Tag Archives: Mikrokosmos

May 2020 – EP reviews – Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY’s ‘CONFINEMENT-release3’ (“mysteries which slip into shadowed corners”)

7 May

Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY: 'CONFINEMENT-release3' EP

Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY: ‘CONFINEMENT-release3’ EP

Following their pair of releases last month, Brighton’s Confinement Tapes project is back for a second round – this time with Confinementeers Jo Spratley and Bic Hayes joined by honorary family member Chris Anderson (of Worthing’s Crayola Lectern), who’s also worked with Bic in Brighton kosmische juggernaut ZOFFF alongside what seems like a good half of Brighton’s psychedelic contingent (and, occasionally, The House of Love’s Terry Bickers).

(The third original Confinementeer, Jesse Cutts, has his own follow-up single too, but more on that later…)

Unlike the archived cover versions refurbished for the previous EP, ‘Bright Fivers’ is an all-new, all-original April recording in which Chris contributes as the anagrammatic Cola Ray, collaborating with Bic and Jo’s MUMMY. Initially, it’s his arpeggiating pianos (distanced and tinny, as if pulled from a dusty old 78) which dominates ‘Bright Fivers’; a solemn setting for Jo’s singing, which is loaded with both trepidity and authority. That’s only the prelude, though, and it’s severed from the rest of the piece by a jump-cut edit as loud and merciless as a sucker punch or an axe blow. You even hear the clunk as the mood shifts; Jo switching abruptly into deadpan recitation against a Bic backdrop of guitar static and wind texture, as impassive as the prophetess taken over by the voice of the prophecy.

Whether sung or spoken, the sentences are broken off; dark, punching surrealist gobbets of foreseeing and ruin. “Silence in the air. / Things endure, things evolve. / Between the slopes fivers fly up onto the dream floor. / Fire spreads her text of flame as serious as food / Our towers of graph paper fold up into the silence, / delicate as the girl who leaves the stone and the water – / and the bright moan of the green, / the collapse of a black age. / In the end we never know what we know.” It sounds like something buried deep in peat in order to time-travel; transmitting a warning, or possibly a testament.


 
‘The United Kingdom’ is (mostly) another eleven-year-old recovering from Jo Spratley’s Babyskullz solo project: one which just happens to fit in with ‘Bright Fivers’. It’s another recitation, delivered by Jo to pattering drumbox and orchestrated in minimal, thrifty make-do fashion. Two-finger melodica. Guttural just-picked-it up guitar lines and milk-bottle vibraphone. Cobwebby analogue synth gurgles, dub distancings and dirty blats of fireworks.

Something about the rhythm and chant suggests the cheesy old white-rap anti-classic ‘Ice Ice Baby’. Everything about the words doesn’t, as Jo narrates (in newsprint monotone) a set of disappearances. “A man who hears bells who loves cars” misses his train only to drop out of routine and out of existence; a corporate lawyer vanishes during her solo boat trip; fifty years ago, a cancer specialist who “wraps her dolls in graph-paper by the light of the moon” is last seen in car headlights by the edge of a cliff. All three are obliquely connected by hearts: their rhythms or their interruption, their presence as eviscerated occult trophies or as enigmatic markers; presumably also by the locked-up desires, secrets and clues they contain. All cases are left open; mysteries which slip into shadowed corners of modern folklore or Lynchian dreams. There’s a stress on the regular and on the irregular, but no conclusion on either.


 
As haunting as this can be (and it does build on regular repetition, an inconclusion which nags to be solved), it’s still Bic’s dark-psychedelia project Mikrokosmos which dominates this particular set, providing three tracks out of the five. Two are brief snapshot instrumentals, deliberately left incomplete or brought to dismissive halts. Recorded in 1993 during Mikrokosmos’ cramped early sessions in west London, ‘In the Machine Room’ is an jarring but strangely satisfying hybrid of claustrophobic paranoia and sweet naivety. An uncomfortable electronic hum and weirdly organic rattling (like mice beginning to panic inside a generator housing) passes into a bright nursery march played on assorted guitars, drums and bombastic little synths. For forty-eight seconds, post-industrial grot tussles with twinkly daydream.


 
I assume that Bic escaped from whatever it was that was polluting him: ‘Frag. Familiar’, from 2014, was completed nearly two decades later (long after Bic had quit London), but it missed the boat for Mikrocosmos’ ‘Terra Familiar’ abum. It’s as confusing as its predecessor. A sustained cosmic slam: a huge guitar downchord which is allowed to trail away, while delicate waltzing keyboards come forward to shine over the top. They dance with another brutally distorted guitar line – butterflies courting Bigfoot – before everything hits the wall, topples over and cuts off. There’s a farcical humour to this music. It shows you the stars but then suddenly pulls away the rug, or drops the time-clock on the telescope viewing: almost deliberately crass in the way it brings you back down to earth with a bump. I suspect that there’s a touch of reverse psychology here. To move forward properly, you have to overcome the bumps, denials and trip-ups.


 
Another ‘Terra Familiar’ outtake, ‘Cell by Cell’, is more substantial and developed: a six-and-a-half minute song rather than a peculiar fragment. It’s also a dubbier return to Bic’s Dark Star days: almost a Massive Attack take on that band’s life-scarred fin-de-siècle urban psychedelia, taking in similar elements of Hawkwind space rock and Killing Joke post-punk grimness to offset Bic’s sighing, waify sweetness. There’s a Dark Star-ish sense of resignation too, a voice-of-the-casualty effect as Bic reflects on exhaustion and disassociation, on being swallowed by routine and self-absorption. ‘Just swim, / float to the surface – / as if it’s so easy, you show me again. / But time weighs me down so gently / and all our ideas just drift away, / sinking, / lost in the moment. / Ennui is so easy / and to the end we divide. / Cell by cell to solitary worlds – / undesigned, undesired. / Islands in an ocean of thought / turning inwards defied / to meet with the gaze of impermanence eyes…’


 
The formal Confinement message for this EP is one of “a constellation of songs brought together by this rarefied time. Pulled through the thickness of life and her knowing machine. Mixed and mastered in April 2020 and flung into the dark of these ends of days. Here we are. All alone, together, as one.” As a message of solidarity, it’s an ambiguous comfort: but, as they say, here we are. Questions unanswered. Brutal breaks in expectations. People disappearing, grips gradually lost. Name it, share the names, and perhaps fight it.

Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY: ‘CONFINEMENT-release3’
The Confinement Tapes, CONFINEMENT-release3
Download/streaming EP
Released: 7th May 2020
Get it from:
free or pay-what-you-like download from Bandcamp (As with all Confinement Tapes releases, any money earned goes support care funds for Tim Smith, Tim Quy or Jon Poole of Cardiacs – see previous posts.)

Mikrokosmos online:
Bandcamp Last FM

Babyskullz (Jo Spratley) online:
Facebook Twitter

Crayola Lectern (Cola Ray) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Vimeo Spotify Amazon Music

MUMMY online:
Facebook Bandcamp
 

April 2020 – EP reviews – MUMMY/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos – ‘CONFINEMENT/release1’ (“the triumph of love over fear and torpor”)

10 Apr

Family. Extended. Play. For life partners Jo Spratley (she of Spratleys Japs) and the elusive/ubiquitous Christian Hayes, a.k.a. Bic (who’s played howling, whirling, stuttering textural/post-punk/psych guitars for Dark Star, Cardiacs and Levitation, as well as adding extra noisy or unearthly touchs to projects by Julianne Regan, Heidi Berry and Pet Shop Boys) – plus Jo’s son Jesse Cutts (Spratleys Japs bass player and Heavy Lamb mainstay) – coronavirus lockdown is providing an opportunity to get their musical lives in better order.

M U M M Y/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos: 'CONFINEMENT​/_release1'

M U M M Y/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos: ‘CONFINEMENT​/_release1’

Being stuck at home on the Sussex coast means the initiation of the Confinement Tapes. They’re unearthing sundry old recordings from hard drives, biscuit tins, gutted harmoniums or wherever else they may have stashed or forgotten them. They’re polishing them up, and getting them out into the world, while simultaneously raising a bit of money for the ongoing care of various ailing Cardiacs members. (All cash raised from this is going into the support funds for Tims Smith and Quy, as well as the recently beset Jon Poole – if you want to save the Confinementeers a bit of trouble, you can always donate directly via the latter links and just download this lot for free afterwards).

Clearly the Confinementeers see this as something of a resurrection – Jo, in particular, has kept a very low profile for the past year (despite the Spratleys’ triumphant return to action in 2016) and for the past decade or so Bic has been more noted for low-key backups within (or behind) other people’s projects, rather than his own. In their Bandcamp text, they make metaphorical allusions to pregnancy and labour, to inward journeys, the delivery – in all senses – of a new world, and the renewal of loving connections. In many respects, what they actually seem to be talking about is the triumph of love over fear and torpor, and the way in which music embraces and enables this. What you get as this process begins is a window onto the particular, vivid field of English psychedelia which the Confinementeers belong to, both separately and together, and the sense of rootedness and inspiration which offsets emotional paralysis and impels action. I guess that that’s one of the reasons why the first Confinement release is a trio of cover versions – drawing on inspirations and altered perspectives both English and American, and on the soothings, sympathy and compassion behind apparent nonsense and weirdness; and then providing their own synthesis.

Microkosmos is Bic on his own. I could argue that Bic’s work reached a luminous plateau during the short brooding mid-‘90s life of Dark Star (with their atmospheric tales of vision casualties and burnout cases) but he’d be entitled to argue back. Since then, he’s put out three Mikrocosmos albums – scattered meditative space-dust to Dark Star’s supernova, they shucked off the full-band musculature and had Bic revelling in wan-boy spindliness and a ghostly tenderness. In fact, Mikrokosmos both post- and pre-dates Dark Star. This EP’s echoey cover of Pink Floyd’s Matilda Mother dates back to half-forgotten tapes from 1993, when Bic lived and recorded in London’s skinniest house. It’s pretty much a note-for-note cover: while the fey precision of Syd Barrett’s tones have been replaced by Bic’s drowsy starveling keen (and the Floyd’s pattering remnants of beat-band rhythms have been replaced by drumless harmonium roll and wasp-buzzing noise effects), the melting sleepiness and neediness of the original are absolutely recaptured, from the dusky organ washes to the glissando acid harmony vocals. It’s still centred on childlike wonder, and the pang of interrupted sensation; a door-opener.


 
MUMMY is Bic with Jo. They brought out a couple of EPs three or four years ago; strange, slowed-down skeletal garage-goth songs, like the workings of a pair of fasting spiderborgs, or like a distracted feminised/de-brutalised Swans. In this 2015 outtake, they’re reworking an early Breeders song, Oh! (which also happens to share a title with a Spratleys song). The strumming spass-country feel of the original (melancholy fiddle, close-ups, and of-the-moment neophytery) is replaced by MUMMY’s use of drum machine, Gothic reverb and distant angle-grinder guitar sheeting. Jo’s abstracted alley-queen vocal, emotional but enigmatic, is also very different from Kim Deal’s just-rolled-out-of-bed slur. What can one do with the peculiar original lyric, apparently the words of an insect urging others to run and live despite overwhelming and incomprehensible perils? Relate it back to plague fears and to resilience, I reckon.


 
Babyskullz is Jo on her own: and although this is the first we’ve heard of this particular project, Abade is an eleven-year old track, so Jo’s been incubating her skulliness for a long time now. A 2009 take on a song by the Cardiacs psych-folk spinoff (and Spratleys Japs precursors) Sea Nymphs, this is the most directly familial cover on here. While the Breeders and Floyd covers may be the more familiar songs – and carry more of the psychedelic/indie kudos – this one is the most directly satisfying. Reinvented here as a trio of electronic harmonium, bossa-flavoured drum machine and throaty-to-celestial Jo chorale (punctuated by the surge of waves on Brighton beaches, and with a flurry of suspiciously Bic-ish feedback at the end), it keeps faith with the gentle walking pace and sympathy of the Sea Nymphs original. Its fractured lyric keeping step with the wounded, offering solidarity and – like Oh! – an offbeat encouragement. “And though he walks the mid-day sun / he carries his own vile dungeon around / with him and he’s of / all the more reason to be full of life, full of sound and fury. / Don’t be long, / where were we? / Where we belong.”


 

MUMMY/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos: ‘CONFINEMENT/release1’
The Confinement Tapes, CONFINEMENT/release1
Download/streaming EP
Released: 8th April 2020
Get it from:
free or pay-what-you-like fundraising downloads from Bandcamp. (Update, 9th May 2020 – these tracks were made available in the short term and are currently unavailable – if and when they’re restored, I’ll also restore the soundclips. Other Confinement Tapes items are available in the meantime.)

MUMMY online:
Facebook Bandcamp

Babyskullz (Jo Spratley) online:
Facebook Twitter

Mikrokosmos online:
Bandcamp Last FM
 

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:
Genepool (CD) or iTunes (download)

Tim Smith online:
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‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1’ online:
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October 1998 – EP reviews – Dark Star’s ‘Graceadelica’ (“a fistful of brilliant flares criss-crossed with human fragility”)

28 Oct

Dark Star: 'Graceadelica' EP

Dark Star: ‘Graceadelica’ EP

Hallelujah. David Francolini, Laurence O’Keefe and Christian “Bic” Hayes – refugees from the indie/prog/psych collision of Levitation – have quietly regrouped as Dark Star. Listening to their superb debut EP somehow makes the whole painful Levitation saga (all those spats, frustrations and blown hopes) worthwhile. But while Levitation ran, jumped, shook rooms, dazzled, and finally shattered, Dark Star – a power’n’glory trio that’ll rip off your head and return it to you all lit up and twice the size – take every bit of that energy, aim it, and channel it on course.

So what would happen if someone took British underground psych-rock as a foundation, then scanned the heights of British ’90s indie for what it had to offer? If they took Primal Scream’s panoramic hallucinatory peak, the funky drummer grace of The Stone Roses on ‘Fool’s Gold’, Radiohead’s lacerating skill and intensity, Spiritualized‘s on-off blinks of revelation, the waves of transporting guitar frenzy The Verve dealt in when Ashcroft cut out the rock-god schtick, and then fused it all together? And – unbelievably – got it right? They’d get this.

‘Graceadelica’ itself storms right out at you full-tilt, laced with detail, power and adrenalin quakes. Bic’s ghostly guitars are everywhere – chittering in the midground, weaving sensuous smoky patterns and Cocteaus star-clusters beyond, sketching spare cascading melodies upfront, then suddenly exploding into your ear in a storm of shocked echo over Francolini’s immaculate power-funk drumming. And it’s about memory barbed and refracted by mystery: someone stalking the city with a incredible secret to recover. “I must have hit the floor, / some dark uncertain hours before /…Those half familiar streets / were swimming underneath my cobwebbed feet. / My aching bones were dry, / a skeleton beneath the lead-grey sky. / Yeah, it’s all coming back to me now… maybe too late.” Pounding the pavement, finding a pathway to the key. “Feels like I’m walking over water, / subhuman urban messiah. / Slow-bound for church of the neon, / my resurrection’s in a glass on the bar…”


 
The title track carries off the prize for grace and scope, but the whole EP is a fistful of brilliant flares criss-crossed with human fragility. The heavy-metal bullet of ‘Crow Song’ – like PJ Harvey fucking Ted Hughes on Metallica’s drum riser – is haunted, a hapless killer’s nightmare. O’Keefe’s supple, astonishing basswork oozes power, but the song itself is flinching from guilt (“Hope you don’t mind, but if I let you in – no-one must know, no-one must know”) and the unfolding of terrible rituals: “You see, he speaks to me in sleep: and I don’t like what he says. And when I wake I find another feather, just next to me on the pillow…”

On ‘New Model Worker’, Bic’s voice is both tannoy-sneer and humble plea, the guitars a cataclysmic swing between grinding industrial filth and tiny, tender, praying filaments. “Season’s cycle’s turning overtime, and I’m a new model worker with too much on the mind. / There’s nothing to decide, there’s nowhere here to hide. / And just to breath in; the future becomes what’s left behind.” ‘Solitude Song’, hovering over a huge depressive plunge, refuses to deny anything – “There’s nothing wrong with you / (“I’m sorry, Doctor”) / You’re acting like a fool (“Well, someone’s got to…”) “. Instead, it’s braved out, and they jerk your tears out while they howl for strength “until the cloud’s gone, and we’re through… / Laugh when it’s over.”

Dark Star have only just started, and already they’re way better than Levitation ever were. Unless they blow out that revealing light again. Like Levitation, Dark Star are possessed of such power that they could as easily shake the world or tear the muscles off their own bones. Top marks for effort and promise, lads, but don’t let the frenzy buck you off this time. ‘Gracedelica’, at least, is an object lesson in how to ride the bastard over the horizon and back.

Dark Star: ‘Gracedelica’
EMI Records Ltd/Harvest Records, CDEM523/10EM523 (724388615822)
CD/vinyl EP
Released: 26th October 1998
Get it from:
(2020 update – best obtained second-hand)
Dark Star online:
Facebook MySpace Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Spotify Amazon Music
 

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