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July 2018 – some post-Doran thoughts on smaller music festivals; and next week’s EppyFest in Cheltenham (27th & 28th July)

21 Jul

John Doran of ‘The Quietus’ wrote a pithy, on-the-nose article a while back about the ongoing corruption of big music festivals, lambasting them as “unsatisfying money hoovers designed to deplete your bank account for minimal return… a heavily branded and patronisingly over-mediated experience – with little in the way of the rough round the edges, unexpected, challenging or genuinely exciting experience that makes being a music fan worthwhile; just a massive spoonfed dose of the ubiquitous, the hyped and the monolithically popular.”

As a follow-up punch, John slashed a hole in the backdrop in order to expose the ethics behind the festival business: how, even as you’re frolicking in a ludicrously overpriced facsimile of countercultural free-spiritedness, your ticket money wriggles its way into the war chests and “shockingly regressive campaigns” of suspect billionaires intent on crushing any genuine counterculture that’s little more than a cheery mask on a product, funding a host of life-killing causes including anti-LGBTQ, anti-union and anti-immigration initiatives. Unsurprisingly, he concluded “personally I’d sooner go to a smaller, more grass-roots independent festival and have a clutch of genuinely odd, uplifting, joyous and memorable experiences on a smaller, freer scale.” He lists plenty of smaller, more conscientious festivals which might better suit your ethics or your conscience – Supersonic, End of the Road, many more. Modestly, he didn’t mention ‘The Quietus’s own efforts .

I might lack John’s edge, but I’ll still say amen to all that. There’s also always the option of going further off the map, seeking out festivals beyond the tents’n’burgers belch. I’ve covered some such here… Marchlands’ annual musical/theatrical celebration of reaching across borders and understanding history; the composer-driven London New Wind Festival; New York’s wonderfully brainy and diverse Ecstatic Music Festival. On a more domestic level, there’s next month’s Whole World Window 2 in Preston, raising urgent money for psychedelic hero Tim Smith’s health care while also functioning as a focussing lens for assorted rock and pop acts existing in a rowdy, complex continuum outside ot the mainstream. The staunchest supportive and communal ethics, unsurprisingly, still hover around punk events, those pass-around-a-donation-bucket battles for big values in small places (I might often be bored by the music, but I profoundly admire the commitment and the generosity of spirit).

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As regards the coming week, Gloucestershire’s EppyFest – just a week away now – is the epitome of a pocket festival. Now heading in its seventh year, it also pretty much defines “boutique”. Its amiably knitted-together selections of psychedelic rock and pop, folk, electric and acoustic chamber music and accomplished instrumentalist is undeniably cosy, but in the right way – unashamed and unaggressive, slightly specialised while toting an inclusive audience ethic. There’s a rosy English glow to it, alright, but not the kind which shoulders out differences while indulging a truculent and moneyed bucolic fantasy. The Eppyfest England is one which is comfortable in itself, but not too smug to look outwards: mostly white, but not bleached and angry. In the best sense and intimation, it’s a liberal parish.

Gong, 2018

The Friday lineup, starting in the evening – is the briefer concert, with just two sets of performers. The headliners are the current and ongoing version of cosmic-rock libertine troupe Gong, still romping along after the death of founding holy prankster Daevid Allen. This isn’t the first time there’s been a post-Allen Gong: percussionist Pierre Moerlen floated a de-hippified mid’-70s jazz-rock version around Europe which had little to do with Allen’s mischievous space rock parables, while the band’s original feminine-mystiquer Gilli Smyth led a sporadic Mother Gong version at points in the ’80s. This, however, is the first Gong that’s been a direct continuation of Allen’s work: thumbing its collective nose at his departure from music and from life, and mourning him by celebrating his ethos.

This Gong iteration is helmed by delightfully wayward, larger-than-life Anglo-Persian prodigy (and ‘Misfit City’ favourite) Kavus Torabi, who established himself as one of the premier, most open-eared British psychedelic talents while with The Monsoon Bassoon and Cardiacs, has continued it with Knifeworld and Guapo, and who has in effect been rehearsing for Gong leadership for the whole of his musical life. Expect the same applecart-overturning riffs, the mingled brass and electric strings, the space-dust party atmospheres. The old firm’s still a family.



 
In support, Liverpudlian guitarist Neil Campbell is arguably one of the most gifted musicians still unknown to the general public. An omnivorous stylistic polymath, he’s mastered contemporary classical, progressive rock, jazz and assorted other styles to the point in which he can pass seamlessly between and through them; and he comes trailing awestruck references from guitar scholars and crossover music master musicians alike. Working off nylon- and steel-strung acoustic guitars (with a chain of echoes, loop pedals and other processors) he creates detailed, fiery electro-acoustic tapestries when playing solo: given the opportunity, he’ll also roll out orchestral concerti, small ensemble pieces, vital building-block contributions to the larger works of other, and site-specific concerts in venues of all kinds.



 
North Sea Radio Orchestra headline Saturday’s seven hours of music – as ever, they draw together Anglo-pastoral classical, a stolen kiss or two of folk melody, crossover chamber music and English art-rock. (They’ve covered Robert Wyatt, as well as old Christmas carols and Vernon Elliot). Sixteen years in, they’re a little smaller and tighter than they used to be – the choir is long gone and the ensemble streamlined, with most of the Victorian poetry settings consigned back to the bookshelf in favour of more personal lyrics of chalkhills and children, lost loved ones and the make-do-and-mend of life.

North Sea Radio Orchestra, 2nd June 2018

They’re still a quietly enchanting proposition, gently webbed together by a deceptive fragility, a village-singer tone and Craig Fortnam’s elegant compositions, and they grow ever more comfortable in themselves as the years pass. From German kosmische, they bring in that cosmic powerplant throb: from Frank Zappa and Canterbury, the somersaults of harmony and tinkle of xylophone (with the lyrical coarseness and silly whimsy gently steered out of the picture); from English chamber music, the gentle green ache. All soft borders, all subtle mind.



 
Second down the bill is Doris Brendel. The Vienna-born multi-instrumentalist daughter of concert-piano legend Alfred Brendel, she originally made her mark in ‘90s neoprog and underground AOR providing vocals, guitar, sax and flageolet to The Violet Hour: when that didn’t last, she applied herself to whatever was going while cultivating her own records in her own time. She’s refined her earlier approach, but what you get now is still pretty much what you got then – a singer who can go from a dream-folk murmur to a gutsy rhythm-and-blues blast, who puts on an assured show of muscular rock and costumed pizazz. An old-school rock chick, but one who’s taken control and honed it to excellence. There might be differences in tone, but latter-day ladyrockers like She Makes War and Ciara Clifford might look to her and immediately see a spiritual older sister.



 
Via a shifting gambler’s hand of interrelated projects – and a proven ability to survive practical and artistic disruption – the persistently thoughtful Oxford prog-rock collective Sanguine Hum have explored music for nearly twenty years now. In many respects, they’re a back-to-first-principles prog-initiative. Rather than constructing vast vanity pieces (as if to impress their aspirational Mellotronic forebears), the Hum are based very much in a lush’n’lambent ’70s pop mode – as least as much Neil Young, Steely Dan or David Bowie as Genesis, Zappa or Canterbury – which they can then wilfully and logically expand to bigger and broader things (engulfing and building upon later influences such as Boards Of Canada along the way).

For this acoustic-slanted EppyFest slot, lead singer/guitarist Joff Winks and keyboard player Matt Baber (the latter fresh from last month’s release of his “ambient prog minimalism” solo album ‘Suite For Piano and Electronics‘) will play as a duo; exploring at least one track from each of the project’s scattered albums and personae, with new material as a bonus.



 
Electric chamber group Firefly Burning were to have held the middle of the bill but had to pull out. To replace them, in comes a harder noise in the shape of the explosive wit, ominous chording and multi-layered songwriting of London’s Thumpermonkey. I described them a while back as “the missing link between Peter Hammill and Neal Stephenson”: a tag which they really seemed to like, so let’s run with it. A motley crew of brainiacs, meticulators and fast friends with their heads in lofty places and their toes sunk in dirty post-metal, they have the kind of esoteric preoccupations (and the wherewithal to communicate them) which encourage interest rather than eye-rolling and detachment. Unshamedly weird-fictional, the songs have covered Nigerian email fraud, Aztec hauntings, bizarre medical conditions and Victorian explorers amongst many other topics, all via a rich filter of literary and cinematic techniques and dark, sophisticated humour.

As for the music, Thumpermonkey play within that increasingly rare strata of hard rock in which there’s room to breathe, think, listen and explore beauty as well as nail down a predatory riff. Michael Woodman sings like an athletic college don moonlighting as an operatic priest, while his cohorts Ben, Sam and Rael construct a moving fortress, observatory and interdimensional vessel for him to stand on. They’re the kind of band that either make you proud to be curious, or will magnetize your brain into a state of curiosity. In effect, they’re the ‘Infinite Monkey Cage’ of British post-prog and we’re bloody lucky to have them.



 
Bristolian progressive-grunge rockers Lord Of Worms cite Meshuggah, Soundgarden, Tool and Ufomammut as influences, and there’s certainly some roiling springy punktone bass and restless post-hardcore rhythmic shifts in the mix. Their folk lilts and Zoie Green’s burnished-silver vocals simultaneously tie them into a tradition of female-fronted folk-rock acts like Renaissance and The Morrigan. Judge for yourselves…



 
Like Sanguine Hum, Dutch/American crossover prog poppers Fractal Mirror will be playing under reduced circumstances as regards personnel, but probably not in terms of the music. While the band can rely on the assistance of Echolyn polymath Brett Kull, among others, in the studio, this live date will just feature their core duo of singer/guitarist/keyboard and recorder player Leo Koperdraat and lyric-writing drummer Frank Urbaniak. Expect intimate expansions on their recipe of dove-soft Mellotronics and pastoral post-Porcupine Tree moods, with their hidden freight of darker, reflective lyrics.



 
Sonic Bond Promotions & The Epileptic Gibbon Podcast present:
EppyFest 7: North Sea Radio Orchestra + Gong + Neil Campbell + Sanguine Hum + Doris Brendel + Thumpermonkey + Lord Of Worms + Fractal Mirror
St Margaret’s Hall & Annex, Coniston Road, Hatherley, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL51 3NU, England
Friday 27th July 2018, 7.00pm
– information here and here
Saturday 28th July 2018, 1.00pm – information here and here

* * * * * * * *

It would be stupid of me to represent EppyFest as some kind of absolute template for festivals. It’s its own little Gloucestershire gem, it has its context and its taste-palette, and while it’s a fine refresher there’s far more to contemporary music – to a nourishing cultural diet – than even a thoughtful slipped-weekend like this one can provide.

What I am advocating is a spreading of its care-filled cottage ethos; its preference for building a relatively equal, mutually supportive community of performers and audients in a warm and humble space, rather than driving a rush of drainable, soakable human cattle through the money-mill. Events like this are worth the seeking-out, worth the effort that goes into their creation. Go find some. Go make some. Come tell me about them.
 

July 2018 – upcoming avant-pop gigs – Liam Singer in New York and Catskill with Sontag Shogun, Alexander Turnquist and Tim Mislock (12th, 13th July)

6 Jul

Liam Singer, 2018Bar his efforts in assembling a performance of Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ under the Brooklyn Bridge last year, not enough has been heard from Liam Singer since he released his gorgeously limpid ‘Arc Iris’ album in 2013. In fact, he’s quit New York City and moved upstate to Catskill, where he’s now co-running HiLo – a combined cafe, bar, art gallery, and performance space. New responsibilities, however, haven’t stemmed his musical flow. Two imminent shows (one at HiLo and one in his old Brooklyn stomping grounds) mark this month’s release of his fifth album, ‘Finish Him‘, on Birdwatcher Records.

Centred on his piano and the sweet murmur of his voice, Liam’s previous records brought in strings, glass harmonicas and spectral studio reverb; the clink and clatter of gamelan and prepared instruments, Morton Feldman namedrops, and women’s voices shading into birdsong. They sketched out a sharply etched dreamworld which seemed to take place in and on the towns, roads and headlands of a permeable New England coastline – one in which ancient mythology and personal headspace interpenetrated, and danced their way up and down from the seabed to the constellations. Either that, or they evoked loft life in an idealised, slightly antiquated boho New York or upscale university town – Art Deco bannisters, rumpled stockings discarded by elusive free-spirited lovers; mannered speech, books on the Harlem Renaissance.

It was pop, but pop over which Steve Reich and the aforementioned Feldman presided as occasional guardian angels (as did Henry Cowell and Shaker music), amidst a papery flutter of old books and wallpaper witnessings, and of dust being blown off enthralling junk-shop discoveries. Longtime co-producer Scott Solter likes to link it to “Edward Gorey and the Brothers Quay“. The descriptions may sound precious, but the songs aren’t. No showboater, Liam is nonetheless one of those singers whose tones gently, subtly shift and refract between wonder, melancholy, wry self-deprecation and ecstacy: a caster of light upon things, rather than a hoarder or showcaser. The folding of literary and mythical references into his songs – and their subtly eclectic instrumentation – may bring him comparisons to Elliott Smith (especially in terms of the intimate delivery) and to Sufjan Stevens; but to me he’s a far more gentler character, bringing a human fragility and self-awareness to his steps in and out of a numinous music realm. A bit like an American William D. Drake, perhaps; though minus the occasional overt music-hall flourishes.


 
That said, ‘Finish Him’ (described as “a coming-out party”) sees Liam changing tack. Now he’s fully, publically embracing influences he’s previously only hinted at – predominantly colourful 1980s art pop “from a time when traces of the Baroque and avant-garde began to seep into the margins of the mainstream alongside the iconic synths, gated reverbs and big hair.” The science-fiction bacofoil-meets-CGI video, drum machine and layered synths of pilot single Test Tone determinedly sets out this new stall – like Wes Anderson simultaneously taking on ‘Tron’ or one of those Saturday afternoon space operas – and while new tracks like The Devil and I Want To See Sparks are less immediately brash, they’ve set aside some of the diaphanous sound of previously-on-Liam in favour of grander, brighter colourings, scrim-sweeps of noise, and bolder narratives about the struggle between selfishness and connection, the booting over of applecarts.



 
If there’s a new parallel, it’s the latterday work of Paddy McAloon – the revealing of extra bite and sharp points behind the musical meringue, the emergence of perspective and bone-deep feeling that comes with age and gravity taking more of a hold. The magic and mists are still there, just with a little more lightning.

Main support at both shows comes from Liam’s friends in the “lullanoise” project Sontag Shogun, who travel the world and bring back armfuls of noise and aural capturings of different places and times, only to re-knit them into ambiguous/meaningful post-minimalist mood pieces of piano and soundscape. Evoking or manufacturing memories filled with beauty and displacement, they produce music which is part hypnagogic tape, part four-dimensional postcard or souvenir.

For the Brooklyn show, the core Shogun trio (pianist Ian Temple, laptop/field recordings manipulator Jesse Perlstein and tapesman/oscillator operator/microphonist Jeremy Young) are “reformatting and outfitting” the band with a string quartet (thus forming the Sontag String Ensemble) and are playing “all new music, marrying improvisational and experimental sound with composed string arrangements by Ian.” For the Catskill show, they’re reverting to the trio format.



 
Each of the two shows will be bolstered by another instrumental set, each by a different guitarist/composer. In Brooklyn, it’s Alexander Turnquist, whose instrumental reflections on nature and philosophy blend virtuosic twelve-string acoustic fingerstyle with studio-based electronic noise aesthetics, producing a melodious state-shifting thunder of folk baroque/New Acoustic stringwork and reverberant processing which perhaps makes him the heart of an imaginary triangle between Michael Hedges, John Fahey and Jim O’Rourke.

Alexander’s counterpart at the Catskill show is Tim Mislock, whose use of simple electric figures and slow, ebbing ambient-country pulses… renders him more similar to Britain’s Rob Jackson or to a Nashville-saturated Robert Fripp, while also dipping into the lonesome romantic post-rock minimalism of Explosions In The Sky. His current album ‘Now Is The Last Best Time’ is “a heartfelt ode to (his) mother, who over the course of the past decade, has been the primary caregiver to her husband and Mislock’s stepfather; as he slowly fades into the ever-present silence of Alzheimer’s disease.” It’s a project encompassing love, regret, compassion and drift, and you can feel all of them in every note.


Dates:

  • Liam Singer + Sontag String Ensemble + Alexander Turnquist – Wonders Of Nature, 131 Grand Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, New York 11249, USA, Thursday 12th July 2018, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Liam Singer + Sontag Shogun + Tim Mislock – HiLo Catskill, 365 Main Street, Catskill, New York 12414, USA, Friday 13th July 2018, 8.00pm – information here

 

July 2018 – two eclectic London music evenings – SOIF Soiree with Society Of Imaginary Friends, Jennifer Bliss Bennett, Dekay Ex, Stone Deep, Outre Dan Steele and William Summers (6th July); Rude Mechanicals with John Callaghan, Hypnotique and Rotten Bliss (13th July)

3 Jul

SOIF Soiree, 6th July 2018

The last Society Of Imaginary Friends Soiree for the summer is cartwheeling into view. I smashed two or three of their Beat-y burbles together to bring you this:

“Friday 6th July is our 21st Century Avant Garde Soiree at Karamel, N22. We have in store for you a magnificent exploration of 21st Century new and experimental music with incredible performers already lined up. The fabulous, supremely talented Jennifer Bliss Bennett will be performing master composer Martin Gaughan’s pieces for voice and bass viol: a must hear. There’ll be an appearance from the one-and-only Dekay Ex (queen of the underground urban music arena, virtuosic battle rapper superstar) with guest musician Gerard; and brand new dark intriguing soul music from Stone Deep.

“The multi-talented Darren and Isobel Hirst will be performing as the fascinating, spellbinding duo Outre Dan Steele, and the amazing William Summers (Circulus, Princes In The Tower, Mediaeaval Baebes and innumerable period/Baroque ensembles) will be performing 20th century recorder music. Plus us, the Society Of Imaginary Friends, and that’s just for starters. Delicious vegan food and unbelievably free entry.”

Society of Imaginary Friends presents:
21st Century Avant Garde Soiree: Society Of Imaginary Friends + Jennifer Bliss Bennett + Dekay Ex + Stone Deep + Outre Dan Steele + William Summers
Kabaret @ Karamel Restaurant, The Chocolate Factory 2, 4 Coburg Road, Wood Green, London, N22 6UJ, England
Friday 6th July 2018, 7.30pm
– information here and here

A few examples of the evening’s entertainment:




 
* * * * * * * *

There’s no August Soiree (since the Society will be either on holiday or concentrating on their appearances at the Green Gathering festival in Chepstow), but there should be more of these evenings in the coming autumn.

However, you can make up for their upcoming London summer absence with an evening of music and video hosted by Cos Chapman’s Rude Mechanicals, and taking place in a onetime Dalston dance school turned into arty pub and hangout space…

Rude Mechanicals + John Callaghan + Hypnotique + Rotten Bliss, 13th july 2018

“The art-rock inspired Rude Mechanicals have been compared to Nick Cave, The Tiger Lillies, early Roxy Music and Can and described as post-punk, swamp blues and dark cabaret – altogether creating a music that was best be described by Tom Robinson (on BBC6) as “wild, wicked weirdness… a little bit Flying Lizards, a little bit Native Hipsters and a great deal like nothing you’ve heard before…” The evening will feature the premiere of MHG Music Videos’s animated video for Rude Mechanical’s ‘Paperwork’.”

Meanwhile, here’s something a little older…


 
“Originally hailing from Birmingham, John Callaghan is an unusual songwriter and performer of thoughtful and spiky electronica. His self-directed video for ‘I’m Not Comfortable Inside My Mind’ aired on MTV. His live performances are energetic and imaginative, and range from one-man auto-karaoke shows to specially-written dancefloor sets. Recent well-received shows have included London’s Spitz, Ginglik and Electrowerks, Cambridge’s Portland Arms, Crystal Palace Bowl and last year’s jaunt around Germany, including Berlin’s Club 103 and Bar 25 and Hamburg’s Golden Pudel. He is 173cm tall, weights 73kg and has a blood pressure of 110/60Hg.”


 
Hypnotique is a thereministe, electronic musician and auteur based in London whose lyrical subjects range from the apocalypse, post-feminism, erotic narrative and allotments. She’s performed solo shows at Edinburgh Fringe, worked with Gong and The Heliocentrics, toured the Amazon and annoyed Simon Cowell. She’ll be performing her live sound design for Georges Méliès 1902 film ‘Voyage de la Luna’ (‘Trip to the Moon’)…”
…which she’s previously and recently also done at a Colliding Lines film evening: find out more about that here.


 
“Described last year as “a thing of disquieting dark beauty rolling in through a ghostly fog on timeless ripples whose ebbing wash peels back the years to reveal a vintage crafted in archaic folk tongues” by Mark Barton of ‘The Sunday Experience‘ (and, by ‘The Wire’ as a writer of “coarse and beautifully heavy songs (betraying) hallmarks of folk, metal and classical without subscribing to any particular tribe”), Rotten Bliss is the violent, warm and weird visions of London based avant-garde electric cellist and vocalist Jasmine Pender. Equally inspired by the wild physicality of Jacqueline du Pre and the shrieking glory of a cello played through FX pedals, Rotten Bliss packs diverse influences into an elemental voyage of outer-limits FX-laden drones, weird folk and sound art, raging from tender a capella lyrical fantasies through to ecstatic nihilism.

“Jasmine performs regularly around London, also playing in 11th Hour Adventists (with Jowe Head, ex-Swell Maps) and False Echo (with Tim Bowen, ex-Chrome Hoof) and has toured England, France, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. Her debut album, ‘The Nightwatchman Sings’, was released in October 2017 on the Reverb Worship label.”

 
Also on hand for the inbetween bits are DJs Enri, Blue and MJ Ultra, and Rude Mechanicals are bribing any advance tickets buyers with the promise of a “free unique, special edition CD and badge”.

Rude Mechanicals present:
‘Paperwork!’ – featuring Rude Mechanicals + John Callaghan + Hypnotique + Rotten Bliss + DJ Enri + DJs Blue & MJ Ultra
Farr’s School Of Dancing, 17-19 Dalston Lane, Dalston, London, E8 3DF, England
Friday 13th July 2018, 7.30pm
– information here and here
 

July 2018 – upcoming London singer-songwriter gigs – Ana Silvera’s ‘Oracles’ at the South Bank (4th July) and Holly Penfield’s ‘Fragile Human Monster’ in Piccadilly (9th July)

1 Jul

Ana Silvera, 4th July 2018

‘Oracles’ – the BASCA-nominated song-cycle by Anglo-Portuguese singer-songwriterAna Silvera – already has a seven-year history. Created more or less in parallel with her debut album ‘The Aviary’ (and originally a choral piece for the NEC choir at the Roundhouse), it’s now returning this month, freshly re-arranged for Ana and small vocal/instrumental ensemble, for a full album release and the first of two 2018 live shows.

A response to the pain of intimate family bereavement, ‘Oracles’ “draws on folk tales and myths to chart a transformative journey from profound grief to tentative acceptance.” In some senses it’s a wide-spectrum take on adult pop without a trace of that genre’s unnecessary blandening: an as-it-happens assessment of the dramatic personal shifts in position following the loss of both loved ones and of the relationship one has with them while they’re alive.

What I’ve heard of it so far suggests a similar vivacity as her songs elsewhere on album or in her theatrical work – vividly characterised narratives of internal reflection and of landscapes both physical and emotional, mingling detailed, nakedly honest personal verbal imagery and an influx of Portuguese folk feel in a way which makes her sound a little like an Iberian Jane Siberry.


 
For the live performance, Ana’s six-piece band features her co-arranger – Listenpony curator and singing multi-instrumentalist Josephine Stephenson – plus a wealth of folk-jazz talent in the shape of the string trio of Jasper Høiby on double bass, Alice Zawadzki on vocals and violin, and Alice Purton on vocals and cello, plus Will Barry on piano and percussion.

The concert will feature “specially arranged new songs” for the first half and a full run through ‘Oracles’ for the second: the latter including a specially commissioned dance film by Royal Ballet/’Random Acts‘ director/dancer Kate Church and art director Alice Williamson.

Ana Silvera – ‘Oracles’
Purcell Room @ Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, Waterloo, London, SE1 8XX, England
Wednesday 4th July 2018, 8.00pm
– information here and here


 
* * * * * * * *

Holly Penfield, 9th July 2018

From where she’s standing in her life right now, Holly Penfield can reach out in both directions to touch the passionate, large-lunged ingenue singer of her youth and the salty life-loving veteran she’s transforming into. Of course, she’s got a longer, bolder reach than most. Once tagged as “David Bowie meets Liza Minelli” by a surprised and wrongfooted Simon Cowell, she’s a classic torch-pop singer with a stunning voice who’s also both blessed and cursed with an upsetter’s drive. These days, as she rebounds from twenty years as a leading international cabarettier in order to return to her own songs, it’s more of a blessing.

Raised in San Francisco (and a veteran of the 1980s LA pop scene with the scars to prove it) Holly spent much of the ‘90s writing and performing the psychodramatic one-woman pop show ‘Fragile Human Monster’ in London and elsewhere. A show with such troubled and intense undercurrents that it eventually blew itself apart, it’s now spawned a return… but under very different circumstances. The whirling mirror-glass synths and saxophones of the old days have been replaced by a gritty post-Americana rock band (which growls, gnaws and struts through her songs like a Cash or Waits ensemble) while Holly herself has mostly forsaken standing behind a keyboard (except for when a grand piano ballad calls for that set of skills).


 
It’s funny, sad, uplifting and stirring all at once. Once the very embodiment of storm-tossed waif and precarious survivor, Holly’s now a wiser and much happier woman. She still absolutely owns the stage, though, helping herself to a big dollop of the jazz and blues flavourings which shaped her initial development, playing a dash of ukulele and engaging in some zestful shimmying (and some delightfully ludicrous party outfits, worn with wit and flair – it seems as if her recent steps away from cabaret involved at least one sly step back).


 
What hasn’t changed is the quality of her singing, and of her songs. While old FHM standards like Misfit, The Last Enemy, puddle-of-grief ballad Stay With Me, and slinking fingersnapper You Can’t Have The Beauty Without The Beast have shed skins and made the transition to the new show, Holly’s also been dipping into a trunk of neglected and mostly previously unheard work, including the tremendous state-of-the-world song Confessions (based around a lyrical hook she once dangled in front of an intrigued Joni Mitchell) and the vivacious Tree Woman (a more recent effort in which she vigorously embraces both her own ageing and the resilience that comes with it).

Holly Penfield’s Fragile Human Monster Show
Crazy Coqs @ Brasserie Zédel, 20 Sherwood Street, Soho, London W1F 7ED, England
Monday 9th July 2018, 9.15pm
– information here


 

June 2018 – upcoming London rock gigs – H0nkies, TomZack, Aeddan and Stal Kingsley (14th June)

11 Jun

H0nkies + Tomzack + Aeddan + Stal Kingsley, 14th June 2018
If you’re in London on 14th June (and not already heading for the Lost Crowns show in Dalston), you might consider this free event.

Friends Serene presents:
H0nkies + TomZack + Aeddan + Stal Kingsley
The Lock Tavern, 35 Chalk Farm Road, Camden Town, London, NW1 8AJ, England
Thursday 14th June 2018, 7.30pm
– free entry – information here and here

As you might have noticed in previous posts, I’ve got an ambivalent relationship with Americana: but while H0nkies dabble in it (the official line is that their work is “Americana, bluesy, post-punk country cuts”) they don’t pay it much undue respect. They pick it up, drop it on the floor, and then drunkenly gum it back together with added noise and clatter and hooty keyboards.

Here’s ‘Pagans’, their half of a recent split single. It’s a punky-tonk, a little as if The Libertines, Tom Waits, Jim White and Madness had collaborated in a round of happy mutual arse-kicking. Their singer keeps peering out of the racket (and out from beneath his own looning bawl) as if to wink at us, as if we were in on the gag. I think I like him.

 
In the space of a year, Tottenham art-rock/post-punk quintet TomZack have travelled from the industrial dance feelers of their debut single Too Much To Love to the theatrical flair of their current incarnation, delivering peculiar badlands singalongs and rumblesongs on record. A band with at least one parallel life, they’re also working on a live soundtrack to the upcoming theatre version of ‘The Forbidden Zone’ (Oingo Boingo’s cult 1980 film showcasing the early work of Danny Elfman amid a riot of transgressive cartoonish imagery, as if John Waters had transformed ‘Alice In Wonderland’ into American burlesque). Expect the latter, plus the debut TomZack album, in the autumn.

Meanwhile, here’s current single Caroline (Still In Love With You): a mordantly downbeat piece of grinding melancholy (again with that Waitsian tone) unmoored to fly on a strange junk/space-opera background narrative of starship troopers, gender wars and time-travelling bereavements. Either they’re writing their own bit of long-form twisted steampunk, or they just like bamboozling people with their press releases.


 

Wrapping up the bill are a couple of solo songwriters. Aeddan Williams (or just “Aeddan”) fits firmly into that line of singing multi-instrumental play-and-record-everything craftsmen: the one which includes Roy Wood, Karl Wallinger and other blokes who’ve either shaped, or paid glorious expansive tribute to, British pop. His debut album has shades of The Move, World Party, Kinks, Small Faces and the usual jaunty suspects. The album and EP he’s popped out so far have been filled with songs of kooky chicks and small adventures, indie protest songs about racists, and (just under the bonnet) subtle little twists which reveal that craft doesn’t blind him to ironies and changes in perspective.


 
Stal Kingsley, on the other hand, is already well embedded into that skewed-perspective zone. A lo-fi pop aficionado with an ear for the grand gesture, he enjoys but can’t quite stay slouched in his tape rumble; and chooses instead to bring his eccentricities out into the light of the mainstream. Comparisons to Ariel Pink and Cleaners From Venus abound; his live gigs apparently stretch out into performance art (with “live drawing countdowns”, filmed ad breaks and the backing band on an old tape cassette); but I think that what he really wants is to bring his music into your sitting room, even if it’s not quite the right size to fit through the door, or keeps sliding off your sofa.


 

June 2018 – upcoming London rock gigs – gloriously complex experimental rock evenings – The Mantis Opera, Barringtone and New Born Animal (8th June); Lost Crowns with Sharron Fortnam and Kavus Torabi (June 14th)

27 May

Several of London’s more convoluted art-rock genii are emerging from the woodwork to play live in the early part of June, accompanied by assorted fellow travellers and burlesque pop sympathisers. Read on…

* * * * * * * *

The Mantis Opera + Barringtone + New Born Animal, 8th June 2018

If you’ve wondering what a band might sound like if it fused Henry Cow, Battles and early Scritti Politti, you’re in luck… and, to be honest, probably pretty marginal. Come over here and sit next to me.

Stemming from solo work by guitarist, singer and electronics meddler Allister Kellaway, The Mantis Opera now delivers his stirring, challenging constructions via a full electro-experimental synth-rock band, voicing a collection of “avant-garde grumbles” via a multiplicity of synth sounds and colliding pop tones. If this sounds inaccessible and snooty, it isn’t. It’s just that the tunes arrive in complicated cascading splinters, many parts urging in parallel towards an out-of-sight coda, while a dreamily precise atmosphere prevails: avant-prog keeping watch from under a dream-pop veil.

The pieces themselves display an ambitious, orchestral thinking – Reykjavik, for example, is less a guitar clang with lofty ambitions and more of a cerebral/visceral string quartet piece transposed for rock band. Allister’s winding, philosophical lyrics, meanwhile, are very reminiscent of Henry Cow and of Rock in Opposition preoccupations, dissecting as they do themes of resistance, logic, language and compliance with the air of a man trying to bring intellectual rigour to the pub, grabbing at the misty answers before the closing bell rings.



 
Assuming that recent reports of a broken-wristed drummer haven’t entirely torpedoed their availability, Barringtone should be in support, continuing their live drive towards the release of their debut album on Onamatopoeia this summer. Released songs have been sparse over the past few years; but enjoy this new-ish brainy little post-power-pop conundrum, exhibiting Barry Dobbins’ own ambitions as he moves up from the band’s previous wry, ornamented motorik drive into much more castellated, conversational proggy territories while keeping their knuckly XTC-inspired edge intact.


 
Seven-piece big-pop band New Born Animal complete the lineup at this Friends Serene gig. Headed by singer/songwriter/arranger Thomas Armstrong, they’re a sonorous wall-of-drunken-sound effort who sound like Blur (during their music-hall period) dragging the Walker Brothers into a dressing-room tipple too far. If so, they also sound like the stage before it all turns nasty: slightly discombobulated singalongs where self-consciousness is just rags in the breeze, the emotional valves have been opened up and everyone in the room is temporarily your lifelong friend. If this in turn sounds sloppy, then I’d suggest that there’s a lot of craft going into something which sags and collapses so gloriously and visibly, but which never disintegrates. There’s longing, wonder and helpless laughter all brimming at the back of this.


 

On top of this, the whole evening’s free if you turn up soon enough…

Friends Serene presents:
The Mantis Opera + Barringtone + New Born Animal
The Shacklewell Arms, 71 Shacklewell Lane, Shacklewell, London, E8 2EB, England
Friday 8th June 2018, 7.30pm
– free entry – information here and here

* * * * * * * *

Lost Crowns + Kavus Torabi, 14th June 2018

The following week, Richard Larcombe’s Lost Crowns spearhead “an evening of songs with a lot going on in them”. In many respects, it’s a re-run of their triumphant London debut at the same venue back in January. No Prescott this time, sadly (though their instrumental ping-pong twitch would have been welcome), but Kavus Torabi is back with a guitar, a hand-pumped harmonium and more songs from his ongoing solo project. Launched the other month with the ‘Solar Divination’ EP, this might be a holiday from the jewelled and roaring intricacies of his main gig with Knifeworld, but it’s certainly not an escape from the psychedelic shadows which nightwing their way through the band’s apparently celebratory rainbow arcs. For this isolated, darker, more grinding work, Kavus strips the flash-bangs away and leaves us with the droning echoes: the meditative bruises, fears and queries, many of which nonetheless contain their own seeds of determination and a kind of celebratory acceptance.


 
As for the headliners, last time I anticipated Lost Crowns as likely to be (deep breath) “a rich, unfolding master-craftsman’s confection… complex, artfully-meandering songs built from delightfully byzantine chords and arpeggios that cycle through ever-evolving patterns like palace clockwork; accompanied by rich, lazy clouds of hilarious, hyper-literate, wonderfully arcane lyrics; all sealed by an arch, out-of-time English manner which (in tone and timbre) falls into a never-was neverworld between Richard Sinclair, Stephen Fry, Noel Coward and a posh, Devonian Frank Zappa.”

A tall order (even it was based on what Richard’s delivered in previous projects), but I wasn’t disappointed. With Lost Crowns, Richard’s created the most dynamic and surprising music of his career.

As before, the rest of the band’s lineup is a cross-section of London art-rock luminaries: Charlie Cawood, Nicola Baigent, Rhodri Marsden, Josh Perl, drummer “Keepsie”. Certainly the influence of Richard’s brother and usual collaborator James is missed (his genial, warm, embroidering effect on Richard’s work is underrated) but his absence allows both Richard and the band to stretch out in different directions – fiercer, more crammed, sometimes brutal in their complication.

A vortex of influences funnel around Richard, including Chicago math, witty Daevid Allen psych rampage, contemporary classical music and skipping, tuneful folk singalongs. Shaped by his particular persona and thought processes – as well as his innate Englishness – it all emerges as a kind of prog, but one in which the fat and the posturing has all been burned off by the nerves and the detail, and in which his dry, melodious wit winds around the work playing mirror-tricks, theatrical feints, and the conspiratorial winks of a master boulevardier. As much at home playfully slagging off the precious venerations of synaesthesia as they are with nine-minute epics with titles like Housemaid’s Knee, Lost Crowns are a delightful self-assembling puzzle.

Frustratingly, with Richard still keeping everything close to his chest (outside of Lost Crowns’ welcoming gig environment), I’ve got nothing to show you. No embedded songs, no videos, nothing but those words and these words. Richard’s likely to keep everything culty, so the best way that you can find out whether I’m just lying through garlands here is to go to the gig yourself.

Originally this was to be a double-header with Lost Crowns’ other friends and allies, the revived psychedelic-acoustic band Lake Of Puppies (re-teaming North Sea Radio Orchestra’s Craig and Sharron Fortnam with William D. Drake, in order to build on the bouncing life-pop they cheerfully hawked around London together in the late ‘90s). Sadly, the Puppies have had to pull out of the show following Bill’s collision with pianist’s RSI in early May. Instead, Lost Crowns will play an extended set with Sharron woven into it as a special guest; while Kavus will be stretching out his own set, covering the remaining time that’s not taken up with snooker-ace-turned-avant-rock-uncle Steve Davis on DJ duty.

Lost Crowns (with special guest Sharron Fortnam) + Kavus Torabi + DJ Steve Davis
Servant Jazz Quarters, 10a Bradbury Street, Dalston, London, N16 8JN, England
Thursday 14th June 2018, 7.00pm
– information here, here and
here
 

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