadcaster’s voice will all be sucked up, shredded and blown out, or brought round and round like a small corpse flattened onto a moving tyre. In their collision of the beautiful, the horror-inducing and the plain distorted, Darkroom offer nothing easy. ‘Fallout One’ is music for dissolving cities – a cool-headed, unconditional embracing of confusion.

Darkroom: ‘Fallout One’
Burning Shed (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-R/download album
Released: 01 January 2001

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

REVIEW – Laughtrack: ‘Amusements’ single, 2001 (“counting the change and failing to come up with comforting answers”)

12 Aug

Laughtrack: 'Amusements'

Laughtrack: ‘Amusements’

Amusements is a majestic but famished slink across rain-dirty pavements in the gaudy heart of town: redolent of grime and darkness, and with disturbed puddles wavering neon reflections at you. A techno dub-groove catwalks its way from start to finish, toying with all the time in the world: whether the wire-wool guitars are beating themselves against it or whether the sound is being gulped away to reveal the skeletal machinery of bass and beat prowling onwards. A thin but insistent vocal hangs at the heart of it: “I can’t tell you no lies / We’re moving into a new kind of life – / a strange new world, a comfort zone / where nobody has to be alone.”

It’s a lyric which almost sounds as if it ought to be bobbling along on top of a corporate anthem: but which, in this context, sounds as if it’s shadowing the giant corporate hands which can pat you on the head in one pass and scoop away your world with the next. “Why have you sold the future, why have you sold the past?” questions the chorus. “Is it for our amusements, ‘cos nothing is meant to last?” Someone’s standing on the edge of the kerb, swaying on their heels, counting the change they’ve been returned and failing to come up with comforting answers.

If the original Amusements resembles a rocked-up ‘Mezzanine’, the Severance mix (done with “avant-hardist” MEME) flings the drums into echoing relief and carves the groove into a zombie stomp, Garbage-style. Grating peaks of sub-bass and further sandstorms of psychedelic guitar crackle somewhere between Chapterhouse, Suicide and Levitation – sleekness savaged into life by noise and interference. No words, but an implacable, forceful indifference. The deal’s done – it’s time to bring out the heavy lorries.

Slide round the corner, and things are different. The torch song atmosphere of Left Standing implies Goth-cum-trip-hop, but also a take on Billy Mackenzie at his most open. It’s the brittle piano chording, that cavernous sway of arrangement around the lamp-post glow of a solitary microphone; the hints of theatrics and sincerity interlocking fingers and squeezing for luck… or in desperation. That said, it doesn’t follow the Mackenzie trail entirely. There’s an absence of helium operatics and peacock posturing. Instead, the almost-buried voice of Joe (Laughtrack’s mastermind) catches at the same blend of clenched unfunky indignation as Roland Orzabal at his most vulnerable; and even breaks at the same preacherly point.

This time Joe’s not mourning a way of life, but a person: and although the burden of grief is shared, the empty space that’s been punched into his life is obvious. Joe sounds exhausted and angry as he confesses “I really don’t care for very much these days, / but the living is easy in a pointless way. / You left us standing, and now everything is hard to say…” Thankfully there are compensations, new reconcilations, new solidarities to be found in the face of it: “I tell my friends ‘don’t be so scared’… / You left us standing, and that’s something we’ll always share.”

It’s Laughtrack’s unease – their sense of huge forces and emotions moving behind the immediate business of life – that draws you back to them. This is dark, luxuriant pop to tease apart with the fingertips and pry into; something that suggests stories in the same way as the more oblique moments of no-man or Smog. And Laughtrack’s simple but oddly unsettling name (raising questions every time you consider it) suggests a writer intelligent enough to be aware of the frame surrounding whatever he does.

As Laughtrack roll away off into the night, they’re being quietly trailed by gumshoes who are after some more answers.

Laughtrack: “Amusements”
Contrary Public, CONTPUB001 (no barcode)
CD-only single
Released: 2001

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand.

Laughtrack online:
MySpace

Album reviews – Theo Travis: ‘Heart Of The Sun’ (“one of Britain’s finest yet least precious saxophonists”)

8 Sep

Theo Travis: 'Heart Of The Sun'

Theo Travis: ‘Heart Of The Sun’

Having followed a series of assured, wide-spanning loops passing through jazz, art-rock, prog, ambient electronics and Gong’s fertile psychedelic universe, perhaps it’s time for Theo Travis to come home. Or, perhaps, to build a home.

One of Britain’s finest (yet least precious) saxophonists, Travis has paid tribute to the post-bop traditions of Coltrane and Tyner, blown full improv and racing fusion, played balladeer and pop romanticist, and breathed frost over ambient darkness. ‘Heart Of The Sun’ summarises this breadth on a single album, unifying itself around his compositional variety and the flexible determination of his playing voice. It’s remarkable for the humility and warmth of its approach – partly from Steven Wilson’s beautifully atmospheric mixing (an object lesson in letting jazz studio performances breathe as naturally as live gigs), but more significantly from Travis’ uncomplicated attitude towards allowing music to happen.

A sometimes-unguarded, sometimes-studious musician – who gives his all either way – Travis is also someone who doesn’t need to throw a leader’s weight around. Subtly poised and authoritative, he stands back from the obvious limelight throughout ‘Heart Of The Sun’, allowing his guests (in particular, pearly-toned trumpet veteran Palle Mikkelborg) to illuminate the music, and then gracefully reflecting that light back himself. Grinding no axes, ‘Heart Of The Sun’ sits itself down at the accessible end of jazz, with Travis discreetly polishing his musical breadth to a smooth evanescent ‘Kind Of Blue’ consistency.

His standard quartet members – David Gordon on piano and organ, Andy Hamill on double bass and Marc Parnell on drums – are the album’s backbone (with occasional rhythm section substitutions from Stefan Weeke and Björn Lücker). Theo’s partnerships with these players allow him to exercise some more straightahead jazz moves, via a tenor sax tone blending the polished New York bite of Michael Brecker and Dave Liebman with the earthier strengths of British bluesman Dick Heckstall-Smith: as demonstrated on the velvet-smokey blues of All I Know. On the other hand, the standard crew also raise the stakes on Fast Life, in which Andy Hammill makes the most of his experiences backing contemporary drum’n’bass luminaries like 4 Hero and LTJ Bukem. It’s a nimble, daring demonstration of how clubland’s drum’n’bass beatscapes are both nourished by jazz and able to feed back into it. Hammill, Parnell and Gordon slip and slide through a succession of sleek, exciting, ever-morphing junglist pulses, like Red Snapper in black ties. Travis and Mikkelborg travel cheek to cheek over these flexing surges, quoting mischievously from mariachi and Mission Impossible, Mikkelborg occasionally rinsing the beats in a wash of wah-wah’ed electric trumpet.

It’s also the standard quartet who are behind the very different approach of Northern Lights – texturally, a close cousin to Travis’ dark-ambient work as half of the electronica duo Cipher. His soprano sax (making its only appearance) stands poised in a lonely, bowed-head intro, redolent with melancholia, over Eno-esque dark-water atmospherics. Mikkelborg responds with a silvery, fantastically tender muted melody – comforting and passionate – that comes and goes like caught breaths and compassionate advice above the carpet of Gordon’s Hammond organ, slowly warming and soothing that initial exposed chill.

The quartet – this time augmented by Mystics guitarist Mark Wood, a companion from Travis’ nights in the improv lab – turn in a relaxed yet magnificent performance on Barking Dogs And Caravans. A musical picture of childhood holidays and British holiday camps, it provides Travis’ best melodic solo of the album. But with its friendly air of disarmed tongue-in-cheek pomp, the barrel-organ Hammond figures and Wood’s Frisell-ish lacing of bell-like guitar, it’s also an opportunity for Travis to explore the more unselfconsciously affectionate corners of the British jazz impulse. Here, you can hear the same mingling of warm, pubby matey-ness and superbly expressive playing as found in the Loose Tubes school of Django Bates and Iain Ballamy: particularly when Travis cuts loose with some celebratory, laughing tenor wails.

Elsewhere, British improv-scene tendencies get a look in on That Old Smile: initially a deceptive, straight sounding blues strut driven by Parnell’s haughty cymbal. Wood – using a solid-yet-limber blowtorching tone – moves outward from a supporting position via a series of iridescent bubbles of sound, allying themselves with Gordon’s increasingly shardlike organ, The piece’s impatiently accelerating choruses (and its nods to the excitability of prog) moves to a point where the playing melts, with a dropping silence, into a heated atonal Bitches Brew jam. Inflamed by hissing cymbal work, Wood’s Sonny Sharrock-ish car-crusher guitar explorations utterly displace the saxophone as the heart of an aggressive whirl of mutinous invention.

More extra-curricular activities are represented by Gong guru Daevid Allen. His infamous glissando guitar (a gentle, thrilling shiver of sound, like sheets of luminous rain stroked by fingers of wind) adds an unearthly, spine-prickling element to offset the familiarity in the album’s lone cover – Van Heusen and Burke’s Here’s That Rainy Day. The returning Mikkelborg (on serenely confident flugelhorn) and Travis (in luxuriant, purring ballad mode) handle the traditional melodics, while the subtle icicle colorations of Gordon’s piano and Björn Lücker’s steady click of rimshot mingle with Allen’s eerie distortions of the atmosphere.

More outright subversion of tradition comes with the surreal Last Flight From Twinwood – an impressionistic, pulse-free, last-days-of-Glenn-Miller tribute in which a spectral big-band sound is provided care of multi-tracked Travis flutes and the one-man clarinet ensemble of Stewart Curtis (moonlighting from Kletzmer Groove). Mikkelborg’s delicately wah-ed electric trumpet haunts the music’s open spaces; Travis’ sometimes anguished tenor cuts across them. But the trump card comes in the unrepentant, disincorporated screech and spring-noise of Mark Wood’s distant guitar, a harbinger of failing aircraft machinery…

The sixteen-minute trail of Bass Rock is a final piece of Travis landscape portraiture, tracing a fluent and understated post-bop slide. Its freedom is defined by Stefan Weeke’s beautifully-timed, gliding elisions on double bass and the casually intent whisper of Lücker’s brush-drumming. And also by its cessations into near-silence but for oscillating ambient loops. Here, Gordon’s flickering touches of piano are sometimes the only foil to Travis’ sax – liberated now from discretion or restraint, to cry with a kind of baffled joy into the night. An open-ended homecoming.

Theo Travis: ‘Heart Of The Sun’
33 Jazz Records,  33JAZZ063 (5020883330631)
CD/download album
Released: 3rd September 2001

Buy it from:
Amazon

Theo Travis online:
Homepage Facebook MySpaceLast FM

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