Tag Archives: gemlike sparkle

REVIEW – Tony Harn: ‘Moving Moons’ album, 2001 (“beautiful liquid-gold guitar with its shoes kicked off”)

19 May

Tony Harn: 'Moving Moons'

Tony Harn: ‘Moving Moons’

Little has changed in Tony Harn’s approach, but the Warrington fusion-rock guitarist has never sounded happier. His lyrical, tightly-controlled hard-rock drive is still set off against tumbling, multi-faceted art-rock arpeggios, plus enquiring shapes and vocalised textures drawn in from the world of modern jazz guitar. But the lightness of touch on ‘Moving Moons’ – and its renewed breadth of expression – makes it his most assured work to date.

This third album seems to be about simply enjoying the flow. Its gently sparkling mood is that of a well-pleased man, leaning sensually into his work. As ever, Harn (playing or programming all the instruments) blends his music without cynicism or self-consciousness about his comfortable sound. The bright, guileless weave of cyclic minimalism, gleaming Factory Records economy and judiciously-employed jazz-prog flamboyance retains Harn in a small, well-kept territory of his own.

You can trace a Pat Metheny legacy in some of those friendly guitar percolations, and that of Vini Reilly in the glittering, spindly-but-intricate echo-box patterns. But the overdriven keens of his lead lines have the affable, comfy edge of a ’70s geezer rocker – good-natured, puppy-rough and serenely blissful. At root, ‘Headstart’ is a Satriani-style rocker, growling from the pit of its sulky, dirty wah-rhythm and attempting to swagger. Yet Harn focuses and soothes it, opening the music outwards and festooning it with reflective pointillistic arpeggios; finally leading it towards inclusiveness and away from posturing.

Compared to the pastoral English flavour of Harn’s previous album ‘Lifebox‘, ‘Moving Moons’ is built on a summery Mediterranean warmth – hot nights of brilliant stars, or energising washes of daylight and bright stucco walls. Although Harn sometimes lets his airy keyboards dominate (especially on the pocket-funk throb of Pulsecode, synth riffs chuckling like contented babies), the pervading sound of the album is acoustic, or near-acoustic. Despite of the squadron of stratospheric rock wails and the sheath of Andy Summers textural swells, what really informs Jackal is Spanish guitar, all tangy attack and tremolo. Anger And Empathy provides a dynamic demonstration of Harn’s experimental side – a slow-motion volcano-burst of bent whammy-bar swells, scrapes and tortured violin-bow noises, all fed through outer-space distortions and echoes. But this too flows forward into another Spanish-styled guitar progression, clean and sweet: and ‘Safe Again’ is full of perky acoustic strumming as Harn takes flight, deliciously chasing his own echo.

Although this strays closer to driving music for the Algarve than it does to Paco Peña, Harn invariably saves the day with his ear for tunes, his knack for beautifully refracted arrangements, or his mastery of unabashed constructive naivety. The marriage of technology and innocence – a rare quality in guitarists – is Harn’s ace card, and a surprisingly effective one.

Moving Moons itself is a fragrant nightscape – tootling synths kissing up to arpeggio guitar and the sound of floats bobbing in reflective water. Sweet meteor trails of guitar-wail arc across the air for a rendezvous with moving cross-rhythms; and more spare, sweet paths of feedback show up on the deliciously lazy study of Standing In The Doorway To Your World. Here, they play over the gently assured structures built up by Harn’s synths and organs, or ease breathlessly across a classical-minimal duo of Reilly-esque clean guitars. Lake Song has Harn orchestrating a duet of twinkling post-punk guitar and hooting ’70s overdrive, the drumbox teased by reggae-tinted bass beneath those double-stopped minimalist patterns.

Generally avoiding the temptation to rampage incessantly across his fretboard, Harn’s drawn instead towards finding and sitting on pretty patterns. Sometimes this gets dangerously close to cuteness – the breezy Bubbleburst, for example, like a chance meeting between Alphonso Johnson and Brian May in the kids’ end of the jazz-rock pool. User One (Moon Two) also lives in the bright-eyed zone, bouncing its swirly jangle of notes against the night sky, keeping them up and moving via its pumping, lightly-whipped funk bass-line.

As a counterweight, Harn addresses his jazz leanings more substantially in a couple of loose fusion ballads. Time For Answers merges swing rhythms, prog assertions and a Django Reinhardt gypsy wriggle, leading them all through to a celebratory duet of guitar and tootling synth. Sixlowdown aims at the jazz pocket through the gaps of another reggae-styled bassline: a bubbling, tripping sway like a mid-’80s Miles Davis ballad, emphasized by the growl of bluesy distortion Harn employs for terse comments from the sidelines, flexing a few John McLaughlin sensibilities.

‘Moving Moons’ sometimes seems a little becalmed within its coasting motions – a touch too happy in its light’n’easy beauty – but with such lovely scenery to glide through, it’s little wonder that Harn’s opting to cruise easily. Ultimately, this time he’s offering beautiful liquid-gold guitar with its shoes kicked off, and whether you choose to join him on the sundeck is your own affair. But he couldn’t be any more welcoming if he tried.

Tony Harn: ‘Moving Moons’
Tony Harn, THCD2 (no barcode)
CD-only album
Released: 2001

Buy it from:
Burning Shed.

Tony Harn online:
Facebook MySpace YouTube

REVIEW – The Monsoon Bassoon: ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’ album, 1999 (“gloriously twisted tunes with gritty, testifying zeal”)

24 Jul

The Monsoon Bassoon: 'I Dig Your Voodoo'

The Monsoon Bassoon: ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’

You could say that The Monsoon Bassoon are like three train-tracks converging on a single set of points. Going full-tilt on the first is a savage, grinning, tuneful thing from that edgy end of indie-rock that spawned Pixies or Shudder To Think – one eye a gimlet, the other a Catherine wheel. Riding the second, there’s a rigorous interlocking mechanism poised like a mantis: its lifeblood a nerve-pumping mix of math-rock mesh and prog rock verve. Careening along the third track is a thrashing shotgun wedding of baroque black metal and head-fuck psychedelia, steam spurting out of every joint. High speed. Impact imminent. This could be messy.

In fact, it ends up as something wonderful. Where there should’ve been mangled smoking fragments strewn across the neighbourhood, an ornate and brand-new beast is racing ahead. Gleaming gears whirling, showering fat sparks – taking on the stodgy, mulchy, rotted-down state of guitar rock and carving an intricate furrow through it, smashing exuberantly through fences en route. Ten tracks of delirious celebratory intricacies, and explosive rock detonations, ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’ rejoices unashamed in the sheer excitement of motion. If you could fix it so that a tropical rainstorm blasted through a double reed, you’d probably end up with this kind of melodious shrapnel.

The very thought of latterday psychedelic rock can prompt a checklist: druggy sonic syrup, honeybee harmonies, static songs, ad-infinitum wobbly jamming… Forget that. Instead, and for starters, imagine a roller-coasting XTC arguing their way down the corkscrew. Imagine Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci if they’d been shorn of their Brian Wilson fixation, off their heads on chaos theory and frantically shagging a stapling machine. In The Monsoon Bassoon two duelling slashing guitars, a fat-geared-but-light-footed rhythm section and three urchin-meets-starchild singers (Sarah Measures, Dan Chudley and Kavus Torabi) fractalise their songs into manic battling melodies. There are pop hooks aplenty, generally on the verge of turning into egg-whisks and grappling irons: there’s an alphabet soup of puzzling riffs, quirks and blissful deranged woodwind. If the band are clearly enthralled by their own avid craftmanship, they’re also firing up their gloriously twisted tunes with gritty, testifying zeal, running the shoe-leather off the soul-punk poseurs.

Even so, managing to bag an NME Single of the Week with each of their three singles so far must have been as vividly strange for the Bassooners as their songs are to everyone else. At a time when artier British tastemakers generally save their praise for musicians across the Atlantic – Flaming Lips and Pavement, Jim O’Rourke, Godspeed, Dave Pajo and his ever-unwinding adventures – left-field rockers over here are rarely given many sniffs of approval. While there are some exceptions, the Bassoon doesn’t fit the gaps in the sorter. They lack the 1960s classic-pop castellations of the aforementioned Gorky’s or Super Furry Animals; nor do they have the latter’s comfortable indie pounding and canny dilution of experimental juices: nor do they ever resort to those sullen, reductive punk-gang posturings with which Mogwai feel they need to justify their own rugged sound-paintings. Operating right off the critical and commercial radar, driven by a stubborn and guileless enthusiasm, the Monsoon Bassoon give off the impression of a band mounting an unexpected coup which is as much of a surprise to them as it is to everyone else.

That said, a shortage of ambition – or of sheer bloody cheek – is the last thing that this band need to worry about. With joyous, inspirational disregard for their own dignity, The Monsoon Bassoon blow the lid off the whole shebang in a well-overdue explosion – and the last that I heard, it was still heading skywards. When The King Of Evil kicks in at Mach 3 (with its interweaving jitterbug melodies and Sarah purring her foxy way along the switch-backing melody) and when it closes in a welter of rough’n’ready choral excitement, giant celebratory chords and the sound of Kavus and Dan’s guitars utterly losing it, screaming in delight… you can hear liberation. This is rock music flowering into shape without the usual restrictions on decreed shape, or on fashion manifesto; and it’s all the better for it, yelling “fuck you, get out of my way!” while in the same breath flashing a brilliant grin and adding “but you can come too.”

There are left-field forebears to spot, for sure. Beyond the Naked City reed-punk and the manic gearshifting, there’s a chainmail of intent and disciplined guitar patterns (equal parts Television and Henry Cow) while their zeal for distressed chords and textures would do Sonic Youth proud. Blue Junction – in which meticulous chamber-minimalism suddenly explodes into New Wave thrash – anchors them to Steve Reich, as does their ‘Magic Roundabout’ way with a circling riff. Sometimes the band resemble a younger, more hyperactive King Crimson (those revolving guitars, Sarah’s daredevil flutes and reeds, the way the music booms back and forth between celestial minimalism and bellowing, screaming blasts of red-hot air) yet they have more of a sense of sheer fun and active dynamism. The lunatic shadow of Cardiacs walks alongside them too – unsurprisingly, as it’s Tim Smith’s jaggedy production that’s trimming off any of the album’s residual cuteness, feathering the guitars with a swarming shiver, and turning the music into a multi-coloured paintbomb blowing up in a garage.

But The Monsoon Bassoon are very much their own people – sporting their irrepressible pop edge; spin-drying their surreal, prismatic lyrics into motion-blurs; bouncing melodies off a riot-ballet of pummelling rhythms. The band’s collective readiness to go from ragged pop coo to thrash to heavy prog to freak-noise – all at the flick of a wrist – ensures that nothing has time to go stale. They could be strafing and racing, relentlessly hammering a metallic riff to death until it haemorrhages rainbows, as they do on The Constrictor and Commando. Or (as on Soda Pop And Ash) they could be fattening a snakey wisp of wistful melody on those knotty guitars and skewering your attention through your third eye. Or – as on the fragmentary, wonder-struck Volcano – they could be sliding off the edge of the world, pupils dilated, as a lone glissando guitar scribbles hazy colour across the sky. Whichever way they go, a brainstorm of invention is guaranteed to hit you in the ears at just the right moment, spinning the music into a fascinating new course.

Wise Guy was the first of their singles to wear a bizarre groove in London indie-radio playlists and has lost none of its ability to set your head dancing. Six minutes of choppy pop (as if they’d collided the best bits of ‘Red’, ‘Fear Of Music’, Living In The Past and Paranoid Android to audaciously tuneful effect), it periodically explodes like axe-heads coming through hotel-room doors, twirls pirouettes, and leaps up to a trumpeting, triumphant, speaker-melting fanfare. Kavus, Dan and Sarah babble about uncut diamonds and flashbulbs and gravity gone bored; about digging (perhaps into trouble, probably into revelation), and about “three silver sixes” (which might be about dice, and might be about something more occult). Both wild and meticulous, the music races away into a game of pouncing, quick swap grooves and joshing body-slams. Through the flashes, the song’s actual meaning is more elusive, more felt than voiced; it flirts around you and threads its way into your instincts, dancing on giddy splinters as it does.

Yet in spite of the tangled, giddy innocence their enthusiasm suggests, there’s more to the Monsoon Bassoon than just adrenalin art or an agreeably scrambled psychedelic circus. As their leaf-storm of lyrics tumbles by, it leaves scratches of faith, fear, things seen from the corners of eyes and in the corners of souls. Flashes of purgatory, intimations of danger – “lovely tornado, / who is such a fucking laugh, / turns up on my turf… Like glass I may crack. / Unlike glass I’ll not be replaced.” The menace lurking in the places where a glittering chord can’t hurl illumination. It’s all of a piece with the band’s fizzing, open spirit of inquiry: it’s the other side of the receiver. Their journey offers fractured glimpses of disturbing places – a kaleidoscopic stream of raw life-jolts, bad comedowns, metaphysical jitters and naked feelings all fusing together.

It takes guts and risk to walk the Bassoon’s kind of wayward line, to let yourself be carried along in the impulses of creating this music’s headlong rush. Towards the end of the gloriously-titled Fuck You Fuck Your Telescope, there’s a panicked, repeating wail of “wake up teetering everyday.” On Blue Junction the music bursts from serenity into pulsing frenzy as soon as Kavus blurts “he was out of the country and down on his luck / when you came out laughing and I came unstuck.” Among the chopping riffs and lofting spirals of Best Of Badluck 97, Kavus is seething and licking wounds. “I broke my neck to kiss her / The year this mother went up to 11. / Saddle-sore and still there’s more… / No sword of iron ever struck such blows. / Such a swarm of death, self-centred I… / Inside I’m six foot deep.” Shortly afterwards, the whole group carols “and I can’t catch up, / and I can’t wake up, / and I won’t grow up, / and I can’t stand up” as if their collective backs are against the wall, and all that they can do is sing the threat away: a harmony of defiance.

The forbidding tones of In The Iceman’s Back Garden (slow, pagan, cathedralline), closes the album like a shower of luminous earth hitting a coffin lid. It’s the sort of epic you’d expect from a band stuck into their fourth album, grown-up, newly spiritual and eager to wrestle with the indifferent savagery of the universe. A world away from the vivacious peekaboo of Wise Guy, it’s no less impressive. If the former was a firework display, Iceman is the glow on the lip of a volcano, showing that The Monsoon Bassoon are just as effective when rooted to the planet and letting something dark and troubling seep through them to the surface. It starts off as dark embers, slowly fanned and building up to destroying flame: an enormous iron clang, then a foreboding clarinet, intoning over the top of a massive, bells-of-doom guitar lattice that’s enough to send most of the Goth bands of the world running home to mother. And this time there’s an almost religious terror in the vocals – a fierce song commemorating the end of something as it has been known, and tinged with fear as to what will happen next.

The voices and lyrics are murky, mysterious, entranced. Faces, dirt, hair, stars, cries and eyes creep out of the word-darkness – little clues. In one of the few clear moments, they’re keening “He won’t dare…” There are a few moments of tumbling vocals, slashing guitars and urgent reeds during which the whole thing seems to whirl: then the guitars flail and the clarinet screams as a fierce, beautiful, terrible light pours down from above. A final, desperately beautiful chant, then they beat our hearts to death with a riff the size of the sky before bursting into a stream of starry feedback that sweeps all before it. If the apocalypse is going to be this beautiful, roll on Doomsday.

Stubborn, ludicrous, gloriously eccentric; ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’ is all these things: but it’s also one of the bravest, most exciting British rock albums of its time… by a long twisty neck. Jumping the tracks with style and a vengeance.

The Monsoon Bassoon: ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’
Weird Neighbourhood Records, WNRS4 (5 024545 078428)
CD-only album
Released: 7th June 1999

Buy it from:
Best obtained second-hand. (Note, April 2013 – Believers Roast plan to reissue this along with the rest of the Monsoon Bassoon catalogue at some point in the next few years.)

The Monsoon Bassoon online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Last FM

REVIEW – What?!: ‘Schwaffelen’ single, 2013 (“it’s still not clear when they’re going to stop fencing and start carving”)

9 May
What?!: 'Schwaffelen'

What?!: ‘Schwaffelen’

All right, they suckered me. I thought that What?! were starting a gimmick tradition of rolling out cute singles named after foodstuffs. A natural suspicion – their debut single had the crowd-pleasing title of Tikka Masala. Actually, it turns out that “schwaffelen” is Dutch slang, and refers to a man repeatedly bouncing his semi-erect penis off assorted objects (ranging from someone else’s cheekbone to the side of the Taj Mahal). Handy phrase – consider me educated. I’ve been saved some embarrassment the next time I’m snacking in Amsterdam, but have been left with a delightful image of waffles-and-cream that I now need to bleach from my mind. Thanks for that.

What?! remain the kind of supple instrumental trio that gives slick a good name – guitar, bass guitar, drums and a thorough versing in everything out there which grooves. They also own a not-so-secret knowledge of plenty of things which don’t groove but which do lurk, puzzle over things and then jump out at you. But they’ve yet to really show their other teeth: those rougher, odder inspirations they claim to get from Zappa, Dub Trio and Mr Bungle. So far, they’ve been more about delicate sunlit jazzy chords and walks, clean deft swing, and plenty of space. You get the feeling that they could do anything with their material – as soon as they wanted to – and that they’re fencing with expectations. It’s just that it’s still not clear when they’re going to stop fencing and start carving.

As much as you might want them to get nastier, Schwaffelen doesn’t show What?! chucking away any of their finesse in favour of skronk or sludge. If they’re stepping towards a spikier direction, they’re starting subtle – taking some sour art-rock patterns and passing them back and forth through the smooth-jazz filter. As with Tikka Masala, there’s a hint of Take 5 in the gently precise stops and feints as a bossa nova is displaced and reshuffled into math-rock spikes. But the truth is that, in spite of the cock-bouncing title, What?! keep their all-things-to-all-men decorum throughout – even when hitting the distortion pedals.

If you’re hoping for some upheaval – something like the obsessive rhythmic knotting of Battles, say, or the disruptive slice-and-dice of Naked City – you’re in the wrong place. Schwaffelen’s flexing sections do include a flawless switch into driving rock as guitarist Niels Bakx starts blasting away and Agostino Collura’s nimble bass drops its funky slither and locks down into root-note pummeling. But this is more an exercise in clever distraction. Even as Raphael Lanthaler drums along at motorway-punk velocity, the whole band are keeping an eye on the little loping twists of the original rhythm: as it ghosts on underneath, they’ll lock seamlessly back into it whenever they choose. Even the texture phase (in which Niels seems to be channeling the sparse echo-spangled touch of Andy Summers) adds some extra breadth but no questioning depth or disruption.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter – whatever else they might or might not do, What?! remain supremely elegant puzzlers. But it still feels as if there’s much more to them. The Key Ness remix of Schwaffelen is barely half the length of the original, but during its stay it chops, rewinds and pans the original riffs around a gastric roller-coaster of sub-bass and boiling P-Funk synth. Along the way, it twirls past Alice Coltrane harp cascades, brief bursts of classical soul orchestras, wind-tossed shouts from hip-hop MCs and gutsy flowerings of Spanish guitar. It sounds more like what must go on in the trio’s heads – what they must listen to on iPods, gulp down from session to session, or coast by on the bus.

One last thing, going back to the original track… As it snaps to a halt and telescopes away, with a quick twist-and-growl, those push-pulling rhythms leave you in a state of expectation. There’s a moment of hover. Then there’s several messy, prolonged seconds of the most horrendous splurging musical spoff-noise you can imagine. Maybe it’s a surprise, a pancaked blast-beat hurled out by Raphael to be crushed flat in the mix. Whatever it is, it’s a Zappa-style kiss-off. Perhaps I’ve been unfair to What?!. They did finally deliver that dirty splatter.

What?!: ‘Schwaffelen’
What?! (self-released) (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 1st April 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

What?! online:
FacebookTwitter Bandcamp SoundcloudYouTube

CONCERT REVIEW – North Sea Radio Orchestra @ St Clement Eastcheap, Monument, London, 15th March 2003 (“a polished Victorian never-never land of intricate miniatures and toymaker’s details”)

15 Apr

Once you’ve found it (tucked away in the cramped, confusing whorls of buildings and alleyways near the Monument) the diminutive Christopher Wren church of St Clement Eastcheap is like an old-fashioned kid’s treasure-box, hidden in a chest-of-drawers. Small but perfectly-formed (and bearing the decorous marks of its mid-Victorian refurbishment), it perches pertly between two well-known architectural schools – “enchanting” and “cute”. Tidy pillars spring up hopefully at the sides of its nave. That creamy yellow tint in the immaculate plasterwork of the walls sets off the lovingly-worn mahogany of choir stalls, pews and the massive pulpit. It’s tiny enough for a smallish art-rock audience to squeeze into and feel cosy: and there’s a nursery-rhyme connection too, if you know your oranges and your lemons.

Really, the North Sea Radio Orchestra couldn’t have picked a more appropriate venue. For the music of this retrofitted, romantic-progressive chamber ensemble, St Clements fits like a glove. It shares those hints of modestly-mingled English eras of scaled-down splendour, the atmosphere of nostalgic time travel and aan affectionate polish of traditional heritage. Once you’re inside, both of them also tempt you to blissfully engulf yourself in a luxurious dream of old England – open fields, spinneys, bright stars, sunlight and green thoughts – while all around you the ruthlessness, frenetic urban pace and concrete encroachment looms and sprawls. This may all be an imaginary, selective stance. On a superficial level, you could also get suspicious of well-spoken contemporary white musicians in London warding off angst by cooking up a hand-crafted pre-industrial daydream. But this does the NSRO a disservice. You could accuse them of forcing their innocence – and maybe yours as well – but whatever else they’re doing here is done entirely without malice.

Twenty people settle onstage and get a grip on their violas, cellos, trombones, bass clarinets or whatever. Familiar London art-rock faces abound. Conductor-composer Craig Fortnam and the ensemble’s soprano singer Sharron Saddington used to bob up and down on the fringes of the Cardiacs scene, first in the psychedelic tea-party of William D. Drake’s short-lived Lake Of Puppies and then in the bumptiously charming folk-pronk of The Shrubbies. James Larcombe (Stars In Battledress’ elegantly-tailored smoothie of a keyboard player) is soberly fingering a chamber organ. His brother and bandmate Richard is boosting the numbers in the eight-strong choir, right next to the wild Persian afro of onetime Monsoon Bassoon-er (and current Cardiac) Kavus Torabi. Out in the audience, the aforementioned Mr Drake sits next to Tim Smith, his old friend and former boss in Cardiacs. Across from them, there are various Foes and Ursas and Sidi Bou Saids. There’s a sense of occasion. We get a beautifully designed arts-and-crafts-styled programme to take home. It’s a long way from Camden pub gigs.

This isn’t solely because of the surroundings. North Sea Radio Orchestra might carry their assorted historical splinters of psychedelic rock, folk, and even punk along with them, but they are unabashedly classical in intent. Even the twistiest and most abrasive of the art-rockers in the lineup are sporting the sober concentration of churchgoers, and Sharron has traded her former outfit of cosy specs and jumpers (though not her artlessly warm smile) for a modest diva gown. Craig, his back turned, conscientiously conducts the ensemble. When he sits aside to strum a little polite guitar, he has to crane his neck round anxiously, making sure that the music is still running smoothly.

He needn’t worry. Despite the shades of complex tonality which inform the NSRO’s compositions (Frank Zappa, Benjamin Britten and Tim Smith have all left their mark on Craig’s inspiration), the music flows readily. Sometimes it’s a simple organ drone as a base for Dan Hewson’s trombone expositions. At the other end of the measure, there’s the rollicking Occasional Tables: a dancing interplay between clarinets with a gloriously drunken, attention-switching Frank Zappa/Henry Cow approach. With its mediaeval echoes, and an additional infusion of the peculiar darkness of post-Morton Feldman Californian conservatoire music, it’s given an edge by the astringent, atonal vibraphone shiver (and by Craig’s strict, almost military turn on bongos).

Intriguing as these are, it’s the NSRO’s orchestration of poems which connect deepest with the audience. Mostly these are Tennyson settings (with a sprinkling of Thomas Hardy and other contemporaries) but even Daniel Dundas Maitland’s modern Sonnet looks back to ornate Victoriana. So does Craig’s music, swirling its Early Music and contemporary classical influences together to meet halfway in a polished Victorian never-never land of intricate miniatures and toymaker’s details. Sharron’s vocals – sometimes piping, sometimes emoting in keen, theatrical wails – make for exquisitely brittle sugar-sculpture shapes, while rivulets of strings and woodwind launch themselves from the melody.

The heavenly sway of Move Eastward Happy Earth sets Sharron’s winsome soprano against the lazy, streaming clarinet of Nick Hayes and against Ben Davies’ slow waltz of trimmed-down piano. The choir (with a hearty, clever enthusiasm that reminds me of nothing so much as Gentle Giant) leaps in for stepped, skipping choruses and glorious vocal resolutions. For The Flower, drifts of strings slip from the vocal line and weave busily like something out of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Onstage, everyone who isn’t smiling looks happily dazed, as if drunk on the sunny harmonies.

And so it continues, with parts of the NSRO dropping in and out to suit the music. For Thumb Piano, Craig trims it down to a revolving arpeggio of guitar harmonics in trio with the blues-tinged fluting of Hayes’ sweet’n’wild clarinet and Katja Mervola’s pizzicato viola. Harry Escott provides a cello improvisation, impressively-voiced chordal melodies sliding on top of a slithering bass drone. James Larcombe sketches out a collage of beady, kaleidoscopic chord progressions in his studious organ solo. The chorus, for their part, sing lustily in a London melting-pot of diverse accents. For the canon setting of Yeats’ He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven, the whole orchestra sings its way through Craig’s pop-folk melodies.

When the whole ensemble is running at full strength, St Clement brightens with music. Shelley’s Skylark, in particular, is profoundly ambitious – semi-connected cello lines swing like foghorns, thick Michael Byron-ish string parts disgorge dominant melodies, and the chorus is a rich blur of voices, pumping resolution into Hardy’s words. But best of all is a generous Fortnam orchestration of a piece by his former bandleader William D. Drake – a setting of William Johnson Cory’s Mimnermus In Church. With Richard Larcombe stepping out from the chorus to duet with Sharron, and the North Sea Radio Orchestra performing at its fullest stretch, the results are captivating. The voices of Sharron and Richard move around each other in dusty, reedy, yearning harmonies (he floating up to countertenor) while strings, piano, clarinets and brass open out like a delicate night-bloomer, fragrantly illustrating Cory’s salute to flawed and transient life in the face of a perfect yet chilly heaven. “All beauteous things for which we live by laws of time and space decay. / But O, the very reason why I clasp them is because they die.”

Yes, in pop culture terms it is music for an ivory tower, or for a detached oasis where you can secrete yourself away from the world. Only a mile or two to the west, I’m sure that electric guitars are roaring out rock, garage clubs are spinning off beats and bling, and someone’s delivering tonight’s definitive urban hymn. But emerging into the City of London – all higgledy-piggledy with glass skyscrapers, Renaissance guildhalls and mediaeval street names, a ragbag of congealed history in parallels – I couldn’t care less.

Like the best musicians, North Sea Radio Orchestra tap into timeless things (beauty, transient joys, the shift of seasons). But like the stubbornest, they also know the colours and shades of the times which they’ll want to employ, finding a way to make them mean something whenever and wherever they’re played. And though an antique church and a Victorian altar cloth made a beautiful frame tonight, this music – at its peak – would’ve sounded good even if the whole ensemble had been balanced atop a Docklands trash-heap.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

St Clement Eastcheap online:
Homepage

REVIEW – Liam Singer: ‘Stranger I Know’ single, 2013 (“sings in a tone of wonder – and of determination”)

26 Mar
Liam Singer: 'Stranger I Know'

Liam Singer: ‘Stranger I Know’

What a wonderful mind for composition Liam Singer has. Four albums into his career, he’s coming up with ever-more-detailed songs which only fit the pop label due to their presentation and singability. In all other respects, he’s a classical songwriter, building a song from cellar to roof, all parts in parallel: a detailed patterner with each idea serving the larger one.

A very small number of songwriters take the trouble to think like this. Brian Wilson and Prince, obviously. Jeff Lynne, Sufjan Stephens and Stephen Merritt, perhaps. Tim Smith, definitely – the interplay of vocal parts on Stranger I Know particularly recalls Smith’s pastoral work with Sea Nymphs or the more delicate moments on Cardiacs records as worked out with William D. Drake (another comparison that can be thrown into the circle). At work in his current hideaway in Queens, Liam Singer belongs to this world of the total song-composers: the ones for whom genre barriers are predominantly bubbles of resistance, and for whom form and content are inseparable.

Stranger I Know sounds like many things. Its links to American minimalism are clear in its collection of elegant cycles (from oompah bass to arching cello; shakers and flute; a mathematical glockenspiel climb) as they move against each other, interplaying in uplifting counter-rhythms. Beyond that, Liam’s omnivorous musical diet is made clear in the breadth of arrangement and intonation, stretching from romantic piano to staccato gamelan pot-clunk. Each instrument comes sheathed in its own immediate mood and pace, hanging onto its place in the dance by a skilful fingertip: just enough to snag a little tension and independence; just enough to flirt.

Shadowed and overflown (as ever) by the spectral caroling of soprano voices, Liam sings in a tone of wonder – and of determination. It’s all a little archaic: a spiritual love ballad with swaying time, an elusive subject and a courtly seriousness which ultimately fails to mask its fervour. “Stranger I know / thy face / from a dream. / All night I’ve yearned to hear that song. / – Once, it sang me.” There are hints of transformation and liberation here – “What was / before me / is now / behind me. / Strings fall / off of / a body,” – but devotion and freedom end up so closely wound together that there’s nothing between them. Liam finally stands set loose on the verge of… something. It’s unclear, it’s unsure, it could even be an end; but it’s welcomed, and while Liam’s left some things behind, he’s not alone. “Saw God’s / features – they / can keep ’em all. / There is no / voice to follow / now. / And as the / noise / takes over, you / just hold your / breath, I’ll hold / mine too.”

Stranger I Know is also a little exercise in time-travel, working a gentle auger down through several generations of American tune and peeping through the hole. Liam’s previous songs have been beautifully arranged, evoking a classical ambience. This one – balancing a subtle, minimal complexity with fleeting kisses at its reference points – ups the game. In its shifting and its overlaying, you can hear migration at work. A little dose of romantic Europe dapples a line of American mountains: the breathless chorus (its rhythm offset from the dreamy verse) steps in like an old-country village dance setting up against the pistons and presses of a little factory in the hills. Behind the tinkling delicacy, that bass drum which comes in for the bridge hint at a barn-dance stomp: Shaker Loops to hometown hoedown.

All of this activity is encapsulated within less than three minutes. In, out, open. A little wonder.

Liam Singer: ‘Stranger I Know’
Hidden Shoal Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 6th March 2013

Get it from:
Free download from Hidden Shoal Recordings or Bandcamp

Liam Singer online:
Homepage MySpace Bandcamp

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

19 Mar
What?!: 'Tikka Masala' single

What?!: ‘Tikka Masala’ single

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

What?! online:
FacebookTwitter Bandcamp SoundcloudYouTube

REVIEW – North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP, 2002 (“the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider”)

28 Feb

North Sea Radio Orchestra: 'North Sea Radio Orchestra' demo EP

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP

Though it isn’t a patch on their ornately gilded live performances, there’s still much on the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s debut recording to give you an idea of their fledgling fragility and freshness. Making strikingly pretty voyages into English chamber music, the NSRO are a vehicle for the Frank-Zappa-meets-Benjamin-Britten compositions of the former Shrubbies/Lake Of Puppies guitarist Craig Fortnam. They feature a cross section of classical musicians and serious moonlighters from latter-day London art-rock bands like Cardiacs and Stars In Battledress; and they mingle a palpable innocence of intent with a taste for engagingly convoluted melodic decoration. All this plus eminent Victorian poetry too. At this rate, Craig will wake up one day to find out that the National Trust has staked him out.

He could use some backup, to tell the truth. This time, budget constraints mean that the NSRO’s flexible little company of clarinets, piano, violin, organ, cello and harmonium (plus Craig’s own nylon-strung electric guitar) gets squeezed into a recording vessel too small to give them justice. It’s a measure of the music’s innate charm that it transcends these cramped conditions, aided in part by the loving assistance of head Cardiac Tim Smith at the console.

Music For Two Clarinets And Piano, in particular, strides out in delicious pulsating ripples as it evolves from a folky plainness to an increasingly brinksman-like disconnection. The clarinets hang off the frame of the music like stunt-riders, chuckling and babbling cheerfully at each other, held up by bubbling piano. The keyboard trio of Nest Of Tables also overcomes the plinking tones of the necessarily-synthesized vibraphone and harp to embark on a long, waltzing journey over a stack of tricky chords: leaning on the piano, the benevolent spectres of Tim Smith and Kerry Minnear nod approval in the background like a pair of proud godfathers. Organ Miniature No. 1 (written and delivered by SIB’s James Larcombe) manages to find a convincing meeting point for relaxed Messiaen, strict chapel and the better-groomed end of Zappa.

For many it’ll be the three Alfred Lord Tennyson settings which encapsulate the heart of the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s appeal. Featuring the soprano vocals of Sharron Saddington (Craig’s longtime musical and romantic partner), they’re as tart and sweet as freshly pressed apple juice. Somehow they manage to dress the poems up in artful, beautifully-arranged chamber flounces and frills without swamping them in too much chintz. It’s a fine line, which the NSRO tread by matching Tennyson’s blend of mellifluous personal introspection and cosmological scenery with similarly perfumed and illuminated music. Soft but increasingly detailed puffs of chamber organ gently rock Sharron’s summertime lament on The Lintwhite, from where it’s cradled in its bed of harmonium. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Craig chooses to orchestrate The Flower (a fable of beauty, nurture and prejudice which conceals a sharp judgmental barb) with a muted brass arrangement reminiscent of another sharp musical fabulist, Kurt Weill.

The crowning glory is Move Eastward Happy Earth, where Sharron sings a hymnal wedding waltz over joyfully welling piano. Refusing to sing in either classical bel canto or pure pop, Sharron comes up with her own tones in a full sweep of approaches between urchin, candyfloss and diva: here, she carols in a kind of beautifully-mannered choirboy ecstasy. She’s backed up by an exuberant miniature chamber choir who sweep between yo-ho-ho-ing madrigal accompaniment and full-throated burst festive celebration via a set of boldly harmonised canons. It’s a little trek through the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider.

Perhaps that last idea is as fancifully romantic of me as is Tennyson’s own image of the spinning planet, racing him on towards his marriage day. Or perhaps underneath it all I’m being as phoney as John Major, last decade, waxing corny about a vintage Albion of cycling spinsters and cricket whites on the village green. Dreams of English innocence and cleanliness can end up trailing their roots through some pretty murky places unless you’re careful. Nonetheless, for three-and-a-half minutes North Sea Radio Orchestra could restore your faith in its well-meaningness – all without a trace of embarrassment, or recourse to snobbery. They earn their right to their genuine dreamy innocence, and (for all of their blatant nostalgia) to their sincerity too.

Shoebox recording or not, here’s a little piece of wood-panelled chamber magic for you.

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP
North Sea Radio Orchestra (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: 2002

Buy it from:
Best obtained second-hand.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

ATTN:Magazine

Not from concentrate.

Xposed Club

improvised/experimental/music

I Quite Like Gigs

Music Reviews, music thoughts and musical wonderings

Make Weird Music

Because 4 chords aren't enough

A jumped-up pantry boy

Same as it ever was

PROOF POSITIVE

A new semi-regular gig in London

We need no swords

Static and debris. Skronk and wail. This is music?

:::::::::::: Ekho :::::::::::: Women in Sonic Art

Celebrating the Work of Women within Sonic Art: an expanding archive promoting equality in the sonic field

Ned Raggett Ponders It All

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Headphone Commute

honest words on honest music

Yeah I Know It Sucks

an absurdist review blog

Pop Lifer

Waiting for the gift of sound and vision

Archived Music Press

Scans from the Melody Maker and N.M.E. circa 1987-1996

The Weirdest Band in the World

A lovingly curated compendium of the world's weirdest music

OLD SCHOOL RECORD REVIEW

Where You Are Always Wrong

Fragile or Possibly Extinct

Life Outside the Womb

a closer listen

A home for instrumental and experimental music.

Bird is the Worm

New Jazz: We Search. We Recommend. You Listen.

Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

eyesplinters

Just another WordPress.com site

FormerConformer

Striving for Difference

musicmusingsandsuch

The title says it all, I guess!

%d bloggers like this: