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January 2019 – upcoming English rock gigs – Francis Dunnery’s ‘Big Lad In The Windmill’ mini-tour (18th to 20th January)

12 Jan

Next week, gloriously wayward singer-songwriter Francis Dunnery revisits his past with It Bites – in solo format – as he takes music from their 1986 debut album ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ out on an English micro-tour.

Francis Dunnery, 11th and 18th to 20th January 2019

When pompous would-be music tastemakers like myself roll out their list of great pop and rock albums of the 1980s, ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ generally isn’t on there. That’s unsurprising. As a decade, the ‘80s sprawled into outspoken ideological polarisation, during which it sometimes seemed as if everyone in popular music was a purist poseur of some kind or other; whether they were swanning about on yachts sporting terrifying ozone-threatening hairstyles, acting out grimly righteous/reductionist salt-of-the-earth positionings, haute-couture megaphoning about The Future or (rather more constructively) hurtling around America in vans trying to build an alternative economy. Perhaps that’s over-simplifying, but it’s certainly true that it was an age of vivid stances, and that some terrible and reductive snobberies developed as a side-effect of said stances and manifestos. In such a time and in such a milieu, ‘The Big Lad’ was the kind of album that wasn’t supposed to happen… and many people seemed (and still seem) to think it shouldn’t have been allowed to happen.

It Bites: 'The Big Lad In The Windmill'

It Bites: ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’

Admittedly on spec it was also a little preposterous. A shotgun marriage of glutinous, glittery ‘80s pop with hard rock snorts and cartwheeling prog stunts, it was recorded by four self-confessed working-class hicks from England’s gorgeous, isolated Lake District, who also happened to be unfashionably virtuosic as musicians. Possessing a keen ear for pastiche and adaptation, they’d had a prehistory back home as a badly-behaved covers band. Plying the tough Cumbrian circuit of nightclubs and working men’s clubs, they’d mastered reams of contemporary pop hits (Level 42, Police, Haircut 100 and so on) while simultanously nursing a profound love for the 70’s complexity and flourishes of Genesis and Yes, UK and Weather Report. All of which showed by the time they came to write their own stuff. By the mid-‘80s (abetted by resident keyboard popinjay and arrangements genius John Beck), Dunnery was putting together original songs which played on both sets of preoccupations.

Some smartarse once tagged It Bites as “bubblegum prog”, which isn’t too bad a label. It encapsulates the band’s mastery of the kind of throwaway immediate pop tunes which prove to have a tenacious, sticky life of their own: it also takes into account their taste for florid illustrative musical passages. In addition, their playing had a layer of fantasy-funk and soul itch (due to admixtures of Steve Arrington and Prince, plus Dick Nolan’s stalking, slippery bass grooves), and some hard rock crunch (staunch, sturdy drummer Bob Dalton was a Led Zeppelin guy at heart). Collectively, It Bites aspired to the well-drilled, muscular “follow-this” ethic of a black showband; which seemed to be judged as less of a virtue when coming from a white British rock band of the times, where restrictive amateurism or beefy stiffness was the order of the day.

Bear in mind that this was years before white-boy eclecticism inveigled its way back into mainstream rock and pop. Ween were still only releasing home-made cassettes; Jellyfish wouldn’t show up for another three years, and while Frank Zappa stubbornly flew the flag for stylistic fluidity, he was an elder statesman turned cult artiste in a niche of his own. Even Queen had calmed down a bit. Had they slipped into a more parodic approach lyrical approach, It Bites might have suddenly woken up to find that their nearest British equivalents were The Barron Knights. Fortunately, they took themselves a little more seriously: there was silliness in their playful approach, but it was matched by an earnest bravado which won them affection from audiences even as it drew critical disdain.


 
Once signed by Virgin and given a shot at making a record, It Bites treated it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to throw everything they had into the effort and stir it up like crazy. Throughout ‘The Big Lad’ they’re coltish and restless, latching onto impeccable mainstream pop-rock stylings only to suddenly career off into wildly played, cunningly constructed breaks. Turn Me Loose and I Got You Eating Out Of My Hand mercilessly run straightforward pop songs through a mill of transformational time and mood changes. Almost anything goes – heavy metal, jazz-fusion arrhythmia, Al di Meola flamenco, even the drum machine and Bontempi drone of a narcotized lounge act – although the band backtrack and flawlessly reconstruct the songs at the end.

Producer Alan Shacklock entered into the spirit of things with a vengeance. He kept a “riot track” free in the mix to capture the band’s raucous in-studio jabbering; he delivered a gleefully glittering plastic sound which revelled in every Japanese-digital synth chime, every start/stop noise-gate interruption and every over-exaggerated bit of sound-panning. He also accidentally sped up the master tape, resulting in the band sounding (according to Francis) “like Pinky and Perky.” The result was – and is – a record which feels like a sudden soda pop binge after months away from the stuff.

‘The Big Lad’ is generally remembered for a surprise Top Ten single. Cantering toytown hit Calling All The Heroes married the band’s musical deftness to old Republic serials, rocking cradles and boyhood cowboy games, fuelled by an earworm chorus and some sneaky false endings. (Presumably the Wild West schtick struck a chord with Shacklock – his own early ‘70s prog band Babe Ruth had recorded The Mexican, an Alamo-themed story with which Calling All The Heroes shares a number of passing musical similarities). For many people, this song is where It Bites have been permanently stuck: pegged to a couple of fanfaring pop hooks remembered by almost every Briton who lived through mid-‘80s chart pop. In the video a bleached’n’styled, cutesied-up Dunnery and co. bob nervously, like a loopier Go West, presaging the marketing problems which would plague them for the rest of their existence. Live, they’d pull out the full prog trickbag.


 
It’s a shame that the album’s glossy, hyperactive surfaces and loop-the-loop stunting make it easy to ignore the substance beneath. Fair enough: something like Wanna Shout mostly exists in order to run demented macho-guitar heroics over stuttering go-go synths, and All In Red does little more than throb like a fourteen-year-old boy’s heat dream of Zeppelin colliding with Level 42. This isn’t the kind of record you put on to remember angry alienation in pre-punk-era Manchester, or to recapture political struggles, or even to remember belonging to anything much (unless it was being part of the crowd which understood the band’s straightforward musical verve and the down-to-earth Cumbrian personalities which bedrocked it).

Yet elsewhere on ‘The Big Lad’, genuine stories about real people emerge from beneath Beck’s thunderous keyboard chimes and Dunnery’s barrel-roll guitar playing. The band’s follow-up single Whole New World is mostly forgotten. It’s actually a fine, agonised pop song, whose horn-assisted contortions marry dashes of dumped-bloke Motown and Memphis under the Christmas-tree synths. On first impressions, Cold Tired And Hungry might be a screamingly uncool rock-snortin’ melodrama, but on a second look its histrionics run parallel to the naked, hurt-boy stances Prince was trying on at the time (although it sounds more like Steve Marriott locked into a sobbing death spiral with Brian May).

Best, though, are a couple of tracks which embrace genuine personal memories rather than generic pop tropes. Under the bravado, Screaming On The Beaches is a flipside take on Calling All The Heroes’ daydream battles. Based on Dunnery’s teasing-out of traumatic wartime memories from his dad (who’d served as a soldier in the Burma Campaign), it’s tech-laden and roaring, screwing its disorientating picture of ordinary men coming apart under fire into a party mixture of twisted pop-metal riffing, jazz-funk cat pounces and Beck’s wailing keytar. Over the next few years, the band would polish it up into a stompingly danceable live highlight, demonstrating that they had almost as much in common with Trouble Funk as they did with Genesis. Conversely, You’ll Never Go To Heaven is one of the 1980s’ great lost lighters-aloft anthems. A heart-wringing Catholic-guilt ballad (capped with Philip Glass pulse-synths and angel choirs), it features a desperate, spiralling outro solo from Dunnery that sounds like Allan Holdsworth giving vent to a primal scream.



 
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Francis Dunnery’s come a long way from the nervous, bullish twenty-three-year-old he was when he recorded ‘The Big Lad’. Four years and two albums after its release, his restless nature (plus a much-confessed dip into a serious drink problem) split him away from his more stolid bandmates. While It Bites have gone on to have a belated second life without him, he’s spent the intervening time following a solo career demonstrating that he’s a rough diamond who decided that he prefers to stay a little rough.

At the time, the necessary polish and consistency required to play the pop game wasn’t right for him. It still isn’t, but he’s managed to turn it to his advantage. Now entirely independent, he follows his own particular muse, popping out records as and when it suits him, and building a relationship with his listeners which has the same mixture of generosity, conversationality and occasional cantankerousness as a genuine friendship. At fifty-six, Francis resembles that old lag with delightful hidden depths whom you might meet during stints on a building site: the one who retains his working-class saltiness, cracks wicked jokes and is still handy in a fist-fight, but likes to sit you down during lunchbreaks and talk about Jung, history and esoterica.

His records have run a similar lane-swapping gamut – the kind of tasteful fingerpicked adult pop which gives the genre a good name; acoustic meditations on life and wounds and healing; fanbase-bewildering dips into laptop R&B; reconstructive tributes to the gothic Cumbrian jazz-metal written by his late brother Barry, and so on. Psychology, astronomy, metaphysics, bite-backs and broad jokes litter his songs. Freed from the standard album-tour-album treadmill, a typical Dunnery gig is now a mixture of friendly encounter group and surreal pub talent night. As well as playing songs, he’ll be telling his audience stories, teasing them about prog cliches or dwarf porn, gleefully upending a performance with comedy and spontaneous competitions, or spicing things up with unexpected guest appearances from his capacious address book (could be a musical friend like Robert Plant, Theo Travis or Steve Hackett; could be an actual fucking pantomime horse…)

While they’ve kept much of the musicality, recent Francis reworkings of the ‘Big Lad’ songs (on his ‘Vampires‘ album) are a touch more sedate and patient – breezier, and partially shorn of their pyrotechnic plastic-synth fizz. In truth, while he’s still more than capable of wringing out the dazzling guitar flash and the singing, the years do make something of a difference: mostly because when set against later Dunnery work (with its accounts of mid-life bereavement, parenthood and the battles fought between a person’s ever-resistant roots and the idea of who they’re trying to be) ‘The Big Lad’ is a bit too callow and fizzy. It’ll always be a young man’s album – drunk on possibilities and grappling with the spirit of discovery while working out some of that immediate post-childhood angst; over-aware of its own muscles and energy; distractedly trying to jigsaw together a sense of history, background and its own place within it via song and allusion. Perhaps that’s part of the thinking behind retaining Francis’ onetime protégé Luke Machin (a former teen guitar prodigy-turned-twentysomething jazz/prog/metal ace) in a crack, hand-picked live band also including Tiger Moth Tales’ Peter Jones and Freak Kitchen drummer Björn Fryklund (plus fretless bassist Paul Brown, holding down the ever-underrated Dick Nolan role).

Regardless of this, even if ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ is two parts kiddie sherbet to one part brilliance – and even if you want to clobber it over the head as an example of undeniable ’80s excess – it still stands up. Looking back, it’s still recognisably Dunnery music, a handful of rough adolescent prisms through which his younger, fearful self blinks from underneath the dazzle. Catholic-rooted, disaster-prone but unstoppable; heartfelt and playful; naïve and wise; soft and noisy, driven and impulsive. The man Francis would become – the man he is now – is still waiting in those songs; waiting to be knocked into shape via further adventures, further bumps and arguments along the way. I bet that there are plenty of ’80s pop refugees who wish they’d written juvenilia like this: songs with heart, flash and legs.

Dates:

  • The Slade Rooms, 32-40 Broad Street, Wolverhampton, West Midlands, WV1 1HP, England, Friday 18th January 2019, 7. 00pm – information here, here and here
  • Manchester Academy, University Of Manchester Students’ Union, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PR, England, Saturday 19th January 2019, 7.00pm – information here, here and here
  • Bush Hall, 310 Uxbridge Road, Shepherds Bush, London, W12 7LJ, England, Sunday 20th January 2019, 7.00pm – information here, here and here

 

January 2019 – upcoming London gigs – Monelise, Laura Victoria, Paul Reynolds and Paul Go free in Peckham; Amy Balog at the Poetry Café; The Osiris Club, Kavus Torabi and ANTA in Camden (all 9th January)

4 Jan

Three for next Wednesday…

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Monelise + Laura Victoria + Paul Reynolds + Paul Go, 9th January 2019

A free gig down in Peckham showcases four independent songwriters, with recent Goldsmiths graduate Monelise at the head of the bill. Positioning herself in the dreamy, arty end of pop, she tosses leading comparisons and tells around like chiffon scarves – David Lynch, Kate Bush, her own synaesthesia – and the talk-up seems to be working so far, with her videos being played in Topshop and a Pledgemusic campaign working hard at getting her debut EP completed (and her live shows up and running across a Mediterranean living-room tour and an Edinburgh Fringe fixture). She’s clearly as much a visual artist as a musical one, with her final degree show at the Deptford Albany last December already featuring screens, visuals and drifting snatches of 1920s opera shellac as well as a four-piece band.

I admire the ambition and industry, even if I’m not yet sold on the output. The influences Monelise is citing have the ability to reach down into your deep dreams and jar you. In comparison, she herself still seems content to drift along on the surface of a dusk dream, sounding pretty and basking in moonlight. I can only go by what I’m seeing. It’s possible that Monelise’s keeping her cards close to her chest as regards what she’s put out so far, and perhaps the live show’s the only current way of appreciating her in full. Available evidence shows two versions of her – the managed one (who releases slick spiritual-couture videos and tracks which blend contemporary pop and trip hop into seamless, depthless musings), and the far more interesting and unpolished live Monelise (who strives and juggles simultaneous singing, keyboards and theremin, and who might be shakier and more erratic at the moment but who also offers possibilities of growing, learning and interacting which her hermetically-sealed recorded persona currently doesn’t).



 
There are no such abstractions or evasions in the music of Laura Victoria. A onetime scion of Tyneside youth folk ensemble FolkESTRA North, she belts out punchy songs of life and love drawing from English folk, acoustic pop and Americana, accompanying herself on cello and leading a three-piece band featuring drummer Josh Wolfsohn and fiddler/banjoist Jo Cooper. Now up to her third album, and having been a regular presence on folk scene gigs up and down the country for twelve years, she’s confident and fully formed: what you see is what you get. I see sunniness, vigour and empathy in equal measure. In addition, she runs folk singing classes at Morley College and IKLECTIK, and has done at least one sprightly, ramshackle Joan Jett cover, if anyone’s interested…



 
Paul Go is another transplanted Northumbrian folkie, although of a very different order and style to Laura. His only available song so far is soft, shy and sweet – a gentle, momentary folk-pop sketch with brush drums, donkey-ride fingerpicking and fiddle contrasting awkward human reclusiveness with the unconscious confident grace of animals. Of the other two tracks he’s released, one’s a skittish, part-broken guitar improvisation designed to make use of the acoustic space of Ealing’s Vestry Hall. The other shows an unexpected interest in Chinese music, featuring the slithering sigh of an erhu fiddle, chimes and a guest narrative in Mandarin. Hopefully some of these other sides of Paul will bleed through in the concert: soft suburban musing and amiability are fine, but extra dimensions are better.



 
That’s something which already holds true for Paul Reynolds. Sometimes part of triple-threat modern folk trio Vespers, he plays bass for his own projects and for various other people, but graduates to piano for his own solo songs and for spacious, introverted instrumental improvisations (sometimes artfully jarred by odd tunings and by interspersed sound effects and electronics). I’m guessing that the songs will take preeminence this time around. Evidence so far suggests that they’re in the classic vein of chamber-folk touched with elements of classical and chanson, and thrumming behind a patina of English reserve: a mixture of craft and of carefully harboured emotion. Paul’s also got a sideline in little sonic experimental dramas such as The Brading Experience, suggesting a quietly uncontainable musician and aural imagination behind the meticulous skill.

 
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All right – in advance of her spoken word/musical set at the Poetry Cafe, here’s Amy Balog‘s opening statement:

“The hungry vulture of feminism is circling in the grey sky above the dying Femme Fatale. She’s being tortured to death by girls who don’t understand her power, thinking it somehow makes them weaker. Her admirers are collecting her sweet, priceless blood in vintage crystal flasks, trying to preserve at least this one colour still left in a humourless and passionless world. But she’s still breathing, and it’s not too late to save her from a cruel demise…”

Amy Balog: 'The Dying Femme Fatale', 9th January 2019

I’m not sure quite what to make of Amy yet. She’s a Hungarian Londoner infused with Gothic prose and horror erotica; a refugee from science journalism who carried out a moonlight flit into the world of speculative fiction and dream psychology. Having reinvented herself as a novelist and poet, she’s now (at the age of twenty-seven) standing up in front of audiences to deliver a performance-poetry manifesto exploring “the nature of femininity and feminine power from a perspective critical of contemporary feminism… other themes include political correctness, identity politics, religion and mental illness.” As part of the process, she’s struck up an alliance with jazz-psych guitarist Carlos Ferrao, who brings a splintery musical soundscape to her recitations – hollowbody chugs, echoes and grumbles, deliquescing now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t riffs.


 
Heh. I’ve never much trusted anyone who scorns and decries “political correctness” and uses that ire as a rallying call. Having watched or suffered losses and setbacks related to mental illness, I’m suspicious of anything which politicises or potentially celebrates madness; and the fact remains that if you’re a woman arguing against feminism, you’re basically aiming an axe at your own ankles. That said, there’s more to Amy than flashy reactionary advertising or self-indulgent apologism. By her own admission, there’s plenty of Camille Paglia in her work, plenty of Jung, Nietzsche, Poe and the Comte du Lautréamont – the bloodwork of surrealism, expressionism, contrarian thought, like a kind of Goth take on Lydia Lunch.

Don’t expect measured, objective consideration here. Amy’s interested in transformative apocalypses, irrational dream quests and night journeys, the truth implicit in the fluid and contradictory power balance between artist and muse, or about the flip side of objectification. Her female narrators may be thwarted or humiliated or imperilled, but they’re also resistant and strangely bulletproof, with a core of self-will: heroic archetypes determined to establish their own concept of femaleness. Core to this is Amy’s own perception of beauty as a force in its own right – it threads through her words, and her Gothic redhead looks and sensual witchy Tori Amos presence are an integral part of her work; the vessel for the wine.

Perhaps it’s best to allow for the fact that feminism, by its very nature, is a broad church with room for multiple perspectives and considerations; that there are many pathways to female assertion and that none of them should be readily shouted down; and that Amy’s still in the early stages of her night journey. Despite her determined stance, at the moment there are more questions and challenges in place than answers. It may be interesting to see where she goes.



 
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The Osiris Club + Kavus Torabi + ANTA, 9th January 2019A heavier, more masculine psychedelia gets an airing up at the Black Heart, where record label Old Empire are putting on a night of darker and/or harder sounds, headed up by occult post-punk/progressive metal metallers The Osiris Club.

Originally formed with the intent of fusing horror film soundtracks with instrumental avant-metal, the OC has now swollen to a full-on song septet. The changes seem to be resulting in accessible, gloomily elegant tritone epics of tingling guitar and droning indie vocal; as if The House of Love had thrown their hands up in the air and confessed to having been fantasy comics fans all along (while various members of Fantômas grinned and egg them on in the background). That said, for epics such as A Winter’s Night On Sentinel Hill the Club pull out all of the Hawkwind oscillators and Van Der Graaf/Iron Maiden declamations, unveiling a Lovecraft-prog grandeur in full glorious/ghastly melodrama.



 
No such code-switching games for ANTA – described by Chaos Theory as the purveyors of “velvetine cosmic textures delivered as a hammer blow to the soul”, they open the show with their own enthusiastically convoluted, heavy-prog brain-tangling rock swing. Sandwiched in the middle is Kavus Torabi. Having recently exploded the Garage at the helm of his psychedelic prog octet Knifeworld, he returns to the sullen, trepidatious, post-nova ember-glow of his solo work; trawling through shimmering webs of harmonium, effected drones and knell-clangs of acoustic guitar, exploring a forbidding hinterland of vulnerability and permeable spirit-space.



 
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Dates:

Monelise + Laura Victoria + Paul Reynolds + Paul Go
Rye Wax, 133 Rye Lane, Peckham, London, SE15 4ST, England
Wednesday, 9 January 2019, 7.30pm
– information here

The Poetry Society presents:
Amy Balog: ‘The Dying Femme Fatale – An Evening of Poetry and Music’
The Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2H 9BX, England
Wednesday 9th January 2019, 7.00pm
– information here and here

Old Empire presents:
The Osiris Club + Kavus Torabi + Anta
The Black Heart, 2-3 Greenland Place, Camden Town, London, NW1 0AP, England
Wednesday 9th January 2019, 7.00pm
– information here, here and here
 

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

21 Jul

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

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

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

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

Gong, 2018

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

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



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



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

North Sea Radio Orchestra, 2nd June 2018

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



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



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

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



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

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



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



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



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

* * * * * * * *

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

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

July 2018 – upcoming rock gigs – A Sudden Burst of Colour, a-tota-so and Theo tear up The Facemelter (6th July); Heldon and Hirvikolari at Café Oto (14th July)

2 Jul

A quick boost for the heavy stuff at the Facemelter this week, and for an avant-rock return at Café Oto mid-month….

* * * * * * * *

The Facemelter: A Sudden Burst Of Colour + a-tota-so + Theo, 6th July 2018
“Hailing from Motherwell, Scotland, A Sudden Burst Of Colour captures fans of electronic, ambient, dance and rock music with their soundscapes and encapsulating songwriting. Their sound is bright, shimmering and generally uplifting. The instrumental quartet have four globally acclaimed EP releases under their belt, which is evidenced by features from ‘BBC Introducing’, ‘The Scotsman’, ‘Earmilk’ (USA), ‘Arctic Drones’ (Turkey), ‘Stereofox’ (Germany) and many more, so this is a good time to catch them before they break into the wider world. Their recent single ‘I Am The Storm’ was premiered on Daniel P. Carter’s BBC Radio 1 Rock Show and they’re currently in pre-production for their forthcoming album, which is due for release at the end of the year.”


 
Replacing Bristolian mathrockers Hoggs Bison (who, like Barringtone recently, have come down with a bad case of broken wrist) are “noisy math/grunge band a-tota-so (formed by members of Alright the Captain and Cheap Jazz), who we’ve been dying to put on for ages! In their short one-and-a-half-year existence, they’ve already toured the UK and Europe, shared the stage with Tera Melos, Tangled Hair, Alpha Male Tea Party, Chiyoda Ku, Memory of Elephants, VASA and many more, and played at ArcTanGent and StrangeForms Festival. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, the band recently recorded their debut album at Nice Weather For Airstrikes and Snug Recording Co. and are set to release it in September 2018.



 
“To open, there’s a rare appearance from soloist Theo (described as “an extraordinary maelstrom of soundscapes, loops, beats and power” by ‘Louder Than War), who creates layers of tight guitar melodies and riffs by looping them over and over again, before sitting down at his drum kit and smashing out some fantastic rhythms to them. The range of dynamics and changes he achieves, as well as his ability to make the entire piece a coherent tune from start to finish, is astonishing. We’ve seen him perform around the country, including at ArcTanGent and at our late night Facemelter with Poly-Math and EVILLOOKINGBIRD, so we’re glad to see him make a return.”


 
Chaos Theory Music Promotions presents:
The Facemelter: A Sudden Burst of Colour + a-tota-so + Theo
The Black Heart, 2-3 Greenland Place, Camden Town, London, NW1 0AP, England
Friday 6th July 2018, 7.30pm
– information here and here

* * * * * * * *

Heldon + Hirvikolari, 14th July 2018

The upcoming Heldon and Hirvikolari gig at Café Oto appears to be happily selling itself without my input, partially thanks to Heldon mainstay Richard Pinhas‘ reputation as “the French Robert Fripp”. If that’s a fair comparison (and Richard has readily acknowledged that “Fripp has always been my Hendrix”), he might not have King Crimson’s ability to fill larger theatres but he does seem to have a far less compromised reputation in avant-garde hubs like Oto – for one thing, you wouldn’t generally find Robert Fripp going head-to-head with members of The Boredoms. A former junior philosophy professor, he jumped the academic ship in 1974, inspired by his own comparisons between philosophers and rock stars (and by his own taste for science fiction) to form an electronic rock band with a trans-sonic bent. This was Heldon, one of the very first French bands to use synthesizers, and one which would subsequently fall under the spell of King Crimson, Fripp and Brian Eno and develop their own droning improvisatory rock forms.

While the band originally only lasted for the course of the 1970s, Heldon’s albums are currently being reissued by Bureau B: this year, an archive live album, ‘Live in Metz 77’, was released by Bam Balaam. All of which has prompted a return to live action by Richard under the Heldon name. This is their first London concert for literally decades: expect to see an excited anticipatory audience of prog/avant-rock fans of all ages.



 
Hirvikolari – modular synthesist Mike Bourne and processed-trumpet guy Sam Barton – are more often found being two-fifths of Teeth Of The Sea Last time round, I described them as follows: “while Teeth Of The Sea tend to play great stomping horror-slabs of musical architecture (a flying saucer spitting out rows and rows of heavily-armed tower blocks) Hirvikolari prefer to take the slow path and evolve themselves a great bolus of stewed electronic burble and resonating brass tracks. Ennio Morricone’s been cited as a comparison, as has the long tradition of counter-culture festival techno: both comparisons have some grounding.”

 
There’s about three handfuls-worth of tickets left: if you want to pluck them from the eager grip of Baba Yaga’s Hut, I’m sure they’d be all too willing to let you have your chance.

Baba Yaga’s Hut presents:
Heldon + Hirvikolari
Café Oto, 18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL, England
Saturday 14th July 2018, 8.00pm
– information here, here and here
 

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