Tag Archives: men and women singing together

January 2019 – upcoming London classical gigs – baroque, folk and present-day music intertwine at the second Baroque At The Edge festival (4th to 6th January)

2 Jan

Baroque At The Edge festivalAs regards classical music, this month appears to be opening with London’s second annual Baroque At The Edge festival across the 4th, 5th and 6th January. Dividing its time between the Clerkenwell classical-church venues of LSO St Lukes and St James Clerkenwell, it starts from a baroque basis but roughly postulates (as it did last year) along the genre-blurring lines of “imagine if Bach was a jazzman, Purcell a folk-fiddler, and Monteverdi a minimalist…”

Following on from 2018’s debut festival, there’ll be a return engagement with concert dramatist Clare Norburn. Having tackled the murderous guilt and glory of Carlo Gesualdo last time around, Clare’s new work ‘Burying The Dead’ (premiered in the West Country last May) is another deathbed dream drama: this time set in 1695 and focusing on the final protracted thoughts and hallucinations of Henry Purcell as “dream-like memories of the Plague, the Fire of London, family life and the vibrant Restoration stage merge seamlessly with his exquisite vocal and instrumental music.” Said music will be provided by London-based baroque ensemble Ceruleo, who commissioned the play, while actor Niall Ashdown features as Purcell.


 
There’s more Purcell-related goings-on via Cecil Sharp House choir director and Wing-It Singer leader Sally Davies, who with her chorally-minded pianist daughter Holly Cullen Davies is running an open-to-all English folksong workshop, focussing on the songs Purcell would have known and referred to. In a similar spirit, the festival’s closing concert features a team-up of Dipper Malkin (John Dipper on fourteen-string viola d’amore, Dave Malkin on guitar and vocals) and singing storyteller Nick Hennessy – all three keen folk-steeped reinventors, on this occasion exploring how “the sophistication of Purcell meets the soul of English folk.”



 
Several more cross-disciplinary players are taking part. Violist Liam Byrne promises a concert in which you can “expect anything, anyhow, from (Marin) Marais to (Nico) Muhly, although he’s keeping schtum on whether he’s playing pure and acoustic or with the electronics or conceptual tricks which make up the other side of his playing. Path-forging post-classical singer Nora Fischer, accompanied by theorbo lutenist Mike Fentross, will delve into the world of seventeenth century song with “intimate and exquisite re-imaginings of works by Purcell, Peri, Monteverdi and others.”




 

Elsewhere in the festival, vigorous violinist Elicia Silverstein will join the dots between Bach and Biber (representing the baroque) and Luciano Berio and Salvatore Sciarrino (representing the contemporary), as demonstrated on her 2018 debut recording ‘The Dreams And Fables I Fashion’. Replacing a planned baroque piano concert from Gabriela Montero (after she had to drop out following surgery), her fellow pianist David Greilsammer provides his ‘Scarlatti:Cage:Sonatas’ dual keyboard programme which constantly interlaces the music of Domenico Scarlatti with the twentieth-century prepared piano compositions of John Cage (hardware, wood and rubber resonating and burring between the strings).




 
Less compressed information, plus full dates and ticket info, can be found at the festival’s homepage and Facebook page.

‘Baroque At The Edge’
LSO St Luke’s, 161 Old Street, St Lukes, London, EC1V 9NG, England
St James Clerkenwell, Clerkenwell Close, Clerkenwell, London, EC1R 0EA, England
Friday 4th January to Saturday 6th January 2019 (various times)
– information here and here
 

November 2015 – upcoming London gigs – The End Festival in Crouch End, part 2

15 Nov

As promised, here’s the second rundown of people playing Crouch End’s The End Festival here in London this month (in fact, this week). It’s serving as my self-imposed penance for having been stupid enough to have missed the festival’s existence for so many years, especially as it’s been only a fairly short walk from where I live.

In case you’re interested at who’s already played this year, last week’s rundown is here (from math-rock heroes to underground pop hopefuls to assorted folk noises), but here’s who’s performing from tomorrow until the end of next Sunday…

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The Mae Trio + Patch & The Giant + Elephants & Castles (Downstairs @ The Kings Head, 2 Crouch End Hill, Crouch End, London, N8 8AA, UK, Monday 16th November 2015, 7.00pm) – £10.75 – information

Much-garlanded Melbourne chamber-folksters The Mae Trio are a great example of can-do Australian vivacity – three women who juggle multiple instruments (banjo, ukulele, guitar, marimba, violin, cello and bass). While delivering spring-fresh, sparkling three-part harmonies and witty stage banter, they also volley songs at us which merge the whip-smart compassionate edge of Indigo Girls, and the dizzy chatter of The Bush The Tree And Me. Londoners aim plenty of jokes at Aussie visitors, but if they will keep on coming here and showing us up like this… Well, the city’s home-grown alt.folk scene is at least holding its own, since it can produce bands like Patch & The Giant, another gang of multi-instrumentalists (throwing cello, accordion, flugelhorn and violin in with the usual mix) who come up with a ‘Fisherman’s Blues’-era Waterboys mingling of Irish, Balkan and American country influences plus New Orleans funeral-band razz, rolling off heady spirit-in-the-everyday songs for a potential singalong everywhere they go.


The second of the two London bands, Elephants & Castles, might not share the direct folkiness of the rest of the night’s bill (being more of a brash and perky power-pop idea at root, with fat synth and chatty peals of electric guitar) but the band does have an acoustic side (which they might be bringing along on this occasion). Also, a closer look at their songs reveals a strand of outrightly folky protest and character witness, with songs about gentrification, the lot of manufacturing workers and the ordeals and victimhood of Justin Fashanu showing up in their setlist.

 

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Howe Gelb (The Crypt Studio, 145a Crouch Hill, Crouch End, London, N8 9QH, UK, Monday 16th & Tuesday 17th November 2015, 7.00pm) – £22.00 – information

Tireless alt.country legend and multi-project workaholic Howe Gelb (the frontman for Giant Sand, Sno Angel and Arizon Amp & Alternator) takes in two dates in Crouch End as part of his ongoing tour. The first of Howe’s dates will be solo, but Nadine Khouri (fresh from her Hornsey Town Hall megagig appearance on the preceding Saturday) will be playing support on the 16th, with an extra surprise guest promised at some point in the proceedings.


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Romeo Stodart & Ren Harvieu (Earl Haig Hall, 18 Elder Avenue, Crouch End, London, N8 9TH, UK, Thursday 19th November 2015, 7.00pm) – £13.75 – information

Romeo Stodart (half of the frontline for familial, Mercury-nominated, cuddly-bear band The Magic Numbers) has been taking time out from his main group to write and sing with Salford soul-pop singer Ren Harvieu as R N R. This performance gives both singers a chance to show us what they’ve come up with. Expect a full-potential set: reinterpretations of both Ren songs and Magic Numbers numbers, reworkings of standards (as defined and chosen by the duo) and the full song fruits of their new partnership. One or two examples of the latter have sneaked out into the public eye previously, so here’s a taste – via YouTube – of what’s on offer.

 

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Before the Goldrush presents Green Diesel + Tom Hyatt + Horatio James (The Haberdashery, 22 Middle Lane, Crouch End, London, N8 8PL, UK, Friday 20th November 2015, 8.00pm) – £5.00 – information

Kentish folk-rock sextet Green Diesel happily embrace a spiritual descent from an earlier ‘70s wave of English folk-rockers – Fairport Convention, Mr Fox, The Albion Band, Steeleye Span). As those bands did, they conflate dazzling electric guitar, a mass of acoustic folk instrumentation and a sheaf of traditional tunes mixed in with new songs (“old-fashioned, new-fangled”). In the same spirit, they’re enthusiasts and honourers of the old forms, but are never shy of splicing in others (“a reggae twist into an old sea shanty… spicing up a jig with a touch of jazz funk”) in order to communicate the songs to a fresher and perhaps less reverent audience during one of the frenetic and joyous live gigs which they’re becoming increasingly famous for.

If you’re a bunch of Londoners going for that country-flavoured Neil Young lonesomeness, then you’ll need the conviction, you need a certain selflessness and freedom from posing, and you’ll need the songs. Horatio James have all of this, carrying it off without slipping either into pastiche or into a faux-Laurel Canyon slickness, offering “songs of estrangement, heartbreak and malevolence” floating like dust off a pair of snakeskin boots. A cut-down version of the band charmed me at a Smile Acoustic live session in Shoreditch: the full band ought to be even better.


Tom Hyatt tends to work solo, delivering his clarion tenor voice and songs from behind a propulsive, percussive acoustic guitar or from the stool of a fluid, contemplative piano. There are strains of Tim Buckley and John Martyn in what he does, perhaps a little of the young Van Morrison (and, judging by his taste in covers, a dash of ABBA as well) but with their boozy, visionary slurs and blurs replaced by a clear-headed, clear-witted take on matters. Some might reckon that this was missing the point: if you don’t, Tom – heart and mind engaged – is certainly your man:. At this gig, he’ll be playing with a regular collaborator, cellist Maya McCourt (also of Euro-American folk collision Various Guises and bluegrass belle Dana Immanuel’s Stolen Band).


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The Apple Of My Eye + Michael Garrett + The August List(SoftlySoftly @ Kiss The Sky, 18-20 Park Road, Crouch End, London, N8 8TD, UK, Sunday 22nd November 2015, 3.00pm) – £4.40/£5.00 – information

Of course SoftlySoftly – who present regular unplugged folky gigs in Crouch End – fit perfectly into the festival, and present one of their acoustic afternoons (which are adults only, for reasons of booze rather than scabrousness) with barely a blip in their stride Offering “folk music for the drunk, the drowned and the lost at sea”, Bristolian-via-London sextet Apple Of My Eye write thoughtful, contemplative alt.folk songs tinged with country harmonies and displacement (mellow but slightly homesick, in the manner of the itinerant and accepting). Michael Garrett is another rising star on the London acoustic scene, usually performing with a backing band of Chums to back up his voice and guitar with viola, cello and cajon although this occasion looks as if it may well be a solo gig. There’s not much of Michael’s open, unaffected songcraft online, although I did find a video of him taking on Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years, as well as a brief homemade clip of one of his own songs. Husband-and-wife duo The August List belt out a take on Carter-classic stripped country with honey-and-bitter-molasses vocals, shading into occasional rock clangour and odd instrumentation stylophones – hardbitten songs of hardbitten ordinary folk, sometimes driven into cruel situations.


 
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The Feast of St Cecilia: The Memory Band + The Lords Of Thyme + Elliott Morris + The Mae Trio + You Are Wolf + Collectress + Spectral Chorus + DJ Jeanette Leech (Earl Haig Hall, 18 Elder Avenue, Crouch End, London, N8 9TH, UK, Sunday 22nd November 2015, 1.00pm) – £11.00 – information

The second and last of The End’s big gigs is also the festival closer. Apart from The Mae Trio (making a mid-bill return after their Monday performance) it’s a once-only grouping of End talent – “a fitting folk finale, a weird folk all dayer” with a wealth of bands tapping into or springing out of folk forms across the spectrum, plus DJ-ing by Jeanette Leech (scene authority and writer of ‘The Seasons They Change – The Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk’).

The Memory Band is a folktronica project with a difference. Rather than clothing old or new folk songs in electronic textures, Stephen Cracknell builds new folk pieces up from scratch, assembling them via computer and a virtual “imaginary band” succession of guest players, Instead of smoothing the gaps, though, he makes the most of the eerie collage effect of digital sampling and patchwork. Some Memory Band pieces are familiar guitar and slap hollers with a folk baroque smoky swirl – hard-drive recordings with a trad air. Others are tapescape instrumentals, like an English-folk translation of Bomb Squad hip hop techniques: old-sounding folk airs carried on acoustic instruments against drones and percussion snippets like jingling reins, while backing tracks are made entirely out of ancient tune snatches and Sussex field recordings (hedgerow birds and bleating sheep, tractors, skyborne seagulls, landscape echoes; the tracery of air, wind and sky over downs). The live arrangements may lean more towards the acoustic and traditional style, but if they capture any of the vivid reimaginings of the recorded efforts they’ll still be well worth seeing.


The Lords Of Thyme are what you get when musicians from the wild psychedelic folk cyclone of Circulus decide that they want to slow down a little but go deeper. Joe Woolley, Tali Trow and Pat Kenneally (three Circulus players, former or current – it’s always hard to tell which) bonded with singer Michelle Griffiths over shared musical loves and have gone on to play and record songs which draw and build on the quartet’s steepings in both psychedelic esoterica and better known touchstones: Wizz Jones and Nick Drake, Sandy Denny’s Fotheringay, Nico, Davy Graham, early ’70s prog (Soft Machine and Yes) and even New York post-punk (Television). The results are a shimmering but solid acid-folk songbook, perfect for recapturing the tail-end of a half-imagined, cider-golden summer in these dank November days.


 

Celtic Connections award-winner Elliott Morris is the kind of young folk musician who makes both his peers and older musicians wince ruefully into their beers. Not only does he play fingerstyle guitar with the dazzling, percussive, ping-pong-match-in-a-belfry attack of Michael Hedges, Antonio Forcione or Jon Gomm, but he simultaneously sings with the controlled passion of a teenaged Martin Furey and writes like a youthful John Martyn. There’s something quite magical here.

Like The Memory Band, Kerry Andrew – who works as You Are Wolf – is a folk reinventor, taking ideas from current technology, leftfield pop, contemporary classical music and spoken word recording and then applying them to folk music. Her current album, ‘Hawk To The Hunting Gone’ is an invigorating cut-up of melodies and Kerry’s extensive vocal and production techniques, sounding like lost ethnology tapes of Anglo-American folk strands from a parallel history.

To call Collectress an alternative string quartet sells them too short – it suggests that the London-Brighton foursome can be summarised as an English take on Kronos. Aside from the fact that that any such position has already been taken (and reinvented, flipped and superseded) by the Smith and Elysian Quartets, Collectress just don’t play the same pattern as regards repertoire or instruments. They’re more of a quartet-plus, with musical saw, keyboards, woodwind, guitar, software, field recordings and singing as much in their armoury as their strings. Citing the Necks, Rachels, Bach and John Adams in their puzzlebox of influences, the group offer four very individual women musicians, a knack for full improvisation, and a sense of narrative that imbues everything from their songs to their suggestive spontaneous pieces.



 

Finally, Merseyside trio Spectral Chorus seem to have emerged from a post-dole background of disintegration, drifting and life lived one long ominous step away from the black. Their tale of sharing one hovel and a single bed as they honed their craft, living off pawn money from putting their instruments in and out of hock, and of nourishing themselves solely with spare hotel breakfasts from one member’s work as a caterer sounds like a grim joke: in these unsparing days, of course, it could well be true. Now homed at Skeleton Key Records (the Liverpool-based label-of-love set up by The Coral), they’re releasing their spooky semi-hymnal urban folk songs – part Shack and part Brendan Perry – to a waiting world, and there’s evidently enough in the kitty for live appearances too.

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And that’s it. More on the End Festival next year, when I’ll know what to expect.

September 2015 – upcoming gigs – Gong’s Dave Sturt and friends travel the world from Derbyshire on the 23rd; London gets more Daylight Music eclectica plus a Blacklisters/Joeyfat/Himself jabber-rock summit on the 26th

17 Sep

Here are details on some more interesting concerts coming up later this month. These run the gamut from soft psychedelic world-folk atmospherics to jabbering electric art-punk noise and sprechtstimme via dream-folk, caustic love songs and extended-technique art-rock instrumentals. (It was a shame to hear about the cancellation of the Charles Hayward gig in London on the 23rd – taking its ANTA, Gnob and Kavus Torabi support slots with it – but I’m sure that something similar will be rescheduled for anyone in need of their art-mash/stoner/prog/psych/metal salad…)

event20150923davesturtwirkw

Dave Sturt presents An Evening of Dreams & Absurdities (Upstairs @ The Red Lion, Market Place, Wirksworth, Matlock, Derbyshire, DE4 4ET, UK, 23rd September 2015, 8.00pm) – £8.00

As part of the Wirksworth Festival Fringe, Dave Sturt (bass guitarist with Gong, Bill Nelson, Steve Hillage and Jade Warrior, as well as being half of Cipher) showcases tracks from his forthcoming solo album ‘Dreams & Absurdities’ in an evening of world-class all-instrumental musicianship featuring beautiful eclectic music, soundscapes and various field recordings from Gong tours and elsewhere. The music is “mostly mellow and ambient – somewhere between melancholy and elation.”

For the performance, Dave will be accompanied by three guests. Chris Ellis (guitar and piano) is a multi-instrumentalist/singer-songwriter/actor, an ex-member of Anglesey band Ghostriders, and an award-winning soundtrack composer – he’s also a collaborator with Dave on the Past Lives Project (which recreates the recent ancestral histories of British communities by resurrecting their old cinefilm recordings and setting them to new music). Brian Boothby (low whistle, djembe) is an acclaimed folk musician, dramatist and writer and a member of the Derbyshire mixed-arts collective Genius Loci. Jeff Davenport (drums, percussion, HandSonic pad) has worked with jazz musicians Andy Sheppard and Phil Robson, pop artists James Morrison and Laura Mayne, and currently collaborates regularly with “Silent Pianist” Neil Brand providing soundracks to silent films, as well as working in Europe and the Far East on various projects with all manner of musicians.

Up-to-date details here  and here, with tickets available online from here or available from Traid Links via email enquiry.

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On the last post, I plugged a London double event on the 19th – a day with a Daylight Music concert at midday and a noisier rock gig in the evening (both events which are still about to happen as I post this). In another week’s time, history’s repeating (fortunately not as farce, though anyone familiar with the bands in the evening show can expect some twists and jabs of humour) so here’s what’s coming up on September 26th…

Daylight Music 200

Daylight Music 200: Ex-Easter Island Head + French For Rabbits + Louis Barabbas, plus a photo exhibition (Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington, London, N1 2UN, UK – Saturday 26th September 2015, 12.00pm-2.00pm) – free entry, suggested donation £5.00

An extra special event to celebrate the 200th Daylight Music, featuring some of the most popular acts from the last six years (643 performances by 530 different acts; 15,254 cups of tea or coffee drunk; 9,863 slices of cake scoffed; 5,003 pieces of quiche devoured) and during which we’ll be raising funds for Daylight Music in 2016.

Ex-Easter Island Head are a Liverpool based musical collective composing and performing music for solid-body electric guitar, percussion and other instruments. They have performed their original compositions solo, as a duo, trio, quartet and as a large ensemble across a wide variety of events from site-specific installation works to live film scores. They create a sensation whenever they play. If you’ve never seen musicians hitting electric guitars with mallets before, then cancel all other plans for the day and head down.

French For Rabbits hail from the remote natural setting of Waikuku Beach, in New Zealand’s South Island. Vocalist Brooke Singer expresses intimate narratives against the cast of the damp colonial cold; her voice delicately steeled against winsome guitar lines and the eerie instrumentation of her bandmates. It’s a weather-beaten dreamscape, nostalgic for warmth and hopefully lilting towards sunnier climes.

Louis Barabbas is a writer, performer and label director, best known for caustic love songs and energetic stage shows that leave you pumped up and breathless.

The icing on the cake this week is an instrumental soundscape provided by Irish singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Crowley, who (over his six-album career) has been described by the Independent as “a master of understatement” and cited by Ryan Adams as the answer to the question “who’s the best songwriter that no one’s heard of?”

To celebrate the fantastic photography taken throughout the lifespan of Daylight Music by a very talented bunch of volunteer photographers, there will be a lo-fi photo exhibition consisting of 200 postcards on the pews of the chapel for people to take away; plus there will be a limited numbers of brochures to buy featuring all of the photographs.

More information on the concert is here.

In the evening, there’s a change of pace and milieu over in Hackney as post-hardcore rubs up against a bit of playful English Dada. I’ve got a liking for those occasions when rock music drives itself up against persistent, wayward speech and stubs its toes on it; and this gig will offer plenty of opportunities for that…

Blacklisters, Joeyfat, Himself, September 26th

Blacklisters + Joeyfat + Himself (Pink Mist @ The Shacklewell Arms, 71 Shacklewell Lane, London, E8 2EB, UK, Saturday 26th September 2015, 8.00pm) – £8.00

Blacklisters’ aggressive, confrontational and darkly humorous performances have earned them a reputation as one of the best acts on the UK underground, drawing comparisons to the likes of The Jesus Lizard and Pissed Jeans. Their debut album ‘BLKLSTRS’ was released in 2012 to critical acclaim, landing them supports with Scratch Acid, Pig Destroyer, Future of the Left and Big Business, as well as a live session at Maida Vale studios for the Radio 1 Rock Show. Tonight’s special show is in support of their fearsome new record ‘Adult’ on Smalltown America. Produced by Matt Johnson (aka MJ of Hookworms) the album is a clear progression for the band and sees them fuse abstract art-noise with the brutally minimalist riffs that first put them on the radar.

Also playing are amorphous cult stalwarts Joeyfat, a band who’ve been defying conventions of “band logic” longer than most of us have been able to get into shows at all. Their sinewy math-inspired spoken-word has seen them share stages with the likes of Bilge Pump, S*M*A*S*H, Clearlake, Lords, Dartz, Art Brut, Trencher and Green Day, obviously. Catch them at this rare London show.

Direct from Leeds (unless they stopped off some place on the way), Himself’s shouty/talky interactive noise rock has been winning them plaudits up and down the company, including from Radio’s Daniel P. Carter who invited them to record a live session for the Radio 1 Rock Show earlier this year.

Tickets for the Shacklewell Arms gig are available here and here. Note that this is an 18+ event.

 

September 2015 – upcoming London gigs – experimental pop in Brixton on the 9th, folk and darkwave in Bethnal Green on the 11th, a Daylight Music melange and a Tim Smith garage-fizz fundraiser on the 19th

9 Sep

More upcoming September gigs, from tomorrow through to Saturday 19th

a.P.A.t.T. + Tom O.C. Wilson Ensemble + 4tRECk + Some of My Best Friends (The Windmill, 22 Blenheim Gardens, Brixton, London, SW2 5BZ, UK, Thursday 9th September 2015, 8.00pm) – £6.00/£7.00

a.P.A.t.T. , 2015

a.P.A.t.T. , 2015

A Brixton evening of skewed and experimental pop, shading off into other directions including R’n’B, improvised instrumentals and assorted prankery. (Age restriction – 18 years minimum)

The a.P.A.t.T. of today take a skilled yet cheeky approach to playing progressive pop that owes as much to Kurt Schwitters and the Chapman Brothers as it does to ABBA and Zappa. In touring new album ‘Fun With Music’, a.P.A.t.T. have condensed their vision-quest into forty-five minutes of hooky, style-busting live band material, evading capture at every turn. This is the band that swaps instruments live mid-track and has even run its own small country for an evening: it’s a restless and relentless take on 21st century music and performance through a lens of knowing, winking, quintessentially British humour.

The Tom O.C Wilson Ensemble offers forward thinking pop music that combines classic songwriting values with boundless musical curiosity. Wilson describes himself as “a composer and performer driven by the desire to create music that doesn’t exist but should”, and his work (ranging from experimental pop albums to concert pieces for amateur orchestras) has won praise from Field Music, Michael Finnissy and Devendra Banhart among others.

The USSB of Hamburg-based Some Of My Best Friends is a Unit of Science, Socialism and Booty. Some Of My Best Friends use tunes and words. Some Of My Best Friends don’t approve of unnecessary effort. Some Of My Best Friends never travel with more than one case. Think psycho dub, garage soul, trap, and Karl Marx’s booty in sequin overalls.

In existence for years and years, Sam Callow’s 4tRECk project makes music based around spontaneous improvisation, chance, using various instruments (piano, guitar, violin, accordion, home-made stringed instruments, percussion, voice) the “wrong” way, ideas, and detailed composition. The results are broad, with a melancholic side.

More info here, and tickets here.

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Friday 11th sees the launch of a “new regular night, bringing you new sounds and non-traditional world music, folk, contemporary classical, trip hop and downtempo music. We start with some truly breathtaking bands…” This kind of blarney could be an attempt to heat up some very thin and bland material indeed, but the people behind Whispers & Hurricanes are Chaos Theory, who already sweat bullets to bring interesting jazz, post-prog, metal and post-hardcore into and out of London, so I think we can trust them. Here’s the bill:

Whispers & Hurricanes, 11th September 2015Mishaped Pearls + Seventh Harmonic + TEYR (Whispers & Hurricanes @ The Sebright Arms,, Friday 11th September 2015, 7.30pm) – £6.00/£8.00

Seven-piece band Mishaped Pearls are at the forefront of a very exciting new wave of UK folk. Their adventurous song combination of the ancient and the new finds an echo in their musical make up – banjo, saz baglama, bodhran, violin and mandolin mix with acoustic guitar, keyboards, electric bass and drums, all led by the mezzo-soprano voice of Manuela Schuette. Their music’s roots in tradition expand into progressive folk and rock, eastern modal music and shows elements of contemporary classical influence. Their most recent album ‘Thamesis’ has received outstanding reviews across the media.

Consisting of multi-instrumentalist and composer Caroline Jago and drummer Lesley Malone (both also of Sol Invictus) plus singing violinist Éilish McCracken, Seventh Harmonic are a neoclassical darkwave ensemble creating sensual euphoric epics that draw on a great diversity of influences. The music blends an intoxicating kaleidoscope of rhythmic intensity and soaring vocals with ethno-symphonic overtures, defying categorisation yet always beating with a dark romantic heart.

Forged amongst the hustle and bustle of North London’s folk scene, TEYR (“3” in the Cornish language) are a trio of formidable musicians who showcase the many sounds of the British Isles. With roots running from Ireland to Wales to Cornwall, James Gavin (guitar and fiddle), Dominic Henderson (uilleann pipes and whistles) and Tommie Black-Roff (accordion), the players thrive on close interplay and pushing the possibilities of acoustic music. Having met on the traditional music scene through late night sessions, each performer holds an intuitive sense of folk music, evident in their deft arrangements and compositions. The trio draws influence from neo-folk groups such as Lau, Kan and Lúnasa, whilst harnessing an innovative combination of strings, reeds and voices. With this distinct mix, TEYR strike an enigmatic path through the current folk wave.

Tickets from here – note that this is another 18-and-over event.

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Admittedly the following is late rather than early September, but if you look forward to Saturday 19th you can anticipate spending from noon until early afternoon admiring architecture to a soundtrack of chamber classical, contemporary folk and experimental pop, and then head into the fringes of south-west London for something a little scruffier and garage-friendly.

In conjunction with the Open House London Weekend (which takes in their home venue of the Union Chapel as well as a wealth of other fantastic London architecture – check it out), Daylight Music are doing a special double-length all-ages Saturday session. Details below…

Daylight Music 199

Daylight Music 199: Sean O’Hagan, Ellie Lovegrove/Illumina, Pip Mountjoy + Elephant (Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington, London, N1 2UN, UK – Saturday 19th September 2015, 10.00am-2.00pm) – free entry, suggested donation £3.50

Sean O’Hagan is a legend of the indie scene, initially from his work in Microdisney and latterly from his time in The High Llamas who have been following their own lights for the past eighteen years, making records and essentially occupying their own genre in doing so. Their music is timeless; elements of retro and modern share the space, creating a unique time and place that is outside the lines of history as we experience it. Today Sean will be providing a solo performance.

Consisting of Ellie Lovegrove (trumpets) and Richard Moore (church organ), classical chamber music duo Illumina were formed in 2012 for a bespoke private recital and enjoy performing a wide variety of music, including works by Handel, Bach, Purcell, Stanley, Elgar, Damase, Takemitzu, and Eben.

Up-and-coming singer-songwriter Pip Mountjoy has been championed by BBC Introducing. She has toured the UK extensively, supporting the likes of Ryan Adams, John Smith, Slow Club, playing festivals such as Glastonbury, Isle of Wight and Cambridge Folk, and leaving audiences “simultaneously entertained, depressed, amused, bemused and delighted.”

Elephant is an intriguing creature hand reared by Lymington-based Alex Hall. Armed with a laptop and a modest collection of instruments, he set forth in piecing together and recording a collection of material inspired by his love of experimental indie, ’60s surf pop and more contemporary lo-fi electronic music. This is the result.

Approximate timings:

  • 10.00am Doors
  • 10.30am Elephant
  • 11.30am Illumina
  • 12.30pm Pip Mountgrove
  • 1.30pm Sean O’Hagan

In between, there are musical interludes by unsigned indie-folk duo Swallow & The Wolf (about whom there’s an ever-growing buzz) and by Jack Hayter (the multi-instrumentalist perhaps best known for work with Darren Hayman and Hefner, and on this occasion providing pedal steel improvisations similar to his Dollboy work plus “the odd jazz standard” though his solo performances of his own engagingly battered folk songs are also well worth seeing).

More information on the concert is here https://www.facebook.com/events/446360282212545/

In the evening, in Kingston-upon-Thames, there’s a benefit gig: another in the ongoing series of support fundraisers for the cruelly-stricken Tim Smith of Cardiacs. Even if Cardiacs in the raw, uncompromising original isn’t quite your thing, if you’ve got any interest in slightly complicated, roughened pop and garage-band grit, go along anyway. These are among the warmest of gigs…

From The Pond, 19th September 2015

From The Pond: a benefit for Tim Smith featuring Redbus Noface + 7shades + Sterbus + t.b.c. (The Fighting Cocks, 56 Old London Road, Kingston-upon-Thames, London, KT2 6QA, UK, Saturday 19th September 2015, 7.00pm) – £10.00

“A multi-faceted psychedelic pop-punk benefit gig… four extraordinary bands (all Cardiacs-y), beautiful and exclusive merchandise… every penny raised goes to Tim.”

Redbus Noface is the band project from latterday recording engineer and long-ago Cardiac Mark Cawthra. The first Redbus Noface album, ‘#1 If It Fights The Hammer, It Will Fight The Knife’, was released in 2011 and represents many years of Cawthra songwriting and musical ideas – a sturdy, beautifully crafted art-pop gem in the tradition of assorted English mavericks such as XTC.

Led by Neil Spragg, 7shades are a musical project which “pays tribute to the music of Tim Smith and Cardiacs – but with all original music” – a sometimes-nine-piece band delivering vigorously convoluted pop and blurts of punky, proggy, psychedelic noise, all equipped with a fantastical and humorous edge and no fear of either looking or sounding ridiculous.

Sterbus is from Rome, but his musical heart is in the shaggier, dreamier end of 1990s Britpop and American indie rock (Blur and Cardiacs, Elliott Smith and Nirvana, Supergrass and Pavement) and also delves happily into prime prog (with King Crimson, Zappa, Porcupine Tree and the fuzzier rockier chunks of the Canterbury scene). Self-releasing – and working mainly solo – he’s mixed this menu into a series of albums of warm double-jointed oddpop. Returning to the Fighting Cocks for his second Smith benefit gig, he’s performing in duet with his regular band foil Dominique D’Avanzo (him on guitar, her on clarinet, recorder and mouth harp, and both of them singing) for what he describes as “something very Sea Nymph-y and full of chords that Tim would love.”

Sadly, one of the scheduled bands has had to pull out… but if you’re still interested in the garage-rocker sounds of The Spencers (who “make noises. Loud noises. Noises that make you all happy and sad and angry… and sometimes, all at the same time” via a grime of guitars, low-budget organs and rock-siren vocals, plus distinctly Cardiacs twists of wandering harmonies and attention-deficit mood‘n’pace changes) here’s a taste of them anyway.

The event will be compered by writer and comedian Robin Ince (he of ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage‘) who’s apparently “bringing a friend. And may be doing a little music.” There will also be visuals by South Coast animator Cyriak Harris, whose hilarious, playful and slightly disturbing videos have been a YouTube staple ever since he delivered a monster-movie ‘EastEnders’ tribute to the BBC nearly a decade ago…

Ongoing news regarding From The Pond (including any last-minute substitutes for The Spencers) is here and tickets are here.

More September gigs shortly, plus a look at October and further on.

August 2015 – upcoming London gigs – Prescott, A Sweet Niche and V A L V E @ The Harrison, August 26th; the welcome return of Daylight Music (with Pete Astor, TEYR and The Left Outsides), August 29th

22 Aug

Coming to a Kings Cross cellar next week…

Prescott - as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella...

Prescott – as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella…

Prescott + A Sweet Niche + V A L V E (The Harrison, 28 Harrison Street, Kings Cross, London, WC1H 8JF, UK, Wednesday 26th August, 7.00pm) – £5.00

Prescott are a percolating musical alliance between Kev Hopper (who once played elasticated bass guitar for Stump and went on to participate in offbeat experimental projects from laptop improv to pocket pop), veteran avant-indie/improvising drummer Frank Byng (of Crackle, Snorkel and the Slowfoot label) and polymath keyboard player Rhodri Marsden, whose curiosity, industry and dry wit has drawn him through a patchwork career of interesting music (including The Keatons, Zuno Men, The Free French, Gag and Scritti Politti) and deft, wry journalism on everything from drum machines to dating disasters.

According to the Harrison’s blurb, the band deliver “a curious mix of the melodic and discordant with syncopated funky, skewed beats and lopsided, sometimes jabbing riffs that emerge from a complex web of musical interactions and expand or contract like sections of a stuck record.” The band themselves talk about “jabbing heteroclite riffs, circular rhythmic patterns, vibrating harmonic clashes, irregular note intervals, all contrasted with pockets of beautiful melody” and their trick of “microriffing” – repeating the same tiny melodic segment for “as long as they can hold their nerve” (out of a sense of persistence, a zest for irritancy or a desire to pay homage to loop culture) .

I’ll add that while these descriptions make Prescott sound like a set of ticks on a battered art-music bingo card, they’re actually one of the most entertaining and even danceable bands I’ve seen in recent years; pumping out a surprisingly melodious batch of hiccups, peculiar grooves and inventive colours, and sometimes seeming to plug into a monstrous late-Miles Davis synth-fusion groove (entirely by mistake).

I’ve written about A Sweet Niche before, having encountered them a few years ago when they were roaring the roof of a cellar off in Spitalfields. Between them, guitarist Keir Cooper, baritone saxophonist Oliver Sellwood and drummer Tim Doyle have an intimidating list of project credits. In this band, however, they make a brinksman’s racket of free-form punk-jazz, bringing in whatever else they’ve learned from excursions into rock, theatre work and the thornier ends of contemporary classical.

Making the most of their disparate backgrounds (Oliver is a qualified musical academian, Keir more of a non-institutional outsider, newer boy Tim somewhere in between) they’ll attack their musical ideas at full blurt and with plenty of noise, like angry men stripping the wreck of a ca. They’ll toss disparate fragments up into the air and rant about them, but then sideswipe expectations with a run at a cute theme. Last time I described them as “if Bagpuss had joined Slayer”, and they seemed to like it. See what you think.

V A L V E is the solo project of Chlöe Herington – reedswoman, experimenter and Magma/Zappa/Peter Maxwell Davies fan. She’s best known for blowing taut, assertive bassoon and saxophone parts in Knifeworld and Chrome Hoof, but has also worked with lo-fi art-rockers Jowe Head & The Demi Monde and elusive psycho-lounge band Made By Monsters, as well as a clutch of contemporary classical projects. V A L V E places the bassoon to centre stage, surrounded by Chlöe’s clusters of technology and (when required) selected guests. At the Harrison, the project will be appearing in “its first non-gallery show ever”, which might either involve letting it off the leash or playing a little more safe. (Come and find out.)

Dotted around Chlöe’s other band commitments, V A L V E releases have been sparse so far – odd fits and starts on Soundcloud or YouTube plus a couple of Bandcamp tracks. Here are a few tasters, including the soundtrack to a dinosaur battle, something which Chlöe developed from a piece of music found in a skip, and a more sombre contemporary classical effort.

Up-to-date gig information available here and here. (Or, if none of this really floats your boat and you’d prefer some lustrous art-rock croon, here’s one last linking plug for the Tim Bowness/Improvizone gig at the Boston Music Room on the same night.)

* * * * * * * *

On the Saturday, it’s time to welcome back Daylight Music, who are starting up a new series of free midday gigs (and are still writing their own promo blurb, which makes things a little easier for me).

Daylight Music 198 - Pete Astor + TEYR + The Left Outsides
Daylight Music 198: Pete Astor + TEYR + The Left Outsides (Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington, London, N1 2UN, UK – Saturday 29th August, 12pm to 2pm)

Ex-leader of The Loft, The Weather Prophets and numerous other esteemed acts, Pete Astor creates timeless chamber-pop, brimming with wry lyrical insight and haunting melodic hooks. Now recording for Fortuna POP!, he has his first full length album for four years ready for release. This has been made with Ultimate Painting, Veronica Falls and Proper Ornaments main man James Hoare along with Pam Berry (Black Tambourine, Withered Hand) on vocals, Alison Cotton (The Left Outsides) on viola, Jack Hayter (Hefner) on pedal steel and guitar, Emma Winston on synth bass (Darren Hayman’s Long Parliament, Owl & Mouse) and Susan Milanovic (Feathers) on drums. The recent single, ‘Mr Music’ has been very warmly received with Astor and band recording sessions for Marc Riley and headlining the Church stage at this years’ Indie Tracks festival among many other recent live outings. For the Daylight Music show Astor will be joined onstage by James, Pam, Alison, Jack, Emma and Susan making a seven-piece group playing Astor’s songs, old and new, for an edifying and nutritious lunchtime performance.

Forged amongst the hustle and bustle of North London’s folk scene, TEYR (“3” in the Cornish language) are a trio of formidable musicians who showcase the many sounds of the British Isles. With roots running from Ireland to Wales to Cornwall, James Gavin (guitar and fiddle), Dominic Henderson (uilleann pipes and whistles) and Tommie Black-Roff (accordion), the players thrive on close interplay and pushing the possibilities of acoustic music. Having met on the traditional music scene through late night sessions, each performer holds an intuitive sense of folk music, evident in their deft arrangements and compositions. The trio draws influence from neo-folk groups such as Lau, Kan and Lúnasa, whilst harnessing an innovative combination of strings, reeds and voices. With this distinct mix, TEYR strike an enigmatic path through the current folk wave.

The Left Outsides are Mark Nicholas and Alison Cotton, a London-based husband and wife duo whose atmospheric, hypnotic songs echo Nico’s icy European folk, pastoral psychedelia and chilly English fields at dawn. Their second album ‘The Shape Of Things To Come’ has just received a welcome and much-praised vinyl release on Dawn Bird Records and an album of new material is currently being recorded. The duo have played across the UK, France, Germany and in the USA; and have recorded radio sessions for Stuart Maconie’s Freakzone, Tom Robinson’s show on BBC6 Music, Pete Paphides show for Soho Radio and Tom Cox’s radio show.

As ever, Daylight Music is free, although you’ll have to pay for your tea and cake, and further donations are encouraged. Full up-to-date information is available here.

August/September 2015 – an American summer/fall tour for The Collection and Lowland Hum

20 Aug
the Collection tune up...

the Collection tune up…

Today the Collection begin a two-month American tour. Veering mostly around the South, the Midwest, the West Coast and the Pacific North-Western states, it takes in (bar a mid-tour rendezvous with the Viper Room in Los Angeles) the kind of intimate, audience-engaging venues I’d love to discover on an American road trip of my own – assorted music bars, small theatres, coffee shops. This is in keeping with the band’s stated ethos – based in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Collection describe themselves less as a band and more of “a community of artists, nurses, farmers, students, and everyone in between doing life together.” According to bandleader David Wimbish, “we don’t want fans, we want family. It’s incredible to us that people would even listen to our music, and it’s so much more important for us to connect with those people than to figure out how to get fans.”

The second Collection album, ‘Ars Moriendi’, was released last summer but only crossed my ears recently via a brief and now-expired Noisetrade offer (you can still go there and pick up a free sampler if you want to). I love discovering inspiring records by accident, and ‘Ars Moriendi’ is one of the more emotionally commanding works I’ve heard for a good while. Swelling up from a core of seven people to as many as twenty-five on record, the Collection dip into rock, folk, gospel, barndance, bluegrass, soul and mariachi. Adding banjo, brass, strings, reeds, autoharps, and didgeridoos to the usual pianos, guitar and drums results in a heady grand-medicine-show of a sound.

This in itself isn’t new. There are plenty of expansive Americana folk-rock ensembles peppered with diverse instrumentation; and (either by coincidence, intent or just common feeling) the Collection echo strains of music which we’ve already heard via The Polyphonic Spree, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens and Guillemots; not to mention The Band and Mercury Rev, or the reedy, distracted, keening tones David shares with Damien Rice. What gives them the Collection their particular edge is the driving verve and commitment with which they play. Despite their hollering utopian tendencies of their singalongs they’re unconcerned with party robes or cute, culty psychedelic trappings. Instead, their music is imbued with communitarian impulses and a fumbling, ever-hopeful sense of personal connections.

Integral to this is the band’s Christianity. Almost every one of David Wimbish’s songs is studded and seeded with Biblical allusions and resonances, yet he’s never rendered complacent and conformist by his faith. Rather, he’s caught up in it – a tender-hearted radical questioning and examining his beliefs, challenging his own conscience and the orthodoxy, compelled to decry the church’s seams of bigotry and exceptionalism whenever he stumbles over them. At the same time, David is clearly fascinated by the church’s central mystery of life renewed, setting it (with some pain and trepidation) against the deaths of friends and family that cut grief-lines into his songs and filter both darkness and weight into the Collection’s music. Like me, you don’t have to actually be a believer to be moved by David’s explorations and exhortations as he travels from exuberance to despair, from buoyant encouragement to audible tear-swallowing. After all, the best Christian music is always a little wracked and cracked: something in which their faith reveals people to themselves, and perhaps a little more of their humanity to others.

 

On this tour, the Collection will be accompanied by two of their Greensboro compatriots – husband-and-wife duo Daniel and Lauren Goans, a.k.a. Lowland Hum. Fond of the intimacy of house concerts, they ought to make a good foil and complement to the Collection’s inclusive spirit. Hopefully Daniel and Lauren will get the chance to carry out their usual immersive, synaesthesic gig experience – staging and dressing the playing environment with props and essential oil burners, passing out hand-bound lyric books to their audience, and generally eliding the boundaries between the many ways a person can experience a concert.

Lowland Hum get immersed (photo by Griffin Hart Davis)

Lowland Hum get immersed (photo by Griffin Hart Davis)

Even if not, there’s still the music from their eponymous debut album (released in April this year) to consider. ‘Lowland Hum’ is an enthrallingly American art-pop record in which country-duo harmonies and Atlantic folk guitar intertwines with multi-instrumental Portishead/Mandalay trip hop, and in which songs flick unsettlingly between sports arena scale and backyard porch intimacy in the space of a breath. Lyrical preoccupations (fragmented but lucid) span ageing, the shifting internal perspective of growing and growth, or suburban disassociations; or cover the life of Toulouse-Lautrec in ten short scattered lines.

Sharing voices, instrumentation and production between them, Lauren and Dan sometimes seem to phase in and out of each other (as on Rolling And Rolling, a touching first-person meditation on a boy’s budding adolescence on which both singers take turns to voice his slipping thoughts). Similarly, they move through genres like purposeful ghosts. A song like Jack Of Hearts (a study of the dangers of power and charisma) can begin as a country cautionary, fray into psychedelic folk, clatters its sticks into complications and end up as a layered ambient march.

 
On a couple of dates the Collection and Lowland Hum will be joined by other performers. In Birmingham, Alabama, they’ll be playing with folk-rock trio War Jacket (who describe themselves as both warm and haunted, like their hometown); in San Francisco by Gothic-tinged chamber-pop crooner (and Stephen Merritt collaborator) Jon DeRosa; and in Greely, Colorado by both the Denver art-and-music collective Giants & Pilgrims and the outlaw-country cowpunker Matt Davis.

 

 

 

 

Full tour dates below:

  • Ashland Coffee and Tea, 100 North Railroad Avenue, Ashland, Virginia, USA, Thursday 20th August 2015
  • Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, 414 E Main St, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, Friday 21st August 2015
  • Hanesbrands Theater @ Milton Rhodes Centre for the Arts, 251 Spruce Street North, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA, Saturday 22nd August 2015
  • Local 506, 506 West Franklin St, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA, Sunday 23rd August 2015
  • The Pour House, 1977 Maybank Highway, Charleston, South Carolina, USA, Monday 24th August 2015
  • The Camp House, 832 Georgia Avenue, Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA, Wednesday 26th August 2015
  • Eddie’s Attic, 515 North McDonough Street, Decatur, Georgia, USA, Thursday 27th August 2015
  • The Nick, 2514 10th Avenue South, Birmingham, Alabama, USA,
    Friday 28th August 2015
    (supported by War Jacket)
  • The Beatnik, 615 Toulouse Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, Saturday 29th August 2015
  • Common Grounds, 1123 South 8th Street, Waco, Texas, USA, Sunday 30th August 2015
  • (House Show), 407 Mignon Lane, Houston, Texas, USA, Monday 31st August 2015 (ticketed – apply via link)
  • Mohawk, 912 Red River Street, Austin, Texas, USA, Wednesday 2nd September 2015
  • The Viper Room, 8852 West Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA, Sunday 6th September 2015
  • Hotel Utah, 500 4th Street, San Francisco, California, USA, Wednesday 9th September 2015 (supported by Jon DeRosa)
  • Fremont Abbey, 4272 Fremont Avenue North, Seattle, Washington, USA, Friday 11th September 2015
  • Kelly’s Olympian, 426 SW Washington Street, Portland, Oregon, USA, Sunday 13th September 2015
  • Old Nick’s Pub , 211 Washington Street, Eugene, Oregon, USA, Tuesday 15th September 2015
  • Reef, 105 South 6th Street, Boise, Idaho, USA, Thursday 17th September 2015
  • The Dawg Pound, 3550 South State Street, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, Saturday 19th September 2015
  • Moxi Theatre, 802 9th Street, Greeley, Colorado, USA, Monday 21st September 2015 (supported by Giants & Pilgrims, Matt Davis)
  • Downtown Artery, 252 Linden Street, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA, Tuesday 22nd September 2015
  • Hi-Dive, 7 South Broadway, Denver, Colorado, USA, Wednesday 23rd September 2015
  • The Tank Room, 1813 Grand Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri, USA, Thursday 24th September 2015

Woven in and out of this tour, Lowland Hum will be playing some separate headlining dates of their own (shared, on one North Carolinan occasion, by church-and-country songwriter Josiah Early).

  • Horizon Records, 2-A West Stone Avenue, Greenville, South Carolina, USA, Tuesday 25th August 2015
  • Westmont College, 955 La Paz Road, Santa Barbara, California, Saturday 5th September 2015
  • Old Orchard Church, 640 Amelia Avenue, Webster Groves, St Louis, Missouri, USA, Saturday 26th September 2015
  • The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Avenue, Asheville, North Carolina, USA, Sunday 25th October 2015 (supported by Josiah Early)

 

The Collection/Lowland Hum, summer/fall US tour 2015
 

 

August 2015 – upcoming gigs – the Manchester Jazz Festival (31st July to 9th August)

31 Jul

One of the reasons that I’ve been posting so many concert previews recently is simply that (being mostly homebound at the moment) I miss going to gigs. Looking at the lineup and scope of the 2015 Manchester Jazz Festival (which starts today and runs rampant for ten days through until 9th August) reminds me that not only do I regret not attending the wealth of music that takes place here in London, but that I miss more freewheeling days of music elsewhere. Discovering unexpected, treasurable bands at random while on holiday in Brugge, for instance; or immersing myself in a week of concerts and more in Edinburgh or Leeds (such as the one I reviewed here, over a decade ago.)

We know that, as a British pop and dance city, Manchester punches well above its weight. Despite a bubbling undercurrent of improvised music, its reputation as a jazz town is hazier…. or, more probably, I’m just ignorant. The Festival’s been going for twenty years, long enough to gain enough gravity to generate its own traditions. (One such is ‘Surroundings’,  a longer-form ensemble piece by Salford composer Neil Yates. Commissioned for the festival in 2010, it seems to have become the event’s unofficial signature – this year, it’s being revisited as a quartet performance in the Central Library Reading Room.)

Even a quick sift through this year’s programme reveals a jazz party that any city would be proud of – diverse, inclusive, inviting and multi-levelled, an exciting noise ranging from the stately to the vividly scraggled and all the better for it.  With many tickets going at only four pounds, (with a ten-pound all-events daily ticket and free-entry deals if you stump up as a low-level event sponsor), they could hardly have made it any more inviting to the casual walker-upper. Excuse me for a moment while I strip-mine press releases and YouTube, and check Soundcloud pages and Bandcamp links.

Starting with the higher-end, bigger name events…  Acclaimed Blue Note pianist Robert Glasper slips away from his experimentations with latterday R’n’B to get back to basics with an acoustic trio;  John Surman re-teams with the Trans4mation String Quartet to revive the thoughtful, tidally-deep music from his ‘Coruscating’ and ‘The Spaces in Between’ albums. Norma Winstone, Klaus Gesing and Glauco Venier bring along their trans-European project DistancesPartisans bring their transatlantic swing storm; Christine Tobin  her ‘Thousand Kisses Deep’ jazzification of Leonard Cohen songs. French Jazz Musician of the Year Airelle Besson makes an appearance with her Quartet for a set of “gently experimental songs animated by heartfelt lyrics, plaintive melodies and rolling harmonies.” backed with pinballing rhythms and punchy countersyncopations.

There are heavyweight two-headed summit performances by acclaimed British jazz talents – one by frequent quartet buddies Mike Walker and Gwilym Simcock, another by the more recent pairing of Tori Freestone and Alcyona Mick.  Two further British scene fast risers – Stuart McCallum and Alice Zawadzki – bring string-enhanced performances of ongoing projects (the former offering contemporary soul jazz and bass-heavy electronica with surprise guest singers, the latter a fantastical Mancunian song cycle influenced by various shades of love and fairytale).

There are also several of those gentler, more literate projects which seem to blossom best in a festival atmosphere away from a hot core of gutsy brass.  Andrew Woodhead and Holly Thomas’ Snapdragon trio specialize in chilled, ethereal song-settings of literature and poetry (Larkin and Bukowski-inspired) and bursts of vocalese. Mark Pringle‘s A Moveable Feast mates orchestral strings with a bold horn and rhythm section to explore “themes of wildlife, literature and city chaos.”  The “fractured Anglicana” of Hugh Nankivell’s multi-instrumental/four-part vocal quartet Natural Causes means that they perform “curious compositions with  improbable but poignant texts” including “psychedelic lullabies, pinprick-precise ballads, unpredictable group improvisation and brotherly harmony across the board”, and music which draws on classic and contemporary art pop (Robert Wyatt, XTC and Björk) as much as it does on jazz sources.

Elsewhere, much of the polyglot diversity of jazz today is celebrated. The Cuban tradition is represented by the Pepe Rivero Trio and Orquesta Timbala; the Congolese by Eddy Tshepe Tshepela‘s Afrika Jazz. Central and South American ideas are brought along by Agua Pasa (who, with  Dudley Nesbit’s steel pan project Pan Jumby,  also touch on the Caribbean).  The Quarry Hillbillies (a teaming of Ulrich Elbracht, Ed Jones, Jamil Sheriff) from European contemporary jazz, while the frenetic whirl of Eastern European folk elements are covered by Makanitza.  The Gorka Benítez Trio move between Basque-flavoured small group jazz and compelling free-form impressionism. David Austin Grey’s Hansu-Tori ensemble is inspired by natural, elemental and cinematic” ideas, as well as a fascination with Eastern world culture.  Percussionist Felix Higginbottom’s Hans Prya  provides genre-hopping jazz-dance and Jim Molyneux’s Glowrogues favour funk and hip-hop flavoured pieces. Trumpeter Lily Carassik‘s fusion group Yesa Sikyi take ideas from the ’50s and blend them with popular standards and soul arrangements; while The Stretch Trio include glossier elements from ’70s jazz rock, progressive rock and ’80s pop along with sinuous gusts of wind synth.

Those who prefer classic jazz – more traditional by-the-book American styles – might prefer Russell Henderson and Jamie Taylor’s Ellington-and-Strayhorn tribute ‘The Intimacy Of The Blues’, or the Dan Whieldon Trio‘s salute to Gershwin. The Dave Kane Quartet take inspiration from the knottier ambitions of Charles Mingus, John Zorn and Eric Dolphy. Two groups of students from the Royal Northern College of Music provide live celebrations of the history which they’ve been learning – the James Girling Quintet  spans jazz, blues and funk from New Orleans roots through to the 1960s, while the Nick Conn Octet (a self-described “trombone choir”) interweaves re-arranged jazz classics with original material.

Fans of New Orleans jazz can check out genuine New Orleaners The Session (who offer a past-present take on their hometown’s music), or look out for the street sounds of the New York Brass Band (actually from old York, the cheeky buggers) or see how the Riot Jazz Brass Band dust up old New Orleans sounds with dancefloor, dubstep and drum-and-bass incursions. Hot jazz/Gypsy/jazz manouche aficionados can go for the loving recreations of 52 Skidoo (who promise you prohibition speakeasies, rent parties and Tin Pan Alley) or for Gypsies Of Bohemia, who manouche-ify latterday pop songs such as Heart Of Glass, Toxic and Hot In Herre. (Being Mancunian, they also do This Charming Man – I’ll bet that that high-life opening riff translates pretty well).

Of course, much of the fun of a jazz festival involves catching a lesser-known, or even unknown, band carving away at the edge, furiously discovering – and there are plenty of those here. Since they drew me into covering the festival in the first place, I’m going to put a particular word in for Jon Thorne’s Sunshine Brothers (playing at Matt & Phreds on 4th August) in which the double bass/laptop-wielding Jon teams up with drummer Rob Turner (of Blue Note-signed breakbeat jazz electronicists GoGo Penguin) and looping poly-genre bass guitarist Steve Lawson (a ‘Misfit City’ regular) for “a cutting-edge trio of genre-defying musicians mixing jazz, improvisation, electronic and filmic soundscapes to euphoric effect, evoking sounds far removed from their bass origins.”

However, you could just as easily catch a full performance by GoGo Penguin themselves; or by Lauren Kinsella’s Blue-Eyed Hawk, who offer “art-rock, jazz and electronic soundworlds: imaginative and emotive, from pindrop to powerhouse.” The Madwort Saxophone Quartet play intricate four-part math-jazz. “Power-jazz commando team” Taupe (a triple-city trio from Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh) punch around themes from jazz, hip hop and heavy metal. Craig Scott’s Lobotomy seem determined to take the cake for upfront experimental exhilaration this time around, delivering shout-outs to John Cage, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, proclaiming a performance in which “experimental jazz rubs shoulders with electronica and DIY alternative rock in a bubbling cauldron of live and recorded sounds” and promising to sample and reconstruction their own improvisations live on stage.  There’ll also be a improvised summit involving bands associated with Manchester’s Efpi Records and Paris’ Onze Heures Onze collective.

One way into discovery is to take advantage of the free showcases for emerging bands. Care of the BBC’s ‘Jazz On 3’, London offers three bands – Nérija ( the all-female creative septet from the Tomorrow’s Warriors jazz school), the award-winning piano jazz of the Ashley Henry Trio and the decidedly psychedelic Phaze Theory (a quartet of drums, tuba, voice and guitar dedicated to “exploring the vastness of the musical cosmos”).

But perhaps it’s Jazz North’s Northern Line series that you should be checking out, showcasing bands from the north and the Midlands. Manchester offers the Iain Dixon/Les Chisnall Duo (whose repertoire of self-defined standards stretches from Messaien to Gracie Fields) and the John Bailey Quintet  (guitar-led, and similarly inspired by twentieth century classical music). Newcastle provides barrel-house blues and ballads from The Lindsay Hannon Plus and the tricky free jazz/folk/rock/dancefloor entwinings of the Graeme Wilson Quartet. Lancaster and Liverpool provide one act apiece – Andrew Grew’s “total improvisers” The Grew Quartet and the “gothic bebop” of Blind Monk Trio, who claim to fuse the spirit of Thelonius Monk with Persian traditional music and the heavy-rock attitude of Led Zeppelin and Nirvana’s heavy-rock attitude.

However, it’s Leeds (still underrated as a musical powerhouse despite the world-class output of its music college and the vigorous inventiveness of its bands) which dominates the Northern Line. As well as providing the previously-mentioned Pan Jumby, Leeds brings the Portuguese/African/Latin  and Indian song-fusions of Manjula, the Django Reinhardt swing of the Matt Holborn Quartet, Cameron Vale‘s ferociously energetic melange of jazz, metal, electronica, Afrobeat and Klezmer and the semi-electric “extreme, eerie to comic” improvisations of Tipping Point (featuring perpetual bad-boy pianist Matthew Bourne).  Friendly rivalry aside, there’s also co-operation: Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool all join forces in The Bugalu Foundation for a Latin barrio take on northern soul.

Around all of this jazz there’s the usual happy agglomeration of related music – not quite jazz in itself, but possibly sharing a drink or a roll-up somewhere along the way. The festival covers various popular outcropping such as soul (in assorted Northern, jazz and diva forms courtesy of The Juggernaut Love Band, Terry Shaltiel & The Soultroopers, Charlie Cooper & The CCs) but also ’60s/‘70s funk (Buffalo Brothers), ’70s Afrobeat and Ethiopian pop (Kalakuta), ska (Baked à la Ska) and mbalax (Mamadou & The Super Libidor Band). There’s even an alt-country act (Stevie Williams & The Most Wanted Band) sneaking in at the back door. As for rock’n’roll/folk/reggae/swing scavengers The Flat Cap 3… well, for starters, there’s only two of them, so you can be dubious about anything else you might read, but don’t let that put you off.

Three female songwriters are also bringing their bands, coming from a folk or world music zone and overlapping into jazz. Kirsty McGee leads her Hobopop Collective through a “joyful, dirty” sound drawing from gospel, blues and a collection of found instruments (including musical saw, waterphone, Humber hubcaps and metal buckets). The constantly shifting song landscapes of the Zoe Kyoti Trio draw from their leader’s Armenian and Greek heritage (as well as Cajun, European and Indian ideas). Saluting home-brewed British polyculture, Shama Rahman‘s ensemble explore her London home, her Bangladeshi roots, and her childhood memories of Middle Eastern desert landscapes in a “sitar,stories and song” melange of  jazz-inspired improvisation, classically-inspired melodies and folk-inspired storytelling accompanied by energetic rhythms of swing, funk, hip hop, bossa nova and drum’n’bass.

For parents of very young children, needing to balance a jazz fix with family responsibilities, there are a couple of fully interactive kids’ events with activities, storytelling and improvisations.  The Living Story Music Ensemble and illustrator Ann Gilligan collaborate on ‘I Have A Duck Who Can Roar’; the blues-and-roots-tinged Hillary Step Quartet work with storyteller Ursula Holden Gill and dancers from The Dalcroze Society for ‘How Monkey Found His Swing’. Once the kids are attended to, there are still interactive events for the grown-ups, whether you’re talking about the all-in jazz vinyl night, the mixed-genre dj sets by Mr Scruff, Franny Eubanks‘ open-door blues jam or (for the more technologically inquisitive)  Rodrigo Constanzo‘s showcasing of his dfscore software. The latter’s a creative music tool, cueing improvisers via graphical, visual and written clues: on this occasion, anyone with an instrument and a connectible smartphone/tablet/pad should be able to roll up and join in with the roar, joining some leading improvisers in performing music in tandem with the system.

For those remaining soundclips which I’ve not already snatched and pasted, visit the MJF Soundcloud page here … but better yet, if you’re anywhere near Manchester over the next few weeks, drop in at the festival (it’s hard to miss, considering that it’s not just hiding behind club doors but has effectively taken over the town’s main square for a fortnight). Seeing something this impressive light up and roll on fills me with delight – even if on this occasion I’m also filled with rue at not being able to go myself.  But never mind me…

July/August 2015 – upcoming gigs – Thumpermonkey/The Earls Of Mars/Ham Legion in London; Holly Penfield’s Judy Garland show hits the Hippodrome; The Luck Of Eden Hall tour the UK

25 Jul

Next week sees the first gig (for some time) for one of the most interesting of current British rock bands; some high-gloss cabaret; and the start of a psychedelic pop roadshow travelling around the UK. Read on…

Thumpermonkey @ The Islington, 30th July 2015

Thumpermonkey + The Earls Of Mars + Ham Legion (Guided Missile Special People Club, The Islington, 1 Tolpuddle Street, N1 0XT, London, UK, Thursday 30th July, 8.00pm) – £7.00/£6.00

Thumpermonkey don’t get as much attention as they deserve. It’s possible that this is because they don’t seem to take things seriously, addressing almost everything with a skewed and multi-levelled sense of cryptic grand-baroque geek humour. Just to illustrate this – a current work-in-progress Thumpermonkey song is “something which we’re calling Giraffes, which includes some vague narrative about doing a conga during an asteroid-based extinction-level event.” One of their older albums is called ‘Chap With The Wings, Five Rounds Rapid’ – a wry kill-the-monsters line filched from ‘Doctor Who”s laconic and unflappable Brigadier. In the same spirit as that reference, I’d suggest that while they are serious about what they do, they’re not necessarily serious about the way they do it – like many of my favourite things.

If what I’ve written so far leads you to expect strained, fey, sub-Zappa wackiness, then think again. Both in the flesh and on record, Thumpermonkey are a brooding and atmospheric proposition – seriously musical, travelling from blitzingly heavy quasi-metal riffs to spidery post-rock, from threshing post-hardcore to theatrical mane-tossing prog at a moment’s notice while Michael Woodman’s grand edgy vocals and complex multi-levelled lyrics ride on top like an arcane mahout with an arched eyebrow. They’ve been called “a sustained victory for intuitive cross-pollination” by ‘Prog’ magazine and every gig they play confirms this particular accolade. Here they are playing 419 (a song which at first appears to be one of their more delicate offerings, revealing its intensities later).

The other two bands on the bill are less well known to me, but aren’t short of blurb:

The Earls Of Mars are probably the most original thing you’ll hear all year. At their heart, the band are a ’70s-influenced rock band bringing together jazz, prog, space rock, doom and blues and forming it into a barking mad noise that you’ll either get or you won’t. If you don’t get it then close the door on your way out of the spaceship, as those of us who want to stay are off on a fantastical journey to who-knows-where, with The Earls Of Mars steering the ship. Enjoy the trip, ladies and gentlemen, as it’s going to be a fun ride.

Ham Legion‘s noisy lo-fi pop is punctuated with proggy outbursts, psychedelic breakdowns and passages of cod-metal joy. Tangy and tart guitar, egg noddle bass lines and light crispy drums are smothered in gooey boy/girl harmonies. Eat in or take away. For fans of Cardiacs, Deerhoof, They Might Be Giants, Split Enz, Heavy Vegetable.

Judge for yourselves – here are the videos for the Earls’ ‘Astronomer Pig’ single from last year, followed by some footage of a Ham Legion gig in Brighton a couple of years ago. As for tickets, they’re available here.

 

* * * * *

The day after the Thumpermonkey gig, Holly Penfield plays one of her biggest gigs of the year…

Holly Penfield as Judy Garland

Holly Penfield sings Judy Garland, The Hippodrome Casino, Cranbourn Street, Leicester Square, London, WC2H 7JH, UK, Friday 31st July 2015, 8.00pm) – £15.00 and upwards

Following a triumphant debut last year, Holly returns to the London Hippodrome, singing the songs of the legendary Judy Garland in her own inimitable style. Holly will be joined by her musical director Sam Watts and his magnificent seven-piece band. An unmissable evening for Holly and Judy fans alike, set in the glorious Matcham Room, located inside the Hippodrome Casino – formerly known as The Talk Of The Town, this is the venue of legends and home to Judy’s final London concerts.

Longer-term readers will know that I got to know Holly years ago via her own original ‘Fragile Human Monster Show‘ and the ‘Parts Of My Privacy’ album (which I wrote about ages ago – that review’s due a revamp and remount, I think). Both of those, though original songwriter pop, had their own theatrical and psychodynamic aspects which pointed towards Holly’s current work in vivid cabaret (and, latterly, as half of swing revivalists The Cricklewood Cats). As for Holly’s interpretations, she can and does cover cute showbiz camp and heart-tugging pathos within the same performance – you can see a couple of examples below.

Up-to-date information on the Judy concert is here and here, while tickets are available here. A mischievous part of me fancies swapping the audience from Holly’s show with the one from the Thumpermonkey/Earls/Ham Legion gig, and vice versa. I suspect that they all might enjoy it more than they’d expect to…

* * * * *

The Luck Of Eden Hall, 2015

On the same night that Thumpermonkey and co. play, The Luck Of Eden Hall are over from Chicago to play the first of two London gigs, launching a Kickstarter-funded UK tour which will take them to a wide array of venues and mini-festivals around England, Scotland and Wales, accompanied by a shifting cast of local psych heroes, left-field blues artists and quirky alt.pop shoegazers.

As for the headliners, you can expect clear-voiced, well-made classic pop beset by sudden gusts of psychedelic blizzarding. The Luck Of Eden Hall remind me of the drawn-out trucker-and-motorist tussle in ‘Duel’ – they come across like a more sombre Neil Finn or Andy Sturmer being stalked, dogged and sideswiped by Hawkwind, Ride or ‘Saucerful’-era Pink Floyd. Here’s a little evidence:


 

Full tour dates below:

The Luck Of Eden Hall UK tour

 

June 2015 – upcoming gigs – Imminent shows at the Hope & Ruin in Brighton (Liebezeit & Irmler, Prolapse & Slum of Legs), plus the tours they belong to

11 Jun

If I was a Brightonian, I suspect that I’d be spending quite a lot of evenings at the Hope & Ruin. Not only does it host some of the town’s most interesting gigs, its interior décor – patched together in a pack-rat/caddis-fly jumble of enthusiasm – makes it feel like the vessel   of some spacegoing carny out of ‘Firefly’ or ‘Doctor Who’.

I’m guessing that most people who’ve read the post title will already know all about these – since cult art, Brighton and a gossip grapevine make a happy mash – but two upcoming Hope & Ruin gigs have caught my attention. One features two leading lights of the original Krautrock/kosmische/German experimental rock scene (something else that’s become as Brightonian as the Pavilion). The other one sees the return of one of Britain’s more interesting wrangle-rock rackets from the 1990s: on this occasion, backed up by a more than worthy heir from the current decade. Both are stops on longer UK tours – I’ll include details on those as well.

Jaki Liebezeit & Hans Joachim Irmler @ The Hope & Ruin, 11-12 Queens Road, Brighton, BN1 3WA, UK, Thursday 17th June (doors 8.00pm)

The former Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit is one of the great beat stylists of experimental rock. Described as “a master of the pause and the stop”, he plays cutting, lean and propulsive rhythms from a small kit: alongside Neu!’s Klaus Dinger, he pioneered the mechanistic motorik beat which you’ll hear behind half a hundred nouveau-Krautrock bands. Hans Joachim Irmler () has had various multi-instrumental and production role in and around Faust over the years, but predominantly plays organ (a highly customisable transistor model which he built himself over forty years ago) and boxes-of-tricks (having created or co-created most of Faust’s unusual noise processors). Longstanding collaborators, Irmler and Liebezeit released the ‘FLUT’ album in 2014 featuring a “hypnotic maelstrom” of organ and drum improvisations. I’ve not reviewed it, but the ever-reliable ‘Quietus’ did – and it’s this vein of music which they’ll be performing.

More details here – although if you’re a fan, all of this will be old news and you’ll already have your tickets. If the Krautrock galaxy is still relatively new and obscure to you – and you’re within grabbing distance of Brighton – this sounds like the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in the cult. (If recent rumblings about Liebezeit’s retirement are true, it might also be one of your last opportunities to taste the original flavour). If you’re not in Brighton, note that there are also tour dates in London, Fife and Glasgow (beginning on Friday) as listed below:

    Sunday 14th June 2015 – Platform, The Bridge, 1000 Westerhouse Road, Glasgow, G34 9JW, UK – details here.
    Tuesday 16th June – Cafe OTO, 18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London E8 3DL, UK – details here.

Prolapse + Slum Of Legs @ The Hope & Ruin, 11-12 Queens Road, Brighton, BN1 3WA, UK, Tuesday 23rd June (doors 8.00pm)

Art-punks who emerged in the 1990s, Prolapse came up with a much more assured and individual take on the form than most, apparently by accident. The dual vocal frontline of Linda Steelyard and Mick Derrick (the former singing and the latter ranting,) often came across as disruptive theatre, a performance partnership which veered dramatically between combative duologues, utter disjunction or play-fights. Meanwhile the band behind them pegged brutally away on Krautrockian/Fall-esque rhythms, riffs and noises, like a Dada Hummvee worn down to its wheel-rims. The members have tended to claim that it all happened spontaneously and in general was a muckaround, but this was a band that was smart enough to work out when not to think – if you dug deep enough into them you found Master’s degrees, archaeologists, ceramicists and future journalists.

In 1999, after three albums and enough touring to wear them down, Prolapse very sensibly split up just before the point when it all became too frustrating. This year, having been enticed back from various locations and interesting jobs by Mogwai (who’ve invited them to play support at the latter’s 20th anniversary shows) they’ve opted to play a six-date UK tour, for which the other remaining dates are:

    Friday 19th June – The Maze, 257 Mansfield Road, City Centre, Nottingham, NG1 3FT, UK, 19th June (supported by Grey Hairs and Hot Shorts) – buy tickets here.

Playing support at the Brighton gig are Slum of Legs – an inspirational, instrument-swapping, all-female travelling brainstorm of a band. Although they have roots in Raincoats-style post-punk and Riot Grrl (and more than a few similarities to the spontaneous inventiveness of Prolapse) Slum Of Legs have a particular approach to lyric writing which is all their own – intricate, irreverent, literate and broad-ranging. So even if the musical style doesn’t altogether appeal to you, go for the sake of the words and see what else falls into place. (Again, I’m late to the table for this one, so I’ll refer you to this spray of enthusiasm from ‘Collapse Board’, which sets out a view of the Slum Of Legs stall in a way that’s far better, and probably far closer to their pulse, than I could right now.) More info on the gig is here.

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:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

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…)

Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

Cardiacs online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

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 – Preludes: ‘The Moth’ & ‘The Swan’ EPs, 2011 & 2012 (“the shadow of a melody”)

6 Sep
Preludes: 'The Moth'

Preludes: ‘The Moth’

There’s the shadow of a melody in the house, floating in the dusty air. It’s coming from just around the corner, or maybe from up by the crumbling moulding.

Preludes is Matt Gasda (the sotto-voce poet who did most of the singing and keyboards in the ghostly riverbank psychedelics Bears in America) and his sister Emily. The Bears were a group so reticent and self-involved that listening to them was like spying on a set of old footprints, long-abandoned and filling with water. Some Preludes songs began life as Bears pieces before falling into this new form and flavour, so you can expect something of a family resemblance. Yet in their hypnotic and looping way, with their camp-fire canons and travelling-man guitars, Bears in America fitted (just) into the Americana bracket. In contrast, Preludes looks wistfully eastward, back towards Europe.

More specifically, Preludes capture a lost and fading atmosphere of East Coast grandeur: one which jealously guards its Old World connections, its cultural loftiness, its yellowing old money in a deadened and dreamy grip. While Matt may have relocated to New York City and settled in Brooklyn, Preludes seems to have set its heart further uptown. These songs emerge like a sigh haunting a shabby brownstone mansion on the Upper East Side, clinging to the scuffed books in its neglected library, or fluttering with a swirl of yellow leaves in its deep walled garden. It’s not that these are wordy songs of privilege; instead, they’re leisurely blurs of decaying luxury, drunk on elevated sensation and cut right back to free-drifting images of moons, flowers, loss and water, their stories dissolved. An encroaching darkness hovers around them, like time and chemistry eroding sepia photographs. At the same time, there’s a rapturous quality to the music: the thrill of the last gasp, the final pirouette of memory.

‘The Moth’ EP, and its title track in particular, set up the Preludes recipe from the start – pianos (drowned in a flat and musty reverb), blurry-edged keyboard layers (in this case, a wavering swoon of fake strings), and a faint and faded rag of vocal yearning after something it can’t quite describe, catching on whatever surrounds the moment. There’s a touch of Goth in the mix, and more than a suspicion of Nico or Anthony Hegarty; but the obliqueness and the gauzy obscurity are all Matt’s. Moonstruck, he murmurs soft, semi-operatic vocals in the backgrounds, muttering about cicadas and strange, longing transformations. Halfway along, a cheap drum machine begins to tap out a stately dance rhythm and Matt steps up to a new level of obscure, gently-impassioned reverie. (“And we’ll walk along the opening geraniums… /The light of the moon. / Open your milk-white eyes… We will never grow so old.”) It doesn’t mean so much when you pin it down. Just a handful of fleeting images, lighter than anything. Open your hand and let it drift on this sigh of breath, however, and it flushes gently with life.

It’s Emily Gasda who sings the out-of-focus waltz of The Moon And The Bonfires – sings in a small and distracted way over a softened skirl of goth keyboards; a spiralling distant dream of a barrel organ melody. Here’s more obscurity (nightswimming and natural lights; the sense of a particular, autumnal time of year). Here’s more plucking at floating, flowery images (“The violets of memory are growing in the water… / It’s like a debt you share…”) She sounds like a more peaceful version of Cranes’ Alison Shaw. The Goth tambourine and the bass drum thud behind her sound like a lull in a noisy evening. Perhaps these songs are some kind of refuge.

As goosefeather-soft as the rest, the last song – Nightlight Child – begins as a ghostly lullaby. A muffled drum and music box playout becomes a throb while Matt and Emily sing together, and for a while they’re Victorian in their magic and ruffles, their willingness to slip away into dream logic and wordplay and into ornamental fantasy. “Like water drawn from the well – moon drawn like a fish. / Nightlight child, it’s all right. / Nightlight child come to life / and from the shell alight. /A starry, starry night.” Gradually the lullaby play fades seamlessly into surreal and transforming fable: images turn macabre (moth eyes, floods rising from the throat to drown) and innocence and horror overlap. Unwinding ourselves from this particular gauze is less easy.

Preludes: 'The Swan'

Preludes: ‘The Swan’

Five-and-a-half months later (swimming back into view with a second EP, ‘The Swan’) Preludes are just as enclosed and enrapt in their consumptive old-world decay. “Snow falls in Central Park, / and for a day your fever drops,” sings Emily on a song which also coos “love is so cold” and reminisces – with a quiet, absorbed bliss – about kissing frozen hands. There’s never a suggestion that there’s any danger involved here, or a direct flicker of death. That particular disquiet just seeps into the gap that’s left for it.

In general the themes of sleep, death, illness and wasting-dream simply blush gently through the EP’s songs, each of them thinning the walls between experiences. The strangest of these is the title track, wrought with a chilly expressionism and drifting symbols. “I love the sorrow of your voice / and the wreckage of the old days” Matt muses, beneath a cloudy Blue Nile synth pad (a mirage of traffic in the evening sky) and a funerary piano line (a shard of dusty porcelain from a lost urn). Death and revival blur together (“you’re enclosed in the petals / made of snow, / born up into the clouds like ash”) in a way that’s as much phoenix as swan. “I’ll wait by the river / for the ice to tear itself up,” promises Matt, as the ritual works its way to conclusion. “Your blood will germinate the spring.” Over a minute of silence at the end of the song eases the point home.

On Sleepy Eye’d (backed by an enthusiastic music-box twinkle and lambent synth), Emily enjoys a much more innocent dream – “We’ll tear up the feathers of the stars / and make our bedding on the moon… / Take my hand, we’ll go skating on the glass, / catch fireflies with our hands.” For a while, Preludes sound as if they’ve slipped into ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland‘ and the air of rapt surrender lightens a little.

It’s only on The Well that brother and sister find out what happens when they write and sing together. Here, Emily sounds eerily like Mama Cass (moving almost imperceptibly from her previous ghostly solipsism to a kind of centred passion) while Matt murmurs an ashy, barely-there harmony. Somewhere in there is an ancient Scottish air, missing its drone but making do with a broken-limbed piano line and rising string-synth bleeds. “And the love you held in your hands like a bird / is waking up again.” sings Emily, cupping revival in her voice. “I will go down to the well / draw up water in my hands. / Tell all, all the dead / the world is now beautiful – / stop the clocks and open the windows. / We can’t understand.”

By the end of the song, it seems as if those strange arrested Preludes atmospheres might finally be breaking down, offering release. “Now I feel time as it flows / like the melting snow.” sings Emily. Somewhere out of earshot a gate is opening, a clock starting, a breath deepening.

Preludes: ‘The Moth’ & ‘The Swan’
Preludes (self-released)
Download-only EPs
Released: 21st August 2011 (‘The Moth’) & 8th February 2012 (‘The Swan’)

Get them from:
Bandcamp – ‘The Moth’; ‘The Swan’

Preludes online:
Bandcamp

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

June 2012 – demo reviews – The Many Few’s assorted Soundcloud demos (“as cosily misshapen as candle stubs”)

1 Jun

The Many Few don’t exactly do precision. One guitarist slops acoustic rhythms around like a drunken waiter losing control of a tray. The other doodles away cheerfully, or hiccups free-improv dribbles in a corner. Sometimes both of them land in the same song. Meanwhile, two singers are jostling together: Johnnynorms (he of the small, dry voice) and Melissa Wyatt (who aims for creamy breathiness and theatrical intimacy but ends up kittenish and blowsy). The drummer pins everything together, but worries and wobbles over anything more complex than a mid-paced chuff-along. The bass guitar stumbles vaguely after the other instruments, distracted by a nearby jazz gig.

Unless they’re deliberately deconstructing their pop, or unless they record only while cheerfully drunk (both of which are possible), The Many Few are a thorough fucking shambles, and I think they know it. Do you think I’m going to bury them for it? Hardly. That tumbledown, lopsided indie-pop stagger is integral to their approach and charm. You can toss in those usual Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart comparisons (you know, the ones applied to almost any wayward indie band who ramble outside the beat a little) but The Many Few are far too friendly and floppy for that. In their cheery, ramshackle way, they sound more like ’90s nouveau-skifflers Zuno Men… if the latter had been stuck in a house-share with a teenaged Kate Bush and spent most of their time half-cut.

You could easily imagine them all sprawled over a tatty sofa – arguing over the washing-up, loving each other and picking over the usual daily scams of living together. You can imagine them hurrying off, at any opportunity, to the local pub for the kind of lock-in which ends in howls of laughter and wrestlings over a battered old board game.  I wouldn’t want to be the one to try getting them organized. It would only spoil it. This scraggy comfort must have been all over the making of this enjoyable batch of songs, which they call “armchair surrealisms” and I’d call animated scrawls, as cosily misshapen as candle stubs.

On the irresistible Catching, Johnnynorms repeatedly starts off on a story, only for Melissa to barge in and take it over. As all of the stories are about naïve men making comically doomed attempts to win over smarter women, this is only appropriate. Wonky high-life guitar ambles around like a cheery woodpecker as Melissa teases “I’m sorry but she had a child when she was young / and she’s not catching that from you”, before announcing her intent of fleecing some other poor bloke for all he’s got.

The upbeat Sweep and Swipe (part genial commuter-belt revolt, part kid’s TV song) bumbles through work, procrastination and rebellion in a very British jumble. There’s a sense of urgent feelings swaddled up and hidden under a brittle, chirpy exterior: something which this song shares with another, Typical British Weather (itself tipsy, woozy and smiling a crooked smile in the rain). It’s left to the messy, chunky power-punk of Meet my Clone to sideline the shambling and the evasions via dirty guitar, a tight irritated momentum and the band’s most ingenious idea. Johnnynorms and Melissa wrangle over the doppelganger relationships of people grown close in appearance and habit, but not feelings: “Eye to eye you’d think we were the same. / But it’s me that feels all the guilt, and rage, and love, and shame.”

Past the 18th Town is entirely different. A haunting acoustic dirge touching (in the briefest of sketches) on transient people, it follows them as they move from rented room to rented room. As old roots fade and new roots become stunted, they lose their ability to recognize and return love. Tingles of guitar harmonics tickle the nerves while the band capture a world of disengagement in simple, telling lines like “send the letters on, / send them back unknown.” It suggests that the ghost of a cold and lonely wind, blowing under that gap in the door, sometimes haunts The Many Few’s sprawling house party.

The Many Few: assorted Soundcloud demos
Soundcloud (no catalogue numbers)
Free download tracks
Released: various dates in 2011

Get it from:
Free download from Soundcloud

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

16 Mar
StillWife: 'StillWife' EP

StillWife: ‘StillWife’ EP

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

Utter quality. More of this, please.

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

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

StillWife online:
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Ultrasound: ‘Welfare State/Sovereign’ single, 2011 (“a defiant desire to simply grow, like a gnarled tree”)

4 Sep
Ultrasound: 'Welfare State/Sovereign'

Ultrasound: ‘Welfare State/Sovereign’

Holy shit. Yes. Why reform without true purpose, and how much better when you’ve grasped it? In the wake of a riot-torn English August (and twelve years after imploding into a cloud of soiled tinsel) Ultrasound burst back into life, their idiot-savant knack of transmuting outsider vanity and navel-gazing into shared Britpop anthems now regenerated with a vengeance.

If they’re still harking back to the ’70s with their punk-raw attack, their epic classic-rock scale and their dirty storms of psychedelic sleet, that’s fine. It’s not as if the worst parts of the 1970s aren’t already washing back to us: the flailing economy, the strikes, the embezzlements and resentments. Rudely uncoupled from the lives we expected, shoved back to childish helplessness, punch-drunk with the rage simmering under our good behaviour… perhaps we need some growling mongrel ’70s spirit to grab onto.

It seems appropriate that it should come from these guys; the tangle of scraggy-looking oddballs who, back in 1998, briefly seemed to be stumbling into the role of people’s band – flaws, delusions and all. Back then their hulking singer Tiny broke all of the rules for being a pop frontman (too old, too weird and unpretty, too gloriously fat). Yet he played both Peter Pan and Pied Piper to a slice of teenaged music fans, who found inspiration in the way he stood stubbornly in the heart and guts of his long-past adolescence and sang out its fear and wonder. Then the band imploded and died in a welter of recriminations, self-indulgence and selfishness; and as their collective corpse bounced chin-first down every hard concrete step they’d climbed up, we watched them crash from inspiration to sorry memory, from joke to obscurity to lonely pub quiz question.

Several pop generations on, they’ve picked themselves up, casually blinked away a decade, and returned in full flush with a double single concentrating everything that made them great in the first place. Welfare State (vulgar, inspirational, coming in like The Who carpet-bombing ‘The X-Factor’) is a rallying call for Tiny’s army of “filthy, fly-blown fools.” It’s also a celebration of the band’s return to action and a two-fingered statement of dole-culture entitlement. It resonates eerily with the grand smash-and-grab which blighted the English summer of 2011, especially when a burglar alarm bleeds into the psychedelic stew midway though.

Don’t expect consistency – only a few breaths away from eulogizing heroic working mums, Tiny can exult “we’ve never done a day’s work in our lives” as the band cook up a flaring riff behind him. But as they rage at suppression and disappointment, and as the song turns into a sweeping cavalcade of outcast celebration (“We are the greasy unwashed scum, we are the paupers on the run”) it’s hard not to be carried along.

It makes more sense set against its parallel flipside, the Dennis Potter-inspired anthem Sovereign: here, Ultrasound expose a mucky vegetable heart in a soup of soiled aspiration and strayed Catholic imagery. In comparison to Welfare State’s foolhardy confidence, it starts in shit and sins and only gradually grows roses. Initially stars, notes and shame all melt downwards out of a vast gloomy sky while Tiny pleads for hope – “All this mess and grime and snail-slime / makes life…” By the climax (with volatile bassist Vanessa Best adding her magnificent soul howl, and the sky lit up with blazing guitars), it’s somehow turned into the Ascent of Man: transfigured out of guilt into an invigorating, painful rush of honesty.

There’s still no sign that Ultrasound have grown up – that, I suspect, would be missing the point – but their desire to simply grow, like a gnarled defiant tree, has never been stronger.

ULTRASOUND: ‘Welfare State/Sovereign’
Label Fandango, ULTRA001t
7-inch vinyl/download single
Released: 29th August 2011

Buy it from:
Label Fandango or iTunes.

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

10 Jul
Knifeworld: 'Dear Lord, No Deal'

Knifeworld: ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’

Three things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:
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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:
Genepool, Burning Shed or Bandcamp

Knifeworld online:

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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.

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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
 

October 2002 – EP reviews – Galitza’s ‘Laugh Like a Horse’ (“a sweet and sometimes raucous noise”)

27 Oct
Galitza: 'Laugh Like A Horse'

Galitza: ‘Laugh Like A Horse’

Galitza make a sweet and sometimes raucous noise. A Leeds alliance of self-styled “evil pop-bitch” Emma Bob III (formerly of Chest) with most of the mortal remains of sharp-witted popsters Landspeed Loungers, they’ve combined as a pop trifle of guitar chunks, lemony organ and various voices, laced with something heady and mischievous. Sometimes they sound like a Sarah Records band, but if so they’re one that decided to ditch emotional fragility for being naughty and happy, for adopting really stupid nicknames (Dr Strikto, anyone?), and for storming pubs and cheating at cocktail-drinking competitions. They’re also a Siamese twin act fronted by a husband and wife (Stevie and Emma) who only occasionally pull the Sonny and Cher trick; and only with a sly quirk, at that.

The two sides of Galitza share certain reflexes (the touch of rumbling funk in the basement, the attractive tangle of tangy guitars), but alternate faces. When it’s Stevie’s turn at the biggest mic, Galitza are sharp-tinged indie pop with a post-Loungers taste for sardonic wit. Empty Hands races and jangles along like a perkier Furniture, putting the boot into self-serving mediocrity (“a year or two, to and fro, nothing new – / you’re just passing through / and just OK”) and to bogus management (“now they talk, now you’re in, now you’re hot. / Tomorrow comes – they forgot.”) When a bucketing chorus arrives, yelling “you wouldn’t know what to do – you wouldn’t know if it jumped up and bit you,” you realise that you could wrap this up and post it to the next train company that makes you late, the next board member to fuck you around in the office… in fact any timeserver who blows out their duties.

Closer to home (and despite the meaty guitars), You Must Be The Devil could almost be The Beautiful South – rich and delicate male and female falsettos, and a song with a broken glass in one hand. Fingernails pry apart the more welcome, teasing tortures of love… you know, the kind remembered with a twisted pleasure once it’s all dried up. “There was a time you had me hooked, you had me hooked all helplessly. / You’d reel me in, then cast me out – lucky me.” Covering Jackie Lee’s dreamy White Horses, Galitza pull it off with a mixture of mischief and affection. Emma’s inclinations to succumb to the melody’s rich sway are continually undercut by Stevie’s blissfully distorted harmony vocals.

When Emma takes the full lead, Galitza are seduced into rich and subtle melodrama – frustrated love songs, well aware of their unhealthy obsessions yet determined to ride them through. Or, unable to escape them, to cherish them instead. “You’re right, you know you are; but it still feels wrong,” Emma sings on the plaintive Stalker (in which her voice lolls luxuriantly like a stoned jazz diva across the melody and the mosaic of guitars). “It’s a stupid streak, these fits of pique, / but it’s mine, this hopeless desire – / I confide, I feel like a liar.”

For Rattle In Me, she’s much more direct. A Massive Attack-styled lust-blues, with a seismic throb of Bristol bass and a swelling thorn-bush of rising guitar mass, it’s swarming with torch tension and growing anger. “You put this rattle in me; you pull me to you: then it’s ‘just-good-friends’,” Emma murmurs, a warning vibrating just beyond her controlled cool. Add another thoroughly compelling Leeds band to the list.

Galitza: ‘Laugh Like A Horse’
Wrath Records, WRATHCD05
CD/download-only EP
Released: October 2002

Buy it from:
CD from Wrath Records; download from iTunes.

Galitza online:
HomepageLastFM

August 2001 – EP reviews – Spratleys Japs’ ‘Hazel’ (“halted by the tiniest thing”)

10 Aug
Spratleys Japs: 'Hazel'

Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’

More songs brought out of the woods in a bloody enormous bucket, then? A bucket that’s small enough and big enough to hold the moon and all the stars in the night sky, in one drink of water…

‘Hazel’ is a single, of sorts. It’s a little taste of Spratleys Japs, the youngest bud on the twisty family tree of Cardiacs. If you believe some of the yarns being spun about them, then they’re a cunning trans-Atlantic bud, gene-splicing Cardiacs’ abrasive brand of psychedelia (in which punk squawk and London brick-ends collide with a particularly rowdy mediaeval minstrels gallery) with singing urchin Jo Spratley and a gaggle of American high-desert rockers called the Rev-Ups. If you believe some of the other rumours, the hybrid songs that resulted were recorded in a spooky little shack deep in damp, spidery New Forest darkness: head Cardiac Tim Smith going outlaw as he pulled them all together with an audience of rats and a tenuous umbilical of dodgy power lines. Hence my strange intro back there. Hence the babbling.

(Anyway, Cardiacs lie. It’s best to remember that.)

Regardless of rats or forests, Hazel sounds neither young nor American. It’s a stately, ghostly, mouldering-castle fanfare – tear-blown strings, brass, kettle-drums and harps. It wheels massively in the sky like a planetarium show, or booms out low and ponderous like a ritual march. Just as it seems to have settled into its dinosaur vastness, it’s halted by the tiniest thing… Jo’s child-size voice, squished and distorted to a ghost-broadcast tinniness. She sounds seasick, she sounds strained and flattened as wallpaper; and she’s keening out a desperate minimal anti-tune from some dusty corner, words smeared beyond recognition. Everything (bar a shimmering, failing wall of high Mellotron) just stops – dead. Then the Jo-ghost fades, nervous guitars stir the air, and the orchestra pours in again. It’s the same tune, but transmuted somehow from its original pomp into something overwhelmingly compassionate. Then it all happens again. Then it happens no more. What they’re getting at defies the workings of my brain; but it digs up my emotions, as if it’s forking up mulch.

Two other songs – Curfew and the sleepy, knotted Secret, both voiced scratchily by Tim – are closer to the usual Cardiacs bashes. They clamber, jagged and monkey-like, around the whole-tone scale. They’re like folk songs forgotten in the womb, carrying a scolding kind of order in their baroque keyboard structures and the little child-choir voices. Perhaps they deal with more complete stories, on a more human scale: one of the Gothic scenarios which bubbles up is about a woman desperately trying to muffle a pealing bell, using her own body to hold off her husband’s execution. But it’s elsewhere that Spratleys Japs are really active on the borders of instinct: where they’re at their most stimulating. No answers. Exposure. A little fear. Good medicine?

A jarring change of gear after the spooky grandeur of Hazel, Home is just upsetting. There’s not much to it – just some captured seconds of studio chatter during which Jo breaks down into a panic attack, whimpering and gulping like a scalded child. Tim and sundry other SpratJaps leave the tape rolling, heartlessly, as they prepare for the next song. It’s intrusive, it’s claustrophobic, it’s horribly naked. It could well be a prank. But along with Hazel, it does get to the back-ways of the heart. Sometimes Spratleys Japs do this with a soothe, sometimes with a jolt, but they do it as if they’re twitching a curtain aside to reveal something outside the normal angle of view: something beautiful, terrifying or wondrous, but unquestionably there. Something which changes you just by being seen.

Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’
All My Eye And Betty Martin Music, AME CD002 (502127203848)
CD-only EP
Released: 2001

Get it from:
Cardiacs official store or second-hand.

Spratleys Japs online:
Homepage MySpace Last FM