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June 2017 – upcoming London classical/experimental gigs – Kammer Klang double event – ‘Soarings: A Salon on Else Marie Pade’ (5th June); Apartment House and Jacob Kirkegaard play Pade and Henning Christiansen, plus Vitalija Glovackyte (6th June)

24 May

The June Kammer Klang is a double event centred loosely around Danish composers Else Marie Pade and Henning Christiansen, who variously pioneered mid-twentieth century electronic music and cross-genre intermedia Fluxus experiments.

Kammer Klang presents:
‘Soarings: A Salon on Else Marie Pade’
Café Oto, 18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL, England
Monday 5th June 2017, 7.30pm
– information here and here
and
Apartment House (performing Henning Christiansen) + Jacob Kierkegaard (presenting Else Marie Pade) + Vitalija Glovackyte + Aguirre DJs
Café Oto, 18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL, England
Tuesday 6th June 2017, 7.30pm
– information here and here

'Soarings: A Salon on Else Marie Pade', 5th June 2017

“The sounds outside became concrete music, and in the evening I could imagine that the stars and the moon and the sky uttered sounds and those turned into electronic music.” – Else Marie Pade.

Increasingly recognised as Denmark’s first composer of electronic music, Else Marie Pade imagined “aural pictures” during a childhood afflicted by illness, and later learned jazz piano. Operating within the Danish resistance in the Second World War while still a teenager, she was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in the Frøslevlejren internment: an experience which must have had a long-lasting and damaging effect since it undermined her post-war attempts to train as a classical pianist. Undaunted, she concentrated on composing instead: finding her particular niche after hearing a 1952 Danmarks Radio programme on Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète and realising that he’d given aural shape to the same ideas she’d had as a child. From the mid-1950s she was in at the start of art programmes on Danish television, establishing a lifelong position for herself both as a Danmarks Radio producer and as a pre-eminent radio and television composer (at a time when that strand of musical work offered as much genuine creative opportunity as anything in the avant-garde).

Over the course of her lifetime Pade produced a wide variety of sensuous, stimulating electronic compositions to entwine with various broadcast work: avant-garde documentary work, audiovisual ballet and more. Having studied with Schaeffer during the 1950s, she also attended the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt during the 1960s and early 1970s, studying under Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and György Ligeti (and impressing Stockhausen enough that he’d use her own ‘Glass Bead Game’ piece as a lecture topic). Apparently taken for granted in her home country, Pade’s reputation was greater abroad – her work was eventually compiled in a three-LP retrospective on Important Records (‘Electronic Works 1958-1995’) in 2014, two years before her death.

Regarding the ‘Soarings’ salon:

“…”Soarings” is a rough translation of the Danish word “svævninger” – a word coined by Pade to encompass both the phenomenon of different frequencies colliding to make an interference beat, and the more poetic image of soaring through the air. The ‘Soarings’ salon event is a special opportunity to hear more about her work via talks, film screening and discussion.

“The evening begins with a talk from artist and composer Jacob Kirkegaard, a long-time friend and colleague of Pade’s. Jacob will speak about Pade’s life and work from his unique perspective, having both produced her three-LP retrospective and collaborated with her on their joint composition ‘Svævninger’ (released by Important Records in 2012, and from which the evening takes its name). His presentation will include new images (including recently digitised scores) never previously shown in public.

“The evening will include the UK premiere of Pade’s extraordinary audiovisual piece ‘En dag på Dyrehavsbakken’: one of her very earliest works, which was first broadcast in 1955 by DR (the Danish Broadcasting Corporation). It consists of pictures and sounds recorded over two summers at Dyrehavsbakken, near Klampenborg in Denmark, and also includes electronically-produced sine tones and echo effects. This makes it the first piece of musique concrete and electronic music made by a Danish composer.


 
“The salon will conclude with a panel discussion with diverse contributions and reflections on Pade’s work and its wider context from Danish musicologist (and ‘Seismograf‘ editor) Sanne Krogh Groth, sound designer/studio manager Jo Langton and ‘Wire’/’Sight & Sound’ writer Frances Morgan. There’ll also be a reading by sound artist Ain Bailey (whose work includes sonic autobiographies and investigations of both architectural acoustics and the role of sound in the formation of identity).”

Kammer Klang, 6th June 2017Jacob Kierkegaard returns for the full Kammer Klang show the following night, where he’ll be presenting Pade’s 1962 work ‘Faust Suite’, generally considered her masterpiece and described by Jennifer Hor of ‘The Sound Projector’ as “beautiful and mysterious, elegant and eerie music that can express deep solitude or wonder… a secret three-dimensional universe where the most amazing experiences may be had.” Over half an hour of sensually chiming oscillator churn (with nimble, challenging digressions of timbre, tone and emphasis), it places Pade’s work in parallel to the electrophonic imaginings of Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram – similarly thoughtful, similarly detailed and discursive; part of a wave of highly individual and original female composers and sonic réalisatrices with much of their work taking place within broadcast media, dancing apart yet in step.


 
Opening the show is composer/performer Vitalija Glovackyte, who “creates deep-felt chirpy music, bringing together conventional and homemade instruments, electronics, lo-fi devices and visuals. Her works span intimate solo sets and large-scale multimedia performances. Aside from her solo work, Vitalija co-runs the Almost Credible Music Ensemble and is one-half of the experimental pop duo Kinder Meccano.”


 
The track above stems from an eighteen month residency Vitalija spent with modern chamber ensemble Apartment House, who are also contributing to the evening in a seven-piece formation of Gordon MacKay (violin), Lucy Railton (cello), Frank Gratkowski (bass clarinet), Simon Limbrick (percussion), Kerry Yong (keyboard/piano), Loré Lixenberg (voice) and AH founder Anton Lukoszevieze as conceptualizer and director. They’ll be presenting the UK premiere of Anton’s adaptation of ‘Requiem of Art (NYC) – Fluxorum Organum’, a Henning Christiansen piece originally performed in 1967 (and reworked three years ago by Anton for an Ultima New York performance).

An adherent to the Fluxus art movement, Christiansen spent his artistic life rejecting standard distinctions of stylistic boundaries (including those between nominally different art forms) and the concept of the lone genius. Instead, much of his work was based on direct, implied or encouraged collaboration, whether he was encouraging others to freely interpret his ideas or whether he was actually working in equalized tandem with another artist. In its original form, ‘Fluxorum Organum’ is an example of the latter situation (having been created as the soundtrack portion to a film collaboration between Christiansen and conceptual art godfather Joseph Beuys) while its Lukoszevieze reinterpretation brings it back under the first method. You can view the original Beuys/Christiansen collaboration below:


 
The month’s Kammer Klang DJ slot is taken care of by representatives of Belgian record label/mail order distributors Aguirre who release and/or stock a wide range of electronic, ambient, experimental to rock, jazz, new wave and reggae. (including Pade and Christiansen recordings plus reissues from the revered French avant-garde record label Shandar. They’ll be playing various selections both from their catalogue and from their enthusiasms.
 

Programme:

Fresh Klang: Vitalija Glovackyte
Henning Christiansen – ‘Requiem of Art (NYC) – Fluxorum Organum’ (1967-68) adapted by Anton Lukoszevieze for Ultima New York at Issue Project Room, 2014 (UK premiere) – performed by Apartment House
Else Marie Pade – ‘Faust Suite’ (1962) performed by Jacob Kirkegaard
DJs: Aguirre
 

May 2015 – through the feed – free single/upcoming crowdfunder from The Duke Of Norfolk; Cardiacs and Knifeworld reissues; a new Tim Bowness album; disinterring lost Levitation

21 May

I can tell I’ve not kept my eye on the ball – nothing makes a person feel less alert than suddenly finding that three of his favourite musical projects (plus one new recent favourite and one older interest) are suddenly pouncing out new releases and. I step out for a moment, for another writing project, and someone moves all of the furniture around.

The Duke Of Norfolk: 'A Revolutionary Waltz'

The Duke Of Norfolk: ‘A Revolutionary Waltz’

So… let’s start with news of fresh work from The Duke of Norfolk, a.k.a transplanted Oklahoman folkie Adam Howard, now resident in Edinburgh. He’s currently offering a free single – A Revolutionary Waltz – in part-promotion, commenting “I am launching a Kickstarter project in two weeks to fund the making of a live video EP, and would like to give you this recording in the meantime. It’s just a wee sonic experiment, but I hope you enjoy it!”

If you’re wondering whether there’s a Scottish Nationalist tie-in here, given recent political events in Britain, Adam’s adopted hometown, and that beautifully sympathetic and country-tinged setting of Robbie Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss on which he duets with Neighbour, think otherwise. In fact, this song is a darker cousin to An Evening Waltz (from his 2013 album ‘Le Monde Tourne Toujours’): a foreboding meditation on the inexorable turn of fate’s wheel, tying together three histories of power, betrayal and fall. Despite its timeless trad-folk lyric, Adam’s busking roots (and the lusciously acoustic sound of much of his other material) it’s also a rough-and-ready take on digital folk, either demo-rough or intended to display Adam’s other roots in sound design. A clipped electrophonic waltz picks its way across a murky psychedelic smudge and a droning feedback pibroch: its characters sea-waltz to the grim, dry beat of a hand drum and a scattering of cowrie-shell percussion. It’s well worth a listen. As for progress on the Duke Of Norfolk video Kickstarter campaign, it’s probably best to keep tabs on his Facebook page.

Cardiacs: 'Guns'

Cardiacs: ‘Guns’

Following the success of their double vinyl LP reissue of 1995’s ‘Sing To God‘ album, Cardiacs are doing the same with its 1999 follow-up, ‘Guns’. While it’s not the magnificent sprawler that ‘Sing To God’ is, ‘Guns’ offers a more concise take on the pepper-sharp 1990s Cardiacs quartet that featured Bob Leith and gonzo guitarist Jon Poole alongside the band-brothers core of Tim and Jim Smith. As Cardiacs albums go it’s an even brasher beast than usual, hiding its gnarly depths under brass-balled upfront confidence and strong seasonings of glam-bang, pell-mell punk, whirring Krautrock, and jags of heavy metal looning.

‘Guns’ is also one of the most obscure Cardiacs works. Drummer Bob joined Tim on lyric duties, helping to turn the album’s words into a dense hedge-witch thicket of allusion and play, in which typically naked Cardiacs preoccupations (dirt, wartime, suspicion, indeterminate life and death) are tied up into an almost impenetrable web, driven along by the music’s eight-legged gallop. The fact that Tim and Bob were slipping in random borrowings from ‘English As She Is Spoke‘,  a notoriously bungled Victorian phrasebook with its own wonky and unintentional poetry, only added to the tangle.

You can pre-order the ‘Guns’ reissue here for end-of-June shipping. It’s a single vinyl record, with no extra thrills or treats, but does come with the promise of beautiful packaging and pressing. You can expect to hear news on more Cardiacs reissues over the next few years. The current plan is to reissue the band’s whole back catalogue on vinyl after years of exile (predominantly spent huddled exclusively on iTunes).

Meanwhile, see below for a taste of ‘Guns’ magnificent oddness. Here’s the grinding drive of Spell With A Shell (which encompasses the lives of pets, the terror and wonder of transformation, and the cruelty, loneliness and confused loyalties of childhood). Here’s a collision of outsider folk and reggae in Wind And Rains Is Cold (via a fan video of clips from ‘Night Of The Hunter’, from which Cardiacs frequently filch scraps of lyric). Finally, here’s the scavenged, scratchy prog of Junior Is A Jitterbug with its prolonged and celebrated unravelling coda.

Cardiacs: 'Day Is Gone'

Cardiacs: ‘Day Is Gone’

For those without turntables, there’s been a relatively recent CD reissue of Cardiacs’ 1991 EP ‘Day Is Gone’ – which I somehow managed to miss when it was first announced – and which includes the original three B-sides (No Bright Side, Ideal and concert favourite Joining The Plankton). This is from the pre-‘Sing To God’ lineup: another quartet but with Dominic Luckman on drums and, ostensibly, Bic Hayes on second guitar (prior to his explosive stints in Levitation and Dark Star, and to his current position etching dark psychedelic guitar shadings in ZOFFF).

Actually, since this was a time of shuffle and change in the band it’s unclear as to whether Bic or Jon Poole is providing the extra galactic bangs and shimmerings on the EP. However, for Day Is Gone itself the attention should be on Tim Smith’s grand bottle-rocket of a solo, capping what’s both one of Cardiacs’ most autumnal songs and one of their most headrushing cosmic efforts – a bout of November skygazing gone bright and vivid. See below for the original video in all of its low-budget saucer-eyed glory, and pick up the CD here.

Cardiacs: 'Heaven Born And Ever Bright'

Cardiacs: ‘Heaven Born And Ever Bright’

Note also that a couple of other early-‘90s Cardiacs recordings have made it back on CD in the past six months. ‘Heaven Born And Ever Bright’ (the parent album for Day Is Gone) shows Cardiacs at their brightest and bashing-est, but hiding a wounded heart. ‘All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest’ – the recording of a raucous 1990 septet concert at the Salisbury Arts Centre – was both the last hurrah of the 1980s lineup (with carousel keyboards, saxophone and half-a-scrapyard’s-worth of percussion rig) and, for my money, is also one of the greatest live rock recordings ever made. See if you agree.

Cardiacs: 'All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest' (2014 reissue)

Cardiacs: ‘All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest’ (2014 reissue)


‘Mares Nest’ also made a welcome resurfacing on DVD a couple of years ago – see below for a typically quaking example of the band in action. It’s also worth repeating that all of the profits from the recording sales continue to go towards palliative care and physical therapy for Tim Smith, who’s still engaged in the slow painful recovery from his crippling stroke of 2008.

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

Meanwhile, Knifeworld – who feature an ex-Cardiac and, while being very much their own eclectic and tuneful proposition, carry a certain continuation of the Cardiacs spirit along with them – have collated early, interim and now-unavailable tracks onto a full-length album, ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’. The seven tracks (dating from between 2009 and 2012) bridge the space between their ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’ debut and last year’s tour-de-force ‘The Unravelling’.

If you want to read my thoughts on the original releases, visit the original ‘Misfit City’ reviews of the ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’ and ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’ EPs from which six of the tracks are taken. (I’ve just had a look back myself and discovered that I’ve previously described them as a band who could drag up exultation with their very fingernails, as starchildren weighed down by dark matter, as possessing “a knack of dissecting difficult feelings via swirling psychedelic sleight-of-hand” and as “an almighty and skilful art-rock mashup, with horns and bassoons poking out of it every which-way and strangely kinking, spiraling spines of rhythm and harmony locking it all together.” I must have been pretty excitable, on each occasion.)

Alternatively, have a look at the videos below. Also, if you’re in England during the end of May, the band (in full eight-person glory) are out on a short tour featuring the debut of new music.

Tim Bowness: 'Stupid Things That Mean The World'

Tim Bowness: ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’

With his erstwhile/ongoing no-man bandmate Steven Wilson going from strength to strength as a solo act, Tim Bowness also continues to concentrate on work under his own name – sleek, melancholy art-pop with a very English restraint, fired with a desperate passion and shaded with subtleties and regrets. His third album, ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’, is due for release on July 17th; barely a year after his last effort ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ (one of my own favourite records of 2014).

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’ features the ‘Abandoned…’ core band of Tim plus his usual cohorts Michael Bearpark, Stephen Bennett, and Andrew Booker, and on spec sounds as if it’ll be a smooth progression and development from the previous album. It also features guest showings from three generations of art rock (Phil Manzanera and Peter Hammill; David Rhodes and Pat Mastelotto; Colin Edwin, Bruce Soord, Anna Phoebe and Rhys Marsh) and string arrangements by art-rock-friendly composer Andrew Keeling.

Expect a typically Burning Shed-ish range of format options: the double CD mediabook edition (with companion disc of alternate mixes and demos including an unreleased no-man demo from 1994), and LP versions in either black vinyl or transparent vinyl (CDs included with each). Pre-ordering gets you a downloadable FLAC version of the 5.1 mix, plus the usual cute postcard. Sorry – I have no early tasters for ‘Stupid Things…’, but here’s a taste of one of the slower, lusher tracks from ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ for the benefit of anyone who missed it last year.

Earlier on, while discussing Cardiacs, I briefly mentioned Bic Hayes and his time in Levitation. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them – or who weren’t around in early ’90s Britain to witness their brief, Roman candle of a run – they were a band who eagerly fused together an enormous sound, leashing and running with a frenzied and energized take on psychedelic rock, driving post-punk noise and earnest, distressed chanting from their singer, the former House of Love guitar star Terry Bickers. Sadly, they’ve become best known as the springboard by which Terry catapulted himself first into frontmanhood, then into the uncharted and finally (via some tortured decisions and unfortunate outbursts) into the obscure.

In truth, Levitation were an equal conspiracy of five. As well as Terry and Bic, there was Robert White (a baby-faced free-festival veteran and secret-weapon multi-instrumentalist, who’d later lead The Milk & Honey Band), an undersung alt.rock bass hero called Laurence O’Keefe and David Francolini, an astounding and slightly demonic drummer who could run the gamut from pattering rain to pneumatic drill in a single roll round his kit (and who, within Levitation, had the perfect opportunity to do so). Fuelled equally by inspiration, drugs and sheer hard work, they strived for three intense years while living on the outside of their skins, and briefly came close to making some very unfashionable sounds current again.

While they were certainly a “head” band – hippy punks who joined floating threads of British counter-culture, spontaneity and resistance together – it’s vital to remember that Levitation were never your average festival band. They were never complacent, never entitled. More Yippie than trustafarian, they seemed (Bickers, in particular) to be desperately chasing revelations just over the rim of the horizon. Their ethos and experience was best summed up – or, more accurately, caught in a passing flare – in a lyric from their song Against Nature ), with Terry choking out “there is an answer, but I’ve yet to find out where” over a raging foam of guitars. Fingers (and not a few minds) got scorched along the way. In May 1993, it culminated in Terry’s wracked, brutal self-ejection from the band – in a spurt of slogans and despair – during a concert at the Tufnell Park Dome, just a short walk from Misfit City’s current home.

There have been some reconcilations since then (not least Bic, David and Laurence reuniting in the wonderful but equally short-lived Dark Star five years afterwards) but there have been no reunion, and no-one has ever seemed to want to go back. However, on Monday this week – Record Store Day 2015 – the Flashback label released the first Levitation music for twenty years – ‘Never Odd Or Even’, a vinyl-only EP containing three tracks from the band’s lost 1992 album ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ (these being Never Odd Or Even, Greymouth and Life Going Faster). More information is here, although if you want to pick up one of the five hundred copies you’d better find your nearest participating British record store here: they might have some left. (There’s an earlier version of the title track below, in perhaps a rawer form.)

I’ve described ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ as a lost album, which isn’t strictly true. Although the record was recorded prior to Terry’s explosive departure, there was life after Bickers, For just over a year, singer Steve Ludwin took on the frontman role; during this time the band took it upon themselves to partially re-work the album with Ludwin’s vocals rolled out firmly over Terry’s. The resulting version of ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ was only released briefly in Australia. Following the split of the Ludwin lineup and the final end of the band, it’s always been regarded (rightly or wrongly) as something of a bastard appendix to the Bickers-era albums.

The happier news is that, following up ‘Never Odd Or Even’, Flashback are about to give ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ its own new lease of life with the active collaboration of the original lineup (including Terry Bickers). The album’s original vocals have been restored, the songs polished to satisfaction and a final tracklisting agreed upon. Although former album tracks Graymouth and Life Going Faster have been ceded to the ‘Never Odd…’ EP, the 2015 version of ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ keeps four of the tracks familiar from the Ludwin version (Food For Powder, Gardens Overflowing, Even When Your Eyes Are Open and the vaulting soar of King of Mice) and adds five songs previously only available via bootlegs (Bodiless, Imagine The Sharks, Evergreen, I Believe, Burrows and Sacred Lover). Apparently, it’ll be out sometime in “summer 2015” as a single CD and limited-edition double LP, each coming with gatefold sleeve and new artwork by original Levitation cover artist Cally.

It’s probably best to keep track of progress on the ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ release here; but meanwhile here’s the Bickers version of Even When Your Eyes Are Open (the last single the band released before he quit) and a bootleg-sourced version of the startling post-psychedelic stretchout Burrows – just to whet the appetite.

The Duke Of Norfolk online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

Cardiacs online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace LastFM

Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

Tim Bowness online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Vimeo

Levitation online:
Homepage Facebook

REVIEW – Ian Crause: ‘The Song Of Phaethon’ & ‘Suns May Rise’ singles, 2012 & 2013 (“sample-punk turned foley-bard”)

30 Oct

Ian Crause: 'The Song Of Phaethon'

Ian Crause: ‘The Song Of Phaethon’

“Well, I know, I know the story – / the fall of the sun and the vengeance of glory revoked. / So well, I know how the seas turned to dust, / and how the known earth choked. / So well, I know, I know the ending: / the carriage from its zenith bending, / a comet slung through ashen skies / and burst against the banks.”

Cinematic. Epic. These are words which have been whored out far too often, especially when it comes to describing and defining music. Froth and PR corrode their meanings, reducing them to fancy synonyms for nothing more than crude scale, and we forget that other qualities are wrapped into them. These words shouldn’t just be cheap and glittery tags for charlatans – the kind who steep their tunes in giant vats of reverb, or who substitute eye-watering grandiosity for sincerity. There are more crucial meanings. There’s storytelling, and the churn of history. There’s the play of images, the triggering of senses. Eventually, there should be some kind of understanding.

Ian Crause knows all of this. Back in the 1990s – when he was barely out of his teens, and the driving force behind the startling expressionist pop band Disco Inferno – he was struggling with it himself. Even then, though, he wasn’t stumbling to understand: he was striving to perfect. Disco Inferno had come from limited beginnings but grown fast. Originally a dour post-punk power trio, they’d seized the opportunities presented by technology and imagination and transformed themselves into a whole-world window. Hot-wiring their way into the disruptions and illuminations of found-sound and musique concrète, they plugged guitar, bass and drums into digital samplers and grew themselves an ever-expanding sheath of noises: a startling collage of jarring sound effects, layered into composition and twisted into context.

Disco Inferno’s swarm of noise was never there simply to overwhelm. Instead, it refracted and illuminated the poignant dissatisfied pop songwriting which stood, steadfast, at the band’s core. They were doggedly political, but owed nothing to dogma. Caught within ominous social currents and inside treacherous personal eddies, their songs bore witness to cruelties, both intended and impersonal. Those tearing rivulets of sound-montage were flashes of further illumination, put there to side-swipe and snag the attention, and to up-end complacency. The fragments of birdsong and clattering glassware; the careful punctuation of trains and screams and distant firework-pops; the sound of feet jogging grimly away through a numbing snowfall – all of it bore witness to the swerving cacophony of the world, smearing past our ears and battering our psyche, carrying its deeper meanings and significances into us via a pummeling swirl.

At the heart of this unsettling barrage were Ian’s lyrics, which were wise, stark and bleak beyond his years. He sang about the crumbling of vulnerable individuals; about the fraying of the social contract and distortion of social forces. He sang about the stifling, stunting pressures callously imposed from above. He sang about all of this in a still, small, stubborn voice which sounded like the next-to-last exhalation; as if he was a few crucial steps and dogged heel-digs away from giving up and bleeding out. He sounded brave, bitter and doomed – snarling his scorn at the boot-tread even as it rolled over him. For a while, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bands who refuse to comfort us (or refuse to stroke our sundry petty vanities) rarely get rewarded, and Disco Inferno were no exception – the strains of dealing with commercial indifference and inner despair finally tore them to bits in 1997. A couple of barely-noticed Ian Crause solo EPs hiccupped out in the band’s wake over the next few years, and then he too seemed to drop out of the story.

In fact, he’d only dropped out of the cheaper kind of mythology. That’s the one in which ducking out of music becomes death or disappearance by another name. His own story – the real story – moved on regardless. There were years of growing up and grim jobs to come, and years of being chewed over by the same callous forces he once sang about. In amongst the drudgery, there were other factors. There was fatherhood, and family. Surprisingly (for a lyricist already so accomplished and intelligent) Ian made his first adult engagement with literacy. Curiosity, plus a determination to pursue the roots of song and storytelling, led him to the themes and voices of classical literature. His developing interest in the telling parallels with contemporary society kept him immersed in it. Crucially, Ian discovered the works of Ovid – Roman epic poet and exile – via dedicated translations by Ted Hughes and David R. Slavitt.

Like Ovid, Ian would eventually become an exile himself (a self-determined one, abandoning Britain for Bolivia) and enter into a new swell of creativity. Via his ‘Metamorphoses’, Ovid eventually inspired The Song Of Phaethon – Ian Crause’s formal return to music, transformed and developed. It might not be the first new note he’s delivered after eleven years of radio silence. That would be More Earthly Concerns, which welled out via Mixcloud and blogclick in March 2012, and which I’ll talk about elsewhere. But (as Ian begins to dole out his work, in handfuls, onto Bandcamp) The Song Of Phaethon is the first of Ian’s songs to be let out into the marketplace. It’s also probably more crucial in understanding his evolution since his Disco Inferno days.

The protagonist, Phaethon, is and was one of those half-divine children who pepper Greek mythology – he’s the bastard of the sun god Apollo Helios, a malcontent boy strutting up to his sun-father’s palace to claim his ancestry and birthright before he has the wisdom to use it. Greeted, given the acknowledgment he craves, and granted the gift of driving the sun’s chariot for a day, Phaethon is warned of the terrible risks involved. Swallowed up by his grand moment, and too conceited to listen, he takes all of his opportunities to their ruinous conclusions. Losing control of the chariot, he transforms a triumphal fly-past into a joyride and then into a catastrophe. Before the high god Zeus restores order by striking him down, Phaethon scorches a gigantic swathe across the world and casts the seasons into chaos.

Like most figures woven into the complex psychological map of Greek myth, Phaethon still has his role to play. He’s a metaphor for arrogance and a sense of entitlement; he also stands for the destructive potential which both of these follies possess. It’s deep literary currency, and maybe not the first thing which you’d think of as a match for the Crause songcrafting method – so direct and personal in Disco Inferno days. Yet Ian’s battering splay of noises and disaffection opens itself up readily to the mythology, which sinks in grain-for-grain. Explosive futurism meets stern and ancient legend, and both are renewed.

Some of Disco Inferno’s post-punk grit remains at the spine of the music (listen to those dogged dot-trails of frowning bass, or to the occasional flares of wire-wool guitar), but the song falls far away from rock into something older. Myths lend themselves to being channeled into new courses by any means available – Phaethon, for instance, worked his way into a Patricia Barber jazz epic six years previously. Ian rises to his own challenge superbly. In any worthwhile sense, what he comes up for The Song Of Phaethon is a new take on a bardic chant. Its melody is minimal and hypnotic; its rhythms walking, changing pulses constantly driven by the restless words. With vivid artistic appetite, Ian also mines the story’s depths for any resonances which he can transmogrify and feed into his own samples-as-narrative approach.

In this he’s served well – the mythic structure and detail inspire and transform his lyrics, which in turn take on the layered build of classical imagery. Various whispers of fateful moira and foreshadowing rise up to nourish the sounds. From early on, Phaethon’s life is marked by the celestial – right down to the transformation of his familiar landscapes by the passage of the sun and moon each day, continual reminders of his thwarted birthright. Ian reflects this in the woven detail of the narrative: “Every day their shadows ran / down Asia like a lyre, strumming / past his village, swinging down at perihelion / to touch upon his mother’s house / then over dark and quiet woods – / their distant hawks and watching deer / oblivious in bending shade – / descending into seacloud mist, / and down towards the gull-cloud cliffs / to pour their jewels and precious metals / out along the sea.”

Just as he did with Disco Inferno, Ian juxtaposes sound effects with the lyrics to create telling sonic scenery. Though he generally wields these with the skills of a master ironist, he slam them into place with forthright punk brutality whenever he needs to. Throughout, the Greek horns and lyres are a pointed racket: ritual blares, ancient continuo lines. Signatures of antiquity and origin stand solid against the thrumming synths and Ian’s tidal electrophonic swirl of throbbing samples. In prophetic flashes, the clip-clop of horse’s hooves and the slam of violent collisions clatter and blur in and out of the mix, while Phaethon’s more innocent youth is illustrated by the clank of herd bells and goats. In time, his dogged journey through Asia and towards Apollo is dappled and smeared by a souksworth of Asian instruments and chatter, careering past the listener in a flickering travelogue: “Levantine cities raised themselves, then hazed away in dreams of sand, where sand subsumes / the earth itself and still ahead his path led on. But falling always out of reach, the rising sun. / Into the dawn, alone he walked.”).

The effect is of a kind of illuminated text – a cinematic compression of time and location into a vivid illustrative story. That story remains paramount: even while we, as listeners, are being drawn inside those blood-in-the-head thunders and are surrounded by a glorious noise, as if we’ve been trapped under the encircling lip of a vast bronze bell. Beyond the story, though, other dimensions to the tale are coming into play. The song is also a loose parable of another gatecrashing of grand power. “He knew, he knew – / his place was beyond.”

Superimposed – a ghostly transparency – over Phaethon’s story is the tale of Tony Blair’s entry into the Second Gulf War. As this emerges through the song, it’s clear that Ian sees this as another disastrous snatch at high significance and public destiny. Something which flew high and upwards towards glory, only to destroy any achievement of its own, wreaking havoc on the ground and people below. Cunningly, occasional Blairisms are woven both into the narrative and into Phaethon’s thoughts and speech. At one point, he even blathers, Blair-like, “look, you know,” before sliding into advocate pomp and hubristic heroics. For a moment, the pleading voices of the two men overlap within Ian’s narration, making a contradictory cats-cradle out of public morality, power-grabs and a preening Promethean sense of mission. “It was not just God but also man / who clearly needs some representing – / A case I’ll take for free… / Evidentially it takes / a half-divinity to raise / the flag of man aloft for man…”

It follows – with a harsh and unforgiving logic – that the noises of modern warfare should persistently break through the song’s tapestry of ancient sounds. As Ian goes beyond everyday sound effects and begins to violently splice present-day horrors into the textures of the mythical plot and signifiers, the song is slashed up into a jittery palimpsest. Almost from the start, those bleating goats on the ancient Greek hillsides are blindsided by gunshots and by the crash of heavy munitions. With booms, crunches and clatters the shattered, warped shards of twenty-first century concrete and metal scrape and shoulder their own way into the past.

Even specific events from the myth draw across, from recent times, their own crooked parallels. The bursting, clattering crowd-sound of Phaethon’s entry into Apollo’s hall is lifted and twisted from the peak of Blair’s 2003 address to the US Congress. It becomes a Dionysiac smear of fanatical applause and whistles: something turned into a nightmare puppet show, or a rainstorm ripped horribly out of kilter. At the coda, Phaethon is poised unwitting on the brink of disaster. The ascension of the Sun’s chariot merges, indistinguishably, into the noise of a jet fighter launch. Backed by the white-hot screech of the afterburners, the lyrics weave both tales, both times and a set of terrible implications – “the steeds were armed: a blinding shock; / a ferrous scream; a rubber stamp; / and up,” – into final, irrevocable process.

By anyone’s standard, The Song Of Phaethon is a major achievement – a jump-up into fiercely intelligent, confident high art, it stakes new claims and transfigures old ground. It even manages to both stay true to and transcend the moral and political commitments Ian held with Disco Inferno. And yet… it raises a tremulous question of what might have happened to the other side of Ian Crause. Between the immersion in classical tradition (and the dense time-folding focus of the samplers) what’s left of the fervent young New Order fan who always saw himself as fronting a pop band? What, in other words, became of Crause the unlikely pop singer?

Ian Crause: 'Suns May Rise'

Ian Crause: ‘Suns May Rise’

For the answer, look to Suns May Rise, released three months after The Song Of Phaethon. Ian’s mining of Greek mythology is still in place (as are his detailed tapestries of sound-effect) but they’re now wrapped around an out-and-out pop song and a lustrous, dancing melody that Bernard Sumner would give his eye-teeth for. Those Greek lyres and zithers are back, as are the layers of sound effects (sea-spray and thunderous surf crash billow through Suns May Rise from start to finish); but they’re bolstered by massed stadium synth and guttering pop guitar; by angelic powder-puffs of fake-choir; and by warbling rococo flourishes of electronics. Even Ian’s voice – usually so dry, and pointed – is flushed with the balmy blue of a Mediterranean summer. Scritti Politti and Cocteau Twins, each at their flounciest, could find common ground with this song’s feverish, chattering opulence. So, come to that, could latterday Marillion.

I suspect that all of this ’80 ornamentation is deliberate. After all, it skips hand-in-hand with other ’80s excesses, and that’s not too far from where Ian’s caustic, righteous attention is focused. Beneath this gleeful and gorgeous bluster, he’s unraveling a story from the Odyssey: a warning bell for avaricious times. As the story has it, Odysseus (while returning from the Trojan Wars) visited the generous Keeper of the Winds, who gave him a bag of sea-gales to ensure that the sails of his ships would be filled and his voyage home would be swift. En route, Odysseus slept; and his friends sneaked up to rifle the bag, in search of treasure which they were sure he’d hidden from them. All they succeeded in doing was to unleash the winds, which blew the ships hither and yon and – eventually – blew them back to where they had started. Reckless avarice, bringing down calamity, provides the keystone of the song. “There will always be some fool / to pull the strings apart. /And suns may set and moons may wax, / and moons may wane and suns may rise – / the gold within his eyes will weigh / Man down a stumbling fool.”

When Ian starts singing about this, though, it’s from the point of view of that corrupted, consensual chorus of friends – the “brothers bound in bronze.” Their coy, self-congratulatory rapaciousness soak his tones like a stain on the teeth. Flushed and greedy with loot already, all they can see is the chance to grab some more. From his own place at the reins of the narrative, Ian reveals their mythic echo in today’s freebooting boy-club of bankers and stockbrokers. Men of unfettered appetite goad each other on. People who simply don’t know when to stop – and who wouldn’t want to even after being handed a sobering, sickening lesson – would still pick perilous holes in opportunity. “You had enjoyed a peace of sorts / The winds had been re-tamed and so / of course the bag was bursting fat: / It fell to men to see to that. / Again so sure the bag would hold / either wine or gold, / Necessity appeared, demanding ‘Open this’.”

It’s here (with a careering inflative screech on “bursting fat”) that Ian himself deliberately unleashes the hidden forces within Suns May Rise, to overwhelm it. From here on in, sounds rise and cyclone – seaspray, radio chatter and winnowing churns of air; a lash of strained rope which morphs from background effect to edgy kick-drum. Amongst all of this the thread of pop song holds fast, stretched taut over an ever-burgeoning epic. In a parading weave of rapid soundbites, assorted newscasters and pundits and politicians roll past in a potted history of the last generation of monetarism. At its tail-end, George W. Bush (waving through a banker’s rescue programme of the kind he’d never have brooked for any other group of people) chokes, gargles and drowns amongst the becalmed wreckage of Odysseus’ ships. Throughout, that teasing pop melody ensures that we’ll remember what happened this time around.

So… the forces eventually sink the meddlers, but there always seem to be more of the latter. Ian conjures up further mythic winds, more specters bringing in ruin from the other far-flung breeding grounds of a destructive capitalist carnival. “Through solids, countries, paper bonds; / The world again reveals itself / in entrails; in open wounds. / The priests and seers shed tears of glee / and privately amuse on how / it still can be that after so long… / there will always be some chance / to pull the threads apart.” Again, the bones of legend rear up inside the flesh of current affairs. Again, this unlikely sample-punk turned foley-bard turns up to show us where those bones are poking through – his words a layered and subtle scourge; even an education. For Ian Crause, it’s been a long and often stony road from transformative teenage angst to his current role of reveal-and-illuminate, but it’s also been a journey of integrity and hard-won vision. The results are even a story in themselves.

Ian Crause: ‘The Song Of Phaethon’ & ‘Suns May Rise’
Ian Crause (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only singles
Released: 20th November 2012 (‘The Song of Phaethon’), 18th February 2013 (‘Suns May Rise’)

Buy it from:
‘The Song Of Phaethon’ – Bandcamp (the original version reviewed here has now been replaced by this mini-album)
‘Suns May Rise’ – Bandcamp (the single version reviewed here has now been replaced by this version from ‘The Vertical Axis’ album)

Ian Crause online:
Facebook Bandcamp LastFm

REVIEW – What?!: ‘Tikka Masala’ single, 2012 (“a sweet-natured hall-of-mirrors groove”)

19 Mar
What?!: 'Tikka Masala' single

What?!: ‘Tikka Masala’ single

Sometimes you can come across simple treasures hiding in the backroom. Dutch guitarist Niels Bakx, Sicilian drummer Raphael Lanthaler and Tyrolean bass player Agostino Collura are part of that under-appreciated swirl of humble, talented international musicians who fly in, settle down and quietly underpin bands in London, as in many big cities. People like these plug away behind the people with the big ideas and the knack for fronting. They’re the ones who finesse the roughness, who add the musical depth and the polish which brings shine and sophistication to performance. And sometimes, they secretly bring more.

Individually, each of these three have clearly got the chops and the temperament to keep themselves in demand with songwriters (Agostino plays with Anna Waldmann’s band The Cry Baby, Niels and Raphael back Charlotte Eriksson in The Glass Child), embedded in soul collectives (Agostino’s work with Retrospective For Love) and driving mixed groove-band (Raphael’s Snail Trail). Together, though, Niels, Raphael and Agostino are something else.

As What?!, they’re an assured and formidable unit; an airy, confident groove-trio audibly revelling in their flexibility and their knack for carefully-sprung timing. On spec, there’s nothing particularly unusual in what they do. Enough years spent plugging away at sessions and keeping punters happy with funk, soul, jazz and reggae tunes have made them experts in warm, sunny, foot-moving musicality: but it’s what’s beyond the blueprint that’s interesting.

Their debut single Tikka Masala (named, consciously or not, after a meal made up on the spot to keep British customers happy) is a sweet-natured hall-of-mirrors groove, light and slinky. There’s reggae in it, thanks to Raphael’s displaced bass drum taps, his tight-tuned tom rattles and Niel’s skinny-supple rhythm guitar. There’s funk in the warm spaces between strokes and beats. There’s jazz in everything, from the little golden runs of licks to the turnarounds to the feel that the rhythms are to be flung from hand to hand, danced over, teased and tag-teamed around. There are subtle refractions, interruptions of rhythm and key, that make you think briefly of progressive rock at its least bombastic and most aware. There are also flares of hard rock when all three musicians line up under a suddenly roaring guitar and suddenly start jabbing together ahead of the beat.

What’s really special about it is their complete control over the music. Their discipline is absolute but relaxed, with the feel that at any time they could shift rhythm, speed, genre back and forth in a moment, and yet not drop a single thing along the way. There are no self-conscious cut-ups in What?!’s music – no need to deconstruct. Why should there be when they’re masters of structure? – so much that if you flipped Tikka Masala around and spun it backwards it would keep every bit of its symmetry and bounce. For a demonstration of this, play the bonus track Alasam Akkit as that’s exactly what that is – a backwards-play of the A-side which sounds almost as good as the forwards version. A backwards-play which you can still dance to. Remarkable.

Exactly what this leads to, I’m not sure. Perhaps the outcome is that What?! set themselves up as a twenty-first century Sly and Robbie-plus-one. Perhaps they remain a supremely-accomplished hobby band, something which the trio engage in when they’re not otherwise employed keeping other people happy. Or do they push ahead as self-sufficient instrumentalists, seeing how far they can push, stretch and double-feint their masterful musicality? The only thing I can be sure of is that, whenever they do get together, all ways – for those moments – are open; and it’s tremendously refreshing.

What?!: ‘Tikka Masala’
What?! (self-released) (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 11th October 2012

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

What?! online:
FacebookTwitter Bandcamp SoundcloudYouTube

December 2012 – EP reviews – Toby Hay: ‘Guitar I (The Stairwell Sessions)’ (“a sense of placement and location”)

17 Dec
Toby Hay: 'Guitar I (The Stairwell Sessions)' EP

Toby Hay: ‘Guitar I (The Stairwell Sessions)’ EP

In a faithless world (in my own faithless world, anyway) one of the few things that can substitute for a religious experience is finding a place where sound can be transfigured. This could be as simple as a random encounter with a naturally-shaped space that has a whisper, or as calculated as deliberately finding somewhere in a newer concrete structure where the right note in a scale suddenly booms like amplified doo-wop. It might explain why there’s a primal pleasure about singing in the shower – that embrace of the feeling that you’re in the right location for the ritual of sound to run its course.

Toby Hay (the brother of Tomorrow We Sail’s Tim Hay) made full use of this feeling when recording this debut EP of acoustic guitar. It helped that Tim’s own stairwell, at home in Leeds, provided the ideal sound. One evening – while Tim, all ears, manned the console – Toby sat down on the stairs and recorded then and there. Still only 21, his guitar technique is already fully formed and his playing strikingly visual (it’s hardly surprising to find that he also works as a filmmaker). That sense of placement and location stretches further than his choice of where to sit down and hear the natural reverb, and into the fabric of his music.

The inspirations are immediately recognisable. A fingerstyle player, Toby’s music is firmly in the ornate British folk-baroque approach, continuing a line begun by Davy Graham, Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy in the ’60s and continued, over the years, by players including Michael Hedges and Martin Simpson. The EP aligns Toby’s own compositions alongside his variations on and extrapolations of standards, to the point where only the familiarity of a tune separates them.

For Variations On O’Carolans’ Dream, Toby immerses himself in the world of Irish baroque harp music, reworked through the guitar. While here he’s following in the footsteps of the likes of Duck Baker, his performance is confident, revelling in the guitar sonorities which add spice to the transposition. His thumbwork in the bass is strong – especially in the second section, where he chops toothily into the bassline – and the riffling harp-like flourishes which he brings to his fingerwork offer something back to the original. By the third section, the baroque structures have melded seamlessly with an Indian-inflected pulsealong.

As you might have guessed from the title, And We’ll Take A Cup Of Kindness Yet is Toby’s extrapolation of Auld Lang Syne. In some respects it’s the most straightforward piece on the EP, travelling from a sleepy, breezy statement of the original melody before running away into double-time. From its start as a song of sitting down, drinking and remembering, it’s transmuted into a fast-flowing travelling piece, heavy on the double-stopping and the thumbing of bass notes, before slowing again into a classical inspired study which doesn’t so much recapitulate the original tune as revive it.

Of the three Hay originals, Platform 16 is another travelling song. Its intro bounces and rings out on high harmonics: as the music wheels onwards, Toby’s sliding, percussive attack on the notes as they’re made out is so sharp that it sounds like pickwork. Night Terror Blues is another demonstration of quiet excellence. Winding up out of hushed beginnings, it becomes a strong-stepping baroque blues. Stabbing in the treble, there’s a slithering in the bass range – like a slipping foot on the run.

The remaining original – Where The River’s All Rain And Roses – takes its title from Jack Kerouac. More explicitly, it comes from a dusktime description of swishing across the Mississippi river on the bridge at Port Allen, Louisiana in “a misty pinpoint darkness.” Kerouac’s original passage is an undulant swirl of description – a journey through foglight and dropping evening captured in smudged yellows and purples, in the swings of a sharply curving drive. Yet Toby’s own piece has none of the arresting jazz stimulus which one might expect from a Kerouac tribute. Nor does it try to recapture that American freeway motion; of driving through the astonishing scenery and through the liberty of the rolling roads into revelation.

Instead, Toby seems to be taking his cue not from the motion or the self-absorption, but from Kerouac’s descriptions of what he passes through en route – the textures of the mists, the way he hails the Mississippi as “a washed clod in the rainy night… a dissolving, a riding of the tide down the eternal waterbed, a contribution to brown foams, a voyaging past endless vales and trees and levees…” For once, the music hovers rather than drives. Over a billowing airblown shruti box drone (the EP’s lone overdub), Toby picks out an elegant Gymnopedie-via-Ralph Towner progression, its melody carried in the bass and midrange. Stepping back and forth, it maintains its chords via high, clipped double-stopping. When a new sequence emerges midway and, chord by chord, rides up to a sparse and ecstatic point of grace, it does so with the same pointillistic pacing. Droplets in the fog, light snagged in vapour, or moments of eternity seen through movement – whatever this brings to the mind, it captures a position in time and in space that’s mystifying. For a moment, just like that moment when the sound in the stairwell deepens to a subtle boom.

Toby Hay: ‘Guitar I (the stairwell sessions)’
Toby Hay (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
CD/download EP
Released: 13th December 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Toby Hay online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp YouTube

Similar:
Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward: “Waiting For The Storm”

November 2012 – EP reviews – One Thousand Lucky Cranes’ ‘One Thousand Lucky Cranes’ (“restful hiccups”)

28 Nov
One Thousand Lucky Cranes: 'One Thousand Lucky Cranes' EP

One Thousand Lucky Cranes: ‘One Thousand Lucky Cranes’ EP

From Tennessee to the heart of the mountains of central Japan is a long way. I’m not sure what’s brought Ben Bryant from one to the other, but his debut offering as One Thousand Lucky Cranes shows the stretch. While these four tunes are nominally in the box for downtempo chillout electronica (with a side helping of glitch), they’re also attenuated, deconstructed tunes. Untitled agglutinations. Restful hiccups. A feeling that’s a little like that moment when, relaxing on a beach somewhere, you’re momentarily jolted into realising just how far from home you are.

Despite the tumbling data-flop of its intro (and the corrupting glitch atmospherics which score creases and interruptions into its texture), No.1 quickly reveals itself as deconstructed soul. More specifically, a Philly-inspired slow jam; from the lustrous breath-sighs to the jazzy climbs, to those Air-style analogue doodles with their pitch-bending vocalisé effect. Everything in it has that cushioned lushness and summertime daydream feel to it, with electric piano pads stroked and lovingly distorted into tiled, fuzzed chillout chimes. Notes and sounds have a fallaway feel to them, as Ben toys with wavering queasy pitching or leaves us in expectation. Japanese trinket tinkles worm their way into the mix: toys wearing down their batteries on the console.

There’s a little bit of soul in No.2, though only the slightest taste. One of Ben’s sounds is sourced from the sweetest electric organ sounds, but sliced off the top of the frequencies and rendered from gospel hints into an artful saccharin. Most of the other sounds are flickered by processing – treble-sharpened melody gurgles, a sweet baby-tone climb glimpsed through a strobing blur of reverb. Even the drum sounds (despite keeping a thread of industrial funk running throughout) are inverted and upended, imploded beats and cymbal hits trapped in a thicket.

On No.3, glitched beats are dropped into the music like someone dropping random glass beads into a Geiger counter. A slow phased sweep of synth pads (like the luminous cloud-roll Prophet-noise of the late ‘70s), offers something slightly meditative and slightly irritated, cross-legged but glaring sideways. Layers of glitched percussion twists and carpet-bomb bass distortions are folded into the mix. If you’ve still kept hold of that beachy simile from above, imagine the same, but with little smoke-shells bursting in mid-air above the mellow golden sands.

No.4 rises out of a sea of finely sifted white noise, revealing an ominous minor-key structure behind it. There’s something here that’s similar to the sweetly-sung anxieties of Horace Andy at work with Massive Attack on ‘Mezzanine’: a hint of ghost-town industry, of grand soul with the security sucked out of it… perhaps an echo of Detroit despair imprinted on in the architecture. Rather than Andy’s sensual suede-creak of a voice, though, the vocal here is an accelerated burble, part-housefly and part child-babble, stretching and meandering around the slow-stepping arches of fuzzy melody. Glitch-taps and dubstep activity fire about in the percussion, data-screeches kick some cold sparks off the chords. Throughout, the white noise comes through in hose-spurts; or tide-smacks, pushing its way through the buildings – a dream of the first drops of the flood. As with all of the tracks on this EP, the sense of solidity, dislocation and imminent upset come bundled close together, blurred over like a multiple exposure.

One Thousand Lucky Cranes: ‘One Thousand Lucky Cranes’
One Thousand Lucky Cranes (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Vinyl/download EP
Released: 26th November 2012

Get it from:
Nimbit Music, Bandcamp.

One Thousand Lucky Cranes online:
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November 2012 – mini-album reviews – Sterbus’ ‘Smash the Sun Alight’ (“like a prog-dusted bumblebee”)

20 Nov
Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’

Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’

After six years of making off-kilter indie rock, Sterbus seems ready to make the jump from cult to cute. His previous albums and EPs have shuffled between serious tunes, determined explorations and playful jokes. ‘Smash The Sun Alight’ concentrates firmly on his most accessible side – fuzzy, funny-angled guitar pop launched into a chunky meander through the air, like a prog-dusted bumblebee.

If these seven songs and instrumentals had a colour, it would be orange-gold – blurry and amiable. Sterbus injects sunshine and smog from his native Rome straight into the heart of his rampant, time-travelling pop. One of his feet might be jammed happily into a big bucket of prog and psychedelia; the other’s rooted deeply in power pop and eclectic 1990s indie, with driving earworm-bursts of chorus. In his twists of tunefulness and humour and his love of scruffy noise, you can see traces of Blur, Small Faces and XTC (or, looking further west, Weezer, Steve Malkmus and Guided By Voices). Sterbus also has an ear for those drowsy, medicated-modal melodies that served Nirvana so well; and the dogged musical extravagance of Cardiacs infests his work like a glittering spiral, turning every tune into a hopeful steeplechase of extra chords and whole-tone hops.

It’s hardly straightforward; yet somehow Sterbus doesn’t overdo it and lose you along the way. It’s rare to hear so much bounding complexity tied up so neatly into buzzing firecrackers of song. The saturated bounce of Gay Cruise is typical of what’s on offer, kitting out a tuneful, sludgy Dinosaur Jr. fuzz-growl with some dissonant King Crimson pitches before hammering in a break of piled-up chords to grab us by the ear and take us mountaineering. The eccentric Welsh popster Curig Pongle is along for the ride, playing organ like a swerving Mini: the song also sideswipes a random Andy Partridge sample in which the great man is gurning on about Arthur Askey.

As for Sterbus’ lyrics, they’re a vegetable stew of soft little fragments. The occasional clear phrase bubbles up out of the gentle mumble and hum – uneasy (“troubles in the pool / making me cold”), tender (“My dear baby, what can I do? / You make me feel like I’ve been over-ruled,”) or whimsical (“Unboyfriendable girlies show no love”). Occasionally a skewed aphoristic image surfaces, like something cast up by a young Peter Blegvad (“Birds and second wives, / trying to be polite.”). Much of the time, though, the stew remains a stew, the language dissolved into flavours rather than shapes.

In some songs, such as the ukele-driven A Sigh of Relief, it’s not so much English as an impression of English; just as Sterbus’ breezy mouth-trombone solo and music-hall-McCartney bassline is a sepia impression of holidays in fading seaside resorts. Maybe he knows that songs of life, love and feeling can work just as well as gauzy murmurs. Perhaps it’s just a chewing-over of words to blend into an earnest, reassuring blur – a swirl of cream to smooth the mongrel clamberings of the music.

Oh well, perhaps innocence can be complicated too. That’s why those Irish fiddle parts are there to usher in Otorinolaringoiatria, unless they’re there to soothe us after the tongue-twister (and to stop us wondering why the only distinct word in the song is “sauerkraut”). That’s why You Can’t Be Sirius is tied up like a Sunday roast – its laddering chords held together by tight power-pop drumming, lashing those goosed leaps of organ into position, securing those shivering tremolo-blocks and speaker-fizzes of guitar.

That’s also why Wooden Spheres + Heartquakes plays its pass-the-parcel game. A pelting punk-pop three-chord wonder abruptly switches to Curtis Mayfield funk with sunny popcore punk choruses; then, after changing gear for the tiniest of organ solos, ends up jammed and droning like a stuck tide of Scandinavian prog. Similar in its out-and-out playfulness is The Amazing Frozen Yogurt: setting power chords against breezy mellowness, it sounds like a summery merge of Caravan and The Wildhearts. Lonnie Shetter’s sheets-of-sound sax scribble is flown in for a jolt, offsetting that mid-song switch into Zappa kitsch complete with vibraphone. Sterbus flutters around both parody and self-parody here, but his freshness steers him clear.

The near-seven minutes of Flatworms (Eggs Of Joy) tie together not just Sterbus’ musical agility and bevy of influences, but also his sense of connection. Away from the sung sections, it owes something to the severe angles of King Crimson’s Red; yet it’s also the most Cardiacs-styled piece on offer: a self-confessed attempt to write a sequel to that band’s Dirty Boy (which Sterbus has already covered) and its massive parade of chords. Sterbus’ drowsy vocals soften the cavalcade; the brief flashes of conga draw a little nourishing groove into it. While the lyrics are as obscure as anything else in this clutch of songs, they get the message of impermanence and humbling across. “Running away – far from heaven, / diggin’ the grave, the sun. / Crying away – all your glory; / useless and vain, in time.” It might be an oblique gesture of fellow feeling towards Tim Smith, Cardiacs stricken leader. Certainly, the song’s payoff line casts aside any artifice in favour of the purest sympathy ( “I see you, / I feel you. /You heal me. / Uncomplicated ways.”) and brings the inclusive generosity at the heart of Sterbus’ music to a natural home.

Nothing to be afraid of. Sun’s out. Come and warm yourself.

Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’
Sterbus (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only mini-album
Released: 16th November 2012

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

Sterbus online:
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November 2012 – album reviews – Cthulhu Detonator’s ‘Infernal Machines’ (“beneath the razor squeals and data blurts, there’s a lot of composed thought going on”)

9 Nov
Cthulhu Detonator: 'Infernal Machines'

Cthulhu Detonator: ‘Infernal Machines’

Over in the pleasant and temperate Canadian climes of Victoria, Eric Hogg sometimes strolls the streets and sometimes makes noise. Perhaps he dreams of being under dental sedation, indulging himself in some grand and streaky nightmares of colour-bleed and sound-warp. A salubrious environment isn’t necessarily a bar to a sinister imagination.

Then again, while it’s certainly unsettling, is the shivering noise music Eric produces as Cthulhu Detonator necessarily sinister? And what are nightmares, anyway, if they’re not creativity fracking its way simultaneously through the subconscious and the known in search of new fuel? I’m guessing that whenever Eric does go walking, he’s chewing over everything he’s heard both recently and years ago, waiting for something to engage fully with the teeth in his brain.

The choice of project name mixes demolition tech with H.P. Lovecraft. This is worth remembering. At its fringes, genre music is increasingly morphing into cheerfully-tailored geek accessory, so this could have been superficial fantasy horror-noise – vat bubbles, flailing tentacles, steampunk sound effects and a comic-book feel. Actually, Cthulhu Detonator’s music springs from the well-corroded, confrontational gully worn by power electronics, making the most of sonic distressage and sample-flaying. However, Eric gives a wide berth to the more regressive, narcissistic elements of power electronics (the psychopathic posturing, the violent fixations and the taste for hate-politics, the desire to transgress and incur repulsion). He takes the noise, not the rage. He doesn’t turn over bodies, just sounds. Beneath the razor squeals and data blurts, there’s a lot of composed thought going on.

Just to finally lay those Lovecraft associations to rest – besides the name, the only other Lovecraft link here is one single piece, At The Mountains Of Madness. This is also a tenuous link at best: Eric makes no obvious attempts to reconstruct the narrative of the horror story whose title he’s borrowed, just using the latter as a springboard for scene setting. As on the rest of the album, he sets up an instrumental language and then corrupting it into something else via intensive sound processing. For At The Mountains Of Madness, it’s a simple-as-possible drum solo, mostly concerted, mostly stumbling hits. Drums and struck metal percussives are crushed and milled; the former crudely distorted, the latter phased into smears. A determinedly uncooperative beat gives way to a rabble-rousing tom whack broken up by jittered glassy echoes and crazed, triggered reverb. It has the contradictory feel of a wall of noise that’s made mostly of gaps, with the sharp attack of drum hits setting up anticipation of the scrunching decay that follows. Soundfields pop violently in and out of hearing: sometimes you can hear a click track bleeding through, providing something to rebel against.

Infernal Machine is part hellish, but almost conversational. Drawing on a source which sounds much like a squealing guitar on maximum tube scream, Eric chops it into whoops and squeaks by some jackhammering processing which swings in a pendulum arc across the soundfield smudging and seducing the sounds as it goes. Halfway in the electrophonic squeals are replaced by a gracefully screaming choir (courtesy of a multi-tracked guest, Fairen Berchard), which echoes down a long tunnel. Cross the Static Ocean resembles an elderly printer grind, looped and sealed up in a bobbing storm of hurtling white noise. Eric gets the most out of it – sweeping across its frequencies, digging out hisses and tenor grinds, cutting and pasting around the soundfield, making it strangely beautiful. (There’s also an abstract humour at play here – one moment even sounds like a freight train doing the Charleston while no-one is looking.)

As so often with noise music, what often makes a Cthulhu Detonator piece involving is where you can see the process of its developing impurity – whether you’re looking for the sound sources or the corrupted concepts. Some pieces sound close to classical music. While it’s not entirely clear where its gently blaring, tottering source sounds came from, Transmit.Disintegrate ends up sounding like a baroque trumpet chorale filtered and echoed through a roaring stonework gullet, gently billowing and swirling as it goes on its journey. Blinding White Light starts its life as a dramatic sequence of interminably held organ chords; as if Eric’s raiding stock Hammer Horror music for battles with the Devil. He runs this piece of Gothic corn through the harrow-blades of distortion until it melts into a sirening phase of shuddering pink-misting noise: you can feel the higher pitches being squashed flat onto the bass, like tissue onto iron. Towards the end it’s simply shifting between two simple but uncomfortably-matched chords; a jammed apocalypse.

Somewhere, the party is also being crashed by dance music. Initially, Rise Automatons has something in common with fluttering dubstep. You might consider beats to be crucial for this, but they’re missing. However, here are the swooping bassiness, the teasing rewinds, the timestretch; and Eric’s overdriven scribbling sounds like turntable scratches. But it doesn’t last: the structure collapses and is crumpled into a confusion of vengefully buzzing flies and feedback whoops. At one point, a dead TV whistle sneaks underneath the violent editing and panning.

Chrome Leviathan – bizarrely – appears to be based on a deep-funk lick, although it’s one that’s being carried on a gnarled data burst and surrounded by crash processing and the occasional clatter of glass fragments. It certainly owes something to the old Hank Shocklee noise-as-rhythm riff idea – playing with two hip-hop accented riffs before it’s done – although the exaggerated panning at the end is pure noise disruption. The party continues on Lava Box , where a catchy clapping pulse rhythm is applied to an indeterminate, squelched buzz. There’s a clear head-bobbing intent here, as rhythmic parts bop along inside the squish with an unselfconscious physicality that could as easily be slamming hip-hop or heavy metal. Eventually all of the mashed noise is left to bubble by itself – the rhythms, ultimately, don’t become a tyranny.

Two further pieces reassert the subtler powers of ambient noise and sound-pictures. On Womb, the main constituent ingredient is a discreet drive-along hum – like a small car on a lonely mountain road, but amplified up to the level of landscape. In the mid-ground, slow enveloping organ chords appear, so large and yet so quiet that they’re all but out of the image. All you can hear are the small details on their sky-covering surfaces – the sound-curve of their undersides and their strangely comforting overtones. Radio voices, none of them distinguishable, sprinkle this cloudy arch. There’s a dirty serenity to it all, an intimation of clear air and solitude, lightly misted with the pollution of noise and incursion.

Atom Thresher – the last track on the album, and in many respects the most industrial – heads back to smaller scenes and more claustrophobic concepts. Deep flapping interference spatters static around a bowl-shaped drone: a third sound layer adds a klaxoning extensor buzz; a fourth, the sound of machinery clanking and extracting. Whatever’s being milled out here is invisible; but the working sound eventually falls out into Geiger counter pops, and at the very end a short decisive silence.

After this series of journeys and pictures, the question of the inspirational process remains – the disjunction between comfortable surroundings and an output of rough-textured noise. Maybe the keynote of making this kind of music in a pleasant climate (rather than in a crappy recession town full of blocked-off hopes and angry knuckleheads) is that it’s simply less pressured, less draining, more fun; and that this in turn shapes the music. Certainly, as industrial music goes, Cthulhu Detonator doesn’t appear to be aimed helplessly into a corner and buzzing with rage; nor does Eric shut down his human responses and slip into a bleak hover-mode. Instead he shapes the rags, bones and hanks of his sources into something which is, if not necessarily hopeful, at least alive and active; and involved with itself.

Cthulhu Detonator: ‘Infernal Machines’
Cthulhu Detonator (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only album
Released: 2nd November 2012

Buy it from:
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Cthulhu Detonator online:
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October 2012 – album reviews – Jorge Arana Trio’s ‘Mapache’ (“a lean, strutting pirouette along a jagged line”)

28 Oct
Jorge Arana Trio: 'Mapache'

Jorge Arana Trio: ‘Mapache’

Until fairly recently, Jorge Arana played guitar and hit keys in Pixel Panda; a precocious, musically omnivorous bunch of Kansas City skronk-punkers. Local heroes, hotly-tipped for the best part of a decade, they quietly called it a day in 2011 but wasted little time in moving on. Jorge’s bass-playing brother Luis stepped up a commercial notch via rising alt.rockers Beautiful Bodies, while other former Pandas can be found mingling psychedelia and hip-hop in Spidermums. As for Jorge, he’s pulled in the final Pandas drummer, Josh Enyart, added bass guitarist Jason Nash to make up a brotherhood of “J”s and stepped over into jazz. Someone in the band had to do it. This is Kansas City, after all – they’ve been shipping jazzmen out and up the river for nearly a century.

Punk roots or not, the Jorge Arana Trio’s serious jazz intent stretches beyond leaving behind quirky band names. Not that this apparent sobriety is absolute. Their debut album title, ‘Mapache’, is Spanish for raccoon, suggesting that the Trio see themselves as determined and adaptable omnivores, thriving on trash where necessary, and prepared to spread mischief around the suburbs if they have to. Some of the immigrant-son, take-no-prisoners fierceness of Pixel Panda has made its way into the new band. The glam racket might have disappeared, but not the stop-start emphasis or the punky crunch. Lester Bangs would have been proud of them.

That said, despite the band’s fierce electric energy there’s less outright skronk here than you might have expected. In fact, there’s less than there was in the Pandas. Instead, the Trio lead a lean, strutting pirouette along a jagged line between lean discipline and a scrawl of energised chaos. If there’s any self-indulgence here, it’s the kind you’d find in freerunning; a rebellious athletic liveliness, bodies pitted against the push-back from concrete mass and city obstacles.

There’s also something of the static, wound-up aura of the very early jazz-fusion bands, huddling among the fragments of busted rules as the ’70s arrived. Free like knife-fighters, trying to save their energies and moments for the right move at the right time but seething with excitement over the open field of opportunities. This latter is mainly in terms of musical tension. Skilled as the Trio are, they retain (for the most part) a clipped-back tyro technique closer to bullish avant-rock playing than to the broader subtler dynamic of jazz. However, their taste for driving syncopations and their bodily hunger for explosions of rhythm make it plain where their musical hearts lie now. Occasional bursts of wordless vocalising – combative, gladiatorial, almost like gang chants – break up or complement the instrumentals. Most of their pieces are short, interrupted, to the point – a quick flare of ideas followed by a watchful silence.

The places which the Trio explore are generally shaped by Jorge’s choice of instrument. Working with Jason’s cement-mixer bass churn and Joshua’s vigorous, spattering drumming, he alternates between electric guitar and electric piano (occasionally swapping mid-tune). Those pieces driven by his hardened, stony chimes of electric piano are more staccato, more turreted. On Bitter Era, Jason devises a ferocious distracted wrap of bass around Jorge – in broken unisons, the Trio thrash out a harsh and excited tattoo around the keyboard clunk. In contrast, I’m An Omnivore could almost be lounge jazz, tootling along happily even as all three musicians wrong-foot us. Each follows a slightly different rhythm, de-synchronising with each other and buckling the sidewalk under the strut.

When the compositions are driven by Jorge’s snaggled-up guitar, the trio work in a looser style: more elasticity, more smudging. Ether gradually whittles a brain-damaged marching riff out of Jorge’s demented squiggles. Peanut Butter works around a tight loop-and-discharge impetus, finally tottering into a wounded wind-down, bleeding off its abandoned velocity as if it were dumping fuel. Thieves Among Us sounds like the aftermath of a car chase. Stuttering away, the band could be clambering out of a canyon, away from the burning wreck of a car, to the accompaniment of headache pulses, dissonant auto-spring sounds and abrupt scrabbles as dazed opponents grab at their feet.

Some of the best moments come when Jorge is juggling instruments. Short & Evil, for example, in which he begins by spotting out ringing, sullen shapes on piano while the bass prowls: later, he’ll rub in crashing cascades of guitar like dislocated banjo-frails. Similarly, Baptize Your Dinner (by some distance the softest song on the record) begins as a passing, minimal sketch on piano, a pail of air and autumnal chordings. Purring like a forest, the drums work around this and transform it to a tolling crescendo, as Jorge steps back in with dabbing slides of tongue-like guitar.

Josh Enyart’s contribution to the Trio shouldn’t be undervalued. While his bandmates’ repertoire of rumble, scramble and tone-slur provide plenty of vocabulary, it’s his drums that give the Trio the fullness of its jazz spirit. He paces the brushes around his snare; adds brief powerful steam-hisses of concerted cymbal; hides polyrhythms in air-pockets for when they’ll be needed, and keeps one hand on the clutch for those quick surges of collective intensity. On Death Mask, he even leads the band: while the bass circles in locked math-rock arpeggios, and the guitar wanders off to dab at colouring chords, Josh’s drums talk in an insistent, assertive jazz language, eventually pulling the other instruments along with them.

Echoes of earlier bands flit distractedly through the music. There are hints of Prime Time and Naked City (in the blaring spirit, at least) while on Nightly Stroll, it’s the junior John McLaughlin of ‘Extrapolation’ (thanks to the dense fierceness of Jorge’s splinter-rough guitar chording and the rock-tattoo drumming, while Jason’s bass slithers after the guitar in search of unisons to stamp down on). Confrontation! briefly offers something of the discomfiting volcanic grooves of the electric Miles Davis band, when Chick Corea ring-modulated his Rhodes piano into dissonant smudges. For Snake In The Grass or Catching Bullets With Your Teeth, it’s the Teutonic jazz-rock of Magma as the trio roar out harsh choral parts over the swinging shifts and over the stuck, angry riffs of the instruments.

In the end, though, the Jorge Arana Trio are very much themselves: tightly wound but loose enough to splatter, viewing their hometown’s jazz through punkish eyes and casting a cartoon mottling across it.

Jorge Arana Trio: ‘Mapache’
Jorge Arana Trio (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette/download album
Released: 26th October 2012

Buy it from:
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Jorge Arana Trio online:
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REVIEW – Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’ single, 2012 (“a butter-toffee in a world of cheap smokes”)

26 Oct

Dutch Uncles: 'Fester'

Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’


That’s a repulsive title for a single. Then again, Dutch Uncles have always been something of an irritant. I mean that in a good way, as it happens. Some of my favourite bands are irritants. Too many bands just want to be stimulants – crude and obvious, they roar in with a snort and a thump, hammering hard on the most obvious buttons. After a while, you just need more and more of it to elicit even a small buzz, and you end up bored and bloated.

An irritant, on the other hand – that does its job of stirring up a reaction in a different way. You can’t ignore it. It focuses the attention, often by making you aware of sensitivities that you didn’t even know you had. Dutch Uncles have always been happy to spike the necessary nerve and keep feeding a pulse into it. If you’re familiar with those dancing, sidestepping cycles of guitar riff which festooned and hiccuped all over their earlier singles (Fragrant, The Ink, Face In) then Fester will sound halfway familiar. If you persuaded Steve Reich to write around eleven Disco Phases, then stacked them up on top of each other, you’d have the basic bones already. It rotates like a carousel full of drunk mathematicians, with Duncan Wallis’ warm alto hoot (still a butter-toffee in a world of cheap smokes) muttering and musing atop the pile.

What’s new for Dutch Uncles is a delightful infusion of art-rock colourings – that bass guitar which thunks like a piano; that bony clink of marimba hook; the guitar which blows and bloozes like a sleepy horn solo. There’s a delicious feeling of confusion and clothes-swapping wrapped into the song: it’s reminiscent of early Roxy Music and their upsetting of texture, of the otherworldly kink of Associates. With Duncan’s tone of repressed and airy hysteria, there’s also got something of the closeted wildness of Sparks (albeit in one of their mellower moods). Dutch Uncles have that nervy theatrical cleverness to them, as if they’re delicately stepping along a rail with ideas dropping out of their pockets and with tell-tales twitching at the corners of their eyes.

I mentioned a song, didn’t I? It’s built into the jittery mosaic of instruments; and it’s a protest, of sorts. “There’s a time to hide everything – the way that you are; where you’ve been. / And the feeling I’ve tried to fight, / pieces I’m left in inside.” In a genteel way, Duncan’s pissed off; chanting “takes me to the bone” as he swats, distractedly, at a lingering pain. Fractured syntax dribbling in his wake, he argues his position and tells his story like a hungover man struggling with a jigsaw. “And the times you cry at everything / for reasons we don’t mean anything. / And the times I hide behind a smile / that says you were right, you were always right.” By the end of his efforts, he’s trying to strip-mine his way into sense by plunging headlong into tongue-twisters (“The worst is hardly, hardly known, / I trust the worst is hard to know. / The worst is hardly, hardly known, / I know the worst is hard to know,”) as the band pound delicately around him. Irritation confuses, scatters against structure: but few things are better at making you feel.

Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’
Memphis Industries, MI0250D/MI0250S
vinyl 7″/download single
released: 20th September (download) & 12th November (vinyl) 2012

Buy it from:
Memphis Industries (vinyl); Dutch Uncles homepage
or Memphis Industries news page (download)

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October 2012 – EP reviews – Leah Banks’s ‘Sincerely’ (“devotion makes us vulnerable”)

18 Oct

Leah Banks: 'Sincerely'

Leah Banks: ‘Sincerely’

Someone you love. Just the thought of them gives you a little catch, right there, under the chest; like a hard kiss or a light blow, reminding you that even when it’s going right, love is never entirely safe.

Devotion makes us vulnerable. You’re never more than a moment from the topple or the stumble, from the interrupted step to the full-force sprawl. That’s what Leah Banks’ songs are like. They don’t need much amplification beyond their feather-soft country-folk shapes and the superb, subtle brush-drum work that stokes them (more like the breath and sinews of a jazz master than the shed-whack of honky-tonk). They’ve got their own transporting power, their own risk, wrapped up in the hush.

Riverside, the first song on Leah’s ’Sincerely’ EP, has the panting pitch of the Song of Solomon. A coil of eroticism rises up like a sacrament via a thudflutter rush of muted acoustic guitar, heartbeat bass and swimming cello. The words are breathless and obsessive – “I can’t wait to see you, to look upon your face / I’ll dive into your adoring eyes and hang on every word you say. / And I can’t wait to feel you, to be held in your arms – / one hand resting on the small of my back, and the other round my neck.”

Leah’s delivery is a tense urgent moan, stretching and bending phrases, pushing against the metre as if it were clothes that suddenly felt too hot and too tight. There’s a touch of Sinead O’Connor in her fervour as she rides the buried complexities of female desire, poised between a caress and a snap, between devotion and greedy hunger. “Lover, please hurry, / I’m not sure how long I’ll last, / waiting here by the riverside, / my breath is wasted on the wind and waves, / when it should be dwelling in a kiss… / I’ll press into your chest as the wind blows my dress / and steal warmth from your presence.” Towards the end, there’s a little lacuna of drop-away. The song vanishes for a second, then gusts back into place. “The water is rushing, and without you here / I think I might fall in,” Leah warns. There’s been a change in the climate. Ignore it at your own risk.

That hint of the Song of Solomon lingers in the mind: while Leah’s own spiritual beliefs are never stated, all three of the songs on ‘Sincerely’ could have a religious cast. The grit and carnality in them don’t have to be a barrier. If we’re following this line of thought, consider the steamy metaphor in the ecstacy of Saint Theresa, or, closer to now, Al Green singing “Belle – oh, it’s you I want, but it’s Him I need.” The blend of the holy and the earthbound-but-urgent is no new thing – it’s what lets gospel tug at the hearts of secular people, and what lends that numinous shiver to country, to blues and indeed to anything which reaches out of the mess in the hope of finding something higher. Leah herself is telling without telling, although ambiguous clues flicker through the songs.

In contrast to the feverish pulse of longing in Riverside, The Only One is a confessional. “I wish I could stop my eyes from wandering / and keep my mind from its hungering,” Leah sings, in a regretful insomniac sigh. “Listen, the struggle makes me weak – / now I can hardly stand on my feet.” A tattoo of snare and acoustic guitar sets the reflective pace, while a mandolin (and an occasional brush of banjo) draws slow, colourful paper hoops around the chorus. At the kernel, the song might be about keeping faith, and the sometime bitterness of submitting to it: “How long will I drink from this cup? / Maybe I should just give up, / give up trying to fight it out, / give up trying to live without doubt.”

At one point Leah craves to return to a time “before our hearts were involved”, suggesting a lovers wrangle; yet throughout the song’s soft bourbon haze she leaves the surface meaning blurred. It could be about straying from religious devotion; it could just be a lonely kitchen-table song as Leah tries to scrape herself up off the floor one wretched and heart-sore night. There’s reproach in here, and somewhere there’s a reckoning to be had; but it’s never quite clear who’s to blame, or even if she’s blaming anyone. “And how does it feel to be the only one standing? / and how does it feel to be the only one left?” she sings, with a touch of asperity, before settling on a conclusion which weaves not through what’s happened, but through what’s going to happen next. “Lets go back to the beginning, / bring it back to the start. / I won’t do it again now – / this time I’ll do it right.”

Blame is easier to pin down in the final song on ‘Sincerely’: its title track. Carried along on a light and rolling road-pulse of guitar (which, along with the restless jazzy jabs of vocal, echoes Joni Mitchell’s reflective road-burned floats on ‘Hejira’), Leah holds her own hands up in admission. “I know I said I would, but what if I can’t?” she asks. “Sometimes I say things without even thinking, / sometimes I jump the gun.” In flight from somewhere, in flight to something, honesty is being pressed out of her with every roll of the wheels; although she doesn’t claim to have cured her failings. In her apology, there’s a blunt statement of self-knowledge. “There’s a sinking in my heart, / I know that I have failed you. / I just didn’t see it coming / and you never warned me, / so, / well, I could say I’m sorry, and I would be sincere. / I could try harder next time, but I would still be here.”

Even with guilt admitted and delivered, and even hoping to be saved and forgiven by love, there’s still grit in Leah; enough for her to throw her own challenge out into the confession. Once again, the lines blur in the song – lover, saviour, self. “I know that you love me – so where are you now? she “Make yourself known – / no, make yourself heard.” Perhaps she’s hoping, like Jacob, to encounter her angel on the road and to wrestle some meaning out of him. I suspect that she won’t settle for less. A woman of heart and mind, by any measure.

Leah Banks: ‘Sincerely’
Inus Records (no catalogue or barcode)
Download-only EP
Released: 16th October 2012

Get it from:
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Leah Banks (Leah Freeman) online:
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October 2012 – album reviews – Lee Fletcher’s ‘Faith in Worthless Things’ (“rich and delicate”)

7 Oct
Lee Fletcher: 'Faith In Worthless Things'

Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’

And he came out from behind the console, and he spread out his dreams.

If you know Lee Fletcher already, it’s probably only in passing: maybe for the handful of mannered electro-pop tracks he and his wife Lisa have put out over the past decade as [halo]. More likely, you’ll know him for his extensive work as producer/engineer with centrozoon, Markus Reuter and with assorted King Crimson spin-offs including Tuner and Stick Men: well-established as a producer and engineer out at the more technical end of art-rock, you’d expect his own current music to be stark, or detached, or both.

It’s not just the question of his choice of colleague: it’s more that people in his position are generally there to get a job done, massaging and harassing slack musicians or their work into proper performance. If they’re of the more creative ilk, they might get to tweak their charges’ output into more original shapes. If they get around to putting out albums, these are likely to be back-to-basics vanity projects or all-star galleries of guest singers and studio flair – bought by fans for the tricks and the rarities, but then left to gather dust. Generally speaking, producers’ own records aren’t supposed to be romantic, aren’t supposed to be involved. Most especially, they’re not supposed to be revealing.

Lee Fletcher clearly has other ideas, and he won’t be doing quite what you expect of him.

Starting with the surface and working in… ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ certainly has the striking richness of sound you’d expect from someone of Lee’s experience. Live strings, wind instruments and solo cameos merge seamlessly with his own intricate programming and panoramic instrumentation in a fine blend of console wizardry and warm acoustic work. Rich and delicate arrangements encompass stirring contributions by guest players from right across the musical spectrum. Among others making their marks, the album boasts broad strokes and fine detail from art-rock guitarists Tim Motzer and Robert Fripp, jazz drift (from trumpeter Luca Calabrese, double bass player Oliver Klemp and drummer Matthias Macht), and sky-curve pedal steel playing from B. J. Cole. Equally memorable moments come when Uillean pipes (courtesy of Baka Beyond’s Alan Burton) and, to particular moving effect, Jacqueline Kershaw’s French horn are woven subtly into the mix, set against sonic glitch and pillowy atmospherics.

If any of this orchestrated, cross-disciplinary lushness suggests other precedents to you, you’re right. Anyone familiar with David Sylvian’s electro-acoustic songscapes in the 1980s (or who subsequently took on the likes of Jane Siberry, Caroline Lavelle or no-man, whose violinist Steve Bingham plays a prominent role here) will recognise the wellsprings and traditions from which ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ draws. Miracles On Trees (a nimble quiltwork canon of touch-guitar, pipes and vocal harmonies suggesting Kate Bush fronting King Crimson) brings in additional strands of clean New Age-y folktronica, while more neurotic, Crimsonic arpeggios are stitched through A Life On Loan. Elsewhere, you’ll find fleeting, delicately organised touches from industrial electronica and dancehall reggae (as if bled in from a wobbling radio dial) and ingredients from Lee’s recent forays into torch song (via David Lynch’s protégée Christa Bell).  There’s certainly a strong debt to Scott Walker’s luxuriant orchestral pop work, made explicit via an enthusiastically dreamy cover of Long About Now.

However, much of the sonic recipe is Lee’s own spin on things – a developing and broadening sonic signature which began to unveil itself earlier in the year on GRICE’s Fletcher-produced  ‘Propeller’ (which featured many of the same players and a similar production ethos). ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ is also shaped by two featured players in particular – historically, the other two beats of Lee’s musical heart. On touch guitar, Markus Reuter adds a broad catalogue of supporting instrumental parts: textured or clean, rhythmic or melodic, banked-up or solo. While integral to the album’s fabric, his playing  also fades skilfully out of the foreground – although he’s constantly present, it’s as if he’s seen only in brief flashes, running through the trees, keeping pace with the sound. Meanwhile, Lisa Fletcher takes centre-stage (as she did with [halo]) to provide almost all of the album’s vocals as well as acting as Lee’s muse and interpreter. She sings even the most painstaking lyric with the cool, classical, adult sensuality of a pop diva who might at any moment slide off her long black concert dress and walk, naked and magnificent, out into the sea.

In spite of all of this sterling support, if you drill down through the music (past all of the tasteful production stylings, the guest players and the ornamentation) you’ll find a songwriter’s album underneath. While his physical voice is present only as a few murmured harmonies-cum-guide vocals dropped across a handful of tracks, Lee Fletcher’s songwriting voice entirely dominates the album. It even has its own particular hallmarks – a sophisticated way with compositional patterns which takes as much from chanson and European music as it does from Anglo-American pop; plus a yen for long, looping melodic journeys across an extended succession of chords. Lyrically he follows the earnest, philosophical musings of prog song-poets such as Peter Hammill; immersing himself in concepts or thoughts and writing his way through them with shades of classic verse, occasionally knocking frictional sparks against the constraints of the surrounding pop music.

There’s an interesting pull-and-push between this ever-so-slightly awkward lyrical grain and Lisa’s glossy-smooth vocals, just enough of a catch and grind to put a polish on the one and a depth on the other. When both Fletchers team up as writers on The Inner Voice, there’s an extra lift, bringing in the kind of hi-concept soul soar you’d have expected from Minnie Riperton or Commodores, or indeed from Janelle Monáe (if the latter’s leant over from a soul background to look into art-pop, the Fletchers seem to be leaning the other way.) The cruising, creamy melody hides some sharp barbs : the song’s partly an elegant kiss-off to a past lover or collaborator, partly a “won’t-get-fooled-again” statement of intent and new faith and intent. “You did me a great favour, in a melancholic way,” sings Lisa, in cool and assured tones. “The lesson learned and actioned for today / is to listen to the inner voice and serve that impulse well./ Have courage in conviction, break the shell.” Gracious in retreat, but along the way a polite yet lethal line of stilettos are being inserted into a turned and oblivious back (like some kind of vengeful acupuncture).

While Lee’s other lyrical concerns occasionally stretch to brooding worksong (“marching up the hill all day, fetching pails of water for the crown / Until the playtime whistle sounds, and blows your hallowed dreams away”) and wide-eyed nature worship (“the seasons are aligning/ Shedding Mother Nature’s silver skin /bringing balance to the timing”) he’s at his best when he’s drifting into the hazy realm of the personal. Part of this touches on the mutability and contradictions of love – its ability, in any given moment, to contain frailty and fears alongside strength, devotion and enrapturement. On The Number, he and collaborator SiRenée set up a picture of the start of intimacy as a phone call into the unknown: “Hello, you’ve reached the number of my secret voice / And though I asked you not to call / Your instinct made the choice… / I knew you’d call, I knew you’d love me… Stranger on the line, I’ve known you always.” Dusted by Luca Calabrese’s  sprays of muted Jon Hassell-ish trumpet, SiRenée sings the words in a misty bank of close and teasing harmonies – an enigmatic telephone nymph, she spins a spell of reflected longing as if at any moment she could either become flesh or simply vanish.

At the other end of the scale, where love is sealed and secure (with spouse, friends, family or perhaps all together), there is Life’s A Long Time Short; a Markus Reuter co-write in which an encroaching chill of the knowledge of ageing and death begins to gnaw at that security. “Our time is fleeting – / a love so true is truly painful. / A hurt that’s so divine – / at once the symptom and remedy.” Against a mournful ominous French horn line and a decaying fall of twinkling, dying Reuter touch-guitar chords, the song gradually passes from innocence (“there is no end, all time descends – / the trick is not to care”) to a warning (“there is an end. / Make all amends”) while Lisa sings with a subtle and breathless sense of disquiet, like a flickering ghost. All along, Lee watches with a poignantly shifting mixture of love, devotion and horror. Caught up within the current of time, all he can do is celebrate and confirm the life and value he shares in the now, while watching the inevitable washing-away and mourning coming closer and closer: “And as you grow, /  I watch in rhapsody / the miracle you are…/Inside I’m screaming.” 

On other occasions, Lee looks further outside, though it’s not always a comfort. Peering at the rapacious dazzle of television and pop media on Is It Me (Or Is It You?) he gets burned for his pains, then frets and growls out a proggy sermon about the callousness of the wider world: “Such a passion for freedom and brutality… / we pillage the living, ever seeking, kiss and telling morality / besieging all senses with apathy.” It’s the album’s title track that provides him with the still point which he needs. Out at the railway station café from dawn till dusk, notepad in hand, he’s watching the universe go about its business. Rails lead away to both possibility and obscurity; travellers move from place to place, passing through crowds while wrapping themselves in solitude; and Lee is “dreaming of the perfect future /  tall on tales, and short on truth.”

Here, out in the flow, he plays observer to small, everyday aggravations and hints at family disappointments spawning both small aches and broken-up little personal worlds: “children crying, mothers braying / Fathers absent once again.” Here, too, he finds his sympathy renewed, his understanding broadened: “all at one with situation – / Circumstance breeds condemnation / of our fellow man.” Encompassed by the lives and voyages of others,  surrounded by the signs and signifiers of both possibility and stagnation, he comes to a quiet acceptance of human fallibility and connection – “we’re bound by time, though here alone – / many rivers run as one. / Faith to heal the cracks within, / praying for life’s worthless things.” A small and modest epiphany, it’s the heart of the album and the song that binds everything together – including Lee’s divided impulses as skilled producer, exploring songwriter and man with a heart. Affection and anger, dislocation and commonality, families and strangers, nature and the grind, all linked under a lovingly gilded arch of strings, soft voices and soundscapes.

Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’
Unsung Records, UR019CD (4260139121021)
CD/download album
Released: 1st October 2012

Buy it from:
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Lee Fletcher online:
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October 2012 – EP reviews – Alex’s Hand’s ‘Madame Psychosis’ (“art-rockers deliberately braining themselves with a tin tray”)

5 Oct
Alex's Hand: 'Madame Psychosis' EP

Alex’s Hand: ‘Madame Psychosis’ EP

As they totter and lurch through the four songs on their debut EP, Alex’s Hand are almost pure Halloween. It’s not just their affinity for macabre subjects, but their larger-than-life, cartoonish demeanour. They don’t just bring weird to the table – they slap it down on top, like an oversized pair of dirty boots, and then stare you out until you say something about it.

Underneath their gurning and silly pseudonyms there’s some fine musicianship – you’d expect no less from Seattle art-rockers who revere Zappa, The Melvins and The Residents. Yet the band’s prime fuel is atavistic spasms of prehistoric zombie jazz; trainwreck rock-and-roll; jarring faux-boondocks punk. They sound like a wrecked stovepipe hat, or an outgrown tuxedo with the elbows worn shiny: or like a quick rimshot played off the jutting, grimy wrist of a backwoods murderer. The tensions between their darkness, their outright goonery and their twists of clever, carny campery give them their particular flavour. Often, Alex’s Hand come across like a leering, anarchic ‘Muppet Show’ parody of Nick Cave: telling tales of blood and chaos, crawling on all fours, but winking hard as they do so.

As the band roll their parodic, chaotic, travelling-show style along, geek bones sometimes gleam through. On Laura (a spooky, corny ‘Twin Peaks’ tribute) they jog and jerk through a whistle-stop tour of the show’s soap-noir tropes (“stop-light flashing on and off – / ‘there’s a darkness in the woods!’ / A town with so many secrets – / what lies beyond?”). A double-jointed ‘South Park’ scratchalong full of silly voices and 1950s slapback, it chucks the lush narcotic memories of Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtracking unceremoniously out of the side door in favour of a more pointed strangeness. Feedback scrunches around the drum-clatter. Horn-playing guitarist Slurrp blurts out wrecked soul riffs with mottled old bloodstains dried onto the edges. Meanwhile, frontman Doctor Shark stumbles through the song like a disturbed conscience. When he isn’t looning along with the melodrama he’s pulling curtains off the rail, moaning with a barely-tranquillized despair as the tune plays tug-of-war between rock’n’roll perkiness and a wandering moping tonality (all lynchpinned by Slurrp’s startling, randomised guitar solo).

Similarly, the two-and-a-half crash-punk minutes of Robot ply a drunken line between cartwheel, pratfall and purposeful brain damage. Trapped in a tiny shack, the band charge their foreshortened Jesus Lizard riffs back and forth like sore-headed bears. Smacking into walls and roaring out resentful scatterbrained lyrics, they never get further than a ball of confusion. Eventually they crouch and sulk in the middle, smouldering like a burning trashcan and emitting a bastardized King Crimson growl of muttering bass and smeared, squealing guitar.

On the surface this is awkward lunkheadery, but the frustration and dismay is deliberate, self-inflicted – and clearly staged. Imagine an art-rock trio deliberately braining themselves with a tin tray to keep their audience happy. Whether this is all about avoiding straightforward expressiveness or whether Alex’s Hand are on some kind of echt-Brecht trip… that’s less clear. The theatricality certainly allows them to skim some pretty sordid areas, while hiding their sharper songwriting brains in their shoes.

With Stalker, Shark and co. rewrite a ugly tale of abduction and sex-murder as a lachrymose tragedy… but from the murderer’s corner. Drummer Tub skitters away on skeleton percussion; a campfire guitar limps through the chords. While his bass yawps away like cardboard thunder on a travelling-show wagon, Shark blurts out his words like a strangulated Nick Cave. The melody is sweet, lovelorn and memorable, but the jet-black humour is borderline repulsive – “stabbed alone in a room / Crying out, no-one hears you. / You look so lost and afeared – / to him, it’s been a really good year.” Yet a sombre, Lynchian aura of romance hangs over the song. During that moment before the horrible twist, everything seems so much more vivid and alive. “Exit the car, but you look back / and see those trees in the cul-de-sac, / and feel safe on those tracks – / but love has come for you…” The song doesn’t survive its own story either. Disturbing scraping noises and a brief twisted guest guitar solo (from Step Daddy’s Ben Reece) build to a sudden crushing derailment as the dream of love and death violently collapses.

Jaunty and gloomy, Reception picks over homelier horrors – a mire of despondency and addictions – but with Steve Barnes’s beautiful ripples of piano and organ soothing the murk, it’s also the band’s finest hour. With its spectrally pulsing bass and its nighthawk atmosphere, the song comes across like a wrecked and blasted take on Morphine. “Hauling yourself from the reception, / blame it all on depression,” moans Shark, still mooching around mournfully in a shabby coat with his hair in a Robert Smith tousle, clutching a suspicious bottle. “Carted off and then forgotten. / The others refuse that we have a problem. / Drink up – / drugs, self medicate…/ small twist of fate.” A superbly mock-melodramatic, fall-down-drunk guitar solo follows, as if someone had slurred out its name. This is one of those songs that realise that defeat doesn’t usually just drop to rock-bottom and fizzle out, but bumps along on a plateau halfway there, fuelled mostly by bathos. “Like a snail trying to build a home, / the roots don’t last and they end up all alone…” There’s more to Alex’s Hand than big boots, geek jokes and horse-laughs.

Alex’s Hand: ‘Madame Psychosis’ EP
Alex’s Hand (self-released), (no catalogue number)
CD/download EP
Released: 1st October 2012

Buy it from:
CD Baby, iTunes or Bandcamp

Alex’s Hand online:
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REVIEW – Atona: ‘Disabling The NHS’ single, 2012 (“talk about rude health”)

1 Oct
Atona: 'Disabling The NHS'

Atona: ‘Disabling The NHS’

First MC NxtGen’s Andrew Lansley Rap, and now this – the oncoming carve-up of the NHS is certainly pulling the British protest song out of its ghetto. Talk about rude health…

Everyone in Britain needs healthcare, but who is healthcare for? Is it for the people who need it in order to stay alive, mobile or relatively sane on a day to day basis? Or is it for private concerns who use it as an avenue for extending business plans and for pulling in another income stream – and who are now circling the choice plum of public healthcare? Keith Lindsay-Cameron (a.k.a. “Keith Ordinary Guy”, retired youth worker turned protest-letter writer) has needed healthcare more than most. By his own admission, Keith has had a long-term struggle with mental health issues. His are of that particular kind which leave you eminently sane, but also painfully shorn of the thicker skin required to make headway in an increasingly brutal and predatory society.

This sensitivity might have driven the superbly dignified orator’s vitriol of Keith’s “A Letter a Day to Number 10” campaign (a one-sided public correspondence with David Cameron, holding him and his government to account for the increasing wreck of social support). It’s also left him profoundly grateful to a National Health Service for keeping him intact when his own problems were just too much. While few of us in Britain actively share Keith’s dogged social commitment and sharp sense of a general justice – and fewer still either share or are brave enough to admit to sharing his medical difficulties), most of us have various reason to thank the NHS (regardless of snarl-ups and corner-cutting) in its rickety benevolence. Certainly few issues seem as good for pulling us together and waking us up a little.

Hence Atona, a rapid coalescing of musicians, poets and general protesters around Keith’s ire-tipped missives. Disabling The NHS is their first salvo, a blend of tried-and-tested agit-prop methods slung out into the world for free. There’s a list of government ministers recited over a Gothic toll; a stolen-and-pasted-in sample of one of Cameron’s egregious, deceptive pronouncements on the NHS; a drive into plank-battering punk accusations and warnings – and at the heart of it, Keith himself reading his own cool and scathing denunciations (a stern people’s judge with a soft West Country accent).

With its gruff bang-and-shout, the anvil drumbeat, the framings of text and the clear love of plunderphonic razzing, this is all very much in the spirit of Crass, albeit pulled into the gentler, politer mainstream. Not a bad thing at all. After all, Keith doesn’t just channel crusty old memories of affronted people writing to the Times. He also channels those of seventeenth-century pamphleteers, who (much as Crass did) strived to nail down moral and workable verities for the future while the world turned upside-down around them. In any age, some people have got to work to keep the rest of us awake, and to keep twitching the clothes away from the naked emperors and pirates.

Atona: ‘Disabling The NHS’
Atona (self-released)
Download-only single
Released: 1st October 2012

Buy it from:
Free download from Soundcloud.

Atona online:
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Keith Ordinary Guy online:
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REVIEW – Elephant: ‘Golden’ single, 2012 (“playing in the sunshine”)

8 Sep
Elephant: 'Golden'

Elephant: ‘Golden’

Hmm. It’s only taken Elephant a year and a half to journey from being walkers in the gloaming (singing out their queasy, dissolved surrealism) to playing in the sunshine. There were some clues on their previous EP, ‘Assembly‘, which embraced mainstream pop while twirling mournfully like a mascara-ed panda; yet this is a firm step outwards from the obsessive feel of their early singles. Or is it?

Whether it’s Amelia Rivas’ French ancestry coming through, or just a shared and surfacing taste for classy Europop, Golden sees Elephant strip away their cavernous post-punk layers of dream-pop guitars and blood-throb synths in favour of gently bobbing acoustic strums, shimmering organ string pads, a touch of swing and bell-like keyboard smears. Actually, come to think of it, they’ve been here before on Actors, the surprising B-side to their second single Allured. This is altogether more sedate, though – a leisurely boat trip as compared to Actors’ chic bike ride, or perhaps a gentle merry-go-round bump’n’whirl. Compared to the hallucinatory greyness of their earlier work, it’s full-colour. French-tinged pop, for certain: an antique kind, filtered through Goffin and King and through Elephant’s subtle and invisible technical skills.

The link to what’s come before remains Amelia’s voice (still mournful and carrying a dry-eyed narcotic timbre, whatever she’s singing about) and her baffling way with a lyric, in which she dabs loosely associated words and phrases into a line like painted highlights and hopes that you’ll focus on her own scattered picture. With this kind of tune – this lightness, this air of sated contentment – I’m assuming that Golden is a love song. It certainly starts as intimate (“speaking in codes to you / in a drowned-out room. / Chandelier shelters us – / only space for two,”) but a chorus that gives equal weight to the words “escapade” and “hate” suggests something a little more complex.

Certainly by the second verse – “gazing from this altitude, / trapeze transforms to new. / The old was there all along. / Telescope straight to you,” – we’re in lyrical warpspace. Though Elephant have never sounded so cosy, so lovewrapped on the outside, the usual hallucinations are bleeding up from the inside. By the third verse, the summertime and the sunlight are taking on a shadow-etched ‘Twin Peaks’ hue – “The trees they whisper too, / as I glare from a bird’s eye view. / The grass entwines my feet and hands – / they hold me like you do.”

If you look at something too closely, cracks appear, and that’s true both when looking at songs and looking at love. Love and rage: the cuddle that ebbs away into a stifle… I’m backing off. Today I was promised sunshine, and a dank draught from the basement wasn’t part of the plan.

Perhaps if I don’t look too hard, I’ll be able to glide along on the surface, hold hands and enjoy the golden light. Perhaps it will all be OK. Will it?

Elephant: ‘Golden’
Elephant (self-released)
Download-only single
Released: 6th June 2012

Buy it from:
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Elephant online:
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REVIEW – Preludes: ‘The Moth’ & ‘The Swan’ EPs, 2011 & 2012 (“the shadow of a melody”)

6 Sep
Preludes: 'The Moth'

Preludes: ‘The Moth’

There’s the shadow of a melody in the house, floating in the dusty air. It’s coming from just around the corner, or maybe from up by the crumbling moulding.

Preludes is Matt Gasda (the sotto-voce poet who did most of the singing and keyboards in the ghostly riverbank psychedelics Bears in America) and his sister Emily. The Bears were a group so reticent and self-involved that listening to them was like spying on a set of old footprints, long-abandoned and filling with water. Some Preludes songs began life as Bears pieces before falling into this new form and flavour, so you can expect something of a family resemblance. Yet in their hypnotic and looping way, with their camp-fire canons and travelling-man guitars, Bears in America fitted (just) into the Americana bracket. In contrast, Preludes looks wistfully eastward, back towards Europe.

More specifically, Preludes capture a lost and fading atmosphere of East Coast grandeur: one which jealously guards its Old World connections, its cultural loftiness, its yellowing old money in a deadened and dreamy grip. While Matt may have relocated to New York City and settled in Brooklyn, Preludes seems to have set its heart further uptown. These songs emerge like a sigh haunting a shabby brownstone mansion on the Upper East Side, clinging to the scuffed books in its neglected library, or fluttering with a swirl of yellow leaves in its deep walled garden. It’s not that these are wordy songs of privilege; instead, they’re leisurely blurs of decaying luxury, drunk on elevated sensation and cut right back to free-drifting images of moons, flowers, loss and water, their stories dissolved. An encroaching darkness hovers around them, like time and chemistry eroding sepia photographs. At the same time, there’s a rapturous quality to the music: the thrill of the last gasp, the final pirouette of memory.

‘The Moth’ EP, and its title track in particular, set up the Preludes recipe from the start – pianos (drowned in a flat and musty reverb), blurry-edged keyboard layers (in this case, a wavering swoon of fake strings), and a faint and faded rag of vocal yearning after something it can’t quite describe, catching on whatever surrounds the moment. There’s a touch of Goth in the mix, and more than a suspicion of Nico or Anthony Hegarty; but the obliqueness and the gauzy obscurity are all Matt’s. Moonstruck, he murmurs soft, semi-operatic vocals in the backgrounds, muttering about cicadas and strange, longing transformations. Halfway along, a cheap drum machine begins to tap out a stately dance rhythm and Matt steps up to a new level of obscure, gently-impassioned reverie. (“And we’ll walk along the opening geraniums… /The light of the moon. / Open your milk-white eyes… We will never grow so old.”) It doesn’t mean so much when you pin it down. Just a handful of fleeting images, lighter than anything. Open your hand and let it drift on this sigh of breath, however, and it flushes gently with life.

It’s Emily Gasda who sings the out-of-focus waltz of The Moon And The Bonfires – sings in a small and distracted way over a softened skirl of goth keyboards; a spiralling distant dream of a barrel organ melody. Here’s more obscurity (nightswimming and natural lights; the sense of a particular, autumnal time of year). Here’s more plucking at floating, flowery images (“The violets of memory are growing in the water… / It’s like a debt you share…”) She sounds like a more peaceful version of Cranes’ Alison Shaw. The Goth tambourine and the bass drum thud behind her sound like a lull in a noisy evening. Perhaps these songs are some kind of refuge.

As goosefeather-soft as the rest, the last song – Nightlight Child – begins as a ghostly lullaby. A muffled drum and music box playout becomes a throb while Matt and Emily sing together, and for a while they’re Victorian in their magic and ruffles, their willingness to slip away into dream logic and wordplay and into ornamental fantasy. “Like water drawn from the well – moon drawn like a fish. / Nightlight child, it’s all right. / Nightlight child come to life / and from the shell alight. /A starry, starry night.” Gradually the lullaby play fades seamlessly into surreal and transforming fable: images turn macabre (moth eyes, floods rising from the throat to drown) and innocence and horror overlap. Unwinding ourselves from this particular gauze is less easy.

Preludes: 'The Swan'

Preludes: ‘The Swan’

Five-and-a-half months later (swimming back into view with a second EP, ‘The Swan’) Preludes are just as enclosed and enrapt in their consumptive old-world decay. “Snow falls in Central Park, / and for a day your fever drops,” sings Emily on a song which also coos “love is so cold” and reminisces – with a quiet, absorbed bliss – about kissing frozen hands. There’s never a suggestion that there’s any danger involved here, or a direct flicker of death. That particular disquiet just seeps into the gap that’s left for it.

In general the themes of sleep, death, illness and wasting-dream simply blush gently through the EP’s songs, each of them thinning the walls between experiences. The strangest of these is the title track, wrought with a chilly expressionism and drifting symbols. “I love the sorrow of your voice / and the wreckage of the old days” Matt muses, beneath a cloudy Blue Nile synth pad (a mirage of traffic in the evening sky) and a funerary piano line (a shard of dusty porcelain from a lost urn). Death and revival blur together (“you’re enclosed in the petals / made of snow, / born up into the clouds like ash”) in a way that’s as much phoenix as swan. “I’ll wait by the river / for the ice to tear itself up,” promises Matt, as the ritual works its way to conclusion. “Your blood will germinate the spring.” Over a minute of silence at the end of the song eases the point home.

On Sleepy Eye’d (backed by an enthusiastic music-box twinkle and lambent synth), Emily enjoys a much more innocent dream – “We’ll tear up the feathers of the stars / and make our bedding on the moon… / Take my hand, we’ll go skating on the glass, / catch fireflies with our hands.” For a while, Preludes sound as if they’ve slipped into ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland‘ and the air of rapt surrender lightens a little.

It’s only on The Well that brother and sister find out what happens when they write and sing together. Here, Emily sounds eerily like Mama Cass (moving almost imperceptibly from her previous ghostly solipsism to a kind of centred passion) while Matt murmurs an ashy, barely-there harmony. Somewhere in there is an ancient Scottish air, missing its drone but making do with a broken-limbed piano line and rising string-synth bleeds. “And the love you held in your hands like a bird / is waking up again.” sings Emily, cupping revival in her voice. “I will go down to the well / draw up water in my hands. / Tell all, all the dead / the world is now beautiful – / stop the clocks and open the windows. / We can’t understand.”

By the end of the song, it seems as if those strange arrested Preludes atmospheres might finally be breaking down, offering release. “Now I feel time as it flows / like the melting snow.” sings Emily. Somewhere out of earshot a gate is opening, a clock starting, a breath deepening.

Preludes: ‘The Moth’ & ‘The Swan’
Preludes (self-released)
Download-only EPs
Released: 21st August 2011 (‘The Moth’) & 8th February 2012 (‘The Swan’)

Get them from:
Bandcamp – ‘The Moth’; ‘The Swan’

Preludes online:
Bandcamp

September 2012 – album reviews – Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward’s ‘Waiting For The Storm’ (“tin roofs, heat and restlessness”)

5 Sep

Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward: 'Waiting For The Storm'

Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward: ‘Waiting For The Storm’


Two guitars, two hushed voices, a looming double bass and a room that moves. That’s all that’s needed.

Mark Mulholland and Craig Ward go way back. In the 1980s, both were ungrizzled Scottish freshmen; teenaged guitarists coming up through roots music gigs in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Their paths have intersected many a time since then, while both clocked up the years and the experience – Mark with a brace of projects including the Berlin Americana band Two Dollar Bash, Craig most famously with dEUS (and spinoffs like The Love Substitutes), While this fuller collaboration was mooted in 2007, it wasn’t recorded until 2010 and 2011, and then went unreleased for a further year. In the meantime the intent hasn’t gone stale. If anything, it’s aged like a good whisky. This album might have been a while in coming, but it’s happily unstuck from the demands of time – just like any long friendship of the kind where a phone call and a kept date in a bar wipes away the years of separation.

Mark and Craig are upfront about their intentions. They’re reviving that strand of British “folk baroque” as played solo in the ’60s by Davy Graham and Bert Jansch, developed by John Renbourn and Danny Thompson in Pentangle, and performed in a shroud of mystique and withdrawal by Nick Drake. ‘Waiting For The Storm’ utterly recaptures that Witchseason glimmer – timeless, intimate and immediate, with the air listening in and the feeling that the songs are at the forefront of a push of story and message.

As guitarists and as singers, Craig and Mark are perfectly matched. Acoustic fingerpicking styles knit together in a generous skein of give-and-take, with each man providing varied electric textures as and where needed. Their quiet, rough-finished voices blur and separate in sighed harmonies, tinged with weariness, a little foreboding and some scarred-knuckle gentleness. Between them, Hannes d’Hoine plays double bass as if it were a straining mast, conjuring up deep thrums, solid gutsy plucking and ghostly bowed atmospherics. It’s very much a three-cornered exchange – almost telepathic in the players’ instinct to play just what is needed and no more.

As for the roots of the record, they drift – and no wonder. Though Mark and Craig are Scottish by origin, they’re wanderers by nature. The stoic discomfort blues of A Strange Place traces lightly over the angst of this lifestyle; the menacing weightlessness of its temporary, torn-up settlings. “Anyone entering this place they might say, / a strange place in which we belong…/ It’s a strange place we do run to, / a strange place to which we do run.” The slithering folk riffs and Simon & Garfunkel harmonies of Something On The Breeze raise up something more of home, via a Lowlands song of roaming and departure. (“Blowing through the open door that I have just walked through, / blowing me along to something new… / Looking forward to looking back on the things I’ve left behind, / somewhere a little further down the line.”)

Under even the dreamier-sounding songs, there’s a Scottish feel of hard lines: an undercurrent of poverty and menace dealt with stoically (“I see the cops on every corner, / people waiting ready to run. / Blue lights flashing out a warning – / someone’ll get hurt before the morning comes.”) Yet most of the underpinnings of the record come from one particular location: Mark’s current home of Port-au-Prince, in Haiti. Throughout ‘Waiting For The Storm’, Haiti breathes itself steamily into the mood and the music – mountains and stagnant creeks; tin roofs, heat and restlessness. There’s an occult foreboding here too, perhaps brought in by the business of living under the threat of capricious flooding, of drumming rain, or of violent passions swelling out of control. The answers flicker through the songs, half-seen, or viewed full in the face for an uneasy moment.

Some of it’s more relaxed; simply sketches and shadings of place and time. The winding sea currents of All The Doors Are Open (with Hannes’ grasping bass anchoring the surges of meter) invoke summer-struck stupor and an urge for motion. “All the doors are open, cars go past outside. / Won’t you take me with you, take me for a ride?… / I gulp down the icy water, drowning in the heat. / Hills lean over the hazy sea, wheels turning to the beat.” The instrumental Black Sail travels in a wave-roll and a dark minor key, telling a wordless story: moods shift weather-wise like bands of sunset and lowering clouds, the accelerations and slowings of the guitars tracked point-by-point by Hanne’s bowed bass.

With the title track, however, more threatening moods gather. “See the vinyl spinning its strange pattern in my head / and I can’t help thinking about something somebody said…” Like a brooding canvas, Waiting For The Storm uses the old expressionist motif of threatening weather to illustrate roils in the spirit, but leaves us hanging and expectant. “The sky is getting darker and the glass begins to fall. / The flicker of the candle’s throwing shadows on the wall… / Siren in the distance, the evening air is cool. / The bottle’s almost empty and the ashtray’s nearly full. / Waiting for a moment when it all begins to spin – / voices in the darkness, waiting for the storm to begin.”

Although the Haitian setting offers ravaged scenery and wild elements aplenty, Mark and Craig are ultimately too subtle just to use it as an exotic stage. In their lean words, they imply that most of the trouble a nomad might find in places like these might actually have been brought along in his own baggage. Secret Places, certainly, is caught up in its own space – one of obsessive passion, affirming “there’s no after, no before, /each time we pass through this door. / Nothing matters anymore – / each moment burns more fiercely than the last.”

Haiti gets to speak for itself as well. Amid arco bass rumbles and a stew of electric guitar atmospherics and acoustic webbing, Les Belles Promesses sees Mark, Craig and Hanne take a step back so that Haitian laureate Frankétienne can take centre stage. Working in smouldering wreathes of text from his own ‘Voix Marassa’, the old man recites and declaims in an impassioned, mesmeric French Creole like a voudoun Baudelaire, calling out razors and toadstones, sickness and fire, rocks and struck matches. “L’acidite de l’ombre… l’obsession des long voyage impermanences au bout du sexe, la passion du danger dans le sang, la fascination de riske… au-dessus du desastre.” Even at its height it remains honest, clear about the swings of raw fraught instinct.

So it is that the remaining two songs are left to their own devices. Icy Shivers comes from the armpit of a bad night – a circling lick; scribbling, edgy double bass harmonics; and moonlight-drop electric guitar, both ominous and omen-ous. “Things that crawl and things that bite / my thoughts as black as the sky tonight – / oh, it’s a long, long time until the dawn… / Dead of night the city sleeps – / waters still, a bargain deep.” Elsewhere, in Watching You Sleep, the devils are scratching away at a hard-won peace. Mark sings, as soft as anything, the pillow talk of a devoted lover – “you, your head lying on my shoulder, hear you breathing soft and clear. / I don’t care about tomorrow just as long as you are here,” – but hints at darker things abandoned in order to find and keep this haven. Even if they’re not stalking after him, there’s still a haunting. “I put the key in my pocket / and walked away from what came before. / A tune was running through my head / a song I can’t remember anymore. / I heard the sounds that go round the valley / hints of something far behind. / Something I wasn’t aware of losing / now I keep on trying to find.”

As other people’s violence stirs in the street, Mark’s narrator feels the pull of it and with a quiet, heartbreaking determination he asserts his love over rage. “I don’t want to go and get in a fight / I just want to stay with you tonight… / Don’t want to make nobody cry, / I just want to watch you where you lie.” The words are simple or even banal on the surface. The sentiments behind them, as sung, are subtly devastating. A reedy fuzz of electric guitar solo, one of the only ones on the record, seals the deal with hulking, sweating fingers.

There is an eventual respite from this darkness. Full of chuckling mandolins, The Six O’Clock Whistle is a jaunty folk instrumental with a hint of a reel (plus a nod and a wink to the childhood innocence of ‘Chigley‘). Sitting at the end of the record, it lifts the pressing atmosphere of the rest of the songs, drawing you away from the mesmeric night of memories, fancies, booze and shadows. Still, it’s the latter that remains with you: a baroque spell of sketchy lines, disquiet and stirred emotions, with some lines flapping free and others coiled too tight. A magical listen.

Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward: ‘Waiting For The Storm’
Cannery Row Records, CRR 1217(826863121627)
Jezus Factory Records JF034 (826863121627)
CD/download album
Released: 3rd September 2012

Buy it from:
Cannery Row Records (CD only), Jezus Factory Records (CD only) or Bandcamp (download only).

Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward online:
Facebook Bandcamp

Mark Mulholland online:
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Craig Ward online:
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July 2012 – EP reviews – Tonochrome’s ‘Tonochrome’ (“a swan dive into a mass of silks”)

31 Jul
Tonochrome: 'Tonochrome' EP

Tonochrome: ‘Tonochrome’ EP

Although they’re young enough to be touching down for a 2012 debut, what Tonochrome ultimately resemble are a gaggle of 1970s rockers: ones who’ve been lucky enough to see the future only to then forget three-quarters of it, but who are doing their best to catch up regardless.

A scattered glut of pop knowledge and ambition is their fuel. From the central framework of Andres Razzini’s guitar and buttery soft-soul-inspired vocals, they hang a succession of overlapping musical approaches. Each of these is played with vigour while it’s in place, but is tossed aside as soon as a song’s over, or even before. The wardrobe in Tonochrome’s memory palace must be bursting – every visit there would be a swan dive into the mental equivalent of a mass of silks, jeans, capes and feather boas. This layering of ideas and styles (and the band’s restlessness as regards taking a final form) ensures that Tonochrome fit right in with the swarm of post-progressive rock bands that are currently rising to attention: but while they do share a member with Knifeworld, they have little in common with that band’s tumultuous and knotty psychedelia. Similarly, they’re not a band who wear their diversity like a fuck-you T-shirt. In spite of their restlessness, they never play with grate-and-chop disruptiveness.

Instead, they’re a much smoother proposition, like a slightly proggier Tears For Fears. Not in terms of Orzabal and co’s melodramatically distressed New Wave beginnings; Tonochrome are more in tune with the confident, eclectomaniac soul-pop version which came later. It’s the flair, or the flare; the way that Tonochrome (all of whom play beautifully and bring plenty of ideas to the party) can flickeringly recall both Bolan and the Buckleys, blur into a Beatles singalong by way of both Genesis and Alexander O’Neal, or take flight over a pulse of Spanish-flavoured funk. Whatever’s going on with that wardrobe, there’s also a feeling of curtains sweeping up and away and down; theatrically introducing new ideas, new burnishings.

Theatre – that’s appropriate. At root, Tonochrome’s songs are about performance and the battle with fear, that way that “time moves on, / slaps in the face.” Andres sings about launching, about halting, about taking or surrendering control: Let It Begin is a personal call to arms and activity, shuffling a lyric full of shows and races, walls and spectators, push-buttons and puppet-strings. Musically, it’s the ’70s as seen though the ’80s. Andres and Charlie Cawood chop out a hairy chug of hard-rock guitars, Steve Holmes’ kinked synth lines find common ground between P-Funk and Marillion, and Andres enjoys a luxuriant soul-man sprawl across the choruses. A soul song realised with prog methods, it settles into a lively stew of pop. Mike Elliott plunks his bass like a funky cello and sings along: someone else plays water percussion. From the clapalong riff that adds wiggle to the rhythms, to the squishy breakdown in the middle and the carnival-drumming finish, there’s enough on here to front a parade.

It’s a fine and confident opening; but that nagging sense of unease remains, however many musical layers the band run through their busy fingers. Eerie swerving Ebow lines cry whalesong trails through Waiting To Be Unveiled (a leaner, gliding cousin to the long-lost bewitchment of Levitation’s Even When Your Eyes Are Open). This time, Andres sings quietly and with trepidation: “The unknown may be terrifying, but it’s got such a pretty face. / No one can predict the future, / but I’ve got an ace…” The payoff, however, is pure heart-on-sleeve ’80s pop, vocals melting and caroling around a resolution: “I will abdicate my kingdom / for a chance to see the world.”

Starts And Ends sees Andres stripped of his band’s protection. Alone and shivering, he creates a haunting drape of melody with a lonely echoing electric guitar, a slow-falling ladder of jazzy chords and a rattlesnake breath of percussion. He sings of self-reliance (“on this road I’ve known / those who wait for signs and cues. / Trudging on, stones in their shoes… / By the side of the road / let go of heavy loads – / all you need is here,”) but the wound in his voice belies it. Throughout the EP, he works around the paradoxes of hope and fear. Necessary spurs, or killers of initiative? Blinding deceivers, or inspirations?

Andres is still puzzling it out over the Buckleyesque minor-key figures on Gods and Demons, wrestling with conflicting directions even as crunchy Jefferson Airplane choruses and slithering Spanish rhythms kick in alongside a fax-machine witter of noise guitar. On Punctuation Marks, he protests “I’m half-way and see no starting line” over a zip-and-dodge acoustic guitar as the rest of the band pass a swirl of r’n’b, prog-synth and shimmer-pop ideas through a storm of psychedelic noise. These doubts fit into Tonochrome’s world like their own teeth; like all of the varied influences the band’s spread of members weave into their tight and poppy rope of songcraft; just as this EP could be the harbinger of a solid career of eclectic rock if Tonochrome hold it together, or an early omen for a set of promising solo careers if they don’t. We may doubt, we’ll certainly hope. We’ll see.

Tonochrome: ‘Tonochrome’
Andres Razzini/Daniel Imaña, AR001 (610370590232)
CD/download EP
Released: 31st July 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp or Rough Trade.

Tonochrome online:
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REVIEW – Cceruleann: ‘Hearts Stop’ single, 2012 (“uneasy allure”)

30 Jul

Cceruleann: 'Hearts Stop'

Cceruleann: ‘Hearts Stop’

Cceruleann’s previous, provocatively-titled pop single – ‘Fucking Wind‘ – seemed to be playing games with us. The soft, romantic sound versus that crude title. That sugary innocence, prancing onwards; oblivious to a silent looming hammer of anger. When I heard it, I thought it was supposed to be listened to from outside – that it was about the fury we sometimes feel towards the complacent and self-centred. It was as if the song had built a gun to point, teasingly, at its own head.

Hearts Stop doesn’t play the same shifting cards; but there’s still an odd, artful twist to Cceruleann’s songcraft, which means that anything even slightly unusual about them becomes loaded with significance. The fact that babydoll-voiced singer Marilyn and instrumentalist Elliot are siblings; that they live half a globe apart in Denver and in London; that together they’re writing these peculiar, minimal and contradictory electro-pop songs with their pretty little coatings… All of it adds to the uneasy allure.

This time, the artwork is a swarming beehive. Marching on an incongruous, thunderous hip-hop drumbeat and tuneful electropop bleeps, Hearts Stop is built around a slim haiku of lyric which Marilyn chants against a skein of wineglass warbles: “We can fly forever, / but we will fall when our hearts stop. / The fall will break us.” During the breakdowns, her multi-tracked voice twines coyly around itself, as new blips and patters worm their way into the skein. A distorted female laugh bubbles up in the mix, and stays there. A sampler dices and hiccups out the song title (two-and-a-half syllables of the haiku).

It’s as simple as that. And maybe it is as simple as that. Maybe there’s no more decoding to be done, and the bees are only wrapped around the single for effect. Maybe Cceruleann have just written another synth-pop anthem about love, broken hearts and death in the overblown way it’s supposed to go, so that we can keep singing songs about it.

Unless, perhaps, Cceruleann aren’t singing about love and heartbreak at all. Perhaps they’re actually making a point about work and obsession; about how we’re driven on by what we believe we ought to do, whether it’s grinding our lives to dust in a thankless job or slowly crushing ourselves to exhaustion against people and causes which simply don’t love us back. In this light, the song shifts into something different and more ambivalent – a sweet-sounding lemming-march, a chant for the worker bees who strive until they stumble and end and are swept aside for the next ones. Perhaps I’m imagining it. If so, it’s only because I don’t ever quite trust Cceruleann to play straight.

Cceruleann: ‘Hearts Stop’
Holy Underground Recordings/Bandcamp
Download-only single
Released: 10th July 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Cceruleann online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

REVIEW – Evolutia: ‘Objects Aside’ and ‘Secret’s Safe’ singles, 2012 (“a more interesting proposition”)

16 Jul

Evolutia: 'Objects Aside'

Evolutia: ‘Objects Aside’

Beyond their knack for epic, florid rock melodramas, Muse-style (as heard on their 2010 EP ‘Fear’s Fall‘), there’s more to Evolutia than attempting to hone a journey into the heart of arena-rock. On the surface, Andrew Barnhart and Stephen Cameron are clean-cut multi-instrumental prog boys, verging on AOR. Underneath… not so much. Their love of dynamics, electronic fuzz and dubstep; their occasional digressions into piano-and-laptop sketchpaddery; the suspicion that some of their more outré and full-blooded vocal moments are more cabaret than rock club… all of these things make Evolutia a more interesting proposition.

In the run-up to a long-delayed debut album, they’ve popped out – within a single week – two syncopated new songs owing more to Ben Folds or to prime-period Stevie Wonder than to the shriller rock noises of Muse, Mew or Queen. Staunch prog fans may smell a rat – personally, I smell flowering. It sounds as if Evolutia have learned to please themselves, rather than just expectation; and in the process have upped their game a few notches. Hooray to that.

Out of the two, it’s Objects Aside – with its fancy footwork and vein of darkness – that bears the resemblance to Ben Folds. Stephen jags and dominates with a syncopated, flouncing curl of piano lick. Andrew tack-hammers it with a bass guitar line that’s part Rush, part snap-funk. Both of them fence around the rhythm; occasionally, they haul in guest drummer Zach Branff, gang up on the rhythm altogether, pin it against the ropes and pummel it with Uzi beats. Kneading furiously on a bass synth,Andrew half-sighs, half-growls the lyrics. “We take what we get, climb to the top of it / Throwing objects aside to the left and the right / ‘Til we see the light.”

I’m not sure whether all of this is about greed or about looking for something better than toys’n’favours. It fits both. There’s a tangle of frustrated persuasion working its way through the song, too (“It’s useless, I won’t give up – you’ll come around.”) Later on, Andrew and Stephen share the singing on an aspirational bridge, assuring us that “this darkness will never come, you’ll see that we’ll rest in peace. / Your heart’s buried in secrets that you’ll uncover eventually.” Briefly, the lighters come out. Mostly, though, this is about dancing aggressively, up on your toes, on unfriendly ground.

Evolutia: 'Secret's Safe'

Evolutia: ‘Secret’s Safe’

I made the mistake of listening to Secret’s Safe on headphones in the dark. Within the first forty seconds I jumped up, thinking that I was being burgled. This song has the best creaky-door sample since Thriller – unexpected, sliding mockingly through your head, ending in a sly lock-snick. It sits edgily against what’s otherwise a bouncy, funky shuffle, a latter-day Higher Ground. It renders it suspicious, as if someone was rifling your mind while you danced.

It’s certainly a ridiculously danceable song. Andrew’s laddering virtuosic bass-guitar riff skips and spirals around a pulsing tower of synth bass, while Stephen’s crunched-up electric piano stabs and bounces underneath. It’s also Stephen singing, in his clarion tenor, about trust and exchange. “You got something that you’re hiding; you’ve gotta make me believe. / Showed you mine now show me yours – / stolen whispers are the key.”

Actually, trust doesn’t come into it. This is all about coercion and manipulation, and it grows ever more slightly mocking as it swings onward. Stephen shifts in and out of character, between wheedler and withholder – “Promise not to tell / There’s nothing like a little pressure / You know I’ve kept it well / Lips are sealed forever.” While sometimes the song delves into the pressures of keeping things unspoken (“trying to get back the beats your heart skipped”) the payoff is power. “Your secret’s safe with me,” Stephen sings, before adding, in an aside “(She’s got nowhere to go.)” Stealth breaking-and-entering.

Evolutia: ‘Objects Aside’ & ‘Secrets Safe’
Bandcamp
Download-only singles
Released: 5th & 9th April 2012 (respectively)

Buy them from:
BandcampObjects Aside and Secret’s Safe. Both songs will be available on Evolutia’s debut album ‘Arm Yourself’.

Evolutia online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp YouTube

Joe De Vita: ‘Ancestral Language’ single (“takes the lead while staying back”)

30 Jun

Still in his early thirties, Joe De Vita’s musical passport is worn and battered, with plenty of stamps and double-backs on it. Previously, this was nothing unusual for a jazz musician, but these days many of them seem to travel smoothly from college to first hire, and then band by band through the swing machine.

Joe’s route-map suggests a more uneven history: checking into and dropping out of music schools across America; mysterious flits from assorted cities; travels through various non-jazz settings (singer-songwriter backup gigs, grindcore bands) en route. Whether he’s releasing music as Shuttlecock or under his own name, Joe’s recordings tend to find him all alone with his guitars, his Casio keyboards and his electronic sound-kit. Is this down to a reluctance to settle into a long-term slot, or perhaps deeper trouble? Time was when this kind of thing was a hallmark of particularly creative jazz musicians: but as Joe’s happy to make the most of it in his own bio, embracing a misfit jazz-punk status, it could just as easily be spin. (Although any musician who’s irreverent enough to release consecutive albums called ‘Reflect’ and ‘Punk Rock Abs’ is worth checking out).

Ancestral Language – a promo single from Joe’s third album ‘Evolution’ – isn’t providing an answer. In itself, it’s pretty accessible – it looks back around forty years to the impressionistic, anticipatory grooves of the late ’60s and early ’70s when Miles Davis, Teo Macero and Weather Report were pushing aside bebop and cool jazz in order to open out a kind of multicultural cosmic funk. Kicking off with a twang of berimbau, it layers up: the patter and slap of frame drums and shakers, the sidelong clunk of a jazz bass, holding its anchor-and-push carefully in reserve; the glint and jags of electric keyboard, restlessly shifting its grip and shifting the chords. If there’s a real band in here, then Joe’s less of the uncomfortable lone gunman than he suggests. If there isn’t, and it’s all software trickery, then at least he has a knack for knowing where all the parts ought to go – at the very least, there’s a full live feel here.

From initial swells of wall-hanging chords, Joe’s guitar eventually takes the lead while staying back. Lurking deep in the mix, distant and bluesy, it has that saxophone-in-a-subway sound: not subdued, but a little cagey. As the tune moves on, more punctuation is worked into the structure – tonks of ever-steadier electric piano, keystroke clinks looped as a digital-age percussion touch. Two-thirds of the way in, Joe begins to wrench gently at his own melodic line, with a promise of further squalls in the evening, but (teasingly) Ancestral Language fades out before we can get that far. A passing curlicue, sprayed onto the wall. Promising.

Joe De Vita: ‘Ancestral Language’
Daddy Tank Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 25th June 2012

Buy it from:
Free download from Soundcloud. The parent album ‘Evolution’ is available from Daddy Tank Records (CD, limited edition of 100) or Amazon (download)

Joe De Vita online:
Homepage Facebook Soundcloud iTunes

June 2012 – EP reviews – Knifeworld: ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’ (“spinning something solid out of flim-flam”)

17 Jun

Knifeworld: 'Clairvoyant Fortnight'

Knifeworld: ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’

Another summer with Knifeworld: another EP with everything on it. If Kavus Torabi was a builder, rather than being head Knifeworlder, he wouldn’t simply build houses. He’d build deliciously awkward crenellated wonders, with Escher staircases and extra rooms poking out into the street two floors up.

As it is, Knifeworld songs never sound as if they started with an earnest bloke strumming away on a stool. Instead, they tend to sound like a gang of scruffy tattooed pixies, busily hauling down a fairy castle and squabbling over the work-shanties. The final outcome tends to be an almighty and skilful art-rock mashup, with horns and bassoons poking out of it every which-way and strangely kinking, spiraling spines of rhythm and harmony locking it all together. You could never accuse Knifeworld of being parsimonious with their music. That said, the amount of musicality which the band can squeeze into their songs is only one of the factors at work.

It’s almost a shame to digress from the sheer fun at play here, from the helter-skelter confection of Knifeworld’s riffs and melodies and the visual humour they’re now bringing to their video work. But it’s important to realize that across its three songs the ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’ EP actually deals with some pretty serious matters – faith, grounding, mistakes and the business of building a life. All of this might be filtered through eccentric and kaleidoscopic wordplay; but whether expressed via the galactic prog visions of The Prime Of Our Decline, the magic’n’showbiz gabble of the title track or the dancing grumbles of In A Foreign Way, these songs are about spinning something solid out of flim-flam, and gaining the right perspectives.

Under its festoons of decoration and past the hither-and-yon dash of its scurrying melody, Clairvoyant Fortnight itself shows that Knifeworld can compress their strategic wildness into something approaching a catchy single – albeit on their own unusual terms. Half of the time the song sounds like an amalgam of various tasty and tuneful things that shouldn’t fit together but do – XTC, Motown, The Flaming Lips, a dash of 1950s finger-clicking and a brief twist of rapping. The rest of the time, it sounds like an Edwardian fairground carousel trying to slam-dance. Meanwhile, the lyrics are peppered with all manner of mystical, supernatural and hippy tropes. “Well, I’m in a relapse – everyone looks like I did when I was sixteen, yeah?” snipes Kavus, name-checking third eyes, second sight and Ouija boards alongside prophets and scripture.

Grousing and arguing as he sings, Kavus is torn between scepticism and credulity throughout. While he’s clearly implying that there’s little difference between cheap, narrow parlour magic and other forms of belief, he also recognizes the gravitational pull of the supernatural and the way that so many people use it to blot out or cure boredom, uncertainty and terror. In fact, he’s wrangled all of this into an oblique love song, embracing challenge, partnership and natural change as a better way out. “I never felt like giving up before,” he admits, towards the end. “You wrecked my life, but you gave me more… I dig your voodoo and I dig your vibe – I really think that we could make it.” He seems to be suggesting that as much as you choose your own poison, perhaps you choose your own magic too.

There’s plenty to be said about The Prime Of Our Decline. Most simply, it’s unabashed nu-prog done right, from its flamenco beginnings and sea-shanty lilt to the Zappa-meets-Yes riffage, the jumping glockenspiels and the dancing Gong-honkery when it gets up to speed. I could wax lyrical about the slippery percussion allsorts and the stellar rattle of Khyam Allami’s Brufordian snare drum; or about the cheeky burst near the end when the band briefly channels multiple ’70s prog bands in rapid slice-and-dice succession. Throughout its seven-and-a-half minutes, the song also keeps its streamlined shape – as slick as any pop hit you’d care to mention, its tricks with meter and texture cunningly sheathed within a hurtling, bell-swiping, sing-along whole.

Yet this too is a song about footholds; about grasping (and grasping at) your place in the universe. Knifeworld have a knack of dissecting difficult feelings via swirling psychedelic sleight-of-hand – this time, astronomical. Even as Mel and Kavus yammer about black holes and passing stars, their sunny-sounding chants are shot through with evocations of hubris (“we could foresee the day / when nature would bend to our will”), lonely voids, being cast adrift and self-disgust (“orbits and revolutions of the heart / have changed me into something I hate.”) They might be playing at being starchildren, but they’re still weighed down by dark matter.

Somewhere between these two songs there’s In A Foreign Way, a stately chamber-pop jig wobbling under sideswipes at its metre and batterings at the foundations. As the band hack and bounce, the melody doggedly maintains its rhythm, like an Irish matron under attack from a gang of larky Newton’s cradles. Appropriate: underneath the avant-rock fun (including the brief injection of a slice of Henry Cow) this is a song about the frayings and fixes of middle-age.

Kavus frets and kvetches as things unravel around him, old bungles come back to plague him and the familiar becomes blurred. As he does his best to perform running repairs, a chant circles his head – “Where you up to, where you up to, where you up to?” to which the resigned reply is “halfway…” It’d be grim if it weren’t for the zing of the music – stippled with tuned marching-band percussion and the clatter of brains happily at work. That’s Knifeworld for you, though – few bands make it so evident that the sheer joy of music can always salvage something from the darkness.

Knifeworld: ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’
Believer’s Roast, BR008
CD/download EP
Released: 11th June 2012

Buy it from:
(updated, May 2015) Original EP now deleted: all tracks are now available on the compilation album ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’.

Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

REVIEW – Cceruleann: ‘Fucking Wind’ single, 2012 (“waiting to be wrong-footed”)

6 Jun
Cceruleann: 'Fucking Wind'

Cceruleann: ‘Fucking Wind’

In love and on the road: it should be sweet. Instead, you’re continually waiting to be wrong-footed.

First, there’s the music – electronic dream-pop of a multiple-nostalgic kind. The tune is balmy. The blipping synth lines, the crude keyboard beats, the hiccuping voice cut-ups are all from ’80s sample pop. That dazed, wet-gossamer female vocal and the smudge of stretched-out organ goo (swirling from speaker to speaker), draws inspiration from shoegazery and similar blissful-nauseous mid-’90s psychedelia. The puffed hints of melodica and the yawns of bass swim in from first-generation post-punk; or perhaps I’ve just been drawn into the dream, and am imagining them.

Then there’s the song itself. A girl in a car, savouring the moment, coos the simplest, most sugary lover’s line. “It’s OK, baby, don’t worry / ‘cos we’re driving with the summer breeze in my face.” That’s it. There are four more words in the entire lyric, one of which is “ethereal.”

Finally, lurking around the corner like a mugger-in-waiting, there’s that blunt instrument of a title. It’s already plastered all over the cover art. You keep expecting it to come down hard and smash the reverie. Or, alternatively, for everything to turn metaphysical and carnal as the gale hits, the cuteness ends, the car pulls over and everyone starts rutting in the back seat.

For something so light and fluffy on the surface, Cceruleann’s debut single throws up plenty of confusion. Even more subtext gets plastered in when you discover that the band are a brother-and-sister duo (instrumentalist Elliot, singer Marilyn). If I were you, I’d do my best to ignore that for now. In some ways, that’s easy to carry out: though moving together in musical step, Elliott and Marilyn sound as if they’re musing in different worlds. Along the way, some of Marilyn’s words are caught up and shredded, then tossed like happy litter in the wake of the tune. As for that title, it never arrives in the song. The f-bomb remains undetonated. Have they scammed us? Did they just get sick of their own song and punish it with a sarcastic name?

Or perhaps we’re looking in the wrong place. Maybe the real story is about the other person who’s out on that drive – perhaps listening to this endless burble of contentment and seething, their knuckles clenched white on the wheel or wrapped tight around the knees, wondering once again why it’s so impossible to see how another person sees, to feel their feelings, comprehend their tastes… even to understand how you can get through a single day of being with them anymore. Maybe the romance of the playful summer wind is lost along with that. As it teases and strokes at cheekbones, perhaps on the other side of the car it’s whipping petulantly at a cowlick; and while fringe blows aggressively into eyes, and as love heads into the sour spot for good, perhaps something vile is being muttered into that uncaring breeze.

Cceruleann: ‘Fucking Wind’
Holy Underground Recordings/Bandcamp
Download-only single
released 14 May 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Cceruleann online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

May 2012 – album reviews – centrozoon’s ‘Boner’ (“a palette of capriciously shifting noises and sonic pounces”)

16 May

Centrozoon: 'Boner'

Centrozoon: ‘Boner’

Testing to destruction. For some, this isn’t a harsh and necessary process, but a judicious way of life. For the floating, ever-mutating alliance of centrozoon (magisterial touch-guitarist Markus Reuter and synth-bumping/pad-thumping lateral thinker Bernard Wöstheinrich) it seems to be a shrug of nature. Either that, or a compulsion. As centrozoon add to their body of work over the years, they’ve studiously avoided clinging to previous methods. Instead, they function as a kind of art-rock Laputa – hovering briefly over various musical terrains, dropping down tendrils to slurp up flavours and approaches. Despite their bone-dry sense of humour, they’ve always remained a little detached and aloof.

At the same time, centrozoon are driven hard by cryptic fascinations of their own, including their vigorous collision of schooled technical approaches and wild, derailing instinct. Their music has always been bipolar and simultaneous. Crude synth presets are embedded into beautifully-fashioned electric textures; ravening, artful touch-guitar solos play off the blunt wallop of electric whack-pads. En route, centrozoon have explored majestic dark-ambient drift music, ridden the clattering back of gabba techno (while flaying it to within a microtonal inch of its life) and spent time as rhapsodic prog-inspired melody men. In the early 2000s, they borrowed the lissom voice and hooded lyrics of Tim Bowness (on furlough from No-Man) to slide smoothly into a song-driven world of art-pop. Equally smoothly, Markus and Bernhard subsequently hit the eject button in order to reform as an introverted chamber electronics duo. Every time centrozoon go public, they’re different. Every time they seem to settle on a final format, they discreetly blow it up and start again.

Ultimately, centrozoon navigate their increasingly risky game of de-build and re-build by trimming back everything that they’d otherwise need to defend. They explode their identities as musicians to become a diffuse spray of wandering cells. They reduce themselves, once again, to enigmatic minds on the prowl; and now they’ve delivered the most abstract and challenging record of their career.

Emerging after a period of diversion, scatter and relative silence, ‘Boner’ suggests that it’s becoming increasingly pointless to define centrozoon‘s work as a clear interplay of individuals. Instead, their work has become a kind of willing entanglement into which each man – somehow – disappears at full volume. Suitably, the contributions of the band’s current third man Tobias Reber are mostly sonic collage (drastic laptop sound-mangling, heavily processed field recordings, occasional blurts of absurdist lo-fi vocal). With both Markus and Bernhard now enthusiastically jumbling up their own sounds, the band creates an intense and murky improvised electrophonic soup – extreme, exaggerately processed and roaming balefully across unstable tonal centres. It’s both utterly fragmentary and utterly involved. If anything, those interim years spent on other projects have only added to the creative centrozoon seethe, bringing the musicians and sounds closer together.

Where ‘Boner’ stands in the wider scheme of music isn’t clear. Not jazz – there’s no swing here, few melodic rushes or pursuits of harmony, no acknowledgement of pop moves. Not ambient as such – despite the atmospheric swishes of sustained texture, there’s little solid order and continuance, and precious little commitment to minimalism. Something in the drive and stance of the music links it to the far fringes of experimental rock. If so, it’s clinging on by a fingernail.

These new, uncomfortable compositions hang in the air like spasming irises or like nested Venetian blinds: multi-layered, periodically flexing open and shut to reveal new textures and patterns. Ever restless, centrozoon shuffle each and every one of these layers, flying in further sound-fields in the blink of an eye. A dribble of coffee-maker noise jump-cuts to a rumble of bass strings. A radiophonic pot-swoop is overwhelmed by a ringing metallic chord or an imperative percussion thump. In the arrhythmic wander of La Waltz of Kirk, hints of Zawinul tropicalia well through the gaps. On Cervus, ominous and dissonant passages in a classical-minor form recur first as vaporous synth pads, then as overdriven bassy touch-guitar lines.

You could try to cite assorted chaotic improvisers, plunderphonic artists and mixing-desk contrarians as close cousins to this music. However, what remains clearest (most evidently on the rumbles, quick body-blows and Mellotron hangings of Knock Outs) is centrozoon‘s familial relationship with King Crimson. More particularly, with that band’s most left-field improvisations – the atonal busyness of the ProjeKCts; the poly-everything lurch and creak of the ’90s Double Trio (spattering pulped MIDI all over the stage on ‘THRaKaTTak’) and the spidery skitter of ‘Starless and Bible Black’. The post-modern stomp of Markus’ work with another Crimson spin-off – Tuner – is also present. Both Tuner and ‘Boner’ share a hypnotic mixture of harshness and disorientation; an over-arching, out-of-focus beauty; and a grate-and-chop, channel-surfing mixture of signals to pour into your ears. Like Crimson, centrozoon also possess a rigid skeleton of stateliness which glides serenely through even their most chaotic improvised scrambles.

While attempting to make sense of this scattered map, it’s equally important to point out that centrozoon are also exploding the idea of what a commercial music album ought to be. Generally, such things are self-contained musical statements – linked to a point in time, a specific intent and a clearly-defined sales package. In making ‘Boner’, the band embraced as many constructive (and deconstructive) possibilities of chance, reinterpretation and creative dissension as they could. Hundreds of initial hours of free trio improvisation were cut and pasted into new compositions; then a third layer of process was added via two outside remixers, each of whom independently cloned and mixed down the finished sessions.

The result is two twinned but different takes on the final album, with different mixes and track sequences (the Marziano Fontana version emphasising those dramatic cuts and layering, the Adrian Benavides mix more spacious, smooth and chilly). Additionally, centrozoon sell ‘Boner’ in a bewildering variety of packages (via its “Bonestarter” campaign), with diverse extras plugging into the deal like bonus phone apps. Options now include one or both album versions; further choices of formats and downloads; signatures; custom clothing; original artwork; even personal access via one-to-one conversations or touch-guitar lessons.

It’s not that these moves, in themselves, are new. Alternate mixes and reinventions are commonplace, and compositions via mixing desk and improv have been around at least since Zappa. Jane Siberry has offered special-purchase deals with souvenirs and judicious personal access for years. What is new is centrozoon‘s audacity in coupling all of this to such a demanding, avant-garde musical package.

Even without the bonuses, ‘Boner’ may prove to be an incomprehensible palimpsest for many listeners – a palette of capriciously shifting noises and sonic pounces. For others, these same qualities will be a selling point. With colossal chutzpah and confidence – and a disregard of risk – centrozoon are selling the album with all of the confidence of arena rockers touting a singalong blockbuster. Bold, yes – and also pretty funny.

But ultimately, buying one of these bonus-laden ‘Boner’ arrays is rather more significant than buying a box-set edition of a rock album. Those who go for the full-deal set of clothing, decoration and tuition won’t just be grabbing nick-nacks, but buying into a whole centrozoon artistic method: effectively, into a way of life. As a consumer, how can you be sure that you truly own and understand the bewilderments of ‘Boner’ unless you have the Grand Deal with all of the trappings and the chance to press flesh with its creators? Alternatively: if you just own your preferred single recording of ‘Boner’, have you identified its core source, and swept aside all of those commercial refractions; all of those fetish fruits to sweeten the pill?

All of this casts up more questions than answers… as does the album itself. Those who don’t want to embrace the whole Bonestarter frenzy (and ultimately, even those who do) will ultimately find that their involvement will boil down to whether or not they find ‘Boner’s relentlessly abstract, unaccommodating music worth the investment.

Cautiously, I’d say that it is… although I’d add the warning that this music will never be quite what you expect it to be, or what you try to force it to be. Material of this nature is tough to understand, as such – you need to intuit instead, working your way into it. As you’ve seen, ‘Boner’ has already spun over a thousand analytical words out of me as I try to get to grips with its multiple paths and detonated form. Yet my primary reaction to the album is visceral and instinctive.

Beyond the chopped-up structures and the modular marketing, I’m listening to a trio persistently and inexorably falling into the realms of utter abstraction, only to pull themselves back out by their fierce musicality as players and editors. What I’m hearing through the hundreds of shifts and swaps is their determination to plot a course through this humming chaos. The cautious and catlike way in which they place their feet, while otherwise convulsing their music so utterly. The manner in which they orbit and flirt with musical collapse, like a capsule orbiting a threatening black hole.

It’s these things that I remember, past the sing-song AutoTuned rants in Bright Meowing and Smoked Info Monster; past the pocket-calculator seizures of Weak Spelling; even past the jigsaw-puzzle Bonestarter sale of mixed music, time and trophies. It’s this determination that links those fleeting glimpses – around jump-cut corners – of fingers hammering down on strings, keys and mouse buttons before vanishing into the edit.

centrozoon: ‘Boner’
Unsung Records,
CD/download album (plus assorted packages)
Released: 9th May 2012

Buy it from:
Centrozoon directly (includes various Bonestarter packages as mentioned in review), Burning Shed or Bandcamp

centrozoon online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

Race Horses: ‘Mates’ single (“self-deprecating boysprawl, all big feet and perky singalong tune”)

12 May
Race Horses: 'Mates'

Race Horses: ‘Mates’

Your past is a different country. Wander into the wrong part of it and you might get socked on the back of the head: yes, you may have been there before, but you can’t do things in the same way now. At the same time, you’ll find that you’re already changed by having been there in the first place, so you can’t do those things in the same way anyway. Meilyr Jones knows about all this – now – and he’s keen to tell you about it.

Compared to some of the music Meilyr and his band have put out previously – exciting indie pop with an experimental edge rumpling up the sound – Mates is fairly straightforward. In common with many other Welsh pop bands, Race Horses have that Cymric reputation for lateral thinking squatting on their shoulders; but they wear it lightly. Instead of opening up a window through which you can peer into their world, they come lolloping over to meet yours, trailing the odd strange decoration or kooky wristband to colour things up a little.

Mates does start off as exotic process. The title, chanted, is an offbeat factory loop over which the song is assembled: a marimba plinks throughout, stolen from the school music room in order to scatter musical cherries on top. The muscle of the song itself is something of a hiccupping cha-cha-cha, led by the bass. The melody and words, though, make up a cheerful self-deprecating Britpop boysprawl, all big feet and perky singalong tune. It’s a song about being dumped – knocked sideways and woebegone – but it refuses to just lie down and die. The same clever boyishness has kept classic Madness songs fresh since the ’80s (though Race Horses sound as much like a decade-stretching handshake between the Bowies of ‘Scary Monsters’ and ‘Hunky Dory’, even down to the music-hall quirks).

As for where Race Horses find themselves at the moment, it’s in that freefalling zone between “us” and “you and me”, where laws of belief are tumbled over and even geography gets overwritten with new, painful memories. “All the times I used to doubt it / but now I find I’m lost without it” complains Meilyr, groping after a love that’s evaporated and left him staggering. This could be chapter one of a Casanova’s progress, as he seems to have found the first sniff of something he’s suddenly found himself hooked on. For now, he’s still fumbling in disbelief around the ache. “Your words, cold and heavy, / echo down the walls of the place we used to go, / when we were mates.” I know what he means – for me, a particular park in Crouch End is haunted even in bright sunshine, and I still can’t see a shooting star without feeling a twinge.

Still, despite the complaints, Meilyr seems to have already wrapped up the experience into a little eight-syllable summary which he can hold up like a snowglobe – “It cuts, it soothes. / It comes, it’s you,” – and the bouncing plink of the tune sounds more happy than despondent. Perhaps it’s the indomitable bungee-rope of young testosterone. Perhaps Meilyr’s just singing in the sure knowledge that Mates could be one of those songs which make a lot of capering indie pop kids happy during the summer of 2012. Hey ho, the twisted power of love gone splat. Ouch.

Race Horses: ‘Mates’
Stolen Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 9th May 2012

Buy it from:
Download free from Race Horses Facebook page.

Race Horses online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

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