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May 2020 – EP reviews – Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY’s ‘CONFINEMENT-release3’ (“mysteries which slip into shadowed corners”)

7 May

Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY: 'CONFINEMENT-release3' EP

Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY: ‘CONFINEMENT-release3’ EP

Following their pair of releases last month, Brighton’s Confinement Tapes project is back for a second round – this time with Confinementeers Jo Spratley and Bic Hayes joined by honorary family member Chris Anderson (of Worthing’s Crayola Lectern), who’s also worked with Bic in Brighton kosmische juggernaut ZOFFF alongside what seems like a good half of Brighton’s psychedelic contingent (and, occasionally, The House of Love’s Terry Bickers).

(The third original Confinementeer, Jesse Cutts, has his own follow-up single too, but more on that later…)

Unlike the archived cover versions refurbished for the previous EP, ‘Bright Fivers’ is an all-new, all-original April recording in which Chris contributes as the anagrammatic Cola Ray, collaborating with Bic and Jo’s MUMMY. Initially, it’s his arpeggiating pianos (distanced and tinny, as if pulled from a dusty old 78) which dominates ‘Bright Fivers’; a solemn setting for Jo’s singing, which is loaded with both trepidity and authority. That’s only the prelude, though, and it’s severed from the rest of the piece by a jump-cut edit as loud and merciless as a sucker punch or an axe blow. You even hear the clunk as the mood shifts; Jo switching abruptly into deadpan recitation against a Bic backdrop of guitar static and wind texture, as impassive as the prophetess taken over by the voice of the prophecy.

Whether sung or spoken, the sentences are broken off; dark, punching surrealist gobbets of foreseeing and ruin. “Silence in the air. / Things endure, things evolve. / Between the slopes fivers fly up onto the dream floor. / Fire spreads her text of flame as serious as food / Our towers of graph paper fold up into the silence, / delicate as the girl who leaves the stone and the water – / and the bright moan of the green, / the collapse of a black age. / In the end we never know what we know.” It sounds like something buried deep in peat in order to time-travel; transmitting a warning, or possibly a testament.


 
‘The United Kingdom’ is (mostly) another eleven-year-old recovering from Jo Spratley’s Babyskullz solo project: one which just happens to fit in with ‘Bright Fivers’. It’s another recitation, delivered by Jo to pattering drumbox and orchestrated in minimal, thrifty make-do fashion. Two-finger melodica. Guttural just-picked-it up guitar lines and milk-bottle vibraphone. Cobwebby analogue synth gurgles, dub distancings and dirty blats of fireworks.

Something about the rhythm and chant suggests the cheesy old white-rap anti-classic ‘Ice Ice Baby’. Everything about the words doesn’t, as Jo narrates (in newsprint monotone) a set of disappearances. “A man who hears bells who loves cars” misses his train only to drop out of routine and out of existence; a corporate lawyer vanishes during her solo boat trip; fifty years ago, a cancer specialist who “wraps her dolls in graph-paper by the light of the moon” is last seen in car headlights by the edge of a cliff. All three are obliquely connected by hearts: their rhythms or their interruption, their presence as eviscerated occult trophies or as enigmatic markers; presumably also by the locked-up desires, secrets and clues they contain. All cases are left open; mysteries which slip into shadowed corners of modern folklore or Lynchian dreams. There’s a stress on the regular and on the irregular, but no conclusion on either.


 
As haunting as this can be (and it does build on regular repetition, an inconclusion which nags to be solved), it’s still Bic’s dark-psychedelia project Mikrokosmos which dominates this particular set, providing three tracks out of the five. Two are brief snapshot instrumentals, deliberately left incomplete or brought to dismissive halts. Recorded in 1993 during Mikrokosmos’ cramped early sessions in west London, ‘In the Machine Room’ is an jarring but strangely satisfying hybrid of claustrophobic paranoia and sweet naivety. An uncomfortable electronic hum and weirdly organic rattling (like mice beginning to panic inside a generator housing) passes into a bright nursery march played on assorted guitars, drums and bombastic little synths. For forty-eight seconds, post-industrial grot tussles with twinkly daydream.


 
I assume that Bic escaped from whatever it was that was polluting him: ‘Frag. Familiar’, from 2014, was completed nearly two decades later (long after Bic had quit London), but it missed the boat for Mikrocosmos’ ‘Terra Familiar’ abum. It’s as confusing as its predecessor. A sustained cosmic slam: a huge guitar downchord which is allowed to trail away, while delicate waltzing keyboards come forward to shine over the top. They dance with another brutally distorted guitar line – butterflies courting Bigfoot – before everything hits the wall, topples over and cuts off. There’s a farcical humour to this music. It shows you the stars but then suddenly pulls away the rug, or drops the time-clock on the telescope viewing: almost deliberately crass in the way it brings you back down to earth with a bump. I suspect that there’s a touch of reverse psychology here. To move forward properly, you have to overcome the bumps, denials and trip-ups.


 
Another ‘Terra Familiar’ outtake, ‘Cell by Cell’, is more substantial and developed: a six-and-a-half minute song rather than a peculiar fragment. It’s also a dubbier return to Bic’s Dark Star days: almost a Massive Attack take on that band’s life-scarred fin-de-siècle urban psychedelia, taking in similar elements of Hawkwind space rock and Killing Joke post-punk grimness to offset Bic’s sighing, waify sweetness. There’s a Dark Star-ish sense of resignation too, a voice-of-the-casualty effect as Bic reflects on exhaustion and disassociation, on being swallowed by routine and self-absorption. ‘Just swim, / float to the surface – / as if it’s so easy, you show me again. / But time weighs me down so gently / and all our ideas just drift away, / sinking, / lost in the moment. / Ennui is so easy / and to the end we divide. / Cell by cell to solitary worlds – / undesigned, undesired. / Islands in an ocean of thought / turning inwards defied / to meet with the gaze of impermanence eyes…’


 
The formal Confinement message for this EP is one of “a constellation of songs brought together by this rarefied time. Pulled through the thickness of life and her knowing machine. Mixed and mastered in April 2020 and flung into the dark of these ends of days. Here we are. All alone, together, as one.” As a message of solidarity, it’s an ambiguous comfort: but, as they say, here we are. Questions unanswered. Brutal breaks in expectations. People disappearing, grips gradually lost. Name it, share the names, and perhaps fight it.

Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY: ‘CONFINEMENT-release3’
The Confinement Tapes, CONFINEMENT-release3
Download/streaming EP
Released: 7th May 2020
Get it from:
free or pay-what-you-like download from Bandcamp (As with all Confinement Tapes releases, any money earned goes support care funds for Tim Smith, Tim Quy or Jon Poole of Cardiacs – see previous posts.)

Mikrokosmos online:
Bandcamp Last FM

Babyskullz (Jo Spratley) online:
Facebook Twitter

Crayola Lectern (Cola Ray) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Vimeo Spotify Amazon Music

MUMMY online:
Facebook Bandcamp
 

April 2020 – EP reviews – MUMMY/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos – ‘CONFINEMENT/release1’ (“the triumph of love over fear and torpor”)

10 Apr

Family. Extended. Play. For life partners Jo Spratley (she of Spratleys Japs) and the elusive/ubiquitous Christian Hayes, a.k.a. Bic (who’s played howling, whirling, stuttering textural/post-punk/psych guitars for Dark Star, Cardiacs and Levitation, as well as adding extra noisy or unearthly touchs to projects by Julianne Regan, Heidi Berry and Pet Shop Boys) – plus Jo’s son Jesse Cutts (Spratleys Japs bass player and Heavy Lamb mainstay) – coronavirus lockdown is providing an opportunity to get their musical lives in better order.

M U M M Y/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos: 'CONFINEMENT​/_release1'

M U M M Y/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos: ‘CONFINEMENT​/_release1’

Being stuck at home on the Sussex coast means the initiation of the Confinement Tapes. They’re unearthing sundry old recordings from hard drives, biscuit tins, gutted harmoniums or wherever else they may have stashed or forgotten them. They’re polishing them up, and getting them out into the world, while simultaneously raising a bit of money for the ongoing care of various ailing Cardiacs members. (All cash raised from this is going into the support funds for Tims Smith and Quy, as well as the recently beset Jon Poole – if you want to save the Confinementeers a bit of trouble, you can always donate directly via the latter links and just download this lot for free afterwards).

Clearly the Confinementeers see this as something of a resurrection – Jo, in particular, has kept a very low profile for the past year (despite the Spratleys’ triumphant return to action in 2016) and for the past decade or so Bic has been more noted for low-key backups within (or behind) other people’s projects, rather than his own. In their Bandcamp text, they make metaphorical allusions to pregnancy and labour, to inward journeys, the delivery – in all senses – of a new world, and the renewal of loving connections. In many respects, what they actually seem to be talking about is the triumph of love over fear and torpor, and the way in which music embraces and enables this. What you get as this process begins is a window onto the particular, vivid field of English psychedelia which the Confinementeers belong to, both separately and together, and the sense of rootedness and inspiration which offsets emotional paralysis and impels action. I guess that that’s one of the reasons why the first Confinement release is a trio of cover versions – drawing on inspirations and altered perspectives both English and American, and on the soothings, sympathy and compassion behind apparent nonsense and weirdness; and then providing their own synthesis.

Microkosmos is Bic on his own. I could argue that Bic’s work reached a luminous plateau during the short brooding mid-‘90s life of Dark Star (with their atmospheric tales of vision casualties and burnout cases) but he’d be entitled to argue back. Since then, he’s put out three Mikrocosmos albums – scattered meditative space-dust to Dark Star’s supernova, they shucked off the full-band musculature and had Bic revelling in wan-boy spindliness and a ghostly tenderness. In fact, Mikrokosmos both post- and pre-dates Dark Star. This EP’s echoey cover of Pink Floyd’s Matilda Mother dates back to half-forgotten tapes from 1993, when Bic lived and recorded in London’s skinniest house. It’s pretty much a note-for-note cover: while the fey precision of Syd Barrett’s tones have been replaced by Bic’s drowsy starveling keen (and the Floyd’s pattering remnants of beat-band rhythms have been replaced by drumless harmonium roll and wasp-buzzing noise effects), the melting sleepiness and neediness of the original are absolutely recaptured, from the dusky organ washes to the glissando acid harmony vocals. It’s still centred on childlike wonder, and the pang of interrupted sensation; a door-opener.


 
MUMMY is Bic with Jo. They brought out a couple of EPs three or four years ago; strange, slowed-down skeletal garage-goth songs, like the workings of a pair of fasting spiderborgs, or like a distracted feminised/de-brutalised Swans. In this 2015 outtake, they’re reworking an early Breeders song, Oh! (which also happens to share a title with a Spratleys song). The strumming spass-country feel of the original (melancholy fiddle, close-ups, and of-the-moment neophytery) is replaced by MUMMY’s use of drum machine, Gothic reverb and distant angle-grinder guitar sheeting. Jo’s abstracted alley-queen vocal, emotional but enigmatic, is also very different from Kim Deal’s just-rolled-out-of-bed slur. What can one do with the peculiar original lyric, apparently the words of an insect urging others to run and live despite overwhelming and incomprehensible perils? Relate it back to plague fears and to resilience, I reckon.


 
Babyskullz is Jo on her own: and although this is the first we’ve heard of this particular project, Abade is an eleven-year old track, so Jo’s been incubating her skulliness for a long time now. A 2009 take on a song by the Cardiacs psych-folk spinoff (and Spratleys Japs precursors) Sea Nymphs, this is the most directly familial cover on here. While the Breeders and Floyd covers may be the more familiar songs – and carry more of the psychedelic/indie kudos – this one is the most directly satisfying. Reinvented here as a trio of electronic harmonium, bossa-flavoured drum machine and throaty-to-celestial Jo chorale (punctuated by the surge of waves on Brighton beaches, and with a flurry of suspiciously Bic-ish feedback at the end), it keeps faith with the gentle walking pace and sympathy of the Sea Nymphs original. Its fractured lyric keeping step with the wounded, offering solidarity and – like Oh! – an offbeat encouragement. “And though he walks the mid-day sun / he carries his own vile dungeon around / with him and he’s of / all the more reason to be full of life, full of sound and fury. / Don’t be long, / where were we? / Where we belong.”


 

MUMMY/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos: ‘CONFINEMENT/release1’
The Confinement Tapes, CONFINEMENT/release1
Download/streaming EP
Released: 8th April 2020
Get it from:
free or pay-what-you-like fundraising downloads from Bandcamp. (Update, 9th May 2020 – these tracks were made available in the short term and are currently unavailable – if and when they’re restored, I’ll also restore the soundclips. Other Confinement Tapes items are available in the meantime.)

MUMMY online:
Facebook Bandcamp

Babyskullz (Jo Spratley) online:
Facebook Twitter

Mikrokosmos online:
Bandcamp Last FM
 

Stumbling through 2014 – a year in flashes and in review (part 1 – the music)

18 Jan

photo-dann-01-15Looking for a little authority? I have as little as anyone.

However, in a year in which I personally failed to keep up with many things – developments, any number of fast-flying cutting edges, review promises – I can still offer a set of personal snapshots. I can’t tell you what was best, in terms of music – but I can tell you what I heard and saw, and how it affected me.

Embarrassingly, few of the recordings and events covered below actually made it into the blog on time as reviews. Many of them haven’t even made it in now. You can expect to see me working proper 2014 reviews into the blog during 2015, adding some belated tassels to the kite’s tail. For now, though, I hope that these retrospective mentions make up for my lack of effectiveness at the time; and there are so many playable tracks and videos embedded down there that it looks like a Tumblr account, or a drunken quilt. Enjoy.

* * * *

So… my 2014 as listener and attender, then…

Time-poor and money-poor in London, with heavy family commitments, I had to watch gig after gig slip by. In many respects the year has been defined by what I didn’t get to see. I missed Prince’s secret gig at the Electric Ballroom; I missed Steven Wilson, St Vincent, the Loose Tubes reunion and The Wolfhounds; I missed Henry Fool, Imogen Heap‘s Reverb, the Crimson ProjeKCt and the London Jazz Festival. I missed that shaky, defiant Henry Cow reunion at the Lyndsey Cooper memorial concert in November. I missed all of the TuesdaysPost gigs and the Drill Festival in Brighton. I missed #TORYCORE’s visceral jazz-doom-metal rage assault on the cruelties of government policy, a short bus ride away at the Camden People’s Theatre. Perhaps mostly painfully, I missed all of Kate Bush‘s ‘Before the Dawn’ shows. I missed the bands that I should have seen, and I probably missed the bands that you caught; and who knows how many classical concerts I didn’t even know about?

2014-live-variousWhen I did have the money for a concert, it was generally one which was off at the sides, but disproportionately rewarding. For instance – in a side room at the glossied-up Roundhouse, sandwiched in between Stars in Battledress and Arch Garrison (more on whom later), I saw Prescott. An unholy and hugely enjoyable alliance of Rhodri Marsden (currently with Scritti Politti, previously everywhere), onetime Stump bassist Kev Hopper and South London experimental drummer Frank Byng, they played a rolling, feinting game of improv-rock handball, like a post-punk take on Miles Davis groove gumbo.

On another evening I hung out underground in Dalston down at the Servant Jazz Quarters, dodging stuffed weasels. Slicked in purple light, I watched cuddly misanthrope Benjamin Shaw lay into Prince George, his girlfriend, his job, himself and most of the world, and then – from out of his cloud of slaggings – give his chuckling audience the doe-eyes to make sure that we still loved him. Also on the bill, Jack Hayter and son whittled us keen, humane songs out of musical driftwood, and the Superman Revenge Squad turned detailed geek-angst into pin-sharp bedsit art.

In October, I had reason to thank the five-quid standing ticket tradition at the Proms. Having joining a shuffling ticket queue that snaked from the Albert Hall past the Royal College of Music and practically to Queen’s Gate, I got into the concert by the skin of my teeth (the very last ticket) in time to see the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra deliver a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth which was so good that it made people in the audience literally scream with joy. Getting to hear Friedrich Cerha’s ‘Paraphrase’ (an eerie and nebulous deconstruction of the Ninth’s opening) as a companion piece was a delightfully sour cherry on the cake.

photo-oscar-the-butcherOut of sheer necessity, most of my journeys out into live music were via free gigs – generally, Ben Eshmade’s Daylight Music concerts at the Union Chapel on Saturday afternoons. This was a lifeline which I often shared with my wife and my three-year-old son Oscar, who continues to make his way into any resulting reviews as companion, unintentional critic and occasional disruptor (You’ll probably be hearing more from, or at least about, Oscar during 2015 – assuming that he gets over his current hatred of live music before I disown him). Yet I shouldn’t complain too much about being stuck with Daylight Music as a default destination. Every one of their gigs featured at least one act which traipsed out of Ben’s address book and won me over.

2014-daylightmusiclive-1As a result, I have plenty of Daylight memories. It was a good place to see instrumentalists (such as Dean McPhee and his smoky Yorkshire-via-Morocco loop guitar) and if you wanted to see a harp mixing it with a laptop or a percussionist moving from steel drum to typewriter – but still expected a tune – it was the gig to go to. The Ida Y Vuelta Ensemble offered explosive London flamenco and brought on a live, quick-changing dancer whose heels hammered hell out of a tabletop. The immaculately arty odd-couple duo Bitch ‘n’ Monk came with Yoko Ono’s endorsement, sang soprano, screamed flute, and offered us a melange of Colombian punk-jazz and beatboxing. Cross-cultural, mixed-instrumental families Flux and Digitonal took assorted cinematic, acoustic and electronic elements and blew them up into glowing paper lanterns, or drowned them five enchanted fathoms deep.

2014-daylightmusiclive-2Daylight was also a great place for songwriters – Clémence Freschard, keeping a chapelful of fans happy with a still, small, studiously cool performance; Daniel Marcus Clark telling us song-stories, muffing up a third of the verses, corpsing with rue and being warmly forgiven; Rachael Dadd skipping and clapping her band onstage and then capering from instrument to instrument to play her skittery folk. Via a soft-breathing, barely-there chamber-pop vision of strings and tantalisingly unfinished stories, Emily Scott unrolled her introspective vistas and promenades of solitude and reflection, like a James Joyce belle with a ukelele. Johnny Lynch of The Pictish Trail shed his lo-fi blip-boxes and courted us with a chalk-and-cheese mix of stand-up comedy and terrifying folk songs. Anchored by deep Pentangle-esque double bass, the Vespers trio offered three separate songwriter’s takes on the perils of loving.

Louis Barrabas plays Santa...

Louis Barrabas plays Santa…

And there was more… Robert Glover from epic45 turned up with his Field Harmonics side project, drowning pop songs in a bushy welter of chiming electronica. The Middle Ones travelled from separate ends of the country to gush, clang guitar, giggle, squeeze an accordion and deliver smart, unorthodox kitchen-sink songs of commitments, bicycles, romantic flutters and the interweaving of different generations. Franky & The Jacks charmed with smart suits, great barbering and a hot-jazz/Southern balladeer take on rockabilly; and while Crayola Lectern weren’t new to me (their debut album was a humble highlight of 2013), it was here that I first got to hear their waterlogged, beautiful Edwardian-esque melancholy in the flesh for the first time, complete with cornets, whispers and gentle lysergia.

Still, my attendance record was nowhere near perfect. I missed Bird to Beast‘s acid folk, Richard James, the classical triple-whammy of Oliver Coates, James McVinnie and Liam Byrne (complete with viol da gamba), Showman’s Wagon, and I’m sure that my old ‘Misfit City’ mate Vaughan Simons will be disappointed that I missed Louis Barabbas’ Christmas show – although I’ve now seen Louis’ Santa photos, and reckon that Oscar will probably thank me for not dragging him along to that one.

2014-mainstreamBack in the world of pick-up, plug-in-and-play music, I paid little attention to mainstream releases, but occasionally some things did get through to me. With ‘Unrepentant Geraldines’, Tori Amos left behind much of the heraldic esoterica that’s swarmed in of her work in recent years and turned out her most intimate and engaging collection of songs for ages. Back at the tail end of 1991, she’d made me cry, gasp, yearn and fall over myself when I first heard Silent All These Years: in 2014, she did the same thing with Invisible Boy. Another album which I’d looked forward to inexplicably failed to connect. Usually, Elbow’s Guy Garvey can sing about middle-aged men strolling through Manchester suburbs and make it sound numinous and heartfilling. Fuelled by the foundering of a long-term romance and by Guy’s inspirational sojourn in New York, ‘The Take Off and Landing of Everything’ took Elbow to the top of the British charts. Yet even as Guy sang about the magic of Manhattan, and invited us into dark metaphorical dreams of a coracle-frail love swallowed up in the Atlantic, all I could think about was how flat and grey these grand emotions sounded – and how Elbow’s gift for illustrating the extraordinary wonder of ordinary sights (and driving them up into the hearts and singing voices of arena crowds) seemed to have deserted them.

This was odd, considering the fact that quite a number of the albums which did touch me also mirrored my own greying state and the sometimes unsettling rollout of new perspectives that comes with it. Building workable compromises with age – or simply fucking it all off and being as honest as possible in what’s no longer, in truth, just a young man’s game – clearly had its own dignity, even its own triumphs. With ‘Double Chorus’, Michigan punk-poppers Kenny & The Swordfish delivered a semi-autobiographical record from hard giggers turned to compromised family men. Still holding to their noisy guitars and ska chops (like a two-man fusion of Fishbone and The Clash) they raged against the loss of youth’s freedom, shivered with the chill of fading targets and opportunities, and struck uneasy bargains with the new state of affairs, but never gave up.

A little extra gristle and grizzle also suited The Scaramanga Six and their ‘Scenes of Mild Peril’ DVD. Banged out rough and filmed live in a Brixton studio and in a commandeered Bridlington golf lodge, their cartoon-limned, carefully overblown tales of brooding everyday fury, murderous emotion and self-inflicted bruises were stripped of the elaborate visual wit of the band’s promo videos. Instead, they were gifted with an extra, claustrophobic grain; and as ever, the band kept up their reputation as the other kind of Yorkshire Gothic.

On a similar tip, as well as nursing a reissue of 1987’s ‘Unseen Ripples From a Pebble’ reformed C86 post-punk survivors The Wolfhounds slung out their first new album in twenty-four years called (with a sour, proud prod and a wink) ‘Middle Aged Freaks’. If I’m going to listen to clanging, sneering garage rock, I’m going to listen to some that’s been made by weathered old dogs like these: men with plenty of miles on their clocks, a bloody-minded attention to texture and the world’s complications, and a collective bellyful of acid-dipped wit whether they’re turning out disturbing precises of current day morality, mocking their own deluded shadow-selves (“you’re a tough old tenderised piece of meat / and your sage advice is on repeat… / A line of charlie while the kid’s asleep. / A chopped hog Harley with a baby seat,”) or soothing the frustrations with sympathy and stoicism. (“Sometimes in each life we all must fail – / but those weren’t the words of your father. / And into each life must fall some hail. / You know – like rain, but harder.”) Amongst the harsh punchy guitars, a whisper of samples even recalled front Wolfhound David Callahan’s other old band, Moonshake (another of my ‘90s favourites).

Moving into his fifties and making the best of an enforced band hiatus, no-man singer Tim Bowness pulled together some of the project’s stalled work as well as sundry other personal musings and ideas and come up with ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, an album of brilliantly-lit and beautifully played art-pop spanning muscular to delicate and dealing with personal histories, mid-life stock taking and the choices and chokes which go to form people’s lives. Many of the songs (while not quite Morrissey-esque tirades) had an underlying seethe of north-west English non-conformance and grit: a quality which perhaps had lain a little too softly on his previous work, and which now finally put the lie to the recurring (and unfair) Bowness reputation as a solipsistic crooner. Beyond these more plangent stabs, there was space for moments of peerless spiralling romance and even a spot of Northern classical-fusion collaboration with Andrew Keeling.

‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ also spawned a brace of animated videos, including this one for rattling lead-in track The Warm-Up Man Forever. (For me, it suggests that in later life that skinny little candy-striped computer-graphic guy from Dire Straits’ old Money for Nothing video thickened into an embittered and flat-capped folkie; his polygons bloated, and Pixar never returning his calls. See what you think…)

I might have ignored – or simply missed – the pop music which most people were listening to this year but I found in other places. Bailey Cremeans – a teenaged keyboard balladeer from Missouri – offered me rapturously sad songs on ‘Celestial City’. On ‘Two Magpies’, hyperventilating clink-and-murmur Londoners Quimper burrowed into the toybox and assembled a manic play of fairy-tale shadows, fuzzy-felt and sexual menace. Stretched between America’s East and West Coasts, New York roots-polystylist Mama Crow and Ecuadorian player-producer Daniel Lofredo Rota teamed up as Liminal Digs – arriving with the playful and slightly scary ‘Dragonfly’ EP, which flitted between Latina acoustic acid-folk and electronica with wantonness, a wandering and salty female wit, and an occasional flash of teeth.

record-anawan-aTwo bands from Brooklyn, in particular, caught and held my enthusiasm. With a song called High Time, from their debut EP, Legs earwormed their way into my affections. It wasn’t that they were particularly new-sounding. That celebratory-sounding disco-pop – packed full of skatting, singable keyboard hooks – was pure ‘80s; part Prince, part Talking Heads, partly smooth Donald Fagen awkwardness (circa ‘The Nightfly’). So too, was their preppy shirt-and-tie look. But their songs were adorably infectious and cleverly layered, with lead singer Tito Ramsey sketching out a picture of a New York party scene raddled by insecurities, uptight resentful dancing, panic attacks, and unstable summer romances eaten away by drug habits.

Elsewhere in the borough, Trevor Wilson maintained his rickety, compelling psych-folk Vocal Ensemble by transforming them into a partnership of equals called Anawan although it was still his startling, deer-nervy songs that propelled them. If the renamed and, slightly repurposed band lost a little of their eerie incantatory fall-apart quality, they made up for it by strengthening their West Coast-inspired harmonies and sun-spattered glint. Imagine Syd Barrett directing The Mamas & The Papas and you’re partway there, though Anawan’s joyous mewl and trip-triggering song swerves are entirely their own.

One strand of music that I particularly enjoyed in 2014 was the sound of women, looping. There was Howlet, illustrating grand and dreamy obsessions on ‘Afraidarck’ by draping cavernous recording space with layered but minimal spider-silk vocal lines and the barest of beats. There was Georgina Brett, working with voice only to improvise spiralling spring-paths of call, response and return or detailed masses of counterpoint on-the-fly. Yasmyn Hendrix pursued the same method to decorate and festoon a capella pop songs, whether she was creating her own or working out a clever, rainy-day cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’.

Possibly the most outstanding for me was the spellbinding singer-songwriter-cellist Laura Moody, equally skilled at daredevil string playing and pyrotechnic performance-art vocal. She didn’t actually make use of looping technology; but her meticulous wreathing patterning, embedded minimalism and elastic poise suggested that it had had a strong impact on her anyway. Surprisingly, Laura’s ‘Acrobats’ album (released quietly in November) didn’t go for the same witty, barnstorming élan as her earlier work, condensing and reining in those extraordinary performance skills in favour of elliptical nu-folk songs: innerspatial and introspective, no less compelling.

In Seattle, the remarkable Kye Alfred Hillig pumped out two albums for free (‘Real Snow’ and ‘The Buddhist’), adding to an ever-growing catalogue coursing from genre to genre (this year it was synth-pop, alt.country and bare-bones sadcore). Unlike many of his sloppily prolific contemporaries, all of his work emerged diamond-clear, fully-formed and packed with striking, pungently-emotional songs. A better blogger than me would have been yelling about him all year: I suppose that I’d better be that better blogger in 2015.

record-va-cnpudOn another tack, it was good to see one of 2013’s lesser-known losses (that of promising Belgian art-punk Floky Pevée) commemorated and soothed by the multi-artist album ‘Ceci N’Est Pas Un Disque’. Here, the five songs which Floky recorded with his band Kabul Golf Club were restored and then revisited, turned inside out by eight different bands and a host of different treatments: indie-country, hardcore, electropunk, sludge metal, funk and post-rock. There was humour, but no cheap laughs; there was craft, but no sanctimonious genre purity. Instead, everyone involved did their best to show how far Floky might have gone, and just how much diverse potential already existed in the songs beyond the pummel and screams. It was the best of tombstones.

record-2014-psych1As has often been the case with ‘Misfit City’, much inspiration came from English psychedelic rock. Not in the shallow, easily-hyped mould of TOY or Temples (with their skinny young limbs, cloaking haircuts and by-the-book cribs of The Stooges, Hawkwind and Can) but in the high-and-low, the sidelines under the radar, the semi-secret pockets. Often, it came from men and women who’d already done several decades of growing-up away from the general public.

With little more than a nylon-strung guitar, a pair of archaic-sounding keyboards and a soft cracked voice, Arch Garrison’s ‘ I Will Be A Pilgrim’ delved into folk-baroque and folkways simultaneously. With equal amounts of airy beauty it unearthed and merged ancient English journey-ritual and personal soul-searching, its warm psychogeographic songcraft leaving the listener with nourished heart and aching feet.

Arch Garrison’s rarely-spotted cousins, Stars in Battledress, also broke cover; emerging under their own name for the first time in over a decade. With ‘In Droplet Form’ they provided an engaging, sometimes sombre record of pre-weathered, fully committed Englishiana, knitted together from the sound of antique wireless songs, bell-rounds, the water-dampened mustiness of old institutions, and eerie garden-shed-drones. Richard Larcombe’s cunning and tragicomic lyrics were the weft in the weave – feinting, bleeding, mystifying, bitingly literate and frequently hilarious.

2014-psych-2Descending from the same psychedelic cloud, Knifeworld’s ‘The Unravelling’ delivered flagrant horn-drenched excitements of guitars, tingling Rhodes and double-jointed rock punch, but was also drenched in hauntings and mournings which stayed with you long after the fadeout. One of Knifeworld’s members, Emmett Elvin (already a journeyman for innumerable other projects including Chrome Hoof) went on to build on the triumph of ‘The Unravelling’ with his own audacious ‘Bloody Marvels’ album, in which his own dazzling compositions built monkey-ladders to the stars and back. No less ambitious was Trojan Horse‘s ‘World Turned Upside Down’, in which four musically ravenous young Salfordians baked themselves a gigantic layer-cake of prog, psychedelia, hi-concept funk and Northern rock, laced it with history and hallucinogens, shared it around and then ate the rest, all with noisy gusto and generosity.

2014-psych-3If after all that you really and truly just wanted the motorik, you could always opt for the big, bluff, quaking noise of ZOFFF (a late-in-the-year Brightonian supergroup of grizzled sprites and younger heads with assorted Crayola Lectern/Dark Star/Electric Soft Parade connections). And having seen him spend much of the previous year creating an exciting, crabbed and roaring punk-prog with The Fierce & The Dead, it was still good to see that irrepressible loop-strummer Matt Stevens back in the solo saddle with ‘Lucid’, maintaining his upward progress with a set of instrumentals peppered by multiple looped-and-lashed guitars and with guest stars and influences drawing from black metal, prog and jazz. With ‘Curious Yellow’, airy Bristolians Hi Fiction Science delivered a near-perfect Krautrock-blended approximation of West Coast acid rock and English acid folk (not to mention being a big hit with Oscar, who’s dubbed the entire band ‘Ladyhorse’ on the strength of their cover artwork). From Rome, still pegging away at his winning fusion of light-touch prog and fuzzy Britpop, Sterbus offered a little in-between-albums grab-bag in the shape of ‘A Wonderful Distrust’. From Florida, Scott Miller and Anjie Skaya sent over ‘Liquid Days’, a spontaneous song-album of cracked, wonder-struck voice, wandering guitar and Russian violin which (in its own humble, crumpled-loons way) evoked the Incredible String Band, Van Morrison and The Bathers. A compulsive scattershot releaser of albums, Scott reckoned that he was onto something better with this one; and he was right.

2014-smith-reissuesTwo revenant records from another psychedelic hero loomed in the background. Six years gone from music, and still an invalid, Tim Smith continues to command a tremendous love from the surprising number of musicians who continue to claim him as a key influence. His presence haunted several of my favourite albums of this year; those by Knifeworld and Arch Garrison in particular. Two opportunities to listen back to the fatherlode came with a reissue of ‘Extra Special Oceanland World’ (Tim’s lone, wounded-sounding solo project from the early ‘90s) and with a grand double vinyl reissue of Cardiacs’ multiple-personality magnum opus ‘Sing To God’ (in all of its kaleidoscopic, childish inspiration).


Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra/Rita Novikaite/Keith Burstein: 'Keith Burstein: Symphony 'Elixir' & Songs of Love and Solitude'Apart from my encounter with Beethoven and Cerha at the Proms, my dips into classical music were few and far between. However, they were often pretty memorable. They began with Keith Burstein‘s evening at the Lithuanian Embassy on January 29th, at which the stubborn, stalwart neo-tonal iconoclast (veteran of numerous spats with both the musical establishment and the press) played and discussed the new Naxos recording of his ‘Elixir’ symphony and ‘Songs of Love & Solitude’ cycle. Despite ‘Elixir’s initial roots as a lambently romantic London concerto, Keith eventually had to make a long train journey to Lithuania and an appointment with the Kaunus City Symphony Orchestra in order to get the two works performed and recorded in full. He was rewarded for it. The KCSO’s velvety sound brought out fresh depth in the symphony’s lush nerviness (a nostalgic Brahms-in-Vienna majesty undercut and expanded by more contemporary slithering tonal planes and disruptive rhythmic upheavals) and the lingering, opulent reveries of the song-cycle (for the latter, see below). Keith Burstein’s life and work tend to be filled with metaphysical rumblings, whether sought out and attracted. This Lithuanian voyage, too, was suffused with both wonder and shadows as Keith reconnected with his own Baltic Jewish family history while stepping carefully around the last vestigial snags of Stalinism which once engulfed Lithuania, still haunt some of its old guard, and may have added to the darker tones in the recording.

More metaphysics were stirred up in May when Olga Stezhko released her ‘Eta Carinae’ album. The Belarusian pianist’s performance of idiosyncratic early-twentieth-century works by Alexander Scriabin and Ferruccio Busoni wasn’t just a set of vigorous and individual interpretation: it was a philosophical exercise, and a multi-layered education in itself. Olga’s programmatic intent (and her intriguing sleevenote essay) mapped the pieces onto the explosion of knowledge at the time of their composition, from mysticism to astrophysics, from the development of human reason to the first pryings into the heart of the atom.

Another marriage of the scientific and the numinous arrived in June, when Markus Reuter (best known as an art-rocker who makes evanescent experiments on electric touch guitar) asserted his own entry into orchestral composing. ‘Todmorden 513’ (performed by the Colorado Chamber Orchestra) was at root a cycling, shifting, algorhythmic curtain of mathematical haunts and oblique manipulations. Emerging into the concert hall, it transformed into something greater; far more moving and psychologically suggestive than this dry, blackboard summary I’m offering here.

It was also wonderful to see a long-overdue release compiling music by Richard Causton, whose underrated, thoughtful and mercurial composer’s catalogue remains treasurable to a growing number of music directors but still mostly secret to the public. It deserves more. On the NMC release of ‘Millennium Scenes’, some of this imbalance was redressed. The Hallé Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group provided stunning interpretations of selected Causton works – the queasy alarm and anger of the title piece (which offered a stern critique of millennial triumphalism even as it set the cat amongst the party pigeons), the dense vigour of the Chamber Symphony, the nightscapes of Notturno, the suspended fever-dream of The Persistence Of Memory and the bright-flickering septet colourings of Kingfishers Catch Fire. It was an overdue reminder that (especially when set against the sleight-of-hand of much modern classical composition) Richard Causton’s vivid, surprising compositions have both a rare accessibility and a rare integrity.

Wedding music...On an even more personal note as regards classical music… in October I was best man at the Anglo-Irish-Japanese wedding of Michael O’Callaghan and Yukiko Kondo, which sprawled happily across north London between Islington, Holloway and Highgate. On its own, this would have been an ambitious and inclusive event. The reception made it even more of a remarkable occasion, becoming a loose-limbed, semi-spontaneous classical concert (with various incursions from pop, ukulele cabaret and jazz). Assorted guests, most of them members of The Learning Orchestra, stepped up and played – taking turns to deliver assorted solos, duets and trios by composers including Borodin, Elgar, Mozart, Puccini, Fred Godfrey and Swedish traditional sources. It was a welcome jolt – a reminder to me (so often the lone, semi-detached listener) that music is not just something which we purchase, drip-feed into our ears by speaker or bud or sit in front of; but something that lives and lifts in our own hands, a natural expression of community. Part soiree and part shebeen, the evening’s final coda was a nifty and playful French horn solo by Jim Rattigan in which he fused Charlie Parker, Wagner and Miles Davis, with Donna Lee merging into the Siegfried Horn Call.

Jazz, 2014Jim Rattigan’s own gigs (with variously-sized ensembles) were apparently one of the joys of London jazz life over the past year. Sadly, I played far too little attention to jazz in 2014. I was delighted to hear about the return of Loose Tubes (reconvening to blow up a juicy brass noise for the first time since 1990) but that was yet another one of the gigs I missed. A particular highlight on record was Billy Bottle & The Multiple‘s ‘Unrecorded Beam’ – a sumptuous, slightly Canterbury-flavoured extrapolation from Henry David Thoreau poems which drew on an inspired, solid-yet-shifting ensemble including Kate Westbrook, Mike Outram and Roz Harding (Producer-engineer Lee Fletcher added a stunning extra dimension to the album, weaving and whirling the listener’s perspective into and around the band, as if he’d fitted his microphones to a darting bee). Other than that, my encounters with jazz were fitful. There were downloaded dates with the cinematic torchy musings of Slowly Rolling Camera, and with the bouncing vocalese and spilling piano salad of the Lauren Lee Jazz Project‘s ‘Makebeliever’, but otherwise it was all about old records, or appreciated stolen licks appearing in other genres. I should have done better.

Hip hop, 2014I prefer hip hop when it questions, weaves and converses rather than just constantly retreading a set of brags. With the megalomania and Renaissance man posturings of the main players reaching delirous levels this year (and consequently leaving me cold), my hip hop experience was sidelined. In spite of that, I had my favourites here as well. I enjoyed Ice Cold Sophist; and El-P and Killer Mike’s second album as their continuing Run the Jewels team-up, in which their occasional lyrical brutality was counterbalanced by their quick-shifting skill and invention. Animator and DJ JayMcQ‘s ‘Tales From My Parent’s Spare Bedroom’ was another hit for me: a cheeky turntable mash-up from behind a Philadelphian white-picket fence.

Surprisingly, assorted efforts by Christian rap collective Humble Beast also rode high. Speaking as an atheist (however gentle) if anyone had told me that one of my favourite rap albums of 2014 would be Propaganda’s ‘Crimson Cord’ I’d never have believed them. Still, there it was: a wise, profound, slam-poetic album in which Propaganda’s religious faith never snagged his flow, articulacy or questioning mind but proved to be an integral part of his compassion, positivity, social responsibility and outspokenness. Beautiful Oddity’s lively, omnivorous production style (from shimmering respiring ambience to rock-guitar-edged corner-slams) proved to be the perfect frame.

Overall, however, I didn’t pay enough attention to hip hop. Similarly, although the density and discursive potential of contemporary R&B genuinely appeals to me I heard little that I actually liked this year. As with jazz, I heard a few things bubbling away in assorted underground strata, a world away from perfume-deal hyper-commerciality or from the constipated melismae being squeezed out on TV talent shows… but all those songs were from before 2014. I’m clearly not listening in the right places yet. I must do better this year.

Experimental releases, 2014In contrast to shortfalls in my hip hop and R&B listening, I did get to hear and engage with plenty of noise music, ambient material and post-rock. Although I’m not convinced that ‘Misfit City’’s avant-garde credentials are that predominant, I did receive a lot of music submitted from those areas, containing its fair share of gems. From Trondheim, there was the ferocious cosmic mood-rock of SVK’s ‘Avernus’; from Helsinki, the jazz-noise duo-roar of Good Romans’ ‘Open This Door, Never Look Back’. The far-flung Sontag Shogun collective made a virtue of each of its members being footloose on different continents; on ‘Tale’, they offered an aural world trek piecing together field recordings and accompaniments into a collection of pieces which pursued their playful “lullanoise” concept and also offered an essay on listening.

Experimental and noise releases, 2014From New York, Sufjan Stevens revisited 2001 and reissued his extraordinarily diverse album of poached’n’tossed electronica, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’. Back in Britain, Darkroom steered their flowing, beautifully etiolated landscapes of eerie guitar and airflecking synths into film soundtracking, via ‘Rhombus’.

If you were after purer noise experimentation, you could look to the overwhelming nuclear blatter and power electronics of Cthulhu Detonator ’s ‘Sucking The Blood Of Celestial Bodies’, the fuzz, breath, dazed piano and radiophonic space echoes of Con Rit‘s ‘Drawing Down Of The Moon’. One slice of noisiness which particularly appealed to me was the Herhalen label’s triple-artist cassette ‘Bourgeois Kerb Stomp’, which was split between the bouncing distortions, little mechanisms and samples of Splashy the Blame-Shifter, the torrential drum-machines-and-feedback onslaught of Lenina, and the downbeat Salford dole-life sound-paintings of Ship Canal (one of which was a lo-fi, dirty-Proustian ramble through the artist’s old takeaway food bills).

2014 - Fluttery Records, Hidden Shoal, Silber MediaThe enthusiasm and productivity of certain labels was inspiring. The longstanding wing-and-a-prayer avant-gardeners Silber Media were heroically popping out a little gallery of albums every month, of which ‘Absolut Gehör’ (Origami Arktika’s collection of scutter-and-drone Norwegian psych-folk) was a standout. So too was the gigantic ‘QRD – The Guitarists’ four-hour virtual box set, with no less than fifty-five tracks of experimental cross-genre players buzzing, strumming, droning, looping and mashing their instruments, accompanied by nearly two thousand four hundred pages of interview. (Talk about writing the book on something.)

Fluttery Records bombarded me with assorted post-rock promos during the year, including the expansive Anglo-Scandinavian sonic portraiture of Row Boat‘s ‘In Between’ and the mongrelised techno-rock of AL_X’s ‘Shunt’. Hidden Shoal continued to stake their claim to be releasers of some of the broadest, most accessible art-pop and avant-garde recordings. Some of my favorites were Markus Mehr’s ‘Binary Rooms’ (assorted interferences floating over majestic found sound) and Chloë March’s ‘Nights Bright Days’ (an art-pop songwriter cycle with a Eurydice twist).

Labelless, 2014The label-less and the isolated continued to prove themselves at least as good as the feted and celebrated. From deep in Sussex, Coriaplex offered an ice-dewed trip into space-rock with ‘One Way To Forever’. Perpetually unappreciated outside of certain small arty enclaves in Poland, David Hurn continued to prove himself much more than a London sadcore murmurer. His ‘Museum of You’ EP might not have contained a single syllable of his disillusioned and waspishly compassionate songwriting, but its eerie spacious chamber instrumentals impressed in other ways. Dank with air-driven keyboards, rattles, distant cellos and musique concrete samples, they rumbled like late Talk Talk or Bark Psychosis struck voiceless. Maybe it’s a coincidence that David lives in the East London regions, north of the Thames and east of the Lea, that spawned some of the best British post-rock in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; or maybe something’s rubbing off.

Another graduate of those particular times and places (former Redbridgian Ian Crause, once the creative force behind Disco Inferno) turned out one of the most outstanding experimental records of the year. Inexplicably snubbed by indie labels and small art endeavours alike, battling indifference and occasional homelessness, he gritted his teeth and completed ‘The Song of Phaethon’. We’d heard an early version of this piece back in 2012, but 2014 saw the whole uncompromising vision flood out as an EP. Like Chloë March, Ian drew on Greek myth, but in a far more immersive way. Using the legend of Apollo’s bastard son (whose sense of entitlement saw him wresting control of the sun-god’s chariot and carelessly scorching the earth before a thunderbolt brought him down) he wove it into a scathing metaphorical critique of neo-liberalism and the Iraq war. His “picturesound” technique melded a trudging bardic chant with a flooding rush of illustrative samples, the biting lyrical fable illustrated and orchestrated by the sound of screaming jets, whinnying horses, munitions, news broadcasts, snatches of other musics from Greece and the Gulf. The artful,vicious coda (Phaethon, lying prone and dying in the wreckage he’d created, still blithely justifying himself) was spiced with samples of Blair bluster. Slap. (Incidentally, right at the end of the year, and just when he seemed to have burnt himself out for a long time, Ian unexpectedly resurfaced with a couple of bright-sounding muttery pop singles, one of them in Spanish…)


* * * *

I seem to have started my look back across the year with a sense of shrunkenness and frustration. Getting to the end of it, I find that even in my own small subjective sliver of 2014 there’s a remarkable richness – and that’s comforting. All things considered, it was a surprisingly good year for music. Frequently, the only thing that really seemed to be missing was me. But more about that next time…

January 2014 – EP reviews – Bailey Cremeans: ‘Celestial City’ (“a broken-hearted altar-boy, drowning his sorrows in stolen communion wine”)

10 Jan
Bailey Cremeans: 'Celestial City' EP

Bailey Cremeans: ‘Celestial City’ EP

Here’s what I hold against the all-conquering Coldplay – they write, and perform, the inflated ghosts of songs.

This is not, in itself, a problem. Songs don’t necessarily need clarity – nor do they need to sit foursquare on solid points, like well-built houses. Sometimes all they need to be are eerie, moaning rags blown by on the wind; or they could be dream-pop memory-blurs, a murmur of what might be or might have been felt. Yet with Coldplay you get the worst of both worlds (a thunderous arena-sized vagueness, a song which is all brightly-smudged outsides) and it means that when I draw comparisons between Bailey Cremeans and Coldplay, it sounds as if I’m setting him up.

Much like Chris Martin, the young Missourian’s a piano balladeer at heart. Despite the occasional damascene synth wash or passing organ-cloud, he keeps coming back to the sound of black wood, ivory keys and felt hammers on strings; everything pared back to a soft, lonely, reverberant toll. His rich, slurred high-tenor voice makes him sound like a broken-hearted altar-boy, drowning his sorrows in stolen communion wine. It can sing and shade a lyric all the way down from a heartfelt question into a dissolving liquid texture. It suggests that, like the Coldplay boys, he’s copped a listen to dream-pop’s narcotic meld of boy/girl, solid/disintegrating – but unlike Coldplay, Bailey never lets a song run away into outright vapour. These songs have body – they use the heft and strength of the piano. Sometimes they slump against its laquered wood, desperate and bereft, gripping for dear life. Sometimes they bloom out of it, their faith absolute – “you, my stars, my sun. / You, my lover, the one.”

Five songs. Five songs of the kind of reflective, raw-boned feeling that’s increasingly anathema to today’s meticulous pop. Tides is the kind of grief-stricken torch song I’d’ve cried myself empty over when I was seventeen: a slowly burning sailing ship carried on gliding multi-tracked harmonies, as Bailey struggles to hold his fractured memories and dignity together in song. “The tides rushed in. / Your hands were on my skin. / If you had told me then I wouldn’t have believed it… / Was just a sad, confused boy. / And you got what you wanted from me – / and now I’m free.”

Bailey himself is still only in his teens. It’s tempting to hype him as a ghostly, spontaneous child-man, bleeding himself out on every passing thorn – something self-spun out of a faded diva gown, who creeps quietly into abandoned theatres to carol over the wreck of a concert grand. Unfortunately, too many bits of truth get in the way. Theres’ the bright and bubbly Bailey whom you can track down on Facebook; those Lana Del Rey and Ellie Goulding covers on his Soundcloud page; the stint playing keyboards for an American Idol contestant… It’s hard to project lonesome Gothic fantasies onto someone when he networks so cheerfully. You end up wondering how the little bastard has the right to sound this sad – or to sound as if he knows so much – whenever he starts to sing his own songs, putting all of the high-school smiles aside and becoming the naked soul who calls on the stars themselves for comfort. “Orion, this air is wearing thin / and I’m more afraid than I’ve ever been. / Won’t you save me? / Won’t we burn bright? / Orion, I’m losing this fight – / promise I won’t be alone tonight.”

And then you don’t question – you’re just glad that he does sound that way. Great pop music’s just perverse like that.

Well, if you’re looking for songs of preening, there’s always Rufus Wainwright: and, while you’re at it, forget Coldplay. Bailey’s songs have more in common with that skeletal, devastatingly sad album of piano crooners which Paul Buchanan salvaged from the wreck of The Blue Nile a couple of years ago. You could throw in some other names, credible or otherwise – the Christine McVie of Songbird; the early, pre-glitz Elton John at his most open; a freshly-bereaved Francis Dunnery overlapping crafted pop and primal howl on ‘Man’. These are men and women who bring a helpless and beautiful tone to those songs when they sing them, as if the emotion is being flooded out of them in an soft and unending surge. Bailey sings lines like “face to face / This story is ending, we’re free in our hearts. / Wounds are mending, we’re never apart / No tears in your eyes, my love. / No tears in your eyes, my love,” with the same blend of heart-torn sorrow and fervent faith; each turned in on the other.

It’s not often that you get to hear someone who can sing into the core of simple words like this the way that Bailey does: illuminating them but making them bleed, putting flesh onto the old lines and making them ache again. He deserves huge success. I just hope that, if he gets it, it doesn’t hollow him out.

Bailey Cremeans: ‘Celestial City’
Bailey Cremeans (self released, no catalogue numer or barcode)
Download-only EP
Released: 6th January 2014

Get it from:

Free or name-your-price at Bandcamp, Freemp3fan.com or Soundcloud

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July 2013 – EP reviews – Jimmy The Hideous Penguin: ‘Colours’ (“a harbourful of soused and bobbing vinyl”)

7 Jul
Jimmy The Hideous Penguin: 'Colours'

Jimmy The Hideous Penguin: ‘Colours’

With a name like that, you expect an MC with a slew of stories. A brilliant, squat little microphone hassler compensating for his own lack of sleek, straightforward charm with a quacking, manic inventiveness and left-field imagination. You expect one story, at least.

Instead, Jimmy The Hideous Penguin is a turntablist; using that ludicrous name as a billboard to cover the heads-down, ’phones-on business of scratching, filtering and triggering. A member of DJ quartet Vince Mack Mahon (and one of the masterminds behind the Community Skratch turntable initiative) he’s from Galway. Appropriately, ‘Colours’ sounds like a sketch of Galway on a moderately bad day – soggy and drizzled-misted, but still bright and creative – but you can only stretch his hometown associations so far.

Ducking any of Galway’s high-culture Eire-isms (and, to be fair, many of Vince Mack Mahon’s hip-hop inspirations) Jimmy’s music instead listens eastwards towards Rhine-Ruhr electronica, while picking up occasional bits of English scruff on the needle. It also listens downwards (into well-travelled vinyl grooves) and inwards (through a radio dial set to a perpetually-displaced rural 1970s). Its electrophonic wanderings owe a fair bit to Kraftwerk, a little bit to BBC Radiophonics and quite a large bit to those early Jimmy Cauty-era Orb recordings. Adding a raw backbone of analogue synth-steps and thick, flittering drones to his eddies of turntable work, beat loops and found noises, Jimmy works up some interesting slop behind that cartoon billboard. Instead of those MC stories, you get scenery to make stories – an occasionally playful plunderphonic montage; a harbourful of soused and bobbing vinyl; a frown of uneasy concentration.

While there are some visitations from the drum-burrs and rhythmic grapples of drum and bass, dubstep and techno, Jimmy’s music prefers to wander off on its own. Moving along messier roads, it kicks up a little historic debris as it goes. Red, in particular, sounds like flotsam; washing up out of swells and reversals of wadded-up torch songs, old shellac albums part-drowned in the tide. Jimmy moves the music drunkenly around a European receiver, shuffling aural zones. First he’s playing frail electronic trumpets against twanging, nasal staccatos; then he’s manhandling a sneaking strand of funk drum, a hungry worm of double-time rattle accelerating it from within. Then he’s meandering through abandoned dockscapes at the back of a dark wind, and finally ends in a bend of misdirected psychedelic organ.

On much of the EP (in which one piece strays into another in jostling transitions), ’70s fantasy seems to be rubbing up against ’70s slump. When a stray Dalek shows up at the end of Green – grating out “they are approaching” – it sounds both menacing and surly. It even sounds impotent; like a grumpy gate-guard on the inside of a power-station picket line, slouched in its own little pocket of hate and with a tepid thermos of well-stewed tea clamped onto its sucker, watching strikers slouch into position for the start of a day of mutual glaring. The rest of the piece feels similarly boxed-in – a pained, brontosaurine lumber of panel-beating snare drum and warping sub-bass, weighed down by an oppressive dark-ambient echo and drifting off into a carbon-monoxide grind.

On the subject of ‘Doctor Who’, I could have sworn that I heard a far more obscure ’60s Whovian critter show up, too – ECCO, the incomprehensible computer from ‘The Ice Warriors‘ with the infuriating papery stutter which (even in 1967) made it sound like a remix victim. Presumably, Jimmy’s too young to remember this first-hand: if he’s not been crate-digging deeper into the Beeb’s sound library, maybe he’s been digging up and scratching someone else’s memories.

It’s equally likely that Jimmy’s stumbled across a bit of the Galway countryside that is forever 1978, or at least has a damp box of that year’s proggier vinyl dumped there. Quite early on during Blue’s multi-part sprawl, some of the more oceanic swirls from Jean Michel Jarre’s ‘Equinoxe’ waft through the mix. Later on, Jimmy will varispeed a eerie floating snatch of psychedelic folk (reed-boned flutes and acoustic guitar, like a conjunction of Mike Oldfield’s ‘Ommadawn’, Popol Vuh and ‘The Wicker Man’) before trickling a clip of muffled Rakim-esque rap-and-chatter over twinkles of fairytale guitar lifted straight from Yes’ ‘Circus Of Heaven’.

At the start, however, Blue is lo-fi, dodgem-car techno with a bassline like someone clubbing moles with a car door It’ll make a shift into chugging steamtrain funk, some rare old-school DJ scratching (“wicky-wicky” and all) and the sort of downbeat synth stagger that groans “hangover” at you. Wobbling out from the layering, voices sing with so much gauziness that you can’t tell whether they’re Irish or Lebanese. Others mutter wanly and stagger around the kitchen, failing to fry some eggs. From the latter, one glum mumble of “bugger…” turns into a single-word mantra. It travels mournfully round and round the turntable like a dropped glob of peanut butter: part of the soused, engaging sloppiness that gives the EP its own distinctive flavour.

Jimmy The Hideous Penguin: ‘Colours’
CS² Recordings, CS²-009
CD/download EP
Released: 2nd July 2013

Get it from:
CS² Recordings.

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March 2013 – EP reviews – Henry Fool: ‘The Free Henry Fool Download EP’ (“picking carefully through detailed instrumental weaves”)

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

Henry Fool: ‘The Free Henry Fool Download EP’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get it from:
Free download from Burning Shed

Henry Fool online:
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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:
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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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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:
Noisetrade

Leah Banks (Leah Freeman) 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 – 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

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:
Homepage FacebookBandcampSoundcloud

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

March 2012 – EP reviews – StillWife’s ‘StillWife EP’ (“in love with the slow, subtly adult pains that they sing about”)

16 Mar
StillWife: 'StillWife' EP

StillWife: ‘StillWife’ EP

Be wary of barristas, especially in airy little cafés in quiet back-streets. They feed you your coffee, they bring you your cake and cookies – in return, you ignore them and any of their own dreams. While you’re unwinding with the brew, relaxing or kvetching, gossiping or confessing, they’re stuck there with the crunch of the grinder, at a loose end. On quiet days, you’re probably the entertainment. If they happen to be writers of some kind, one day one of your stories might come bubbling back up.

As it happens, two members of StillWife still put in time as coffee-shucking barristas back in the band’s Melbourne hometown. Have any washed-up conversations washed up into their songs? I’m just saying. Or is it the coffee talking?…

There’s little that’s caffeinated about StillWife’s debut EP. Apart from those moments when one of the guitarists drives in a power-chord, a pointed solo or a burst of white noise (generally with the reluctance of a man drilling a necessary hole in the porch) it’s primarily about detailed acoustic fingerpicking and sleepy man-and-woman harmonies. There’s a soft, dusty touch of country music here. There’s something of Grandpappy in those guileless dollops of antique synth tone, like bubbles in the sun. There’s a little of Low in the semi-hush, as if they’d recorded it all on a distant Australian veranda. The drums are played by someone who’s so good, so subtle and egoless, he becomes the invisible springs that hold in place the band’s buoyant way with disillusionment.


 
Of the two primary singers, Dylan has the stoic country clarity of a youthful Willie Nelson while Moat’s she-panther tones capture the langourous, wounded and incurably passionate feel of both Stevie Nicks and Briana Corrigan. As for the songs, they’re about awkwardnesses and aches rather than grand passions. Their stock-in-trade is the ambiguities you don’t grow out of; the kind that make you mumble (as StillWife do in Olympia) “I know it’s wrong but I can’t bring myself to say I’m sorry. / You’re all I want, but I can’t say that I’m not feeling worried.” Both Moat and Dylan sound as if they’re in love with the slow, subtly adult pains that they sing about. Each of their voices comes twined around with the murmuring sounds of various bandmates singing along: as close as lovers, and sounding like straying echoes.

 
The EP’s centrepiece, Out To Sea, begins life as a duet of unraveling and entwining love and goes somewhere more apocalyptic. Moat sings cryptically about fire, about names and letting go, while from the second verse, Dylan’s muttering a grim counterpoint – “searching for the meaning in closing fires – / I’m calling on awful writers – / I’m taking pleasure in my own undoing.” As the song winds on, Moat launches meaningful non-sequiturs to wash up on the beach (“The youngest child, it don’t feel right, / it never will – he’s lost his light,”) while Dylan circles in despair (“and there is no me and there is no you; / and if there is no us, then there is no love; / and if there is no love then there’s nothing that’s true.”) The longer it continues, the more hallucinatory it becomes: even as they sing of separation, the two singers drift closer together. By the end, they’re not so much duetting as singing different parts of the same mind, chanting out “it’s in the way that winter’s coming around; / it’s in the snow-like stain, blood on the ground; / it’s in the wave descending, pulling me out to sea…”


 
Olympia – simpler – could just be about being too shy to ask someone out, its hotel setting a place of missed connections and missed handshakes. Or it could be about a failure of nerve in general – not having the pluck or energy to ask for what you want, even if it’s just a question of knocking on a door and speaking. In comparison, Haven’t You Heard is fairly lightweight: but perhaps its whimsy and gentler touch is needed to counterbalance the deeper aches elsewhere. Slung in a hammock of wry country picking, Dylan muses on unthinking aggression and ambition (“When I was a kid I had a lot to prove, / I was young and angry, with an overactive muse”), and touches – ever-so-lightly – on human cruelty. When not singing about warning off unwary aliens, he gently salutes the time when he finally “opened up my eyes and saw the view. / Saw the world for what it was – unfolding and askew.” A wonky electric solo ambles in like a sheepish grin. A second one opens out into a concluding cobweb of pulsating guitar noise, like a countrified version of Heroes.


 
With its Bo Diddley beats and stutters, its sudden embrace of dirty noise and its chopped-up minimal lyrics, So Sued turns StillWife’s usual working methods on their heads. Yet it still ties in with the band’s exploration of heartbreaks and awkwardnesses. A barbed kiss-off from girl-left-behind to boy-off-to-find-himself, it’s sung by Moat in a sardonic hiccup like a raised eyebrow. “You’re going solo, into the night… / You’re going solo / so get it right.” she jabs, before mocking with a chorus of “On the road, uh-huh; / on the road, ah-hah; / on the road, eh-heh… / We get it.” It’s bitter honey, powering on into pileups of screeching guitar as Moat wails – blue and biting – like a sarcastic banshee.

Creatures, though, might be the key to it all – the kind of beautifully wracked, subtle-heartbreak song that any lovelorn person needs to hear at least once. Licked around by misty synthesizers like weeping foghorns, it offers more of a Blue Nile approach to heartbreak – an intangible moment or event which nonetheless means everything, stretched in time as it soaks into the soul. Across a room, a soft-singing Dylan watches his lover dance; and at that moment realizes that it’s over, that what they’ve had has somehow been lost. “Through the crowd I see your face – content and undirected gaze. / Barefooted you begin to sway; I dance under the twilight’s haze, / and though it hurts I hold my tongue – some things can never be undone.”


 
Exactly what’s gone wrong, or what’s happened, is never revealed. An unthinking betrayal; or maybe simply the moment when common cause slips away, leaving just two separate bodies moving in an ever-growing space. There’s a tremendously sad dignity to this song, but that’s not all. A desperate hope-against-hope breaks through in a final pleading chorus: a sudden flare of forgiveness stretched out like a shaking hand – “Tell me you make mistakes – mistakes can always be unmade. / Tell me I’ve faith and I will pray – / just don’t leave me here this way…”

Utter quality. More of this, please.

StillWife: ‘StillWife EP’, 2012
Bandcamp
Download-only EP
Released: 8th March 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

StillWife online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp

March 2012 – EP reviews – Vex Ruffin’s ‘Eulogy’ (“kicking the bleached ghost of Martin Hannett”)

15 Mar
Vex Ruffin: 'Eulogy'

Vex Ruffin: ‘Eulogy’

Punk helps you cut loose from your roots. Where you land is your own business. Take lo-fi riser Vex Ruffin, who turns his back on the Californian sunshine of his Chino Hills hometown and dreams himself over the Atlantic to Blighty, to a soggy Stockport or a drizzled Haywards Heath. Once there, he’ll while away the time throwing some deliberately awkward shapes and kicking the bleached ghost of Martin Hannett round a multi-storey car-park.

Back in his real home, Vex is fertile soil with a growing reputation – a onetime Cure fan with a parallel taste for Ruff Riders hip-hop, an anti-technique approach to guitar, and a wide-open yen for discovery and striking scratch-video. Potentially, it’s an interesting combination for creative confusion; especially as he doesn’t appear to be the fringe-dwelling white geek you’d expect, but a bandana-rocking American Asian with a penchant for moody or macabre photocalls (ruling alone on a bench with an intimidating glower, or playing shot-to-death up against a wall). Despite the gangster trimmings, Vex is also an artistic loner, playing with anyone but following no-one, and vocally eschewing scenes.

Strange then, that ‘Eulogy’ should so precisely capture the dank anti-achievement atmosphere of a single scene; English post-punk from the dying days of the 1970s. It’s all there – the rat-scuttle drum-machine sounds and tin-tube vocals; the primitive synth-blipping (from early Mute singles); the street-sweeping snarl-up of half-buried guitar. Even the jittery sheathes of reverb and echo, recalling Hannett’s work with the Invisible Girls and John Cooper Clarke.

Distant and detached, Vex’s voice funnels into the mix as if it’s been blown in with the leaves. The baleful alienation feels like Public Image Ltd. – on Eulogy itself, Vex even declares “I don’t wanna be seen, and isolate myself with your scene…  I don’t want it” in a gruff Jah Wobble growl. But Vex simultaneously goes both further and not so far, archly clipping his thoughts and lyrics down to a bare, bored minimum. On Perfect Congestion he just chants “I don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to hear it.” Even the drumbox blip and cheap synth tang of Secret Weapon (with its hopeful refrain of “You’ll stand, you’ll see”, halfway to a classic cyber-single) sounds like a marching call bleached down nearly to nothing; like five-year-old graffiti traces.

It’s a freebie EP, so perhaps it’s best not to expect the cream. Yet this is bland coming from someone who recently made his name with postcard singles and fired up his restlessness with I’m Creative. OK, the sounds were similar, but this time Vex succumbs to a drizzling disaffection. In Tunnel Vision, Vex toys with a tale of inspiration (“it was late afternoon when I felt the brilliance, and it was truly original,”) but delivers it in a robotic monotone, ending up in a blind-alley moan over a slew of guitar fuzz. For Space Out , he flaunts his Cure fandom in a shambles of punk psychedelia and stair-tumbling drum loops, intoning “I can barely breathe, I need to clear my head, I need to get inspired” in a Peter Sellers joke voice.

I suspect that he’s taking the piss on a grand scale (why call anything ‘Eulogy’ when you sound so fucking bored with it all?) but the joke’s a pretty thin one. There’s something in the tone of this which suggests a smart guy deliberately turning his back. While this leaves a disappointing taste, it’s not quite enough to justify me returning the favour and turning my own: Vex has more in him, but it’s time to start taking some risks.

Vex Ruffin: ‘Eulogy’ EP
Stone’s Throw Recordings (no cat. number)
Free download EP
Released: 9th March 2012

Get it from:
free download from Stone’s Throw Recordings.

Vex Ruffin online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr

March 2012 – EP reviews – Retribution Gospel Choir’s ‘The Revolution’ (“if Bad Company had written haikus”)

5 Mar
Retribution Gospel Choir: 'The Revolution' EP

Retribution Gospel Choir: ‘The Revolution’ EP

It really tickles me to see how Retribution Gospel Choir works, and how Alan Sparhawk is making up for his years of restraint. Although they’re a couple of albums into their existence now, it still seems hilarious that Low’s soft-singing frontman is also strutting around – hips aswagger – in a high-powered denim’n’leather rock trio, to which he’s also recruited all of the rest of Low bar Mimi Parker. Even his other sideline (reinventing the blues with Black Eyed Snakes) wasn’t so funny purely on spec. It does make a good joke: but close examination also reveals that it also makes perfect sense.

On the surface (and just by the sound of their crunching riffs, cowbells and stadium-size drumming) RGC is eternal boy-man stuff. Bollock-crushingly tight jeans, the roar of hot-rod chrome, huge dollops of garage grease. Underneath, though, there’s a series of smash-and-grab raids on assorted archetypes, delivered by Alan and co. with relish. It also turns out that RGC takes Low’s logic of song minimalism, and their gift for the simple telling phrase, and  transferred it wholesale to 1970s hard rock. The songs on this EP just punch past two or three minutes each, and seem shorter: they deliver their message, then snap out the light. As for those archetypes, they could hardly be more American – rock music, family, (obliquely Christian) faith and revolution – and, in their way, more conservative. Yet even within a couple of minutes or a couple of lines, Alan’s both turning over and living their contradictions. The setting’s gloriously dumb; the thinking is less so. If Bad Company had written haikus…

On Feel It, Superior, Alan plunges into temptation, risk, delight and inspiration over a Motown-savouring rock thump – handclaps and chopped-off chunks of guitar, a chassis of Hammond organ. Conflating the Beatles with the Fall of Man (“I remember the day / we fell for the apple…”) says everything about America’s protracted, near-religious teenage love affair with rock: all of the sin, all of the potential for growth. Throughout the EP, rock-gospel shout-outs demands that we “shake up the stage”, “drop in the echo”, or “turn it up / and ring the speaker like a bell”. At the same time, Alan bats around seeds of revelation and despair. The Stone (Revolution) asserts “The stone buried deep within the earth, / it doesn’t know, it doesn’t know it’s own worth”: elsewhere, Alan confesses “deep in my heart I feel your pain / I know the dark, / I know the darkness like a shame.”

The butch, confident sound might be ‘70s but the mindset is more ‘60s. Values in question, reactions in spate. Alan seems happy to straddle this. I’m A Man is full of masculine exhortations, muscle-flexing riffs, hero drumming and assurances that “I understand.” Yet it’s the briefest song on offer and, after the initial rush, quickly falls silent: a clumsy, sheepish giant. Maharisha slings both ire and sympathy at errant teens sleepwalking in search of belief. Over an assured and chunky stomp, (part-Cars, part-All Right Now) Alan casts himself as scolding parent: “You said you’d be right back, / you nearly gave me a heart attack!” Even when curling his lip at the attractions of dodgy philosophies (“The Maharisha is blind, you’re… wasting your time”) he still dredges up some rough kindness (“You’ve got to figure it out, it’s like you’ve got the amnesia”).

If it wasn’t for his lifetime of committed Mormonism, I could have sworn he was telling off his own wandering teenage self and ruffling its hair at the same time. Maybe he is. Despite all of the muscle and fervency, this band readily understands and accepts human weakness.

Retribution Gospel Choir: ‘The Revolution’ EP
Sub Pop Records, SP993
7” vinyl/download EP
Released: 29th February 2012

Get it from:
Free download from band homepage;  vinyl EP from Sub Pop.

Retribution Gospel Choir online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

February 2012 – EP reviews – British Theatre’s ‘EP’ (“a fresh start, but some old pains linger”)

28 Feb

British Theatre: 'EP'

British Theatre: ‘EP’


All rock bands potentially contain storms. Oceansize were one of the few who genuinely sounded as if they did. For twelve years and four albums, the Manchester quintet careened along just at the underside of a breakthrough. They crafted a complex, roaring and passionate music, which took no prisoners but captured plenty of imagination. While they were around, they barrelled the psychedelic back into heavy metal, the dirt back into prog and the starscapes back into grunge. Perhaps it’s not such a surprise that in 2011 they finally (violently, and without explanation) blew themselves out – like a blazing oil-rig, suddenly snuffed.

Maybe we shouldn’t shed too many tears for Oceansize, even though it was a shame to lose them. Sometimes a situation just comes to an end. Sometimes all of that volatile fuel just runs out, and you’re left with dead, falling machinery. Everyone involved has maintained a taut, wounded silence since the split: but now there’s British Theatre, made up of two former Oceansizers: Richard “Gambler” Ingrams and the band’s battered cherub of a frontman, Mike Vennart. Once wrapped inside a romantic name that made you think of heavy mechanisms or naked storms, they’re now hiding behind a monicker that spins off only confusing signals. A rarified, slightly stuffy textbook? A drawing-room comedy? Kitchen-sink bitterness?

More important is what the music contains, and what the changes have churned up. There are strong strands joining British Theatre’s music to what came before with Oceansize. There’s the crooning bawl of Mike’s voice, for one – a perpetually skinned innocence rising to a pitch of blasted, despairing resistance. Having a tormented side comes as standard for the children of grunge: and British Theatre have carried Oceansize’s moody habits along with them. There’s also the flexible guitars (a mass of tones and liquescent washes) and the interest in long, shape-shifting song structures and their connection to expressiveness. The EP’s closing instrumental – Little Death #3 (6th Gen Degrade) – isn’t far off the wordless romantic-industrial pieces which used to complete Oceansize EPs: winding like a bashed-up river though the remains of a factory district. If Manchester were ever pummelled into the ground, this is what the aftermath might sound like – the sound swallowed up in a cocoon, gentle noises of sifting rubble and Mike’s crumpled guitar nosing in on the breeze, delivering misshapen bluesy asides.

What’s changed is working method. Even before Oceansize fissioned, Gambler had been making a separate name for himself as a solo keyboard player and electronica artist. With Mike now also an enthusiastic convert (both men play “everything” in the new band), British Theatre take on a far more electronic approach, abandoning the metallic live-band contortions of Oceansize to take tips from laptop culture and dubstep, pasting and transparentizing layers of shaped instrumentation and sound effects, plunging deeper into the post-rock melt.

ID Parade On Ice sets up what’s different now. Overlapping electronic polyrhythms, twinkling synth patterns, ghostly floating twinkles of piano flown in from distant rooms. Draughty guitar hums smudge into ominous yellow-wallpaper textures. Lopsided creaking sounds stalk through the music (part untended door, part straining hull) as do bony typewriter clacks and clinks of wire: the harp-trembling of guitar harmonics recall John Fahey. The brutal disaffection of the song, however, is pure Oceansize; as is Mike’s yearning scar of vocal and the bursting choruses.

This may be a fresh start but some old pains linger, whether Mike’s still licking wounds from the split, acting out a teeth-baring Vennart snarl at paymasters or even taking a swipe at the controlling appetite of an audience: “Sit down, be the tormenter – make all of us dance / to songs cynical in tone… / Insist this is a cold magisterial charade, / a pornographic paid display… / Well, I’m glad to fake it for our sake.” Certainly the dark undercurrent of violence, desperation and disgust that seeped through Oceansize songs is still present, as Mike mutters “our engine’s thriving on ketamine and mogadon, / cut ear to ear, cut ear to ear. / Our engine’s thriving on violence and bleeding tongues – / let’s bite away, let’s bite our way out,” while riding a winding snare of melody across a landscape of shifting keyboard smears and stretched beats.

While with Oceansize, Mike and Gambler often seemed to be merging the beefiness of Pearl Jam with the ambitious structures and songwriting of new-prog. With British Theatre, they’re as likely to sound like a grunged-up Talk Talk with pattering dance-loops and restless, frowning tattoos. Gold Bruise, a broodingly lovely ballad with ghostly siren sustain, mouthpiece buzz and Rhodes piano touches floating above a subtle dubstep pulse, shows how far they’ve travelled. It echoes the weightless cocooned take on urban melancholia which Bark Psychosis mined in the mid-’90s for ‘Hex’; but the lovely folk melody threading through it (sung by Mike in a heartbreaking murmur) recalls something far older.

So does the subject matter – archetypal flaming youth and violent life, wound down to its fatal conclusion, only seen and mourned from the outside. Mike’s sung words, spacey and elusive, wreath the story in flashes and outcrops, transforming grit into mythology: “The boy that shot the bullet, decked in yellow gold; / pulled out of the river, angel’s hair for rope.” Despite the beautiful flares of lyrical colour, there’s little doubt that this is a mourning: in fact, for all of Mike’s gentle flow, a stricken raging against a waste and a path gone desperately wrong. “All the stranger’s battle cries / are back to front, wrong to right. / Nothing cradles you through all your crimes…. / You should be calling time / and bursting bubbles / but after all this time you couldn’t care less.” This is an aching, stirring return: the staging and the muscle have changed, but there are still deep storms here.

British Theatre: ‘EP’
Bandcamp
Download-only EP
Released: 25th February 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp.

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February 2012 – EP reviews – Kabul Golf Club’s ‘Le Bal du Rat Mort’ EP, 2012 (“brutal flying bricks of riffage”)

15 Feb

Kabul Golf Club: 'Le Bal Du Rat Mort' EP

Kabul Golf Club: ‘Le Bal Du Rat Mort’ EP

A self-styled “pretty young Belgian band” with a penchant for wearing carnival heads, Kabul Golf Club aren’t quite your standard hardcore punk outfit. It’s not just the occasional headgear – even on their debut EP, they butt against the limitations of the form, just as any free-thinking punk should, but not enough do. With Shellac in their lineage of long term influences (and with Lightning Bolt and Blood Brothers in the more recent set) we should expect no less.

Admittedly, they’re not reinventing everything. Singer Floky is still restricted to three degrees of the same top-of-the-lungs hardcore screech. To give him credit, he does manage to inject a little more character into it than most: mastering a tinge of despairing vertigo or the horrified yell of a man falling off the sun. But in many respects his voice is just another rhythmic instrument, its verbal interjections of frustration, resistance and bellowing introspection functioning like an additional cymbal hit or another blind-corner snarl of snaggy bass. The rhythm section of Mattes and Sweeckhoorn pin down the rest of the hardcore content – the jumps and sallies of rhythm, the brutal flying bricks of riffage.

This leaves Floky and the band’s other guitarist, Jeandana, free to charge into a wallowing thresh of disjointed, expressive guitars. It’s here that Kabul Golf Club excel, flinging around a series of wails, roars and hardware noises reminiscent of a lusty scuffle between Hendrix and Tom Morello (or between Sonic Youth and Adrian Belew). While bass and drums hold the band together, the guitars stretch it like taffy, and it’s this that provides the interest. Over the machine-gun riff and buzz-bass of Bits of Freedom they squeal and nose into places they shouldn’t go, shaking the song ever more feverishly as the pace becomes more and more frenetic.

Fast Moving Consumer Goods is a King Crimson-ish march along an atonal scale, minimal in conception, maximal in juddering aggression. Occasionally a Floky vocal becomes intelligible – “just let it go… rats on a sinking ship… wasteground… love has left, love has left.” Beyond his jerky codes the whole story is in the guitars as they scream and fold, balanced precariously on the jouncing riff like surfers in an earthquake. Floky may screech “no sense of urgency” in Minus 45; but everything in the song belies this, from the precision bounce of the ever-changing, ever-dodging rhythms to the warping screeches of the instrumental lines. Somewhere in the middle there’s even a robotic burst of Autotune, before the final collapse into chaos: a grumbling sagging bass drone, plus jingles and swerves of broken-down guitar. Even after the song’s tumbled off its own pulse to lie twisted and sprawled on the ground, an inventive fury continues to twitch the corpse.

If anything, the music gets even more frantic as the EP progresses. 5 Minutes 2 Midnight sprains its own time count, loses itself in a grinding, spasming bounce and inflammatory sprays of noise. By the time we arrive at Demon Days, it’s as if the guitars are sprawling in sheer resistance: Jeandana and Floky yank them violently off-pitch to hit the mood. The resulting trapped riff screams across the soundfield like a gutted tin can, wrapped around the ear.

Assuming that you can take noise rock, ‘Le Bal Du Rat Mort’ is full of rewarding, jagged surprises, and becomes more and more intriguing every time you replay it.

Kabul Golf Club: ‘Le Bal Du Rat Mort’
Uproar for Veneration, UVF007 (5419999105439)
CD/download EP
Released: 10th February 2012

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CD from Rough Trade Benelux: download via iTunes.

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January 2012 – EP reviews – Noise Research’s ‘Space Stones’ (“gigantic forces tapping on the outside of the bubble”)

7 Jan
Noise Research: 'Space Stones'

Noise Research: ‘Space Stones’

Ever-conscientious, Noise Research’s Ian Simpson goes out of his way to admit the traditional approach of this album-length EP, with its use of tape-loop and musique-concrete methods. It’s not a confession that matters. Plenty of atmosphere musicians draw on those techniques; just as plenty draw on the traditions of 1970s kosmische music and Germanic space-drones, or nod to the eerie smudge-cascades of spectralism.

It’s a rarer achievement to not only conjure up those astronomical Krautrock noises (and those visions of spaceships with sports-car contours) but also to recreate the feeling of otherness impinging on your comfortable, oblivious life; of gigantic impersonal forces tapping on the outside of the bubble.  Each of the four pieces on ‘Space Stones’ sends me spinning back to my eight-year-old self, and the sense of awe that I felt each time I saw the silhouette of the antique Zeiss projector that squatted, like a giant querulous bug, at the heart of the old London Planetarium.

With all but one piece being over nine minutes in length, each has plenty of time to unfold as an event in sound. Simultaneous chilliness and warmth pervade Cosmic Stones, in which a ringing organ overtone sits serenely under chilly breathlike rushes of a galactic string section. Over time (and almost at whim) the home pitch slides mercurially into a new position, a new anchor for thinking at the heart of a gradually expanding pool of reverb. Sun Stones sounds like the solar wind made audible: deep tenor flute-edge sounds bending and straining themselves around invisible objects, with an open-pipe high tenor drone loudening behind them.

A single organ cluster-tone sits suspended in place for Earth Stones – a bullet-time slice of instrumental captured and magnified from the middle of a stabbed, jarring chord. Around this, overtones change with geological slowness. Buried inside them, intimations of voices and trumpets come and go, as if the sounds and those who eavesdrop on them are in parallel times – unmatched, and unmatching.

Most suggestive is Space Stones itself, in which Noise Research’s sounds imply a slow, relentless poisoning at a molecular level. Aluminium oscillations dominate the sound, like radiation wavefronts hitting the metal skin of a space capsule. In the background, single-chord clusters roll like a muted brass-band section; by a third of the way through they’ve faded, giving way to slow swells of barely-there unease. By then, the pulsed sounds are echoing more rapidly, penetrating the capsule and bouncing off the inside. Two-thirds of the way in we’re looking at a dead scene: sonic suggestions of bars of unheeded light rotate eerily and unheeded across cabin space as the music drifts onwards. All that’s left is the paralysed fascination as we float on.

Noise Research: ‘Space Stones’ EP
Electronic Musik, EM162
Free download-only EP
Released: 2nd January 2012

Get it from:
Free download from archive.org

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November 2011 – EP reviews – Elephant’s ‘Assembly’ (“how the war is contained”)

20 Nov

Elephant: 'Assembly'

Elephant: ‘Assembly’

Though Elephant’s Amelia and Christian actually hail from semi-rural English idylls (Pontefract and Stroud), their band is a London band and behaves like one. Rather, it presents itself in the way many pop bands made in London by incomers tend to. There’s something a little guarded about Elephant’s music – detailed and consuming notes from the inner life versus a chilly, self-constructed poise. It’s difficult to see which side is winning. It’s interesting seeing how the war is contained.

Two previous singles, ‘Ants’ and ‘Allured’, have dabbled in pop-reggae and R’n’B respectively, merging these with Amelia’s dazed and distorted lyricism and Christian’s avant-garde dream-pop trickery. With ‘Assembly’, Elephant now seem to be moving into more mainstream territories – more Anglo or European, certainly a little whiter. Think of a tranquillized Yazoo strained through 1960s West Coast pop; and then through the submarine guitar rills of Cocteau Twins, Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine. Think of a poppier yet more introspective Broadcast.

Think, also, of slow-paced black and white movies in which no-one seems to do much. While most synth-pop blazes outwards, Elephant’s blanched-out songs (offhanded in manner but carefully constructed) are always on the verge of collapsing inwards. Smooth swatches of organ, pulses of vintage keyboard and a solid sense of classic pop songwriting provide their work with an anchorage. But even when the synth trills and frills are at their liveliest, Elephant are increasingly trading in infinite shades of grey – monochrome filigree, slanted shadows, deadened responses. Amelia’s hopeless, surrendered sigh should be the band’s weak point, flattening Elephant’s pop soar into a graceful, endless nose-dive. In practise, those last drops of romance which cling to her resignation render the songs that much more intriguing.

Within the songs, the band’s brains are ticking away even when they sound as if they’re dazed by cough-mixture hangovers. Under its icy shrouding, Assembly pop-bops and puppy-bounces like The Teardrop Explodes; but still takes its medication straight to a frozen heart, anatomizing and dissecting the impact of closeness gone wrong. “It’s like a disease,” complains Amelia. “Think too hard, the brain goes cold.” While she’s dishing out a few sharp survival tips amongst the scalloped echoes and fairy-dust twinkles – “don’t dwell on who won’t dwell over you” – most of the song is convalescence and consolidation. “I have a mind,” she muses, pulling herself in. “The rest is numb, just a skeleton.”

The deeper into the EP you go, the further Elephant conceal outright emotion under festoons of Cocteau Twins guitar, blood-pulse synth and studied blankness. This is happening even as the lines they deliver lean more and more towards the romantic. Even the desert island setting of Shipwrecked doesn’t cut the chill. Amelia wanders through blurs of physicality (“shuffle, ricochet on the ground”), then fails to connect (“don’t try to confuse me again, / you speak so slow, sand falls on my head”) and finally all but gives up (“What’s the point of time? It dissolves in the sea. / If you sail with the tide, will you shipwreck back to me?”) While Christian’s sounds trail and spiral onwards, Amelia chases a half-stunned chorus – “that’s where my heart, the rest of my heart is” – as if grasping after a pair of slow-moving balloons.

The imperious blast of keyboards at the start of Hopeless herald an out-and-out dizzy love song. It’s part classic ’60s girl-group, part hi-NRG synth-pop. In its way – in Elephant’s particular way – it’s even quite triumphant. Elephant’s way, though, usually involves some kind of collapse. Amelia spins through the middle of the song, twirling like a stray leaf, sounding happy to be blown around by feeling. “Hopeless I know, I sway to and fro – / I can’t hide from you.”

But by the end of the EP, Elephant are hiding out. At Twilight is a step back to their earlier, artier work: from its swallowed-up chorused vocals and witch-queen intro, to its deathly pace and dreamy lyrics about a “circus moon”, it’s also deep trip-hop collapsing into Gothwave. A bass pulse lags and limps outside of the funereal beat: Amelia stares at her hands and murmurs “I need to leave, but I don’t know how,” as a foam of feedback gradually fills up the space. Inner life boiling over? Perhaps. Elephant play a teasing game with their songwriting tensions. It makes us keep listening.

Elephant: ‘Assembly’
Memphis Industries, MI0200CD/D
CD/download EP
released: 14th November 2011

Buy it from:
Memphis Industries.

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July 2011 – EP reviews – Knifeworld’s ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’ (“full of waterline clunks and creaking timbers”)

10 Jul
Knifeworld: 'Dear Lord, No Deal'

Knifeworld: ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’

Three things.

Firstly: three years after Kavus Torabi’s old employers Cardiacs were forced to drop their torch (leaving their compulsive, convulsive music scattered on the ground), he finally seems to have acknowledged that he’s the person to pick it up what remains and to run on with it. Secondly: the transformation of Kavus’ Knifeworld project into a full band with fresh blood and new sounds (Craig Fortnam’s burnished-copper basslines, Chloe Herington’s fierce battery of reeds, Emmett Elvin’s assured way with harpsichord and Rhodes) give it some of the sturdy anchors it’s lacked and has hankered for. And thirdly: if a boy grows up near the sea, you can take him away from it but he’ll wash back in on his own tide.

Possibly inspired by Kavus’s native Plymouth, ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’ has turned out decidedly maritime. Oceanic and naval metaphors wash gently through it and open it up with watery fingers. At the very least, Kavus is pushing the boat out. While Knifeworld’s previous single ‘Pissed Up on Brake Fluid’ was a catchy straight-ahead rock belter (belying the band’s complex and wandering spirit) their follow-up EP places an expansive musical imagination upfront.

Pilot Her is the opener: an unreliably cheerful tugboat jolting along as triple-jointed power pop (both nicking from and nodding to Cardiacs, via the choppy beat-slipping riff from Too Many Irons in the Fire). As the band judder out the chorus, Kavus plays fretful figurehead. “Plans that give themselves away,” he muses. “All of the things she did for me… she’s all I hear, she’s all I see.” Lyrically it’s something more than boy-meets-girl, something less than happy-ever-after. Musically, it could be some kind of corps anthem (when the band aren’t spasming away at thrash-metal in the breaks) until a squad of sway-backed woodwinds amble past in a completely different rhythm.

Elsewhere, Dear Lord No Deal itself is lost somewhere in the hull, tinkering around and looking out for a hatchway. A raw acoustic strum, clambering over ever-changing Zappa-esque strata of rhythm or mood, it bumps into harpsichord and tootling organ as it goes. Its queasy narrative avoids looking too closely at anything, perhaps for good reason, as shapeless guilts, confusing awakenings and dawn-flits are all seeping into the picture. “I got a bad feeling about last week and now it’s time to split the scene – / I kept my part of the bargain, kept myself unseen.”

Furthest out there is HMS Washout, in which Knifeworld reveal just how far they’ve cut loose. Foreboding, despair, elation, and vivid whisper-to-wallop dynamics unfold over fourteen rich minutes of compelling maritime mindscape. Little is explicit, though the song hints at a landscape of betrayal and abandonment (“Touch them, the bridges that can’t take the load… it always seems like it’s someone you know…”). Much of it is cryptic, including the gently washing centre section in which a thick-tongued Kavus, becalmed like the Ancient Mariner, whispers murmurs of disillusion (“Cut loose and with scurvy, / crew sent me seaworthy / and all that I could say / was ‘Saw their arms away’…”) only to be answered by an eerie choir of drowned sailors.

Throughout, the music breathes and turns like a treacherous sea. Sometimes it’s an ominous ambient lull full of waterline clunks and creaking timbers; sometimes a fragmented shanty; sometimes a blaze of unhinged trumpet-mouthpiece riffle and thunderous drum pummel (part Mahavishnu spray, part Pharoah’s Dance burnt up in a rush of St Elmo’s Fire). Laden with psychedelic paranoia and stranded at a midpoint of grief, the song finally bursts out into a defiant apotheosis. A looping math-rock guitar reels; violins, saxes and woodwind at full joyous stomp; and the song’s own troubled lyrics snatched back up again, this time as a battle cry.

It might be lonely out there, but they’ve dragged up exultation with their very fingernails. From some angles, it’s all much like a post-punk re-imagining of A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers; the sea-bound, expressionistic Van der Graff Generator nightmare epic of isolation, regret and madness. While Knifeworld ultimately offer something less explicit (and maybe, more accepting), they’re tapping into the same wild ambition. Torch grabbed. Hurtle on.

Knifeworld: ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’
Believer’s Roast, BR004
CD/download EP
Released: 4th July 2011

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

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February 2011 – EP reviews – The Strzebonsky Noizescene’s ‘I Think We’re On to Something’ (“a zigzagging wall of brown sound”)

10 Feb
The Strzebonsky Noizescene: ‘I Think We're On To Something’

The Strzebonsky Noizescene: ‘I Think We’re On To Something’

Like Death From Above 1979 and Lightning Bolt before them, Belgian punk duo The Strzebonsky Noizescene are guitarless. Throughout most of their debut EP, hollering drummer Bert Jacobs plays his kit straight off the fuzzed-up scrunch of Stijn Preuveneers’ bass guitar, and nothing else. Influences aside, perhaps they like each other well enough not to bother with bandmates; perhaps they prefer the uncluttered guttural bounce of four fat strings and a drumkit.

On some of the tracks, it doesn’t make much difference. Often the Noizescene just play like a standard punk rock trio stretching out to cover a night when the guitarist never turned up. Stijn’s chorused tone is broad, fuzzy and high-toned enough to carry the songs alone – played straight and medium-paced, The Zetea Letters easily carries the buzzing irritation and sour-chew urgency of mainstream punk. Similarly, Keep On Dreaming and You Might Think You Know Me cover many of the usual punk sentiments and moves, fanning out across a variety of styles from the straight-ahead pound-away to the side-to-side flail and choppy one-word-at-a-time yelp.

Though their Death From Above 1979 influences hang heavy, sometimes the Noizescene’s boyish shout and growl recalls the flinching swagger of the guitarless, multi-bassed British trio Monkey Boy. On There Is No Plan B, a zigzagging wall of brown sound skates forwards in alternate rushes and swung jitters while Bert takes aim at a despondent quitter: “Holding your head, you’re as good as dead… / just stay in your heaven of misery.” What the Noizescene can also bring to the table is a little of the hot-space awareness of a band that sometimes remembers that it’s a rhythm section, and one which doesn’t have to hold the time down for anyone except themselves. Street-chanting punk vocals aside, Bert and Stijn are more outrightly musical than many of their peers and they sometimes allow themselves to spread out into more interesting sounds. When it’s not covering an abrasive stamp of riff, the bass occasionally swells up and deforms as if it’s been wrapped and smeared around a giant church bell.

In spite of this, the Noizescene need extra elements to really pick up the music, which becomes more interesting when they have something or someone to play against. In Cult Of Personality, their sparring partner’s the bristling ghost of Richard Nixon. The band plays against and around a defensive snippet of the beleaguered President facing a convention of newspaper editors just as Watergate was unzipping and unravelling him. “In all of my years of public life, I have never profited, never profited from public service,” grits Tricky Dicky. “I welcome this kind of examination, people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I am not a crook. I have earned everything I have got.” Meanwhile, The Strzebonsky Noizescene work away noisily like a squad of intrusive builders, wobbling the scenery and spoiling the shot. Mockingly, they sing back at him – “Let me build you a cult of personality – / you will love me, nothing to doubt here… / The point is to listen and don’t ask why / all the worst is missing.”

While neither Bert nor Stijn own up to playing them, the addition of hooting, squirting cheap-synthesizer parts open up the Strzebonsky noise even further. On When The Curtain Falls their conventional slam-along of fuzz bass and chuffing drums is draped in minimal post-punk keyboard padding and then overtaken by a cheeky bombastic keyboard line which wraps around it like a brightly coloured cable round a pipe, while the band run junk mail snippets through a speech synthesizer. In the final track – The Strzebonsky Ravescene – the band go enthusiastically dance-punk, remixing themselves into a stew of driven chemical beats and a host of wasp-like analogue synths. For a band pushing at the form, it sounds like the way forward.

The Strzebonsky Noizescene: ‘I Think We’re On To Something’
The Strzebonsky Noizescene (self-released – no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only EP
Released: 4th February 2011

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January 2011 – EP reviews – Bears in America’s ‘Bear Tracks’ (“the wet, wind-spun spokes of an abandoned bicycle”)

29 Jan
Bears In America: 'Bear Tracks'

Bears In America: ‘Bear Tracks’

I wasn’t sure whether I’d be getting some straightforward nature music, or an EP celebrating stocky gay men in the Appalachians. A part of me is a little disappointed that it wasn’t the latter.

Bears In America are elusive and oblique enough to be called just about anything – but the name fits. They sound like large, vague furry things; as if they’re moving past in secret, just out of eyeshot, grazing on the debris left behind towns and people. You hear their rustles and mumbles; you turn around; but they’re too difficult to spot clearly unless they want to be seen. They make small, gentle noises; generally much smaller and gentler than they are.

Matt Gasda (previously of Electioneers) and Daniel Emmett Creahan (instigator of various quixotic tape-music labels such as Prison Art and O, Morning) make up the band. They’re based in Syracuse, New York: a university town which, once upon a time, was a swamp. It sounds as if Matt and Daniel spend quite a lot of time dreaming about what it was like back in the Syracuse swamp days, and whether some of that time still soaks into today. The three tracks on here (allegedly recorded in basements and closets, and possibly while half-asleep) even feel waterlogged. While the songs themselves are light – barely sticking to the eardrum – the instruments are heavy; from the rumbling, staggering piano to the guitar which sounds like the wet, wind-spun spokes of an abandoned bicycle, half-buried in the mud.


 
At times, it’s like listening to an ancient, rural version of No Wave or a Steve Reich process chant – its back turned, its hat pulled down over its eyes, caught up by the waterline and engrossed in an endless pulse which it’s found and has tuned into. Wrapped in repetition, Rain King rumbles like a prayer, Matt singing “Put your trust in the rain king, / who’s going to move the mountain?” in a piping murmur while dark thunderheads of piano notes build up in the background. The Beta Band used to tap into sketched sounds and feelings like these back at the beginning, when they were still a well-kept secret. Bears in America sing and play as if they always want to remain that kind of secret, piping in music from a ghostly, gentler country.


 
Ratsbones spreads out the minimalism over six minutes. There’s a limping, leaning piano fragment; a drape of organ texture; a set of delicate vocal canons. Later on, there’s the sound of oyster-shells crunching. Melting together reticence, frail reedy singing and hypnotic structure, this is part Robert Wyatt reverie, part mournful Gavin Bryars ritual. The incantations themselves begin as no more than shack-mutterings (“Rat bone, the windows of the night”) but build to soft earnest cries (“The soul is leading me out, bleeding me out… / to the lamp-light, to the lamp-light and the soul…”) All feeling, no clarity. Clearer that way.


 
For Slipstream, Bears In America get up out of their huddle and turn around. You can almost hear them crack a gentle smile as they deliver a shimmering fragment of folk song based around a hushed and ebbing guitar figure, a jingle of ornament, a blanket of blurred marimbas bobbing like light-flecks on the skin of a river. It’s also a love-song of sorts, Matt singing “You are the lovely oak tree’s daughter / I’m just the lonely secret water” while immensely quiet passing sounds ruffle the air around him. At at one point the guitar starts to toy with a harder Velvet Underground pulse but the song is too liquid, too giving, to retain that kind of edge. It reaches one reedy arm back towards Nick Drake and River Man. The other stretches forwards towards something more forthrightly psychedelic, wrapped in echoes and various backwardnesses.

The song ends with a hooded country-folk flourish. So too does the EP, amid a soft cloud of hoots and murmurs as the band amble away. They vanish into the wilderness again in a rustle of battered hats and lowered eyes, as if they’d never been here. It’s not clear whether we’ll ever see them again. More than a little magical.

Bears In America: ‘Bear Tracks’ EP
Bears In America, no catalogue number
download-only EP
Released: 20th January 2011

Get it from:
Bandcamp

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Jnauary 2010 – EP reviews – Evolutia’s ‘Fear’s Fall’ (“they certainly don’t stint on the dramatics”)

17 Jan
Evolutia: 'Fear's Fall'

Evolutia: ‘Fear’s Fall’

They have a history with at least one Californian prog-rock band in it; yet Evolutia’s Stephen Cameron and Andrew Barnhart work better with a strong pop injection. Popping up a couple of years ago with the ‘After All These Years’ EP, Evolutia’s brisk multi-instrumental dazzle (along with Stephen and Andrew’s tag-team singing) quickly impressed. Now they’re revealing – in flashes – greater breadth and songwriting solidity beneath that glossy surface.

Of course, you do have to deal with the Muse factor first. Initially, those occasional neo-classical flourishes, the impassioned diva vocals and Stephen’s dual role on piano and guitar feel pretty familiar. Evolutia’s music is very much in Muse’s terrain of borderline-hysterical prog-pop. In fact, they’re hovering in almost the precise same spot that Matt Bellamy and co. did about a decade previously.

Yet while Muse increasingly inflate themselves into a Paganini stunt show of inhuman proportions (and arguably always dealt more in effect than humanity), Evolutia maintain heart and a human scale. Songs like My Element are clearly pomp-rock angst epics – Stephen and Andrew bawling “I fall apart without you” as instruments somersault around them – but they’re recognisably about people, rather than being exercises in style. Every explosive caper of Stephen’s piano, every upfront sprun-ng-g-g of Andrew’s supple prog-funk bass playing (and on this occasion, Mitch Holmes’ crisp and flexing drumwork) is there to underpin a human experience; whether this is ageing (“with faces that weathered / we stood up tall ’til the end”), the corrosions of ignorance, or simple fear.

That said, they certainly don’t stint on the dramatics – and their talent for sounding like a four- or five-piece band rather than an augmented duo certainly helps. With a tight and vicious vocal from Andrew, Half Awake provides the kind of semi-operatic sturm-und-drang rarely offered since the days of ‘Queen II’. Over jagged, emotional Beethoven piano, Andrew sneers out flashes of punk life (“brought up in a home of no-can-do, / what’s to learn in a prison but a vice or two?”) with a mixture of disgruntled rage and sympathy as he slips in and out of character. He weaves a history of resentment and slippage between one disaster and another, one violent situation and another; down and down the spiral, while a growling bass synth mutters like a cornered dog.

With Stephen temporarily abandoning his piano for some trashy but laser-guided guitar playing, We Used to Sleep starts life as a glam-punk anthem. It’s soon underlaid by prog convulsions – spasms of bass; distorted roars of texture; quick flashes of djent-styled metal riffage, like violently shunting trains. These toss the bucketing, arena-sized tune around on their knotty shoulders while Stephen sings of lost innocence, abandonment and faith: “If you find yourself lying in wait, or tasting their bait / just don’t go losing your hope yet.” This is lighter-waving rock heroism for sure – and cut by the yard – but it’s played with an invigorating power. For a few moments, flushed with Evolutia’s determined romance, you believe.

Fear’s Falls’ title track, meanwhile, is a real pocket epic. Driven by flowing expressive piano dancing over sparring drums and saw-edged walls of bass, it crams far more into its relative sparse lyric and its five-and-a-half minute running time than you’d expect, while Stephen delivers his most heartfelt and hopeful vocal of the whole EP. As the band travel, they reveal tightly-packed musical pockets en route: little cells transforming the spaces inside the tune from within, mirroring the night journey from fear to reassurance. “We shed this weight like it was our skin – / the ones we love are lost again, / and hope is becoming my closest friend… / Truth is changing what we want. / Fear melts away when we see / there’s nothing in the dark save you, save me.”

As Fear’s Fall winds down, there’s a cute little instrumental diversion into pseudo-reggae. Perhaps it’s there to show that after all of the emoting and instrumental flagrancy, Evolutia have a sense of humour. It’s unnecessary. They’ve got something better: in spite of all of their flashy arena-rock drama, they retain heart throughout. Maybe once they get past the more blatant Muse-ry, more people will notice this.

Evolutia: ‘Fear’s Fall’
Bandcamp
Download-only EP
Released: 11th January 2010

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Evolutia online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp YouTube

January 2010 – EP reviews – Orders of the British Empire’s ‘Rebuild (“bulge-eyed romantic ear-splitters, about to pop a vein”)

5 Jan
Orders of the British Empire: 'Rebuild' EP

Orders of the British Empire: ‘Rebuild’ EP

Orders Of The British Empire wear some pretty evident, pretty well-known influences upfront. These North London bandmates are avowed disciples of Mogwai, of Pelican and of Oceansize – and it shows.

While OBE are members of the broad church of instrumental post-rockers, they operate at the brutal, crunchy, masculine end of the genre. In other words, the one which relies on a bristly bromance between hardcore punk, hurricane-textured shoegazery and epic heavy metal, all reconfigured for sensitive guys with tattoos. It’s the side of post-rock which brings most of the previously-despised rock muscle roaring back in; and which (while abhorring and deleting the spotlit solos and preening, cocksure singing) is rammed full of guitars which fret, bulge and wail like a man who’s undergoing an apocalyptic religious conversion but who’s also reduced to frantic speechless hand-gestures to explain just how he feels.

There’s certainly enough of the hallmarks of this art-brute school of sound. There are the melancholy guitar arpeggios which cloudburst into sleet-storms of frantically scrubbed strings and distortion sprays. There are the hush-to-shriek dynamics and the clear evidence that everyone involved can play like a demon, but have had to carefully weave and duck their skills past the frowns of the punk police (or perhaps their own vestiges of punk embarrassment). There are the Godspeed You Black Emperor digressions into dry-boned countrified vistas, suggesting poisoned prairies under oil-smeared skies. There’s the sneaking feeling that this kind of music should just bite the bullet and call itself “psychedelic metal”, if that didn’t throw up unfortunate thoughts of a saucer-eyed Ozzy Osbourne chanting and dribbling blood down his kaftan.

So – not terribly original at root, and building heavily on what’s gone before. Yet what saves OBE (and then some) is that their hearts are as upfront as their debts. To a man, they’re bulge-eyed romantic ear-splitters, about to pop a vein in the service of expression. Their decision not to include a singer means that all of that passion feeds magnificently into their churning hands. The guitars bypass the pitfall into neurotic stiffness which often plagues post-rock: instead, they play with the suppleness and flex of tormented blues. The drums pace and clamour at the back like a fierce and loving sergeant – not just keeping time, but chivvying each of the other instruments.

Admittedly, the other payback is that their music is stadium-sized, and dazzled by its own overwhelming importance. The wordless songs march under fierce manifestos (Rebuild With Gunpowder), namecheck mythical serpents and Earth-hammering asteroids (Apophis Reigns) and cast up, without a hint of self-consciousness, questions for everyday existential heroes (What Would You Do). Even so, OBE have delivered up a striking, accomplished opening statement – especially as, rather than being a squad of pierce-festooned hardcore athletes with scalp-locks, they turn out to be a bashful-looking crew of soft-lipped boy-men.

There’s much to savour on ‘Rebuild’. Partly, it’s the sonic excitement, with the fluttering intro thrums and emotional math-riffing of Rebuild With Gunpowder; or the gushes of deep, disgruntled pink noise which swell under the increasingly frantic What Would You Do, like the breath of a sleeping giant. The multi-part Apophis Reigns boasts a spectacularly emotive flow of Western desert chords and ear-scouring guitar boil; the lapping lake-music of Roundabouts offers comparative simplicity and a clear view into the band’s romanticism, bypassing the epic storminess.

All things said, it’s refreshing when a band who, on first count, seem so derivative can in fact be so transformative – and so soon. Swerving aside from simple tribute, OBE rapidly become flushed with their own life and their own fascinations.

Orders Of The British Empire: ‘Rebuild’ EP
Big Cartel/Bandcamp
CD/download EP
Released: 1st January 2010

Get it from:
Big Cartel or Bandcamp

Orders Of The British Empire online:
Facebook MySpace Bandcamp

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