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

21 May

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

The Duke Of Norfolk: 'A Revolutionary Waltz'

The Duke Of Norfolk: ‘A Revolutionary Waltz’

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

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

Cardiacs: 'Guns'

Cardiacs: ‘Guns’

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

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

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

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

Cardiacs: 'Day Is Gone'

Cardiacs: ‘Day Is Gone’

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

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

Cardiacs: 'Heaven Born And Ever Bright'

Cardiacs: ‘Heaven Born And Ever Bright’

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

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

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


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

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

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

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

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

Tim Bowness: 'Stupid Things That Mean The World'

Tim Bowness: ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Duke Of Norfolk online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

Cardiacs online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace LastFM

Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

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

Levitation online:
Homepage Facebook

REVIEW – January 2015 singles, part 3 – Hypenkrünk, Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love, Grayhound O.C.D., danny0, Sea Change

16 Feb

I finished with a sex rap last time, and I’m picking up with another one now, although the rich fantastical swirl which Appalachian crew Hypenkrünk indulge on ‘Clitmatist’ lies far over the mountains from Ardamus’ down-to-earth D.C.-based romantic farces. Forty years in, one of the joys of hip hop’s current universality is that anyone can wallow in its rich sea of roleplay. In this case, stocky thirtysomething white guys from Tennessee who look like pro wrestlers get to pose as love gods. “Keeping it real” was always a wobbly concept for hip-hop: let’s just go with the dance of masks for a moment.

We’ve had dirty South for a while. This is mountain-man smut, with a swirl of German oscillators. For much of the ‘Clitmatist’ video, rapper Realtree (pallid stony-faced expression, magician’s robe, and whiskers that are part kung-fu-villain and part backwoods outlaw) lovingly serenades an only-just-offscreen vulva. He’s armed with ouija board, hypnotist’s watch, and a lubriciously loaded tongue. Explicit promises roll off the latter in a drench of hip hop wordplay (“Stow that hidden treasure packed away upon a shelf / You could never reach it – I think that I can help… / I would have brought some flowers but I’m here to smell yours,”) and down-home Southern innuendo. The words crawl over a billowing duvet of mongrelised electronica: some whining G-funk synth, Hawkwind gizmo dabbles and an undulating mattress of Berlin School sequencer. A discreet psychedelic guitar glints and swells as part of the ensemble. While nobody’s looking it sneaks out a sitar impression, as if furnishing a ‘70s-themed shag-pad.

In between glimpses of Realtree’s cartoon crib, stoned shots of trees claw the sky. A second Hypenkrünker shows up as a Charon figure. As fat, bald and impassive as a Turkish masseur in a peep-show (and poling his punt down a misty vagina-pink Styx), he’s a living “man-in-the-boat” gag who, at one point, shares a raunchy topless man-massage with Realtree. The Hypenkrünk PR promises essay on duality, alternate worlds, evolved consciousness and animal nature, and the lyrics drop references to stargazing and meditating as well as mystic rides; but right now our potential guru (when not rhyming “Kundalini” with “bikini”) seems more concerned with urging his date to “spread it like a flying squirrel.”

OK, you’re probably snorting your drink out of your nose by now. All of this is a joke, at least on one level. The players are moonshiners and moonlighters, coming in from assorted east Tennessee electronica, prog and psychedelic projects as well as from hip hop; while both in and out of the video, there’s a tinge of good-natured, low-budget, storytelling porn (tacky costumes, audience complicity, and all). But even as they rip the piss out of slutty-Romeo raps, whacking-material traditions and cosmic posturing in sound and vision alike, (“I am the saviour / of your l-l-labia – / I’m gonna see you on your worst behaviour, freaky neighbour,”) there’s an authentic tang to both Hypenkrünk’s trippy vapours and their juicier ends. As a self-styled master of sex Realtree’s clearly devoted to the task – from end to end, the song’s entirely and exclusively about serving female pleasure – and as musicians Hypenkrünk sink themselves deeply, devotedly into every genre they love and pillage. Filthy, sweaty, trippy, and even tender… at least, this time round.

* * * *

Conversely, it’s the last time around for Derbyshire alt.pop brothers Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love, but on their final single they’re speaking up for the bemused and frightened beast in people. Initially, ‘Burrow’ comes across like The Walker Brothers heard through a static storm, or like Phil Spector hauling My Bloody Valentine back into the ‘60s. Drums boom like warehouse crates, tubular bells are smacked: a cavernous crooning blur of backing vocals rides the swagger and swells like a sailor’s choir, while guitars shrug off a gluey sonic trail and a slow low-tide lick of quiet frying noise. Kelly Dyson’s vocals are nasal and poppy, while the words they’re singing are pitched between nightmare and compassion – “The weight of fears above the burrow, / of teeth and fur and blood / I clear my throat at a circle of sky / from the back of the hole I dug.”

It’s a singalong rabbit siege; a fatalistic, cowering gnash back at life’s terrors, a last burst of resistance before fate takes shape and takes hold. (“Maybe I’ll bolt out into the snare / from the back of the hole I dug. / And feel the cold metal wire tear / at the fur and skin and sinew around my throat.”) You can’t help thinking that the latterday Scott Walker, looking back over his own post-crooner gnarls of cruelties and complications, would tip his baseball cap in approval at the Low Low efforts, as well as the way they interweave animal behaviour and human anxieties. “I’ll lay and watch the long migrations / and envy the southward bound formations. /All the world performs the same motions / as I choke and wretch and spit and curse at my complications.” After the recording sessions were over, one of the Dysons immediately quit the band and Derbyshire, and lit out for London. Presumably he ducked the snare. Let’s hope he escapes the city predators.

The B-side, ‘Stop Spinning the Birdcage’ drops the fuzz drapes and the timpani booms for a brace of acoustic guitars and syrupy West Coast harmonies. Until banjo, bass and noisy lead guitar (all squeak and corrosion) work their way in (gradually sickening and splintering the song into disorientation) it sounds like an unplugged Byrds on the cusp of psychedelia, with the voices keeping their candy throughout. From the start, though, sunny, stoned-love-song intentions are hijacked by morbid distractions – “butterflies all around her eyes / I wonder when she makes up her eyes / if she draws blood?” – and its lazy and blissful carnality ends up hopelessly confused (“My eyes are carnivores / I’m thinking which bit of her face I should have first. / Little mouth or little nose? / I wonder, should I kiss it / or should I eat it whole?”).

Yet there’s no malice, no self-conscious weirdness to it: While a songwriter like Momus would have had a detailed and literate field day with this kind of polymorphous perversity, the Dysons are content to leave it as a passing blip. A sprained acid hiccup on a day for canoodling, a momentary surfacing of something more animal. A good, ever-so-slightly provocative note to go out on.

* * * *

There are no such peculiar moments (or quivering perspectives) with Grayhound O.C.D., despite their goofy name. They play straight modern rock throughout: the U2 root-note pulse in the bass, the sugar-frosted piano picking its way lightly through the chords, the choral synths. The guitars have that caressing thresh we know from Coldplay – gauze-wrapped shoegaze thunder, honed down from trance-inducer to aural duvet. Frontman Gray calls his girlfriend a “shining star” and – in the video – loiters theatrically at the tops of castles and by the side of lakes, staring meaningfully at imaginary horizons like a Thor-bearded Bono-in-waiting. He seems oblivious to the fact that the weather has seriously let him down (staying resolutely nice and clear when it could have had the decency to whip up a quick squall or dramatic cloud) or that maybe there’s another tour party waiting to squeeze past on the battlements.

In other words, everything’s in place but the actual drama, underlining how contrived and calculated the band are. I let Hypenkrünk off their own contrivances, thanks to their wit: I’m less inclined to do the same for a band apparently poised to snatch up any tour or festival gaps left by touring Anglophone acts. Yet for three minutes they almost have me. Maybe Gray wins his day pass simply because it makes a change to hear an inflated arena-rock package with a soft-sung German accent rather than a simpering high-volume falsetto. Maybe it’s the superb, sensual production that buffs everything up to the glossy, summer-storm sheen of mid-‘80s Simple Minds (a sound I’ve always loved, even when the mighty winds curdle to warmed-over gassiness). Perhaps its the simple pleasure to be had by hearing assured musicians hit their mark and keep the rhythm bounding – a perpetual mid-air freeze-frame.

I also suspect that none of my skepticism is going to stop boys from Hamburg to Vienna snogging their girlfriends to this one from now till early summer. They’ll probably also be breaking up and making up to the B-side, Alone – its dark-toned modal guitar figure offering a bit more of the meat and sours. Still, it’s not long before Gray is pledging to plunge into deepest seas and climb highest mountains. Pass, pal.

* * * *

Even while he’s working on bright young Los Angeles neo-soul with Idesia, or dipping into African fusion pop with Izinde, bass playing producer Daniel Oldham carries around a pocketful of other projects. When he’s nurturing his dance svengali side, he’s danny0, with a debut single pursuing a darker, more twisted side… or so he says. It’s co-written and sung (with poise and operatic smoulder) by Anna Delaria of Anna & The Static, who – like Daniel – seems to be looking for the diva-frowns and broody depths that her day band doesn’t seem to offer.

It’s almost a pity that ‘Fire’ is so cute – a slinky haunch of electronic R’n’B hanging from a fingersnap and great stomping blocks of fuzzy synthesizer. There are probably too many songs with that particular title (a magnet for posturing and duff lyrics). True to form, some of the words here wobble as Daniel and Anna toy with images of flames, menace and insouciance, some of which slip through their fingers. Anna, however, never loses her step. Strutting and ducking through the keyboard slams, she sells the song like a haughty Liza Minnelli.

Daniel’s production seals the deal. He seems eager to confess a debt to Rich Costey and Kimbra, but in truth this is his own beast, full of glowing slithering detail, ghost-orchestra arabesques and some subtle rug-pulling. Like the massive pixellated orange explosions in old video games, two-dimensional blossoms of blurred expansive sound belly out in great fan-dancing puffs, covering up a few shortcoming as they go. ‘Fire’ isn’t perfect, but as Anna rides it around the dance floor on its fat hairy tentacles, trailing a veil of flickering embers, you could easily forget that it isn’t.

* * * *

Even on her singles, Ellen Sunde (a.k.a. Sea Change) doesn’t showboat or swagger. Instead, she deliquesces. The blooping bedroom-pop of ‘Squares’ is both epic and introverted – a small constellation of freezing glows and vapours and the impatient blat of cheap drum programmes, with her small, sighing sob of a voice nestled at the heart of it, a warm breath on ice slurs.

In some respects Ellen resembles her fellow Norwegian, Anja Garbarek, working within a modest, birdlike sound and a haunted sketchbook, grappling with ghostly nervy ideas. In other respects, she’s whittled down the ideas of Kate Bush’s jarring, demonic ‘Get Out Of My House’ from primal screams to a flinching dodge. You could call it dream pop if it wasn’t so wide awake and bug-eyed. Far from heavy-lidded narcosis, this is dream-sharpened wakefulness and sometimes it hurts.

‘Squares’ is neurotic, fearful and ultimately brave. At times it sounds like an existential crisis wrapped in fairy lights (“just go inside, oh just go inside me / There’s no-one here”), but it’s mostly a crisis of confidence (“If I go there with you I will not be safe / All that lives inside me, all that you can see./ If you knew what I was – a frozen me, / what grows inside me – / then you’d let it go.”) Batting aside help, Ellen’s her own haunted house, her own jailor. Also, it seems, she’s her own salvation, instinctive and unpredictable, ready to burst shackles and flee without plans. “So don’t look back, don’t look back. / Out of this place, out of this house – / ‘cos if I don’t go there, / oh then my feet run, my feet will bring me there / My feet will run all they can.”

Trying to grasp at the song seems to melt it – it won’t keep a solid shape, it won’t provide a firm conclusion. Is this about self-hatred or about fervid, elusive independence? Resolving one’s own terrors, or bolting from them by panic and chance? “Save yourself first,” advises Ellen, towards the end of the song. She could be addressing a loved one, or herself: it could be nobility, or a covert brush-off. Sea Change offers transformation of circumstance and state, but also a fluttering ambiguity. Nothing is mapped out. I’m alarmed. I’m fascinated.

Hypenkrünk: ‘Clitmatist’
El Deth Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Stream-only single (released 28th January 2015)

Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love: ‘Burrow’
Audio Antihero/Other Electricities (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only pay-what-you-like single (released 26th January 2015)

Grayhound O.C.D.: “And I Love You”
Khb Music/Timezone Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD/download single (released 16th January 2015)

danny0: ‘Fire’ (featuring Anna Dellaria)
danny0 (no catalogue number or barcode)
Stream-only single (released 27th January 2015)

Sea Changes: ‘Squares’
Sea Changes (no catalogue number or barcode)
Stream-only single (released 20th??? January 2015)

Get them from:

Hypenkrünk: ‘Clitmatist’ – stream from Bandcamp or YouTube, or download from Bandcamp, iTunes or Amazon as part of ‘Lords of Rap, Volume 1: Just Da Tip’ album.
Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love: ‘Burrow’ – Bandcamp.
Grayhound O.C.D.: ‘And I Love You’ – iTunes or Amazon.
danny0: ‘Fire’ (featuring Anna Dellaria) – stream-only via Soundcloud.
Sea Change: ‘Squares’ – stream-only via Soundcloud.

Hypenkrünk online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp YouTube

Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

Grayhound O.C.D. online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace YouTube

danny0 (Daniel Oldham) online:
HomepageSoundcloud

Sea Change online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud

REVIEW – January 2015 singles, part 2 – Nocturne Blue, Doldrums, We Are Kin, Swim Mountain, Ardamus

3 Feb

In the sensual slo-mo video for ‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’ a long-limbed, model-glossy woman rotates on a rope swing, or inside a net. Circus glamour, catwalk slink, passive heat – Nocturne Blue is clearly aiming for all of these things. The musical sideline of video artist Dutch Rail, it curves and strokes its own well-toned musical hips, a perfect solipsistic pearl. I don’t know whether to admire its sheen or to stay quiet and watch it stalk – slap-bang – straight into a doorframe.

Though it’s honed for club play, there’s a strong affinity for the more polished, aloof side of art-pop here – and despite Nocturne Blues’ Los Angeles origins, the project rapidly settles into a European home. All is textural – there’s a sultry, light-stepping beat; there’s bass rumble, silk-vapours and distant, tearing fuzz. Left to themselves, parts build and crystallise. A lone, calculated antique synth pyrographs a wheeling electronic line – a ‘70s nod to psychedelic German sequencing, or to Pink Floyd’s ‘On The Run’. There’s a little echo of centrozoon’s evasive, bumpy pop phase in here: appropriate, as Markus Reuter guests on stacked layers of touch guitar, building himself a stepped, dissolving tower of bluesy bass growls, ambient hums and looped Europop trills. There’s a pinch of Summer-and-Moroder disco trance, as well as a dash of Bowie’s Berlin.

‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’ also bears a passing, slowed-down resemblance to ‘Only Baby’, no-man‘s criminally-ignored dance-floor symphony from 1993. Yet where no-man blazed with an urgent sexual heat beneath their violins-and-cream sophistication, Dutch prefers to sit alone crushing grapes against his palate and murmuring rapturously to us about the taste. Both songs sing about breath and imply transcendence; both involve a shadowy other around which to wrap emotion (in one of his purpler patches, Dutch asserts “the sweetest flowers bloom late at night / but you and I were born to break free into the light..”). Ultimately, however, the Nocturne Blue trail is a solo journey, with Dutch dreaming of an explosive transformation while describing slow, langorous circles around his own stalled obsession. “My eyes may never see the sun / Paper-thin, don’t know where I’ve been / Sleepwalking circles into what I might become,”, he murmurs.“My darkest deeds, my secret needs / A thousand fingers feeling every possibility. / I was crawling down, digging around, / diving deep to dreams within my dreams.” But he emotes so softly, with so much of an immaculate and poised façade, that he makes any dirt and frustration feel as smooth as patent leather.

* * * *

Doldrums are equally club-bound, but far more ostentatiously fucked-up. Their sound is twentieth-century pre-millennial angst of the kind that just won’t go away and get smoothed down – a Montreal hybrid of dirty warehouse techno, KAOSS pad tangents and the spattering, visual-art-inspired synth-pop of Grimes and co. ‘Hotfoot’ is a knocking bit of electronic rabble-rousing, filled with splurging ripped-speaker synth-bass, sundry distortions and barking vocals. A couple of tussling rhythm tracks battle it out in stop-time. The main riff sounds like a plastic bottle, tuned to baritone, being kicked around in an elevator. Rather than an elevating rush, the breakdown is a numbing blurt of hooting overload. In its dull, hopeless tyranny, it could be the klaxon announcing that another reactor has just hit meltdown.

Meanwhile, tousle-topped frontman/turntablist/sound-smearer Airick Woodhead drawls on about “keeping up an unnatural pace”, “sleeping in, in the age of unrest,” and “vampires who can’t compete.” Watch your back. While ‘Hotfoot’ does send you careening around the room in a wild spurt of dance energy, flailing your elbows and heels, it’s also manic and asocial. “If I can’t pull myself back up, I’m gonna go deeper down in the mud,” warns Airick, scribbling himself notes which he immediately shreds and tosses. “Hey problem, spin around. / Don’t stop smiling ’til you hit the ground.”

It’s not just his punky sneer which gives the song its edge. It’s the death-disco sentiments: a party gone sour, nihilistic, borderline cannibalistic as Airick spits “my best friends all see me drown / my best friends all – c’mon – talk about it.” Halfway through, he’ll implore “Lady, won’t you come and swallow me?”, as if he’s courting Death for a final blowjob. Certainly he seems resigned to the fatal gravity well he’s worked himself into. “Guess I can’t pull myself back up, / I couldn’t grow deeper down any further / Fit right in, make some friends…/ fall asleep in the deep end.” He’s going to go down dancing, or nodding, or with some kind of hopeless swagger.

* * * *

After that, it’s something of a relief to change gears with some elegant Manchester progressive rock, courtesy of We Are Kin. Though it’s easier to be prog now than it used to be, those bad old off-the-peg snarkings about adolescent hang-ups on fairies and hobbits still sometimes hang around like a bad smell. I’d argue that what prog (especially British prog) actually tends to get hung up on is Victoriana. Shuddering flamboyantly on the cusp of romanticism and modernism, it often lolls back into the former, taking comfort in or shape from the trappings of an industrious imperial world in which even the mass-produced now seems to have to hearkened back to hand-craftsmanship, and in which running your hand over an antique street railing in the here-and-now triggers a kind of time-travel.

We Are Kin seem to fit into the same latterday Britprog school as Big Big Train – nostalgic for a history drawn from dips into books and museums and bits of folk history while quietly assembling its meaning on their own; building flesh around paper skeletons and guide pamphlets and tales handed down from elderly relatives. This isn’t as immediately credible as rattling history’s cage with upfront arguments about the present, but although it’s a gentler approach it’s not automatically naïve. Emblems and preoccupations of Victorian times still wash back and forth through the Western psyche in slicks of gold leaf or grime – empires of one kind or another, ideas about the deserving or unworthy poor, innovations and the turnover of new elites.

Prog musicians, like novelists, sometime lie on the wash of this wave and see where it takes them. ‘Home Sweet Home’ seems to be an overture to just this kind of journey. We Are Kin’s superstructure might be 1970s antique (a stately, tuneful Genesis sway of velvet-curtain Mellotrons, small bridges of jazz chording, the bowed and angular interplay of shifting time signatures and guitar escapements) but their intent might not be. Over three brief, lilting verses, singer Hannah Cotterill and lyricist Dan Zambas are describe three settlements – plains village, sea town, valley city – each with its own character and rhythm, its own buildings and way of life. In another sense, they might be describing the same place, or at least the same culture, swelling as history passes. Its buildings grow larger, casting greedy looming shadows. The ease of sustainable trade metastasises into a grotesque over-stimulated scrabble.

All right, the language is, ever-so-slightly, fairytale Gothic – but fairytales and fables work because they pare down the vital into simple, memorable lines. Through the fountains and courtyards (and the stone houses, with their “dwellers”) you can still see us, you can still see now, rocked by the same currents and the same shocks. If twenty-first century austerity really is 1930s repression revisited, and we’re sleepwalking back into repeating old history, prog’s retrofitted antiquarian stylings might have a place in telling the old stories and delivering the new warnings. If this is a taste of a longer tale, I’d like to hear more of it.

* * * *

London/Angeleno good-time band Swim Mountain also retrofit, but in an easier, breezier way. They cover Beyoncé’s ‘Love On Top’ like someone flirting under a blanket, musical lines and instrumental parts wriggling under the surface like coy, excited limbs. As he showed on the debut Swim Mountain EP last autumn, head Swimmer Tom Skyrme is very good at disguising fairly limited resources under a swelling, lucid-dream production style. He claims to have put this one together on a whim, belatedly falling in love with the song’s bravura modulations and ‘80s-inspired peppiness.

Personally, the Beyoncé diva-juggernaut leaves me cold. Despite her well-honed skills and precision vocals, much of what I see is branded, sub-Madonna acquisition and media powder-puffing (if she is the twenty-first century Madonna, we’ve all gone beige) so it’s interesting to hear the song outside her wind-tunnel of glamour. Tom’s lightly buttered, lysergic popcorn-soul take makes no attempt to match the ceiling-bumping, helium balloon assertiveness of the original. The pace is agreeable ‘70s midtempo; the wah-guitar plays peekaboo; the boinking bass comes sheathed in a tight reverb. The phaser button adds a gentle, sexy yawn; Tom’s warm nasal drawl (just on the likeable side of bland) dawdles amiably on the swooping paths Beyoncé cut, making no attempt to match her commanding calisthenics. A cloudy puff of keyboards fills the gaps, like a lazy pink smoke-bomb.

Previous Swim Mountain stylings have mostly recalled the stoned, sleeting Byrds guitar of ‘Five Miles High’: this one sounds like what Arnold Layne might have become if Syd Barrett had drunk deep on Memphis soul before he rolled another one, or like a more nappy-headed tie-dyed version of the Clarke/Duke Project. It’s all a little throwaway (despite the unexpected ending, which scrambles down an unexpected dip and clunks like a plastic lyre) but it’s lovingly crafted throwaway; a sugar basket which takes less time to eat than it does to admire. Plus I do like the way that Tom’s mix rolls out individual delicate moments for our attention, as if his faders were the sliding drawers in a jeweller’s desk.

* * * *

Sex raps are integral to hip hop: another part of that expressing-yourself-over-a-beat ethos, and a good way to keep a live and restless audience onside. Unless you’ve got a broad sense of humour, they can be touchy areas – too louche, or (at their worst) channels for power-posturing, misogyny and spite. Happily, Ardamus might bitch a bit – and might even settle a few minor scores on the side – but he doesn’t really hold grudges. ‘At Least I Got Laid’ could have been so damn nasty – a wheedler’s boast. Instead, it’s a shrug and a counting-of-blessings from a late-30s Washington rapper, thumbing through his temporary dating and mating memories for a piece that’s not so much bump-and-grind as bump-and-fall-off-the-couch.

Most of the endearing low-budget video (earthily-mimed rom-com looking like it’s been shot on the flickering, selective colour stock of memory) actually takes place on a couch, but what we see isn’t really love action. It’s the bits in between. The getting-to-know you exercises, the different books and the telling eye-rolls. The separate laptop and TV watching; the bumbling between what two different people want. The sulks and the missed tell-tales; the irritating or opportunistic friends. Eventually and inevitably, it’s the get-outs, fall-outs or peter-outs. (Heh. No pun intended). Yes, it’s a bloke’s record and a man’s-eye view. There’s annoyance and relief (“the divorce and the wedding would have been shotgun”; “if you want headaches then, shit, you can have her”) and Ardamus does delivers a superb low blow in the battle of the sexes when he complains about how “a tampon now becomes puppet strings.”

Still, it seems that Ardamus’ concerns aren’t about who stays on top, but how things are played out (“you can’t play games like that / and not expect to get called on it”). Rather than being coldly profane, he’s endearingly filthy – there’s some marriage-proposal wordplay which is well worth a spin or two. (Hint: it’s all about going down. And exactly where you put the ring. Veil optional.) When he’s not going for double-takes and horse-laughs, he’s also pretty good at pinpointing the sorry farce of how things go wrong (“the small talk that you want to step over: / pushed away at the table – you a leftover,”) and the mutual clinging (“getting mouldy, make-believe it / you need each other, so now trade diseases.”) He knows how two can screw up. The summery light of Soulful’s production textures – bass Rhodes figures and wobbly wipes of soul voice samples, like a cuddlier Wu-Tang sprawling back on a picnic rug – draws out any venom. Whatever had been said and done – if you’d been Ardamus’ girlfriend, I think at least he’d shake your hand at the end of it.

Nocturne Blue: ‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’
Nocturne Blue (no barcode or catalogue number)
Stream-only single (released 12th January 2015)

Doldrums: ‘Hotfoot’
Sub Pop Records (no barcode or catalogue number)
Download/stream single (released 13th January 2015)

We Are Kin: ‘Home Sweet Home’
Bad Elephant Music (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single (released 12th January 2015)

Swim Mountain: ‘Love On Top’
Swim Mountain (no barcode or catalogue number)
Stream-only single (released 7th January 2015)

Ardamus: ‘At Least I Got Laid’
Ardamus (no barcode or catalogue number)
Stream-only single (released 13th January 2015)

Get them from:

Nocturne Blue: ‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’ – Bandcamp or iTunes.
Doldrums: ‘Hotfoot’ – Bandcamp; stream-only audio at Soundcloud, stream-only video at YouTube; or order from Sub Pop as part of ‘The Air Conditioned Nightmare’ album.
We Are Kin: ‘Home Sweet Home’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-like download).
Swim Mountain: ‘Love On Top’ – stream-only at Soundcloud.
Ardamus: ‘At Least I Got Laid’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-like download), or buy as part of the ‘I Can’t Replace Me Part 1 Improve’ EP.

Nocturne Blue online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Bandcamp YouTube

Doldrums online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Tumblr Bandcamp Last FM

We Are Kin online:
Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

Swim Mountain online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud

Ardamus online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

REVIEW – January 2015 singles, part 1 – Giles Babel, Shot of Hornets, Heylel, Marika Hackman, Tanya Tagaq

30 Jan

Giles Babel: '2015'

Giles Babel: ‘2015’

Happy new year. How’s your irresolution?

Both as year and as song, ‘2015’ is another fitful emergence for Enfield polymath Glen Byford – poet, photographer, digital trinketer, small-time maker and on-off DJ. In the past, he’s put out his original music (anxious water-tank electronica, skinny-wistful glitch tunes, poppy plunderphonics and disillusioned spoken-word bedsit blurts) under the cover names of Hunchbakk or Giles Babel. As of this year, all projects seem to have merged under the Babel label and shrunk down to their most skeletal: or perhaps that’s just how it feels under a January hangover.

Peeling off and discarding his usual quilt of samples, the perpetually uncomfortable Glen distractedly slung this one together on an iPad app while reading and watching television – as if he was working behind his own back and didn’t want to catch himself at it. It’s downbeat, clipped and telegrammatic – budget-tronica pows and zips; a knocking and near-undanceable beat; minimal decoration. Rather than opting for best hopes and public drive, he chooses to sit back and take the poison pill – “Another new year, and another January of good intentions. / Another January of new perceptions, misconceptions that things could change.”

The music, though, seems to disagree – glitching and flipping into a rumble of double-time, or shoving the voice to the back of the drawer like an unwanted sock. Meanwhile, Glen fidgets between hope and cynicism (“This year will be my year – / yeah, just like last year, / and just like every year,”)and represents that year with a brief collage of Playstation chip music, pings and trills, mutters, and incongrous hip hop samples of block party shouts and cheering crowds (“we have a party, right?… I tell you what we do…” Uncertain inspirations reign. Glen pads, tentative and barefoot, around his room.

* * * *

Shot of Hornets: 'Elvis is Dead?'

Shot of Hornets: ‘Elvis is Dead?’

In the time that Glen would take to roll over twice and go back to sleep, Shot of Hornets would have squeezed five quick changes into a song. Apparently not much older than 2014’s Christmas wrapping-paper, this band’s blocky, power-oozing pounce-and-trap tones suggests a much longer-established band: they mingle math-metal’s block-feints with hot funk spaces, thrash riffs with anthemic grunge righteousness, but never entirely pin themselves to anything. When he’s not bursting into hardcore screams, the soulful wreck of singing drummer Conor Celahane’s vocals are reminiscent of gospel-tinged hard-rock heroes King’s X (as are the clotted, meaty guitar wails of his brother Dan), but there’s just as much of Megadeth’s grand irritation in the stew as well.

Elvis is Dead? is a shape-changing dust-off about nothing more specific than uncertainty, vague disappointment and finding the pieces to pick up. The King himself only shows up in a desultory moan about Spotify (so I’m guessing that there’s something being said about the commodification and shrinkage of cultural heroes here), but generally the song sees the band gathering together their compass-bearings and firing off the odd sarcastic broadside. “So here we are now, / no better and no worse off, / in the same world as everyone else,” notes Conor, going on to confess “I have a number of doubts.”

The music is sinewy and jumpy beneath the roaring guitar, and every couple of minutes, there’s a change – a glide of softer melody, a shift into death growls, a barrage of bouncing swipes and screams. “The first prize for gift of the gab / goes straight to you / how d’you feel about that?” Conor yells before the song turns anthemic, finding both the funk and its final feet. (“Turning my back on ignorance, turning my back on selfish people, turning my back on ignorance and lies.”) In a final riff-bout, the rhythm hurtles and rebounds like an evil-minded squash ball. Promising. Let’s see what they do when their concentration settles.

* * * *

Even compared to the other prog juggernauts of the ’70s, King Crimson aren’t given much credit for contributing to the classic songbook. Given the various song-gems lurking in their back catalogue, this is unfair. It probably owes more to Robert Fripp’s unfortunate (and somewhat unfair) reputation as a lofty demon headmaster, verbally withering casual listeners from his lectern before immolating them with sprays of burning guitar sludge – an image which does his Bowie collaborations no harm, but which drags his main band down like a concrete overcoat. The fact remains that outside of slavish interpretations from neo-prog bands, as far as Crimson cover versions go there’s been little more than a speckling.

In the past few years, though, this has changed significantly. In 2011, The Unthanks transformed Crimson’s Starless into a haunting Northumbrian chorale. The year before, Symbolyc One ripped 21st Century Schizoid Man to ominous ribbons and recombined them for Kanye West’s ‘Power’. A year before that, Maynard James Keenan of Tool snarled his way through a pure Schizoid Man cover for The Human Experimente (It was impressive, in an art-metal way, although personally I’m keener on Johnny G’s lo-fi delta-blues version from 1982).

I Talk to the Wind, however, is probably the closest King Crimson has to a standard. A ghostly, semi-existential folk song from their first album, it’s already attracted several reinterpretations. Italian new-wavers Violet Eves did a respectfully mournful and elegant cover in 1985; Camper Van Beethoven and Eugene Chadbourne tore up a hilarious country-punk version in 1987. Probably the most famous version is Opus III’s techno-house take from 1992 (complete with New Romantic Gilliam-cum-Dali fantasy video, mashing up ‘Dune’, ‘Logopolis’ and ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ as Kirsty Hawkshaw’s androgynous glam-waif stalks, slinks and smoulders her way around a desert lodge).

For their own version, Heylel have chosen to recapture some of the original Crimson’s sumptuousness. Serving as a coda to the Red Giant sequence on the epic prog/folk/metal of their ‘Nebulae’ album, their take on I Talk To The Wind is solemn and sealed. The ceremonial pace, the full-scale orchestral tremble, the fathoms of shoegaze-guitar shudder and the solemn, Gilmourian guitar solo render it inter-generationally grand: touching on the string-swoons of Craig Armstrong or Sinatra’s orchestras, the stadium turbulence of ‘The Wall’ and the mournful psychedelic drones of Spiritualized or Slowdive. The video suggests that they’re heading up the live sessions in the Black Lodge from ‘Twin Peaks’.

Yet the original song is a small, lonesome beast – lyrical flute, a gentle fug of guitar, a pre-ELP Greg Lake singing the melancholy words with a vulnerable humility that he’d never show again. Heylel singer Ana Batista keeps this in mind. Her vocal might be full of assured, implicit soul-pop power, but she’s never tempted to let rip, never loses sight of that original restraint: and, restored to a waking dream, the song’s allowed to settle over us once again.

* * * *
Despite the underlying wildness of her songwriting, Marika Hackman also appreciates and makes use of the power of restraint. Previous songs such as Bath Is Black and Itchy Teeth have revealed a compelling songwriter with a cool fascination for messy play, for psychological dirt and guilt and the wracked physicality of the uneasy soul. That she doesn’t scream these things out adds to her power. Her cool, polished folk tones deliver her surreal, slithering insights and her deft, subtle analyses with the same thoughtful poise, whether she’s chiding or sharing, empathizing or emphasizing.

Underneath the spooky Latinesque folktronica groove of ‘Animal Fear’ (full of Shankar-ish string wails and spaghetti western gunshots) a menstrual werewolf subtext is swirling. Part ‘Ginger Snaps’ and part ‘Being Human’, it embraces blood and feminity, bandages, and the helpless stink of male terror. “I’ve been weeping silent like a wound. / Would you stitch me up or let the blood soak through, / watching my world turn from white to blue?” She sings as if she might be dying; she sings as if to a lover or a brother; but she’s never really pleading, never wholly dependent. She sits inside her transforming body and watches the changes come; watches the fumblings of her companion with the same half-resigned curiosity. “Look into my eyes and convince us both that I’ll last through the night; / I could land on my feet if I tried. / I’ve never jumped a chasm so wide / and made it to the opposite side. / Even now as we’re standing here, / I can see the doubt in your eyes, / I can smell the animal fear.”

The song is a tender, chiding mixture of vulnerability and disappointment, but its observations are shot through with self-awareness. “I was not a heavenly child,” admits Marika, “savage, with a temperament wild.” As the song travels through the changes, it blends into acceptance, a new understanding bleeding through in flashes (“oh, my body trembling… / and teeth… / I won’t bite.. / Sweet too soon, treacherous night.”) We don’t get to find out how this ends, but even as Marika (now more initiate than invalid) murmurs “she calls my name” you’re left with her finely-honed sense of self. Under the fur and nipples, under the wracking pain, an image emerges of a woman who may wander but will never be truly lost.

* * * *

Tanya Tagaq – a Canadian Inuit throat singer – also seems to have some empathy with this kind of lycanthropic humanity. She’s recently delivered a forthright cover of Pixies’ ‘Caribou’ like a tundra bolero with violins and horns, picking up on its occult hints and dreams of a changed, more animal life outside the city and slinging it back with an Inuit twist and the bloody-minded wit of a hard-bitten outdoorswoman. Tanya first came to broader attention a decade ago (thanks to her four-song turn on Björk’s ‘Medúlla’), and has continued to work her way into Western musical awareness via work with the Kronos Quartet and Mike Patton. This kind of collaborator choice suggests a determination to broaden and involve her music rather than dilute it. With last year’s award-winning Canadian success for her ‘Animism’ album, she’s pitched to continue making breakthroughs on her own terms.

‘Uja’ confirms this. A trailer single for a broader overseas release of ‘Animism’, it has something in common with previous deeply-involved folktronic endeavours such as or Foxout! and Mouth Music. It might mate and merge with electronic beats in longstanding worldbeat fashion, but rather than pandering to easy tastes it’s a stirring textural affair, deliberately pitched between ritual and pounding. It feels like an Arctic club night with all of the technology freezing round the edges and only kept functional by fierce body-warmth.

Log-clock ticks, harsh electronic reverb, and a ragged fabric of synth-noise and incisive drumming make up a base and a blanket. Over, under and around this Tanya works in multiple layers of percussive hum-grunts, drawls, gasps, seal barks and harmonic growls. Occasional shamanic interjections in Inuit (sliding in over the top like a wake-up call filtering through sleep) might be terse warnings, defiant fuck-you statements or camouflaged jokes at the expense of Anglo monolinguals. With Tanya being an assertively political artists and performer, they could be any or all. If I’m the butt of the joke, though, I can take it this time. ‘Uja’ made the blood jump in my feet and in my temples.

Giles Babel: ‘2015’
Hunchbakk (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single (released 1st January 2015)

Shot of Hornets: ‘Elvis is Dead’
Shot of Hornets (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single (released 1st January 2015)

Heylel: ‘I Talk To The Wind’
Heylel (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single (released 7th January 2015)

Marika Hackman: ‘Animal Fear’
Dirty Hit Records (no barcode or catalogue number)
Download-only single (released 9th January 2015)

Tanya Tagaq: ‘Uja’
Six Shooter Records (no barcode or catalogue number
Stream-only single (released 6th January 2015)

Get them from:
Giles Babel: ‘2015’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-want)
Shot of Hornets: ‘Elvis is Dead’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-want)
Heylel: ‘I Talk To The Wind’ – Bandcamp or iTunes (as part of ‘Nebulae’ album)
Marika Hackman: ‘Animal Fear’ – Soundcloud stream or iTunes (as part of ‘We Slept At Last’ album)
Tanya Tagaq: ‘Uja’ – Youtube stream; or Six Shooter Records store or iTunes (as part of ‘Animism’ album)

Giles Babel/Hunchbakk online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp

Shot of Hornets online:
Facebook Bandcamp

Heylel online:
Homepage Facebook Bandcamp YouTube

Marika Hackman online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Last FM YouTube

Tanya Tagaq online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

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…

REVIEW – Dead Hippie Squadron: ‘Chilling Spree’ single, 2014 (“thumbing his nose at the chillout stations”)

24 May

Dead Hippie Squadron: 'Chilling Spree'

Dead Hippie Squadron: ‘Chilling Spree’

Skittering through electronic dance music like a grinning cartoon centipede, Julian Michal Zembrowski (a.k.a. Dead Hippie Squadron) has remained tongue-in-cheek so far. He’s dabbled with pranky plunderphonics (as in the George Bush Jr.-baiting Skull And Bones). He’s teased and celebrated dance culture’s mongrelised New Age aesthetics via tracks like Dubsteppenwolf and Interstellar Transhuman Psyche (and via 2013’s ‘Black Magic’ album, a skimming sample-heavy techno grimoire). Most of his artwork consists of spooky, crudely-Photoshopped snapshots of his dog; or of himself posing next to pet-food displays, wearing a kitten mask.

However much he pisses about with themes and imagery, his music has been seriously solid: a more successful mongrelisation. No matter how flighty or parodic their names might be, DHS tracks are filled with cunning, tickling complexity and multiple levels. Power-dive pitch-shifts, plenty of real instrumentation (including throaty ping-bass and glitched-up piano studies), an argumentative bricolage of vocal samples and Julian’s own mumbling lo-fi intrusions. Spliced references abound – a Club Dog take on the Bomb Squad, silly Zappa voices, minglings of Art Of Noise mischief with Meat Beat Manifesto drive, spooked ambient drift and IDM clatter.

Though it’s a good deal breezier than what’s gone before, Chilling Spree is as much of a witty DHS mash-up as ever. I’m guessing that Julian had his radio on and was both cocking his ear to and thumbing his nose at the chillout stations when this one rolled off his mind. Downtempo and smoothly textured, it shimmers around on ever-so-slightly theatrical accordion musings (like an airy Joe Zawinul jazz track at a long-ago summer festival) before rising up to a silvery, tinselly synth-pop crest. The drums sound mostly Lebanese: those jazzy, ahead-of-the-beat Stewart Copeland rattles, the furry rills. Humming in the background, Joe makes his best approximations of a Bollywood chorus.

A lot of those little citizen-of-the-world, coffee shop boxes seem to be being ticked… but the boxes are collapsing under the pen-strokes. That occasional blurting stutter of bass drum stupidity is straight out of electro; the tunefulness is cunningly crumpled. Meanwhile, we’re hearing part of an argument in the next apartment. “I want you to get mad,” burbles a man’s voice – aggressive in a slightly fruity way, and convinced of its own righteousness. “All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad.” Someone’s not really getting along with the chillout programme – there will be splintered knick-knacks soon. Over in his corner, Julian takes a long cool sip of a dark-amber drink with a complicated name and a couple of ditzy umbrellas, and treats himself to a long, low chuckle.

Dead Hippie Squadron: ‘Chilling Spree’
Dead Hippie Squadron (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 30th April 2014

Get it from:
Free download from Soundcloud

Dead Hippie Squadron online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp YouTube

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

30 Oct

Ian Crause: 'The Song Of Phaethon'

Ian Crause: ‘The Song Of Phaethon’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Crause: 'Suns May Rise'

Ian Crause: ‘Suns May Rise’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Crause online:
Facebook Bandcamp LastFm

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