Tag Archives: glorious twitch

April 2016 – upcoming gigs – London rock entanglements this week: mystery superstar(s) sneak into Deptford, supported by Nøught, First and The Kill Raimi’s; Knifeworld go acoustic in Shoreditch; The Display Team, Thumpermonkey and A Formal Horse twist some metres in Bethnal Green.

18 Apr

The folk running the Birds’ Nest in deepest Deptford are wildly, inordinately excited about whom they’ve got to fill their postage-stamp-sized stage at the start of this week, but they won’t tell us who it is

Nøught + First + The Kill Raimi’s  + mystery guests, 19th April 2016Birds Nest TV presents:
(extra special guest band) + Nøught + First + The Kill Raimis
The Birds Nest, 32 Church Street, Deptford, London, SE8 4RZ, England
Tuesday 19th April 2016, 8.00pm
– free entry – more information

“A marvellous occasion is about to happen at the Birds Nest pub, Deptford. We cannot express the sheer excitement at being able to host a night of great local bands and international legends: music conceptualists that have inspired countless bands and still continue to inspire generations of new talent. This is the event we have been waiting for. Get down early to this one as once the venue is full we won’t be letting any more people in.”

We do know that Nøught are playing. After years of being mostly out of the picture while leader James Sedwards ran around playing with everyone bar his main band – including work with shapeshifting prog confounders Guapo, improv blaster Alex Ward, Country Teasers spin-off The Devil, and Thurston Moore (…hmmm?…) – Nøught plunged back into action earlier this year with a Café Oto headliner and a Lydia Lunch support slot, continuing to demonstrate their one-band-fits-all approach of wedding classically precise John McLaughlin/King Crimson-esque jazzprog riffage to blocks of Sonic Youth/Big Black/post-hardcore noise, and how it bridges a stylistic credibility gap which others founder at or don’t even dare to take on.

Filling out the bill are two Deptfordian power trios. First are a third-decade third crack at warm, crunchy Bolanesque grunge-pop by former Stony Sleep/Serafin singer-songwriter Ben Fox Smith (a.k.a. “Young Sawbones”), while The Kill Raimi’s last showed up in here as part of a Thumpermonkey support in December. First’s drummer Jim Devese also happens to play guitar for The Display Team, which ties nicely into events later in the week… read on…



 

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Knifeworld (acoustic set)
Flashback Records, 131 Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch, London, E2 7DG, England
Friday 22nd April 2016, 7.00pm
more information

Knifeworld: 'Bottled Out Of Eden'

Knifeworld: ‘Bottled Out Of Eden’

I hardly need to introduce Knifeworld these days. They’ve never been strangers to this blog (ever since their first releases, and further back if you’re counting coverage of head Knifer Kavus Torabi’s 1990s work as half of the mainspring of The Monsoon Bassoon), but an ever-building profile is beginning to make them, if not a household name, at least not the kind of name which you end up repeating to a succession of nonplussed faces. The world seems to be waking up to the cartwheels and streamers of their music, their meticulous complexity and at least some of the elusive substance lurking behind Kavus’ daffy freak-flag charm.

To celebrate this week’s release of ‘Bottled Out Of Eden’ – their third album proper, and the first to be group-composed – Knifeworld are playing a special acoustic gig at the Shoreditch branch of Flashback Records: perhaps a nod, in part, to Flashback’s role in nurturing that effusive London psychedelic rock tradition in which Knifeworld swim (and which they themselves have a strong role in promoting and sustaining). For plenty of bands, an acoustic session is an excuse to steal a little bit of Proms respectability – some string quartet garnishing, a dig at some previously scorned rootsiness. For Knifeworld, it’s simply a matter of bringing forward what’s integral to the group already. Effectively an electrified chamber octet transfixed by a flaming psychedelic spear, they’re already half-acoustic with their three-line, reeds’n-air whip of saxophones, clarinet and bassoon, with Ben Woolacott’s spacious airy drumming and with their chatty, ever-expanding cloud of harmony vocals. It’ll be interesting to see how full acoustica works on recent tracks like High Aflame, but I can already imagine how it might add a new glint to older songs like The Prime Of Our Decline…

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For the fleet-footed, there might be a chance to catch both the Knifeworld show and part of this next one, which is just in the next neighbourhood over on the same night. Knifeworld finish at 8pm, so the chances are high (as are the chances that you’ll be racing the band – fans themselves – along Bethnal Green Road and Squirries Street to get to the second gig).

The Display Team + Thumpermonkey + A Formal Horse, 22nd April 2016

Chaos Theory presents:
The Display Team + Thumpermonkey + A Formal Horse
The Sebright Arms, 33-35 Coate Street, Bethnal Green, London, E2 9AG, England, Friday 22nd April 2016, 7.30pm
more information

Over to the Chaos Theory publicity factory:

“A frenzied night of prog, punk, ska and rock madness, with bands hiding immense technical prowess under gloriously unhinged music,

Local heroes The Display Team are a band we’ve loved for years but found really hard to place on a lineup! Sounding like a cross between The Specials and Mr Bungle, this prog-punk orchestra create a heavy assault of surprisingly upbeat, melodic nonsense. They’ve impressed DIY audiences all over the UK and beyond with their riotous live shows and their last album ‘Drones’, so after seven years it’s high time for their latest sounds to be captured on another album – ‘Shifts’, which they’re launching this evening.


 

Thumpermonkey are a hugely-acclaimed band who’ve spent years arguing between themselves about whether to play prog, punk or art-rock, and never seem to have quite settled. This creative process somehow produces music that is heavy, delicate, classically and dramatically influenced, sardonic and divisive.


 

Nominated for a Progressive Music Award, A Formal Horse are a progressive quartet hailing from Southampton with a thoroughly uplifting rock sound, playing dense instrumental passages inspired by the sonic worlds created by Mahavishnu Orchestra and Queens Of The Stone Age, whilst still taking cues and colours from twentieth-century art music.”


 

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Next time, some latecoming news on various folk-related tours in England which kick off this week…
 

April 2016 – upcoming gigs – two for April 16th: the third Festival Ambient de Paris with Ujjaya, Asmorod and others; and roaring about in London with Godzilla Black plus cohorts.

15 Apr

Tomorrow – two cities, two gigs. In Paris, people will be filing into the mediaeval cellars, all serious and attentive, fascinated by texture and the warp and weft of sound. In London, it looks as if they’ll be torn between wanting to be handsome psychotic brutes in sharp suits or shabby, demented hermits in bird masks.

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3ieme Festival Ambient de Paris, 2016 3ieme Festival Ambient de Paris
Crypt du Martyrium de Saint-Denis, 11 rue Yvonne Le Tac, 75018 Paris, France
Saturday 16th April 2016, 4.00pm
– more information here and here

From the organisers…

”Crypt du Martyrium is the most mystic and secret of Paris crypts (the head of the first bishop Denis was found here in 300 AD, and it was also the birthplace of the Jesuit Society). For one night only, artists from Paris and its suburbs will enchant this unique historical place with the kind of music you will hardly hear anywhere else in France.

The festival welcomes :

Ujjaya – an French ethno-ambient veteran, deeply influenced by Robert Rich, Steve Roach, Jon Hassell and Jorge Reyes. With his new found interest in suspended gamelan (which he’ll be enchanting the crypt with tonight), Loren Nerell has become another point of reference for his ongoing work. (For more information, try one or both of his two free-to-download albums: ‘De Retour’ and ‘The Master of Crossroads’.)


 
Onde Poussière – an experimental duo specializing in hypnotic minimalism and controlled chaos, and featuring Doedelzak (synth) and Kecap Tuyul (table-top prepared guitar). Think an ambient version of Jim O’Rourke , Taku Sugimoto or even Autechre.


 
Patrick Wiklacz – also known as Prats – is influenced by Terry Riley, Klaus Schulze and Bernard Parmeggiani. He will unleash his own electronic universe on synth and MIDI controller – a mix of repetitive minimalism, ambient and electro-acoustic music.


 
Archetype – an heir to Oöphoi, Alio Die and Mathias Grassow (and performing on guitar, synth, voice and table harp)Archetype makes deep listening music and also plays some ethno-ambient music not unlike Dead Can Dance.


 
Asmorod – the founder of the Snowblood label, synth/keyboard player Asmorod is both very discreet and very influential in the dark ambient scene (he’s an acknowleged influence on Kammarheit’s ‘Hysope’ album).


 

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Godzilla Black + Bobbie Peru + Punching Swans + Mashiro
The Hope & Anchor, 207 Upper Street, Islington, London, N1 1RL, England
Saturday 16th April 2016, 7.00pm
more information

Godzilla Black + Bobbie Peru + Punching Swans + Mashiro, 16th April 2016Godzilla Black have been unsettling ears since 2006 with their own personal brand of depraved heaviness. This is the official launch party for their new album, ‘Press The Flesh’, which was released on 1st April through Quisling Records. ‘Press The Flesh’ is the most ‘normal’ Godzilla Black record to date, drawing on influences such as Cardiacs, Liars and The Jesus Lizard, underscored by feeling of sensuality in all the wrong places. ACCEPT NO IMITATIONS.”

I may have to revise that “James-Barry-in-a-sleetstorm” description with which I always saddle Godzilla Black. Listening through to ‘Press The Flesh’ reveals the band in all of their romping glory, sometimes sounding like gonzo-industrial hero Foetus hijacking a soul revue, sometimes like late Cardiacs channelling early Roxy. Glam-descends meet blaring beefhorns, with lyrics full of dark jokes and carnivorous, cannibalistic disassociation. They’re flowering into something sharky and vivid. Clips below for album opener ‘The Other Other White Meat’ and the first ‘Press The Flesh’ single, ‘First Class Flesh’ (note that there’s a theme developing here…)


In support are Bobbie Peru, whose music is heavily influenced by punk, post-punk, rockabilly and 60’s garage; and who offer “an abrasively grooving electric live show with a vibe somewhere between Sonic Youth, Nomeansno and Groop Dogdrill.” Currently recording their third full-length album in Manchester (and constantly playing live around the north-west of England), the band are something of a fixture in the world of indie and post-punk tours, having racked up road support slots with Black Francis, Buzzcocks, Spear Of Destiny, Killing Joke and The Fall since their own emergence in the mid-2000s.

Medway convulsers Punching Swans are self-described as “thrilling dischordance for fans of Future Of The Left and Fugazi”, although I can hear hints of The Residents lurking in their threshing pop-savvy upending of rituals, and when they’re not hammering alarmingly at a darker idea they’re out on the whoop chasing the spirit of ‘Song 2’. It’s the cryptic strangeness that makes them special, though – they’ve recently brought out a concept album about “a man cast out from society and taking on the habits and compulsions of a depraved bird, gone to seed,”, and are making the woodsbound videos to match. There’s a peek into this particular world below.

Oxford abstract mathcore metallists Masiro bring “heaviness, other-wordly atmosphere and headfuck grooves. Touching on Pelican, Isis and Battles. Don’t expect a singalong.” All right, then. Evidence of their jabbing attention-deficit methods is here:

 
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More shortly…
 

May 2015 – 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

July 2014 – album reviews – Knifeworld’s ‘The Unravelling’ (“hurrying fearfully along the rim of a weakened dam”)

25 Jul
Knifeworld: 'The Unravelling'

Knifeworld: ‘The Unravelling’

You must have heard this one before. Alan Moore’s told a version, so has Groucho Marx. So have many others as the tale creeps down the years, gathering new clothes to wrap its bones in. Here’s another version.

One afternoon a doctor receives an unexpected patient – a middle-aged man, cheeks slack and jaw unshaven, creeping shyly into the consulting room where he sits, quivering, on the chair. His shoulders are hunched as if expecting a blow to fall. He wrings his battered hat in his hands and stammers that his world is imploding, that he feels that he cannot face a cruel present and uncertain future; that his body and mind are suffering and he doesn’t think that he can go on. The doctor is tempted to say “cheer up, it may never happen,” but restrains himself. It’s not purely out of professionalism – there’s something in his visitor’s muddy eyes that suggests that such flippancy would be more than cruel. Then the doctor has an idea. He puts on his most comforting, most reasonable voice. “What you need, my friend, is laughter. Here, I know the very thing for you. The great clown Grock is playing in town tonight – go and buy a ticket. He will make you forget your worries and your terrors.” The man says nothing for a moment, then, as he rises to leave, his eyes fill with terrible wounded tears. “But Doctor,” he stammers. “I am Grock…”

Chewing over this old chestnut has put me in mind of Knifeworld’s leader Kavus Torabi – a musician who’s spent years stuck fast in the guts of cult appeal but who’s suddenly starting to look a little ubiquitous. Steps upward via bigger cult bands (to Gong via Cardiacs and Mediaeval Babes) have helped him here. So, too, have his vigorous radio-show hostings and his eccentric, affectionate charm, belatedly recognised by a horde of magazines and webzines. So too, the frequency with which his lanky frame, explosive hairdo and glowing enthusiasm rock up at and around London gigs. By now, he’s well on his way to becoming a public personality – a vivacious, goofy, black-dandelion star with an infectious grin and throaty chuckle, whose career (to a new fan) would seem to have burst upwards in a series of random turns and innocent accidents.

The flipside of this is that he’s become something of a beloved clown, and it could have sunk him. Flying in the face of anxious rock pomposity and its accelerated quest for significance, Kavus openly refers to his work as “funny-music”. For two decades, on-and-off, he’s been releasing swarms of supercharged tatterdemalion art-rock songs (in which Canterbury whim grapples with Chicago nerve while spinning cogs of power-pop, psychedelia, prog and folk joust with reed-crammed avant-garde blares and slamming flashes of heavy metal) and ices this wild cake with baroque psychedelic imagery turned into a daffy, tongue-in-cheek juggling act. Upfront and loveable, Kavus will always bring accessibility and charm to the musical tumult behind him; but his oddball image has sometimes resisted and obscured deeper engagement. There’s a risk that his growing audience won’t grow with him; that when they listen to the ornate, shaggy-lantern rock of Knifeworld’s 2009 debut album ‘Buried Alone…‘ they might hear only its knotty playfulness, its busy collisions. While revelling in Knifeworld’s bird-flipping refusals to be either meat-and-potatoes rock or polished narcissistic artfulness, they’ll miss the emotive depths which wind beneath the band’s fairground-dazzle surface. Instead, they’ll be demanding constant cheery Kavus looning while they augur their own vague Phineas Freakears rebellions from the flyaway whorls in his barnet.

All in all, ‘The Unravelling’ – with its crucial shift in tone and weight – has arrived right on time. Kavus’ funny-music mask needs to crack. His entertainer face needs to blanch a little. He can’t remain the cute bastard child of Daevid Allen and Tom Baker forever.

That said, there’s little to suggest that Knifeworld’s second album is a calculated attempt at growing up, or at brushing away frivolity. Neither is it a “poor-me” album of mid-life crises or bleats about B-list fame. (Nor, in case you were worrying, are there any arch, camped-up traces of sad clown.) Instead, ‘The Unravelling’ seems to have formed out of sheer necessity. Its aches, fears and stalking black dogs have been cast out into the open by compulsive honesty and irresistible pressure. While undercurrents of darkness have snaked through the band’s colourful fantasias before, they’ve always been couched in fragmented word-games and arcane disguises – late-night fears sprouted a psychedelic froth of in-jokes, and tales of betrayal and shortfalls would spread and mutate into Ancient Mariner epics. Kavus was constantly hedging his bets; hanging little baubles of angst and honesty in his jagged, branching tunes like Christmas decorations. No more. Finally, he’s stopped the tease, stopped the sleight-of-hand and the fucking fan-dance.

What he’s revealing now is engaging, intimate and entirely human. At times, it’s heartbreaking. “My friends call out to me, / but I’m not home too many times,” he confides, on the very first song, swelling to a sudden pitch of raw hurt. “So some escaped or reproduced and some just fell apart. / Why? / Why did you grow those teeth in your heart?” At its roots, ‘The Unravelling’ is about love and vulnerability. It’s about feeling naked and thin-skinned at the mercy of dreadful forces of fate and irrationality, of memory and error. In its most reflective moments, it’s about the painful process of accepting the wounds. “Every passing year,” laments Kavus. “I feel those icy fingers poking me.”

Perversely, he’s singing about this while fortified by his biggest, most accomplished band yet. The current Knifeworld lineup is a solid brass-and-reeds-bolstered eight-piece – capable of fierce King Crimson snarls, elastic Shudder To Think bounds, sidesteps into complex harmonic spaghetti (a la Henry Cow) and rapid shifts of time signature or dynamic, but also possessing the immediate poise of a finely-honed pop band. Where on spec they ought to sprawl, they’re actually dead on-point. That extra cannonade of saxophones and Emmett Elvin’s wandering, watchful keyboards are as tight as an old-school soul revue. Musically, they’re brimming with confidence and simmering power: just listen to them charge their way through Don’t Land On Me like a progged-up John Barry Orchestra, deliver a pummelling but light-footed jazz-metal barrage on The Orphanage, or spice a vocal or string arrangement with an ingenious Kate Bush twist. Often they stop just short of swagger.

Some Knifeworld tics and tropes remain the same. Still present and correct are the proud eclecticism and visceral drive beneath the ornamentation; the vocal interplay between Kavus’ rusty earnestness and Mel Woods’ cool matter-of-fact tones; the naval tang of shanty and sea-song that soaks deep into the band’s marrow along with the rock-in-opposition and bristling prog. Yet the sound, formerly wayward and freewheeling, has been squeezed and sharpened by Kavus’ new preoccupations. Just as the lyrics have been pared from puzzle to pith, the vaulting chambers of psychedelic echo have been reduced to a tighter space (as if Gong had suddenly fallen under Joy Division’s shadow) and the tuneful sprawl has narrowed down to sinews and bones. Despite all of Knifeworld’s brassy collective strength, a miasma of unease hazes their horizon. It’s as if the whole octet – amps, guitars, horns, bassoon and all – are hurrying fearfully along the rim of a weakened dam. As if they’ve never felt so fragile, so ungainly and as likely to stumble… and it’s a long, long way down.

This is hardly surprising. In song terms, everything that Kavus has previously lived with but toyed with or danced around has finally reared up and shaken off the frills and protection. By his own account, ‘The Unravelling’ was inspired by ripples of pain in and around his own life and his tight-knit friendships in the last few years – solid bonds dissolving, unexpected savage blows from out of the darkness, free spirits tumbling into madness while the chickens come home to roost as vultures. Unsettling noises lope alongside several tunes – scrapes, friction-screeches or skeletal rattles; watch-ticks, muted footfalls and knocks – like eerie fellow travellers or frightened ghosts haunting dingy rooms, huddled in corners or stumbling, stricken; trying to stay unnoticed; afraid to live. Ominous bad-trip lyrics and phrases creep from song to song as eyes are shuttered, blocked off or sprout hideously from bare skulls; as hands hold secrets to be fumbled, dropped or cherished.

All of the trauma may or may not have settled to echoes now, but the music is still caught in the teeth of the drama. The Orphanage’s quick-flail riffing (packed with panicky staircases of crowded saxophone) frames a brief and bitter lyric of introverted desperation and disgusted intimacy, primed to implode, while the grand album opener I Can Teach You How To Lose A Fight bellies with muscular, operatic disquiet. Esther Dee’s guesting soprano dips and soars – a Valkyrie figurehead – while Knifeworld arc through star-peppered space and oncoming storms like the Flying Dutchman, and Mel delivers a portrait-in-flashes of a relationship wrenched off course by suspicions, resentments and absences. (“You’ll sleep alone, / bet I don’t get the chance / to watch it every night I’m home. / That halo won’t have far to drop, / ‘til it becomes a noose, /and I’m not gonna break you loose, no. / So steep inside my room, / when I’m not there, / too many times. / A witch-hunt for a bed, / uncover all my plan.”) In choral passion, and over explosive minefield rhythms, the band beat their hearts against the swelling poison – “every fight you lose, that breaks over us. / All the fights that you lost from the start, / unravelled something inside of you. / Every tooth you grew, that bites into us.” Even in Don’t Land On Me’s prog-Bolan/James Bond swagger (which bursts from thunder into light via great cruising stretches of acoustic guitar, dreamy verses and flashes of gospel ecstacy), Kavus unpacks bald moments of emotion. Confession, guilt and disconnection intertwine with his lysergic reveries of dream cities, withering stars, and the jolt of awakening. “Inside your dying sun, and you never caught me out. / Inside you’re dying, son. / Broken, unfound, there is only one thing I find – / we ran aground when I wouldn’t make up my mind.”

Back when he was a fresh-eyed twentysomething – wrangling guitars in The Monsoon Bassoon, and hatching ideas that would blossom again in Knifeworld – Kavus wrote a song called The Best Of Badluck 97. Wrapped in cryptic legends of iron swords and bitten hands, It covered a particular annus horribilis that sprawled and stank across the lives of him and his friends: band splits, broken romances, fallings-outs and other youthful horrors. Sixteen years on, history repeats with a fearful weight. In ‘The Unravelling’s eerie centrepiece (a haunted jig of snake-slide bass and revolving Rhodes piano) Kavus cites it directly – and with bitter rueful nostalgia – while nightmares of ruination and frightened statues take hold and things claw their way out of the garden. “That cursed year that caused the great divide. / …when we all regrouped it felt so different then, / like something had been lost, something had died. / Chemicals, craziness and confusion, / betrayals in between another’s thighs. / But I’d trade all I have to be right back there now, / ‘cos the skulls we buried have regrown their eyes.”

As a counterpart, Knifeworld deliver a bittersweet tribute to survival and thwarted hopes on Destroy The World We Love. “Oh well, it always ends up underground, then. / The best minds and all of that were going down,” sings Kavus. “The years that passed between, / unravelled all our dreams.” As the band thread and weave an intricate psychedelic cobweb (majestic crabbed guitar lines, Steve Reich wind cycles and delicate glock’n’Rhodes chimes) he muses over what’s been lost and what’s been salvaged: “I kind of miss all the madness, / I kind of miss the way we were, but, / for all the loss and the sadness, / me and you we made it through, / me and you we made it. / So we can never replace it, / and it’ll never come again, but / we got so close I could taste it.”

One particular story looms high above this knot of sorry tales – that of fallen Cardiacs leader Tim Smith, Kavus’ friend, onetime boss and profound inspiration. Although the man was shattered and silenced by a set of devastating strokes six years ago, his musical presence haunts ‘The Unravelling’, from its singalongs and switchbacks to the complex contrary rigging of its songcraft. His painful absence inspires the album’s two most involving songs, in which Kavus’ mingled love and grief burst into plain view. (“In my dreams still, you’re just like you were, you’re just fine. / In my waking, you are never out of my mind.”)

Travelling from exultation to dismay, and showcasing Knifeworld in all of their delicious tunefulness and irritation, Send Him Seaworthy is a coded parable of Tim Smith’s fall. Chloe Herington’s bassoon (increasingly, Knifeworld’s hotline to avant-garde classical rigour) lofts in stern spiny hogbacks above welters of nautical metaphor, as a jaunty sea-song is stretched and corrugated into proud crenellations, surging somewhere between the Sloop John B and Henry Cow. As the band defiantly fly their Cardiacs flag (“most set sail in the usual way, / and always stand to reason, / never set themselves ablaze. / Our proud galleon that sails today, /just dwarves the other vessels, / cuts through the waves,”) Kavus pursues his melody into every cranny and corner, as if hoping that he’ll find Tim tucked away in one of them, grinning and healed. “Enlisted men hit the waves again, / I can’t adjust the rudder – man overboard! / I never knew you’d capsize, my friend, /I said you were my brother, / I thought you’d be restored.” At the height of the drama, emotion capsizes the metaphor. Kavus drops all of the nautical play for an agonised real-life account of his own. “On the telephone at four AM, you said you wanted to stay. / It came as no surprise, ‘cos you were always that way. / I made up your bed and went back to mine. Yeah, I drifted but then, / when you never showed, how could I have known you’d never show up again?”

These same cold awakenings gnaw at This Empty Room Once Was Alive. A haunted, minimal hole-in-the-hull, this is a close cousin to Japan’s Ghosts: a stripped and eerie confessional in which a bass-less, drum-less, de-horned Kavus shivers outside the protection of his band. Only Emmett’s rippling dream-clock of Rhodes and Mel’s spectral harmony are there to keep him company against the night sounds and the early hours as he stares at the wall, “too terrified to sleep in case / the dreams in which you’re walking come, / that find me woken, staring at my pillow, / broken, spent, undone.” A background of ominous grinds and creaking scrapes suggest crumbling houses or rotting ship-hulks, or a slow, stranded disintegration of worth and significance. “When the curtain draws, / and buried all are we, / would this have made a difference? / And in the afterlife, / a gaudy purgatory,/ would we still remember?”

Then, with a strummed and beautiful sigh of cuatro strings, Kavus lets it all loose: a direct address to his broken friend, the words scraping against his teeth, full of profound sadness, sorrow and an acceptance of fear finally laid bare. “All I am is frightened / I’ll forget just what we had, / and all I am is scared / to cast what’s left of my mind back. / My dear friend, my sweet captain, / I can’t find the words to tell you, / just how deep the hole you left behind you when you fell became. /Around in circles limps this crippled horse that I’m still riding, / while old friends ring me up to ask me where have I been hiding?” At last he hits rock bottom… or, perhaps, ‘Rock Bottom’, as some of Robert Wyatt’s fluid account of transformative feeling is echoed here too, laving the sadness – that feeling of stun and shift; the sense of wonder, and of the human connection which redeems the disaster.

It’s that last which is going to save us, if anything will. Happy endings aren’t simply gifted to people: Kavus is sad enough and wise enough not to cheat and deny these bleak experiences he’s sung about (nor the marks they’ve scored onto people) by painting a smiley face over them. Instead, he leaves warmer points to glow inside the darker corners of these songs; bright crumbs of hope for us to gather up, those scraps that weren’t torn or whirled away. Destroy The World We Love patches some resolution and consolation into both its pealing Kavus guitar solo (which blends humility and dented heroism) and its warm, ghostly bind of a-capella – “Back in my room again, / I can’t remember when / you put to sleep my wars, /and turned my life to yours.”

To wrap up ‘The Unravelling’, I’m Hiding Behind My Eyes provides a bittersweet post-apocalyptic reverie. With cycling acoustic guitar and brittle piano flourishes, and a suppurating cosmic bleed as a backdrop, the song trudges away from the self-made wreckage as in brief, knotty breaks of guitar and horns, the band levers itself off the ground and puts itself back together. In soft and ashy tones, Kavus and Mel weigh up the losses, loyalties and shortfalls; accept them; then make a ragged plea for forgiveness, acceptance and something better. “Heavens fall, across the room, across the world, / After all we’ve lost… / If I fell into your arms, into your world, / could I dwell in your universe, / universe? / Even now I can’t begin to form the words, / to tell you how you’re my everything, / everything. / Worlds collapse, heavens fall, / and after all there’s really only us now.”

There’s no need to be a Grock (trapped in yourself, baling out hollow laughs to an audience that can’t really see you) nor a lost space cadet, out on your own and burned by your own dreams. In the end, ‘The Unravelling’ puts the remains of its battered faith behind compassion, and suggests that we can cede our own pain and finally surrender to our better natures simply by surrendering to each other, being ready to feel each other’s pain and being transformed by it. “Passing through this world of shadows, / I’m in love with you. / I’ll erase this world alive behind my eyes, / to spend my days in your universe.” That last word repeats and repeats to the fade, a hopeful mantra to the last.

Knifeworld: ‘The Unravelling’
Inside Out Music, 0506 858 (5052205068588)
CD/vinyl album
Released: 22nd July 2014

Get it from:

CD – from Knifeworld homepage store, Inside Out Shop, or Burning Shed.

Vinyl – Knifeworld homepage store, Inside Out Shop, or Burning Shed.

Knifeworld online:
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June 2014 – through the feed – Sufjan Stevens reissues ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ with various goodie options

26 Jun

Sufjan Stevens: 'Enjoy Your Rabbit'

Sufjan Stevens: ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’

Assuming that you’ve not heard about this yet (I still have the sneaking suspicion that the majority of my readers are ahead of me as regards news)…

…that prolific, poly-instrumental singer-songwriter/critical darling Sufjan Stevens is reissuing one of his earliest and oddest albums. Originally released by Asthmatic Kitty back in 2001, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ was reissued a couple of days ago (June 24th) on limited-edition deluxe vinyl and as a download.

On initial hearing, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ doesn’t sound much like the work with which Sufjan later made his name. Despite the man’s reputation for assured eclectism, it seems out-of-place and unexpected – very different from the concept albums in which he codified his life and thoughts into the hopes, dreams and terrains of American states; or from his baroque-ified folk-Americana (in which you were as likely to hear a cor anglais as a banjo or harmonium); or from his combining of original film and symphony music for ‘The BQE’; or even his battery of Christmas albums.

Recorded during Sufjan’s first stint in New York, it’s almost entirely electronic – a fizzing post-modern cut-up built from digital work station noises, samples and tweaks of live sounds (including stray guitars, organs, the brassy lather of Tom Eaton’s trumpet and prelingual vocals from Liz Janes and Sufjan himself). There’s a running theme via the Chinese zodiac and its twelve-year cycle, each year of which lends its name to a track (Year Of The Dragon, Year Of The Rat and so on), although Sufjan muddies the waters with two extra pieces – the title track and The Year Of Our Lord. (Given his professed Christianity, the latter is as likely to be sincere as it is to be a tongue-in-cheek gag: given the nature of the album, it’s probably both.)

Over to his label, Asthmatic Kitty, for a fuller explanation (as Asthmatic Kitty appears to have a staff of two, one of whom is Sufjan, you can be pretty sure that this is a definitive statement):

“Departing from the singer-songwriter format of his first Asthmatic Kitty album, ‘A Sun Came’, this collection of fourteen colourful instrumental compositions combines Sufjan’s noted gift for melody with electronic sounds to create an unusually playful and human – not to mention humane – electronic experience. First released in 2001 on CD, 2014 — the Year of the Horse — brings the original recording back as a double-LP set, the first disc clear and the other left to fortune. And no one can foresee who will receive one of two very special boxes of fortune cookies, containing fortunes penned especially for this occasion by Sufjan himself.

‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is the most underrated and overlooked album in Sufjan’s discography. It contains in capsule form what he would later unpack into more palatable music. There are flashes of ‘Michigan’ and ‘Illinois’ in Year Of Our Lord, Year Of The Ox and Year Of The Dog, and shadows of ‘Age Of Adz’ in the darkest moments of Year Of The Boar, Year Of The Snake or Year Of The Dragon. ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is a harbinger. A precursor. A wink in the eye before the slight. You should have listened in the first place. We’ll forgive you though, because when an album is only available in wasteful jewel-case CD, how cool can it be? Jewel-cases are so 1998. But now that it’s in multi-colored limited-edition gimmick-ridden vinyl, you have no excuse. ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’, which Sufjan wrote and recorded in the innocence of a pre-9/11 2001, is Sufjan’s best work because it is Sufjan at his least self-aware.

In an alternate reality, Sufjan never made ‘Michigan’ or ‘Seven Swans’ or ‘Illinois’; he kept making electronic freakout albums like ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ in obscurity, until perhaps he just gave up and stayed in graphic design and some pitying barely-afloat label re-released ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ and sold a few dozen copies to a few scattered part-time record store employees. But here we are in this reality, where ‘Michigan’ is slated for an energy drink commercial, ‘Illinois’ is a backdrop to a pensive montage in a kickstarted blockbuster movie, and ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is relegated to a drunken purchase at Amazon.com.

Here at Asthmatic Kitty, where we often ignore reality as it’s presented, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is one of our most played records. We find ourselves in the small company of ballet choreographers, quartets, and occasional internet reviewers, but there should be more of us. So, as if we were in that alternate universe where “Sufjan” is more likely the name of a ‘Game of Thrones’ character than an indie star, we hope you’ll give this record a chance now that it’s available as vinyl. It is just as genius as anything Sufjan has released since. Everything’s been downhill since.”

To my own cranky ears, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is a fascinating, skillful blip in Sufjan’s career – a rare chance to see his singular talent from a specific angle. It’s a little similar to your first encounter with Frank Zappa’s cascading Synclavier cut-ups if all you’d previously heard was his catalogue of hairy, horse-laugh rock cabaret numbers about groupie misdemeanours and middle-America caught napping and dribbling. Another comparison is Adrian Belew’s 1986 one-off ‘Desire Caught By The Tail‘ – a snarling, abstract career swerve from a musician who’d previously satisfied his avant-garde leaning by blowing spacey textures and barnyard/traffic sound effects through art-rock songs, but was now sitting down with a crude guitar synth (plus a jumble of pedals and assorted things to hit with a stick) in order to create uncompromising Picasso-Hendrix shapes at heavy-metal volume. Did someone say ‘Metal Machine Music’? Not quite, although there are moments of crushing noise on ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ which recall Lou Reed’s own Marmite effort.

One thing which can be said for certain is that ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is a breathtakingly playful record which nonetheless exhibits Sufjan’s extraordinary breadth of influences and compositional skills. If you listen closely, his subsequent ways of building a song are all already present and correct. Though they’re sheathed and blurred within the blip-glitching video-Pong noises, Tibetan bells and drunken brass band textures of Year Of The Monkey, they’re definitely there: it’s a song, voiced with all the oddness of a Charles Ives let loose on a sampler.

Speaking of Zappa, some prime bogus pomp shows up on Year Of The Snake and Year Of The Boar. Amongst the larking bass-harmonium reed drone and the razzing fizz of Sufjan’s electronics, some weighty blimpery waddles and patters. I could have sworn that Year Of The Boar even quotes ‘The Phantom Of The Opera’ at one point. Sufjan’s certainly not slow to drop in a ‘Mission Impossible’ quote on the album’s title track, which is otherwise the odd song out – an angular, dissonant line of Rock-In-Opposition guitar fuzz joined by a cavalcade of pushy racket and chiptune burble.

As for the Chinese component, it’s not clear whether this is a gimmick (like Sufjan’s subsequent tall tales of a “50 States” concept project) or another little metajoke which he’s balled up and sent sailing over our heads. Scattered sparingly across the record, Mannar Wong adds some genuine spoken Chinese. In and around certain pieces, trilled Chinese melodies bump up against European string quartet tunes or (as on Year of the Tiger) flute around cabaret vocalese and bells over thudding shadow-tones. But at least as much is drawn through and worked in from other sources: Sufjan’s first years in the thick of New York’s cosmopolitanism must have been a greedy feast for his ears. Steam-organ and No Wave whomp, carefully orchestrated, collide with early-Genesis prog flourishes. Sewer-pulsations meet Bontempi organs and sample-heavy vocal murmurs, folded into Latin pop melodies. Silvery Krautrock turns into dinky, glitch-mauled castle music on Year Of The Rat. For Year of the Sheep, Sufjan turns the music into a battle between pulp and celestial. Against the birth-of-the-world vocalise which he and Liz Janes knit together, animal sounds yawp and rampage – angry pregnant elephants, excited pterodactyls.

Rat

The thirteen-minute Year Of The Horse – the piece on which Sufjan could really have come unstuck – instead shows him in full control: sustaining and mutating schools of ideas at greater length, like a post-techno Mike Oldfield. Despite its mongrel elements and its sense of hazard sources, over the course of its journey (minimalist piano figure in trio with vibrating mechanical sounds and out-of-focus kettledrums; panpipe-riffles marshalling around industrial squashing-tones; a finale of glitched/phased/near-atonal signal twitches), it’s not so dissimilar to those carefully-structured stretches of ‘Tubular Bells’ or ‘Ommadawn’ back in the 1970s. Not that Sufjan would necessarily agree: his time at New York’s New School (which he was attending while he wrote this album) would have exposed him to any number of inspirations from chance heroes to masters of structure. What’s clear is that under the capering and restless sonics, great swathes of ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ display Sufjan’s bedrock talent and the solidity of his musical placings. It’s a cliché that a single work by one artist can hold as many ideas as another artist’s entire career, but this is one of those cases where the old saw is true. I’ve heard plenty of electrophonic records eking out a single concept or a sparse few, albeit successfully. ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ makes most of them sound like lazy sketches.

You should judge for yourselves, though – this wasn’t supposed to be a review. You can get your copy of the album from Asthmatic Kitty or Bandcamp (both fixed-price vinyl or download) or from Noisetrade (pay-what-you-like download-only). For the possibility of fortune cookies, I’m guessing that you should pester Asthmatic Kitty directly. If you want the additional option of ordering a vinyl twosome of ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ and Osso String Quartet’s ‘Run Rabbit Run’ as a thirty-dollar special offer… well, that’s another thing to talk to Asthmatic Kitty about.

Sufjan Stevens online:
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May 2014 – through the feed – a second Knifeworld album, and Cardiacs’ ‘Sing To God’ on vinyl

26 May

The second Knifeworld album, ‘The Unravelling’ is due out on 21st July on Inside Out Music. Featuring the full-on, brassed-up octet version of the band which made their debut on the Stabbing A Dead Horse tour and the ‘Don’t Land On Me‘ single, the album should bring Knifeworld’s intricate psychedelic pop splatter (with its rotating riffs, clambering harmonies and hyperactive ornamentation) to the bigger audience that it deserves. Three British live dates to support the album follow in September – more details here. (UPDATE, August 2014 – since writing this preview I’ve reviewed the album.)

Knifeworld: 'The Unravelling'

Knifeworld: ‘The Unravelling’

It sounds as if it’s been a tough journey to get the album in place. Knifeworld frontman and prime mover Kavus Torabi often comes across as an irrepressible freak puppydog, effervescent with a universal enthusiasm, but anyone who’s taken note of the title to Knifeworld’s debut ‘Buried Alone (Tales Of Crushing Defeat)’ and dipped deeper into the album (or read the ‘Misfit City’ review from a few years ago) will know that all of that fizz, Frith and apparent freakery mask thoughtfulness, vulnerability and a man who sometimes struggles to fit all of life’s fragments into place. ‘The Unravelling’ is inspired by a catalogue of what Kavus describes as “hopelessly grim, sad and heartbreaking events seemed to unfold all around me. Friends were diagnosed with incurable diseases, sectioned and imprisoned. Or worse. My once happy, enlightened, beautiful circle of radical, free-thinking freaks seemed to be collapsing and falling apart. I didn’t think the joy or craziness would come to an end. My previous experience of tragedy and bad luck seemed marginal in the light of what seemed to be occurring. Yet, somehow, in spite of it all everyone just gets through it.”

Kavus goes on to comment “I’d never channelled ‘real stuff’ so overtly into my music before. Although previously most of my lyrics had been autobiographical, I had always put in enough obfuscation and ambiguity to render them a little more abstract. I suppose I took a dim view of being so blatant, it felt a bit like crying in public.This time round the words seemed to write themselves and I felt loath to change them regardless of how uncomfortable they made me feel. I felt like it would be a disservice to what was happening and what I was trying to achieve. ‘The Unravelling’ has been, by a long way, the most difficult album I’ve yet made.”

If this makes the album sound as if it will be a dispiriting slog to listen to, don’t believe it. Take a look at the video for ‘Don’t Land On Me’, above; also note that Kavus promises an even greater commitment to the exhilarating, omnivorous rock music approach which he brought to the previous Knifeworld releases and to his earlier work (in the 1990s) with The Monsoon Bassoon. As he puts it: “When music can be about everything, can be whatever glorious, fucked up, kaleidoscopic, fantastical, bizarre shape you want, can sound like anything you’re able to think up and bully people into playing; when it can steal from everywhere and still sound unique, can be mysterious, unexplainable; when it can sound like the subconsciousness left to run wild, like the sky has cracked open and the very cogs of the Universe have been revealed… why would anyone choose to make it about so little?” Amen to that.

Key to the grim events that inspired ‘The Unravelling’ mournful undertow was the 2008 felling (by heart attack and stroke) of Kavus’ friend, inspiration and onetime employer Tim Smith, the leader of Cardiacs. Much of Kavus’s impassioned rant about music’s potential could cite Tim’s work as a model, and over the years plenty has been written about Tim and Cardiacs in various versions of ‘Misfit City. Plenty more will be written – for the moment check out the review of the ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies‘ tribute album, in which a dazzling variety of musicians from all over the place poke around inside Tim’s back catalogue, reinvent it and illuminate it (all to raise funds for Tim’s ongoing rehabilitation – he survived his ordeal, but it will be a long road back).

Cardiacs: 'Sing To God'

Cardiacs: ‘Sing To God’

Also, if you’re a vinyl buyer, you could consider picking up the upcoming heavy vinyl reissue of Cardiacs’ ‘Sing To God’ album, out on July 14th. Originally released in 1995, it’s often been hailed as Cardiacs’ finest work. That’s up for debate. What’s not up for debate is the album’s joyous variety, its tremendous dynamic sweep, and its tooth-rattling tunefulness. If you want the ‘Mojo’ metaphor, ‘Sing To God’ is Cardiacs’ ‘White Album’ – a double effort, bursting with ideas and playfulness, with little sign of any anxiety that the group might burst their bag or lose their identity in broadening out as far as they could go. Songs could reference unusual heartbreaks, the trenches of the Somme, the world-views of dogs and children, football sirens, even being shat on by a bird. Across the album the music crash-zoomed into and over Beatles, Tallis, scissors, Faust, thrash-metal, Zappa, egg-beaters, Mellotronics, Gong even a kind of punk-Mahler guitarchestra while still remaining true to Cardiacs’ urchin-squawk, love of crashing noise and heaving, fractured pop-sense. (By all accounts, it was also much more fun to make than ‘The White Album’ was.)

The press release gets it right:

“Whatever superlatives previously applied to Cardiacs music: psychedelic, epic, strange, otherworldly, terrifying, magnificent, spectral, progressive, weird; were expanded into technicolour, re-imagined in four dimensions and attached to the tail of a rocket with the release of this magnum opus. ‘Sing To God’ was the realisation of everything that had been inside Tim Smith’s head since birth. And what a realisation. ‘Sing To God’ was devastating. Nearly 20 years since this CD was originally released it is time to realise this beauty on double gatefold heavy vinyl. And so it has been done.”

Go find out for yourself – the vinyl reissue should be available from here before too much longer. (UPDATE, August 2014 – the reissue is now into a second pressing.) For tasters, consider the three ‘Sing To God’ tracks below.

(Actually, one of the earliest and best-known reviews in the original ‘Misfit City’ covered this album. I’ve been meaning to post it back up for a while, but it probably needs some rewriting first. I suspect that the entire Cardiacs back catalogue warrants piece-by piece reviewing. Right, that’s now on the to-do list…)

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May 2014 – through the feed – Tim Bowness/Stars In Battledress pre-orders

9 May

News on two long-awaited second albums, both now available for pre-order.

(Brief rant first. Up until now ‘Misfit City’ has avoided reproducing or paraphrasing current news releases, apart from the odd crowdfunding mention. Too many music blogs are rolling shills, just throwing out links and one or two lines of PR blurb – fine if you only want a quick squirt of info, but I prefer to provide something to read and reflect on. Now I’m relaxing my stance: partly because release schedules are moving too fast for me to keep up with them properly, and also because ‘Misfit City’ readers probably appreciate the opportunity to pursue a few things on their own. Hence this first “through the feed” post, passing on and personalising info on promising upcoming releases or events which I’ve heard about. This will flesh out the City’s posting schedules and also allow me to indulge myself as pure enthusiast, minus the more sober and serious responsibilities that come with in-depth reviewing. Having unbent myself a little, I’ve found I’m enjoying it. Wheedling rant over. Now…)

Tim Bowness: 'Abandoned Dancehall Dreams'

Tim Bowness: ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’

On 23rd June, Tim Bowness releases ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ on Inside Out Music. I know I wasn’t alone in hoping for Tim to release a new no-man album this year, but thanks to bandmate Steven Wilson’s ongoing commitments to his own solo career, we get this as an alternative: a might-have-been no-man album reworked as a Bowness solo effort. The album features contributions from the no-man live band (including Darkroom‘s Mike Bearpark and Henry Fool‘s Stephen Bennett) plus a scatter of interesting guest players (King Crimson’s Pat Mastelotto, Porcupine Tree’s Colin Edwin, Anna Phoebe from Trans-Siberian Orchestra, composer/string arranger Andrew Keeling).

Those who’ll still miss the presence of Steven Wilson can console themselves by the fact that he’s done the album mix, but it’s always worth pointing out that no-man is an equal partnership for a very good reason – and that Tim’s work outside no-man during the band’s lengthy absences over the past decade has flowered into much broader areas and accomplishments. For ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’, expect plenty of violins, choirs, an edgy croon and some immediate art-rock songs which should effortlessly combine the wracked, the sleek and a very English blend of wryness and longing. One song, The Warm-Up Man Forever, was premiered as a highlight of the no-man tour back in 2012.

A download version comes later, but as regards the solid options the usual Burning Shed boutique format options apply for the pre-order. For turntable worshippers, there’s not only a vinyl version but also a very limited white vinyl edition, both of which come with a free CD version. For musical completists and sleeve-note fans, the double CD version comes with alternate/outtake versions plus remixes by Richard Barbieri, UXB and Grasscut, as well as a nice fat 16-page essay booklet (of the kind I used to write, once upon a time). Sweet. Some live dates follow in July, featuring members of the erstwhile Bowness band, the no-man live band, and Henry Fool (all of whom appear to have morphed together into an overlapping art-rock amoeba). Loop-guitar thresher Matt Stevens and silky Italian art-rockers Nosound appear as support at some dates.

Stars In Battledress: 'In Droplet Form'

Stars In Battledress: ‘In Droplet Form’

The week before that, on June 16th, sibling duo James and Richard Larcombe – a.k.a Stars In Battledress – release their own second album ‘In Droplet Form’ on Believers Roast. Their debut album was one of 2003’s hidden, intricate gems – a marvellous multi-levelled faux-antique toybox of sepia-ed wit, sophisticated arrangements, sly poetry and clambering harmony. Fans of Neil Hannon, Robert Wyatt, Stephen Merritt and Cyril Tawney should all have had a field day with it, but for a variety of reasons, it remained hidden. (I’m sure that my own wretched inability to complete a review at the time didn’t help…)

Since then Stars In Battledress have only reappeared sporadically, although the brothers have kept busy both separately and together. Both have worked as ensemble members of North Sea Radio Orchestra and of William D. Drake & Friends: James has played keyboards in Arch Garrison and Zag & The Coloured Beads; Richard has kept himself busy with his Sparkysongs project for children, no less of a challenge than keeping cranky art-rock fans happy. Yet absolutely nothing else that the Larcombes do can top the particular magic they cook up when they’re together and completely in control of their own songs.

With an eleven year gap between albums, some of these songs have been around for quite a while. The romping wit of Hollywood Says So, the rambling melodic spikes of Fluent English (an oblique essay on rebellion, Empire, personal misplacement and embarrassment) and the haunting cadences of The Women From The Ministry – all of these were highlights of Battledress sets back in the early Noughties, so it’s lovely to finally have them arriving in recorded form. If you want some idea of what Stars In Battledress are like live, here’s a review of them at Roastfest in 2011. As a taster for the new album, here’s their video for the opening track A Winning Decree (directed by Ashley Jones of Chaos Engineers).

‘In Droplet Form’ is a CD-only release for now, and can be pre-ordered here, with a London album launch (also featuring Arch Garrison and Prescott) downstairs at the Roundhouse on April 13th.

Also in June, the Laura Moody debut album should be appearing. I’m really looking forward to that one too.

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

Stars In Battledress online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

A fabulous noise, suddenly cut off – R.I.P. Floky (1991-2013)

9 Dec

Late last week I heard that Florent “Floky” Pevee, the singer and guitarist with the post-hardcore punk band Kabul Golf Club (and bass player for The Rott Childs) has died. Damn. That jolts… He was 22 years old, a little over half my own age.

Floky - in his element. (photo source unknown)

Floky – in his element. (photo source unknown)

Floky died in the Flanders town of Hasselt, where he lived and where he studied and played music. According to this report he’d attended a party on the night of November 28th and was making his way home, on his own, during the dawn hours of November 29th. At some time between 5am and 6am, Floky was seen on the ring road, lying prone in the bus lane. It’s not clear whether he’d passed out while crossing the road, or whether he’d been knocked unconscious by an earlier collision with a vehicle. For a while, Floky’s battered luck held (two successive motorists managed to swerve around him) but at around 6am, his body was struck and crushed by a bus. He died on the spot shortly afterwards.

What a waste. What a terrible waste.

On Tuesday this week Floky was buried in Tongeren, his mother’s town. Mourned by his family and girlfriend, he’s also survived by the musicians who played with him and the habitues of Flanders punk scene who worked with him, loved him and screamed along with him, all of whom are thunderstruck at his loss. Kabul Golf Club have stated that the band died with him, and the surviving members have asked everyone who wrote about KGC (including myself) to post up the band’s Demon Days video as a tribute and farewell. Here it is – a blitzing Floky-fuelled chunk of energy, with the man himself at full yell.

There should be more to celebrating him than that… but I can’t provide the account which I’m sure Floky deserves. Nor can I claim the right to raise his memorial. My own contact with him was fleeting. We lived in different countries; we ran with different packs; we were separated by a generation. Truth be told, we never actually met or spoke. Everything that passed between us is contained in and reduced to the sound of one blindingly good Kabul Golf Club EP, which I reviewed last year. (If any of you wants a free copy of that, the band will send you one in memory of Floky while stocks last – just email them with your postal address.)

Isn’t that often the way, though? Much of the music that suddenly and unexpectedly inspires us comes from strangers, or leaks around doors. It used to ambush us in record stores (when those were still common). Now it sideswipes us on podcasts when we were listening out for something else; or arrives unexpectedly into our dropboxes with a cheery tag and a picture of elsewhere.

Although I do cover punk in ‘Misfit City’ sometimes, I can’t claim to be a natural punk fan. I like the impetus, I like the D.I.Y. aesthetic, I appreciate the politics, but I often find the music itself reductive; something I’m happier to read about than to experience. Floky’s work with KGC was different – a screaming, shattered honeycomb of roaring, gibbering guitars; a voice which stayed in that push-up, top-of-the-throat realm of hardcore bellowing but which had its own extra tones and colours (as I put it back then “a tinge of despairing vertigo… the horrified yell of a man falling off the sun.”) More to the point, the music woke me up again to the punch and promise brewing in punk rock: the qualities I’d always wanted to find and for which I was so often disappointed.

To this day, that Kabul Golf Club review is one of the most-read posts in ‘Misfit City’. I suspect that this is mostly to do with the regard in which Floky and KGC were held. They were starters; they were obscure; they had all the makings of something special. I wrote about them with guarded enthusiasm which had turned to genuine enthusiasm by the end of the review. I was looking forward to seeing what they’d come up with next. I’m surprised by how saddened I am that I’ll never get to hear it.

Much separates me from Floky and his life, but at least we’re linked by that brief spasm of electricity and enthusiasm. I’ve tried and failed to come up with anything really profound in this post, so instead, this week, I’ll pop an eardrum or two listening to his music. Here’s my own favourite burst of KGC – it’s Minus 45, a rattling pounce of vigour and dread and guitars which revel at being jammed through the mangle.

I just wanted to say that this is how, in my own small way, I’ll remember Floky. If we’ve got to let go of someone like him, let’s do it the right way – let’s call up his peak, let him crest it and let him fly. And any time when we want to set him flying again, we can pick up the disc, or cue the file, and the peak will still be there.

Kabul Golf Club online:
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REVIEW – Knifeworld: ‘Don’t Land On Me’ single & Kramies: ‘The Wooden Heart’ single, both 2013 (“dancing at the end-of-the-world party”)

2 Oct

Knifeworld: 'Don't Land On Me'

Knifeworld: ‘Don’t Land On Me’

So what’s it to be, then? Stubborn elbows or secret soft centre? For Knifeworld, as ever, it’s both and neither. Kavus Torabi runs on this kind of contradiction. It’s what enables (or maybe forces) him to roll out singles like this – the kind which always seem to promise him the attention he deserves but never quite get him enough. Generally his songs teeter like dazed cats trying to scramble over the fence dividing open fields of sunny pop from that intricately entangled tesseract-space of what Kavus calls “funny music” (and which the rest of us drain our adjective-and-hyphen stores over, vainly trying to pin down a workable term).

‘Don’t Land On Me’ finally kicks down the fence. In its swirl and pounces, in its tiny bluffs and blind corners, in each acoustic guitar rope-trick and each Halloween feint of Emmett Elvin’s keyboards, it brings in the usual juicy psychedelic Knifeworld kinks. I suspect that Kavus can’t look at a nice fresh acid blotter without seeing a potential origami crocodile in there, waiting to be made. Yet this time, for every formidable bit of bassoon-pretzeling that Kavus offers up to the memory of his beloved Henry Cow there are two shots of pop. For every bit of elastic Shudder To Think limbo-dancing, there’s a flash of Marc Bolan coltishly tossing his curls and foot-stomping with Led Zeppelin.

Having unexpectedly ballooned into an octet (with a three-line battery of reeds and saxophones), Knifeworld are starting to sound bizarrely like a 1970s soul revue, albeit one that’s lurching out of line. ‘Don’t Land On Me’ has gilded harmony stabs and sugar-wraps of acoustic guitar; it has gratuitous campy explosions; it has stirring gospel-mama “yeahhh!”s from Chantal Brown (bringing a Loa or two from Vōdūn). Most surprisingly, it seems to have gobbled up that swashbuckling vamp from Live And Let Die, hiccupped it out again and gotten away with it – regularly, the band throw their hip intricacies to the wind and just romp up and down a ladder of soft-rock pizazz. Threaded through all of this sturdy bravado, though, is sadness and fear – a hollowing of the heart.

Half of the lyrics are Kavus’ usual ribbons of third-eye babble: tales of dying suns and mysterious cities of the mind, as much bragging as illumination. Yet all of a sudden he’ll turn out a belter: “In that treacherous slippery no-man’s land / between bolt-upright and dead-to-the-world in sleep, / I was dreaming that you were in my arms. / Dreams will only give promises they cannot keep.” Later on he’s hiding behind his own tune, chanting “falling down, unravelling”, and it’s up to his vocal foil Mel Woods to step up and deliver the drop – “Broken, unfound, there is only one thing I find – / we ran aground, and I wouldn’t make up my mind. / Hide it behind your hands, my eyes no longer see / Heavens above, stars explode, but don’t land on me.”

Kramies: 'The Wooden Heart'

Kramies: ‘The Wooden Heart’

As the band charge off into the vamp again, they sound as if they’re dancing at the end-of-the-world party in mirror-strewn top hats: I’m guessing that Kavus will be trying not to meet the gaze of any of his own reflections. Kramies Windt, meanwhile, will be standing several good paces away, waving goodbye to everything with full acceptance.

While Knifeworld fret about doom and ward it off with their showbiz, Kramies gets by on faith. Not for him Knifeworld’s tussle of John Barry and John Adams, nor their trick-cycling. With Todd Tobias keeping a gentle producer’s eye on things, ‘The Wooden Heart’ rolls along on that familiar drowsy acoustic-guitar trudge that’s served forty years of green-tinted psychedelia from Camel to Mercury Rev to Porcupine Tree. A spectral moonlit fungus of vaporous keyboards grow on and around everything: a high-altitude electric wash of sparks, smoothness and textural drag spreads out at telescope height, snowploughing the Milky Way. As for the song, it’s less involved and intricate than much of the material which Kramies has sung up for us since his 2008 emergence. A dream-pop caroller with a lucid organic twist to his songs, he once came across as a mellower Paddy McAloon with a hint of pixie. Now he’s closer to visionary Neil Young territory, the point where American folk-song blurs without a jolt into slumbering subconscious. He’s singing softly and with understanding beyond his sleepy burr, like a wise newborn already dusted from the road.

This is a love song, of a different kind. Kramies is pulling up memories: treasuring them, but also acknowledging how memory and memorabilia gently cheat and distort the truths which they’re set up to hold onto – “Forged from the photograph when the tides they rode you down; / smudged from the perfect lens, so I brought you back to ground.” Despite the dreamy, distant atmospheres Kramies isn’t dwelling on someone gone. He’s celebrating someone never lost, someone coming into clearer focus as present merges with memory: “We fell in love with wind, sun and movies, / no need to stay. / Countdowns and journeys, conversations, fell through our day.”

In the middle, the song holds its breath for half a moment, then rises into a blissful dream-pop threshing; a massed quilt of hammering Slowdive-ian guitars joyfully plunging down onto each beat. “Spill out the haven, throw my maths chart away, ‘cos you’re the one,” Kramies sings, in an exultant sigh. “Throw my maps, a castaway.” It’s rare to find dream-pop that resolves with such assured optimism, in which you can sense experience shifting into its proper place. While Kavus and Knifeworld constantly quest for resolution – and spin some dazzling pirouettes along the way – Kramies seems to have mastered the talent of simply breathing it into shape.

Knifeworld: ‘Don’t Land On Me’
Believer’s Roast (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 9th September 2013

Kramies: ‘The Wooden Heart’ single
Hidden Shoals Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 5th September 2013

Get them from:
Knifeworld: ‘Don’t Land On Me’ – Bandcamp
Kramies: ‘The Wooden Heart’ – Hidden Shoals online store

Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

Kramies online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

REVIEW – Kiran Leonard: ‘Dear Lincoln’ single, 2013 (“a joyride through the Day of the Dead”)

18 May

Kiran Leonard: 'Dear Lincoln'

Kiran Leonard: ‘Dear Lincoln’

Now here’s something.

Kiran Leonard’s already an established teenage wunderkind – a bedroom-industry frenzy act who’s rapidly gummed together a string of homemade albums and slung them out, via Soundcloud and Bandcamp, to a surprised and unsuspecting world. When he’s not doing that, he’s charging round his family’s Oldham house waving a caiman head, or shooting his own scratch videos on a budget of tuppence. He plays most of the instruments he needs, wrestling tunes out of pianos, drums and guitars; ukuleles, laptops, screwdrivers and radiators. While his music’s just about ramshackle -raw enough to avoid trouble with the indie-rock police, his ambitions and application have leaned closer to prog and to a grandiose psychedelia. In 2012, for instance, he cooked up a rambling, apocalyptic single about the Mayan doomsday prophecy. It topped out at around 24 minutes long and tied together the wilder bits of ‘Cloud Atlas’ and the paranoid, grinding Pink Floyd of 1977.

It’ll still be three years before Kiran turns twenty. I could wonder what he’s going to do when he grows up, but I almost hope that he doesn’t.

Dear Lincoln is something different for Kiran – much lighter and more immediate. Traveling backwards as he goes forwards, Kiran seems to have suddenly discovered pop in all of its concise hooks, blind momentum and smart throwaway logic. Actually, he’s rediscovered it – Dear Lincoln was written some time ago, while he was a ripe 14 – but now seems to be the perfect time to unveil it. Its a bust-out. It sounds like a joyride through the Day of the Dead. Kiran, hammering away at a tack piano and squawking like a glammed-up crow, drives the gauges into the red and embraces Bolan swagger, a swaying Robyn Hitchcock playfulness, some of the wild euphoria of Guillemots and even a needling tinge of Kevin Coyne. Earlier in 2013, there was the ‘Oakland Highball’ EP, which showed that he was getting interested in snappier, noisier forms. Dear Lincoln nails it. If we could work out what he was singing, it’d even be singalong.

What’s it about? God knows. The words are a babbling wodge of mondegreens-in-waiting about suit-crevices and moonlight, thrown out at us as Kiran carries out his lyrical handbrake turns. “Murderous plain,” he protests, in passing, but it certainly isn’t. Not unless he’s talking about death again. The song could be about gunned-down Presidents, it could just be about missing the family cat, but one thing Dear Lincoln does do is blur the lines between the living and the dead – a rollicking Halloween dance, or a resurrection day stomp. Even that long-croaked, ranting old herald of the Übermensch, Friedrich Nietzche, has a ghostly cameo; prowling the English parishes as a witness before succumbing to anxiety, melting away and vanishing. In the chopped froth of the lyrics, Kiran playfully juggles around ideas of resurrection, rousing, and where he’ll be standing when it all comes to pass; but constantly swats away any navel-gazing with onomatopoeic streams of Little Richard-isms. “Praying for the bodies to assemble and wake… / Come back today, bou-la-ray / oh, ta-hoo-lay.”

Don’t get the idea that this is all a casual throw-together. Anyone keeping half an eye on how Kiran thinks will know that he’s meticulous; that he worries like crazy about getting things right. But Dear Lincoln’s explosive delivery – its immediacy, its ability to swing round the story without stopping to count the words – suggest that he’s finally able to harness his particular genius and to let it live in the moment. This is by no means the first we’ve seen of Kiran Leonard, but it feels like the start of him.

Kiran Leonard: ‘Dear Lincoln’
Hand of Glory Records (catalogue number & barcode t.b.c.)
Vinyl/streamed single
Released: 16th May 2013 (streamed), 2nd September 2013 (vinyl)

Get it from:
Hand of Glory store (vinyl), or Soundcloud (stream)

Kiran Leonard online:
Homepage Facebook Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

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

March 2013 – album reviews – The JazzFakers’ ‘Here is Now’ (“accumulates itself out of loose particles of imagination; like a rogue dust-bunny”)

27 Mar
The JazzFakers: 'Here Is Now'

The JazzFakers: ‘Here Is Now’

I guess that any full-on free improvising band that makes it through to their third album must have become something of a fixture. Rolling and roiling within the Brooklyn branch of the New York improv scene, The JazzFakers probably also qualify via assorted free-music spillages (Brooklyn’s Experimental Music Meet-Ups, the Experi-MENTAL Festival) since their 2008 inception. Their humming, grappling music still suggests nothing particularly fixed.

Two of the four ‘Fakers, David Tamura and Robert L. Pepper, are certainly well-established promiscuous players and upsetters. Lynchpins of the Brooklyn multimedia collective PAS, they’ve placed themselves firmly into a matrix of oppositional noise, construction and deconstruction. All of their multi-instrumental noise-cramming in The JazzFakers has been nourished by multiple collaborations with a long train of musicians (soundtrack layerist Philippe Pettit, improv veterans Kidd Jordan and Charles K. Noyes, the spontaneous composers Ron Anderson and Grady Gerbracht). The other two ‘Fakers are maybe less ubiquitous – and less space-filling – but they certainly bring their own vitality. The anxious rubbery bass lines of Raphael Zwyer add a restless, nervy sproing. Drummer Steve Orbach has turned up bright and eager to the sessions, his sticks a-quiver like bug antennae, ready to prod and feel their way into the music.

The album name, ‘Here Is Now’ suggests fresh, bright immediacy – improvisation without worry. The individual track names (a set of successive anagrams, all worked out from the album title) suggest playfulness and an enjoyment of structure games. The dirty kerb, torn binbags and scattered garbage – tied-off shirts, food fragments – of the cover shot tell a different story, and a more truthful one. JazzFakers are about debris and disparity, not consonance. There’s little about them that suggests structure apart from the swarming, disturbing liveliness of their intent.

Instead, their music accumulates itself out of loose particles of imagination; like a rogue dust-bunny. Or, more accurately, like a gigantic hairball – something rolling restlessly around the band members’ Brooklyn rooms and lofts, accreting a body from discarded bits of living and usefulness. Any given JazzFakers piece is a cannibal mass, crammed with china plate-shards, snapped pencils, and the sparking remnants of semi-dismantled technology; given extra lift by rolled-in springy fibres and by jazz-honk air-pockets. Runaway guitars, violins and reeds tussle with sundry distortions and tangled-up masses of electronic blips, and with a collection of synth voices which range from the raw to the deliberately corny.

While David Tamura is responsible for plenty of overdriven splintery electric guitar lines (rolling around furiously on the floors of the compositions, like injured scorpions), he’s also the band’s saxophone player. Unusually, this also means he’s often the band’s main link to more conventional structures. Certainly it’s him that provides the powdery, blues-rich tenor melody that boards the loose-boned march of Oh Rise New, adding a recognizable jazz voice to the restless buzz-keyboard swirls and mosquito-drill guitar, the rambling bass tune and the childlike organ which hangs and fidgets on a single disruptive chord. On Horse Wine, it’s his smartly turned-out tenor sax that moves in to converse calmly with Robert’s chorused violin saws and Raphael’s panicky bass, trembling and muttering on the upper harmonics. Steve’s subtle drumming adds some calming authority to the occasion, a taste of West African skintalk to offset the balloon-scraping sense of fear elsewhere.

On the other hand, David’s not to be relied on to provide anchors and grip all the time. Weise Horn, rising out of a wobble of shortwave synth whines, sees him let rip on free tenor: Robert responds with scrapescapes of violin, Raphael with a bass performance like a surprised bear. More than any other on the album, the piece becomes a free blow, but one struggling with a sense of being trapped. Led by David’s frantically wiggling sax, it’s claustrophobic, filled with screeches and frantic prison drumming in background sounding like someone drumming up a riot on a cooking-oil can.

There’s more free-sax contortions on Her Woe Sin (this time on alto) while a trepidatious, intense organ harmonic squeezes the band into a single trapped pitch cluster. Here, it feels as if they’re all being forced out through the neck of a bottle. As they reach a peak of compression, the piece becomes a revolving oscillation of guitar rub and smudged noises; trapped on a machine wheel, while Steve keeps a slow walking drum time at the rear.

Like David’s easy slips into conversational sax, that walking rhythm is another old-school jazz touch that comes rising up to reassure us through various JazzFakers confusions. There’s a brief, loose touch of it at the end of Nowhere Is – David and Steve bobbing along together in a moment of drums and sax companionship. Earlier it’s been a game of tack-blows, with Raphael’s rubber-mallet bass rebounding off curving chunks of organ, water-bottle tocks and flits of synth. As this moves into a more abrasive grind of free noise, David’s bluesy touch on sax makes a return, holding the band together with a stitch of melody. Ever-so-slightly wild, it sits in with the pugnacious racket like an old guy bantering with youths, laughing as his own wiles are tickled by their random energy.

Whine Rose reminds us that New York (like other cosmopolitan homes of music) isn’t just full of its own stylings, but also winds immigrant memories into its fabric. This piece sounds like an impression of the docks in Istanbul. Robert’s violin lines toy with a flaring, challenging Turkish-trumpet attack. Raphael’s bass strings scrape and creak like cargo cables: Steve drums like a longshoreman slinging and bumping crates across a quay. Every so often a long scraping drone in a reverberant arch will overwhelm the chatter and noise, push through the dirt and air-flashes from the band’s electronics and come in to rest, like a giant ship harbouring. At the end another jazz walk falls into place, free and swaggering, but trying to get back into comradely step. For a moment, the ‘Fakers sound like a cluster of dockers going off-shift, strutting out of the yard in search of a bar and perhaps a bit of trouble to bond the team together.

But while hints of jazz tradition, diasporan memory and other bits of cultural consonance may surface briefly through the matted fabric of their musical hairball, the JazzFakers are always predominantly about shredding sound – grabbing and shaking it into rag and rampage. Bar a brief breather in the middle (an interlude of silence, broken by gentle koto plucks), Where’s Ion gathers up raw hanks of sound to stretch and shear. Morse-blipping electronics and flinders of keyboard fight their way through a seesawing murky gale of playing. Robert’s abrasive, distorted violin wrenches back and forth, overdriven to the point where its melody fissures and cracks; time pulled and flexed too far out of shape to cling to. The second part entirely and willingly overwhelms itself: a shitstorm onslaught of scribbling guitar and a mass of excited electronic buzzing and whooping meets Steve’s drums and percussion head on, as they rattle like an upended ship’s galley.

The cheerful Whee Irons has its share of noisy Tamura guitar tangles and collapsing Pepper electronics, but also seems to be toying with broken bits of 1980s pop (trying on the hairstyles and waving around some of the sonic tropes). A bouncing, pulsing vocoder patch promises some kind of hook before becoming just something to squish and pulp against a jittering music box. Raphael (briefly in the spotlight) visits the upending, cunning-stunt territory of Tony Levin or Mick Karn. His bass jolts out high squeets, tap-and-hold skids, talkative burbles; on one occasion, a game-changing downward slide before slipping comfortably back into freestyle wandering for the second stretch. More elements tossed hopefully into the mix include some double-speed Zappa saxophone rushes and some corny, choral angel-voice keyboard, mocking at the huffing, bellowing drums and the drilling lead guitar.

At the end, with the twelve minutes of Hero We Sin, the band don’t so much tie up the record as relax the tangles. While free, it’s less furious. There’s less jostling and more listening, from the fake sci-fi theremin intro (echoing over lightly-struck and watchful cymbals) to the final saxophone-argues-with-egg-slicer fadeout. Along the way, the quartet shuffles a handful of musical cards: the edge-stalking Miles Davis fusion of 1971 (both invoked and undermined by little stings of toy piano); the undulant glissando guitar-wave of Syd Barrett; even a hint of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Clearer solos emerge. An aggressively awake guitar (swelling large over grinding distorted drum crunches like rusty clockwork being forcibly wound); cloudy, floating high toms and cymbals over a gastric electronic splatter; a vibraphone over a phased electronic phase buzz, deep pitches, sanding noises and high birdlike twitters, which in turn give way to a cradling bulk-photocopier slide and clunk.

Towards the close, while electronic percussion boils and rattles like popcorn at the side, Robert’s scratch violin is caught in debate with David’s saxophone – the one complaining and cramping, the other remonstrating and stretching. The work’s ending. Time for sense. Time to flex the remaining knots out.

The JazzFakers: ‘Here Is Now’
Alrealon Musique, ALRN043
CD/download album
Released: 25th March 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

Artist online:
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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 – Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’ single, 2012 (“a butter-toffee in a world of cheap smokes”)

26 Oct

Dutch Uncles: 'Fester'

Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’


That’s a repulsive title for a single. Then again, Dutch Uncles have always been something of an irritant. I mean that in a good way, as it happens. Some of my favourite bands are irritants. Too many bands just want to be stimulants – crude and obvious, they roar in with a snort and a thump, hammering hard on the most obvious buttons. After a while, you just need more and more of it to elicit even a small buzz, and you end up bored and bloated.

An irritant, on the other hand – that does its job of stirring up a reaction in a different way. You can’t ignore it. It focuses the attention, often by making you aware of sensitivities that you didn’t even know you had. Dutch Uncles have always been happy to spike the necessary nerve and keep feeding a pulse into it. If you’re familiar with those dancing, sidestepping cycles of guitar riff which festooned and hiccuped all over their earlier singles (Fragrant, The Ink, Face In) then Fester will sound halfway familiar. If you persuaded Steve Reich to write around eleven Disco Phases, then stacked them up on top of each other, you’d have the basic bones already. It rotates like a carousel full of drunk mathematicians, with Duncan Wallis’ warm alto hoot (still a butter-toffee in a world of cheap smokes) muttering and musing atop the pile.

What’s new for Dutch Uncles is a delightful infusion of art-rock colourings – that bass guitar which thunks like a piano; that bony clink of marimba hook; the guitar which blows and bloozes like a sleepy horn solo. There’s a delicious feeling of confusion and clothes-swapping wrapped into the song: it’s reminiscent of early Roxy Music and their upsetting of texture, of the otherworldly kink of Associates. With Duncan’s tone of repressed and airy hysteria, there’s also got something of the closeted wildness of Sparks (albeit in one of their mellower moods). Dutch Uncles have that nervy theatrical cleverness to them, as if they’re delicately stepping along a rail with ideas dropping out of their pockets and with tell-tales twitching at the corners of their eyes.

I mentioned a song, didn’t I? It’s built into the jittery mosaic of instruments; and it’s a protest, of sorts. “There’s a time to hide everything – the way that you are; where you’ve been. / And the feeling I’ve tried to fight, / pieces I’m left in inside.” In a genteel way, Duncan’s pissed off; chanting “takes me to the bone” as he swats, distractedly, at a lingering pain. Fractured syntax dribbling in his wake, he argues his position and tells his story like a hungover man struggling with a jigsaw. “And the times you cry at everything / for reasons we don’t mean anything. / And the times I hide behind a smile / that says you were right, you were always right.” By the end of his efforts, he’s trying to strip-mine his way into sense by plunging headlong into tongue-twisters (“The worst is hardly, hardly known, / I trust the worst is hard to know. / The worst is hardly, hardly known, / I know the worst is hard to know,”) as the band pound delicately around him. Irritation confuses, scatters against structure: but few things are better at making you feel.

Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’
Memphis Industries, MI0250D/MI0250S
vinyl 7″/download single
released: 20th September (download) & 12th November (vinyl) 2012

Buy it from:
Memphis Industries (vinyl); Dutch Uncles homepage
or Memphis Industries news page (download)

Dutch Uncles online:
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June 2012 – EP reviews – Knifeworld: ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’ (“spinning something solid out of flim-flam”)

17 Jun

Knifeworld: 'Clairvoyant Fortnight'

Knifeworld: ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’

Another summer with Knifeworld: another EP with everything on it. If Kavus Torabi was a builder, rather than being head Knifeworlder, he wouldn’t simply build houses. He’d build deliciously awkward crenellated wonders, with Escher staircases and extra rooms poking out into the street two floors up.

As it is, Knifeworld songs never sound as if they started with an earnest bloke strumming away on a stool. Instead, they tend to sound like a gang of scruffy tattooed pixies, busily hauling down a fairy castle and squabbling over the work-shanties. The final outcome tends to be an almighty and skilful art-rock mashup, with horns and bassoons poking out of it every which-way and strangely kinking, spiraling spines of rhythm and harmony locking it all together. You could never accuse Knifeworld of being parsimonious with their music. That said, the amount of musicality which the band can squeeze into their songs is only one of the factors at work.

It’s almost a shame to digress from the sheer fun at play here, from the helter-skelter confection of Knifeworld’s riffs and melodies and the visual humour they’re now bringing to their video work. But it’s important to realize that across its three songs the ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’ EP actually deals with some pretty serious matters – faith, grounding, mistakes and the business of building a life. All of this might be filtered through eccentric and kaleidoscopic wordplay; but whether expressed via the galactic prog visions of The Prime Of Our Decline, the magic’n’showbiz gabble of the title track or the dancing grumbles of In A Foreign Way, these songs are about spinning something solid out of flim-flam, and gaining the right perspectives.

Under its festoons of decoration and past the hither-and-yon dash of its scurrying melody, Clairvoyant Fortnight itself shows that Knifeworld can compress their strategic wildness into something approaching a catchy single – albeit on their own unusual terms. Half of the time the song sounds like an amalgam of various tasty and tuneful things that shouldn’t fit together but do – XTC, Motown, The Flaming Lips, a dash of 1950s finger-clicking and a brief twist of rapping. The rest of the time, it sounds like an Edwardian fairground carousel trying to slam-dance. Meanwhile, the lyrics are peppered with all manner of mystical, supernatural and hippy tropes. “Well, I’m in a relapse – everyone looks like I did when I was sixteen, yeah?” snipes Kavus, name-checking third eyes, second sight and Ouija boards alongside prophets and scripture.

Grousing and arguing as he sings, Kavus is torn between scepticism and credulity throughout. While he’s clearly implying that there’s little difference between cheap, narrow parlour magic and other forms of belief, he also recognizes the gravitational pull of the supernatural and the way that so many people use it to blot out or cure boredom, uncertainty and terror. In fact, he’s wrangled all of this into an oblique love song, embracing challenge, partnership and natural change as a better way out. “I never felt like giving up before,” he admits, towards the end. “You wrecked my life, but you gave me more… I dig your voodoo and I dig your vibe – I really think that we could make it.” He seems to be suggesting that as much as you choose your own poison, perhaps you choose your own magic too.

There’s plenty to be said about The Prime Of Our Decline. Most simply, it’s unabashed nu-prog done right, from its flamenco beginnings and sea-shanty lilt to the Zappa-meets-Yes riffage, the jumping glockenspiels and the dancing Gong-honkery when it gets up to speed. I could wax lyrical about the slippery percussion allsorts and the stellar rattle of Khyam Allami’s Brufordian snare drum; or about the cheeky burst near the end when the band briefly channels multiple ’70s prog bands in rapid slice-and-dice succession. Throughout its seven-and-a-half minutes, the song also keeps its streamlined shape – as slick as any pop hit you’d care to mention, its tricks with meter and texture cunningly sheathed within a hurtling, bell-swiping, sing-along whole.

Yet this too is a song about footholds; about grasping (and grasping at) your place in the universe. Knifeworld have a knack of dissecting difficult feelings via swirling psychedelic sleight-of-hand – this time, astronomical. Even as Mel and Kavus yammer about black holes and passing stars, their sunny-sounding chants are shot through with evocations of hubris (“we could foresee the day / when nature would bend to our will”), lonely voids, being cast adrift and self-disgust (“orbits and revolutions of the heart / have changed me into something I hate.”) They might be playing at being starchildren, but they’re still weighed down by dark matter.

Somewhere between these two songs there’s In A Foreign Way, a stately chamber-pop jig wobbling under sideswipes at its metre and batterings at the foundations. As the band hack and bounce, the melody doggedly maintains its rhythm, like an Irish matron under attack from a gang of larky Newton’s cradles. Appropriate: underneath the avant-rock fun (including the brief injection of a slice of Henry Cow) this is a song about the frayings and fixes of middle-age.

Kavus frets and kvetches as things unravel around him, old bungles come back to plague him and the familiar becomes blurred. As he does his best to perform running repairs, a chant circles his head – “Where you up to, where you up to, where you up to?” to which the resigned reply is “halfway…” It’d be grim if it weren’t for the zing of the music – stippled with tuned marching-band percussion and the clatter of brains happily at work. That’s Knifeworld for you, though – few bands make it so evident that the sheer joy of music can always salvage something from the darkness.

Knifeworld: ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’
Believer’s Roast, BR008
CD/download EP
Released: 11th June 2012

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

Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

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

15 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
CD from Rough Trade Benelux: download via iTunes.

Kabul Golf Club online:
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November 2011 – live reviews – RoastFest music festival @ The Unicorn, Camden Road, London, 12th November (featuring Arch Garrison, Matt Stevens, Stars in Battledress, Redbus Noface, Thumpermonkey, William D. Drake, Knifeworld, Sanguine Hum, Admirals Hard) (“trailing bright scraps of music”)

18 Nov

It’s a bit like coming home. My first venture out into gigworld for a while, and I’m walking into a rough-looking rock pub out on the elbow of Tufnell Park. Not so many years ago, the Unicorn was a genuine trouble dive in the industrial frownage north of Kings Cross – just a spit away from the troubled estates around Caledonian Park. Reinventing itself as a part-time heavy metal venue a few years ago turned out to be its salvation. Now it’s been turned around to become a friendly local. The only blood’n’guts making an appearance is on the death-metal flyers by the door.

Today The Unicorn is packed out with a warm crowd of allsorts-people whom you could never easily pin down as a clear scene. Arcane T-shirts stretch around comfy bodies; hairstyles range from metallic red to casually balding, The people here are as likely to be agricultural workers or car-hire operators as hipsters or metalheads, and they’re almost as likely to have flown in from Italy or Poland as have driven or walked in from Worcester or Camden Town. In between acts, the PA spits out recordings as diverse and potentially divisive as John Adams, The Melvins, King Crimson or early ’90s agit-samplers Disco Inferno. Nobody seems in the least bit disorientated, nor do they pester the DJ for Kasabian. In any stylistic sense, confusion reigns. In an emotional sense there’s the warm, scruffy feeling of a tribe who coalesce only occasionally, but always feel very much at home when they do so.

I’ve been here before. This is the Cardiacs flavour. Although Cardiacs as a band are now several years gone-to-ground, as a culture their rampaging jigsaw of unorthodox sensibilities and connections survives – even thrives – through a network of enthusiasts and musical heirs. Uber-fan and hitchhiking hero Adrian Bell is bouncing around the Unicorn swapping stories, spilling his beer and enthusiastically flogging his Cardiacs book. Snooker star-turned-prog champion Steve Davis is here, proving once again that his enthusiasm stretches much further than simply supporting ’70s legends over at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. That silver-tongued James-Bond figure also doing the rounds (plugging a dedicated Cardiacs disco at “battle volume” for next January) turns out to be Dominic Luckman: he’s evidently taken plenty of lessons in suave since his gurning, flour-covered years behind the Cardiacs drumkit. Other former Cardiacs will be performing in various permutations throughout the day: although to be honest this is less to do with tributes or fan-service than it is to do with the tendency of certain musicalities to continue beyond the brand name.

The whole kit and caboodle of Roast Fest itself has been put together by Kavus Torabi. Recently a Cardiac (and before that, in The Monsoon Bassoon) he’s currently heading up both his own band – Knifeworld – and the Believers Roast label that’s hosting the event. This also means that he’s today’s overburdened one-man juggling act. When I first catch sight of him, he’s boggle-eyed with worry, stapling a merchandise board together and hoping that everything will stay together. A self-styled (or self-slandered) psychedelic flake, Kavus seems to half-expect chaos round the corner and for all of this to come tumbling down around his ears. As ever, he’s doing himself down. While he’s relatively new to the full weight of carrying a cottage industry (let alone two, plus the bottled randomness of a mini-festival), his instincts are true and his audience sound. This feels as if it’s going to go well.

It also starts quietly as Craig Fortnam makes his first appearance of the day in Arch Garrison, a solo project which has a tendency to flit between one man-band and acoustic trio. On this occasion it’s a duo, with Craig joined by James Larcombe (today’s man-of-many-bands) on a variety of reedy little keyboards. Initially their sound is ornate and a little introverted, with James drawing angular pipelines of awkward tune across the artful spinning cogs and involved strums of Craig’s acoustic guitar. Together they build up a succession of gangling, summery blueprints; intricate and skeletal folk-baroque miniatures which scroll across time and pitch like attenuated Heath Robinson gizmos.

Some of the wedding-cake decorativeness of Craig’s main project (the retrofitted chamber ensemble North Sea Radio Orchestra) is present and correct, as is a taste of the baroque side of Michael Nyman. Yet Arch Garrison is less formal than either of these, and although seemingly delicate and fey to the point of flimsiness, the music is actually underlaid by an assured, precise musicality. Craig’s acoustic guitar-playing, in particular, is tremendously strong: part Renaissance lutenist, part gutsy Nick Drake fingerpickery, and part atomic clock. Sometimes he also sings – in an easy and distracted murmur, as if daydreaming in his front room.

In spite of this air of detachment (and with the help of an audience that’s warm and receptive from the start), musicians and crowd move closer together as the set progresses, and as the songs take on life from their elegantly quilled and tapestried beginnings and shamble out into the room. Arch Garrison’s music clambers off the Unicorn’s shabby stage like a hung-over peacock emerging from a cardboard box – bedraggled but with flashes of finery. Wreathed in compassion and energetic flourishes, a sweet-natured, gently chiding call to art and arms called Six Feet Under Yeah comes across especially well. Borderline precious they may be, but by the end of the set this band’s earned the kind of affection you’d give to a battered family heirloom.

I’ve heard plenty of loop musicians in my time. Once you’ve seen one they’re like gateway drugs to hundreds of others. (I’m sorry – I’ve battled my addiction for years, but it keeps coming back…) Most of them are sit-down sound brewers: reserved in aspect, slowly adding detail to their patterns, absorbed in their banks of effects pedals.

Matt Stevens cooking up a loopstorm, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Matt Stevens cooking up a loopstorm, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Matt Stevens isn’t like that. A hulking figure – wild of hair and beard and with the imposing build of a rugby forward – he’s also afire with nervous energy, hailing his audience with a delighted sportsman’s roar. As regards potential gear-fiddling, he looks more likely to hurl himself onto his pedals and roll across the stage, wrestling with lashing cables and flying components, rather than indulge in prissy fondling. In the event, he settles for stabbing owlishly at his pedalboard as he hacks into his set with furious enthusiasm, attacking a battered acoustic guitar with the energy of a born-again busker.

Even if Matt is an extroverted bear in a loopers’ community of aloofness, he’s still obliged to spend some onstage time engrossed in loop-science. This he does both with earnestness and the air of a smouldering volcano. Bashing aggressively-strummed chords into the loop in order to build up his layered compositions, he crams in his extra details later, subverting his acoustic noises with wah-wah or strange compressions which bring out new instrumental parts like falls of slate or torn hunks of burnished copper. Throughout, a powerful rhythmic momentum is key (whether it’s expressed via out-and-out rockiness, a stuttered systemic pulse or a slither of percussive noise) as is Matt’s total involvement in what he’s doing. If he couldn’t squeeze the next loop idea out, you feel that he’d burst. His joy when things fall into place is palpable.

That said, Matt’s seasoned enough not to dissolve into petulance when things don’t go right. There’s not an error that can’t be turned into an opportunity, not a glitch that can’t be an excuse for a new bit of fun. Even when a string snaps with a whip-like crack, its echoed ghost is built so assertively into Matt’s wall of sound that the piece would ultimately have been less without it. Plenty of loopers reference the more academic touchstones of the genre – Shaeffer and Stockhausen, Fripp and Eno. Matt Stevens has some of that too, but he most definitely grabs us by the scruff of our collective neck to drag us back to the roughneck folk days of John Martyn and his rattling Echoplex (now there was a man who knew something about chance and hazard…) And as he tears us off a Moebius strip, we love him for it.

Fighting an unsympathetic sound mix, Stars in Battledress aren’t having it easy. Of course, life isn’t generally easy for massively over-educated brothers who form art-rock duos, mix up rolling minimalism with genteel English folk and a jigsaw of elaborate lyrical conceits, and then act as if they’ve teleported in from a 1930s gentleman’s club.

If Stars in Battledress were, in fact, playing all of these factors up for laughs (as if they were some kind of parody lounge act), they might be quids-in for a while. The problem is that while they’re flushed with a vein of dense and playful humour, they’re also entirely sincere. Almost everything that makes them remarkable – even wonderful – also makes them hard to sell in England. It’s probably one of the reasons why their gigs are rare these days.They’re willfully out of time; hothouse blooms in a climate that doesn’t favour greenhouses. Even the reviews they inspire turn artful and drip sepia.

The precision brotherhood: Stars In Battledress, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

The precision brotherhood: Stars In Battledress, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

As ever, Richard Larcombe cuts an intriguing figure – a pocket-sized handsome devil, part scholarly fop, part English pop eccentric (as if the two have never been known to overlap). Occasionally, you feel that his air of genteel amusement will slip away and he’ll suddenly go for your neck. Until then, he plays master-of-ceremonies with mixed breeziness and nerves, darting his head like a kestrel, picking fastidiously at his big jazzman’s guitar. His wicked grin and arched eyebrow seep into his vocal tone – a well-spoken tenor, moving between rich warm folk-drone and spooked falsetto. Smiling kindly behind his keyboard, James Larcombe is the obliging laid-back Swann to his brother’s sardonic Flanders: playing fluidly, bringing the solidity to support Richard’s genial spikiness.

With the audience on their side despite the sound flutters, Stars In Battledress treat us to a five-song set, forging a path through shellac-scented easy listening, deep English folk music and Canterbury-esque whimsy, all laced together with strands of Chicago art-rock, cycling piano lines and a dab or two of prog-rock glue. On spec, this sounds like a pile-up. In fact, every song is carefully thought through: lovingly hand-crafted and loaded with the kind of shrewd, floridly verbose lyrical wit that plays a circling game with its listeners. A blowsy chunk of psychedelic antiquarianism, Come Write Me Down references both copperplate and the Copper Family. If Morrissey had been forcibly cut-and-pasted into an Ealing comedy, he’d probably have riposted with something like Fluent English (in which Richard spirals defiantly through levels and levels of social awkwardness, a passive-aggressive cad-seeking missile).

More touchingly, Richard dedicates the brand-new Matchless Bride to his own wife (clambering over and dismissing both Cleopatra and Helen of Troy en route) and behind the dry theatrical wit, the Larcombes occasionally demonstrate a more elusive side. Pinocchio Falls In Love takes Disney and pulls it somewhere towards Syd Barrett in chapel, losing itself in hypnotic circles. The roaring distorted guitar fanfare of Remind Me Of The Thames Or Else, meanwhile, reminds us that this is a band that listens to Battles and Voivod as eagerly as it does to Northumbrian bagpipe reels.

Though it’s been nearly thirty years since Mark Cawthra was a Cardiac, you could still describe him as the band’s second severed head. In early lineups he’d hop around between keyboards, drums and singing, egging Tim Smith on to greater and greater heights of manic invention. These days, he’s still multi-instrumental, but the jibber and twitch of the early years has been replaced by something more relaxed and thoughtful.

Mark Cawthra of Redbus Noface plays a wry and mournful chord, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Mark Cawthra of Redbus Noface plays a wry and mournful chord, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

On record, Mark’s Redbus Noface project stretches slightly askew of classic English mainstream pop, ending up like a slightly more psychedelic Chris Difford. Live (with a pickup band of assorted Cardiacs and other friends) Redbus Noface are considerably chunkier. They present a drenched crash of solid rock musicianship, run through with a soft vein of melancholy – and, on this occasion, substantial technical hitches. Mark, fronting the band on guitar, deals with his setbacks with patience; which is something that could also be said for the majestically glum music.

It’s not that the band are miserable, per se. It’s more that they’re operating under a glimmering halo of resignation; of acceptance, of carrying on. Hard to put your finger on, though if you’re carrying a few more years it becomes easier. Compared to the jumping-jack of the Cardiacs years, the current Mark is soberer, but if the energy is reduced, the wisdom is broader. The Redbus cover of an early Cardiacs song, Let Alone My Plastic Doll, takes the stubborn heels-dug-in-tone of the original and fills it with grime, sand and saturated weight. In the process, it makes it weightier, more substantial. Mark Cawthra is not what he was. He’s more – and it’s neither show nor tell. It’s feel.

Usually Thumpermonkey can rely on various supports. On record, it’s the studio playground in which Michael Woodman can shore up his ambitious musical constructions with assorted sound trickery. Out live (and minus the gracings of harmonies, samplers, mandolins or keyboards) it’s at least helpful to have a bass player to pin down the foundations of their brooding new-prog grind. (Think Killing Joke meets Van Der Graaf Generator meets Tool, and then get frustrated at how poorly that captures their music’s sly muscularity and brainpower.)

Tonight they have neither of these things. Instead, Thumpermonkey are appearing as a two-guitarred power trio with the basslines covered by octave pedals and a Rush-like determination to dance their way over the personnel gaps by sheer skill and musical ingenuity. Fortunately Michael and his main foil, Rael Jones, have this in spades. They also have a batch of complex, restless songs which roar out from the stage: a slowly swirling mass of ever-altering metallic riffs in shades of grunge-baroque, hardcore punk and ermine cape, all staked into shape by Ben Wren’s needle-sharp drumming and topped off by Michael’s rich baronial voice.

Thumpermonkey get mean, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Thumpermonkey get mean, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

The latter’s a sound which demands attention. Scorning both sterile heavy-metal strutting or the self-righteous monotone screech of hardcore (though he can roar and scream with the best of them) Michael unleashes a vocal ever bit as striking and expressive as his Escher-knot of instrumental patterns. As he and Rael crash and chisel out the guitar lines, Michael treats us to a series of hard-rock soliloquies: heady declamation, musings, ominous mutters and runaway wails adding the muscle to his intricate lyrics.

In turn, this fits neatly into the undulating, stuttering landscape of Thumpermonkey’s music. Even when the band’s stripped down, the music thrives – catching at your ears, presenting tantalising gaps of rhythm and tension. Thumpermonkey know that if there are enough good ingredients in the stew, then there’s no such thing as overcooking. They may have always been a band with too many ideas, but they’ve become brilliant at blending and poising them all. They also visibly enjoy their arch humour, a witty blend of pastiches from cyberpunk to Gothic melodrama to art cinema oddity.

It’s got to be said that as metallers (even of the brainiac kind), they don’t quite look or act the part. Few obvious tattoos are in evidence; and they could shed their roles as easily as their T-shirts. Rael – part bespectacled boffin, part spindly golden eagle – prowls the stage with the barely-suppressed excitement of a toddler at Christmas, while Michael – even in full yell – has the cuddly softness of a plush-doll Paul McCartney, complete with smile and shaggy moptop. Look them in the eye, though, and see the twinkling confidence of men with total self-belief and the humour to enjoy it all the way to the end of the set and home. Ultimately it’s the music which sets Thumpermonkey’s ranking, and on every bit of evidence here, that’s pretty high.

William D. Drake comes complete with a throng of “So-Called Friends”, including the Larcombe brothers, Mark Cawthra (back behind the drumkit) and the Trudy’s Jon Bastable on bass. With singer Dug Parker and clarinetist Nicola Baigent also squeezed in, there are almost too many people to fit onstage. Richard Larcombe has to comically mountaineer his way back and forth between songs, a guitar swivelling around his body like a slapstick plank – you’d almost expect a Spike Jones soundtrack of thwacks, boings and yelps.

Such is the geniality onstage, however, that any clouts from a straying instrument would be taken in good heart. Squeezed they might be, but the seven-piece band do some sprawling justice to the clutch of Drakesongs on offer tonight. Each of them spring gently open when played, an overstuffed old trunk full of homemade melodies and worn-down reeds. Another onetime Cardiac, Bill Drake used to exude jollity and warmth around a chubby smile even when he was slathered in smeary slap and rolling out a convulsed fugal organ line. Two decades on, the freak trappings have long since washed off but the warmth has blossomed.

William D. Drake (and the Larcombes throwing shapes), RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

William D. Drake (and the Larcombes throwing shapes), RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Upfront at his piano, Bill’s like the avuncular monk in charge of the brewery. For a while, the November evening turns to a leaf-strewn end-of-summer afternoon as he sings in his split, woody voice – a kind of innocence in itself, straining heartily against its natural restrictions to break out into a flattened earnest roar or into a conversational softness. His songs thrive on ripples of piano and clarinet, on the hoppity bounce of half-forgotten novelty records; on hushed moments of old English reverie. It’s as if they’ve sprung up from a snowed-in village, put together by a group of people enjoying the warmth of companionship. One of the newer songs – Homesweet Homestead Hideaway – travels sedately from happy plonk to sea music, and from chamber music to music hall, all in a single unrolling skein.

The So-Called Friends nearly overwhelm the stage: Knifeworld transcend it. Tonight, they’re the only band that really do. Maybe it’s because they’re Kavus’ own band, briefly releasing him from organiser’s headaches, letting him take up his white Gretsch guitar and fire off a little compositional lightning. At any rate, Knifeworld take their set at full-tilt, as if they’re playing on excited tiptoe prior to leaping through the ceiling. Even the sonic missteps or rough patches don’t slow them down – any occasional keyboard plunk or fluffed vocal note is scooped up and along to fuel their energy.

In more than one respect, the band bristle. Grown to a six-piece (and swallowing up a couple of Chrome Hoof members along the way), they now have electric pianos and bassoons poking out of them like crazy hairpins. Kavus’ veering and breathless songs need no less these days. Crammed with escapologist riffs, abrupt time-changes and flagrant decorations, they’re like manically accelerated conversations complete with excited table-bangings. They’re also like mashed-up city traffic – dozens of different ideas like wandering cars, edging into narrow streets, getting squeezed into a bigger and more diverse picture, but somehow managing to manoeuvre and thrive.

Knifeworld roar into action, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Knifeworld roar into action, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Up at the front Kavus’ gruff and friendly bark of voice mingles with that of his vocal foil Mel Woods. They sing with a chatty roughness which almost, but not quite, disarms the furious musical mechanisms churning away behind them: part prog, part Rock-In-Opposition, part surreal shanty. Chloe Herrington’s steely bassoon playing is the newest Knifeworld ingredient, as tart as molasses and threading a new dark vein through the songs, most of which are newer work, including the benign lurches of In A Foreign Way and the chittering pump-riffage of Pilot Her.

The best comes last. Fully warmed up, Knifeworld lock in a few more gears, summon up a few more notches of the power and launch into The Prime Of Our Decline, a piece so new that it’s still glistening. It rampages past our ears and through our brains in a blizzard of lights and joy. It’s a streaking Mediterranean storm of flamencoid prog pulse and haul song, flashing out memories of John McLaughlin, Yes and Fred Frith (each at the peak of their communicative powers), but it also sustains along its entire length, the heart-racing punch of a top pop hook. I feel my jaw drop. For five minutes, the entire band seem to be leaning into an ecstatic curve; or levitating an inch above the Unicorn’s scruffy stage carpet. It’s not often that I see a band suddenly move up a level, right in front of me. It takes my breath away when it actually happens.

It does strike me that, were most of these bands American, they’d be getting proper respect. All credit to them for coming together to light up this obscure little corner of North London, but they’re still running along in a distant neglected parallel, some way out of the club of the British musicians who are properly celebrated, who are held up as the exemplars of what we ought to be doing as a musical nation. Some of them have been at it for years in one form or another, and to see their clear talent unrewarded is hard.

It’s something to do with a pop aesthetic worn down to a neurotic sliver, I suppose. An idea is always easier to sell if it’s been pre-formed and pre-warmed; and not only does the emphasis on the shape of the British pop song often end up as a straitjacket, British musical jingoism has a flipside of fawning insecurity. From a British perspective, it often seems as if it’s only Americans who are allowed to experiment, to embrace their own whimsy to the hilt, to draw in something less urban and less in cahoots with fashion; and in Britain it’s only American musicians who are allowed to be celebrated for this. The Roastfest roster – profoundly British, without a pop art flag in sight – flip a cheerful collective finger at this notion.

Still, I have to admit that coping with Roastfest’s rich stew of acts in relentless succession does eventually take it out of you. I’m flagging by the time Sanguine Hum arrive onstage. Not too long ago, they were called The Joff Winks Band, and they used to lie to people. Travelling under a classic-pop flag to mislead people, they played beautifully, wrote intricate Canterbury-mellow prog-rock songs while pretending not to, and made the kind of tasteful support-band ripples you’d expect if you spent your time opening for people like Joseph Arthur and Regina Spektor.

Prog of a more delicate stripe... Joff Winks of Sanguine Hum, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Prog of a more delicate stripe… Joff Winks of Sanguine Hum, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

In parallel, Joff and his bandmates also had alter-egos. They explored a lighthearted, Anglicised post-rock as Antique Seeking Nuns, and pegged out some spacey textural music as Nunbient. Maybe proving themselves in these fields has given them the confidence of finally making themselves over as an overt prog band. Hurray for that.

During the course of their set I drift around the pub, a little dazed by standing and by keeping myself fuelled on bar snacks. Consequently Sanguine Hum’s airy prog blend – in which Rhodes-propelled Camel mellowness blends with occasional Zappa seizures – doesn’t grab enough of my wandering attention. By the end of the evening my impression of the band is hazy, and my notes too vague to be of much use. Sanguine Hum seem cleaner and more polite than anyone else on offer – they’ve kept the classic ’70s pop sheen, for certain – and I have to nod to both Matt Baber’s bright, dazzling keyboard touch and Joff’s sweet-natured frontman work. The rest of what they are will have to wait until we next cross paths. Sorry, Joff. Not your fault. I just wasn’t quite up to it this time.

The evening ends with a big, scrappy folk noise. Admirals Hard don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are – émigré Plymouth art-rockers gone acoustic (plus a few London friends), indulging hometown roots with a string of traditional sea-shanties. The affable Andy Carne fronts this busman’s holiday, but both of the Larcombe brothers are back onstage too, along with chunks of The Monsoon Bassoon (Dan Chudley on bass and fur cap, while Kavus, letting his hair down at the end of the night, jangles a mandolin). Onetime Foe drummer Paul Westwood plays harmonium and hammered dulcimer; Tungg! singer Becky Jacobs joins in too.

In fact, everyone sings – not just the whole band (with the affable Carne performing as much as an MC as lead vocalist) but the audience. While Admirals Hard have been known to fling in shipworm-friendly covers of Cardiacs and Iron Maiden (their take on Stranger In A Strange Land is surprisingly convincing as well as funny), these aren’t needed tonight. At the end of a day of invention, the trad songs cheerfully mop up. An international audience of music obsessives let down hair and inhibitions, drink the last of the bar dry and sing along to All For Me Grog, Eddystone Light and Thou Hast Drunk Well Man; the roaming Janners and honorary Janners onstage let their accents broaden, strum out a sound like a skinny Pogues and imagine a rolling deck. With the bar drunk dry, that’s probably not too much of a stretch by now.

Finally we disperse into the November night, trailing bright scraps of music as we go. I head for Archway, humming something complicated, or something simple. Something warm. Something welcome.

Buy a memento:
Various Artists: ‘The Central Element’ (compilation album with one track from each Roastfest band) – available from Genepool.

Arch Garrison online:
Homepage MySpace

Matt Stevens online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM YouTube

Stars In Battledress online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

Redbus Noface online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

Thumpermonkey online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM YouTube

William D. Drake online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

Sanguine Hum online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp LastFM Soundcloud

Admirals Hard online:
MySpace

The Unicorn, Camden online:
Facebook Twitter

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

10 Jul
Knifeworld: 'Dear Lord, No Deal'

Knifeworld: ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’

Three things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

December 2010 – album reviews – Various Artists ‘Leader of the Starry Skies – A Tribute to Tim Smith – Songbook 1’ (“an unmapped musical crossroads… one of the most diverse tribute albums imaginable”)

20 Dec
Various Artists: 'Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1'

Various Artists: ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1’

Listen. They’re singing at his bedside.

In June 2008, en route back from a My Bloody Valentine concert, the world fell in for Tim Smith. A sudden heart attack (and in immediate cruel succession, a pair of devastating strokes) failed to kill him, but only just. Now he’s in long-term recuperation, condemned to that long wait in the margins. With his damaged body now his enemy, his brain’s left to flick over the days until something – anything – gets better and his luck turns. This is a sad story. Even sadder, given that many similar stories must shuffle out of hospitals every month.

There’s an extra layer of pain here in that for over four decades Tim Smith was a dedicated, compulsive fount and facilitator of music. As the singer, composer and main player of some of the most eerily intense, unique and cryptic songs ever recorded, he sat at an unmapped musical crossroads where apparently incompatible musics met. In turn, his songs were hymnal, punky and part-classical; shot through with crashing guitars, keyboard trills and mediaeval reeds; festooned with swings and changes. They were sometimes choral, or full of martial pomp or playground squabble. They were sometimes ghostly. They were a damned ecstatic racket, or a parched and meditative whisper. With what’s now become a brutal irony they also frequently fluttered, quizzically, across the distinctions of life and death; sometimes seeing little separation between the two states, sometimes hovering somewhere in between; sometimes seeing as much meaning in the wingbeat of a stray insect as in the scrambling for human significance.

Tim’s rich and puzzled perspective on life and the weave of the world travelled out to a fervent cult following via a sprouting tree of projects – the quaking mind-mash rock of Cardiacs; the psychedelic folk of Sea Nymphs, the tumbledown explorations of Oceanland World or Spratleys Japs. In addition (and belying the manic, infantile mood-swings of his onstage persona) the man was generous of himself. Via sound production, video art or simple encouragement, his influence and peculiar energy spread from feisty indie rock bands right across to New Music performers and bedroom-studio zealots. It spread far wider than his nominally marginal status would suggest. For all of this, Smith never received adequate reward or overground recognition for these years of effort – another sting in the situation (though, having always been a stubborn goat, he’s probably dismissed it).

Yet if he’s been slender of pocket, he’s proved to be rich in love. His praises may not have been sung by the loudest of voices, but they are sung by a scrappy and vigorous mongrel choir, scattered around the houses. The Smith influence haunts cramped edit suites and backwater studios. It lingers in the scuffed shells of old ballrooms, and in the intimate acoustics of a handful of cramped Wren churches in London: it’s soaked into the battered ash-and-beer-stained sound desks of rock pubs. Most particularly, it lives in the memories of thirty years of backroom gigs where people baffled at, laughed at and finally yelled along with the giddy psychological pantomime of a Cardiacs concert; and where they lost their self-consciousness and finally stumbled away with their armour discarded.

And now, all silenced?

No.

In many cases, these same people who yelled and sang from the audience (or, onstage, from beside Tim) would go on to form bands which demonstrated that three chords and a crude truth was far too blunt a brush with which to paint a picture of the world. All of this outgoing wave of energy comes rolling back with a vengeance on ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’. Put together by Bic Hayes (best known for galactic guitar in Levitation and Dark Star, but in his time a Cardiac) and Jo Spratley (Tim’s former foil in Spratleys Japs), it’s an album of Smith cover versions in which every penny of profit going back to raise money for Tim’s care. In effect, it’s swept up many of those people who sang along with Tim Smith over the years (all grown up now, and numbering characters as diverse as The Magic Numbers, Julianne Regan and Max Tundra) and brought them back for visiting hours.

And they sang outside his window, and they sang in the corridors; and from the ponds and rivers, from the windows of tower blocks and from lonely cottages…

Given Tim Smith’s own eclecticism, it’s hardly surprising that ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’ is one of the most diverse tribute albums imaginable. Despite the familial feel, the musical treatments on here vary enormously. Lost broadcasts, festooned in unsettling noise, rub up against stately electric folk. Psychedelic grunge balances out colourful playschool techno. Unaccompanied Early Music recreations drift one way, while centipedal Rock-in-Opposition shapes charge off in another. None of this would work if Tim’s songs – seemingly so resistant – didn’t readily adapt. Anyone can get around the shape of a Neil Young song, a Paul McCartney song or even a Morrissey song for a tribute: but these rampant compositions with their peculiar twists are of a different, wilder order. However, every contributor has managed to embrace not only the unorthodox Smith way with a Jacob’s Ladder tumble of chords but also his dense lyrical babble, which grafts nonsense onto insight and the ancient onto the baby-raw. Everyone involved has striven to gently (or vigorously) tease the songs out of cult corner and bring them to light.

Take, for instance, what The Magic Numbers have done with A Little Man and a House. This anguished Cardiacs ode to the 9-to-5 misfit has never seemed quite so universal, slowly pulling out from one man’s chafing frustration for a panoramic view of a worldful of human cogs. (“And there’s voices inside me, they’re screaming and telling me ‘that’s the way we all go.’ / There’s thousands of people just like me all over, but that’s the way we all go.”) The original’s pained South London squawk and huffing machinery noises are replaced by Romeo Stodart’s soft American lilt, while massed weeping clouds of piano and drums summon up an exhausted twilight in the Monday suburbs. Likewise, when Steven Wilson (stepping out of Porcupine Tree for a moment) sighs his way through a marvelously intuitive and wounded solo version of Stoneage Dinosaurs, he takes Tim’s hazy memories of childhood fairgrounds and incipient loss and makes them glisten like rain on a car mirror while sounding like the saddest thing in the world. Even with Wilson’s own formidable reputation behind him, this is immediately one of the finest things he’s ever done – an eerie ripple through innocence; a sudden, stricken look of grief flitting for a moment across a child’s face.

Three of the covers have added poignancy from being connected to ends, to new beginnings, or to particular paybacks. When Oceansize abruptly split up at the peak of their powers, their final word as a band turned out to be Fear (this album’s loving cover of an obscure Spratleys Japs track). Rather than their usual muscular and careening psychedelic brain-metal, they render this song as a soft-hued exit, a fuzzed-up tangle of fairy lights which wanders hopefully down pathways as they gently peter out. Conversely, glammy Britpop anti-heroes Ultrasound set an acrimonious decade-old split behind them and reformed especially to record for this project. Their whirling clockwork version of the Cardiacs anthem Big Ship is all boxed-in and wide-eyed. It bobs along like a toy theatre while the band fire off first pain (“the tool, the tool, forever falling down / planes against the grain of the wood / for the box, for my soul / and my aching heart,”) and ultimately burst into the kind of incoherent, hymnal inclusiveness which was always a Cardiacs trademark – “All of the noise / takes me to the outside where there’s all /creations, joining in / celebrating happiness and joy; /all around the world, / on land and in the sea.” It seems to have worked for them – they sound truly renewed.

Some of Tim Smith’s songs have a strangely mediaeval tone or texture to them, and some have a twist of eerie folk music. These attract different interpretations. Foundling was once a particularly bereft and fragile Cardiacs moment: an orphaned, seasick love-song trawled up onto the beach. Accompanied by elegant touches of piano and guitar, the genteel art-rockers Stars in Battledress transform it into a heartfelt, change-ringing English bell-round. North Sea Radio Orchestra travel even further down this particular line – their bright tinkling chamber music sweeps up the hammering rock parade of March and turns it into a sprightly, blossoming cortege. Packing the tune with bells, bassoon and string quartet, they dab it with minimalism and a flourishing Purcell verve: Sharron Fortnam’s frank and childlike soprano clambers over the darker lyrics and spins them round the maypole.

Deeper into folk, Katherine Blake (of Mediaeval Baebes) and Julianne Regan (the shape-shifting frontwoman for All About Eve and Mice) each take an eerie acoustic Sea Nymphs fragment and rework it on their own. Julianne’s version of the children’s dam-building song Shaping the River adds rattling tambourine, drowsy slide guitar and a warm murmur of voice: it’s as if the faded lines of the song had washed up like a dead leaf at her feet, ready to be reconstructed at folk club. (“Pile some sticks and pile some mud and some sand. / Leave the ends wide, / three against the side, / plug the heart of flow.”) Katherine’s narcotic a-cappella version of Up in Annie’s Room might have shown up at the same concert. A world away from the pealing cathedral organ of the original, it slips away into empty space in between its gusts of eerie deadened harmonizing and Tim’s sleepy, suggestive cats-cradle of words (“Fleets catch your hair on fire. / The fleet’s all lit up – flags, flame on fire…”)

Max Tundra, in contrast, sounds very much alive and fizzing. His pranktronica version of the brutal Will Bleed Amen re-invents it as delightfully warm and loopy Zappa-tinted techno. Its abrupt air-pocketed melody opens out like a sped-up clown car: when a convoluted cone of lyrics punches his voice up and sticks it helpless to the ceiling, former Monsooon Bassoon-er Sarah Measures is on hand to provide a cool clear vocal balance, as well as to build a little open cage of woodwind at the heart of the rush. It’s a terrific reinvention, but perhaps not the album’s oddest turnaround. That would be courtesy of Rose Kemp and Rarg – one a striving indie-rock singer and blood-heir to the Steeleye Span legacy, the other the laptop-abusing keyboard player with Smokehand. Rose is a Cardiacs interpreter with previous form: this time she’s fronting a forbidding glitch-electronica version of Wind And Rains Is Cold with all of the cute reggae bounce and innocence pummeled out of it. While Rarg flattens and moves the scenery around in baleful planes, Rose delivers the nursery-rhyme lyric with a mixture of English folk stridency and icy Germanic hauteur, uncorking its elliptical menace as she does – “Now you remember, children, how blessed are the pure in heart – / want me to take ’em up and wash ’em good?… / Hide your hair, it’s waving all lazy and soft, / like meadow grass under the flood.”

While most of the musicians on ‘Leader…’ could cite Tim Smith as an influence, Andy Partridge was a influence on Tim himself, way back in his XTC days. Three-and-a-half decades later he repays the appreciation by guesting on the dusky autumnal spin which The Milk & Honey Band‘s Robert White gives to a Sea Nymphs song, Lilly White’s Party. Redolent with regret (for more innocent times, before a fall), it covers its eyes and turns away from the shadows falling across the hillside. Partridge’s deep backing vocals add an extra thrum of sympathy: “Let’s not reinvent the wheel, let’s not open that can of worms, / Let’s not say what we did, and play by ear. / Back to square one…”

The backbone of ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’ however, comes from the contributions of former Cardiacs players reconnecting with the family songbook. As with any family over time, they’re scattered. One of the earliest members, Pete Tagg, now drums for The Trudy, who take the bucketing psychedelic charge of Day is Gone and offer a more down-to-earth spin on it for the indie disco, keeping that heady chromatic slide of chorus but adding a suspiciously blues-rock guitar solo and Melissa Jo Heathcote’s honeyed vocals. One of the more recent Cardiacs additions, Kavus Torabi, brings his band Knifeworld to the party. He hauls a particularly involved and proggy Cardiacs epic – The Stench of Honey – back through a 1970s Henry Cow filter of humpbacked rhythms, woodwind honks, baby squeaks and rattletrap percussion. Double-strength art rock, it could have been a precious step too far. Instead, it’s triumphant, its skeletal circular chamber music salad-tossed by stomping bursts and twitches of joy.

Onetime Cardiacs keyboard player William D. Drake offers a gentler, kinder tribute, taking the shanty-rhythms of Savour and spinning them out into soft Edwardiana with harmonium, ukulele and a gently bobbing piano finale. Drake’s predecessor Mark Cawthra brings an eerie sense of pain to his own cover version: back in the earliest days, he was Tim Smith’s main foil, playing lively keyboards and drums as well as sharing the bumper-car vocals. Now he sounds like the head mourner, taking on the heavy tread of Let Alone My Plastic Doll and sousing it with Vanilla Fudge-slow organ, doubled guitar solos and sigh-to-wail vocals. The twitchy, baby-logic lyrics are slowly overwhelmed by an undercurrent of grief, but the kind of grief that can only come from a older, wiser man.

Under his Mikrokosmos alias, Bic Hayes takes on Cardiacs’ biggest near-hit (Is This The Life) and subjects it to startling psychedelic noise-storms and industrial drum twirling. In the process, he shakes out and enhances its original pathos. Blown splay-limbed into a corner by a tornado of white noise, plug-in spatters and buzzing malfunctions, Bic’s voice is nasal, lost and forlorn. It sings of split and rootless identity against a wall of forbidding harmonium: “Looking so hard for a cause, and it don’t care what it is; / and never really ever seeing eye to eye / though it doesn’t really mind. / Perhaps that’s why / it never really saw.” Although Jo Spratley coos reassurance under ululations of alto feedback, Bic still ends up cowering like a damaged crane-fly under showers of distorted harpsichords and Gothic synths. Bewitchingly damaged.

The last word goes to The Scaramanga Six, the swaggering Yorkshire theatricalists who were the main beneficiaries of Smith production work before the accident. By their usual meaty standards, the Six’s take on The Alphabet Business Concern (Cardiacs’ tongue-in-cheek corporate anthem, packed to the gunwales with flowery salutes) initially seems cowed, as if flattened by dismay and sympathy at Tim’s misfortune. But it doesn’t end there. Starting tremulous and hushed, with nothing but the embers of faith to keep it up, it builds gradually from tentative acoustic guitars and hiding vocals up through a gradual build of electric instruments, feeding in and gaining strength: “and now the night of weeping shall be / the morn of song…” Over the course of the anthem the Six go from crumpled to straightened to proud cheat-beating life. By the end, the recording can hardly contain their vigorous Peter Hammill bellows, as they sweep out in a grand procession with rolling guitars, pianos and extended Cardiacs choirs. It’s a stirring, defiant finale to an album that’s done everything it could to blow away the ghosts of helplessness and to charge up not just an armful of Smith songs but, in its way, a vivid sense of Smith. He might have taken a bad, bad fall; but the humming and rustling vitality of the music, the way that it’s become a spray of vivid lively tendrils reaching far and wide, is an enormous reassurance.

Listen. He’s alive. He’s alive.

Various Artists: ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1’
Believer’s Roast, BR003 (5060243820372)
CD/vinyl/download album
Released: 13th December 2010

Buy it from:
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August 2009 – album reviews – Knifeworld’s ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’ (“a dense and complicated thicket”)

24 Aug
Knifeworld: 'Buried Alone (Tales of Crushing Defeat)'

Knifeworld: ‘Buried Alone (Tales of Crushing Defeat)’

Barely two tracks in, and (against a backdrop of spidery chords and distant whistling bird-noise) you can hear Kavus Torabi sigh “way to go – a scream fanfares the notion / that fortune and art don’t make good bedfellows.” He ought to know. Since the early 1990s, he’s fought plenty of tough uphill battles in order to fuel strange, intoxicating and awkward music: eight years of startling psychedelic math-rock with The Monsoon Bassoon and six of dogged multi-jointed expressionism with Cardiacs (plus digressions into latterday Zeuhl, madrigal, folk and chamber rock).

You could have forgiven Kavus if he’d played safe on this first, pseudonymous solo album. As one of those people who knows just how ecstatic and luminous music can become if you have the determination to push and ride it all the way, he’s also learned the hard way about how ambition and application don’t necessarily open the ears of the public – or stop the wheels coming off your band in a shower of sparks. Then again, musicians of his omnivorous and kaleidoscopic nature will never be truly happy rolling around the same well-trodden streets as everyone else.

True to past Torabi form, ‘Buried Alone…’ is a dense and complicated thicket of an album, infested with a riot of ideas: an explosion of technicolour shagginess to set against a rank of forward-sweep Britrock haircuts. Anyone who remember the cyclic romps and the full-tilt joyful roar of The Monsoon Bassoon will find some recognizable DNA in here. Yet if that former band was bottled lightning, then Knifeworld is a far more scattered beast. Standard rock instrumentation clusters, interlocks and spins apart in a glorious swirl of noise: an additional palette of clarinets, toy xylophones, violins and santoors adds wood, spit and rattle to proceedings. Crowded and impossibly animated (with multiple styles rubbing up against each other), the album sounds as if Kavus has ripped off the top of his head and let a decade’s worth of listening and imagination just spill out. Yet everything finds its own step in the dance.

Singled Out for Battery exemplifies the intricate wildness on offer, as shivering walls of electric distortion set off a dancing chorus and fairy-ring reels on recorder, guitar and piano. Hollered psychedelic tabloid headlines cartwheel through the verses and everything builds to the kind of exultant boiling guitar solo that suggests King Crimson and Hendrix dancing together around a ‘Wicker Man’ maypole. Large swathes of the album resemble an unstoppable pile-up in Toytown. Propulsive alt.rock riffery worthy of Pixies, Buzzcocks or Shudder to Think is sandwiched by bursts of staccato chamber music or thorny-backed melodic wanderings reminiscent of Henry Cow. Spindly Syd Barrett mumblings sprawl into unresolved mantras, while multi-angled web-work phrases on acoustic guitar are mown down by breaks of crushing thrash-metal.

In one corner, soft voices lilt mysteriously across a barren heathscape; ecstatic and sinister. In another, a dayglo Latin chant flirts with crunching power riffs, hammer dulcimers and fluting see-saw Mellotron before tangling with a crash’n’burn burst of Nancarrow player-piano. In the middle of it all there’s even a delirious single, Pissed Up On Brake Fluid. Horn-heavy and stuffed full of chart-pleasing hookery, it rampages happily towards indie rock radio entirely on its own terms. It’s about a deal with the devil going embarrassingly wrong; or it’s about failing to beat your own devil; or it’s about pranging your car as a metaphor for life. Kavus fires it straight through the center of the record, like a jaguar through a hoop. It soars past – waving the same catchy, compulsive freak flag as The Monsoon Bassoon’s Wise Guy – and then it’s gone, leaving fiery paw-prints on the swarming musical landscapes which surround it.

Despite all of this wildness and waywardness, you can’t simply write the album off as pure self-indulgence. Although Kavus shuffles all of his elements with the free inspiration, impulsiveness and rough edges of a true experimentalist, he also has the structural suss of a prog-rocker to back it up. His wrestling scatter of ingredients ultimately fall into patterns that make sense, however eccentric. On The Wretched Fathoms, jazzy woodwind slashes force themselves onto a lurching tune and drag on the beat like grappling-hooks. Open childlike melodies are mounted atop Corpses Feuding Underground: but underneath it’s restlessly shucking its way through shifting ground and moods, fitting in rockabilly guitar grumbles and brass parps as it does so.

As you might have guessed by now, ‘Buried Alone…’ isn’t an easy listen. Nor, despite the ambition and diversity of its strong medicine, is it all that it could be. Towards the end the album bellies out into a string of uneasy warped dirges which don’t quite match the inventiveness of earlier tracks. Yet this is also the most genuinely psychedelic rock album in ages, and one of the very few psychedelic albums which genuinely deserve the title. Rather than losing himself in noodling out aural wallpaper for stoners, Torabi offers up a succession of yawing mind-flickers which weave between thought, dream and reality as much as they do between styles.

The battered, urban feel of the album – suggesting stretches of blasted fox-ridden scrub ground between Hackney tower blocks, untended bomb-sites and smog-smeared children’s playgrounds – only adds to this. In the gaps between (and within) songs, ominous sounds filter through: the caw of a raven, leaking water, booms of collapse, and distant sirens from hunting police cars. Then there are the lyrics: on first hearing, an obscure word salad sung in earnest, artless tones by Torabi and guest singer Mel Woods (from Sidi Bou Said). Picking deeper into them – past the twirl and bounce of the music and the witty, tongue-in-cheek dips into outright bafflegab – and you find the corpse in the bathtub, a raw web of terrors and regrets rising to the surface.

That hammy album title isn’t just there for a joke. Across the record, there are seeded references to “broken hands”, friends who “hide real agendas in the sidings”, or the terrible phone call that tells you “there’s been an accident.” Corpses Feuding Underground jitters over the fragility of relationships, with unresolved threats looming from both above and below ground, from both the living and the dead. Kavus frets about the return of claustrophobic “clammy horror”, mutters “I’ve buffer-zoned my friends, shut the family out” and wonders aloud “is it vibrations what make us tick over, / or is shrugging doubt, death pulling hard at your cuff?” On No More Dying, over a panicked rotisserie of New York minimalism (computerized piano edge and pulsing Philip Glass clarinets) he wails “all my friends, one by one, sever their correspondence.” The same energy that fires up the album has its flipside in the paranoia which shakes things to pieces. On the swaybacked Severed Of Horsehoof, an exhausted Mel seems almost to have given up. “Just go to sleep,” she sighs, resignedly. “I wish I could…”

Throughout ‘Buried Alone…’, there seems to be a recurrence of the same “be-he-alive-or-be-he-dead” uncertainty that’s also soaked its way, from the beginning, through the work of Cardiacs. A visceral confusion, which ends up rendering Knifeworld’s patchwork of song more vital. Perhaps it’s due to a conviction that whatever life there is – with all of its nightmares, random churnings and visits from the dark side – it is (or has been) precious. “Oh, we dazzled when we were alive” muse Kavus and Mel together on Torch. On the final champing swirl of Me To The Future Of You, Knifeworld’s vision of Armageddon is suffused with acceptance and love. “When oceans earn the right to dry up / and stars have fallen earthward by the score. / Ah the end reeks of familiar, of ever after me to you… / Lips and lids are closing, it’s alright.”

It’s peace, of a kind: an admission and demonstration that our peculiar battles do have meaning in the end.

Knifeworld: ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’
Believer’s Roast, BRR 002 (5060078526074)
CD/download album
Released: 17th August 2009

Get it from:
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March 2003 – live reviews – North Sea Radio Orchestra @ St Clement Eastcheap, City of London, England, 15th March (“a polished Victorian never-never land of intricate miniatures and toymaker’s details”)

18 Mar

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.

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

5 Dec

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 Stars In Battledress’ 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: late November 2002

Buy it from:
(Updated, 2016) Best obtained second-hand – although it’s as rare as hen’s teeth.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
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November 2002 – album reviews – Blue Apple Boy (with Tiny Wood)’s ‘Salient’ (“a fistful of hallucinated tabloid pages”)

6 Nov
Blue Apple Boy: 'Salient'

Blue Apple Boy: ‘Salient’

Change your name: it doesn’t always change your problems. Take Sleepy People, for example, who hauled their lively kaleidoscopic music around an unrewarding British indie circuit (and through a dozen fragile lineups) for a decade. In 2000 they relaunched as Blue Apple Boy, yet retained their perennial instability. Within a year, bandleader Paul Hope was stalled back home in Newcastle minus a singer and half of his musicians.

Sometimes, though, you can take advantage of the problems. At the same time, Britpop anti-hero Tiny Wood (the former frontman for indie-glam stars Ultrasound) was also back in Newcastle, his former band smeared across London as a smouldering Icarus-heap of terminal wreckage and recriminations. Before all that, back in the mid-’90s, Tiny had been the original Sleepy People singer: now he and Paul had common wounds to lick, common sympathies, some comforting nostalgia. Perhaps they even shared, and enjoyed, some affinity-building stubbornness. A mutually beneficial team-up must have seemed so logical…

All of which leads us to the Blue Apple Boy debut album, ‘Salient’ – effectively, a Sleepy People reunion, with the additional expectations of an Ultrasound sequel looming over it. Even before a note is heard, this album struggles with the conflicting yanks of cult-pop demands. Blue Apple Boy make as much hay as possible from Tiny’s cult-hero status, but risk a spurning from aggressively heartbroken Ultrasound fans (who might just crucify a hero who won’t do what they want of him). In practice, ‘Salient’ makes the most of these pressures and contradictions. It’s not quite what’s expected, yet it’s firmly familiar and keeps its own defiant identity to the end.

As with Sleepy People, the songwriting remains predominantly under Paul Hope’s control, and it’s his particular psychedelic quirks that dominate the record. All Systems Fail and Who’s That Calling are typical of this: cute and melodic, in-your-face playful; and leaping off in odd, sometimes vexing, directions as they caper and strive for your attention. Peculiar stories are flourished at you like a fistful of hallucinated tabloid pages. Riffling through assorted newspapers, Paul tracked down real-life accounts of sleepwalkers, bridge-fallers and other unfortunates: re-filtered through the Hope song prism, these tales suggest a tilted world in which people constantly stray off into the margins, crumpled and bizarre.

Whatever other changes the band have gone through, their free-romping jolliness remains intact. They retain their twitchy rhythms, their chugging power-pop guitar lines and their fairy-dust spangles of keyboard, (this time, provided by Vietgrove’s Norman Fay). Paul’s wife Rachel Theresa is still on hand to add her twirling cascades of flute and bubbling analogue synthesizer. In the space of a single song, Blue Apple Boy are likely to traverse space-rock, ska, post-punk and light entertainment. They’ll mix up, with equal affection, the memories of Magazine and The Monochrome Set with those of dusty archive clips of ‘Children’s Hour’; or fuse the nervous thresh of Cardiacs with the sitcom jingles of Ronnie Hazlehurst.

The band’s tinges of eerie head-spinning sound and fairytale absurdity – all very English – also nod to Syd Barrett or, more often, Gong. Despite Tiny’s top billing and Paul’s songwriting dominance, there’s occasionally a communal Gong-family feel to the album, and on three tracks, Tiny is absent altogether. It’s Rachel who provides the spun-sugar lead vocals to The Moon Is Hungry’s Gurdijieffian bossa-nova; and to the hokey-cokey, carousel-prog of Leave The Mud For The Worms. On Apples And Pears (a brief whimsical interlude of psychedelic innocence and nursery babble) Paul and Rachel’s children provide chatter and giggles.

Yet at the heart of the album is the return of Tiny – who has never seemed more at home anywhere than he does here. While Ultrasound had their moments of true connection and emotion, they were ultimately victims of their own grandiose quest for scale and significance: at their worst, they’d belly-flop into grotesque navel-gazing parodies of arena-rock. ‘Salient’ proves that Tiny’s brooding outsider tendencies and flinty tones turn out to be better in smaller environments, posting beady jabs of art-rock from halfway up the pole.

In addition, Tiny displays a knack for adding sardonic, solemn depth to even the most whimsical ideas. Carefully souring Paul Hope’s sonic candy, he highlights the dirt and scrapes lurking behind the playfulness. If Rachel has always been Paul’s most loyal musical foil, Tiny’s always been the one to add grit to his fancies.

For instance, a song about the disorientation and horror of retirement homes (Sunshine Valley Paradise Club) has almost too much musical gamesmanship going on. There are bundles of instruments falling out of the cupboard; there’s a spooky careen of a verse leading into a chorus like a ’70s sitcom theme wrestling with Iggy Pop, then tumbling down the stairs. To cap it off, there’s a dirty great plume of polluted guitar noise from Richard Green (another ex-Ultrasounder and former Sleepy Person, passing through with a psychedelic razz). Yet it’s Tiny, teetering between dignity and hysteria, who reaches through all of this romping and draws out the song’s humanity; the failing dignity of the elderly narrator, the chintz and decorum which rubs shoulders with the sinister.

At other times, Tiny shoves his way through a song like the bastard bare-knuckled offspring of Howard Devoto and the young Peter Gabriel. On Hanghar, Blue Apple Boy deliver a dogged psychedelic pelt along the reality faultline. While a bossa-nova flute-and-birdsong break sweetens the pill for a moment, Paul’s choppy blunt-razor-punk guitar and Tiny’s snarling slides across the melodies make it flit edgily between freedom and menace, vision and insanity. “Seeing the door that’s carelessly open, sliding like a shadow you move… / Light as a feather you’re sailing / while they’re nailing your face to the floor.”

Across the album, Tiny proves to have many more strings to his bow. He lends a junk-Sinatra majesty to the moonstruck marine gloom of Every Wave is Higher on the Beach, with its midnight compulsions and harbour lights: while its cryptic lyric is actually about spawning turtles led astray and into peril by human encroachments on their world, Tiny makes it sound like the return of a disorientated prodigal son. On the sinister sleepwalking fantasia of Dead Man Walking, he snarls over the spasming riffs like a resentful marionette. When he’s simply interpreting a song, though, he adds no more than implications, fine though they are. When he’s given a hand in the songwriting – adding layered lyrics to Hope’s musical inventiveness – he focuses the whole band onto something more pointed.

On the two occasions when this happens, Blue Apple Boy rise above their eccentricities to blaze out two Tiny-scaled anthems for the lost and sidelined (“Born from hope to homelessness, I think / Life is just a kitchen sink…”) As theatrical as anything Ultrasound offered, they recapture that band’s zest in spitting from the outside. These two songs also see Tiny fully focused – a surreal, self-appointed martyr; a champion of car-crash lives at the sharp end of a brutal universe. One of them, Cold War, is even explicitly billed as a follow-up to Ultrasound’s blisteringly romantic Stay Young. It sounds like the evil twin of a Christmas single – stately, but apocalyptic. Tiny struggles though a blasting, suffocating winter-of-the-soul: as people die in the snow around him, distant heartless bells tinkle.

The other song, Jump Start, has already had a few trips around the block. Previously (with different lyrics and frontman) it was a jittering, paedophile-panic single called Freak. Transformed by Tiny, it becomes a cavalcading anthem of blockages, resurgences and blown chances. “The golden door, / it shuts in your face and you’re always poor.” As melodies veer and crash around him, Tiny delivers a sardonic twist on the ageing underground spirit – “Citizen Smith went to heaven, and everyone else drove to Brighton / Cleaner, greener, newer – and I’m frightened…” Maybe it’s a portrait of the Ultrasound collapse; maybe it’s just Tiny voicing a sudden sense of the cold wind that suddenly blows around ageing romantics and freezes the Byron out of them.

Either way, it encapsulates the way this late, reconciling album works. There are bumps in the dream. If handed a nasty twist in the tale, sing it out with your own twist.

Blue Apple Boy (with Tiny Wood): ‘Salient’
Soma Sound, SOMASOUND002
CD album
Released: 28th October 2002

Buy it from:
Best obtained second-hand.

Blue Apple Boy online:
Last FM YouTube
Sleepy People online:
Facebook Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Amazon Music
 

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

15 Jun

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:
MySpace Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music