Tag Archives: Tim Bowness

May/June/July 2019 – upcoming pop/rock gigs – Tim Bowness out and about in England, Netherlands, Poland and Germany (26th & 31st May, 2nd to 4th June, 7th June, 20th July) – also featuring Anneke van Giersbergen, Hey Jester, Bernhard Wöstheinrich, Imogen Bebb, IQ’s Andy Edwards, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets and others…

23 May


  
Working off the back of his recent ‘Flowers At The Scene’ album, Tim Bowness will shortly set out on a live lope around Europe for the summer months.

During the decade-long lull in his No-Man activity, Tim’s bloom of solo albums have all been half-hidden treasures. They belong to a current, mysterious class of brilliantly-crafted labour-of-love pop records – the ones which make decent chart performances (in a chart which no longer obeys the simple rules of earlier generations) but which remain strangely invisible, apparently known only to cult audiences. They’re part of a kind of parallel-universe pop culture, only distinguished from our own by luck and chance.

When he was singing sweetly over dance beats for mid-’90s No-Man (a mixture of blush and bleak, stark and swoon), I was creating stubborn little write-ups dragging their art pop over into the prog rock court, armed with some of my suspicions and certainties regarding their eclectic musical appetites, their taste for a bit of well-spoken Anglo grandeur, their cinematic sensibilities. Gradually, over a couple of decades, I was proved right. Tim (like his No-Man partner Steven Wilson) now commands considerably proggy audiences; in Tim’s case, he also generously stewards art-rock megaboutique Burning Shed (something which gives him the additional blending of goodwill and cachet that helps attract silvering art-rock aristocrats like Peter Hammill, Kevin Godley or Ian Anderson into guesting on his records). All of this culminated in the epic kitchen-sink-Ziggy multitrack saga of ‘Lost In The Ghost Light’, in which Tim revisited the imprints of his ‘70s heroes and spikily reinvented them as an embittered, failing dreamshadow self.

Still, call me wayward or a backtracker, but for a while I’ve been wishing that there was less outright prog in the picture. Coincidentally, Tim seems to agree, as ‘Flowers At The Scene’ tempers and bounces away from the progginess of recent years, possessing a delicacy of musical touch to match his lyrical subtlety. At times it’s a missing link between several of his old touchstones (The Smiths, Kate Bush) while at others it flirts with the fan-dance flutters and delay guitars of ’80s art pop, indulges the odd florid arena-rock burst, or touches on glacial latterday synthpop. It’s also a possible curtain-raiser to more No-Man activity. Steven Wilson, always a friendly presence or passing mix wizard on previous Tim albums, quietly shared the full production chair and an open No-Man credit on this one. The songs, too – while recognisably Bownessian in their portraits of make-do-and-mend, subtly cultivated angst and discreet English agonies – have a lapping No-Man urgency to them, the exquisite solipsistic portraits and summaries refitted with a pulsing pop drive.



 
In keeping with the spotty, sporadic live patterns of cult artisty and cottage-industry songsmith, Tim’s tour is less of a tour than a series of temporary outbreaks – a couple of one-off shows at odd-matched English venues, two more in Poland, a festival appearance in the Netherlands, a raid on Berlin. His band continues to exemplify that stylistic spread I mentioned earlier. They’re a collection of friends with sympathies dotted across various British movements – current bassman John Jowitt represents a strand of classy neoprog veterans; regular drummer Andrew Booker flies the flag for the clean-cut clever bastards; a pair of multidisciplinarians (guitarist Michael Bearpark and violinist Steve Bingham) pull the ensemble towards the flexible art rock yearnings which are Tim’s genuine home, and to refresh things, Brian Hulse (Tim and Michael’s companion in recently revived ‘80s Manchester art-pop trio Plenty, and a major co-writer on ‘Flowers…’) is now covering keyboards, laptop and second guitar.

OK, I’m a malcontent. It still feels as if it would be be good, at this stage, to see Tim elsewhere, in a different less cosy, less ‘Prog’ magazine context – wrangling over stage space with spikier arty acts like Rufus Wainwright or St Vincent; Eyeless In Gaza or John Greaves; even Momus. He’d fit in – different moves and intimations might flex within the live show; the tart angst and great-battles-in-small-spaces tone underlying his songs could be seen better for what they are. But we have what we have. He’s appreciated. He has, at least, this home; and he’s making generous use of it in both senses, with several of the upcoming shows (bar the Bowness-only Poland gigs) providing support acts interesting to proggies and non-proggies alike.


 
For the London gig at Dingwalls, there are slots for Ms Amy Birks and Nick Beggs. A ‘Prog Magazine’ chart-topper last year in the female vocalist stakes (and having already made an upcoming name for herself as frontwoman for chamber-prog/classical projects Beatrix Players and Birks&Kroon), Amy is now fitting in space for a solo career, some of which will get an early preview at this show. Refreshingly free of diva blather and of irksome vocal histrionics (both on and offstage), she’s shaping up as a prime exponent for that thoughtful breed of songs pulled up immaculately from source; cool, clear material polished to a classical drawing-room sheen which only increases its impact.

Nick, meanwhile, was initially infamous as the hair-beaded beanpole bassist for Kajagoogoo during the early 1980s. He’s long since been unmasked as a serious and dedicated muso with a vibrant musicality and the requisite interesting arty quirks to put the right kind of distance between himself and the workaday session cat. Having spent his post-Kaja time travelling through Iona and Ellis Beggs & Howard (scoring a hit with the latter via slo-funk effervescer Big Bubbles No Troubles‘) he’s more recently been playing backup in the live bands for John Paul Jones and Steven Wilson, and fronting mildly dystopian prog-poppers Mute Gods. For this concert, he’ll be playing a solo set on Chapman Stick – an instrument on which he’s one of the prime British performers.



 
With John Jowitt in the Bowness band lineup, the Worcester show marks a fleeting IQ rhythm section reunion: IQ’s onetime drummer Andy Edwards is joining in for a couple of songs and is, in addition, the mentor behind the two support acts. The assured young Brummie power trio Hey Jester offer contorting, slightly grunge-y but always theatrical prog-pop something in the vein of Muse – or, to pick another budding band, Tonochrome. Imogen Bebb (better known as one of the British synthpop community’s superfan commentators via her Sound Of The Crowd blog plus her writing for ‘The Electricity Club‘ and various Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark sites) finally unleashes a musical project of her own. I can’t scrape up many details on this, but you might expect something rooted in her love for OMD. Alternatively, it might well be a live outing for her singer-songwriter project Music For Your Tape Recorder, which slipped a few tracks out onto Bandcamp last year: promising, shapeshifting piano or guitar ballads, like a nascent Tori Amos or Rickie Lee Jones coming up through British indie-folk.



  
The Netherlands gig is a double-headliner, shared with Anneke van Giersbergen. Another assured no-fuss singer (with a clean, bell-clear voice that can soar across grand pop, arena rock and experimental metal with equal facility), Anneke came up via Dutch doom metal act turned alt-rockers The Gathering (whom she fronted for twelve years between 1995 and 2007). She’s since forged a solo path, as well as being a frequent performer in ongoing rock opera project Ayreon and an equally frequent collaborator with Devin Townsend as guest vocalist, as well as fronting her own prog-metal project VUUR. It’s a little like getting Peter Hammill or David Sylvian to split a show with Nancy Wilson; but Tim’s already got form for gracious stage-sharing with female singers whom you might have thought didn’t fit his precise, rail-thin aesthetic, having already done so with iamthemorning’s Marjana Semkina a few years ago.


  
If you were hoping for something a little less prog’n’hearty – and a lot less rock – as a support act, you’d be better off getting yourself over to Germany for the Berlin gig, where the opening performer is Bernhard Wöstheinrich. Formerly a collaborator with Tim in ongoing avant-electric trio centrozoon, Bernhard’s primarily a visual artist. However, he’s been transposing that way of thinking onto keyboard and programming styles which (over more than twenty years) have been fearlessly and frankly swaying and transmuting between instrumental synthpop, a kind of foregrounded ambient method, faux-tribal rattlings, fierce dance barrages and what’s best described as a kind of pushy shape-building (like a restlessly, rapidly built pop-up city sprouting out of electronic pilings). Here’s a selection…




  
In late July, Tim and co. are back in Germany for the Night of the Prog festival in Loreley. In this case they don’t get to call the shots on who they play with, or how, being fourth on the bill for a day of Europrog (headlined by Nick Mason’s revival of psych-era Pink Floyd via Saucerful of Secrets, and also featuring Overhead, the interesting world/electro-tinged Lazuli, Czech instrumental sphere rock band Fors, Afro/classical-touched Canadians Karcius and the live debut of Thomas Thielen’s “T” project). That said, it does give them option of wheedling away some new fans from the more restless strands of a more traditionally proggy audience…








  
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Tim Bowness dates:

  • Worcester Arts Workshop, 21 Sansome Street, Worcester, WR1 1UH, England – Sunday 26th May 2019, 7.00pm (with Hey Jester + Imogen Bebb + Andy Edwards) – information here and here
  • CreativeColors Stage @ Cultuurpodium Boerdiij, Amerikaweg 145, 2717 AV Zoetermeer, The Netherlands – Friday 31st May 2019, 7.30pm (co-headline show with Anneke van Giersbergen) – information here, here and here
  • Klub Firlej, ulica Grabiszyńska 56, 53-504 Wrocław, Woj. Dolnośląskie, Poland – Sunday 2nd June 2019, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Club Progresja, Fort Wola 22, 01-258 Warsawa, Poland – Monday 3rd June 2019, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Prachtwerk, Ganghoferstrasse 2, Neukoln, 12043 Berlin, Germany – Tuesday 4th June 2019, 7.30pm (with Bernhard Wöstheinrich) – information here, here and here
  • Dingwalls, 11 Middle Yard, Camden Lock, London, NW1 8AB, England – Friday 7th June 2019, 7.00pm (with Ms Amy Birks + Nick Beggs) – information here and here
  • Night Of The Prog Festival @ Freilichtbühne Loreley, St. Goarshausen, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany – Saturday 20th July 2019, show begins 12.00pm (with Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets + Lazuli + Karcius + T + Overhead + Fors) – information here and here

  

May 2018 – upcoming rock gigs – God Is An Astronaut’s British tour with appearances from White Ring, Xenon Field and Tim Bowness (17th, 18th, 20th May)

12 May

God Is An Astronaut, 2018

Within rock, Celtic romanticism has a chequered history. It might energise a white man’s answer to soul music (including Van Morrison and The Waterboys) but it can also peak in wildly sentimental bombast (Big Country’s glossed pipe-guitar burn, the Cranberries’ parade of obvious, U2’s urge to prove themselves the biggest, most emotive band in the world for every minute they play and record).

There’s also the other more abstracted kind which works so well as impressionism, as suggestion of a psychological landscape, as a window onto seeing and interpreting differently – Van’s inarticulate speech of the heart, if you like. This latter type’s found mostly in instrumentation and production shaping: those lonely keens, the vaunting inclusive pridefulness in the sonic qualitiesm the rain-on-high-rocks scenic tone. For me, it’s often found most keenly and propulsively in the synthscapes which Mick MacNeil created for Simple Minds in their prime: a band who, in their time, have staggered between the heart-thrilling and the stadium belch, and for whom MacNeil (whether armed with cheap plastic post-punk era electronics or his later battery of high-end gear) crafted outsize pulsing and ringing soundscapes which used European schooling and Japanese technology to recall and recreate the Barra island scenery of his childhood.

There’s something of this latter abstracted tone in the work of God Is an Astronaut, now nine albums deep into an instrumental rock which initially sets up its stall in post-rock but which very quickly starts hurling itself against the dry, jaded constraints of the form, like an impassioned bloke in a claustrophobic pub booth. Discovering that they hail from the long, gorgeously wooded glacial valley of Ireland’s Glen of the Downs makes perfect sense: there’s the grand sense of scene and wide-open place pulsing through, the homescape bypassing words and blotting itself through experience into sound. That’s not to say that when the music breaks free it clots into clapalong arena riffs or waves a mute, commanding white flag up on a giant screen. What emerges is still, somehow, hushed, but a giant reverberation around hush. In some respects, they seem to conjure up the romantic post-Ballardian wreckage of a Celtic rock stadium gig, their compositional camera slowly panning past the decayed hulks of long-silenced speaker stacks; the ruins of abandoned Amnesty stands.



 

The band’s ongoing European tour touches England and Scotland next week for three dates, supporting on all of which are New York “heavy body music” trio White Ring, who play like the filmy ghosts of a long-dead rave. Also supporting (as they’ve done for most of the European dates) are Dublin duo Xenon Field. Robert Murphy and Conor Drinane produce a bony, grinding, yet elevated post-Goth dance sound with a mixture of programmed, manipulated electronics plus live guitar and bass. Despite having been at it for eleven years, recorded music seems to be thin on the ground: they seem to concentrate more on production work or on spontaneous live dance-culture jams, so here they are pumping out a bleak but energized groove at Dunk! Festival last year.




 

A surprise – or at least surprising – extra guest at the London show is Tim Bowness. As he edges into his mid-fifties, the No-Man singer’s increasingly the custodian of a particularly tailored subsection of art pop in which a very English reticence and literary sparseness grapples with awkward all-consuming heartache and frothing, inconvenient emotions. Still promoting his most recent album (2017’s ‘Lost In The Ghost Light’, which gradually, softly and relentlessly strip-mines the jaded psyche of a ’70s nearly-was rock star), he’s an odd fit for this bill – the lone narrative voice in a succession of wordless or incomprehensible sound-builders, like an Edwardian curate wandering through an all-nighter.

Still, it’s worth remembering the gorgeous, tortured echolalic howls Tim brought to his stint with Darkroom; and that when he first put No-Man together with Steven Wilson in 1986, they may have taken note of sleek pop and prog vehicles like Roxy Music, Genesis and Japan, but among the other influences were Swans and the Velvets. Perhaps this different May milieu will awaken something old in him.


 
Dates:

  • Electric Brixton, Town Hall Parade, Brixton, London, SW2 1RJ, England, Thursday 17th May 2018, 7.00pm (with White Ring + Tim Bowness + Xenon Field) – information here, here and here
  • The Classic Grand, 18 Jamaica St, Glasgow, G1 4QD, Scotland, Friday 18th May 2018, 7.00pm (with White Ring + Xenon Field) – information here, here and here
  • Club Academy @ Manchester Academy, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PR, England, Sunday 20th May 2018, 7.30pm (with White Ring + Xenon Field) – information here, here and here

April/May 2017 – upcoming London gigs – across-the-board instrumental progressive – Flies Are Spies From Hell + A-Sun Amissa + Only Echoes Remain (7th); Piko Cloud Booker + Mein Haus + Matt Baber of Sanguine Hum (April 20th); Mouse On The Keys + Mutiny On The Bounty + Strobes (May 1st)

30 Mar

Three upcoming London gigs across April and leading into the start of May: all of them batting around ideas in the progressive field, whichever particular road they took into it. In early April – a Chaos Theory post-rock show with three bands offering successive palettes of solitary guitar sketches, sombre filmic post-Godspeed tonescapes, and bright-toned romantic futurism. In mid-April – the debut of a brand new progtronic trio alongside an experimental string duo and a humble keyboard star. On May Day, an international rhythmatic threesome at Rich Mix mixing up post-Squarepusher tech-fusion, bursting guitar instrumentals and twenty-first century dual-keyboard/drumkit jazz-rock barrage.

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Flies Are Spies From Hell + A-Sun Amissa + Only Echoes Remain, 7th April 2017

Chaos Theory Promotions presents:
The Facemelter: Flies Are Spies From Hell + A-Sun Amissa + Only Echoes Remain
The Black Heart, 2-3 Greenland Place, Camden Town, London, NW1 0AP, England
Friday 7th April 7.30pm
information and here

“This month The Facemelter features a glorious night with some truly brilliant veterans of post-rock, drone and ambient sounds, with new and seasoned projects alike.

“Formed thirteen years ago, Flies are Spies from Hell have climbed up from humble beginnings to international fame. The years have seen them move on from small local gigs, to sharing the stage with behemoths such as Russian Circles, And So I Watch You From Afar, *shels, Latitudes and Vessels, to a couple of European tours, and appearances at ArcTanGent and Dunk!festival. Two years after the release of their second album ‘Underdog Underfoot’, they’ll finally grace the stage at The Facemelter.


 
A-Sun Amissa are a powerful (mostly) instrumental collective possessed of “a rusted industrial aesthetic that lurks in the periphery of perception” (‘Rock-A-Rolla’), founded and led by Richard Knox (Shield Patterns, Glissando, The Rustle of the Stars) and Angela Chan (Tomorrow We Sail, Lanterns On The Lake, The Rustle of the Stars) that has featured an array of members and collaborators since its formation in 2011, as well as two albums out on Gizeh Records.

“Producing dense, drone-like atmospheres with evocative, melodic string and woodwind sections, intertwining guitars and field recordings, their live performance is a mixture of recorded output combined with improvisation to explore progressions in the music every time. Their ever-flowing lineup of collaborators have included members of Amenra, Nadja, Gnod, Oiseaux-Tempête and Hundred Year Old Man.


 
Only Echoes Remain serve up incredibly cinematic post-rock, without becoming too cliched thanks to generous smatterings of math, ambient and classic prog influences. They have already played with the likes of Her name Is Calla, TOTORRO, VASA, Poly-Math and Waking Aida, and will be releasing their debut LP early this year.”


 
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Piko Cloud Booker + Mein Haus + Matt Baber, 20th April 2017

Piko Cloud Booker present:
Piko Cloud Booker + Mein Haus + Matt Baber
Paper Dress Vintage Bar & Boutique, 352a Mare Street, Hackney, London, E8 1HR, England
Thursday 20 April 2017, 7.00pm
information

Piko Cloud Booker are a modern-day progressive rock trio combining King Crimson-esque cyclical guitar patterns in a mix-up of wacky time signatures with the expansive sequencer-driven explorations of early Tangerine Dream. PCB are guitarist Cameron Piko (mastermind of Australian prog-metal unit Montresor), bassist/violinist Gaz Cloud (one half of dream-technoists Cloud & Owl) and drummer Andrew Booker (no-man, Tim Bowness, Sanguine Hum).”

(This project’s so new that’s there’s no music available to present for it – instead, I’ve had to give you a few ideas via these clips from the member’s other projects, including Andrew’s ten years of undersung work with jamming collective Improvizone:)




 
“Supporting them will be string duo Mein Haus, consisting of Patricia Stepien (violin) and Elliot Murphy (cello, guitar). Their music is by turns creepy and sparse, then intense and dramatic. But whether it’s complex rhythmic interplay, or crunching cello and soaring violin, you feel the humour is never far away. From gigsite ‘Go Out Of Tune‘ – “based in East London but hailing from Poland and Ireland originally, they’ve been making music together since they met on a train in Deptford over a year ago. Their performances are high in energy and musically unpredictable. Their music has been described as: ‘Shostakovich and Arvo Part being kicked down a flight of stairs in an oil barrel’, with influences ranging from the Sex Pistols through Penderecki, Battles and Kraftwerk.”


 
Matt Baber is a co-founding half of the continuing Oxford-based musical journey that is currently Sanguine Hum, having made its way through various earlier incarnations. He has played keyboards throughout, both crafting his unique synth atmospheres plus stamping down complex piano riffs on his Fender Rhodes. Expect more of the latter this time, as he delves into his Jarrett/Emerson-flavoured solo material for his first ever solo keyboard show.”


 
Note that Gaz Cloud – as half of Cloud & Owl – will also be playing this Askarabaskara techno/house gig five days earlier, demonstrating part of the elements-puzzle which makes up his new band.

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Mouse On The Keys + Mutiny On The Bounty + Strobes, 1st May 2017Chaos Theory Promotions presents:
Mouse On The Keys + Mutiny On The Bounty + Strobes
Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch, London, E1 6LA, England
Monday 1st May 2017, 7.30pm
-information here, here and here

“An ultrasonic mammoth of a lineup, packed with dreamlike jazz, vast math rock, ambient precision and mesmerising polyrhythmic beats!

“The extraordinary Mouse On The Keys trio are back from Japan, armed with fresh material from their new album ‘Out Of Body’, out last January via Topshelf Records. This is a pristine example of blending minimal-phrased piano and dynamic drumming, while creating a live experience composed of visual and audio elements. Formed in 2006, with elements of jazz, funk, post‐rock and electronic music, Mouse On The Keys fits into a genre of their own.

“The trio consists of two former members of the influential Japanese underground band Nine Days Wonder – Akira Kawasaki and Atsushi Kiyota – who teamed up with Daisuke Niitome (who has played drums as well as composed music for countless jazz‐funk and hip hop bands). Their unique sound, comprising two pianos, two keyboards and drums, continues to stand at the forefront of the Japanese music scene.


 
“Luxembourg quartet Mutiny On The Bounty bring a torrent of groovy rhythms, guitar acrobatics and joyous melodies our way. These guys have been showcasing their unique brand of math-rock and instrumental music throughout Europe and have played close to five hundred shows supporting bands such as Biffy Clyro, And So I Watch You From Afar, TTNG and Maps & Atlases as well as playing some of the biggest festivals like Roskilde, Primavera and Fusion festival.

“Following on from their album ‘Trials’, released in 2012 and recorded by producer Matt Bayles, Mutiny On The Bounty released their latest album ‘Digital Tropics’ via Small Pond, which encompasses facets of their personalities ranging from rock, to electro, 80’s pop and even hip-hop. A reverb-infused, pop groove-laden feast of staccato guitar melodies, loops and math rock beats.


 
Strobes‘ triangle of electrified polyrhythms, spaced-out synth jams and off-kilter beats will open the evening. Featuring guitar and synth-work by Matt Calvert (Three Trapped Tigers), drums by Joshua Backmore (Troyka) and keys by Dan Nicholls (who has collaborated with Squarepusher and Matthew Herbert), the trio flickers effortlessly between the worlds of electro-improv, minimalist polyrhythm and distinctively original hooks.

“Like a twisted love child of Aphex Twin, Brainfeeder and Battles, Strobes have been heard individually with the likes of Squarepusher, Matthew Herbert and Three Trapped Tigers. Built from collective composition, studio production, live sampling and improv jams, the band smashes out exhilarating odd-tempo loops, polyphonic synth soundscapes and big headnodding beats. Their new album ‘Brokespeak’, out via Blood And Biscuits, is a true work of genius.


 
“With DJ sets from Bojan Nikolic (The Brain Center At Whipple’s, Battleship Grey), this will be an intensely satisfying feast of jawdropping talent and headnodding beats.”

 

November 2016 – upcoming gigs – the glorious 12th: some of many gigs scattered around England on my birthday tomorrow – Mother, North Sea Radio Orchestra, ILL, Nick Costley-White, India McKellar, Alice Zawadski, Merrick’s Tusk, Snowapple, Captives On The Carousel, Mark Lewandowski, Steve Strong, Shield Patterns, Jamie Safiruddin, The Yossarians, Boy & A Balloon, Bruxa | Cosa, Ed Dowie, Carl Woodford, Andy Or Jenny, Patrons…

11 Nov

Tomorrow I turn forty-six. About half of those years have been spent as an on-and-off writer, scrambling round the edges of music and music culture, attempting to understand this great amorphous art form with its thousands of doors and voices. I had a sombre, or at least a serious, preamble planned: one of those reflective commentator essays that you see on many of the more literate blogs. I threw it away.

Instead (and in keeping with what ‘Misfit City’ has been up to for most of the year), here’s a particularly long garland of gig notices. It’s not here to illustrate any particular school of thought, being the usual melange of tastes and forms – jazz, folk, art-punk, acoustic singer-songwriter, prog, performance art, drone, classical fusion and lush noise. It’s that particular kind of broad, inconsistent, credibility-trampling aural palette which (back when I started doing this in the mid-’90s), wasn’t suggested much outside of the pages of ‘Organ’ or the less austere corners of ‘The Wire’, or indeed ‘Misfit City’; but which now seems to be almost a mainstream stance.

Some other day – perhaps some other birthday – will be the right time for an essay or a grand declaration. If I’ve got a point to make right now (if only by implication and example), it’s that at a tired, fairly battered forty-six I’m still curious, still enthusiastic, still in the business of learning; at a time and place in life which might otherwise ossify my tastes and reduce music to just another commodity or flattened signifier. Spread out over this post are details on concerts, all of them in England, all of them scattered across my birthday. There’s no way I could attend all of them, even with an entirely free hand, but all of them attract me; and at any one of them you’d have found me leaning against a wall, pen and pad in hand, taking notes, looking for new thoughts.

I’ve already posted about the iamthemorning/Tim Bowness teamup for the iO Pages festival, but I can’t really squeeze in the flight to the Netherlands. (Besides, I’m catching them in London on Monday). I’ve also posted about the evening’s Hallkvist/Taylor/Goller/Hayward jazz-fusion show (plus a side order of Charlie Stacey) at the Lambeth art incubator of IKLECTIK, as part of an update on Charles Hayward’s burst of late-year shows. Since that one’s in London, it’s a more likely option for me; but also down at IKLECTIK, in the early afternoon, London jazz incubator Jazz Nursery will be joining in with the ongoing EFG London Jazz Festival in order to present a couple of young bandleaders with relatively accessible projects.

Well, why not start there – start mellow…

Guitarist Nick Costley-White has a trio featuring Conor Chaplin on double bass and David Ingamells on drums and offers fresh, swinging takes on Jerome Kern and Cole Porter (with the leader described by ‘Jazz News’ as “a classy player with an elegant and subtle way with a good tune”). Bassist Mark Lewandowski (“sonorous, fluent… an indispensable part of our scene” – ‘London Jazz’) sets aside his busy calendar as a sideman to compose for and lead a quartet of American drum legend Jeff Williams (Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano etc) as well as tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger (Brass Mask, Wedding Music, Dice Factory, Ma) and pianist Liam Noble (Stan Sulzman, Bobby Wellins, many records as leader).

Nick Costley-White, 2016Jazz Nursery/EFG London Jazz Festival presents:
Nick Costley-White Trio + Mark Lewandowski Quartet
IKLECTIK, Old Paradise Yard, 20 Carlisle Lane, Waterloo, London, SE1 7LG, England
Saturday 12th November 2016, 2.30pm
information

It looks as if this particular Mark Lewandowski band is too new to have been recorded, but here’s a clip of the Costley-White Trio at work:


 
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'Liberate yourself from my vice like grip", 12th November 2016
Were I up in the north-west I’d be listening to something entirely different, tempted by ‘Liberate yourself from my vice like grip’, the R.D. Laing-inspired exhibition/concert/happening that’s playing at Islington Mill in Salford. Set up by contemporary art organisation Broken Grey Wires, it’s part of their scheme to create safe psychological spaces for people with various mental health issues; to use art as “a facilitator for recovery… to encourage people to make something special for themselves”, following Laing’s own suggestion that “madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through.” 

(Yep – I know how to relax on my own special days.)

For the musical component, co-curators Fat Out have put together a typically eclectic and Mill-ready line-up of mostly local bands. Included are soundscaping folk-indie/jazz-shoegaze performance artists Mother, psychedelic folk-rock jam-jivers The Yossarians and colourful, blippy post-punk femme/art/pop troupe ILL (proudly strident champions of “disobedient noise” who believe in “creating music until something tingles, and performing dance noise until something bleeds”, and who were namechecked in ‘The Guardian’ today as one of the fifty new pop projects shaping the future). Also on the bill are ambient improvisers Andy Or Jenny, the “atavistic” Berlin-based Welsh looptronica singer Bruxa | Cosa, and landscape-ghosting Peak District ambient-pop duo Shield Patterns.

For the ongoing exhibition BGW have brought in various artists who explore mental health, gender, identity and subjective reality in their work (Lizz Brady, Robert Good, Amy Mizrahi, David Sheery, Kirsty Harris, Paul Kindersley, Jared Pappas-Kelley, Alexander Storey Gordon) all of whom raise so many questions, options and ways of seeing that I’d go on for ages trying to clumsily summarise them. Instead, I’d suggest that you follow them up on Facebook through the second info link below…

Broken Grey Wires & Fat Out present:
‘Liberate yourself from my vice like grip’
Islngton Mill Arts Centre, James Street, Salford, M3 5HW, England
Saturday 12th November 2016, 6.00pm
– information here and here





 
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Steve Strong + Patrons + Merrick's Tusk, 12th November 2016If I were in Durham, I could make up for missing one-man post/math/trip-hop band Steve Strong‘s set of simultaneous guitar-loops/drums/electronic-noise hybrids at Wakizashi last month, by catching up with him up at his Empty Shop show in Durham – alongside the trepidatious post-hardcore of Plymouth four-piece Patrons and the blitzing sentimental charge of Derby trio Merrick’s Tusk (currently touring their melodic, heart-on-sleeve half-emo rock around the country). While I was at it, I could feel as if I was contributing more to the community than just the usual couple of hours of head-nodding. (See more about the constructive, cohesion-building Empty Shop ethos here.)

Sapien Records Ltd/Empty Shop presents:
Steve Strong + Patrons + Merrick’s Tusk
Empty Shop HQ, 35c Framwellgate Bridge (above ‘Ciao Ciao’), Durham, DH1 4SJ, England
Saturday 12th November 2016, 8:00 pm
– information here and here




 

India McKellar, 2016

India McKellar

If in Sheffield, I’d probably be in a softer mood, heading over to the Regather co-op for one of their cosier gigs: the second of the recently-established acoustic evenings run by local cello/voice/guitar folk duo Captives On The Carousel.

This week (in addition to the Carouselers usual warm starting set), the night’s playing host to two other Sheffield-area singer-songwriters – India McKellar, whose previous adventures on piano, as a traditional Celtic harpist and as a onetime prog-rocker have set her up well for her matured, quietly captivating role as Laurel-Canyon-by-way-of-West Riding adult songwriter; and rootsier Drake-and-Jansch-inspired guitar-and-banjo picker Carl Woodford.

Captives on the Carousel present:
Captives Vol. 2: India McKellar + Carl Woodford + Captives On The Carousel
Regather Works, 57-59 Club Garden Road, Sheffield, S11 8BU, England
Saturday 12th November 2016, 7.30pm
information




 
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Alice Zawadski, 2016

Alice Zawadski

Back in London, I’d also be tempted (were it not already sold out) by Alice Zawadski’s Joni Mitchell evening down at Brasserie Zedel. I’m not keen on the institution of the average cover version, and embarrassingly average covers of Joni songs are the bane of many an acoustic evening: honeytraps for earnest women with guitars who cover them reverently, winsomely and really badly. Every time, I picture Joni seething in the audience, her notorious strongmindededness in full bullish effect: snarling at the women onstage, cursing them out for skipping her weird tunings, for ignoring the orchestral conception behind the compositions, or for just sugaring the fine vinegar.

This one might well be different, for several reasons. One is that Alice already comes with acclaim, experience and enough background to serve the songs – extensively trained in both jazz and classical skills, a violinist and arranger as well as a singer, she’ll be thinking on maybe as many levels as Joni herself. Another is that her gig partner and pianist Jamie Safiruddin has racked up time and plaudits accompanist and/or musical director with prime British jazz, ballad and folk interpreters Ian Shaw, Claire Martin and Barb Jungr and Ben Cox, as well as pop adventures with Will Young (plus he already has Joni-form, having “played Edith And The Kingpin with exquisite poise” according to ‘The Arts Desk’).

A third reason is that this is primarily a jazz gig; Jamie and Alice joined by Seafarers saxophonist Matthew Herd, bassist Conor Chaplin (strolling over from the earlier Costley-White trio show), drummer and Conor’s Fabled buddy and drummerWill Glaser. No matter how many copies of ‘Blue’ you pitch at my head, I’ll always maintain that Joni was at her original best when diving into jazz, interweaving with Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius as her words kaleidoscoped, her notes ached and flexed and the potential in the arrangement spanned and fanned. Alice is promising Joni’s most well-worn hits and folky standards (‘Big Yellow Taxi’, ‘A Case of You’, ‘Woodstock’) but also “lesser-known gems from throughout her long and fruitful back-catalogue”, and it’s not always that you get the chance to hear someone dipping into the more challenging territories of ‘Hejira’, ‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’ or ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’.

Here are the details for anyone who’s a better ligger/doorstaff wheedler than I am; and below that’s a clip of Alice at work with saxophonist Joe Wright on a song which, even if it’s not quite Joni, shows what her mind and approach could be bringing to the Mitchell catalogue.

Jamie Safiruddin & Alice Zawadski
The Crazy Coqs @ Brasserie Zedel, 20 Sherwood Street, Soho, London, W1F 7ED, England
Saturday 12th November 2016, 9.00pm
information


 
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As for me, I can only guarantee that I’ll be in one particular place tomorrow. At noontime I’ll be in the Union Chapel, at one of the Daylight Music shows which I constantly plug here but all to often have to miss. Accompanied by family (and perhaps even a few unexpected friends), I’ll be down there listening to the soft, distracted keyboard songs of Ed Dowie; watching the charming and daffy Dutch folk-pop trio SnowApple delight and dazzle an audience in a fizz of swapped instruments, leapt genres, blended voices and eye-catching outfits; taking in the interstitial battered-pop moments from Boy And a Balloon‘s Alex Hall; and finally immersing myself in the ringing, humming chamber-ensemble arrangements of Craig Fortnam’s North Sea Radio Orchestra as they navigate (in a bright-toned weave of nylon-strung guitar, bassoon, strings, keyboards and voice) between the Britten-esque and the kosmische, between gurgling Vernon Elliott and sighing Robert Wyatt, between the hopping pulse of downtown minimalism and the Anglican warmth of a Wiltshire harvest festival.

Maybe Daylight shows are at the cuddlier end of what interests me within this blog; but it’s also fair to say that, out of everything covered here, perhaps the rambling, all-points Daylight positivity reflects ‘Misfit City’s own attitude best of all. And in a similar spirit… say hello if you see me there.

Daylight Music 238, 12th November 2016

Arctic Circle presents:
Daylight Music 238: North Sea Radio Orchestra + Snowapple + Ed Dowie + Boy & A Balloon
Union Chapel, 19b Compton Terrace, Islington, London, N1 2UN, England
Saturday 12th November 2016, 12.00pm
– free event (suggested donation: £5.00) – information here and here





 

November 2016 – upcoming gigs – iamthemorning’s two shows with Tim Bowness in London and Ulft (12th, 14th) and three more in the Netherlands (16th-18th)

10 Nov

iamthemorning, November 2016 tourOriginally hailing from Saint Petersburg, iamthemorning is the partnership of self-taught, progressive-rock-inspired singer Marjana Semkina and meticulously-taught classical pianist Gleb Kolyadin; it’s also what happens when their conflicting backgrounds and sympathetic musicalities merge. Using pick-up ensembles of classical and rock musicians, they stage their music in multi-media chamber shows; swelling out to small orchestral arrangements, efflorescent electric guitar and tape inserts. Whenever this isn’t possible, they’ll strip themselves back to a string-augmented quartet. When that‘s not possible either, they’ll revert to the original duo, trusting in Gleb’s virtuosic St. Petersburg Conservatory piano skills to cover (or at least intimate) the orchestral role behind the lustrous drama of Marjana’s voice.

Marjana and Gleb’s burnished, budded musicality shows a clear affinity with the British literary mythoscape. Their burgeoning pre-autumnal songs certainly possess, amongst other things, tints of English and Breton-Celtic folk and a certain pre-Raphaelite glow; recalling, on a surface level, that billowing school of female-fronted prog-folk which includes Renaissance or Mostly Autumn (or, on the arresting death-lays which bookend this year’s ‘Lighthouse’ album, the glimmering Celtic feytronica of Caroline Lavelle). All of this probably had a lot to do with ‘Lighthouse’ scooping up ‘Prog’ magazine’s Album of the Year award for 2016.


 
Chamber-prog is the term the band themselves choose, and the one that’s usually applied to them. Tagging them with the prog label, however (complete with all of the blowsy, blustering AOR associations which got gummed to it during the 1980s), seems a little reductive. iamthemorning‘s meticulous immersion in advanced harmony and arrangement puts them square into the tradition of florid electro-acoustic neoromantics – the densely skilled ones who own a strong affinity to the tail-end of Romantic music but arrive several generations too late; the ones who often fall into prog by default, through a love of rock amplification and of what happens when song meets electric surge). Consider the dogged grand orchestralism thundered out by Robert John Godfrey in The Enid. Consider Kerry Minnear, slipping his haunting yet sophisticated quiet-man ballads through the busy humour of Gentle Giant (referencing romanticism and modernism as he did so: deeper rills through the romping). Consider the late Keith Emerson and how (behind ELP’s circus vulgarities and rollicks through baroque, Bach and barrelhouse) he too maintained a fascination for the rich harmonic and melodic upheaval where romanticism meets modernism; capturing it in his brash adaptations of Ginastera and Rodrigo, and listening towards the eastern European strains of Mussorgsky, Janáček and Bartók.


 
This last, in turn, brings us to Gleb and his own deep immersion in the likes of Stravinsky (there are videos of him playing ‘The Rite Of Spring’ and clearly adoring it); one of the reasons why, however much an iamthemorning song may slip along like a scented bath, there’s always more shading and detail in its depths. The other reason is Marjana’s growing determination to back the petal-sheened sonic prettiness and concert-hall glamour with more profound psychological resonance, turning the ‘Lighthouse’ concept into a diary of mental illness and the struggles to survive it. The band might still be in the early stages of establishing a lyrical and conceptual maturity to match the breadth of their musicality, but there’s plenty of space and opportunity to do this. The currents of invention under the lush surface slickness, and the clear willingness of Gleb and Marjana to challenge each other and to grow together, make iamthemorning a band to watch.

iamthemorning & Tim Bowness, 12th-18th November 2016Tim Bowness, on the other hand, has been through much of this already, having persistently edged and developed his visions from the turbulent romantic moodism of his earlier work to his current, exquisitely-honed portraits of human vulnerability. Forced in part by increasingly long gaps in the open musical marriage of his main band no-man, he’s been demonstrating himself, step by step, to not be merely a band singer blessed with a rich, poignant whisper of a voice and a sharp sense of understated lyrical drama, but a formidable solo artist with a mind for matching and fusing together diverse sounds and musical elements.

Erstwhile/ongoing no-man partner Steven Wilson may get more of the plaudits these days, but Tim’s growing list of solo albums are every bit as good. Bridging Mark Hollis with Mark Eitzel, Robert Wyatt with David Sylvian and Peter Gabriel with Morrissey, they work off a confidently-expanding sonic palette of spiky caressing art-rock guitar, luxuriant keyboard and drum work, strings and atmospherics. As ever with Tim, the subject matter is tender and bleak – including thwarted ambitions, the shaping and stripping of love by time and mortality, and (increasingly) shades of the north-western landscapes and dilemmas to which Tim owes his own initial artistic formation.


 

While he’s currently brewing a welter of projects (including a long-overdue second duo album with Peter Chilvers, the resurrection of his angsty 1980s Mersey art-pop quartet Plenty, and assorted work with Banco de Gaia, contemporary classical composer Andrew Keeling and Happy The Man’s Kit Watkins), Tim’s main focus is his still-in-progress fourth solo album, ‘Third Monster On The Left’. This is sounding like his most ambitious project to date: a conceptual musical memoir centring on the backstage thoughts of a fictional, fading classic-rock musician, awash in the garden and graveyard of talent that was the 1970s. For ‘Third Monster On The Left’, Tim promises (as part of the context-appropriate crafting) a more explicit version of the progginess that’s always fed into his art pop since the beginning: specifically, “the harmonic richness and romanticism of 1970s Genesis, and the Mellotron-drenched majesty of early King Crimson.”

All of this makes the declared prospect of a Bowness/iamthemorning set of collaborative “shared bill, shared songs” concerts an interesting one. There’s already a connection via Colin Edwin, who’s played bass for both of them. On this occasion, Tim will be bringing along band regulars Michael Bearpark (guitar), Stephen Bennett (keyboards) and Andrew Booker (electronic drums) plus returning cohorts Steve Bingham (violin, loops) and Pete Morgan (bass). Some or all of these will be pulling double duty backing iamthemorning, alongside whoever Gleb and Marjana brings along. What’s most intriguing, though, is what this hand-in-hand teamup is going to bring out in both parties. Beyond the luxuriant tones, there’s useful artistic tinder in their differences, their similarities, and their internal contradictions alike.

At its best, there ought to be push-and-pull. Tim’s austere taste for unvarnished modernism and stark realism is ever compromised by a sensual greed for the textures of romance: Gleb and Marjana swim in an ocean of effusive orchestral indulgence, but now want to grap stone and dirt. He’ll give them an exquisitely pained art-pop ballad, pared clean of fairytale delusions and as slender as a greyhound; they’ll polish and expand it back into dreamscape. They’ll give him a perfumed Edwardian garden: he’ll slouch in, with his Beckett and Kelman paperbacks, to lay a grit path. He’ll bring out their darker, less-resolved deep chords. They’ll bring out his blushes.

The odds are fair that they’ll make a collective attempt at the title track from ‘Lighthouse’ (though they’ll probably not risk a medley with the no-man epic of the same name). I’m also hoping for a Gram-and-Emmylou-shaded prog harmony on Tim’s heart-breaking Know That You Were Loved; or perhaps a morningification of Dancing For You. We’ll see…




 
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iamthemorning with Tim Bowness:

  • IO Pages Festival @ Poppodium DRU Cultuurfabriek, Hutteweg 24a, 7071 MB Ulft, Netherlands, Saturday 12th November 2016, 2.30pm (with Gazpacho + Anekdoten + Lesoir + Marcel Singor + A Liquid Landscape + Anneke van Giersbergen) – information here and here
  • Bush Hall, 310 Uxbridge Road, Shepherds Bush, London, W12 7LJ, England, Monday 14th November 2016 – information here and here

Immediately after the Bowness shows, iamthemorning embark on three more shows on their own in the Netherlands – details below. Depending on which one you attend, you could see the band in any one of its three main playing configurations.

  • Hedon, Burg Drijbersingel 7, 8021 DA Zwolle, The Netherlands, Wednesday 16th November 2016, 8.00pm (chamber gig with violin & cello)information
  • De Pul, Kapelstraat 13, 5401 EC Uden, The Netherlands, Thursday 17th November 2016, 9.00pm (duo gig)information
  • Patronaat, Zijlsingel 2, 2013 DN Haarlem, The Netherlands, Friday 18th November 2016, 7.30pm (full band gig)information

 

October 2015 – upcoming gigs – Jonas Hellborg & Steve Lawson in Birmingham, London & Leeds; Tim Bowness, Peter Chilvers, David Rhodes, Theo Travis quartet gig in Cardiff

7 Sep

Although there are still some September gigs to flag up, here’s advance notice of four interesting concerts in early October for those of you who are interested in the amorphous terrain between jazz, balladry, art pop and ambient electronica. (Just straight press release stuff – the analysis will have to wait for another time, although I’ve also stuck a few review links in where I’ve covered these musicians before…)

Hellborg & Lawson, 2015

Two of the world’s leading solo bass guitarists together on one stage.

Crossing musical boundaries and blowing listeners’ minds for over thirty years, Jonas Hellborg is one of the great innovators of the bass guitar. From the pyrotechnic flamboyance of his early solo electric albums, to his unique exploration of the richness and depth of the acoustic bass guitar, Jonas has changed the way people think about – and play – the bass. Whether as a solo artist, or collaborating with many of the most respected names in music, from John McLaughlin to PiL, Ginger Baker to Shawn Lane, Jonas’ signature sound and uncompromising creative philosophy have produced an unparalleled body of work, mostly on his own Bardo label. Lauded by press and public alike, this is a rare opportunity to hear Jonas up close in the UK.

Steve Lawson is one of the most celebrated solo bassists in British music history – early in his career, he opened for Level 42 on their first Greatest Hits comeback tour, placing his unique take on melodic looping-based live performance in front of tens of thousands of bass aficionados. Fifteen years of regular gigging across the UK, Europe and the US have solidified his place as a leading exponent of solo bass. Steve’s sound-world borrows liberally from electronica, jazz, pop, rock, ambient and experimental music, to form a sonic fingerprint as compelling as it is unique. Following on from two years of wide-ranging collaboration, playing alongside musicians as diverse as Reeves Gabrels and Beardyman, Andy Gangadeen and Divinity, (and with the imminent release of his twelfth and thirteenth all-solo albums – on the same day!) Steve is back with fresh explorations pushing the notion of what the bass can be in the twenty-first century. (Here are a couple of ‘Misfit City’ reviews of earlier Steve Lawson records for those who’ve not read/heard them -‘Not Dancing For Chicken‘ and ‘Conversations‘).

Full dates, details and links:

  • Tower of Song, 107 Pershore Rd South, Cotteridge, Birmingham, B30 3EL, UK, Sunday 4th October 2015 – £10.00, tickets here.
  • The Vortex Jazz Bar, 11 Gillett Street, Dalston, London, N16 8AZ, UK, Monday 5th October 2015 – price t.b.c. – contact venue for tickets.
  • Left Bank Leeds, The former St Margaret of Antioch Church, Cardigan Road, Hyde Park, Leeds, LS6 1LJ, UK, Tuesday 6th October 2015 – £10.00, tickets here.

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Bowness/Chilvers/Rhodes/Travis, October 2015

Tim Bowness/Peter Chilvers/David Rhodes/Theo Travis (Chapter in association with Burning Shed @ Chapter,  Market Road, Canton, Cardiff, Wales, CF5 1QE, UK, Saturday 3rd October 2015, 7.00pm) – £15.00

A unique combination of atmospheric music and songs performed by the following four British art-pop, jazz and textural music mainstays:

Tim Bowness is vocalist/co-writer with the band no-man, a long-running collaboration with Steven Wilson. He has also worked with Richard Barbieri (Porcupine Tree, Japan), Peter Hammill, Judy Dyble (ex-Fairport Convention), Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera and others. He has released three solo albums – ‘My Hotel Year’ (2004), ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ (2014) and ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World‘ (2015).

Peter Chilvers is a frequent collaborator with Brian Eno (including co-creating the hugely successful app Bloom), Underworld’s Karl Hyde and Tim Bowness, Chilvers has become known for his innovative work with generative apps and imaginative use of electronic textures. (Here’s a review of ‘Thin Air‘, an album Peter did with Michael Bearpark many years ago).

David Rhodes is one of the world’s most respected and inventive guitarists, having worked extensively with Peter Gabriel as well as with Kate Bush, Talk Talk, Scott Walker, Japan, New Order, Paul McCartney and Blancmange, amongst many others. David has also released two solo albums (2010’s ‘Bittersweet’ and 2014’s ‘The David Rhodes Band’) and was a founding member of the influential post-punk band Random Hold.

Saxophonist and flautist Theo Travis (making his Chapter return after performing with the cinematic/musical crossover project Cipher) has an international reputation as one of the stars of the contemporary UK jazz scene. Travis has more recently emerged as a key figure in the progressive and art rock sphere, working with David Gilmour, Robert Fripp, David Sylvian, Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson, Bill Nelson, Gong, Soft Machine Legacy, Bill Bruford, Harold Budd and more. He has recently released his ninth solo album ‘Transgression’ (and here’s a review of an earlier one).

The evening is presented by Burning Shed, the online label and store founded by Bowness and Chilvers with Pete Morgan that has become a global specialist in progressive, ambient/electronica and art rock music. As well as releasing works on its own imprint, amongst others, Burning Shed hosts the official online stores for Panegyric (King Crimson, Yes), Ape (Andy Partridge, XTC, The Milk & Honey Band), Jethro Tull, Kscope (Porcupine Tree, Sweet Billy Pilgrim), Thomas Dolby, All Saints (Brian Eno), Medium Productions (Jansen, Barbieri and Karn), Gentle Giant and Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera.  The label has recently expanded into book publishing, and at this concert musician and author Anthony Reynolds (perhaps best known as the former frontman of Jack) will be signing copies of his Burning Shed Publishing book, ‘Japan – A Foreign Place (The Biography 1974-1984)’.

More information here, and tickets available here.

August 2015 – upcoming London gigs – Prescott, A Sweet Niche and V A L V E @ The Harrison, August 26th; the welcome return of Daylight Music (with Pete Astor, TEYR and The Left Outsides), August 29th

22 Aug

Coming to a Kings Cross cellar next week…

Prescott - as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella...

Prescott – as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella…

Prescott + A Sweet Niche + V A L V E (The Harrison, 28 Harrison Street, Kings Cross, London, WC1H 8JF, UK, Wednesday 26th August, 7.00pm) – £5.00

Prescott are a percolating musical alliance between Kev Hopper (who once played elasticated bass guitar for Stump and went on to participate in offbeat experimental projects from laptop improv to pocket pop), veteran avant-indie/improvising drummer Frank Byng (of Crackle, Snorkel and the Slowfoot label) and polymath keyboard player Rhodri Marsden, whose curiosity, industry and dry wit has drawn him through a patchwork career of interesting music (including The Keatons, Zuno Men, The Free French, Gag and Scritti Politti) and deft, wry journalism on everything from drum machines to dating disasters.

According to the Harrison’s blurb, the band deliver “a curious mix of the melodic and discordant with syncopated funky, skewed beats and lopsided, sometimes jabbing riffs that emerge from a complex web of musical interactions and expand or contract like sections of a stuck record.” The band themselves talk about “jabbing heteroclite riffs, circular rhythmic patterns, vibrating harmonic clashes, irregular note intervals, all contrasted with pockets of beautiful melody” and their trick of “microriffing” – repeating the same tiny melodic segment for “as long as they can hold their nerve” (out of a sense of persistence, a zest for irritancy or a desire to pay homage to loop culture) .

I’ll add that while these descriptions make Prescott sound like a set of ticks on a battered art-music bingo card, they’re actually one of the most entertaining and even danceable bands I’ve seen in recent years; pumping out a surprisingly melodious batch of hiccups, peculiar grooves and inventive colours, and sometimes seeming to plug into a monstrous late-Miles Davis synth-fusion groove (entirely by mistake).

I’ve written about A Sweet Niche before, having encountered them a few years ago when they were roaring the roof of a cellar off in Spitalfields. Between them, guitarist Keir Cooper, baritone saxophonist Oliver Sellwood and drummer Tim Doyle have an intimidating list of project credits. In this band, however, they make a brinksman’s racket of free-form punk-jazz, bringing in whatever else they’ve learned from excursions into rock, theatre work and the thornier ends of contemporary classical.

Making the most of their disparate backgrounds (Oliver is a qualified musical academian, Keir more of a non-institutional outsider, newer boy Tim somewhere in between) they’ll attack their musical ideas at full blurt and with plenty of noise, like angry men stripping the wreck of a ca. They’ll toss disparate fragments up into the air and rant about them, but then sideswipe expectations with a run at a cute theme. Last time I described them as “if Bagpuss had joined Slayer”, and they seemed to like it. See what you think.

V A L V E is the solo project of Chlöe Herington – reedswoman, experimenter and Magma/Zappa/Peter Maxwell Davies fan. She’s best known for blowing taut, assertive bassoon and saxophone parts in Knifeworld and Chrome Hoof, but has also worked with lo-fi art-rockers Jowe Head & The Demi Monde and elusive psycho-lounge band Made By Monsters, as well as a clutch of contemporary classical projects. V A L V E places the bassoon to centre stage, surrounded by Chlöe’s clusters of technology and (when required) selected guests. At the Harrison, the project will be appearing in “its first non-gallery show ever”, which might either involve letting it off the leash or playing a little more safe. (Come and find out.)

Dotted around Chlöe’s other band commitments, V A L V E releases have been sparse so far – odd fits and starts on Soundcloud or YouTube plus a couple of Bandcamp tracks. Here are a few tasters, including the soundtrack to a dinosaur battle, something which Chlöe developed from a piece of music found in a skip, and a more sombre contemporary classical effort.

Up-to-date gig information available here and here. (Or, if none of this really floats your boat and you’d prefer some lustrous art-rock croon, here’s one last linking plug for the Tim Bowness/Improvizone gig at the Boston Music Room on the same night.)

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On the Saturday, it’s time to welcome back Daylight Music, who are starting up a new series of free midday gigs (and are still writing their own promo blurb, which makes things a little easier for me).

Daylight Music 198 - Pete Astor + TEYR + The Left Outsides
Daylight Music 198: Pete Astor + TEYR + The Left Outsides (Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington, London, N1 2UN, UK – Saturday 29th August, 12pm to 2pm)

Ex-leader of The Loft, The Weather Prophets and numerous other esteemed acts, Pete Astor creates timeless chamber-pop, brimming with wry lyrical insight and haunting melodic hooks. Now recording for Fortuna POP!, he has his first full length album for four years ready for release. This has been made with Ultimate Painting, Veronica Falls and Proper Ornaments main man James Hoare along with Pam Berry (Black Tambourine, Withered Hand) on vocals, Alison Cotton (The Left Outsides) on viola, Jack Hayter (Hefner) on pedal steel and guitar, Emma Winston on synth bass (Darren Hayman’s Long Parliament, Owl & Mouse) and Susan Milanovic (Feathers) on drums. The recent single, ‘Mr Music’ has been very warmly received with Astor and band recording sessions for Marc Riley and headlining the Church stage at this years’ Indie Tracks festival among many other recent live outings. For the Daylight Music show Astor will be joined onstage by James, Pam, Alison, Jack, Emma and Susan making a seven-piece group playing Astor’s songs, old and new, for an edifying and nutritious lunchtime performance.

Forged amongst the hustle and bustle of North London’s folk scene, TEYR (“3” in the Cornish language) are a trio of formidable musicians who showcase the many sounds of the British Isles. With roots running from Ireland to Wales to Cornwall, James Gavin (guitar and fiddle), Dominic Henderson (uilleann pipes and whistles) and Tommie Black-Roff (accordion), the players thrive on close interplay and pushing the possibilities of acoustic music. Having met on the traditional music scene through late night sessions, each performer holds an intuitive sense of folk music, evident in their deft arrangements and compositions. The trio draws influence from neo-folk groups such as Lau, Kan and Lúnasa, whilst harnessing an innovative combination of strings, reeds and voices. With this distinct mix, TEYR strike an enigmatic path through the current folk wave.

The Left Outsides are Mark Nicholas and Alison Cotton, a London-based husband and wife duo whose atmospheric, hypnotic songs echo Nico’s icy European folk, pastoral psychedelia and chilly English fields at dawn. Their second album ‘The Shape Of Things To Come’ has just received a welcome and much-praised vinyl release on Dawn Bird Records and an album of new material is currently being recorded. The duo have played across the UK, France, Germany and in the USA; and have recorded radio sessions for Stuart Maconie’s Freakzone, Tom Robinson’s show on BBC6 Music, Pete Paphides show for Soho Radio and Tom Cox’s radio show.

As ever, Daylight Music is free, although you’ll have to pay for your tea and cake, and further donations are encouraged. Full up-to-date information is available here.

August/November 2015 – upcoming gigs – Lite, Knifeworld and Axes in London, August 19th; Vennart in Leicester and Colchester, August 19th & 20th; Vennart, Knifeworld and Cleft UK tour in November

13 Aug

My part of London’s being gradually gentrified. I’m noting the warning signs – the launderettes being replaced by redundant fresh-fruit emporiums, estate agents proliferating even as the street drinkers melt away; the rough-and-ready Irish pub that’s suddenly been boarded up and now waits to became a sandwich outlet. Even the looming black tower block which dominates the district and which once housed the capital’s most brutal social security offices (leading to it being roundly cursed in song by New Model Army) is being stripped down to white bone and built up into luxury homes, yesterday’s painful memories now smothered under today’s property bubble.

Waiting for the next rent rise – the one which might well bump me out of the neighbourhood in search of new roots – I guess that I can console myself with what seems to be a coincidental side effect. The neighbourhood’s also hosting more interesting gigs, with an influx of art rock, post-progressive and psychedelic evenings nudging aside the garage bands. If this is gentrification, I can at least live with that side of it: Tim Bowness playing down the road at the end of the month, and fresh bursts of tone-colour lighting up Tufnell Park junction on a regular basis. Which leads me to the following…

Lite (& Knifeworld) @ The Boston Music Rooms, London, 19th August 2015

 

LITE + Knifeworld + Axes (Pink Mist @ The Dome, 2a Dartmouth Park Hill, Tufnell Park, London, NW5 1HL UK, Wednesday 19th August 2015, 7.00pm) – £12.00

On August 19th Tokyo instrumental math heroes LITE return to London for a special one-off show at The Dome. A mainstay in the Japanese charts and something of an institution in their homeland, LITE released ‘Approaches 4‘ – six new live recordings including a new track called Balloon – for free download on May 19th. They’ll be joined by shape-shifting psych impresarios Knifeworld. Led by former Monsoon Bassoon/Cardiacs man Kavus Torabi, the London based octet have been hailed by everyone from ‘The Guardian’ to ‘Rock Sound’ to ‘The Line Of Best Fit’ to ‘Drowned In Sound’ and back again. And then there’s Axes, who in ‘Glory’ released one of the best math rock records of the last ten years. All three bands are on the same bill, for £12, which is pretty damned amazing.


Please note that there are age restrictions on this gig – there’s a lower age limit of fourteen, and under-sixteens must be accompanied by an adult, so trainee adolescent psychonauts should take note (or take a fake ID). Up-to-date information on the gig is available here, while tickets are available here.

(UPDATE – whoops. I only posted this twelve hours ago, and suddenly the whole gig has been transferred to The Lexington instead – up-to-date and ongoing details here – though hopefully not because some moneyed flashmob’s now opening a craft brewery on the site of the luckless Dome…)

Mike Vennart, 2015

More British psychedelic/post-progressive rock is out on the road at the same time, since former Oceansize and current British Theatre frontman Mike Vennart (also known for putting extra guitar flail into the live lineup of Biffy Clyro) is playing a couple of warm-up gigs for his appearance at the ArcTanGent Festival with music from his solo album ‘The Demon Joke’. ArcTangent has nearly sold out now (though you might still be able to grab one of the last tickets if you head over to the website now) but I’m plugging the other gigs now for the benefit of anyone within running distance.

The Vennart live band features two other former Oceansizers (Richard “Gambler” Ingram and Steve DuRose) plus drummer Denzel Pearson. Support comes, variously, from Mike and Gambler themselves (as British Theatre, who’ve just released their first new music in three years – a free download single called ‘Cross The Swords‘ which I’ll be reviewing shortly), Colchester alt.rock songwriter Christie Isaac and assorted last-minute Leicestrians (ask the promoter).

Vennart + British Theatre + guests (Robot Needs Home @ Firebug Bar, 25 Millstone Lane, Leicester, UK, Wednesday 19th August 2015 – 7:00pm) £10 – info and tickets here.

Vennart + Christie Isaac (Colchester Arts Centre, Church Street, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1NF, UK, Thursday 20th August 2015 – 7.30pm) £11 – info and tickets here.

You could also set aside some time in the autumn to catch Vennart’s week-long British tour in November, apparently the last of their gigs for some time (after this, Mike and Gambler will immerse themselves in recording a full album as British Theatre). Knifeworld will return as support on this tour, with the third act on the bill being Mancunian “turbo-prog” duo Cleft who encourage you to think of them as “a machine that compresses fourteen minute songs down to three minutes.”

  • Bodega Social Club, 23 Pelham Street, Nottingham. NG1 2ED, UK, Monday 23rd November 2015
  • Bush Hall, 310 Uxbridge Rd, London, W12 7LJ, UK, Tuesday 24th November 2015
  • The Deaf Institute, 135 Grosvenor Street, Manchester, M1 7HE, Wednesday 25th November 2015
  • King Tut’s, 272a St Vincent St, Glasgow G2 5RL, UK, Thursday 26th November 2015
  • The Hop, 19 Bank Street, Wakefield, West Yorkshire WF1 1EH, UK, Friday 27th November 2015

A couple of tastes of Knifeworld and Cleft follow. If I’m going to be fiddling while Rome burns, I can’t imagine better company.


July/August 2015 – upcoming London gigs for 3rd July (Shiver/The Fierce & The Dead/Alex’s Hand in Camden, and The Spiders of Destiny in Deptford); Tim Bowness tours in August; a release date for Levitation’s ‘Meanwhile Gardens’

30 Jun

More art-rock roars coming up…

Facemelter, 3rd July 2015

Shiver, The Fierce And The Dead, Alex’s Hand @ The Facemelter (The Black Heart, 2-3 Greenland Place, Camden, London, NW1 0AP, UK, Friday 3rd July, 7.30pm – £8.00/£6.00)

A night of insane math rock, prog, jazzcore and experimental riffs from some of Europe’s finest.

Shiver are the latest group from Acoustic Ladyland and TrioVD guitarist and producer Chris Sharkey. The trio have been challenging audiences perceptions of music for just over a year, sitting as comfortably at EFG London Jazz Festival as they have when headlining the PX3 stage at ArcTanGent Festival. Stretching the span of instrumentation and the imagination, this trio flits between solid, head-nodding riffs, ambient spaces and frantic electronic cacophony. Tonight they will be playing new material from their recently released third album.

The Fierce & The Dead are a hugely respected and critically acclaimed noisy pronk four-piece from London. Their precise musicianship and schizophrenic, immensely complex, yet catchy music has earned them headline slots all over the UK. Featuring internationally renowned guitarist, loop artist, blogger and all-round independent music guru Matt Stevens, TFATD have shared the stage with bands including PHILM, Knifeworld, Thumpermonkey, Anathema, Cleft and Lost in the Riots. Tonight they will premiere unheard material from their upcoming EP.

Formed in Seattle a few short years ago, experimental four-piece  Alex’s Hand subsequently relocated to Berlin and have been wreaking havoc on Europe’s DIY noise, post-punk and garage ever since. They’ve shared the stage with MoRkObOt, which must have been a bizarre evening. As at home on stage as they are playing avant garde installations (such as 24 hour festival Avant Garden) in a punk squat in Berlin, this will be their first venture to the UK.

More details here, and tickets available here.

I should put in a particular word for Alex’s Hand here, having watched them grow and sprawl over the past few years along a meandering but inspiring path from arch art-pop parodists to noisy song-brawlers and most recently to a kind of spontaneous noise-prog ensemble. There are a few ‘Misfit City’ reviews of their earlier material – one for ‘Madame Psychosis‘ and one for ‘This Cat Is A Genius‘. Although I’ve not covered Shiver yet, I do also have reviews of early Fierce & The Dead material (here and here), as well as a look at the band’s Matt Stevens playing a solo slot.

******

If you’d rather spend a free evening with Uncle Frank, The Spiders of Destiny are playing another London gig of Zappa music on the same day. As ever, expect some of London’s most accomplished art-rockers to work their way back and forth through the Zappa catalogue. The Deptford venue they’re playing this time has plenty of history, whether under its current name, its old monicker of The Oxford Arms or any other title it’s enjoyed over several hundred years. If you don’t spot Frank’s ghost leaning on the sound desk and having an appreciative smoke, you could try looking out for the ghosts of Dire Straits or Christopher Marlowe instead… Up-to-date details here or here, with two-as-yet unnamed bands to be added to the bill.

The Spiders of Destiny (The Birds Nest, 32 Deptford Church Street, London, SE8 4RZ, Friday 3rd July 2015 – 7.30pm, free)

The Spiders of Destiny play Zappa, The Birds Nest, July 5th 2015

********

Tim Bowness live flyer, August 2015Looking further ahead, Tim Bowness is out on a very brief tour in August, playing a handful of dates in England and Poland to promote his imminent album ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’ as mentioned last month. His band features his usual cohorts of Andrew Booker (drums – also of Sanguine Hum), Michael Bearpark (guitar – Darkroom, Henry Fool), Stephen Bennett (keyboards – Henry Fool) and the more recent recruit Colin Edwin (bass guitar – Porcupine Tree).

The Lousiana, Wapping Road, Bathurst Terrace, Bristol, BS1 6UA, UK, Tuesday 25th August, 7.00pm – tickets here and here.

The Boston Music Room, 178 Junction Road, London, N19 5QQ, UK, Wednesday 26th August, 7.00pm – £17.00 – tickets here and here.

Ino Rock Festival, Theatre Letni, Inoclaw, Poland, Saturday 29th August – 35.94 euros – tickets here (other acts at the festival are Fish, Motorpsycho, State Urge and Millenium).

Playing support at the Bristol and London gigs will be Improvizone, the flexible live-ambient improvising collective led by Bowness band drummer Andrew Booker. The rest of the Improvizone lineup looks as if it will be drawn from the current Bowness band (Michael Bearpark is a frequent Improvizoner) so perhaps you should expect the same band playing in two very different configurations. Up-to-date news will be here.

*****

Levitation: 'Meanwhile Gardens' (2015 issue)

Levitation: ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ (2015 issue)

Another follow-up from last month – there’s now a release date from Flashback Records for the lost Levitation album ‘Meanwhile Gardens’. Mark Burgess of Flashback posted the following on the Facebook fan page for the band’s lost recordings yesterday:

There is at last a provisional release date for ‘Meanwhile Gardens’. 23rd October 2015! Pre-orders will be available in due course from the Bandcamp site and elsewhere. The album is now with the pressing plant, but the lead time on the vinyl is long (pressing plants are straining under the pressure of so much vinyl at the moment, hence the provisional nature of the release date). You should all give yourselves a pat on the back and raise a toast to this group because without this page it might never have happened. Thank you all for your enthusiastic support!

Levitation, circa 1992

June 2015 – some videos – Tim Bowness, William D. Drake, Thumpermonkey

2 Jun

A few videos to pass the time.

Firstly, here’s the newest video from Tim Bowness, promoting the lead single from next month’s ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’ album. The Great Electric Teenage Dream features a cut’n’paste scratch effort built up from fragments from the Prelinger archive.

While I’m limbering up for a big William D. Drake catchup (reviews of this month’s ‘Revere Reach’ album and its predecessor ‘The Rising Of The Lights’), here’s the uproarious Chaos Engineers video from the former’s lead single. ‘Distant Buzzing’ features appearances, on- or off-video, from assorted Drake associates – the Larcombe Brothers (from Stars In Battledress), Dug Parker (from North Sea Radio Orchestra), Stuffy Gilchrist and many others…including a certain sordid, waxy tyrant from the 1980s. And a donkey.

Finally, do you ever hear anyone complaining bitterly that all of the artistry has gone out of rock vocals? If so, play them this video of Thumpermonkey‘s Woody recording voicework for the band’s upcoming album, and watch a grin breaking like sunrise across their face. (I don’t cover Thumpermonkey enough in this blog. That’s going to change.)

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:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

Cardiacs online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace LastFM

Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

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

Levitation online:
Homepage Facebook

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:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Vimeo

Stars In Battledress online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

March 2013 – EP reviews – Henry Fool: ‘The Free Henry Fool Download EP’ (“picking carefully through detailed instrumental weaves”)

19 Mar
Henry Fool: 'The Free Henry Fool Download EP'

Henry Fool: ‘The Free Henry Fool Download EP’

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue; and all in one package. Henry Fool (resurgent with the ‘Men Singing‘ album after over a decade of woodshedding) are offering a free look at what they do and what they’ve done. A four-minute edit of a rolling juggernaut from the new album; an exclusive, keyboard-led instrumental; two tracks lifted from the band’s 2001 debut album.

While the older tracks (touted via their expansive Steven Wilson mix) might pull in some attention, Henry Fool offer plenty on their own account. Like a number of their contemporaries (such as Sanguine Hum, with whom they currently share drummer Andrew Booker) the band pick carefully through the detailed instrumental weaves of progressive rock left behind by the likes of Soft Machine and Genesis during the early ’70s. Admittedly, they’ve also got the odd thing in common with the sometimes inspired, sometimes benighted neo-proggers of the 1980s. Keyboard whiz Stephen Bennett was one; while guitar puzzler and sometime singer Tim Bowness (better known for no-man) had his own mid-’80s brush with the genre via a bellowing one-night stand with Hertfordshire pompsters Gothique. However, the Fool’s music is churned and tinted by connections and cross-talk with jazz, Brian Eno, Cambridge, avant-garde texture loops and post-rock, making it a subtler and more diverse stew.

For the most part Henry Fool are reappraising that old-school prog fabric, re-cutting it via thinking shaped by four more decades of musical developments, step-backs and parallels. At no point does it feel that they’re simply replicating the old vintage – still less watering it down. It’s more as if they’re inhabiting it; as if they’d moved into an old house, given the interiors a fresh coat of paint, and are now at the stage where they’re hanging bright new pictures and squinting at them, trying to see if they fit with the lines of the beams. Plucked from ‘Men Singing’, the four-minute edit of Everyone In Sweden (trimmed down from its original fourteen) keeps much of its vigour and its cunning ancestry: slow-motion Soft Machine keyboard cascades married to the rapid aggressive wobble of a 1976 Genesis groove, layered with scribbling synth lines which scurry over the structure like a gang of weasels. While clipped, wrangling guitars (part-post-punk, part-post-rock) hack against the smoothness, the edit brings out aspects less evident in the long version – the chippy funk in Peter Chilvers’ fretless bass, or the ghost-train lean of the chords.

As you might expect from the punning title, the Bennett-led A Canterbury Scene (exclusive to the EP) reveals more Soft Machine elements. Centred around the brittle tones of electric piano – wah-ed and echoed in the style of late ’60s Miles Davis bands – it gradually shifts to more Egg-like territories collided with grand Yes string parts. Lurking in the shadows of pomp, it edges its way around the outside, never setting a foot in the brasher spotlight. Written in a dicey 25/8, Poppy Q (its counterpart from those 2001 tracks) is a careful pick-through of electric piano, like a tiptoe through a prog minefield. One minimal keyboard figure arches over odd chords and a faux-Mellotron counterpoint, before the whole band step up into a stately twitching rhythm, keyboards interplaying with a bass part which pulls its shape from the original piano line.

Heartattack (also from the 2001 album) is the only track on which Tim Bowness unleashes his whispered, impeccably English spring-water croon. It’s also the song that best shows how Henry Fool differ from the standard prog approaches. While so many bands in the genre expand everything from ballad to suite into a mass of crammed lyrics and grand significance, Tim opts for a quick peep-show look into a life more ordinary, with a jolt of inner panic. “Stone-in-love and lost again, / you’re walking through the fields. / Summer fresh, your life’s a mess, / you’re wearing down your heels. / Don’t look back, / you’ll have a heart attack.” Thirty-five syllables of narrative, and that’s it. The rest is your own guess, to be worked out against a backdrop of clover-burst keyboard chords, discreet-but-urgent guitar peals and clenching rhythms. Prog balladry from the leanest side, in which the musical scenery is as much the story as the words are, but in which the delicacy asserts a refusal to hammer home the meaning.

Henry Fool: ‘The Free Henry Fool Download EP’
Burning Shed (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only EP
Released: 8th March 2013

Get it from:
Free download from Burning Shed

Henry Fool online:
Homepage Facebook

Album reviews – Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’ & ‘Fallout 3’ albums, 2002 (“a game of reverse-chicken… impressive and utter liquefaction”)

18 Mar

Darkroom: 'Fallout 2'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’

The second part in Darkroom’s ‘Fallout’ trilogy ( a set of interwoven concert travelogues) sees the unorthodox dark-ambient trio shrink to fit circumstances: recorded over the course of four gigs in Cambridge between spring 2000 and spring 2001, ‘Fallout 2’ records their first period of work as a duo. With singer Tim Bowness temporarily absent from the group, the five lengthy live tracks see Darkroom’s sound now built up entirely from Andrew Ostler’s infinitely malleable, polluted volume of electronic sounds and Michael Bearpark’s massed, heaven-and-hell loop guitars.

Subtracting the singer should have meant removing the human face from Darkroom’s activities. It should have forced their music – which was already suffused with hanging menace, dense atmospherics and chaotic leanings – further down the road to alienation. In fact, the opposite is true. Minus those fragmentary Bowness sighs, whispers and melodic wails, Darkroom do relinquish part of their edge of romance and distress. But they also dispense with the intimations of human disintegration, morbidity and panic which Tim’s beautifully tortured vocal tones brought to the project.

In his absence, Darkroom is able to relax and experiment with a two-way balance instead of the three-way teeter they’d thrived on previously. Os and Michael sit back and play off each other – not in unison, but in a dialogue of occasional crossings and of deceptive, mock-disengaged responses. As with ‘Fallout One‘, the two-man Darkroom continue to embrace instinctive wandering noise-stews rather than art-rock discipline.

For this album, at least, these are gentler brews: one even begins with a serene duet of heaven-scented loop guitar and a windblown squiggle of pink noise, rather than the warning tones of before. Released from some of his duties as textural foil to Tim, it’s Michael who now gives the music its anchors: cyclic calling phrases, humming confections of layered Frippertronic-like loops, space-echoed licks, sometimes a sound like someone wrenching their way out of a giant metal tank. Os – as usual – takes responsible for most of the layers of sonic detail and for the most drastic directional shifts within Darkroom’s ever-restless improvisations.

Os’ increasing plunderphonic tendencies (linking and threading pieces with snippets of international radio conversation, Cambridge choristers or muezzin calls) prove that behind his responsibilities for the main body of Darkroom’s sound, he’s also the joker in the pack, dialling up effects and textures from a vast trick-bag of electronic sounds which he then sloshes across the speakers and leaves to evolve. His rhythms, too, betray a sense of cool, amused mischief. He’ll stitch in trails of techno beats, or hijack a piece five-and-a-half minutes in with jazzy cymbals and toms drenched in flapping dub treatments. He’ll even drop in the occasional comedy drum-wallop to accompany some blooping synth sounds he appears to have stolen off a kiddy-ride in a shopping center. Inscrutable humour aside, Os also assembles a remarkable variety of more solid elements to flesh out Darkroom’s randomness: imposing psychedelic cadences, static veils and suggestive electrophonic shapes.

Though Michael Bearpark’s playing still owes a debt to Robert Fripp (via his “Bearatronics” loops and his occasional digressions into trumpet-guitar), he’s far less formally-minded. While you could also draw parallels to the mangled roots sounds used by David Torn, Michael is a far more reticent, distant and watchful guitarist: less flamboyant, but similarly eclectic. Across the album, he comes up with the kind of junkyard guitar that Marc Ribot would be proud of; or treats us to yanks and scrabbles of twanging guitar in the vein of Henry Kaiser or Fred Frith. He unwinds collapsing, Spanish-guitar-style electric rolls; or feeds in the Bill Frisell-influenced ghost-country minimalism that he’s increasingly stamped onto Darkroom music. Os responds with gusty, gauzy swirls of noise, or busies himself chopping up the sound even as Michael enriches it.

It’s co-operation of a kind, I suppose. Sometimes the Bearpark/Os interplay is gloriously subtle. More often, they’re engaged in a game of reverse-chicken in which they seem to be seeing just how far they can wander from each other’s playing before Darkroom collapses, adding a kind of free-jazz risk to the elements of illbience, Krautrock and musique concrete that already flourish in the group’s sound. Darkroom’s apparent abstract shapelessness (more accurately their indifference to, and boredom with, the monotonous formality of much electronic music) seems to put a lot of people off. However, their loosely-knit and liberated music still has few rivals or peers in electronica.

Darkroom: 'Fallout 3'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 3’

Tim Bowness returns for ‘Fallout 3’ which at first listen sounds as if it could be pegged as the kinder, gentler Darkroom. This seems an unlikely label. Nonetheless, the album initially seems something of a let-up from Darkroom’s unsettling dark-ambient explorations.

As the group’s main studio-flexer, Os exerts most of the active control over the emerging music. On this occasion, he does this by taking more of those Darkroom live recordings and drastically remixing them. Drawn from two of the mid-2000 Cambridge gigs which initiated ‘Fallout 2’ (plus four other gigs between 1999 and 2000 in Cambridge and London), ‘Fallout 3’ is tagged as “a celebration of the art of post-production” and compresses their rich, chaotic improvised sprawl into a thickening wall of noise. This is Darkroom as jelly, rather than their usual coils of prismatic vapour. In the process, it displays a side of the group which might appeal better to ambient-music aficionados and art/noise acolytes (those who’ve so far proved immune to, or unconscious of, Darkroom’s brooding wide-open power).

The art-rock richness of Tim’s keening, beautiful-agony vocal was previously something of a scene-stealer – especially when it reached heights of drama which recalled Peter Hammill at full tilt. This time it drifts faintly through the mix like a displaced ghost. Half-obscured, half-dreamy, its physical presence fades to a livid imprint. As for the industrial-melodic textures of Michael’s guitars (and his layered MiniDisc manipulations), these have sunk even deeper than before into the fabric of Darkroom sounds, as have most of the drum loops. The most audible Darkroom instrumentation to be heard on ‘Fallout 3’ is the humble studio fader and the reverb unit, teasing their way through the music and rebuilding detail.

Turned right down, ‘Fallout 3’ sounds like the smooth-peanut-butter option compared to the crunchier varieties of ‘Fallout One’ and ‘Fallout 2′. Turned up, though, the music piles upwards inexorably; like a thick fluid shot through with veins of displaced voices. Sometimes these voices belong to Tim, processed almost beyond recognition to become muttering crowds or alien choirboys. Sometimes they’re radio voices stroked out of the ether by Os’ continuing casual interest in plunderphonics. Those little instrumental dialogues and monologues that used to weave through Darkroom pieces have been melted down too. Everything played becomes food to feed this new amorphous monster.

The result is that, more than ever, Darkroom’s music has the amnesiac, dissolving qualities of oceans. Powerful and ever-massing, and strangely indifferent to the repercussions of its nature. The sound itself, for what it’s worth, is closer to dry land if perhaps not stable ground. That continuously-rumbling, near-geological depth of soundfield and the thick “angry-earth” quality to the sound brings this reinvented Darkroom closer to the relentless, tectonic grind of Robert Hampson’s dark-ambient process music in Main. Like Main’s, the pieces on ‘Fallout 3’ are much of a muchness. All are slightly differing curves on a line mostly heading in one direction, arcing beyond post-rock to the land of out-rock. There’s far less of the more identifiable tendencies of the past – nowhere near as much of that Fripp-&-Eno-swimming-in-Lee-Perry’s-galactic-fishtank feel. The always diffuse identities of the Darkroom players are now barely there at all. The music has turned them inside out.

Consequently this is seventy-five minutes of impressive and utter liquefaction that’s still– identifiably – Darkroom, and which also enables them to thumb an invisible nose at past accusations of formlessness. Even when their musical substance is reduced to something as intangible as this, Darkroom’s baleful and beautiful intent remains intact: a long way beyond the easy trance to which most electronic acts are finally reduced. Darkroom’s vision is still inexplicable and alien. It’s also still undeniable.

Neither kinder nor gentler, then. Just even more seductively suffocating and inscrutable.

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’ & ‘Fallout 3’
Burning Shed (no catalogue numbers or barcodes)
CD-R/download albums
Released: 01 January 2002 (‘Fallout 2’) & 1st February 2002 (‘Fallout 3’)

Get them from:
Burning Shed (‘Fallout 2‘, ‘Fallout 3‘) or Bandcamp (‘Fallout 2‘, ‘Fallout 3‘)

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

March 2013 – album reviews – Henry Fool’s ‘Men Singing’ (“the friendly grapple between wide-eyed fluency and beady, quizzical interference”)

13 Mar
Henry Fool: 'Men Singing'

Henry Fool: ‘Men Singing’

Perhaps it’s his own fault for perpetually playing the faded-lily crooner, the songwriter victim of ever-blasted hopes, the sigher in lonely cafes. At any rate, Tim Bowness doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his mischievous sense of humour. For instance: in his understated and perfectly burnished way, he’s one of the most stylish and distinctive vocalists in British rock, whether he’s refining and wrangling art-pop with Steven Wilson in no-man or lending his silky melancholy tenor to assorted projects from OSI to centrozoon, Rajna to White Willow. Yet for the whole of this second Henry Fool record – for which the involvement of him and his voice might have been the biggest selling points – he shuts up altogether and plays guitar instead. Inevitably, the album’s called ‘Men Singing’.

Tim also contributes the track titles – enigmatic, silly, sometimes both simultaneously – and, I’m guessing, the sleevenotes. In the latter, his Henry Fool partner-in-chief Stephen Bennett is credited with impressions of Miles Davis and Terry Riley, but also with an impression of Mavis Riley from ‘Coronation Street’. It’s an intriguing glance into their working relationship. Presumably, this means Tim gets to be Rita Tanner. Not inconceivable. Following a phase of relatively sober hairstyles, he is looking more bouffant these days.

Of course, Henry Fool have a history of not quite doing what’s expected of them. While they’re nominally a progressive rock band, you might better describe them as highly-accomplished prog fans on a weekend trip to their influences, who get bored with the direct route and carry out chance diversions to their other interests as they go. Their 2001 debut album certainly drew echoes and ripples from Soft Machine, from mid-’70s Genesis or Pink Floyd, or the more ruminative moments of King Crimson. Yet there were post-punk spikes in the road, stopping the music from becoming grand and flowery; and stubborn, counter-intuitive post-rock kinks (reminiscent of Slint, Fridge or Tortoise) that reigned in or derailed the pastoral draperies.

In addition, rather than grand drama or ill-advised theories-of-everything, Tim’s songwriting (sparse and bloodsqueezed, honed for understatement) offered flashes of human fragility, thumbnail sketches of love and loneliness, and brief twilight peeks into inconclusive lives. It made for an uneasy listen, and maybe the prog world as a while wasn’t ready for a band more Raymond Carver than William Gibson or Siddharta. Henry Fool made a couple of slightly disjointed festival appearances and then went to sleep for a decade under a haystack of perfectionism, studio wrangling and sundry distractions.

Cue, much later, this re-emergence – in which the entire band sounds utterly invigorated. There might be no words this time, (and the music’s smooth flow belies its long gestation) but the intent is clear.

As of the moment, Henry Fool’s a seven-piece collective: part-time players and guest players (many from the no-man orbit) fluttering in and out of place to pulse out fluent streams of music, like happy quasars. Most of the original collaborators are back – multi-instrumental Eno collaborator Peter Chilvers returns on fretless bass, Cambridge jazz veteran Myke Clifford provides reeds and woodwind, and Michael Bearpark continues to commit a variety of guitar solos and interferences from skittering textural glissandi to raw, probing melodies. Of the newer recruits, Andrew Booker (from the no-man live band and, more recently, Sanguine Hum) draws, drives and hauls the drum patterns. The latest player to be pulled into the talent pool is I Monster’s Jarrod Gosling, who brings further prog- and post-rock ingredients along with him as well as sounds from the world of organic electronica – mixing, Mellotrons, a touch of Moog bass and a tinkling glockenspiel.

Most of the out-and-out proggery still comes courtesy of Stephen Bennett, whose keyboard skills and theatrical instincts (thanks to some solid neo-prog history via his 1980s band LaHost) adds most of the harmony and decoration to the project. The Tim Bowness stamp on the project is in the ideas and the overall compass. Never an instrumental virtuoso himself, he leaves the spotlight to others and provides the music’s spine rather than its face – sitting in the background, he rolls out a variety of low-key but crucial guitar lines. These generate the music’s understated art-rock elements of challenge and upset; and it’s still the friendly grapple between Stephen’s wide-eyed fluency and Tim’s beady, quizzical interference that brings the music to life.

The four lengthy, semi-improvised tracks on ‘Men Singing’ manage to be steeped in English prog and psychedelic reference points without becoming waterlogged by any of them. Even the guest appearance of a genuine ’70s art-rock guest star – Phil Manzanera, invited in to channel Quiet Sun on two tracks – fails to upset the balance. Instead, he slots smoothly into the work, engaging in an equal-terms quadrille of unorthodox lead and rhythmic noises with Michael Bearpark. It’s due to the band’s thinking patterns. Rather than going for an unfolding narrative or for linear doodling, Henry Fool works as a kind of coasting, vertical jam; with layer upon layer of subtle music thoughts playing out and exploring over their rolling instrumentals. Throughout, Peter Chilvers restrains himself to spare, crunching, authoritative rumbles and wahs on bass, like a giant turning over in bed – pinning and shaping each long measure with the minimum of showmanship.

The fourteen minutes of Everyone In Sweden are those which most strongly suggest mid-’70s British jazz-rock, carried as they are on upfront and ever-fluid Booker drumming, and woven through by high-buzzing analogue synths. At points it could sound like Soft Machine taking a crack at Los Endos, although a variety of knotty guitar approaches from Manzanera, Bearpark and Bowness and the airy punch of Myke Clifford’s soprano sax spin the music through further territories and changes. At half the length, Man Singing sounds like a lost jam between Miles Davis and the journeying Pink Floyd of ‘Ummagumma’ – elusive funk with bursts of Herbie Mann-ish flute from Myke Clifford, irritated-elephant interjections from Manzanera, and juicy elusive funk-slurs and pings from Chilvers. Bowness, meanwhile, hovers on a tremulous Bark Psychosis guitar; glimpsed occasionally through gaps in the rest of the music, and keeping the questions raised.

The lumbering two-note fuzz bass anchoring and stippling My Favourite Zombie Dream suggests something less gracious. On this one the band plays cruder even as it holds and manipulates tension. Toms bob uneasily, synthesizers string out warped buzzes and trumpeting tonal tumbles. A backdrop of Mellotron gauzes, crash-spring guitar and wrenched organ tones add further disruptive edges. Increasing layers of Stephen Bennett parts pay tribute to a variety of keyboard players from prog to Krautrock – all simultaneously.

Thirteen-and-a-half minutes of Chic Hippo round everything off. This one’s a game of two halves. The first is a leisurely, arena-friendly stroll – the boom-bat drums and the pecking bass, the brace of real violins (courtesy of Steve Bingham) flying alongside the pop-up musings of the Mellotron. There are trumpet lines, moving in jabbing boxer shuffles; and melting electric piano dreams. There are flown-in swerves of parachute-collapse guitar distortion, or bulges like the revving of temperamental guitars. For the second half, a steamy mid-tempo pulse decorated with stern doubled saxophone honks and Wurlitzer piano arpeggios picks everything else up and runs with it. Guitars hang off the sides of the tune, peeling in strips: Bowness offers serene minor arpeggios, Bearpark a scything fuzzed slide line.

Yet while the album is drenched in detail and in finely-worked passing salutes to the creative hum of the early ’70s, that’s not what’s important about it. What matters is the lifting and the liberation; those layers of floated space stacked up above the rhythms and the tickalongs, and the way in which they’re filled. Henry Fool’s biggest achievement is the way in which they’ve freed themselves. It could be a decade of clever editing – something given back from those years of doubt and wrangling – but that doesn’t explain the spirit of fluency here.

While the band have kept some of that beady edge and economy which set them apart on their original arrival, every second of this album is packed with the kind of music that seems to have arrived without agenda or awkwardness. In between the shifts in tone, the mood colourings and the instrumental dialogs, Henry Fool have found a way to travel in a state of easy grace. From the opening cymbal twists to the final harmonious thin-out, every single sound on here (collectively hovering in position like an immaculate air display) feels like the sound of a musician playing through their instruments in the right voice for the right moment… and that’s a rare achievement anywhere. For nearly forty sustained minutes, everyone’s attuned; all in chorus.

Men singing. What do you know? – perhaps it wasn’t a joke after all.

Henry Fool: ‘Men Singing’
KScope Music, KSCOPE244 / 802644824420 or KSCOPE836 / 802644583617
CD/vinyl/download album
Released: 11th March 2013

Buy it from:
Burning Shed

Henry Fool online:
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REVIEW – Darkroom: ‘Fallout One’ album, 2001 (“like a small corpse flattened onto a moving tyre”)

13 Jan
Darkroom: 'Fallout One'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout One’

Maybe it’s due to simply not being on the right label (they’re homed neither at Warp Records nor at Rephlex, nor at any of the other established electronica houses who provide a credible passport to attention). Maybe it’s the frustration of continually bouncing, disregarded and unloved, off the defense radar at ‘The Wire’. Maybe it’s simply the usual difficulties regarding working on and playing an abstract, thickly electronic music with even fewer anchors than most of the buzzing, bleeping efforts in that particular field.

Whatever it is, while the mightily amorphous Darkroom should have been a serious avant-garde cult act by now. Instead, they’ve been in retreat since their initial late ‘90s rising and since those times when they brought their galactic rumble-and-wail to some of the artier club-nights around London. It’s dispiriting – but at least this has been a strategic retreat rather than slinking off, defeated, to lick their wounded diodes.

Darkroom remain active, particularly in their native Cambridge. They still haunt basements, galleries and art-house cinemas whenever they can, recording hours and hours of live material. They’re still more or less unknown: but they’ve been making the most of this anonymity. At least it allows them to continue to explore their own unsettling take on ambient music, unencumbered by the demands of the more familiar electronica clubs or by any micro-cultures other than their own. The ‘Fallout’ trilogy (of which this is the first installment) is the result.

These recordings present an unadulterated Darkroom, live and in the raw – a sound of boiling sea-stuff, of natural chaos, of expansively stewing noise. They’ve abandoned the song experiments and the more disciplined, streamlined aspects of their previous album ‘Seethrough‘ in order to embrace more of the chaotic, massy, polytextural wanderings that they touched on in their ‘Daylight’ debut. Each of the tracks on ‘Fallout One’ is functionally numbered: One to Seven. None are graced with any more of a name, nor indeed any more clues of any kind. There are no sine-wave surfing references, no snippets of French or intimations of disturbance, no jokes (unless you count the press release name-checking both Photek and Satan). There aren’t even any nods to the collective’s old Samuel Beckett fetish.

Darkroom don’t guide anymore. They drift remotely through their music with a mixture of utter authority and confusing haphazardness, stirring ideas in and spinning them out. You can’t place yourself with this music: you can only live with it. Any associations which you care to make are now entirely your own.

‘Fallout One’ also emphasizes an increasing musical dominance by Andrew Ostler, the keyboard-and-programming corner of the Darkroom triangle. Freshly returned from his solo project Carbon Boy, Os brings back plenty – he adds a glut of shortwave radio voices; he disrupts Darkroom’s light-footed beats and breaks them up into free-jazz stumbles. His relentless mutations of dense electronics regularly distort and destroy any settled landscapes that the group might have settled on. Lurking in the background, Michael Bearpark concentrates on turning his guitar into a slow-hand blur of inscrutable forbidding noise. When he’s not doing that he’s building up a succession of aquamarine loops, sounding like a coldly psychotic take on Michael Brook.

By comparison, singer Tim Bowness seems more displaced than ever. Already abstract, whenever his vocals appear now they take the form of shocked, drowning, incoherent whoops and keens, half-submerged in the swirl of choking ambience and psychedelic space echo which his collaborators are cooking up. As ever, the effect is similar to the contorted vocal tapestries of Tim Buckley’s ‘Starsailor’. This time, though, Bowness sounds as if he’s gradually being sucked down a black hole, protesting all the way. It’s a far cry from the measured, beautifully-finished art-pop tones and diction of his day-job in no-man. Still, he seems to thrive on the chance to unleash this kind of utterly unguarded noise.

Caught as live as this, Darkroom’s music is more disorientating and disturbing than it’s ever been before on album. Though always too lushly endowed with timbre and detail to be unrelentingly hostile, it offers little in the way of chill-out calm or methodical reassurance. Even the gentler tracks such as Three or Four regularly see Darkroom’s more pastoral landscapes bent out of shape. A desperate, looping Bowness mantra of “say” will be overcome by data squirts and snippets of Gregorian chant; a hum of guitar will be scratched over by a violently juddering, reedy electronic screech; clicking needles will have a strange banana-boat yodel stretched across them.

Throughout, Os’ sculpting of the sounds induces sonic meltdown. Hiccups of sounds, whale song, a mutilated loop of geothermal Mellotron or a dignified broadcaster’s voice will all be sucked up, shredded and blown out, or brought round and round like a small corpse flattened onto a moving tyre. In their collision of the beautiful, the horror-inducing and the plain distorted, Darkroom offer nothing easy. ‘Fallout One’ is music for dissolving cities – a cool-headed, unconditional embracing of confusion.

Darkroom: ‘Fallout One’
Burning Shed (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-R/download album
Released: 01 January 2001

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

July 1999 – album reviews – Darkroom’s ‘Seethrough’ (“dropping casual, vinegar-dry references while somehow maintaining a ghostly mystique”)

22 Jul
Darkroom: 'Seethrough'

Darkroom: ‘Seethrough’

Transparent neither in style nor intent, Darkroom’s second album is demanding, mysterious; trickily opaque. This is not an unfamiliar position for this most obscure, obscured and inexplicable of ambient/illbient groups. The billowing instrumentals of Darkroom’s first album, ‘Daylight‘, made their points obliquely through a spray of trip-hop grace, thick detail and industrial derangement. About half of ‘Seethrough’ follows a similar path – baleful/beautiful semi-improvised noisescapes of layered electronics, angrily-stewing loop guitar and naked caress-through-to-howl vocals.

Resident synth necromancer Os fires off ratlike background rattles and spectral drum’n’bass rhythm triggers on the glutinous and dubbed-up Galaxy Craze, a threatening arrhythmic undulation in which Tim Bowness’ minimal, wraith-like subway singing is menaced by a fretless bass guitar part which probes like a giant animal’s tongue. On Charisma Carpenter, old-school ’80s synthpop riffs underpin the dense aviary heat of Michael Bearpark’s textured guitar. These OMD-styled tinklings make an unexpectedly cheerful counterpart to Tim’s lustrous and vaporous vocal chanting, which remains the most bizarre aspect of Darkroom’s music. Singing mere tumbling vowels, or sounds on the edge of becoming words, Tim delivers them with an eerily precise and chilly diction: like droplets of love-song which freeze to alien sleet as soon as they leave his mouth.

In spite of the textural invention and intelligence at work, only Kaylenz hints at the shocking intensity of Darkroom at full, live, improvising intensity. It takes up fourteen sprawling, disorientating minutes of the album, during which the tension between the celestial and the pestilential growing ever more violent. Electronica loops shade upwards into alarm, distorted hospital bells shrill. Mike’s country-toned guitar tang gives way to sharp buzz-edged swarming, while Tim’s vocals travel from weary, loving sorrow to a hysterical pitch of recriminations and a dash of lyrical perversity. Just before Kaylenz steps up – or breaks down – into a chaotic torrent of frighteningly emotional randomness, we hear Tim singing in a lost corner of the studio: a bored, beautiful, detached whisper of “you again, you again – / who’s to blame, if it’s all the same?”


This brings us to the wild card of ‘Seethrough’ – the presentation of Darkroom’s songwriting side, in which they sketch withering surreal portraits of disenchantment and alienation helped along by spacey glissandos of electric slide guitar. They’ve dabbled in words before (on the drum’n’bass/Fripp & Eno soundclash of the Carpetworld single) but here it’s more leisurely, more controlled; more disturbing. In some ways it’s an extension of Tim’s work on the cryptic dark-city musings of No-Man’s ‘Wild Opera’. In others it reflects the burnt-out, amoral contemplations of Tricky’s surreal, spliff-fuelled ‘Maxinquaye’.

If so, this is Tricky as played by Alec Guinness, dropping casual, vinegar-dry references to both Def Leppard and Janet Frame while somehow maintaining a ghostly mystique unhindered by the flapping of library cards. On the bobbing Morricone-meets-Orb dub of King Of The Cowboy Singers, Tim’s guarded, musical speaking voice recites both nonsense and significance to the beat – “trying to find a new life in an old boot, / walking to the new place in your old suit – / the king of the cowboy singers, / the toast of the Old School dinners…” The roiling, improvised star-stuff that usually pools out of Darkroom’s speakers is swapped for Dada-tinged narratives of shifting identities and habits; of introverted, stiffly English insanity and implosions of a starchy order.

Having said that, although Darkroom no longer quite sound as if they’re playing live from the surface of the sun, they’ve only retreated as far as a ski-lodge on Mercury. The glimpses of sky are always a bright merciless glare, the ground always dry dust; the scenery just a few steps away from white-out. Surly and blinded, Bludgeon Riffola surfaces through a swimming of harness bells as a filthy punk-blues fed through post-rock processing and glowing tracer-paths of needling synth-noise, Tim’s petulant vocals rope-swung and curdled with distortion.

The album’s masterpiece – the ten-minute stretch of Bottleneck – is blindingly white and exposed; a sinister mixture of Aphex Twin and Bill Frisell. Sparse, desolate slide guitar is chewed at by Os’ echoing dead-sea-surf static and smeared brass textures. Tim’s lonesome vocal (once it finally arrives) rides a stately dance of plucked orchestra strings, drawing out the shapes of a puzzle of betrayal and disgust. The charges are clear – “You never really loved your wife… / you never really knew your boys… / you never even liked the girl you said had claimed your heart – restart, restart.” But the story’s obscured: gaps between snapshots swallow it up. The figure of a man is reduced to a hat, a cigarette; an unfinished meal; an absence.

Then again, Darkroom aren’t here to provide clarity. Seethrough itself seals the album in a light and feverish running pulse, frosted by far-off gilded sprays of reserved prog-rock guitar. It’s tremulously sweet and frantic – trance-techno that’s neurotic rather than narcotic – and with a blurred, vocoder-ed vocal that queries the giddy transcendence of the music. “Too much misunderstanding; too much, too little love. / Too much to keep your hand in, too much to float above.” Dancing lightly on its feet, it moves with the crowd only to slip away quietly as the dreams evaporate. “Too much deliberation, too much you want to be. / Too much anticipation, too much you’ll never see – see through, seethrough.”

Blink, and it’s gone. Darkroom tease us with clarity, but lead us to a vanishing in the end.

Darkroom: ‘Seethrough’
Peoplesound, ART 4249-CD01
CD-only album
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Original release deleted. 2003 remastered CD-R version available from Burning Shed; download version from Bandcamp.

Darkroom 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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August 1998 – album reviews – Darkroom’s ‘Daylight’ (“subtly distressed electronica”)

14 Aug

Darkroom: 'Daylight'

Darkroom: ‘Daylight’

To work out where Darkroom are coming from, you could do worse than take a look at ‘Daylight’s arresting cover. It’s a study of sturdy, corroded old industrial tanks, encircled by metal stairways and surrounded by a devil’s playground of battered, abandoned plastic drums. The drums are marked with hazard labels but yawn open, suggesting that their toxic contents have long since leached out into the environment.

Behind the towering tanks is a radiant blue sky and a slanting blanket of pure white fluffy cloud, against which they rear up like Reims Cathedral. It’s beautiful, in a warped way – the wreckage and castoffs of a once-bright new industry that, nonetheless, continue to assert themselves. Yet in this toxic paradise there’s not a person in sight.

No, this isn’t suggesting that Darkroom are the sort of electronica trio who revel in futurism, and who excise humanity from their orderly sequenced and oscillating musical vision of the world. The opposite is true. Darkroom’s music (in which Os’ sequences and textures are balanced by Michael Bearpark’s mutated post-industrial guitars and Tim Bowness’ naked swoony vocal wail) has humanity in spades. The live instrumentation and vocalising unites with the programmed sound and beats in a way that’s rare in over-purified electronic music, but in the music that emerges – one in which the technology provides uncertainty rather than comfortable form, and in which the threat of chaos and upset looms constantly in the background – the main note sounded is one of loss. One of the main qualities of daylight, after all, is its impermanence.

Via a previous EP, we’ve already heard the discontented seethe of Carpetworld: roof-skittering drum’n’bass with guttering snarls of wounded guitar and Tim’s voice reined in to a hooded whisper of acidic verbiage – the only lyrics on the record, and they’re about bad sex, looting and dodgy discos. We’ve also heard the beautiful flush of ‘Daylight’s title track: a tumbling chant (mournful but blissful) against a slow wallow of bass, the singing notes of Mike’s Frippertronical guitar, and Os’ dawn chorus of flickering sound. Darkroom can do in-yer-face, and they can do strokin’-yer-cheek. They do each of these in roughly equal amounts. Often they do both together, in an elusive blur of ambiguous emotion – the sort that makes you keep one eye on them and the other, anxiously, on the door; but which keeps you held in place, unable to resist the desire to see for yourself what comes next.

Ambiguity is in fact the keyword for this music. Brash, defined techno structures are missing, their place taken by sketchy outlines which the trio fill up with evolving, chaotic detail. The beats are light-footed: slow breaks languidly pacing the background, or pattering techno pulses like rats’ paws. The electronics hum like supercharged fridges close to bursting flamewards, or keen out lovely auroral shivers in the sky and in the shadowed spaces. Tim’s full-voiced mixture of blurred word-shapes and sub-verbal whoops are sometimes Buckley-ish in their tortured flamboyance, sometimes more like Liz Fraser’s outraged brother. Melodies drift, loop and contort: massy and queasily mutable, cloudscapes tortured out of their natural forms by the force of some cruel idiot god.

Sometimes Darkroom’s music sounds like Underworld (though tumbled from their throne and reeling with the impact of a massive nervous breakdown) or like Fripp and Eno sailing their boat into much more malevolent waters. Sprawl growls its overcast way past complex shifting slapping beats, squelched bass, crushed radio-talk and vocal frailties; a baleful camera scanning a wasteland. The opener, Crashed, is strung out, lovely but disfocussed, with a streak of elegant suffering running through it. The guitars rattle like motoring moon-buggies, the voice oppresses like a summer shower, and somewhere in the background, behind the throaty tick of percussion, a lone voice of optimism: a marimba chinking out its own little Steve Reich wavelet.

There are episodes of naked grace on board, beside the pollution, but ‘Daylight’ is still one of the most subtly distressed records to wriggle out of late ‘90s electronica. This is most obvious in the wrenching, frozen agony of Vladimir; but Died Inside seems to sob in anticipation for a collapse waiting to happen but never quite arriving. Looped calls, lilting gasps are answered across a chill and echoing gulf by the icy fuzz of a guarded guitar, prowling and snarling in its own isolation. Once, Tim’s voice reaches a rare degree of intelligibility – a panicked, unanswered plea of “d’you feel the same?”

The wonder that comes close in hand with this fear is laid out explicitly in No History. A soft hip-hop beat holds down the sky-stretchingly rapt vocal and the beautiful subterranean guitar moans: a soundtrack to the forever-flavoured moment when you lie stricken at the bottom of that fatal crevasse, watching the last and most brilliant stars of your lifetime pierce the beckoning void overhead. Like a fleeting memory of softer times, a snippet of (Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay slips in. The amplifier buzz at the end is a benediction.

If there’s a time when there’s resolution, it’s when those two questioning background voices reach out across the comforting pulse of Estragon – Michael’s guitar like a high, bowed bell, Tim toned down to a florid whisper. Still, as it sails on towards its hushed conclusion, the key feeling of ‘Daylight’ remains one of loss. A lament for something unknown, but something voiceable. Something long gone past but reaching out for you again, as the day goes down and fades off into the poisonous beauty of a industrial sunset haunted by old unquiet ghosts.

Darkroom: ‘Daylight’
3rd Stone Ltd./The Halloween Society, HAL 8002 CD (5 023693 800226)
CD-only album
Released: 7th August 1998

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp

Darkroom online:
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July 1998 – EP reviews – Darkroom’s ‘Carpetworld’ (“swathed in contradiction… one long, haunting slab of sonic terrorism”)

15 Jul

Darkroom: 'Carpetworld' EP

Darkroom: ‘Carpetworld’ EP

Darkroom come swathed in contradiction: daytime shoppers on the sleeve, savage nightlife in the music. And no credits, though apparently it’s another one of those confounded No-Man offshoots ‑ don’t these bloody people ever sleep or anything? Evidently not, if the tracks on this single serve as an example of the sounds pulsating through their brains.

Carpetworld itself breaks all the rules ‑ the rules that say you can’t put vocals and lyrics recalling Soft Cell‑era Marc Almond over churning, vicious Frippish guitar ambience and hard‑as‑nails mechanoid beats falling somewhere between jungle and hardcore techno. A knife in the side of the rave generation’s blissout, it’s elegant in its brutality (“taking a twirl with your best friend’s girl, while the rest of the gang torch Carpetworld”), hovering in tatty clubs and observing the rituals of nihilism unfold as the backwash of bad E and the not-so-gentle ’90s poison the clubbers’ dreams.

Dance darkhorse it might be (it doesn’t run with any obvious scene, and fuck knows which playlist it’ll fit on in the increasingly segregated world of dance radio) but this is still cutting‑edge contemporary, with absolutely no fluffiness and Tim Bowness spitting out lyrics the likes of which we’ve never heard fall from his previously poetic mouth ‑ “Have useless sex with your ugly ex… / You velvet‑sneakered chancer, you broken-fist romancer…” as the beats flutter like a death’s head moth trapped in the throat. I’ll stay well out of the disturbing urban nightmare Darkroom are living in, but I’ll happily live it vicariously through their warped imaginings. Dante’s disco inferno.

After that, the Carpetwarehouse reworking does lacks a certain spontaneity. The original sounds like it’s literally fallen together in a paranoid improv session after a thoroughly unpleasant experience: This – apart from simply not being different enough – simply sounds like Darkroom have tried too hard at the atmospherics. OK, the beats are even more frenetic and Bowness achieves something he’s previously never managed in previous recordings: i.e., sounding fucking terrifying as his distorted voice rasps out the repeated mantra “I’m coming after you!” If you ever thought, from listening to No-Man’s work, that you could have that Bowness chap in a fight ‑ think again… Nonetheless, one does yearn for a battering, bloody remix from the diseased mind of Jim ‘Foetus’ Thirlwell, or Aphex Twin.

But, hell, Darkroom’s maverick genius still encompasses enough space for much more roaming, ambient trips. Daylight, in particular. Tim Bowness (like Martyn Bates) has always had one of those voices that are perfect to use as an instrument integral to a piece such as this, weaving magical wordless nothings in and around underwater tones and splashes of electronica. Anchoring this thoughtful pause from drifting off into inconsequentiality, a beautifully melodic bass riff and eerily clattering percussion ‑ like the echoing sound of camera shutters ‑ keep proceedings somewhere near planet Earth.

Ardri, though (nonsensical title ‑ always a bad sign), reeks too much of late ’70s/early ’80s ambient ‑ the kind of stuff the BBC would choose to soundtrack beautiful nature footage. Look, it’s a personal thing ‑ until someone out there finds even a slightly new direction with ambient (and I would certainly not rule Darkroom out of this), then the only sounds that interest me are the ones that either completely chill me out, or those that make the hairs on the back of my neck rise. This final track (like too much else in the field) gets my mind wandering after the first minute and thinking “So? What’s next?”

So, a downbeat end to a marvellous debut from Darkroom. Buy it for the title track and (whatever my gripes) for the remix, and just treat them as one long, haunting slab of sonic terrorism. Brilliant.

(review by Col Ainsley)

Darkroom: ‘Carpetworld’
3rd Stone Ltd./The Halloween Society, HAL 8001CD (5023693800158)
CD-only EP
Released: 6th July 1998

Buy it from:
(2018 update) This is now one of the rarest Darkroom releases – best obtained second-hand or from iTunes.

Darkroom online:
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October 1997 – album reviews – Saro Cosentino’s ‘Ones and Zeros’ (“a swirl of poly-cultural textures and emotive adult pop”)

15 Oct

Saro Cosentino: 'Ones and Zeros'

Saro Cosentino: ‘Ones and Zeros’

Saro Cosentino – an art-rocker with a knack for cinematic arrangement – sees himself as the musical equivalent of a film director. This seems to be more humble than it’d suggest: it means that he masterminds the writing and production for his songs but stays in the background, passing the final responsibility for voices and lyrics to selected singers and instrumentalists.

As he puts it, “a director coordinates and selects the roles for the actors… I chose the singers and musicians for the pieces”. Perhaps a rather precious way of saying “I wrote outlines of songs for various kinds of singers, then went looking for them”, but it does give us the opportunity to play around with his metaphor.

OK. Let’s do that.

Saro, if viewed as The Great Director, reminds me of one of those European cinema auteurs – one of those talents whose childhood was inspired by Hollywood, whose initial own-language triumphs were led by a highly personal vision; but who’s now working uneasily between Hollywood and home. His true drive seems to be towards smoky, luxurious romance. Long pans across emotive vistas filled with meticulous detail, where the very light that flickers off the faces and corners of the camera’s subjects has a tangible element; the creation of bank-busting sets and tableaux to call new environments into existence, against which romantic protagonists play out their personal dramas as the world smoulders behind them.

However, at the same time he’s tempted and pressured (by studio heads? by test groups?) to go for something brasher, more obvious. Hence the same album that can boast 9:47 PM Eastern Time (twelve minutes of trading ambient loops with the Chapman Stick of King Crimson‘s Trey Gunn) can also boast the FM blare of Bite the Bullet, in which Karen Eden power-bleats the sort of hand-wringing, state-of-the-world pop hogwash that Tears for Fears cornered when they went shit in the late ’80s. Harrumph.


 
Well, whatever else one might find fault with, it can’t be disputed that Saro has assembled a high-powered instrumental cast to flesh out his own detailed wash of synths and guitars. Cellos and Anglo-Indian percussion (from Dizrhythmia’s Pandit Dinesh and Gavin Harrison) join with the works a whole crowd of Peter Gabriel regulars. There’s David Rhodes’ unorthodox, chameleonic art-guitar; the eerie wails Shankar gets from both his double electric violin and his voice; there’s the watery keen of Kudsi Erguner’s Turkish ney flute, and John Giblin’s extraordinarily vocal fretless bass – as well as the presence of regular Gabriel engineer Richard Blair to help with programming and holding it all together.

Perhaps inevitably, ‘Ones and Zeros’ emerges as a less wracked, less personal, poppier echo of Gabriel’s ‘Us’, or of Kate Bush’s ‘Sensual World’. It’s a swirl of poly-cultural textures and emotive adult pop, with a profound love of instrumental colorations and orchestrated with sounds of the human condition taken from all over the globe. And it does sound lovely, meticulously embroidered in luminescent glittering threads of melody.


 
Enter the Saro Multiplex, then. Pay the elegantly cropped man on the door, who’s thumbing through the Italian Art Rock Quarterly. Pick up your packet of art-popcorn from Mozo ‘n’ Rael’s Snack Shack, and take your look at the choices on offer on the different screen. I think you can assume that Bite the Bullet is the second-string drama: the one with the C-list hairdo-actress in peril, the sort that’s been sold as nail-biting but is actually more nail-varnishing. (Hear Karen Eden twitter about TV and dreamlife, wince at her gooey harmonies, dodge the pretty bomb: note the fleeting brilliance of the arrangement, and stroll out halfway through.) Go on to calculate that 9:47 PM Eastern Time is the slow-moving ‘Koyaanisquatsi’-type visual study – it’ll be playing in the room with the art students, shots tracking up skyscrapers and speculating upon the bright streak of dawn. Set aside some time to see that one right the way through. And look at the posters again.

Well, with cellos at the ready, you’ve got the choice of a slightly superior mainstream drama (maybe a maverick cop film, maybe a Joe-Bloke-in-peril job) with Defying Gravity. The one forged from the stuff of determination (“Just for an instant / of our forever, / this beggar would be King…”) and the refusal to give up, the one where you can share, for a moment, the pain of the trouper. Art-rock journeyman Jakko Jakszyk delivers one of his trademark tight, passionate vocals – the most immediate performance on the album, full of regret and a simmering outrage, the last flare of anger before resignation sets in.


 
Give Karen Eden a chance to wipe out many of the feeble memories of Bite the Bullet with Behind the Glass, on which she sounds more like Briana Corrigan than Stevie Nicks, and feels more like Juliette Binoche in ‘Three Colours: Blue’ than Sandra Bullock in a straight-to-video. Here she’s a lone, withdrawn observer, near-impassive, watching the injustices the world deals out but this time refraining from protesting. Merely letting the reaction flow out silent and free from the core of her, like a long stream of cigarette smoke. Strings poise; Giblin’s bass growls, a peril held in check and lurking. The moment passes by. Beat; cut; quick fade into black.


 
As accomplished as they are, those are the studio money-spinners, the comparative rush jobs. If you want to go for something a little more rhapsodic, you’ll have to move up a level; up to what’s showing in the smaller cinemas, where the eyes fixed on the screens are more intent.


 
When, as in these, ‘Ones and Zeros’ is good, it’s seriously good. Peter Hammill (playing against a reputation as abrasive art-rock bruiser via one of two appearances as romantic lead) offers an extraordinarily moving performance on From Far Away. You can even picture the close-up – eyes wide and bright, awestruck with the force of his own passion, breathing sheer faith into the well-worn love words; an English Sinatra without the arrogance. On Days of Flaming Youth, Shankar’s spooky keen and bright Japan-styled flecks of guitar and electronics gust in slo-mo circles while Tim Bowness takes time out from No-Man to sigh tenderness all over a song of the betrayals of younger days. It prowls and flickers, disturbing piles of trash in the corners of your memory as his voice rises to a throaty howl and gasp: “It feels so real, it feels so true, / the theft of the world that you knew / by slaves of flaming youth…”


 
Or you can enter Saro’s cinematic visions by the most inspirational way. You can just walk in off the street, numbed by loss and cradling a broken heart in hands gone suddenly cold (as I’ve just done) and find the core of your predicament captured and held, mirrored, onscreen. This is Phosphorescence – a ‘Brief Encounter’ for the art-rock set, and the album’s crowning glory. Hammill again, under a black velvet dome of sky, afloat on a sea of reflected starlight and rippling fluorescent eel-trails with reed-flutes undulating past, a thrill and a breeze on the cheek. And a lyric of something almost unbearably affecting. A love that hits in one slow flash (“this moment lasts a thousand years, this look is longer than our lives…”), changes you irrevocably then passes on, never to be caught or held again. “We will never pass this way again / But we’ll always feel each other’s presence… Ships pass in the night, / and in their wake they leave just phosphorescence…”


 
And you’re left stunned in the dark as the credits roll, unable to move from your seat for the things that are crowding up in you. Hit to the heart. Light-struck.

Saro Cosentino: ‘Ones and Zeros’
Resurgence, RES 129CD (604388203222)
CD-only album
Released:
13th October 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Original album best obtained second-hand. ‘Ones and Zeros’ was reissued in 2015 in remixed and remastered form as ‘Ones and Zeros Reloaded’: all videos included in this review are from the ‘Reloaded’ version.
Saro Cosentino online:
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November 1996 – album reviews – Various Artists ‘Radio Hepcats’ compilation (“a strong whiff of dark-toned, filigreed, 4AD style introspection… heady, winning underground music”

26 Nov

Various Artists: 'Radio Hepcats'

Various Artists: ‘Radio Hepcats’

Can you can imagine a sort of cross between ‘Friends’ and a pre-job-market ‘This Life’, in which all the characters appear to be played by close relatives of those odd, unclassifiable, button nosed mammals (what the hell were they, then? bear/possum crossbreeds? doughboys?) who got perpetually stuck with the supporting roles in Disney Club comics?

If so, then you’ll have a fair (if reductionist) idea of Martin Wagner’s ongoing graphic novel ‘Hepcats’. Along with its darker and more tragic sister strip ‘Snowblind’, this warm, witty, compassionate and beautifully drawn adult strip – set on the campus of the University of Texas – follows the fortunes of a small group of students (Erica, Joey, Gunther, and Arnie) and their perpetual struggle of balancing friendships and growing maturity with an acceptable level of fun and the freedom to make mistakes. Sounds familiar? In Martin’s hands it’s both recognisable and sparkling.

Currently celebrating a new linkup with Antarctic Press and the consequent release from the headaches and pitfalls of self publishing, Martin’s just expanded the “Hepcats” world by releasing the first in a set of companion CDs: not so much a ‘Hepcats’ soundtrack as just a set of, as Martin puts it, “damn good songs that seem right at home with Erica and the gang.” But if you’re expecting another college beerkeg singalong album, think again.

Despite the tendency of the Hepcats cast to engage in animated chat as opposed to holing up in their bedrooms brooding over a Walkman, there’s a strong whiff of dark-toned, filigreed, 4AD style introspection to this compilation. It’s the tendency of the bands involved to spice their music with a little darkness, a little ornateness: and as a result ‘Radio Hepcats’ is generally closer to the sombre and unsettling shades of ‘Snowblind’ than the lively sun-washed tints of ‘Hepcats’ itself. Green Day’s pogo party this ain’t: it’s more like Ivo Watts-Russell’s children coming home to roost.


 
Explicitly, sometimes. The Curtain Society‘s waltzing Ferris Wheel has that familiar sound of twangling Cocteau Twins bass and grumbling spiky washes of guitar under the melancholic push-and-pull vocals. More of those queasy, giggling, Robin Guthrie-ish guitars show up on Siddal‘s Secrets of the Blind, a two parter that swings unexpectedly from chirpy drunken-fairy pop into one of those Cocteaus alien piano ballads that dislocate you from your own consciousness.

And if you’ve ever wondered what a troubled hermit’s answer to the arresting, barren grandeur of Dead Can Dance might be like, look no further than Soul Whirling Somewhere. Unhittable – utterly isolated and beautiful darkwave – drifts up as if from the bottom of a well: Michael Planter’s ashy, yearning voice floating out from its shrouds of tolling Joy Division bass and dark persuasive ambience, which caress and pull it down like water saturating the clothes of a drowner. It lulls you with sepulchral beauty while draining the warmth out of the room: you can all but see ice forming on the speakers.


 
But let’s not nit-pick. Even if the 4AD pointers can sometimes be pretty self evident, this is – at the very least – an album of heady, winning underground music. They might have some obvious forebears, but the bands on ‘Radio Hepcats’ also possess persuasive and seductive sounds, which are especially welcome in the current atmosphere of half asleep indie and heritage Britpop. With The Red Dots, An April March plunge down into their own thunderous take on guitar heavy dream pop with enough force to squish any of their British shoegazer ancestors (Chapterhouse, Slowdive). This stuff rides on a natural internal dynamic as much as on any phaser pedal setting, and coasts in on a dark thrum of guitar as impersonal and unstoppable as a typhoon.


 
Martin’s offered us the odd surprise, too. Visible Shivers have the sort of name to suggest more of the same chilly darkwave as Soul Whirling Somewhere but prove, in fact, to have the same sort of Southern States nerviness as their near brothers in name, Shudder to Think. Lo-fi country-flavoured twelve-string jangle pop, complete with plaintive harmonica and plonky bass, which on After Glory prances closer to the Appalachian chirp of Robbie Robertson, Dr Hook or ‘Fables…’-era REM than to the stonecarved artiness of much of the rest of the ‘Radio Hepcats’ broadcast. Then there’s William McGinney‘s ‘Hepcats’-themed snatch of filmic lo-fi piano and synthwork, halfway between ‘Knotts Landing’ and Angelo Badalamenti. And to silence any remaining doubts, there’s two more bands on here – the shimmeringly lovely Mistle Thrush and the ever-magnificent No-Man – who transcend genrework altogether.


 
Mistle Thrush open the CD with a soulful seduction, giving us Wake Up (The Sleep Song). First it curls into our hearts like a gorgeously soporific Julee Cruise ballad, and then suddenly expands into a huge cathedralline Bark Psychosis space where Valerie Fargione’s voice strips itself of anxious sugar and powers up into a huge, majestic Patsy Cline alto, as if the lump in our throats has finally gulped them into a place more fit for their bewitching talents. Further on, No-Man provide two wildly different and divergent contributions: the industrial, near incomprehensible clatter pop of Infant Phenomenon (which powers along on a rattling log drum beat, offensively dirty guitars and gasped, abstract lyrics), and the all embracing Steve Reich-ian trance funk of Heaven Taste; a sweetly slumbering twenty plus minute ambient monster with a bellyful of twinkling lights, sky tickling violin, leviathan Mick Karn bass and perhaps a couple of bites of Chartres Cathedral.



 
Martin Wagner’s not only compiled a beautifully-paced compilation album, he’s also given much deserved space to a clutch of very under-regarded bands. And the latest activity on the ‘Hepcats’ site suggests that an even more captivating follow-up compilation is on the way. The whole ‘Hepcats’ affair, both on and off record, is looking like a series well worth tuning in to. Cool for cats and everyone else.

Various Artists: ‘Radio Hepcats’
Antarctic Press, RHCD1 (no barcode)
CD-only album
Released:
November 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Long out of-print, rare, and best obtained second-hand. Originally came free with deluxe edition of “Hepcats” #0.
Hepcats online:
Martin Wagner’s Hepcats blog, and online reprints of the original comic at Comic Genesis.
Additional notes: (2020 update) Of the artists on this album, The Curtain Society and No-Man are both still active; Visible Shivers enjoyed a ten year career between 1990 and 2000; Mistle Thrush’s Valerie Forgione was later in Van Elk, while Soul Whirling Somewhere’s Michael Plaster resurfaced in Yttriphie and An April March’s Danella Hocevar later worked as Danellatron. William McGinney has divided his time between film music and academia.
 

September 1996 – album reviews – No-Man’s ‘Wild Opera’ (“fraying the edges of beauty to reveal a poignant discontent”)

11 Sep

No-Man: 'Wild Opera'

No-Man: ‘Wild Opera’

Late hours. Some velvety-dark bar in a city somewhere. Black décor, with sweeps of curved white delineating the spaces between floor and ceiling. Nearly deserted but for the last human fixtures, fixed to their bar stools, sunk in their own little drunken universes. Forefront: an ex-couple in an alcove, locked in mutual antipathy; maybe a month past the sharp, splintering anger of the break-up, yet now attempting to divine the reason why. He’s trying to explain.

“We talked for such a long time / That it seemed to mean a lot. / I was yours, and you were mine…”

Pause, just long enough for him to light a cigarette. The lighter clicks like a cocked pistol. Unyielding eyes meet again.

“Then the feeling stopped.”

No-Man aren’t singing about heaven and sunsets any more. Not that they ever did, exactly. For all of the limpid, luminescent, swooning beauty of past albums, there was always something rather darker going on under there. 1994’s rhapsodic, magnificent ‘Flowermouth’ (graced and expanded by chamber jazz, by majestic Robert Fripp guest solos by and creamy violins) concealed tales of anguished stagnation and defeat, the sharp edges of lovers’ memories, the simple and inescapable pain of being left behind. And No-Man have always chosen to orbit at the point where an absolute beauty intersects with a resonant pain. On ‘Wild Opera’ (their first album for 3rd Stone since the lingering death of their relationship with One Little Indian), these feelings have never been closer to the surface. Here are a procession of characters in extremis glimpsed for a moment through our veils of indifference, illuminated briefly by No Man’s peculiar mixture of compassion and alienation.

They make an odd couple, do the No Man pair. Steven Wilson is the technological wunderkind, crafting all round evolutionary pop wonder with fluent guitars and samples, sensuous beats and expansive sonic backgrounds. Tim Bowness is the baleful and reluctant dark star on the horizon breathing a chilly, beautiful wind of song across the people enmeshed in the gorgeous, sad eyed arches of songs that No Man put together. Between them they’re putting together some of today’s finest art pop, poised somewhere between Tricky, The Blue Nile, Robert Wyatt, Portishead’s ‘Dummy’ crossed with Scott Walker’s alarmingly skewed ‘Tilt’.


 
With ‘Wild Opera’ you pretty much get the lot. The ghostly, reflective atmospheres and introspection of trip hop. A sound as deep, lonely and full of frightening possibilities as 3a.m on a city backstreet. Jazz noise (pings of death knell Rhodes, hovering cymbals) mixing it up with blasting or whispering rock, and sliding up to sampleadelic dance impetus. Classy yet eloquently, exquisitely understated songwriter pop which never strays into mawkishnessness or worthy stodge. Violent, abrasive industrial dance, as on the bellowing rush of Radiant City or the jagged confusions of Infant Phenomenon. Delayed by a couple of years, in many respects ‘Wild Opera’ is closer to the sleekly disruptive post-rock efforts of Laika, Moonshake or Disco Inferno than it is to the elegantly-mannered theatrical art pop of No-Man’s beginnings or to the luxuriant high-end dance-pop of their One Little Indian years. And with the continued involvement of Fripp plus Richard Barbieri and Mel Collins (frequently via sampler cut-ups), you get the exploratory edge of the best progressive/evolutionary rock.

And all of this is fraying the edges of beauty to reveal a poignant discontent. Though Taste My Dream is a nod to familiar, naked No Man love balladry (a curve of soft tears and piano chords), such simple and direct love is rare on “Wild Opera” compared to its more dangerous flipsides. Pretty Genius is a trip-hop sigh of desire merging with a sense of disaster, its object (“you could lose your little mind, / never knowing what to find… / Don’t hide beneath the covers / don’t sit around…”) as likely to disintegrate as inspire.


 
To a background of ghostly Badalamenti swing and haunted vibes, Sheeploop sketches a portrait of a calculating, defensive, free floating swinger (“this loving is easy, this loving is free, this loving demands no part of me”), while laying bare the losses sustained with withdrawal from commitments (“you never know how people grow, become a part of something…”). Housewives Hooked On Heroin – the unlikely-titled single – is like a sliver of glass through the heart, a backhanded slap in the face of contentment which few others could pull off (excepting Andrew Eldritch, perhaps). It’s not about drugged out drudges, but millionaires growing listless in their air conditioned capsules; aging artists selling empty platitudes to complicit audiences; and a seething, jaded resentment turning towards perversity.


 
Rooting around too deeply in this shadowy, suspicious world throws up disturbing questions. Libertine Libretto (imagine Trent Reznor masterminding a jazz rock quartet while Tim’s clenched vocal scatters a string of broken, filmic images in the foreground) spews out a slew of fragmented, desperate Hollywood stories (“Arthur sheds his pheromones in fifteen thousand mobile homes / In the grip of grand emotion, Julia drowns in tanning lotion”). On Sinister Jazz, Tim pounds the streets alone chased by a swarm of disconnected, dysfunctional, fatal memories: “Wendy got it in the throat, Linda died in Alan’s coat, you read it all in Brian’s note… Robert lost the plot in Greece, the Jesus Army stole your niece, but all you ever do is eat.” The past is a foreign country – vivid, shocking, and now impossible to touch (“You’re never going home.”).


 
On Time Travel in Texas, horror-struck mellotron strings and flutes drift through a desert wind over a bone-scraping dub beat and scourging divebombing guitar. A soprano flutters tattered amnesiac rags of sound: Tim is either murmuring dazed recollections, grubbing thoughts out of the void (“all I can remember, that noise in my ear / and then there was silence / and then there was fear”) or bellowing a terrified lament in the background. You never know exactly what’s going on, but you know something’s coming to the surface, and that it will wreak havoc when it emerges. The last sounds on the track are a wail, a crash of bass piano, a string of hysterical sobs…

If all of this sounds like dead-end miserablism, think again. Like Radiohead, No-Man have a fascination for looking into the void. Like Radiohead, they save us from utter despondency by redemptively beautiful melodies and a passionate, irresistable concern for the state of the human being. In the end, they suggest that any choices leading us to disaster are ours alone, rather than mewling about the burden laid on us by a malicious world. On ‘Wild Opera’, it’s self deception that bites the hardest – as Wilson’s guitars belch and roil acidicly, My Rival Trevor lays bare the vacuum residing in the hometown stud, the masterly lady-fucker whose bedroom assurance is just so much short-term gymnastics as he “bids for beauty unknown, kills the seeds he has sown, always ends up alone.”. On Dry Cleaning Ray (musically, Massive Attack playing catch with a nifty organ sample from Dave Stewart’s Egg), the subject’s a wannabe who hasn’t yet realised that he’s aged into a never was, a working stiff whose dreams have become shopworn routines. “It’s the same old thing / it’s the same old shit. / Thirty years without a hit.”


 
Notably, No-Man are not above asking themselves similar questions. Once tagged as “conceivably the most important British group since The Smiths”… “Maybe there’s more to life than just writing songs. / Maybe not,” Tim muses on My Revenge On Seattle (which swims along on an exquisite shimmer and strum of acoustic guitar, a sleepy chatter of blushing Reichian keyboard pulse). Steamrollered by the grunge boom of the early ’90s and by brutal record industry politics, their reaction is one of hope: “My revenge on Seattle / I retreat from the battle. / Won’t you stay?”. A response that manages to be dignified, witty and touching all in one, and with a ravishing melody to clinch it.


 
No fat lady sings. Things change, things continue, some things disappear. Deep into the late hours, No Man continue to shine a captivating light on it all.

No-Man: ‘Wild Opera’
3rd Stone Ltd, STONE 027CD (5023693002729)
CD-only album
Released:
9th September 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Original album best obtained second-hand or from Burning Shed; ‘Wild Opera’ was reissued as a deluxe expanded edition in 2010, also available from Burning Shed.
No-Man online:
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May 1996 – EP reviews – No-Man’s ‘Housewives Hooked on Heroin’ (“turning away from the light to embroil themselves in a polluted twilight”)

30 May

No-Man: 'Housewives Hooked on Heroin' EP

No-Man: ‘Housewives Hooked on Heroin’ EP

Mumsy cover art, titillating tabloid title and five tracks of wilful wrongfooting? For their first new material in two years, No-Man are not relying on the comforts of familiarity. Compared to the ornate, orchestrated silkiness of their first three albums, the No-Man sound of ’96 is much more confrontational. Bigger, noisier, dirtier; a swamp rather than a garden; these aesthetes are turning away from the light to embroil themselves in a polluted twilight.

‘Housewives Hooked on Heroin’ is the baleful first single from the forthcoming ‘Wild Opera‘ album – downbeat, low-key, opening on a bed of twangy guitar and suffocated electric piano chimes like a smog-ridden dawn over Las Vegas. A disaffected gasp of vocal pans over a landscape of weathered, weary icons – ageing pop starts, Howard Hughes – before enormous sour guitars slide in and drag it into a rolling chorus with the deathly beat-driven wallop of Sisters of Mercy. “Not even housewives hooked on heroin / could match my appetite for sin…”


 
No-Man come on like a flattened, ever-so-slightly Gothic Bowie, full of the empty hunger which you get on those evenings when there’s nothing you want to do, the heat’s pressing down and the light of day is stained by a sodium glow. Fittingly, Scanner’s Housewives Hooked on Methadone remix recasts the song in a fuzzy cloud of radio static, sirens and dusky synths hovering over a dry, frenetic junglist beat. I do miss his usual trademark dialogue samples, though, snatched illicitly from hidden conversations on mobile phones. Perhaps the housewives were on hold that evening.


 
If you’re already missing the thought of that departed beauty, No-Man do allow a nod to their more recent past with Where I’m Calling From, another fragile, obscure No-Man ballad connecting the stagnation of the earthbound and isolated with the loneliness of the stars. Tingling Robert Fripp Soundscapes meld with a limpid Steven Wilson Stars Die melody and the bitter, uncertain comment of Ian Carr’s reedy trumpet. Tim Bowness sings as if encapsulated in a phone box, wheeling through the outskirts of the Milky Way, making one final disaffected farewell call. “Where I’m calling from, you wouldn’t want to know…/ Where I’m calling from, you wouldn’t want to go.” A dog barks suddenly in the middle of all of this – it’s like the real world trying to get a last foothold in this dangerous reverie.


 
But that’s about as familiar as it gets. The spidery twitch of Hit the Ceiling (written and recorded, from start to finish, in one hour) hurls the spontaneous risks of current No-Man working strategies straight into our faces. Breakneck rattling drum track, skeletal guitar and the reverberating coloratura of a disembodied diva – Halloween in the attic of the Paris Opera. Urban Disco deepens their dance content with a dystopian shadowy blur of suffocating beats and whispering, glancing lyrical swipes at the self-satisfaction of hedonism, leaving the solipsis of previous No-Man behind in order to flit like a malevolent ghost around the cigarette-ends of the high life.


 
The ‘Wild Opera’ overture has been played. People seduced by the warm caresses of ‘Flowermouth’ and ‘Heaven Taste’ look set to be in for a rude awakening, but an interesting trip.

No-Man: ‘Housewives Hooked on Heroin’
3rd Stone Ltd, STONE 026CD (5023693002651)
CD-only EP
Released:
28th May 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Original EP best obtained second-hand or from Burning Shed; Housewives Hooked on Heroin appears on No-Man’s ‘Wild Opera’ album, while Urban Disco reappeared on the ‘Dry Cleaning Ray’ mini-album. All of the EP tracks bar Housewives Hooked on Methadone were included on the 2010 double CD remaster of ‘Wild Opera’.
No-Man online:
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October 1995 – album reviews – No-Man’s ‘Heaven Taste’ (“indefinable sensations of love, conflict and suppressed yet dizzy and overwhelming sensuality”)

12 Oct

No-Man: 'Heaven Taste'

No-Man: ‘Heaven Taste’

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

No-Man: ‘Heaven Taste’
3rd Stone Ltd, STONE 027CD (5023693002729)
CD-only album
Released:
10th October 1995
Get it from: (2020 update) Original album best obtained second-hand; ‘Heaven Taste’ was also remastered and reissued in 2002.
No-Man online:
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