Tag Archives: Steve Jansen

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:
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Tim Bowness online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Amazon Music
 

June 1994 – EP reviews – Jakko’s ‘Kingdom of Dust’ (“the sort of might-have-been that’ll get ’80s pop-heads sighing”

8 Jun

Jakko: 'Kingdom of Dust'

Jakko: ‘Kingdom of Dust’

This is a quick glimpse at the sort of might-have-been that’ll get ’80s pop-heads sighing. Although it’s been put out under the name of cult songwriter/smart-popper Jakko Jakszyk, ‘Kingdom Of Dust’ was salvaged from his collaboration with ex-Japan characters Jansen, Barbieri and Karn (an attempt at an album, regretfully abandoned due to a lack of space in schedules).

For all of the exploratory excellence of the Rain Tree Crow era that’s informed JBK’s current work, making them a progressive instrumental dream team for the likes of No-Man, didn’t some of you miss the pop glint of the old Japan? ‘Kingdom of Dust’ might be an answer to those particular prayers, as it draws the trio away from their current ambient-world influences to revisit the ’80s. In the process, it coaxes out some of JBK’s most memorable, poppy and immediate post-Japan work. The trio’s moody and textured music, and the precise yet vulnerable preoccupations of the songwriting which Jakko has grafted onto it, lock together as smoothly and silkily as if the four of them had been a band for years.

The outcome is something like Japan’s own ‘Visions of China’ meeting an idealistic Steely Dan, with (a whisper of) Stax strut and (whisper it) the impeccable pop craftsmanship from the peak-period of Jakko’s old employers Level 42. In other words, literate adult pop with more than a sprinkle of luscious art-rock atmosphere, and graced with some cracking tunes as well. Four blasts, then, of “Jakkopan”, in which Jakko’s passionate earnestness gets a enigmatic art-gloss makeover.


 
The Hands of Che Guevara’s foray into prog-soul is a tale of romance, suspicion and sabotage explored over brassy, precisely-pointed keyboard blasts, sinously solid Karn bass, and Jansen’s rotating curves of drumming: like Rain Tree Crow’s Big Wheels in Shanty Town rubbing up against the more energetic moments of ‘Innervisions’. Jakko sings sharply about deception and delivers stinging protesting guitar lines, continually blurring personal interaction with zooming metaphysics and political shadow-game metaphors. “She had a face from memory, I wore a disguise. / She lived the burning questions while I ran out of replies. / I fumbled for safety in an empty box of lies – / she stole the map of all the places I could hide.” On The Judas Kiss the JBK stylings are more muted: it all comes together as frozen mourning and angry grief, coiling feelings wrapped in an icy light. “Next time it comes to this, / the frozen lips of the Judas kiss, I’ll be gone. / Next time it won’t exist, / the bleeding hearts of another twist in my tongue.” A slow, wounded but determined walk away from disappointment.

Pop is the trigger here, and pop is the result. Drowning in My Sleep steals the crisp, spacious rhythms of swingbeat away from rent-a-beat R&B and mixes them with Barbieri’s electronic buzz-sawing and celestial swooshes. Jakko sings nightmares of failed communication – “Drowning in my sleep, every time I try to speak / words go overboard and silence drags me down. / Another dream admits defeat, leaves its wreckage on the reef. / Who wants survivors without language run aground?” – and lets rip with full-throated lyrical guitar. Best of all, there’s a lush but quietly heartbreaking ballad, It’s Only the Moon – a delicate, intimate story of a neglected and suppressed child driven ever-deeper into himself. “No one dared slay the silence with laughter… / Each trace of memory gagged and bound / and left to drown… / In the absence of words I would whisper away to myself / saying prayers for an end, or just simply pretend / to be sleeping. / And the palms of my hands read stranger than fiction.” A slow journey into silence, cool and distant as starlight, with Karn and Jansen’s rhythms whispering past like a late-night train.

Four tracks on which Jakko’s teaming with JBK is fertile, graceful and inspired. A shame that time and fate didn’t allow any more of it, since what there is is marvellous, but at least we have this.

Jakko: ‘Kingdom of Dust’
Resurgence, RESCD101 (5 020522 398329)
CD-only EP
Released:
6th June 1994
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand. A download version was made available by Burning Shed in 2010, featuring the bonus track Fly.
Jakko online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Last FM YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Instagram Amazon Music
 

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