Tag Archives: Richard Barbieri

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 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:
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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
Porcupine Tree online:
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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:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

October 1999 – album reviews – Cipher’s ‘No Ordinary Man’ (“its own burning chill, changing the air around it”)

10 Oct
Cipher: 'No Ordinary Man'

Cipher: ‘No Ordinary Man’

Coldness and the lack of feeling – an odd association to make, if you can remember the feel of a fragment of ice held in the intimacy of your mouth or your hand. Something not lacking but, rather, almost too intense; shocking the flesh so that you can only touch it by degrees. Something that slowly changes as it becomes closer to what you are, and is consumed by the process.

By these standards, as well as by immediate impressions, Cipher’s ‘No Ordinary Man’ is a very cold album – it’s something intimate, but in an unusual way. Unquestionably this is beautiful music, but it’s the kind of music which would play in your mind while you lay immobilized on an Arctic snowbank, watching, with a hypnotized joy, the glow of the Northern Lights even as you slipped deeper and deeper into exposure and a chilly coma. Cipher’s music is unadorned, passive, slow and sparse in resolution (if it ever resolves at all) and it’s quiet: but it also has its own burning chill, changing the air around it. Former Jade Warrior Dave Sturt’s minimal, expressive forays on fretless bass float upfront or squash deep valleys into the music. Theo Travis‘ pale and lovely lines on soprano sax and flute hang like solitary albatrosses, beyond the programmed loops and sounds which both men come up with together.

There’s a lot of Nordic-style ECM clarity and mournfulness here: Jan Garbarek is certainly a constant touchstone for listeners, if not necessarily for the players. The slow, measured bleeding-in of Theo’s psychedelic influences (along with Dave’s leaning towards both electronic ambience and Celtic airs) means that there’s more to Cipher’s music than you could find from simply haunting Garbarek’s footsteps from fjord to fjord. However, these additional elements end up tinting the music rather than colouring it. It retains its own arresting static integrity while remaining entirely open to the outside; so that even when such superbly individual guest texturalists as Steven Wilson and Richard Barbieri are linked to the Cipher core they blend in perfectly, adding another layer of ever-so-slightly disturbing atmosphere.

Cipher’s particular skill is to balance lightly and enigmatically on the cusp between that obvious ECM-flavoured tastefulness and the more psychoactive disturbances of dark electronica. As such they constantly, subtly, put the listener on the wrong foot with a delightful unease. Given that it’s a contemporary soundtrack not just to an early Jack the Ripper film but to one by the young Alfred Hitchcock, The Lodger is appropriately creepy. Theo haunts the upper air past the smokily building, menacing wind patterns: Dave offers glassy, melodic spindles of rotating bass.

A Far Cry deliberately undermines associations. The trapped gaiety of a looped-and-buried fairground calliope contradicts the sad, syncopated stagger of backwards tones that makes up the body of the track and underlays Dave and Theo’s unusually intense, bloodshot calling. Dank electronic drips and shades from Richard Barbieri form the environment of Canyon, beneath the dreamy electronic ripples and the drifts of sax and bass. The foreboding swells of Dusk suggest a disturbance just out of memory range, probed in shifting tones.

It’s the panorama of landscapes, both material and psychological, which predominates. Listening to Bodhidharma, with its little glitters of distant guitar, is like watching vapour ascend slowly out of a crater; while it shares something with Robert Fripp’s diaphanous Soundscapes, it’s also the point where unconnected post-rock bands like Labradford and Bark Psychosis suddenly meet, blink away tears and touch. Desert Song, in contrast, dips more obviously towards New Age. In its flamboyance, it recalls the underrated mystic-Mexicana of Alquimia with its extended slow-motion boom of synth and its garnish of throat-singing samples: however, the passionate tug of Rabbi Gaddy Zerbib’s devotional Hebrew vocals pulls it forcefully back into the real world. White Cloud, Blue Sky sees Theo playing bleakly over disintegrating tones somewhere between disturbed wind-chime and the expansive empty-gallery guitar Bill Frisell uses to paint his pictures of America.

The Waiting, though, is pure dreamscape. A simple shaker and cymbal rhythm is joined by Theo’s moody searching sax gliding in the sky. Dave’s tingling gulp of bass swallows at the ground, and a growing textural bristle of ringing tones and alien electronics builds in some blurry area between birdcall and gauze. Eventually all is submerged in a hallucinatory backwards dissolve.

It’s left to the title track (the straightest piece on the album, and also the finale) to bridge the ever-shifting gap between Cipher’s abstraction and their empathy. Essentially a free-floating blue-haze trio of bass, piano and ravishing alto flute, it hearkens back to a clutch of comparisons: Bill Evans, Miroslav Vitous, the spacey world-jazz of Dizrhythmia and – finally – Rain Tree Crow’s pattering, mysterious finale, Cries And Whispers (enclosed as it is both in sensous brushes of electronic air and a distant-walled cavern echo of Eastern-sounding percussion). Far from ordinary, and far from freeze-dried. Cold fingers can stimulate too.

Cipher: ‘No Ordinary Man’
Voiceprint/Hidden Art (HI-ART 5, 60438845732)
CD/download album
Released: 1st October 1999

Buy it from:
Burning Shed

Cipher 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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October 1995 – album reviews – No-Man’s ‘Heaven Taste’ (“indefinable sensations of love, conflict and suppressed yet dizzy and overwhelming sensuality”)

12 Oct

No-Man: 'Heaven Taste'

No-Man: ‘Heaven Taste’

B-sides are usually one of two things, Either they’re extra padding for a single release, using old material and pointless alternate versions; or they’re an artist’s playground, a place to have fun, to try out whims, to work out the ideas forbidden by the commercial and aesthetic demands of an album.

No-Man‘s B-sides and off-cuts tend to follow the latter path, and on ‘Heaven Taste’ some of them have been salvaged from an unwarranted obscurity. Those turned off by the dance-bolstered poppier leanings of No-Man albums may find this release a more palatable prospect. Dating from points between the ‘Lovesighs’ era of late 1991 and the ‘Flowermouth’ sessions of mid-’93, the five tracks on ‘Heaven Taste’ document No-Man’s dreamy, atmospherically lush side: a step on from the bedroom experiments on the band’s obscure might-have-been-debut (‘Speak: 1988-89’), they illustrate in greater – if hazier – detail No-Man’s position as thoughtful straddlers of the popular and the avant-garde, of art and heart. They explore further possibilities in Steven Wilson‘s instrumentation and sound worlds; touch the traces of feelings never completed clarified; and swim in the familiar No-Man territory of vague and indefinable sensations of love, conflict and suppressed yet dizzy and overwhelming sensuality.


 
Long Day Fall opens proceedings in ravishing style with the sound of playing children and Ben Coleman‘s impossibly lush violin cadenzas. Wilson builds up pointillistic, ringing instrumentation on synth, piano and echoing guitar as the violin ducks, soars, dives and cries around Tim Bowness‘ sensuous vocal reverie. Lyrics call up a languorous summer dusk, chants and the glow of wine in a long luxurious moment of sustained beauty. It’s one of those definitive No-Man pieces: avant-garde undercurrents, pop-balladry romance, electric synthesis and classical wood all meshing together, one of the original trio’s finest moments.

The following Babyship Blue (originally spotted as an instrumental on the original ‘Flowermix’ cassette) offers a somewhat less mannered emotional landscape. A muted, shattering computerised dub groove pounds under the paired, other-worldly voices of Wilson’s seagull guitar and the calling wah-wah tones of Coleman’s electric violin. Bowness sings a lost romantic fragment of lyrics before breaking into a distorted, aching chant of “it’s all I can do not to scream for you…” Wind-chimes tickle, synths waft, and we’re left with the faint taste of a distant yearning; another No-Man hunger that’s just out of reach.


 
The knotted tension of Bleed (originally a swishing and threatening violin-heavy B-side on the ‘Sweetheart Raw’ EP) makes its new remodelled appearance in a much more densely orchestrated form. The violin is banished in favour of a cyclone of circling synths and atmospheres; a slow-motion hurricane around the dry rattlesnake hiss of percussion. Bowness’ shadowy lyrics dissect the slow burn of an argument (“tell the truth, and tell it ‘til it makes me bleed. / Stretch your mouth and let your words fall over me… / Talk to me – I’ll bleed a little more for you. / Take the chance to watch red rise / from the white of my / wild, wild eyes”), shuddering through a chorus of desperate, confused denial (“No fight, no blame,. / No dream, no gain. / No try, no fame. / Blame, / blame, / blame…”) before the piece pulls itself up short only to charge full tilt into a ferocious industrial techno throb. Under the battering drums, undulating analogue-synth bass and muscular barks, Bowness’ distorted voice chants out destructive litanies – “I want you near me, / I want to feel free / to forget my history, / to destroy my memory…” The helpless fury of a passionate relationship writ large in dizzying music.

Sitting like an oasis in the middle of the record is a delicate reading of Nick Drake’s Road, opened out into a soft, caressing walk-rhythm. Stepping outside of his own hazy portraits for once, Bowness sings sweet, deep and velvety while Wilson accompanies on delicate piano, little ornamentations of guitar and the constant pattering loops of a frame drum: it all fades out over caressing lullaby “hey”s. After the dark dream passions of the previous songs, the elegant passivity of Road comes as a luxurious respite: No-Man reduced to a simplicity in which their own sensitivity carries the song into dream territory far more effectively than any studio bombast would.


 
Finally, there’s Heaven Taste itself, a 1992 instrumental from the ‘Painting Paradise’ EP on which Wilson’s ambient tendencies are given full reign. Bowness (credited on the original release with “saintly restraint” as well as the title) steps out of the picture to let Wilson and Coleman link up with Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri andMick Karn for twenty-one minutes of gentle celestial groove – part Steve Reich, part David Cross, part Westminster Abbey at dusk. Over Jansen’s steady meshwork of percussion, Wilson and Barbieri’s keyboards and samplers shine like distant lights, sing quiet little piano arpeggios and submarine melodies, summon up little muted choirs and envelop the piece in wintery, intimate chords.


 
Karn slides in two-thirds of the way through, first to add breathy whispers of treated saxophone and then to elasticate matters with stretchy fretless bass and querulous reedy lines on dida. Coleman, meanwhile, bows elongated calling melodies on electric violin. It’s as remote and comforting as the blanket of stars across the night sky, and about as unchanging: quite beautiful, and reassuringly unepic. The music gently goes where it pleases, riding upon the subtlest of grooves, winding down and fading out to the softest of twinkling finales.

So there you are: a No-Man record to dream to. ‘Heaven Taste’ offer a revisiting of softer, gorgeously luminescent scenery from No-Man’s more quietly beautiful territories, building up a lambent impression which the band are likely to rudely shatter with their next album, the wilfully experimental and unsettling ‘Wild Opera‘. But then, that’s No-Man for you. Poised coolly but uneasily between conflicting planes of commerce and innovation, between chartbound hummability and artistic credibility, and unwilling to nail their colours to any single mast. And we’re all the luckier for it.

No-Man: ‘Heaven Taste’
3rd Stone Ltd, STONE 027CD (5023693002729)
CD-only album
Released:
10th October 1995
Get it from: (2020 update) Original album best obtained second-hand; ‘Heaven Taste’ was also remastered and reissued in 2002.
No-Man online:
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August 1994 – album reviews – Richard Barbieri/Tim Bowness’ ‘Flame’ (“the internal landscapes of the restless emotional mind… the indistinct visions of dreams and the hallucinatory moments of being in love”)

31 Aug

Richard Barbieri/Tim Bowness: 'Flame'

Richard Barbieri/Tim Bowness: ‘Flame’

There’s a common misconception going around which says that in order to be “experimental” you have to be noisy (viz. the many grinding guitar-noise bands clogging up many a Camden basement or American college-kid bar) – or, conversely, that you have to be utterly ambient, all empty space filled with electronic pulses, “ironic” hoover noises and nothing so anti-deconstructionist as the hint of a song. Theoretically a great idea, but in the end it produces little more than a big heap of CDs which you only play once plus another big heap of empty pseud criticism.

Alternatively, you could join that group of musicians whom Tim Bowness calls “the radical conservatives”; those people who take a long, wise look at both what’s going on and what’s worth retaining from the past, and then combine it with their own particular art of the possible, in the process creating memorable, lasting and demanding records (if not always incredibly famous ones – but so it goes, eh?) These people are also collaborators par excellence, linking up with a free-floating pool of like-minded musical allies to produce something greater.


 
In this context, the teaming of Bowness (the outspoken, intellectual No-Man singer) and synthesist Richard Barbieri (the quiet one in Japan) makes perfect sense. Both are associated with progressive synth-pop groups that stretch yearningly towards art and sensation; both fairly drip with musical and contextual knowledge; they’ve worked closely together in the past; and now they’ve produced an album as a duo which draws on considerable collaborative talent, including regular mates (fellow ex-Japan-ers Steve Jansen and Mick Karn, No-Man instrumental maverick Steven Wilson) and highly individual guns-for-hire (double bassist Danny Thompson, world-jazz drummer Gavin Harrison, textural guitarist Michael Bearpark). ‘Flame’ has emerged out of a mutual desire to create what Bowness calls “ambient torch songs”; moody late-night music with words summoning up the memories of love and heartwreck, sheathed in drapes and washes of unearthly sound. (There are, of course, precedents: Scott Walker, The Blue Nile, Julee Cruise and both men’s respective groups – Japan’s Ghosts being a particular blueprint.)


 
This objective is best realised on standout song Brightest Blue – Chris Maitland‘s delicate pattering drums wander around Danny Thompson’s deep woody jazz bass and Barbieri’s gentle piano chordings as Bowness unfolds the beautifully rapt love song of someone so engrossed in another person that they are virtually oblivious to the war going on outside their very windows. Distant swathes of Frippian textural guitar and blankets of electronic sound from Barbieri’s keyboards that settle on the listener like banks of soft snow add to the withdrawn, dreamlike theme of the song: a theme which becomes dominant over the course of an album which deals with the internal landscapes of the restless emotional mind, with the indistinct visions of dreams and the hallucinatory moments of being in love.


 
Bowness’ words touch on images of dying light and candles, sleeping and waking, hunger and falling, vegetation and rivers; and above all on memory, vision and communication obscured, whether this is beneficial or otherwise. Brightest Blue urges “forget the facts… I have to trust my own truth”; Song of Love and Everything cuts through its vague atmosphere of betrayal with “jump in the water / …swim in the dark to keep myself alive / …to shake myself awake”; the closing Feel rages quietly “I don’t know what it means / I try to surrender / I only know what I feel.”


 
This murky emotional obscurity means that ‘Flame’ tends to drift away from its initial premise into a hinterland of dimly-lit emotional set-pieces. Songs like A Night in Heaven and Trash Talk come across as expressionistic heart-sketches; their rains and rivers, their words of betrayal, stagnation and disaffection mingling to put across a particular mood. As such, ‘Flame’ fails as an ambient torch album. The title song is one of the few that emerges from the mists of imagination, with its portrait of a suffocating lover (“I will hear your calls, I will break your falls / …build your walls / because our love is strong / …I will share your life, / I will blind your sight…/ I will cover you / I will smother you”) and Bowness often seems to be providing tantalising clues rather than telling a story. (Unfortunately, the ambient-torch label is better applied to the work of David Sylvian, Barbieri’s former bandmate, whose own highly literate take on the form will be inevitably and somewhat unfairly compared to this album.)


 
Where ‘Flame’ does succeed, however, is as a marvellous dream album. A lot of this is down to Barbieri’s magnificent settings. Always a sculptor in sound rather than a keyboardist per se, he envelopes Bowness’ hallowed, reverent croon and enigmatic word-clues in delicate electronics – scouring sounds, breathy walls of soft noise, alien cellos and Chinese chimes, resonant aquatic flutters and twitters. On the solitary instrumental track, Torch Dance, he wraps undulating didgeridoo sounds with waves of flanged burbles and an unearthly guitar.

Throughout ‘Flame’, Barbieri creates an ocean of sound, always beautiful, never inflated by the self-important pomp that can sink keyboard-based albums. Other musicians float and mesh their own contributions into this sweet tapestry – Jansen’s featherlight percussive touch, Karn’s elastic bass and smears of treated sax, Steven Wilson’s guitars charting a course between psychedelia and spaghetti-western in contrast to Michael Bearpark’s distant blocks of Howe-cum-Frippian textures… all anchor the music to further dimensions of dreaming and organic emotion.


 
All of which adds up to a rich, seductive experience. Yes, ‘Flame’ can err too much on the side of obscurity a little too often, but it does so with such a consummate shadowy beauty that this becomes a positive virtue. Gorgeous, lazy, flowing melodies; a ghostly hint of melancholia; a rattle at the spirit cage… this is one flicker in the darkness that is well worth tracking down. Come catch the fire.

Richard Barbieri/Tim Bowness: ‘Flame’
One Little Indian Records, TPLP58CD (5 016958 023720)
CD/cassette album
Released:
29th August 1994
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Richard Barbieri online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Amazon Music
Tim Bowness online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Amazon Music
 

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