Tag Archives: Porcupine Tree

March 2017 – upcoming gigs – Richard Barbieri and Grice’s brief English tour with Duncan Chave and Lisen Rylander Love (16th, 26th, 28th); plus ’80s synthpop heaven at Birmingham’s Seventh Wave Festival with Rusty Egan, Chris Payne, Test Dept. and more… (23rd-26th)

26 Feb

Richard Barbieri + Grice on tour, March 2017In mid-March, Richard Barbieri heads out on a five-date English tour supporting his new album ‘Planets & Persona’: on all but one of the dates he’ll be sharing the bill with art-pop singer-songwriter Grice.

Over a five-decade career as a keyboard player, Richard has exemplified a precise balance between pop and the avant-garde. Initially compared to both Brian Eno and Karlheinz Stockhausen, his work anticipated the likes of Aphex Twin and a host of shrouded twenty-first century electronica artists. Initially finding fame as the keyboard player in art-pop band Japan, his approach reached its first apogee in the chimes-and-sibilance atmospherics of their 1982 single Ghosts: unwilling to be restricted by the glamour-punk through which he’d entered music (yet unsuited to either roots playing or the formal technicalities of progressive rock) he’d concentrated instead on developing electrophonic timbre and immaculately-planned textural arrangements, allied to subtle pop tunefulness.

Richard went on to refine his techniques in the post-Japan realignment projects Rain Tree Crow and Jansen Barbieri Karn, to work with left-field instrumentalists and bands (including Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Percy Jones, No-Man and The Bays), and to become an experimental sonic foil for singer-songwriters (Steve Hogarth, Tim Bowness, his own wife Suzanne on ambient folk project Indigo Falls). For seventeen years he was a member of Porcupine Tree, helping to shape the texture of the band’s music as it shifted from psychedelic space rock through prog to metallic adult rock, while simultaneous honing his own skills with more conventional keyboard playing on organ, clavinet and Mellotron. Richard’s recent string of solo albums – including ‘Planets & Persona’ – marry his past experiences with further inspirations from contemporary dance, electronica and left-field progressives.


 

One of the singer-songwriters who’ve benefited from Richard’s textural input, Grice is a more recent art-rock emergent. London-born but now Devon-based, he began as an early ‘90s arty Britpopper with the bands Laugh Like A Madman and The Burning Martyrs before refining his work with the successor project hungersleep. Since 2012 he’s been a solo artist.The subsequent ‘Propeller’ and ‘Alexandrine’ albums – plus last year’s ‘Refractions’ EP – have explored Grice’s drive towards dramatic and emotive songcraft. Blending his ballad-singer openness and the feathered strength-and-vulnerability of his high, breathy voice with a wide range of acoustic and electronic ingredients (brass-band and acoustic guitar, Uillean pipes and violins, touchstyle instrumentation and electronic glitch) they’ve rewarded him with acclaim in art-pop and progressive rock circles, plus the opportunity to collaborate on his own terms with instrumental and production luminaries such as BJ Cole, Markus Reuter, Raphael Ravenscroft, Lee Fletcher, Hossam Ramzy and Steve Jansen.


 

Dates:

  • Vibraphonic Festival @ Exeter Phoenix, Bradninch Place, Gandy Street, Exeter, EX4 3LS, England, Thursday 16th March 2017, 8.00pminformation
  • Seventh Wave Festival of Electronic Music @ The Blue Orange Theatre, 118 Great Hampton Street, Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham, B18 6AD, England, Sunday 26th March 2017, 1.30pminformation
  • Seventh Wave Festival of Electronic Music @ The Blue Orange Theatre, 118 Great Hampton Street, Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham, B18 6AD, England, Sunday 26th March 2017, 6.30pminformation
  • Hoxton Hall, 130 Hoxton Street, Hoxton, London, N1 6SH, England, Tuesday 28th March 2017, 7.00pminformation

On all dates, GRICE will be performing with his collaborator Duncan Chave, a Devon-based theatre composer and sound designer who (in addition to handling loops and programming) plays the Eigenharp, an intriguing breath/strip/finger-flex MIDI controller. In Exeter, they’ll also be joined by the rest of GRICE’s band (Jo Breban on drums, Al Swainger on bass and pedals).

In contrast, Richard Barbieri performs solo at Exeter, but at the Birmingham theatre shows and the London date will be performing with Swedish singer/saxophonist/electronics player Lisen Rylander Löve, formerly half of experimental pop/jazztronica duo Midaircondo and one of the major guest contributors to ‘Planets & Persona’.

* * * * * * * *

While I’m here, a little more on the other events in the Seventh Wave Festival in Birmingham (for more information on Exeter’s Vibraphonic event, go browsing, since they don’t seem to have put a website together this year…) Put together by the people behind the local electronica radio show of the same name, Seventh Wave Festival expands the show’s sideline of putting on electronica, synthpop, post-punk, Goth and New Wave music nights in Birmingham.

Seventh Wave Festival of Electronic Music 2, March 2017This particular concert series has a strong late-’70s/early-’80s focus, calling in some big names from the first synthpop wave. Visage mainstay and onetime ‘Blitz’ club DJ Rusty Egan will be performing material from his new album ‘Welcome to the Dancefloor’, as well as providing DJ slots and talks. Rusty’s ‘Fade to Grey’ co-writer Chris Payne (who also worked with Dramatis and Dead or Alive, as well as spending a decade in Gary Numan’s band) will be showing up with a brief resurrection of his early ‘80s post-Numan project Electronic Circus – for more on that, have a read of his recent interview with ‘The Electricity Club’. There’ll also be appearances by Richard Barbieri and by Human League/Heaven 17/British Electric Foundation’s Martyn Ware.

Although late ’80s dance-poppers Scarlet Fantastic (of ‘No Memory’ fame) have had to pull out, they’ve been replaced by Peter Coyle of the revived The Lotus Eaters; his fellow New Wavers Blue Zoo are also in place. At the more experimental end, two members of electro-experimentalists Test Dept (Graham Cunnington and Paul Jamrozy) will be on hand with “an electronic remix preview of upcoming Test Dept album material” complete with audio-visual mix.

Also contributing are representatives of newer takes on the electronic approach – Salford’s expansive Gnod collective, Ade Bordicott’s drone project Mutate, the vintage synthpop movie soundtrack-inspired Agents Of Evolution and Tony Adamo’s Ten:Ten project.

  • Test Dept:Redux (Graham Cunnington/Paul Jamrozy) + Gnod + Mutate – The Flapper, Cambian Wharf, Kingston Row, Ladywood, Birmingham, B1 2NU, England, Thursday 23rd March 2017, 7.00pminformation
  • Chris Payne’s Electronic Circus (Gary Numan/Visage) + DJ Rusty Egan + Peter Coyle (Lotus Eaters) + Ten:Ten – The Flapper, Cambian Wharf, Kingston Row, Ladywood, Birmingham, B1 2NU, England, Friday 24th March 2017, 7.00pminformation
  • A Morning with… Richard Barbieri – Birmingham and Midland Institute, 9 Margaret Street, City Centre Core, Birmingham B3 3BS, England, Saturday 25th March 2017, 9.00 aminformation
  • Electronic Music Conference (featuring Martyn Ware, Chris Payne, Richard Barbieri & Rusty Egan) – Birmingham and Midland Institute, 9 Margaret Street, City Centre Core, Birmingham B3 3BS, England, Saturday 25th March 2017, 12.00pminformation
  • Rusty Egan (with Chris Payne) + DJ Martyn Ware + Blue Zoo + Agents Of Evolution – The Flapper, Cambian Wharf, Kingston Row, Ladywood, Birmingham, B1 2NU, England, Saturday 25th March 2017, 7.00 pminformation
  • (see also the Birmingham Richard Barbieri/Grice dates above…)

 

May 2015 – through the feed – free single/upcoming crowdfunder from The Duke Of Norfolk; Cardiacs and Knifeworld reissues; a new Tim Bowness album; disinterring lost Levitation

21 May

I can tell I’ve not kept my eye on the ball – nothing makes a person feel less alert than suddenly finding that three of his favourite musical projects (plus one new recent favourite and one older interest) are suddenly pouncing out new releases and. I step out for a moment, for another writing project, and someone moves all of the furniture around.

The Duke Of Norfolk: 'A Revolutionary Waltz'

The Duke Of Norfolk: ‘A Revolutionary Waltz’

So… let’s start with news of fresh work from The Duke of Norfolk, a.k.a transplanted Oklahoman folkie Adam Howard, now resident in Edinburgh. He’s currently offering a free single – A Revolutionary Waltz – in part-promotion, commenting “I am launching a Kickstarter project in two weeks to fund the making of a live video EP, and would like to give you this recording in the meantime. It’s just a wee sonic experiment, but I hope you enjoy it!”

If you’re wondering whether there’s a Scottish Nationalist tie-in here, given recent political events in Britain, Adam’s adopted hometown, and that beautifully sympathetic and country-tinged setting of Robbie Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss on which he duets with Neighbour, think otherwise. In fact, this song is a darker cousin to An Evening Waltz (from his 2013 album ‘Le Monde Tourne Toujours’): a foreboding meditation on the inexorable turn of fate’s wheel, tying together three histories of power, betrayal and fall. Despite its timeless trad-folk lyric, Adam’s busking roots (and the lusciously acoustic sound of much of his other material) it’s also a rough-and-ready take on digital folk, either demo-rough or intended to display Adam’s other roots in sound design. A clipped electrophonic waltz picks its way across a murky psychedelic smudge and a droning feedback pibroch: its characters sea-waltz to the grim, dry beat of a hand drum and a scattering of cowrie-shell percussion. It’s well worth a listen. As for progress on the Duke Of Norfolk video Kickstarter campaign, it’s probably best to keep tabs on his Facebook page.

Cardiacs: 'Guns'

Cardiacs: ‘Guns’

Following the success of their double vinyl LP reissue of 1995’s ‘Sing To God‘ album, Cardiacs are doing the same with its 1999 follow-up, ‘Guns’. While it’s not the magnificent sprawler that ‘Sing To God’ is, ‘Guns’ offers a more concise take on the pepper-sharp 1990s Cardiacs quartet that featured Bob Leith and gonzo guitarist Jon Poole alongside the band-brothers core of Tim and Jim Smith. As Cardiacs albums go it’s an even brasher beast than usual, hiding its gnarly depths under brass-balled upfront confidence and strong seasonings of glam-bang, pell-mell punk, whirring Krautrock, and jags of heavy metal looning.

‘Guns’ is also one of the most obscure Cardiacs works. Drummer Bob joined Tim on lyric duties, helping to turn the album’s words into a dense hedge-witch thicket of allusion and play, in which typically naked Cardiacs preoccupations (dirt, wartime, suspicion, indeterminate life and death) are tied up into an almost impenetrable web, driven along by the music’s eight-legged gallop. The fact that Tim and Bob were slipping in random borrowings from ‘English As She Is Spoke‘,  a notoriously bungled Victorian phrasebook with its own wonky and unintentional poetry, only added to the tangle.

You can pre-order the ‘Guns’ reissue here for end-of-June shipping. It’s a single vinyl record, with no extra thrills or treats, but does come with the promise of beautiful packaging and pressing. You can expect to hear news on more Cardiacs reissues over the next few years. The current plan is to reissue the band’s whole back catalogue on vinyl after years of exile (predominantly spent huddled exclusively on iTunes).

Meanwhile, see below for a taste of ‘Guns’ magnificent oddness. Here’s the grinding drive of Spell With A Shell (which encompasses the lives of pets, the terror and wonder of transformation, and the cruelty, loneliness and confused loyalties of childhood). Here’s a collision of outsider folk and reggae in Wind And Rains Is Cold (via a fan video of clips from ‘Night Of The Hunter’, from which Cardiacs frequently filch scraps of lyric). Finally, here’s the scavenged, scratchy prog of Junior Is A Jitterbug with its prolonged and celebrated unravelling coda.

Cardiacs: 'Day Is Gone'

Cardiacs: ‘Day Is Gone’

For those without turntables, there’s been a relatively recent CD reissue of Cardiacs’ 1991 EP ‘Day Is Gone’ – which I somehow managed to miss when it was first announced – and which includes the original three B-sides (No Bright Side, Ideal and concert favourite Joining The Plankton). This is from the pre-‘Sing To God’ lineup: another quartet but with Dominic Luckman on drums and, ostensibly, Bic Hayes on second guitar (prior to his explosive stints in Levitation and Dark Star, and to his current position etching dark psychedelic guitar shadings in ZOFFF).

Actually, since this was a time of shuffle and change in the band it’s unclear as to whether Bic or Jon Poole is providing the extra galactic bangs and shimmerings on the EP. However, for Day Is Gone itself the attention should be on Tim Smith’s grand bottle-rocket of a solo, capping what’s both one of Cardiacs’ most autumnal songs and one of their most headrushing cosmic efforts – a bout of November skygazing gone bright and vivid. See below for the original video in all of its low-budget saucer-eyed glory, and pick up the CD here.

Cardiacs: 'Heaven Born And Ever Bright'

Cardiacs: ‘Heaven Born And Ever Bright’

Note also that a couple of other early-‘90s Cardiacs recordings have made it back on CD in the past six months. ‘Heaven Born And Ever Bright’ (the parent album for Day Is Gone) shows Cardiacs at their brightest and bashing-est, but hiding a wounded heart. ‘All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest’ – the recording of a raucous 1990 septet concert at the Salisbury Arts Centre – was both the last hurrah of the 1980s lineup (with carousel keyboards, saxophone and half-a-scrapyard’s-worth of percussion rig) and, for my money, is also one of the greatest live rock recordings ever made. See if you agree.

Cardiacs: 'All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest' (2014 reissue)

Cardiacs: ‘All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest’ (2014 reissue)


‘Mares Nest’ also made a welcome resurfacing on DVD a couple of years ago – see below for a typically quaking example of the band in action. It’s also worth repeating that all of the profits from the recording sales continue to go towards palliative care and physical therapy for Tim Smith, who’s still engaged in the slow painful recovery from his crippling stroke of 2008.

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

Meanwhile, Knifeworld – who feature an ex-Cardiac and, while being very much their own eclectic and tuneful proposition, carry a certain continuation of the Cardiacs spirit along with them – have collated early, interim and now-unavailable tracks onto a full-length album, ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’. The seven tracks (dating from between 2009 and 2012) bridge the space between their ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’ debut and last year’s tour-de-force ‘The Unravelling’.

If you want to read my thoughts on the original releases, visit the original ‘Misfit City’ reviews of the ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’ and ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’ EPs from which six of the tracks are taken. (I’ve just had a look back myself and discovered that I’ve previously described them as a band who could drag up exultation with their very fingernails, as starchildren weighed down by dark matter, as possessing “a knack of dissecting difficult feelings via swirling psychedelic sleight-of-hand” and as “an almighty and skilful art-rock mashup, with horns and bassoons poking out of it every which-way and strangely kinking, spiraling spines of rhythm and harmony locking it all together.” I must have been pretty excitable, on each occasion.)

Alternatively, have a look at the videos below. Also, if you’re in England during the end of May, the band (in full eight-person glory) are out on a short tour featuring the debut of new music.

Tim Bowness: 'Stupid Things That Mean The World'

Tim Bowness: ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’

With his erstwhile/ongoing no-man bandmate Steven Wilson going from strength to strength as a solo act, Tim Bowness also continues to concentrate on work under his own name – sleek, melancholy art-pop with a very English restraint, fired with a desperate passion and shaded with subtleties and regrets. His third album, ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’, is due for release on July 17th; barely a year after his last effort ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ (one of my own favourite records of 2014).

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’ features the ‘Abandoned…’ core band of Tim plus his usual cohorts Michael Bearpark, Stephen Bennett, and Andrew Booker, and on spec sounds as if it’ll be a smooth progression and development from the previous album. It also features guest showings from three generations of art rock (Phil Manzanera and Peter Hammill; David Rhodes and Pat Mastelotto; Colin Edwin, Bruce Soord, Anna Phoebe and Rhys Marsh) and string arrangements by art-rock-friendly composer Andrew Keeling.

Expect a typically Burning Shed-ish range of format options: the double CD mediabook edition (with companion disc of alternate mixes and demos including an unreleased no-man demo from 1994), and LP versions in either black vinyl or transparent vinyl (CDs included with each). Pre-ordering gets you a downloadable FLAC version of the 5.1 mix, plus the usual cute postcard. Sorry – I have no early tasters for ‘Stupid Things…’, but here’s a taste of one of the slower, lusher tracks from ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ for the benefit of anyone who missed it last year.

Earlier on, while discussing Cardiacs, I briefly mentioned Bic Hayes and his time in Levitation. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them – or who weren’t around in early ’90s Britain to witness their brief, Roman candle of a run – they were a band who eagerly fused together an enormous sound, leashing and running with a frenzied and energized take on psychedelic rock, driving post-punk noise and earnest, distressed chanting from their singer, the former House of Love guitar star Terry Bickers. Sadly, they’ve become best known as the springboard by which Terry catapulted himself first into frontmanhood, then into the uncharted and finally (via some tortured decisions and unfortunate outbursts) into the obscure.

In truth, Levitation were an equal conspiracy of five. As well as Terry and Bic, there was Robert White (a baby-faced free-festival veteran and secret-weapon multi-instrumentalist, who’d later lead The Milk & Honey Band), an undersung alt.rock bass hero called Laurence O’Keefe and David Francolini, an astounding and slightly demonic drummer who could run the gamut from pattering rain to pneumatic drill in a single roll round his kit (and who, within Levitation, had the perfect opportunity to do so). Fuelled equally by inspiration, drugs and sheer hard work, they strived for three intense years while living on the outside of their skins, and briefly came close to making some very unfashionable sounds current again.

While they were certainly a “head” band – hippy punks who joined floating threads of British counter-culture, spontaneity and resistance together – it’s vital to remember that Levitation were never your average festival band. They were never complacent, never entitled. More Yippie than trustafarian, they seemed (Bickers, in particular) to be desperately chasing revelations just over the rim of the horizon. Their ethos and experience was best summed up – or, more accurately, caught in a passing flare – in a lyric from their song Against Nature ), with Terry choking out “there is an answer, but I’ve yet to find out where” over a raging foam of guitars. Fingers (and not a few minds) got scorched along the way. In May 1993, it culminated in Terry’s wracked, brutal self-ejection from the band – in a spurt of slogans and despair – during a concert at the Tufnell Park Dome, just a short walk from Misfit City’s current home.

There have been some reconcilations since then (not least Bic, David and Laurence reuniting in the wonderful but equally short-lived Dark Star five years afterwards) but there have been no reunion, and no-one has ever seemed to want to go back. However, on Monday this week – Record Store Day 2015 – the Flashback label released the first Levitation music for twenty years – ‘Never Odd Or Even’, a vinyl-only EP containing three tracks from the band’s lost 1992 album ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ (these being Never Odd Or Even, Greymouth and Life Going Faster). More information is here, although if you want to pick up one of the five hundred copies you’d better find your nearest participating British record store here: they might have some left. (There’s an earlier version of the title track below, in perhaps a rawer form.)

I’ve described ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ as a lost album, which isn’t strictly true. Although the record was recorded prior to Terry’s explosive departure, there was life after Bickers, For just over a year, singer Steve Ludwin took on the frontman role; during this time the band took it upon themselves to partially re-work the album with Ludwin’s vocals rolled out firmly over Terry’s. The resulting version of ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ was only released briefly in Australia. Following the split of the Ludwin lineup and the final end of the band, it’s always been regarded (rightly or wrongly) as something of a bastard appendix to the Bickers-era albums.

The happier news is that, following up ‘Never Odd Or Even’, Flashback are about to give ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ its own new lease of life with the active collaboration of the original lineup (including Terry Bickers). The album’s original vocals have been restored, the songs polished to satisfaction and a final tracklisting agreed upon. Although former album tracks Graymouth and Life Going Faster have been ceded to the ‘Never Odd…’ EP, the 2015 version of ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ keeps four of the tracks familiar from the Ludwin version (Food For Powder, Gardens Overflowing, Even When Your Eyes Are Open and the vaulting soar of King of Mice) and adds five songs previously only available via bootlegs (Bodiless, Imagine The Sharks, Evergreen, I Believe, Burrows and Sacred Lover). Apparently, it’ll be out sometime in “summer 2015” as a single CD and limited-edition double LP, each coming with gatefold sleeve and new artwork by original Levitation cover artist Cally.

It’s probably best to keep track of progress on the ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ release here; but meanwhile here’s the Bickers version of Even When Your Eyes Are Open (the last single the band released before he quit) and a bootleg-sourced version of the startling post-psychedelic stretchout Burrows – just to whet the appetite.

The Duke Of Norfolk online:
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Cardiacs online:
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Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

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

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

9 May

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

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

Tim Bowness: 'Abandoned Dancehall Dreams'

Tim Bowness: ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’

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

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

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

Stars In Battledress: 'In Droplet Form'

Stars In Battledress: ‘In Droplet Form’

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Bowness online:
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Stars In Battledress online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

May 2000 – album reviews – Porcupine Tree’s ‘Lightbulb Sun’ (“the late flowering of Steve Wilson’s pure songwriting”)

24 May

Porcupine Tree: 'Lightbulb Sun'

Porcupine Tree: ‘Lightbulb Sun’

Porcupine Tree have had a funny time of it in their decade of existence. Maybe they asked for it: psych-rock underground heroes with a pipeline to rave, then prog hopefuls loudly damning the prog scene, then heading determinedly towards an indie sector that’s unprepared (to put it mildly) for music and musicians of their ilk. But their journey’s maintained its upward curve free of busts and inner bust-ups; and the sidelines and brother projects thronging round them – No-Man and Jansen Barbieri Karn’s art-pop, Bass Communion‘s ambient electronic gubbins, Ex-Wise-Heads’ world music, even IEM’s scraggly Krautrock and plunderphonic cut-ups – show that Porcupine Tree are no stick-in-the-mud rockers, and that between them they’ve got a mind that flies far and wide across the musical landscape.

 
I reckon, though, that were you to cut the Porkies’ headman Steve Wilson open right down to the core and take a look at his heart, you’d find “songs” written on it in flowing, joined-up writing. And for ‘Lightbulb Sun’ (as with its equally song-heavy predecessor ‘Stupid Dream’), Wilson’s made a pronounced effort to finally yank his band clear of that neo-Pink Floyd, instrumental tag that’s dogged them for years. The extended melodic jams of old have taken a back seat to sharply-wrought melodic pop songs; and the rackety Hillage/Khan riffery of that abrasive 4 Chords That Made a Million single sits oddly on an album that’s as distinctively English as cucumber sandwiches. By the river. In Winchester. Plus with Dave Gregory welcomed into the production proceedings (mostly for string arrangements but, one suspects, in general spirit as well) large parts of ‘Lightbulb Sun’ harken towards XTC’s English pastoralism.

 
Although any XTC guile which might’ve adhered to these wistful songs of love and lost summers has been filtered out en route. Last Chance To Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled plays at mixing the first stirrings of adolescent love with the grandiose deathwish of the Heaven’s Gate cult, but it gets no more ambitious than that. Directness is the hallmark of ‘Lightbulb Sun’ – perhaps the title track (about a sick schoolboy coddled and recuperating in bed, enthralled with the unreality of fever vision) has a drug subtext with lines like “I’ll only take medicine if it’s followed by sweets”, but it’s just as likely to be no more than it seems.

 
Episodes of childhood that stick in the memory are as much part of the thoughtful nostalgia anchoring the album as the retrospective daydreaming of Where We Would Be (ending on a bewildered-but-wiser note of “strange how you never become / the person you see when you’re young”). Or the lover’s angst in songs like Feel So Low; in which our Steven, playing that “who breaks the wounded silence first?” game, loses outright (although it was probably worth it to hear that string quartet cry with you, Steve).

 
And though it has its dark side, ‘Lightbulb Sun’ is a record that welcomes little gushes of warmth. The sound’s warmer than anything Porcupine Tree have tried before: with a big fresh drum sound plus acoustic guitars, banjos and hammer dulcimers to change the previous clean space-rock to something more homespun. Wilson’s electric guitar heroism’s not as overwhelming as before, though reaching new expressive peaks. There’s room for Turkish and African lutes from bassist Colin Edwin‘s collection, and the infamous Richard Barbieri spends more time on classic keyboards like the Rhodes, Hammond and Mellotron than he does on cooking up his unearthly synth textures. Also, with Wilson’s urges towards futurism and post-rock held back this time, the band concentrate on banging out songs that’ll move people instead of just critics (ahem).

 
The late flowering of Steve Wilson’s pure songwriting (in strong evidence on ‘Stupid Dream’, a hard fact on this follow-up) is producing gentle gems. Like the immaculate acceptance of love’s end on Shesmovedon, an acoustics-driven sigher with a chorus harmony (over which any of our neo-classic British rock bands would bite their fingers off rather than admit they couldn’t do it themselves – hello Ocean Colour Scene! hello Noel!) Or the majestic yet soft-sung healing touch of The Rest Will Flow, sweeping along on a flood of heart-gladdening strings. At the other end, the snakey and resentful undertones of Hatesong (a polite pissed-off English hiss, evil fretless bass and eardrum punches being swung nearby) and the eerie, let’s-pretend-things-are-better fairground tune of How Is Your Life Today?, rotating on carousels of piano and Barbieri calliope effects. On these, Wilson sounds spooked and heartsick – deserted in the yawning void of an empty house and too stricken to even pick up the mail.

 
Songs like these seem far more rewarding than backsliders like the lengthy Russia On Ice, which risks catapulting the band straight back into the “baby Floyd” box: being a bit of a ‘Mope On You Sulky Diamond’, long prog touches and all. Porcupine Tree are beyond this wielding of obvious weightiness now. Singing about houses and failing handholds instead of stars and corrupted sermons often means the songs go deeper, and if this means Wilson and co are domesticated and lost to the cosmic fraternity, so be it. I prefer them like this, under the changing sun rather than swirling in inner space chasing a dubious light up their own navels.

 
Porcupine Tree: ‘Lightbulb Sun’
Snapper Music/K-Scope, SMASCD827 (6 36551 28272 7)
CD-only album
Released:
22nd May 2000
Get it from: Burning Shed
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May 2000 – single & track reviews – Badly Drawn Boy’s ‘Disillusion’; Inter’s ‘Radio Finland’; Porcupine Tree’s ‘4 Chords That Made a Million’

8 May

Badly Drawn Boy: 'Disillusion'

Badly Drawn Boy: ‘Disillusion’

For someone with such a reputation for being ramshackle, unpredictable, accidental, awkward (insert your favourite anti-star adjective here) and so on, that there Badly Drawn Boy doesn’t half make polished pop records when he wants to.

The Boy – Darren Gough, when he’s out of uniform – positively thrives on that kind of early Beck slacker/random “just rolled out of bed and made this record” image that wins over the crowds of reluctant punka-monkeys, for whom professionalism’s a suspicious word at best. Doesn’t change the fact that his last single (Once Around the Block) sounded suspiciously like that Latino swing that used to punctuate ‘Sesame Street’ and made you want to check if he had an Astrid Gilberto LP hidden under his battered old mixing desk underneath all the crumpled tape and cigarette butts. Most of the similarly-touted Manc alt-rockers Doves back him up on this one, and guess what? it does sound like a slightly crumpled take on mid-’70s soul-pop. Sort of like Hall & Oates refried for that crate-digger’s Latin funk angle plus a New York thrift-shop feel.


 
I like it – it’s hard not to enjoy all those vintage sounds bouncing up and down together like a smiling, sweaty block party – but it’s becoming a little difficult not to see Badly Drawn Boy as a lovable cottage-industry faker of slightly worn urban folk. Or as someone who likes smudging his own messy fingerprints on the records in a ‘Mojo’ buried-treasure box. OK, perhaps I’m being a little unfair. Bottle of Tears seems to restore your faith in the boy Gough’s image – a slightly Beta Band-style stoned skiffle, loaded up with boo-bams and other things that go clonk and with all the recording levels cheekily whacked up to a crunchily chewable wall of treble. There’s a bit of hoodlum science on the menu too. Wrecking the Stage is a yobbish rockabilly riff slamming headfirst into some sampler boffin’s cut-up experiment, so you get to hear big stoopid guitar and drums duking it out with primitive electronic froth and a colossal roll of psychedelic bell tones.



 
There is some kind of split genius here – on the one hand, for postmodern pop pastiche; on the other, for mating cheery tunes with outrageously back-to-front “who gives a fuck?” production. But as regards that carefully-constructed image of the lovable neighbourhood eccentric stumbling brilliantly into music, the game’s well and truly up. There’s a mainstream pop talent here dressing down for effect; and if he’s trying to disguise that with silly hats and goofy chuckles, methinks the Boy doth protest too much.

Inter: 'Radio Finland'

Inter: ‘Radio Finland’

It’s been a long time since Inter‘s ‘National Paranoia’ showed up (with its coltish Wonder Stuff-y bite), but here comes the follow-up single, straight down the turnpike. ‘Radio Finland’ is slyly anthemic: smoother, laced with chimey Celt-rock chords, stronger on the skat hooks and harmonies, but it’s another “we’ve already discovered that rock delusions suck” songs, worldly-wise behind the “da doo da da dit”s. As lines like “every hour of every day / I’ve got a direct line into your brain” lock horns with self-referential gibes like “what a show, but you’re nothing new”, Inter seem to be deconstructing and sending themselves up before they’re even under scrutiny.


 
The venomous sideswipe of You Lose shows they can still muster simple brat bile when they want to: perhaps when they hit the big time they’ll’ve gone full circle and gotten all naive and sellably arrogant again. But You Can Always Depend On Me, brazening out the confessions of a self-aware blunderer, suggests there’s fat chance of that – “I’ve wasted my potential trying hard to sound too sincere / and I don’t wanna get myself in deeper saying things you don’t want to hear / …I’m way too shameless to ever get it right.” In Inter’s songs, pop bursts out in tuneful flash-flowers of ballsy resistance. The good new is that even if they have rooted their sound in The Wonder Stuff, they’ve also matched the Stuffies’ tuneful urchin aggression and cracklingly sharp lyrics too. Nice to see a set of heirs that don’t let the old firm down for once.

Porcupine Tree: '4 Chords That Made a Million'

Porcupine Tree: ‘4 Chords That Made a Million’

A side effect of Porcupine Tree‘s inexorable rise to the forefront of British psych-rock has been the consensus that’s set into their previously unbounded music. But they can still surprise us. Last year it was the dry wit of the ‘Piano Lessons’ single: this year it’s something less subtle, but still a jump away from the strummed ’70s friendly psych-anthems which Steven Wilson comes up with on an average day.

At the root, ‘4 Chords That Made A Million’ still stomps along with big mainstream boots on. But the sound is something new for them: aggressive raga-rock riffs with guitar wails like huge bloodstained battle-axes and a brutally cynical adventurist swagger to it that’s more ‘Definitely Maybe’ than ‘Wish You Were Here’. The effect’s a sort of explosive post-Anokha heavy metal: laden with tabla lines and drones, and with Richard Barbieri spurting out dirty synth lines like someone spunking up into a pot of orchids. The subject matter’s the one thing that unites arena-rock and punk lurkers – that standard disaffection with the biz. “Another moron with a chequebook / will take you out to lunch, who knows? / He will tell you you’re the saviour / and then he’ll drop you like a stone.” Mind you, what does it mean when you’re writing lyrics about the futility and emptiness of arena-rock and you then do your level best to set them in a full-on mosher of an arena-rock crowd pleaser? Has Wilson gone all Manic Street Preachers “we’ll have our cake but claim we’re dieting” on us, all of a sudden?

 
The B-sides are more familiar Tree twiglets. Disappear is almost unplugged, Wilson’s lazy swirl of flyaway harmonies, licks of luscious sombre wah and the blissful final surge of organ, Mellotron and drums notwithstanding. And it’s another fame story, this time the tale of someone wilfully giving up on the threshold: “I gatecrashed parties and just stood and stared / I moved to London and stayed in all year… / You’ll be famous and I’ll disappear. / I erase myself again.”


 
In Formaldehyde sounds like one of Radiohead’s disintegrating nearly-ballads fed through Camel: a lovely, helpless, descending Wilson melody to match the boring, frustrating pain of a decaying love. The sonic decorations, an enchanting swirl of dulcimer scratches and NASA blips, enhance a prime piece of trademark Porcupine Tree gliss-guitaring sky-glide. But while back in the ’70s this kind of psychedelic lament would’ve accompanied spliffed-out stargazing, here it’s soundtracking the miserable chill that settles into comfy middle-class apartments as they crumble into broken homes and even the drugs become unsatisfying toys. “Dust in the kitchen – coffee pot, microdot. / Now we are constant: / talking less, breeding stress.”


 
Perhaps it shows just how everyday the psychedelic has become today (with an acid trip in every other advert), but it also shows that, whatever spaceman noises and Big Rock Issues Porcupine Tree want to play with, they can still bring themselves off the spangly podium and home to the heart when they need to.

Badly Drawn Boy: ‘Disillusion’
XL Recordings/Twisted Nerve, TNXL005CD (6 34904 10052 0)
CD/10″ vinyl single
Released:
3rd May 2000
Get it from: (2020 update) Original single best obtained second-hand; Disillusion appears on the debut Badly Drawn Boy album ‘The Hour of Bewilderbeast’.
Badly Drawn Boy online:
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Inter: ‘Radio Finland’
Yoshiko Records, YR 002 CDS002
CD/7-inch vinyl single
Released:
8th May 2000
Get it from: (2020 update) Original single best obtained second-hand; Radio Finland appears on the lone Inter album ‘Got My Nine’.
Inter online:
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Porcupine Tree: ‘4 Chords That Made A Million’
Snapper Music/K-Scope, SMASCD111/SMAXCD111/SMAS7111 (6 36551 21112 3)
CD/7-inch vinyl single
Released:
2nd May 2000
Get it from: (2020 update) Original single best obtained second-hand: ‘4 Chords That Made a Million’ is included on Porcupine Tree’s ‘Lightbulb Sun’ album, while the others made it onto the ‘Recordings’ compilation.
Porcupine Tree online:
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December 1998 – album reviews – Porcupine Tree’s ‘Metanoia’ (“the possibilities which the band’s music has while it’s still at the point of wide-eyed, newborn naivety”)

27 Dec

Porcupine Tree: 'Metanoia'

Porcupine Tree: ‘Metanoia’

As Porcupine Tree straighten out their more obviously exploratory aspects and firm up into a more solid rock configuration, Steven Wilson seems concerned to show us that although his psychedelic prog band is solidifying, it’s not becoming rigid. After last year’s live album ‘Coma Divine‘, here’s ‘Metanoia’: a collector’s set of band improvisations from the rehearsal studio during the making of ‘Signify’.

Obviously intended to illustrate the possibilities which the band’s music has while it’s still at the point of wide-eyed, newborn naivety, it’s also a window into the band’s uncensored enjoyment of music-making. At the beginning of Mesmer III you can hear drummer Chris Maitland enthusing like a schoolboy – “Brilliant, Richard… That’s really evil!” – while Richard Barbieri unwraps a particularly ominous electronic texture from his mysterious lash-up of analogue synths. Compared to the carefully-honed concert expansions of ‘Coma Divine’ (allowing the band to play out loud without ever getting too self-indulgent), ‘Metanoia’ takes Porcupine Tree’s live freedom off in a different direction, where the only limitations (or necessary brakes) are the musicians’ awareness of those specific moments in time.

Mesmer II is the most confident (and consequently least yielding) of the improvs. It begins as a Frippish guitar fanfare over Prince-style boom-bat drums; it gradually psyches itself up into more familar Porcupine Tree planetarium music, with orrery twinkles and rolls from Barbieri. But it’s an exploration in which the influences seem to have blended naturally into the moment – a good sign.


 
Of most obvious interest to regular Porcupine Tree followers will be the Metanoia I/Intermediate Jesus medley, featuring a first draft of the Intermediate Jesus instrumental from ‘Signify’. This version emerges out of a typical raw Porkies atmospheric. Dreamy, swampy psych-rock fragments flicker in and out of a quiet power-station ambience: Colin Edwin‘s small, arching bass hook becomes the keel over which Wilson decorates the distance with echo-guitar details. The music eventually settles down into a dark-tinged, broody, space-psych flavour with a backwash of drowsy sonic fabric: reminiscent of the beautiful golden haze which U2’s Eno-assisted ‘Unforgettable Fire’ revelled in, in between the rock hits. At this point, still uncertain of itself, the music of Porcupine Tree has an uncontrived innocence to it; something that’s rare anywhere in the current prog canon, let alone in their own history.


 
Mesmer I builds from minimal, grudging soundscapes of cymbal tones, electrosculpture and flanged guitar effects. Eventually, it’s been shaped into a disjointed groove (a gawkier, rockier take on ‘In A Silent Way’, maybe) up to the point where it’s hit U2 funk and a dance-groove recalling Porcupine Tree’s own ‘Voyage 34’. Here, Barbieri’s inventiveness plays foil to the brasher edge of Wilson’s stadium-rock guitar flourishes, brushing in and out of the mix with scratchily tender gusts of electronics like the wet coronas around streetlights. Metanoia II, like its predecessor, is anchored by a little Edwin bass hook around which Maitland lays haphazardly tremorous drumming, Wilson a fragmentary glissando, and Barbieri abuses his wibbling VCS3 in full On the Run tradition. This piece will subsequently (a) blossom lyrically and (b) accelerate into a kind of soft-edged speed-metal, with the same sort of instinctive flow as Porcupine Tree’s own ‘Moonloop’.


 
It’s Mesmer III/Coma Divine, though, that allows Porcupine Tree to insinuate themselves into the improvising tradition. “Do something completely different” suggests a restless Wilson. Time out for meditation – and already Steven is bored… Someone fiddles with a shortwave radio but, ending up with dull afternoon cut-ups, abandons it. Behind tiny touches from a dormant rhythm section, the band start to induce shifting planes of sound. A Barbieri noise (an orchestra haunting a train tunnel) ebbing in and out; hardly there, like kettle steam. A suspicion of an introverted ’70s jazz-rock, melted down in ’90s solvent, draining out in a Barbieri wing-flutter. A section which has the lonely looping meander of Bark Psychosis‘ Bloodrush. At last, a return to a very soft take on the band’s psych-rock drift, Wilson’s guitar trailing over rocking-chair drum and bass, transparent synth swathing a shroud of narcosis around it. A band usually lumped in with Marillion and Gong has just paid visits to the post-rock haunts of Tortoise, Labradford and beyond, without contrivance, drawing up natural sound from the source. When they finish, it’s like the shift in reality at the end of a sleepwalk.


 
As an afterthought, there’s Milan – Porcupine Tree out of the studio and captured in conversation during one of those bleached, interminable spare moments on tour. They’re uncomfortable, travel-blurred, in unfamiliar suits and ineptly trying to organise their Italian meal. In the “gastronomic capital of the world… known for its joi-de-vivre,” they’re ill-at-ease, messed around, trying to cope, teasing each other. “I just feel stupid,” is the final aggrieved statement of the album – a moment of Spinal Tap bathos to counter the explorations elsewhere. Displaced from normal patterns, they’re forced to improvise again, in the way we all have to. They’re surviving.

Porcupine Tree: ‘Metanoia’
Delerium Records/Chromatic Records, CHRM 003 (no barcode)
10-inch vinyl-only double album
Released:
December 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Original vinyl version best obtained second-hand; album was later reissued on CD.
Porcupine Tree online:
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October 1997 – live album reviews – Porcupine Tree’s ‘Coma Divine (“driving performances, captured with crystal clarity… showing what the band can be like when removed from Wilson’s zealous studio-bound quality control”)

27 Oct

Porcupine Tree: 'Coma Divine'

Porcupine Tree: ‘Coma Divine’

In the eleven years that he’s been developing it, Steven Wilson has guided his Porcupine Tree project along a path of sinuous, gentle, considered swerves. We’ve seen it emerge from a clutch of playful one-man bedroom-band attempts to emulate the psychedelic heroism of the Gong/Floyd/Hillage/Can era, and go on to flirt with the wide-eyed double dawn of acid-house and rave while dipping in and out of experimental sonic abstractions. Eventually it established itself as a full-figured four-man contemporary rock group, and today’s band is a much sleeker, more professional thing than its origins suggested. Solid and melodic, rocking effortlessly, drawing on the pellucid visions of psychedelic sound and the soaring space-blues solos of ‘Wish You Were Here’, reweaving them into the starfield sweeps of ’90s rave and trance-techno, and allowing them to blossom out of the heart of spectral English pop and folk dreams.

Wilson has an ambiguous, on-off relationship with progressive rock. One month he’ll be asserting himself as the British prog scene’s lone saviour amongst a swill of sub-Genesis, the next rebranding his work as “modern rock” among the likes of The Verve, Korn or Mansun. Something which belies the simple truth that Porcupine Tree are, in essence, a contemporary prog-rock band. But if so, they’re one which is practising what the scene ought to be practising. They’re leaning to past traditions of impeccable extended musicianship and structural ambition, but eschewing podgy FM blandness and looking instead to contemporary musical motifs, technologies and methodologies.


 
That said, 1996’s ‘Signify’ was almost too accomplished. Sixty-odd minutes of polished, grooving songs and sleek instrumental blowouts that went down like a little pinch of manna with a worldwide prog audience, but which also ensured the Porkies’ ascendency at the expense (to this reviewer, at least) of their warmth and their mutable possibilities. ‘Coma Divine’ redresses the balance a bit – not just by being a particularly good live album (driving performances, captured with crystal clarity) but by showing what the band can be like when removed from Wilson’s zealous studio-bound quality control. Recorded during the band’s Italian tour in 1997, it captures them in ripping form, tearing through the likes of ravening distorted acid-rocker Not Beautiful Anymore and the stabbing, mathematical Neu!-style thrash of Signify, expounding on the dreamy rock tone-poem of The Sky Moves Sideways, and delivering a poised, hypnotic Radioactive Toy to an ecstatic audience.



 
Porcupine Tree draw frequent Pink Floyd comparisons, invited by the band’s preference for atmosphere and solid construction over any temptations to proggy twiddles and busyness. And also by the cushioning synthesizers, Wilson’s quiet vocals and his protracted, articulate bluesy guitar leads. When you hear them live, the parallels don’t hold nearly as much water. Floyd have never really rocked out with such intensity as this band, and have always possessed a certain English stolidity which Porcupine Tree avoid (in spite of Wilson’s nonchalant approach to front-man duties). Waiting – previously no more than a Tree-by-numbers single – is reborn here, jauntified by Wilson’s jangling electric twelve-string. And even if The Sleep of No Dreaming strays dangerously near to the despised neo-prog (it’s just a little too close to a half-hearted ‘Dark Side of the Moon’), Wilson’s unusually raw wail on the chorus gives the live version all the authority it needs.



 
It’s the live freedom offered to other members of the band that makes the most difference. Colin Edwin‘s fretless bass, reliable but uninspired on record, becomes a looming stretchy presence on ‘The Sky Moves Sideways’. When he steps on his mutron pedal, he’s more Bootsy Collins than Roger Waters. Dislocated Day (always one of the Tree’s most thrilling moments) gets a huge boost from his interaction with Chris Maitland‘s hissing cymbals and turbocharged drums, the rhythm section taking the song and running with it. Although it’s keyboardist Richard Barbieri who proves to be the Tree’s ace-in-the-hole when he’s let off the leash. He matches Wilson blast for blast as he wrenches blistering melodies, frayed foaming tones and astonishingly vocal burbles out of his armoury of old analogue synths; or embraces the band in a sea of marble-sheened electronics.


 
And while Wilson’s guitar takes centre stage, it’s Barbieri’s utter mastery of sonics which gives Porcupine Tree their robe of starlight as – at their most liberated – they swell through the long, trancey second section of Waiting, the mesmerised improvisations that extend Radioactive Toy. Or the highlight of ‘Coma Divine’: a beautifully fluid journey through Moonloop which evolves through honey-warm ambience, glittering astronomical detail, guitar explorations that sleepwalk and levitate, to the final joyous rampage through spacey, ornamental, Ozrics-y riffing at the climax. Splendid.

Porcupine Tree: ‘Coma Divine’
Delerium Records, DELEC CD 067 (5 032966 096723)
CD-only album
Released:
October 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Original CD best obtained second-hand; expanded 2016 double CD edition available from Burning Shed.
Porcupine Tree online:
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Image

October 1997 – album reviews – Indigo Falls’ ‘Indigo Falls’ (“luxuriates in rich, sensual detail and blooms into a hothouse of musical perfumes”)

16 Oct

Indigo Falls: 'Indigo Falls'

Indigo Falls: ‘Indigo Falls’

This is as lovely as the insensuous smoke from a joss stick… and, in many respects, suffers from the same flaws and failings. But we’ll come to that later.

Indigo Falls are the husband and wife songwriting team of Richard and Suzanne Barbieri. He provides a mass of detailed keyboard fabric, she leads with a voice of immense clarity (a sort of cleaned-up, smoothed-over, less affected mixture of Kate Bush, Holly Penfield, and Sarah Brightman). And though the phrase “New Age songwriter album” may be loaded with suspicion, that’s precisely what this is, despite efforts to sell them as a pop duo or the noisy, mannered rock gestures of Only Forwards. All of the tell-tale signs are here: a soft delicacy of sounds, a rejection of urban tensions (and inspirations) in favour of vague spiritual atmospheres, and – inescapably – an unmistakeable ingenuous desire to play earnest folk music on synths, to touch the fragrant earth but keep your twenty-four-track studio regardless. Plenty of people have slid into waffle on those premises.


 
However, Richard Barbieri’s astonishing sonics elevate Indigo Falls far above the genre’s usual weediness. From his Mary Quant-ed days behind the Japan keyboards back in the early ’80s, through his ethnological textures with Rain Tree Crow and his contemporaneous dreamy synthwork as part of Porcupine Tree, he’s been one of the absolute masters of textured electronics. And ‘Indigo Falls’ is no disappointment in this department. Check out the undersea music boxes and the froth of musical bubbles building up the aquamarine tints of World’s End: and mixing with the inevitable organs are jangling harp sounds, harmonious turbojet squalls; swathes of thick, scalding distorted guitarry smears; the sounds of the air being sliced with a palette knife and refracted into traces of luminous colour.


 
The synths here have an organic tenderness, merging flesh-on-flesh with Jakko Jakszyk‘s lyrical, passionate guitar flourishes and Theo Travis‘ verdant saxophone. Consequently, ‘Indigo Falls’ luxuriates in rich, sensual detail and blooms into a hothouse of musical perfumes. Tunes flutter, soothe and arch like lazy ecstatic cats – in particular on Falling Into Years – where sax notes flutter down like rose petals, and which melts into an instrumental coda of sublime sensuality, breaking down out of its gentle pop rigour into fragmented little archipelagos; islands of sax, piano, bells and trade-wind electrophonics.


 
But even if Richard provides whatever big name cachet there is (as well as most of the duo’s sound) this is very much Suzanne Barbieri’s album. Her lyrical preoccupations shape and define the songs for better or worse, and whether or not you go for them will depend very much on whether you see eye to eye with her vision. And – unfortunately – relentless, vaporous symbolism dominates these songs. Shadows, nights, seas; dreamers, Babylon, totem animals; inner children. None of which are explored so much as checked off, as if the album was a spotter’s guide to mystical furnishings.

Let’s be fair, sometimes it works well. As on The Wilderness, where Richard’s sounds and Suzanne’s words mesh together most effectively. Sandstorm-under-stars synth, a big lazy open-skinned clatter of percussion, and Suzanne’s most direct singing: “no sign of life, just sand on sand / and hollow bloodless trees”. Steve Wilson‘s sparse acoustic guitar shadow-boxes with Suzanne’s rituals. Bones rattle, shadows pass overhead, past lives regress before our eyes… The magic works. But…


 
The thing about incense is that it transforms rooms and moods, making you feel as if you’re in touch with something… but it’s only smoke in the air. You’re being moved by something insubstantial. Immaterial. And if such a thing reaches towards profundity, and fails, it’s glaringly obvious. Feed the Fire obviously wants to fly with Rain Tree Crow: a thick percussive pulse propelled by Mick Karn‘s muddy bassline while Suzanne delivers her throaty take on Native American chanting (“The burning birds in spiral flights. / The hide within breaks through the skin. / The beast inside, the silent guide… / Muscles stretch and sinews snap / and spirits rise. / Sundancing…”). But unlike Rain Tree Crow’s immersive cultural explorations, this feels more like tourism: someone trying on a feathered headdress in one of those sad little souvenir shops scattered round the edge of the Navajo Nation.


 
The Achilles’ heel of Indigo Falls is the sheer bathetic naivety that slinks in under the cover of beauty. On Towards the Light, the ambition in Jakko’s yearning wails of aspirant guitar and Richard’s stratospheric synths (mountains carving notes out of the wind – oh, please, indulge me: here I can genuinely enthuse) is brought low by Suzanne’s beautifully-sung codswallop about sleepwalkers and her lurches into mediocre therapy speak. “We are all children, we are all crying”. No, we aren’t all crying: some of us are just griping because we want the nice lady to start singing something we can relate to. Music this sensuous should be devoted to something human, something real. Not to supernatural, psycho-babbling vagueness.


 
And if Indigo Falls ditched the New Age posing and got down to the nitty-gritty, they’d truly be on to what the sound of the record only hints at. There is a suggestion of what this could be like: on Sky Fall, which closes the album. The ghosts of beats sway sleepily, a pillowing organ and soprano sax curve gently around the melody as Suzanne sings. The hippy-chick histrionics are sloughed off. Instead, in comes a swathe of human vulnerability: the naked relief and wonder at the risks of love paying off. “We crossed a line, but the world still turns / The sky didn’t fall, and nothing has changed… we’re home again, home again.” There are flickers of doubt (“should I believe this is real? Should I believe in you?…”) and the knowledge of fallibility (“Keep a light in your heart for me / I’m not as strong as you think / I could slip away so easily.”) A whole album like this could melt the most cynical heart. Most of the songwriting on ‘Indigo Falls’, sadly, provides the cynical heart with as much ammunition as it requires.

Undoubtedly very beautiful. But is that enough? After the smoke clears, we need a genuine vision.

Indigo Falls: ‘Indigo Falls
Medium Productions Ltd., MPCD5 (6 04388 42402 3)
CD/download album
Released:
13th October 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand; download version and some CDs available from Bandcamp.
Indigo Falls online:
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January 1997 – live reviews – Podsdarapomuk @ The Hope & Anchor, Islington, London, November 13th 1996 & January 23rd 1997 (“passages of dreamlike contemplation with surges of magnificently tangled art-rock splurge”)

29 Jan

Podsdarapomuk - concerted action (photographer unknown).

Podsdarapomuk onstage (photographer unknown).

On an early-November afternoon in 1996, I’d hopped out of a car travelling up from Kent and made my way to one of ‘Organ’ magazine’s “Vital Organ” gigs at the London Astoria 2. As usual, I was following their lead on where newer progressive and psychedelic rock was pushing at the door. At the moment I can’t quite remember who was playing. Some scribbled notes somewhere might tell me that it was Sleepy People (still tootling, yelping and gamely plugging away at their foothold on the capital), or Porcupine Tree (keeping a sharp grip on themselves and gathering speed at their own pace). Or perhaps it was Terry Bickers continuing on the slow, injured trajectory out of his House of Love and Levitation stardom – winding out ashy cigarette-coils of dream guitar with his recently trimmed-down, soon-to-vanish Cradle, he was avoiding eye contact, preparing to evaporate. However, that’s a story for another time, if I can dig the details up.

Over at the merchandise stall, I was leafing through the Organ stock of colour-splashed vinyl and obscure demo tapes – a typically eclectic, magical crop from bands with unknown names, complex influences and musical agendas ignored elsewhere (people were concentrating on Oasis’ gobby bloat, and on the sorry disintegration of The Stone Roses). It was then that I was collared by an earnest young German drummer called Claas Sandbothe: wiry limbs and granny glasses, a schoolboy’s fringe, a grinful of persistent little teeth. He tried to talk me into buying something by his band, Podsdarapomuk; an enthusiastic rave about it from Marina at ‘Organ’ clinched the deal. So I bought Claas’ band’s EP, and it just knocked me out.

Ten days later, and I’m in a pub cellar in Islington as the group takes the stage. Podsdarapomuk turn out to be five young gentlemen-longhairs in suits and ties; German-born (hailing from an out-of-the-way little town near Stuttgart) but London-based (up near Leyton, home to many an intriguing left-field band of late). They look like a young undertaker’s convention. They grin shyly, and sound like…

Daniel Klemm in contemplative mood. (photographer unknown).

Daniel Klemm in contemplative mood. (photographer unknown).

…well, hell, we really are onto something here. Imagine a band with the nervous jazzy edge and contemporary noisy indie-cum-art-rock punch of dEUS, but which also sounds like every period of King Crimson from 1969 to 1996 all rolled into one; apparently taking its melodic cues from Gentle Giant and its double-back musical bungee-jumping from Mr. Bungle or Primus, and stirring in more than a smidgin of John Zorn. That’s what we have here – something complex, wearing its hungry tonal erudition on its sleeve.

But don’t expect wackiness or calisthenics; and while there’s a strong dose of prog to the band, it’s the crepuscular kind. While Podsdarapomuk may have left home, they’ve also brought it with them – trailing sombre Germanic influences, their music prowls rather than jiggles. It has a peculiar, rickety-ghost-house unease to it. Studied, grotesque expressionism wells through the lyrics – images of puppets, of ships in peril, of flowers and beautiful paintings about to have huge, horrible shadows cast over them. Elusive, sinister pictures are etched by the beautiful haunted wail of Daniel Klemm, which rooftop-hops over Lars Puder’s sinewy bass, Klaas’ stalk-and-pat drumming and the dual punch of clawing guitars from brooding main tunesmith/spine-provider Thorsten Pachur and his sweeter foil Christian Schmidt. Debra Scacco (one of London’s art-school journeywomen), guests on flute, offering a sunny smile and journeying melodies which seem to follow their own sweetly oblivious path on top of the raging electric music underneath.

They’re scrupulously polite and smiling throughout: solicitously ensuring that we’re comfortable before they tear into our eardrums. A Dream & Rage In A Cage teeters briefly on Daniel’s eerie chant before the band plunge down into concerted action and a succession of metallic talon feints, as they were trying to blowtorch and harrow fresh life King Crimson’s ‘VROOOM’ via Captain Beefheart restlessness. Heavy jazz-electric riffage ransacks the room on A Fool’s Smile, like a threesome of John McLaughlin, Fred Frith and Hendrix turned bad, all stalking each other with Bowie knives. The punks in the room are confused and sulking. The little knot of proggies present are jamming themselves up near the front to drink it all in. They get it. Crimson-like, the Pods alternate passages of dreamlike contemplation with surges of magnificently tangled art-rock splurge.

Podsdarapomuk's Christian Schmidt conjures a noise (photographer unknown).

Podsdarapomuk’s Christian Schmidt conjures a noise (photographer unknown).

The effect is a bit like unscrewing the back of a magnificent antique clock, only for the clockwork to burst out and ambush you in a chaotic explosion of precision parts. Torn Puppet Without Hands Nor Tongue tumbles into grungy post-Fripp shapes, lunging haphazardly over Daniel’s slice’n’dice vocals and the bebop-y spine of Claas and Lars’ rhythms. On the hunched, hanging Make The King Laugh ( which sometimes sounds like the Shulman brothers soundtracking ‘Twin Peaks’ by way of stuttering trip hop), Christian adds to the unsettling shimmer by tricking alien insect-calls out of his guitar with his slide and the jack-plug.

Podsdarapomuk close the set with the comparative calm of Is It? – a spindled and vulnerable bit of near-acoustica which, again, is reminiscent of Gentle Giant, but which also has the ravaged prayer-feeling of Kurt Cobain. On the final whispering, jazzy chord, it’s as if a door has shut on a world of ever-so-slightly dangerous wonder: one you know you’ll soon want to open again.

*********

Two months and four gigs later… It’s January 1997, and I’m back at the Hope & Anchor watching a group that’s evolving at a frightening speed. Personally, they’re still as polite and amiable as ever, still given to mild surreal humour and little comedies of manners. (In a nod to ‘Don’t Look Back’, Daniel is now holding up cards with the song titles printed on them). In contrast, Podsdarapomuk’s mutable music seems about as stable as nitro-glycerine these days. Watching it go off is a rare thrill. Sometimes the band’s music explodes in a jagged flash of brightness: sometimes it’s just an ominous smoke-cloud rolling out from the stage, filled with glowing cinders and embers.

Thorsten Pachur - Podsdarapomuk's brooding heart (photographer unknown).

Thorsten Pachur – Podsdarapomuk’s brooding heart (photographer unknown).

There’s plenty of new material. The chippy guitar intro of Waiting For God leads into a mating of jazzy-walking with Beefheart word-slicing, and even if you could brush this off as being a little shapeless and jammy, they rock you back on your heels with the following I’m Your Dog, a blistering blast that could have come off the most ferocious moments of ‘Exposure’ via The Jesus Lizard. Another new song swerves along like a sprinter weaving through a minefield, Thorsten and Christian morse-coding their guitars over the kind of skittish body-blocking drum patterns that’d make Bill Bruford weep with joy. Later, they’ll be telling me that they’ve been saving every penny to catch Bob Berg gigs at Ronnie Scott’s: that they’ve been studying with Talvin Singh, and listening to Portishead.

It’s clear that their studies and their omnivorous hunger is flourishing into new creative heights. Most evidently, the restless electric jazz that was always percolating deep down in the Podsdaramomuk sound is starting to flood up now, raising the boats and crowding in at the windows. Songs are evolving – Make The King Laugh has somehow deepened, added layers of delirium and almost become a new genre of dub-prog. When A Dream & Rage In A Cage makes a reappearance, it’s been seductively greased and funked-up; Torn Puppet Without Hands Nor Tongue has become tighter, fiercer. Another new piece, Biscuit Murder Blues, is full of forbidding Bark Psychosis jazz-guitar swells, and effortlessly morphs from Daniel’s sleazeball lounge-lizard singing to frenetic pogo-punk in an eyeblink.

They finish up with the tap-dancing metal-mathcore of Little Bombs, with a shriek of John Coltrane saxophone flown in on tape. I finish up with a dawning belief that Podsdarapomuk could go anywhere from here. Unfortunately, it looks as if it’s going to be Berlin – they’re already planning for the end of their London sojourn, and we’ll only have them until the middle of the year. It’ll take us that long to remember how to pronounce their name properly. Perhaps we should spend the time appreciating what we’ve got, while we have it.

Podsdarapomuk - concerted action (photographer unknown).

Podsdarapomuk – concerted action (photographer unknown).

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