Tag Archives: Steven Wilson

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:
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Tim Bowness online:
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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:
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December 2010 – album reviews – Various Artists ‘Leader of the Starry Skies – A Tribute to Tim Smith – Songbook 1’ (“an unmapped musical crossroads… one of the most diverse tribute albums imaginable”)

20 Dec
Various Artists: 'Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1'

Various Artists: ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1’

Listen. They’re singing at his bedside.

In June 2008, en route back from a My Bloody Valentine concert, the world fell in for Tim Smith. A sudden heart attack (and in immediate cruel succession, a pair of devastating strokes) failed to kill him, but only just. Now he’s in long-term recuperation, condemned to that long wait in the margins. With his damaged body now his enemy, his brain’s left to flick over the days until something – anything – gets better and his luck turns. This is a sad story. Even sadder, given that many similar stories must shuffle out of hospitals every month.

There’s an extra layer of pain here in that for over four decades Tim Smith was a dedicated, compulsive fount and facilitator of music. As the singer, composer and main player of some of the most eerily intense, unique and cryptic songs ever recorded, he sat at an unmapped musical crossroads where apparently incompatible musics met. In turn, his songs were hymnal, punky and part-classical; shot through with crashing guitars, keyboard trills and mediaeval reeds; festooned with swings and changes. They were sometimes choral, or full of martial pomp or playground squabble. They were sometimes ghostly. They were a damned ecstatic racket, or a parched and meditative whisper. With what’s now become a brutal irony they also frequently fluttered, quizzically, across the distinctions of life and death; sometimes seeing little separation between the two states, sometimes hovering somewhere in between; sometimes seeing as much meaning in the wingbeat of a stray insect as in the scrambling for human significance.

Tim’s rich and puzzled perspective on life and the weave of the world travelled out to a fervent cult following via a sprouting tree of projects – the quaking mind-mash rock of Cardiacs; the psychedelic folk of Sea Nymphs, the tumbledown explorations of Oceanland World or Spratleys Japs. In addition (and belying the manic, infantile mood-swings of his onstage persona) the man was generous of himself. Via sound production, video art or simple encouragement, his influence and peculiar energy spread from feisty indie rock bands right across to New Music performers and bedroom-studio zealots. It spread far wider than his nominally marginal status would suggest. For all of this, Smith never received adequate reward or overground recognition for these years of effort – another sting in the situation (though, having always been a stubborn goat, he’s probably dismissed it).

Yet if he’s been slender of pocket, he’s proved to be rich in love. His praises may not have been sung by the loudest of voices, but they are sung by a scrappy and vigorous mongrel choir, scattered around the houses. The Smith influence haunts cramped edit suites and backwater studios. It lingers in the scuffed shells of old ballrooms, and in the intimate acoustics of a handful of cramped Wren churches in London: it’s soaked into the battered ash-and-beer-stained sound desks of rock pubs. Most particularly, it lives in the memories of thirty years of backroom gigs where people baffled at, laughed at and finally yelled along with the giddy psychological pantomime of a Cardiacs concert; and where they lost their self-consciousness and finally stumbled away with their armour discarded.

And now, all silenced?

No.

In many cases, these same people who yelled and sang from the audience (or, onstage, from beside Tim) would go on to form bands which demonstrated that three chords and a crude truth was far too blunt a brush with which to paint a picture of the world. All of this outgoing wave of energy comes rolling back with a vengeance on ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’. Put together by Bic Hayes (best known for galactic guitar in Levitation and Dark Star, but in his time a Cardiac) and Jo Spratley (Tim’s former foil in Spratleys Japs), it’s an album of Smith cover versions in which every penny of profit going back to raise money for Tim’s care. In effect, it’s swept up many of those people who sang along with Tim Smith over the years (all grown up now, and numbering characters as diverse as The Magic Numbers, Julianne Regan and Max Tundra) and brought them back for visiting hours.

And they sang outside his window, and they sang in the corridors; and from the ponds and rivers, from the windows of tower blocks and from lonely cottages…

Given Tim Smith’s own eclecticism, it’s hardly surprising that ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’ is one of the most diverse tribute albums imaginable. Despite the familial feel, the musical treatments on here vary enormously. Lost broadcasts, festooned in unsettling noise, rub up against stately electric folk. Psychedelic grunge balances out colourful playschool techno. Unaccompanied Early Music recreations drift one way, while centipedal Rock-in-Opposition shapes charge off in another. None of this would work if Tim’s songs – seemingly so resistant – didn’t readily adapt. Anyone can get around the shape of a Neil Young song, a Paul McCartney song or even a Morrissey song for a tribute: but these rampant compositions with their peculiar twists are of a different, wilder order. However, every contributor has managed to embrace not only the unorthodox Smith way with a Jacob’s Ladder tumble of chords but also his dense lyrical babble, which grafts nonsense onto insight and the ancient onto the baby-raw. Everyone involved has striven to gently (or vigorously) tease the songs out of cult corner and bring them to light.

Take, for instance, what The Magic Numbers have done with A Little Man and a House. This anguished Cardiacs ode to the 9-to-5 misfit has never seemed quite so universal, slowly pulling out from one man’s chafing frustration for a panoramic view of a worldful of human cogs. (“And there’s voices inside me, they’re screaming and telling me ‘that’s the way we all go.’ / There’s thousands of people just like me all over, but that’s the way we all go.”) The original’s pained South London squawk and huffing machinery noises are replaced by Romeo Stodart’s soft American lilt, while massed weeping clouds of piano and drums summon up an exhausted twilight in the Monday suburbs. Likewise, when Steven Wilson (stepping out of Porcupine Tree for a moment) sighs his way through a marvelously intuitive and wounded solo version of Stoneage Dinosaurs, he takes Tim’s hazy memories of childhood fairgrounds and incipient loss and makes them glisten like rain on a car mirror while sounding like the saddest thing in the world. Even with Wilson’s own formidable reputation behind him, this is immediately one of the finest things he’s ever done – an eerie ripple through innocence; a sudden, stricken look of grief flitting for a moment across a child’s face.

Three of the covers have added poignancy from being connected to ends, to new beginnings, or to particular paybacks. When Oceansize abruptly split up at the peak of their powers, their final word as a band turned out to be Fear (this album’s loving cover of an obscure Spratleys Japs track). Rather than their usual muscular and careening psychedelic brain-metal, they render this song as a soft-hued exit, a fuzzed-up tangle of fairy lights which wanders hopefully down pathways as they gently peter out. Conversely, glammy Britpop anti-heroes Ultrasound set an acrimonious decade-old split behind them and reformed especially to record for this project. Their whirling clockwork version of the Cardiacs anthem Big Ship is all boxed-in and wide-eyed. It bobs along like a toy theatre while the band fire off first pain (“the tool, the tool, forever falling down / planes against the grain of the wood / for the box, for my soul / and my aching heart,”) and ultimately burst into the kind of incoherent, hymnal inclusiveness which was always a Cardiacs trademark – “All of the noise / takes me to the outside where there’s all /creations, joining in / celebrating happiness and joy; /all around the world, / on land and in the sea.” It seems to have worked for them – they sound truly renewed.

Some of Tim Smith’s songs have a strangely mediaeval tone or texture to them, and some have a twist of eerie folk music. These attract different interpretations. Foundling was once a particularly bereft and fragile Cardiacs moment: an orphaned, seasick love-song trawled up onto the beach. Accompanied by elegant touches of piano and guitar, the genteel art-rockers Stars in Battledress transform it into a heartfelt, change-ringing English bell-round. North Sea Radio Orchestra travel even further down this particular line – their bright tinkling chamber music sweeps up the hammering rock parade of March and turns it into a sprightly, blossoming cortege. Packing the tune with bells, bassoon and string quartet, they dab it with minimalism and a flourishing Purcell verve: Sharron Fortnam’s frank and childlike soprano clambers over the darker lyrics and spins them round the maypole.

Deeper into folk, Katherine Blake (of Mediaeval Baebes) and Julianne Regan (the shape-shifting frontwoman for All About Eve and Mice) each take an eerie acoustic Sea Nymphs fragment and rework it on their own. Julianne’s version of the children’s dam-building song Shaping the River adds rattling tambourine, drowsy slide guitar and a warm murmur of voice: it’s as if the faded lines of the song had washed up like a dead leaf at her feet, ready to be reconstructed at folk club. (“Pile some sticks and pile some mud and some sand. / Leave the ends wide, / three against the side, / plug the heart of flow.”) Katherine’s narcotic a-cappella version of Up in Annie’s Room might have shown up at the same concert. A world away from the pealing cathedral organ of the original, it slips away into empty space in between its gusts of eerie deadened harmonizing and Tim’s sleepy, suggestive cats-cradle of words (“Fleets catch your hair on fire. / The fleet’s all lit up – flags, flame on fire…”)

Max Tundra, in contrast, sounds very much alive and fizzing. His pranktronica version of the brutal Will Bleed Amen re-invents it as delightfully warm and loopy Zappa-tinted techno. Its abrupt air-pocketed melody opens out like a sped-up clown car: when a convoluted cone of lyrics punches his voice up and sticks it helpless to the ceiling, former Monsooon Bassoon-er Sarah Measures is on hand to provide a cool clear vocal balance, as well as to build a little open cage of woodwind at the heart of the rush. It’s a terrific reinvention, but perhaps not the album’s oddest turnaround. That would be courtesy of Rose Kemp and Rarg – one a striving indie-rock singer and blood-heir to the Steeleye Span legacy, the other the laptop-abusing keyboard player with Smokehand. Rose is a Cardiacs interpreter with previous form: this time she’s fronting a forbidding glitch-electronica version of Wind And Rains Is Cold with all of the cute reggae bounce and innocence pummeled out of it. While Rarg flattens and moves the scenery around in baleful planes, Rose delivers the nursery-rhyme lyric with a mixture of English folk stridency and icy Germanic hauteur, uncorking its elliptical menace as she does – “Now you remember, children, how blessed are the pure in heart – / want me to take ’em up and wash ’em good?… / Hide your hair, it’s waving all lazy and soft, / like meadow grass under the flood.”

While most of the musicians on ‘Leader…’ could cite Tim Smith as an influence, Andy Partridge was a influence on Tim himself, way back in his XTC days. Three-and-a-half decades later he repays the appreciation by guesting on the dusky autumnal spin which The Milk & Honey Band‘s Robert White gives to a Sea Nymphs song, Lilly White’s Party. Redolent with regret (for more innocent times, before a fall), it covers its eyes and turns away from the shadows falling across the hillside. Partridge’s deep backing vocals add an extra thrum of sympathy: “Let’s not reinvent the wheel, let’s not open that can of worms, / Let’s not say what we did, and play by ear. / Back to square one…”

The backbone of ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’ however, comes from the contributions of former Cardiacs players reconnecting with the family songbook. As with any family over time, they’re scattered. One of the earliest members, Pete Tagg, now drums for The Trudy, who take the bucketing psychedelic charge of Day is Gone and offer a more down-to-earth spin on it for the indie disco, keeping that heady chromatic slide of chorus but adding a suspiciously blues-rock guitar solo and Melissa Jo Heathcote’s honeyed vocals. One of the more recent Cardiacs additions, Kavus Torabi, brings his band Knifeworld to the party. He hauls a particularly involved and proggy Cardiacs epic – The Stench of Honey – back through a 1970s Henry Cow filter of humpbacked rhythms, woodwind honks, baby squeaks and rattletrap percussion. Double-strength art rock, it could have been a precious step too far. Instead, it’s triumphant, its skeletal circular chamber music salad-tossed by stomping bursts and twitches of joy.

Onetime Cardiacs keyboard player William D. Drake offers a gentler, kinder tribute, taking the shanty-rhythms of Savour and spinning them out into soft Edwardiana with harmonium, ukulele and a gently bobbing piano finale. Drake’s predecessor Mark Cawthra brings an eerie sense of pain to his own cover version: back in the earliest days, he was Tim Smith’s main foil, playing lively keyboards and drums as well as sharing the bumper-car vocals. Now he sounds like the head mourner, taking on the heavy tread of Let Alone My Plastic Doll and sousing it with Vanilla Fudge-slow organ, doubled guitar solos and sigh-to-wail vocals. The twitchy, baby-logic lyrics are slowly overwhelmed by an undercurrent of grief, but the kind of grief that can only come from a older, wiser man.

Under his Mikrokosmos alias, Bic Hayes takes on Cardiacs’ biggest near-hit (Is This The Life) and subjects it to startling psychedelic noise-storms and industrial drum twirling. In the process, he shakes out and enhances its original pathos. Blown splay-limbed into a corner by a tornado of white noise, plug-in spatters and buzzing malfunctions, Bic’s voice is nasal, lost and forlorn. It sings of split and rootless identity against a wall of forbidding harmonium: “Looking so hard for a cause, and it don’t care what it is; / and never really ever seeing eye to eye / though it doesn’t really mind. / Perhaps that’s why / it never really saw.” Although Jo Spratley coos reassurance under ululations of alto feedback, Bic still ends up cowering like a damaged crane-fly under showers of distorted harpsichords and Gothic synths. Bewitchingly damaged.

The last word goes to The Scaramanga Six, the swaggering Yorkshire theatricalists who were the main beneficiaries of Smith production work before the accident. By their usual meaty standards, the Six’s take on The Alphabet Business Concern (Cardiacs’ tongue-in-cheek corporate anthem, packed to the gunwales with flowery salutes) initially seems cowed, as if flattened by dismay and sympathy at Tim’s misfortune. But it doesn’t end there. Starting tremulous and hushed, with nothing but the embers of faith to keep it up, it builds gradually from tentative acoustic guitars and hiding vocals up through a gradual build of electric instruments, feeding in and gaining strength: “and now the night of weeping shall be / the morn of song…” Over the course of the anthem the Six go from crumpled to straightened to proud cheat-beating life. By the end, the recording can hardly contain their vigorous Peter Hammill bellows, as they sweep out in a grand procession with rolling guitars, pianos and extended Cardiacs choirs. It’s a stirring, defiant finale to an album that’s done everything it could to blow away the ghosts of helplessness and to charge up not just an armful of Smith songs but, in its way, a vivid sense of Smith. He might have taken a bad, bad fall; but the humming and rustling vitality of the music, the way that it’s become a spray of vivid lively tendrils reaching far and wide, is an enormous reassurance.

Listen. He’s alive. He’s alive.

Various Artists: ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1’
Believer’s Roast, BR003 (5060243820372)
CD/vinyl/download album
Released: 13th December 2010

Buy it from:
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‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1’ 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:
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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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August 1998 – EP reviews – No-Man’s ‘Carolina Skeletons’ (“loaded with meaning, swollen thick with suppressed tears”)

29 Aug

They claim it as “a totally new approach” for the band, but thankfully, this time they’re wrong. After the diverse experimentation of the ‘Wild Opera’ and ‘Dry Cleaning Ray’ albums, it’s more of a look back to their roots in the deceptively simple, poignant flush of ambiguous romance. No-Man are going home. And as they do, this falls – as if from a worn-out pocket – into our hands.

Carolina Skeletons could just be the finest single No-Man have ever released. A rhythm track like a weary hubcap rolling its way home; Steve Wilson’s lovelorn, restrained piano and sleepy, teary guitar touches. A simple, unchanging dynamic evoking both a state of grace and a state of stagnation. A set of chords that fall, question and resolve – heartbreakingly – around Tim Bowness’ quietly yearning vocal. A distant almost inaudible organ, hovering like a night scent. And a short glimpse of a few moments of a trapped life.


 
It’s a snapshot of a lonely woman paralysed by inertia, watching as time “strips the tinsel from her hair” and the mingled forces of gravity and grief tug her down. It has the same sketch-like quality of American Music Club or The Blue Nile – a few lines loaded with meaning, swollen thick with the suppressed tears – and breathes out, with its eyes closed, the same ineffably bruised air as Mark Hollis’ melancholy reveries. You get a feeling that for its solitary anti-heroine, Cowboy Kate, time is slowing but history has already halted.

So much for the lead track. But the whole EP shivers with an underlying, understated tension; the sort of slight ache that nags and means that at best only a flawed and brittle peace is possible. Caught up in the acoustic guitar webbing of Something Falls, Tim’s words are entangled and shivering in the anticipation of a shock to come: “You’re far too near it to feel it… / You’re far too near it to fear it…”


 
In Close Your Eyes (a swoonier, more grace-inspired take on their old Desert Heart epic) Mellotron strings hover near or retreat over rolling slot-drums: elegant stalkers on the uppers of their nerves. Twinkles and illuminations come and go like soft offshore lights – halfway through a guitar screams alone in the middle distance. Caressed, Tim sings a beatific, burnished chorus while the verses hint at love, violence and dependency: “His hands were hard, your face was soft. / He kissed your heavy head – and then you lost your strength…” It ends on a poised and prolonged outbreath, with Tim wailing passionately into the void up ahead: “You break, you swim alone, like a child…”

To close – a reverberant, distant, Budd-like reprise of the Carolina piano line in all of its beautiful worn-down dignity. The dust blows forward and the dust blows back. Sometimes all there is to do is to carry on, face set to the wind and tears stroked back towards where you’ve come from. Beautiful.

No-Man: ‘Carolina Skeletons’
3rd Stone Ltd., STONE037CD (5023693003757)
CD-only EP
Released: August 1998

Get it from: Best obtained second-hand. The title track (and a different version of Close Your Eyes) ended up on no-man‘s ‘Returning Jesus’ album in 2001: all of the EP tracks were also reissued on the triple-vinyl release of ‘Returning Jesus (The Complete Sessions)’ in 2006.
No-Man online:
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April 1998 – album reviews – Bass Communion’s ‘Bass Communion’ (“things flirt round the edges of familiarity”)

29 Apr

Bass Communion: 'Bass Communion' ('Bass Communion I')

Bass Communion: ‘Bass Communion’ (‘Bass Communion I’)

The potential for making noise, making our own personalised sound via brain, limb or breath, has always been with us. In the sampler age – where you can trap any sound in a digital jar and then play musical Darwin with it – the option range has hurtled up several levels in the space of half a generation, and the serious sound addict can now personalise any noise no matter who or what the source.

Which brings us to Bass Communion, the latest brainchild of studio wizard Steven Wilson. As if he weren’t busy enough psych-rocking with Porcupine Tree, cult- popping with No-Man, or working out his Kraut/post-rock urges with The Incredible Expanding Mindfuck. Let’s face it, few people are better qualified as a sound-addict.

Bass Communion (no thumpin’, pumpin’ house-music project, despite the suspicious name) is Wilson’s most direct attempt to date at riding this addiction. It’s also his most cryptic and esoteric, in which he rejects his usual battery of synthesizers in favour of the use of sounds “sampled, looped, transposed, layered, filtered, and processed into infinity” via electronic circuitry and sampler exploration. Wilson permits himself occasional real instruments (such as the skinny, echoing Bark Psychosis-style guitar on Drugged), but they sort of stand off to one side, like nervous uncles at parties. This isn’t really their show. For those who only skim the surface of Steven Wilson via the odd No-Man phuture-pop single, or hear the odd Porkies guitar blowout and maybe damn him as a wannabe Dave Gilmour, Bass Communion will come as a beautifully disorientating shock. This music shares secluded room-space with the work of Aphex Twin, Muslimgauze, Oval or Paul Schutze.

It might be a logical extension of Porcupine Tree’s ambient atmospherics or No-Man’s avant-garde leanings, but it’s also a giant leap of pure faith. There are no tunes, cheesy or otherwise. At all. And no attempts to please – there’s no equivalent to Aphex’s Come to Daddy on ‘Bass Communion’. Melodies, if they happen, seem to evolve almost by accident. Harmony is something that occurs occasionally when patterns coincide, rather than something that’s held to. Things flirt round the edges of familiarity, repeat and loop, but don’t so much hold the attention as massage it. When in doubt, it stays quiet. Actually, it’s always in doubt and always quiet, but never entirely at a loss about where to go. Bass Communion is profoundly experimental, but Wilson’s sharp, pop-attuned ear ensures that at least it never paints itself into a corner.


 
Shopping, the opener, deflects digital coldness from the off via its crackle and fluff of sampled vinyl noise: quiet, but almost drowning out the amnesiac wafts of melody which float, with disassociated loveliness, off to one side of the listening ear. They come in, they go; a wobbly snatch of Bach jumps out at you, trips over, cuts out. From then on, you’re on your own in Bass Communion’s subtly surreal electronic world.


 
Orphan Coal sounds like night in an abandoned telephone exchange. A clattering can drum pulses its elliptical way around and around. Echoing blips of voice trail after it – a hiccup in the system – and tones flicker irregularly like monitoring lights, going from ice to feather-stroke in seconds. Sheens of sound arch in ghostly fashion overhead: at peace, but disturbing yours. You almost expect HAL 9000 to be keeping a watchful red eye on it all. In which case the slow flood of Sleep Etc. is the digital limbo after the plugs are pulled and the lobotomy comes down, sending tides of electronic fluid trickling across the speakers, rising and implying a slow suffocation. Leafy rustles and long low scraping whale-like groans overlap deep subterranean booms and lost dizzy ringing sounds. Somewhere back in there there are hints of double basses, Rhodes pianos, and Mexican percussion – it could, conceivably, have started off as Wilson chopping up something like Weather Report and reducing it to sonic pulp for a new recipe. Whatever the source, now it sounds like icebergs having prolonged nightmares.


 
With all the experimentation going on, it’s almost a shame to admit that it’s the two versions of Drugged – apparently the first parts of an evolving sound series – that hit the spot best. How to define them? As “not-duets”, probably. Collaborations with live musicians that aren’t live, aren’t jams, weren’t composed, yet still sound like immediate and co-operative performances even though they’re manipulated and mutated bits of taped sound sent through Wilson’s cloud chamber. The effect is eerie: you feel that if you lent Steven Wilson your soul, he’d hand it back to you within days polished, cleaned and reconditioned, and with a few welcome surprises in the pockets.


 
On the first Drugged, Theo Travis‘ plaintive soprano saxophone replicates and proliferates, dozens of birdsinging reeds fluttering and fading over the warm upholstery of reverently pastoral organ chords. His playing is the most directly human and emotive on the record, yet here he sounds as if his personality is being melted down even as he makes his mark. There’s somehow something of the swan-song to what he’s doing, as if he and Wilson were carrying out a voluntary, luxuriant suicide pact.


 
The second Drugged, featuring the celestial guitar Soundscapes of Robert Fripp, is an especially inspired bit of audio piracy: a close cousin to the similar and marvellous Born Simple from No-Man’s ‘Flowermix’. Seven seconds of Fripp lifted from an old No-Man source tape, then refracted through Wilsonian concepts and gizmos for twenty-five minutes of protracted, blissful imagination. Frippophiles might notice that it equals about any genuine Soundscape they care to name: everyone else will be up with Steve ‘n’ Bob, nuzzling the starry skies.

A deep-down indulgence well worth sharing. Filter me another one, bass-boy.

Bass Communion: ‘Bass Communion’ (‘Bass Communion I’)
3rd Stone Ltd., STONE 036CD (Barcode)
CD-only album
Released:
April 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Bandcamp, Burning Shed or Amazon
Bass Communion:
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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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