Tag Archives: word salad

November 2016 – upcoming London gigs – electro-poetryscapes with Jeremy Reed & The Ginger Light at the Horse Hospital (5th)

3 Nov

They might be performing in Bloomsbury , but their heart’s in Soho. You can’t get away from it.

Jeremy Reed & The Ginger Light, 5th November 2016I once started writing a set of time-travelling stories about Soho, and one day I may go back to them. If so, it might be difficult not to write Jeremy Reed into them. Poet locum and unruly novelist, with fifty-odd books behind him, both his work and his person is soused in the atmosphere, possibilities and ramifications of this particularly disobedient district of London. For my lifetime and his, it’s been the haunt of artists, drunks, liars, king-queens, agreeable rascality and disagreeable visionaries. Even in its current state of snarling retreat, slowly losing a civil war against the clammy, sterilizing encroachment of central London gentrification, chain shops and absentee renting, it’s still the part of town where you’re most likely to see an inexplicable marching band or dishevelled unicorn.

A Firewords Display presents:
Jeremy Reed & The Ginger Light
The Horse Hospital, The Colonnade, Bloomsbury, London, WC1N 1JD, England
Saturday 5th November 2016, 7.30pm
information

Dating back to 2012, The Ginger Light is a collaboration between Jeremy and Itchy Ear, a.k.a. Covent Garden loftbird Gerald McGee: an electronic music producer, film buff and keen, self-starting soundtracker who adds spectrally-energised EDM and electronica backings to footage from the likes of brutal nightmare-noir ‘Kiss Me Deadly’, Jean Genet’s steamy men’s-prison reverie ‘Un Chant d’Amour’ and the differently-dreamy 1903 film of ‘Alice In Wonderland’. Working live from a laptop, Gerald complements Jeremy’s word salvos with sound layers too detailed and active to be described as simple backdrops.

Like the poems they lift and wreathe, Gerald’s soundscapes are multilayered time-travel textures: archaeological digs pulling up mongrel music memories from London’s strata of music and broadcast history. Ladbroke grove dub-echoes, Carnaby pop and basement jazz; psychedelic acid-rock distortions from the UFO or Portobello Road. Ominous Throbbing Gristle reverberation and corrosive washes from the old Hackney squats. Floating ghostly sound effects, like snippets of radio drama caught on a forty-year rebound.

As for Jeremy, he plays his own role to the hilt. Blurring confessor and transgressor, impressionist chronicler and flagrant charlatan, he’s a figure of arch and wasted glamour, as if Quentin Crisp had woken up one morning transformed into Jim Morrison. A Soho fixture since the mid-’80s, he’s a onetime protege of Francis Bacon; hailed as the real poetic deal by past literary titans (Seamus Heaney, J.G. Ballard and Edmund White – two of whom compared him to Rimbaud and one to Bowie’s Thomas Newton, the Man Who Fell to Earth) and by living pop-poetry shapers (Bjork, Richard Hell, Pete Docherty).

He delivers his own poems in a voice like London sleet – a heavy-lidded, lead-cadenced drone; lisping and compellingly monotonous, burnished by rich and antiquated RADA tones and by a seething incantatory Peter Hammill flair. In the psychic autopsy of talent’s fragility in ‘Soho Johnny’; you can detect echoes of the Beats and of the exploding perspective of the ‘60s; in his calling-up and collaging of spirits including Derek Jarman and Jack the Ripper, those of cut-up broadsheets and psychogeography; in his accounts of shoplifters and dissidents adrift in the changing junk-raddled backwash of city trade, commerce and exploitation, there are looming narcotic Blakean myths.

A career-long celebrator of the transgressive, ignored and cast-aside, Jeremy’s becoming not only a poet locum for Soho, but something of a genius loci: declaiming the neighbourhood’s crumpled, contemplative, spontaneous amorality like the last pub-bard standing. In consequence, he himself seems to be succumbing to being fixed in time, representing qualities being swept away as Crossrail opportunities and predatory investment force them out. Like the Wood Green soiree happening the previous night, he’s edging towards becoming one of those fragile something to enjoy while you still can. Here he is, rouged and alert, alongside Gerald and delivering a Ginger Light performance earlier this year: keeping the vision breathing.


 

June 2015 – upcoming gigs – Imminent shows at the Hope & Ruin in Brighton (Liebezeit & Irmler, Prolapse & Slum of Legs), plus the tours they belong to

11 Jun

If I was a Brightonian, I suspect that I’d be spending quite a lot of evenings at the Hope & Ruin. Not only does it host some of the town’s most interesting gigs, its interior décor – patched together in a pack-rat/caddis-fly jumble of enthusiasm – makes it feel like the vessel   of some spacegoing carny out of ‘Firefly’ or ‘Doctor Who’.

I’m guessing that most people who’ve read the post title will already know all about these – since cult art, Brighton and a gossip grapevine make a happy mash – but two upcoming Hope & Ruin gigs have caught my attention. One features two leading lights of the original Krautrock/kosmische/German experimental rock scene (something else that’s become as Brightonian as the Pavilion). The other one sees the return of one of Britain’s more interesting wrangle-rock rackets from the 1990s: on this occasion, backed up by a more than worthy heir from the current decade. Both are stops on longer UK tours – I’ll include details on those as well.

Jaki Liebezeit & Hans Joachim Irmler @ The Hope & Ruin, 11-12 Queens Road, Brighton, BN1 3WA, UK, Thursday 17th June (doors 8.00pm)

The former Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit is one of the great beat stylists of experimental rock. Described as “a master of the pause and the stop”, he plays cutting, lean and propulsive rhythms from a small kit: alongside Neu!’s Klaus Dinger, he pioneered the mechanistic motorik beat which you’ll hear behind half a hundred nouveau-Krautrock bands. Hans Joachim Irmler () has had various multi-instrumental and production role in and around Faust over the years, but predominantly plays organ (a highly customisable transistor model which he built himself over forty years ago) and boxes-of-tricks (having created or co-created most of Faust’s unusual noise processors). Longstanding collaborators, Irmler and Liebezeit released the ‘FLUT’ album in 2014 featuring a “hypnotic maelstrom” of organ and drum improvisations. I’ve not reviewed it, but the ever-reliable ‘Quietus’ did – and it’s this vein of music which they’ll be performing.

More details here – although if you’re a fan, all of this will be old news and you’ll already have your tickets. If the Krautrock galaxy is still relatively new and obscure to you – and you’re within grabbing distance of Brighton – this sounds like the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in the cult. (If recent rumblings about Liebezeit’s retirement are true, it might also be one of your last opportunities to taste the original flavour). If you’re not in Brighton, note that there are also tour dates in London, Fife and Glasgow (beginning on Friday) as listed below:

    Sunday 14th June 2015 – Platform, The Bridge, 1000 Westerhouse Road, Glasgow, G34 9JW, UK – details here.
    Tuesday 16th June – Cafe OTO, 18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London E8 3DL, UK – details here.

Prolapse + Slum Of Legs @ The Hope & Ruin, 11-12 Queens Road, Brighton, BN1 3WA, UK, Tuesday 23rd June (doors 8.00pm)

Art-punks who emerged in the 1990s, Prolapse came up with a much more assured and individual take on the form than most, apparently by accident. The dual vocal frontline of Linda Steelyard and Mick Derrick (the former singing and the latter ranting,) often came across as disruptive theatre, a performance partnership which veered dramatically between combative duologues, utter disjunction or play-fights. Meanwhile the band behind them pegged brutally away on Krautrockian/Fall-esque rhythms, riffs and noises, like a Dada Hummvee worn down to its wheel-rims. The members have tended to claim that it all happened spontaneously and in general was a muckaround, but this was a band that was smart enough to work out when not to think – if you dug deep enough into them you found Master’s degrees, archaeologists, ceramicists and future journalists.

In 1999, after three albums and enough touring to wear them down, Prolapse very sensibly split up just before the point when it all became too frustrating. This year, having been enticed back from various locations and interesting jobs by Mogwai (who’ve invited them to play support at the latter’s 20th anniversary shows) they’ve opted to play a six-date UK tour, for which the other remaining dates are:

    Friday 19th June – The Maze, 257 Mansfield Road, City Centre, Nottingham, NG1 3FT, UK, 19th June (supported by Grey Hairs and Hot Shorts) – buy tickets here.

Playing support at the Brighton gig are Slum of Legs – an inspirational, instrument-swapping, all-female travelling brainstorm of a band. Although they have roots in Raincoats-style post-punk and Riot Grrl (and more than a few similarities to the spontaneous inventiveness of Prolapse) Slum Of Legs have a particular approach to lyric writing which is all their own – intricate, irreverent, literate and broad-ranging. So even if the musical style doesn’t altogether appeal to you, go for the sake of the words and see what else falls into place. (Again, I’m late to the table for this one, so I’ll refer you to this spray of enthusiasm from ‘Collapse Board’, which sets out a view of the Slum Of Legs stall in a way that’s far better, and probably far closer to their pulse, than I could right now.) More info on the gig is here.

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

21 May

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

The Duke Of Norfolk: 'A Revolutionary Waltz'

The Duke Of Norfolk: ‘A Revolutionary Waltz’

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

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

Cardiacs: 'Guns'

Cardiacs: ‘Guns’

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

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

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

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

Cardiacs: 'Day Is Gone'

Cardiacs: ‘Day Is Gone’

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

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

Cardiacs: 'Heaven Born And Ever Bright'

Cardiacs: ‘Heaven Born And Ever Bright’

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

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

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


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

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

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

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

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

Tim Bowness: 'Stupid Things That Mean The World'

Tim Bowness: ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Duke Of Norfolk online:
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Cardiacs online:
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Knifeworld online:
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Tim Bowness online:
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Levitation online:
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May 2014 – through the feed – a second Knifeworld album, and Cardiacs’ ‘Sing To God’ on vinyl

26 May

The second Knifeworld album, ‘The Unravelling’ is due out on 21st July on Inside Out Music. Featuring the full-on, brassed-up octet version of the band which made their debut on the Stabbing A Dead Horse tour and the ‘Don’t Land On Me‘ single, the album should bring Knifeworld’s intricate psychedelic pop splatter (with its rotating riffs, clambering harmonies and hyperactive ornamentation) to the bigger audience that it deserves. Three British live dates to support the album follow in September – more details here. (UPDATE, August 2014 – since writing this preview I’ve reviewed the album.)

Knifeworld: 'The Unravelling'

Knifeworld: ‘The Unravelling’

It sounds as if it’s been a tough journey to get the album in place. Knifeworld frontman and prime mover Kavus Torabi often comes across as an irrepressible freak puppydog, effervescent with a universal enthusiasm, but anyone who’s taken note of the title to Knifeworld’s debut ‘Buried Alone (Tales Of Crushing Defeat)’ and dipped deeper into the album (or read the ‘Misfit City’ review from a few years ago) will know that all of that fizz, Frith and apparent freakery mask thoughtfulness, vulnerability and a man who sometimes struggles to fit all of life’s fragments into place. ‘The Unravelling’ is inspired by a catalogue of what Kavus describes as “hopelessly grim, sad and heartbreaking events seemed to unfold all around me. Friends were diagnosed with incurable diseases, sectioned and imprisoned. Or worse. My once happy, enlightened, beautiful circle of radical, free-thinking freaks seemed to be collapsing and falling apart. I didn’t think the joy or craziness would come to an end. My previous experience of tragedy and bad luck seemed marginal in the light of what seemed to be occurring. Yet, somehow, in spite of it all everyone just gets through it.”

Kavus goes on to comment “I’d never channelled ‘real stuff’ so overtly into my music before. Although previously most of my lyrics had been autobiographical, I had always put in enough obfuscation and ambiguity to render them a little more abstract. I suppose I took a dim view of being so blatant, it felt a bit like crying in public.This time round the words seemed to write themselves and I felt loath to change them regardless of how uncomfortable they made me feel. I felt like it would be a disservice to what was happening and what I was trying to achieve. ‘The Unravelling’ has been, by a long way, the most difficult album I’ve yet made.”

If this makes the album sound as if it will be a dispiriting slog to listen to, don’t believe it. Take a look at the video for ‘Don’t Land On Me’, above; also note that Kavus promises an even greater commitment to the exhilarating, omnivorous rock music approach which he brought to the previous Knifeworld releases and to his earlier work (in the 1990s) with The Monsoon Bassoon. As he puts it: “When music can be about everything, can be whatever glorious, fucked up, kaleidoscopic, fantastical, bizarre shape you want, can sound like anything you’re able to think up and bully people into playing; when it can steal from everywhere and still sound unique, can be mysterious, unexplainable; when it can sound like the subconsciousness left to run wild, like the sky has cracked open and the very cogs of the Universe have been revealed… why would anyone choose to make it about so little?” Amen to that.

Key to the grim events that inspired ‘The Unravelling’ mournful undertow was the 2008 felling (by heart attack and stroke) of Kavus’ friend, inspiration and onetime employer Tim Smith, the leader of Cardiacs. Much of Kavus’s impassioned rant about music’s potential could cite Tim’s work as a model, and over the years plenty has been written about Tim and Cardiacs in various versions of ‘Misfit City. Plenty more will be written – for the moment check out the review of the ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies‘ tribute album, in which a dazzling variety of musicians from all over the place poke around inside Tim’s back catalogue, reinvent it and illuminate it (all to raise funds for Tim’s ongoing rehabilitation – he survived his ordeal, but it will be a long road back).

Cardiacs: 'Sing To God'

Cardiacs: ‘Sing To God’

Also, if you’re a vinyl buyer, you could consider picking up the upcoming heavy vinyl reissue of Cardiacs’ ‘Sing To God’ album, out on July 14th. Originally released in 1995, it’s often been hailed as Cardiacs’ finest work. That’s up for debate. What’s not up for debate is the album’s joyous variety, its tremendous dynamic sweep, and its tooth-rattling tunefulness. If you want the ‘Mojo’ metaphor, ‘Sing To God’ is Cardiacs’ ‘White Album’ – a double effort, bursting with ideas and playfulness, with little sign of any anxiety that the group might burst their bag or lose their identity in broadening out as far as they could go. Songs could reference unusual heartbreaks, the trenches of the Somme, the world-views of dogs and children, football sirens, even being shat on by a bird. Across the album the music crash-zoomed into and over Beatles, Tallis, scissors, Faust, thrash-metal, Zappa, egg-beaters, Mellotronics, Gong even a kind of punk-Mahler guitarchestra while still remaining true to Cardiacs’ urchin-squawk, love of crashing noise and heaving, fractured pop-sense. (By all accounts, it was also much more fun to make than ‘The White Album’ was.)

The press release gets it right:

“Whatever superlatives previously applied to Cardiacs music: psychedelic, epic, strange, otherworldly, terrifying, magnificent, spectral, progressive, weird; were expanded into technicolour, re-imagined in four dimensions and attached to the tail of a rocket with the release of this magnum opus. ‘Sing To God’ was the realisation of everything that had been inside Tim Smith’s head since birth. And what a realisation. ‘Sing To God’ was devastating. Nearly 20 years since this CD was originally released it is time to realise this beauty on double gatefold heavy vinyl. And so it has been done.”

Go find out for yourself – the vinyl reissue should be available from here before too much longer. (UPDATE, August 2014 – the reissue is now into a second pressing.) For tasters, consider the three ‘Sing To God’ tracks below.

(Actually, one of the earliest and best-known reviews in the original ‘Misfit City’ covered this album. I’ve been meaning to post it back up for a while, but it probably needs some rewriting first. I suspect that the entire Cardiacs back catalogue warrants piece-by piece reviewing. Right, that’s now on the to-do list…)

Knifeworld online:
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Cardiacs online:
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REVIEW – Knifeworld: ‘Don’t Land On Me’ single & Kramies: ‘The Wooden Heart’ single, both 2013 (“dancing at the end-of-the-world party”)

2 Oct

Knifeworld: 'Don't Land On Me'

Knifeworld: ‘Don’t Land On Me’

So what’s it to be, then? Stubborn elbows or secret soft centre? For Knifeworld, as ever, it’s both and neither. Kavus Torabi runs on this kind of contradiction. It’s what enables (or maybe forces) him to roll out singles like this – the kind which always seem to promise him the attention he deserves but never quite get him enough. Generally his songs teeter like dazed cats trying to scramble over the fence dividing open fields of sunny pop from that intricately entangled tesseract-space of what Kavus calls “funny music” (and which the rest of us drain our adjective-and-hyphen stores over, vainly trying to pin down a workable term).

‘Don’t Land On Me’ finally kicks down the fence. In its swirl and pounces, in its tiny bluffs and blind corners, in each acoustic guitar rope-trick and each Halloween feint of Emmett Elvin’s keyboards, it brings in the usual juicy psychedelic Knifeworld kinks. I suspect that Kavus can’t look at a nice fresh acid blotter without seeing a potential origami crocodile in there, waiting to be made. Yet this time, for every formidable bit of bassoon-pretzeling that Kavus offers up to the memory of his beloved Henry Cow there are two shots of pop. For every bit of elastic Shudder To Think limbo-dancing, there’s a flash of Marc Bolan coltishly tossing his curls and foot-stomping with Led Zeppelin.

Having unexpectedly ballooned into an octet (with a three-line battery of reeds and saxophones), Knifeworld are starting to sound bizarrely like a 1970s soul revue, albeit one that’s lurching out of line. ‘Don’t Land On Me’ has gilded harmony stabs and sugar-wraps of acoustic guitar; it has gratuitous campy explosions; it has stirring gospel-mama “yeahhh!”s from Chantal Brown (bringing a Loa or two from Vōdūn). Most surprisingly, it seems to have gobbled up that swashbuckling vamp from Live And Let Die, hiccupped it out again and gotten away with it – regularly, the band throw their hip intricacies to the wind and just romp up and down a ladder of soft-rock pizazz. Threaded through all of this sturdy bravado, though, is sadness and fear – a hollowing of the heart.

Half of the lyrics are Kavus’ usual ribbons of third-eye babble: tales of dying suns and mysterious cities of the mind, as much bragging as illumination. Yet all of a sudden he’ll turn out a belter: “In that treacherous slippery no-man’s land / between bolt-upright and dead-to-the-world in sleep, / I was dreaming that you were in my arms. / Dreams will only give promises they cannot keep.” Later on he’s hiding behind his own tune, chanting “falling down, unravelling”, and it’s up to his vocal foil Mel Woods to step up and deliver the drop – “Broken, unfound, there is only one thing I find – / we ran aground, and I wouldn’t make up my mind. / Hide it behind your hands, my eyes no longer see / Heavens above, stars explode, but don’t land on me.”

Kramies: 'The Wooden Heart'

Kramies: ‘The Wooden Heart’

As the band charge off into the vamp again, they sound as if they’re dancing at the end-of-the-world party in mirror-strewn top hats: I’m guessing that Kavus will be trying not to meet the gaze of any of his own reflections. Kramies Windt, meanwhile, will be standing several good paces away, waving goodbye to everything with full acceptance.

While Knifeworld fret about doom and ward it off with their showbiz, Kramies gets by on faith. Not for him Knifeworld’s tussle of John Barry and John Adams, nor their trick-cycling. With Todd Tobias keeping a gentle producer’s eye on things, ‘The Wooden Heart’ rolls along on that familiar drowsy acoustic-guitar trudge that’s served forty years of green-tinted psychedelia from Camel to Mercury Rev to Porcupine Tree. A spectral moonlit fungus of vaporous keyboards grow on and around everything: a high-altitude electric wash of sparks, smoothness and textural drag spreads out at telescope height, snowploughing the Milky Way. As for the song, it’s less involved and intricate than much of the material which Kramies has sung up for us since his 2008 emergence. A dream-pop caroller with a lucid organic twist to his songs, he once came across as a mellower Paddy McAloon with a hint of pixie. Now he’s closer to visionary Neil Young territory, the point where American folk-song blurs without a jolt into slumbering subconscious. He’s singing softly and with understanding beyond his sleepy burr, like a wise newborn already dusted from the road.

This is a love song, of a different kind. Kramies is pulling up memories: treasuring them, but also acknowledging how memory and memorabilia gently cheat and distort the truths which they’re set up to hold onto – “Forged from the photograph when the tides they rode you down; / smudged from the perfect lens, so I brought you back to ground.” Despite the dreamy, distant atmospheres Kramies isn’t dwelling on someone gone. He’s celebrating someone never lost, someone coming into clearer focus as present merges with memory: “We fell in love with wind, sun and movies, / no need to stay. / Countdowns and journeys, conversations, fell through our day.”

In the middle, the song holds its breath for half a moment, then rises into a blissful dream-pop threshing; a massed quilt of hammering Slowdive-ian guitars joyfully plunging down onto each beat. “Spill out the haven, throw my maths chart away, ‘cos you’re the one,” Kramies sings, in an exultant sigh. “Throw my maps, a castaway.” It’s rare to find dream-pop that resolves with such assured optimism, in which you can sense experience shifting into its proper place. While Kavus and Knifeworld constantly quest for resolution – and spin some dazzling pirouettes along the way – Kramies seems to have mastered the talent of simply breathing it into shape.

Knifeworld: ‘Don’t Land On Me’
Believer’s Roast (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 9th September 2013

Kramies: ‘The Wooden Heart’ single
Hidden Shoals Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 5th September 2013

Get them from:
Knifeworld: ‘Don’t Land On Me’ – Bandcamp
Kramies: ‘The Wooden Heart’ – Hidden Shoals online store

Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

Kramies online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

REVIEW – Kiran Leonard: ‘Dear Lincoln’ single, 2013 (“a joyride through the Day of the Dead”)

18 May

Kiran Leonard: 'Dear Lincoln'

Kiran Leonard: ‘Dear Lincoln’

Now here’s something.

Kiran Leonard’s already an established teenage wunderkind – a bedroom-industry frenzy act who’s rapidly gummed together a string of homemade albums and slung them out, via Soundcloud and Bandcamp, to a surprised and unsuspecting world. When he’s not doing that, he’s charging round his family’s Oldham house waving a caiman head, or shooting his own scratch videos on a budget of tuppence. He plays most of the instruments he needs, wrestling tunes out of pianos, drums and guitars; ukuleles, laptops, screwdrivers and radiators. While his music’s just about ramshackle -raw enough to avoid trouble with the indie-rock police, his ambitions and application have leaned closer to prog and to a grandiose psychedelia. In 2012, for instance, he cooked up a rambling, apocalyptic single about the Mayan doomsday prophecy. It topped out at around 24 minutes long and tied together the wilder bits of ‘Cloud Atlas’ and the paranoid, grinding Pink Floyd of 1977.

It’ll still be three years before Kiran turns twenty. I could wonder what he’s going to do when he grows up, but I almost hope that he doesn’t.

Dear Lincoln is something different for Kiran – much lighter and more immediate. Traveling backwards as he goes forwards, Kiran seems to have suddenly discovered pop in all of its concise hooks, blind momentum and smart throwaway logic. Actually, he’s rediscovered it – Dear Lincoln was written some time ago, while he was a ripe 14 – but now seems to be the perfect time to unveil it. Its a bust-out. It sounds like a joyride through the Day of the Dead. Kiran, hammering away at a tack piano and squawking like a glammed-up crow, drives the gauges into the red and embraces Bolan swagger, a swaying Robyn Hitchcock playfulness, some of the wild euphoria of Guillemots and even a needling tinge of Kevin Coyne. Earlier in 2013, there was the ‘Oakland Highball’ EP, which showed that he was getting interested in snappier, noisier forms. Dear Lincoln nails it. If we could work out what he was singing, it’d even be singalong.

What’s it about? God knows. The words are a babbling wodge of mondegreens-in-waiting about suit-crevices and moonlight, thrown out at us as Kiran carries out his lyrical handbrake turns. “Murderous plain,” he protests, in passing, but it certainly isn’t. Not unless he’s talking about death again. The song could be about gunned-down Presidents, it could just be about missing the family cat, but one thing Dear Lincoln does do is blur the lines between the living and the dead – a rollicking Halloween dance, or a resurrection day stomp. Even that long-croaked, ranting old herald of the Übermensch, Friedrich Nietzche, has a ghostly cameo; prowling the English parishes as a witness before succumbing to anxiety, melting away and vanishing. In the chopped froth of the lyrics, Kiran playfully juggles around ideas of resurrection, rousing, and where he’ll be standing when it all comes to pass; but constantly swats away any navel-gazing with onomatopoeic streams of Little Richard-isms. “Praying for the bodies to assemble and wake… / Come back today, bou-la-ray / oh, ta-hoo-lay.”

Don’t get the idea that this is all a casual throw-together. Anyone keeping half an eye on how Kiran thinks will know that he’s meticulous; that he worries like crazy about getting things right. But Dear Lincoln’s explosive delivery – its immediacy, its ability to swing round the story without stopping to count the words – suggest that he’s finally able to harness his particular genius and to let it live in the moment. This is by no means the first we’ve seen of Kiran Leonard, but it feels like the start of him.

Kiran Leonard: ‘Dear Lincoln’
Hand of Glory Records (catalogue number & barcode t.b.c.)
Vinyl/streamed single
Released: 16th May 2013 (streamed), 2nd September 2013 (vinyl)

Get it from:
Hand of Glory store (vinyl), or Soundcloud (stream)

Kiran Leonard online:
Homepage Facebook Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

REVIEW – Liam Singer: ‘Stranger I Know’ single, 2013 (“sings in a tone of wonder – and of determination”)

26 Mar
Liam Singer: 'Stranger I Know'

Liam Singer: ‘Stranger I Know’

What a wonderful mind for composition Liam Singer has. Four albums into his career, he’s coming up with ever-more-detailed songs which only fit the pop label due to their presentation and singability. In all other respects, he’s a classical songwriter, building a song from cellar to roof, all parts in parallel: a detailed patterner with each idea serving the larger one.

A very small number of songwriters take the trouble to think like this. Brian Wilson and Prince, obviously. Jeff Lynne, Sufjan Stephens and Stephen Merritt, perhaps. Tim Smith, definitely – the interplay of vocal parts on Stranger I Know particularly recalls Smith’s pastoral work with Sea Nymphs or the more delicate moments on Cardiacs records as worked out with William D. Drake (another comparison that can be thrown into the circle). At work in his current hideaway in Queens, Liam Singer belongs to this world of the total song-composers: the ones for whom genre barriers are predominantly bubbles of resistance, and for whom form and content are inseparable.

Stranger I Know sounds like many things. Its links to American minimalism are clear in its collection of elegant cycles (from oompah bass to arching cello; shakers and flute; a mathematical glockenspiel climb) as they move against each other, interplaying in uplifting counter-rhythms. Beyond that, Liam’s omnivorous musical diet is made clear in the breadth of arrangement and intonation, stretching from romantic piano to staccato gamelan pot-clunk. Each instrument comes sheathed in its own immediate mood and pace, hanging onto its place in the dance by a skilful fingertip: just enough to snag a little tension and independence; just enough to flirt.

Shadowed and overflown (as ever) by the spectral caroling of soprano voices, Liam sings in a tone of wonder – and of determination. It’s all a little archaic: a spiritual love ballad with swaying time, an elusive subject and a courtly seriousness which ultimately fails to mask its fervour. “Stranger I know / thy face / from a dream. / All night I’ve yearned to hear that song. / – Once, it sang me.” There are hints of transformation and liberation here – “What was / before me / is now / behind me. / Strings fall / off of / a body,” – but devotion and freedom end up so closely wound together that there’s nothing between them. Liam finally stands set loose on the verge of… something. It’s unclear, it’s unsure, it could even be an end; but it’s welcomed, and while Liam’s left some things behind, he’s not alone. “Saw God’s / features – they / can keep ’em all. / There is no / voice to follow / now. / And as the / noise / takes over, you / just hold your / breath, I’ll hold / mine too.”

Stranger I Know is also a little exercise in time-travel, working a gentle auger down through several generations of American tune and peeping through the hole. Liam’s previous songs have been beautifully arranged, evoking a classical ambience. This one – balancing a subtle, minimal complexity with fleeting kisses at its reference points – ups the game. In its shifting and its overlaying, you can hear migration at work. A little dose of romantic Europe dapples a line of American mountains: the breathless chorus (its rhythm offset from the dreamy verse) steps in like an old-country village dance setting up against the pistons and presses of a little factory in the hills. Behind the tinkling delicacy, that bass drum which comes in for the bridge hint at a barn-dance stomp: Shaker Loops to hometown hoedown.

All of this activity is encapsulated within less than three minutes. In, out, open. A little wonder.

Liam Singer: ‘Stranger I Know’
Hidden Shoal Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 6th March 2013

Get it from:
Free download from Hidden Shoal Recordings or Bandcamp

Liam Singer online:
Homepage MySpace Bandcamp

November 2012 – mini-album reviews – Sterbus’ ‘Smash the Sun Alight’ (“like a prog-dusted bumblebee”)

20 Nov
Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’

Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’

After six years of making off-kilter indie rock, Sterbus seems ready to make the jump from cult to cute. His previous albums and EPs have shuffled between serious tunes, determined explorations and playful jokes. ‘Smash The Sun Alight’ concentrates firmly on his most accessible side – fuzzy, funny-angled guitar pop launched into a chunky meander through the air, like a prog-dusted bumblebee.

If these seven songs and instrumentals had a colour, it would be orange-gold – blurry and amiable. Sterbus injects sunshine and smog from his native Rome straight into the heart of his rampant, time-travelling pop. One of his feet might be jammed happily into a big bucket of prog and psychedelia; the other’s rooted deeply in power pop and eclectic 1990s indie, with driving earworm-bursts of chorus. In his twists of tunefulness and humour and his love of scruffy noise, you can see traces of Blur, Small Faces and XTC (or, looking further west, Weezer, Steve Malkmus and Guided By Voices). Sterbus also has an ear for those drowsy, medicated-modal melodies that served Nirvana so well; and the dogged musical extravagance of Cardiacs infests his work like a glittering spiral, turning every tune into a hopeful steeplechase of extra chords and whole-tone hops.

It’s hardly straightforward; yet somehow Sterbus doesn’t overdo it and lose you along the way. It’s rare to hear so much bounding complexity tied up so neatly into buzzing firecrackers of song. The saturated bounce of Gay Cruise is typical of what’s on offer, kitting out a tuneful, sludgy Dinosaur Jr. fuzz-growl with some dissonant King Crimson pitches before hammering in a break of piled-up chords to grab us by the ear and take us mountaineering. The eccentric Welsh popster Curig Pongle is along for the ride, playing organ like a swerving Mini: the song also sideswipes a random Andy Partridge sample in which the great man is gurning on about Arthur Askey.

As for Sterbus’ lyrics, they’re a vegetable stew of soft little fragments. The occasional clear phrase bubbles up out of the gentle mumble and hum – uneasy (“troubles in the pool / making me cold”), tender (“My dear baby, what can I do? / You make me feel like I’ve been over-ruled,”) or whimsical (“Unboyfriendable girlies show no love”). Occasionally a skewed aphoristic image surfaces, like something cast up by a young Peter Blegvad (“Birds and second wives, / trying to be polite.”). Much of the time, though, the stew remains a stew, the language dissolved into flavours rather than shapes.

In some songs, such as the ukele-driven A Sigh of Relief, it’s not so much English as an impression of English; just as Sterbus’ breezy mouth-trombone solo and music-hall-McCartney bassline is a sepia impression of holidays in fading seaside resorts. Maybe he knows that songs of life, love and feeling can work just as well as gauzy murmurs. Perhaps it’s just a chewing-over of words to blend into an earnest, reassuring blur – a swirl of cream to smooth the mongrel clamberings of the music.

Oh well, perhaps innocence can be complicated too. That’s why those Irish fiddle parts are there to usher in Otorinolaringoiatria, unless they’re there to soothe us after the tongue-twister (and to stop us wondering why the only distinct word in the song is “sauerkraut”). That’s why You Can’t Be Sirius is tied up like a Sunday roast – its laddering chords held together by tight power-pop drumming, lashing those goosed leaps of organ into position, securing those shivering tremolo-blocks and speaker-fizzes of guitar.

That’s also why Wooden Spheres + Heartquakes plays its pass-the-parcel game. A pelting punk-pop three-chord wonder abruptly switches to Curtis Mayfield funk with sunny popcore punk choruses; then, after changing gear for the tiniest of organ solos, ends up jammed and droning like a stuck tide of Scandinavian prog. Similar in its out-and-out playfulness is The Amazing Frozen Yogurt: setting power chords against breezy mellowness, it sounds like a summery merge of Caravan and The Wildhearts. Lonnie Shetter’s sheets-of-sound sax scribble is flown in for a jolt, offsetting that mid-song switch into Zappa kitsch complete with vibraphone. Sterbus flutters around both parody and self-parody here, but his freshness steers him clear.

The near-seven minutes of Flatworms (Eggs Of Joy) tie together not just Sterbus’ musical agility and bevy of influences, but also his sense of connection. Away from the sung sections, it owes something to the severe angles of King Crimson’s Red; yet it’s also the most Cardiacs-styled piece on offer: a self-confessed attempt to write a sequel to that band’s Dirty Boy (which Sterbus has already covered) and its massive parade of chords. Sterbus’ drowsy vocals soften the cavalcade; the brief flashes of conga draw a little nourishing groove into it. While the lyrics are as obscure as anything else in this clutch of songs, they get the message of impermanence and humbling across. “Running away – far from heaven, / diggin’ the grave, the sun. / Crying away – all your glory; / useless and vain, in time.” It might be an oblique gesture of fellow feeling towards Tim Smith, Cardiacs stricken leader. Certainly, the song’s payoff line casts aside any artifice in favour of the purest sympathy ( “I see you, / I feel you. /You heal me. / Uncomplicated ways.”) and brings the inclusive generosity at the heart of Sterbus’ music to a natural home.

Nothing to be afraid of. Sun’s out. Come and warm yourself.

Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’
Sterbus (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only mini-album
Released: 16th November 2012

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

Sterbus online:
Facebook MySpace Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

REVIEW – Elephant: ‘Golden’ single, 2012 (“playing in the sunshine”)

8 Sep
Elephant: 'Golden'

Elephant: ‘Golden’

Hmm. It’s only taken Elephant a year and a half to journey from being walkers in the gloaming (singing out their queasy, dissolved surrealism) to playing in the sunshine. There were some clues on their previous EP, ‘Assembly‘, which embraced mainstream pop while twirling mournfully like a mascara-ed panda; yet this is a firm step outwards from the obsessive feel of their early singles. Or is it?

Whether it’s Amelia Rivas’ French ancestry coming through, or just a shared and surfacing taste for classy Europop, Golden sees Elephant strip away their cavernous post-punk layers of dream-pop guitars and blood-throb synths in favour of gently bobbing acoustic strums, shimmering organ string pads, a touch of swing and bell-like keyboard smears. Actually, come to think of it, they’ve been here before on Actors, the surprising B-side to their second single Allured. This is altogether more sedate, though – a leisurely boat trip as compared to Actors’ chic bike ride, or perhaps a gentle merry-go-round bump’n’whirl. Compared to the hallucinatory greyness of their earlier work, it’s full-colour. French-tinged pop, for certain: an antique kind, filtered through Goffin and King and through Elephant’s subtle and invisible technical skills.

The link to what’s come before remains Amelia’s voice (still mournful and carrying a dry-eyed narcotic timbre, whatever she’s singing about) and her baffling way with a lyric, in which she dabs loosely associated words and phrases into a line like painted highlights and hopes that you’ll focus on her own scattered picture. With this kind of tune – this lightness, this air of sated contentment – I’m assuming that Golden is a love song. It certainly starts as intimate (“speaking in codes to you / in a drowned-out room. / Chandelier shelters us – / only space for two,”) but a chorus that gives equal weight to the words “escapade” and “hate” suggests something a little more complex.

Certainly by the second verse – “gazing from this altitude, / trapeze transforms to new. / The old was there all along. / Telescope straight to you,” – we’re in lyrical warpspace. Though Elephant have never sounded so cosy, so lovewrapped on the outside, the usual hallucinations are bleeding up from the inside. By the third verse, the summertime and the sunlight are taking on a shadow-etched ‘Twin Peaks’ hue – “The trees they whisper too, / as I glare from a bird’s eye view. / The grass entwines my feet and hands – / they hold me like you do.”

If you look at something too closely, cracks appear, and that’s true both when looking at songs and looking at love. Love and rage: the cuddle that ebbs away into a stifle… I’m backing off. Today I was promised sunshine, and a dank draught from the basement wasn’t part of the plan.

Perhaps if I don’t look too hard, I’ll be able to glide along on the surface, hold hands and enjoy the golden light. Perhaps it will all be OK. Will it?

Elephant: ‘Golden’
Elephant (self-released)
Download-only single
Released: 6th June 2012

Buy it from:
Soundcloud

Elephant online:
Facebook Twitter MySpace Tumblr Bandcamp

June 2012 – EP reviews – Knifeworld: ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’ (“spinning something solid out of flim-flam”)

17 Jun

Knifeworld: 'Clairvoyant Fortnight'

Knifeworld: ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’

Another summer with Knifeworld: another EP with everything on it. If Kavus Torabi was a builder, rather than being head Knifeworlder, he wouldn’t simply build houses. He’d build deliciously awkward crenellated wonders, with Escher staircases and extra rooms poking out into the street two floors up.

As it is, Knifeworld songs never sound as if they started with an earnest bloke strumming away on a stool. Instead, they tend to sound like a gang of scruffy tattooed pixies, busily hauling down a fairy castle and squabbling over the work-shanties. The final outcome tends to be 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. You could never accuse Knifeworld of being parsimonious with their music. That said, the amount of musicality which the band can squeeze into their songs is only one of the factors at work.

It’s almost a shame to digress from the sheer fun at play here, from the helter-skelter confection of Knifeworld’s riffs and melodies and the visual humour they’re now bringing to their video work. But it’s important to realize that across its three songs the ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’ EP actually deals with some pretty serious matters – faith, grounding, mistakes and the business of building a life. All of this might be filtered through eccentric and kaleidoscopic wordplay; but whether expressed via the galactic prog visions of The Prime Of Our Decline, the magic’n’showbiz gabble of the title track or the dancing grumbles of In A Foreign Way, these songs are about spinning something solid out of flim-flam, and gaining the right perspectives.

Under its festoons of decoration and past the hither-and-yon dash of its scurrying melody, Clairvoyant Fortnight itself shows that Knifeworld can compress their strategic wildness into something approaching a catchy single – albeit on their own unusual terms. Half of the time the song sounds like an amalgam of various tasty and tuneful things that shouldn’t fit together but do – XTC, Motown, The Flaming Lips, a dash of 1950s finger-clicking and a brief twist of rapping. The rest of the time, it sounds like an Edwardian fairground carousel trying to slam-dance. Meanwhile, the lyrics are peppered with all manner of mystical, supernatural and hippy tropes. “Well, I’m in a relapse – everyone looks like I did when I was sixteen, yeah?” snipes Kavus, name-checking third eyes, second sight and Ouija boards alongside prophets and scripture.

Grousing and arguing as he sings, Kavus is torn between scepticism and credulity throughout. While he’s clearly implying that there’s little difference between cheap, narrow parlour magic and other forms of belief, he also recognizes the gravitational pull of the supernatural and the way that so many people use it to blot out or cure boredom, uncertainty and terror. In fact, he’s wrangled all of this into an oblique love song, embracing challenge, partnership and natural change as a better way out. “I never felt like giving up before,” he admits, towards the end. “You wrecked my life, but you gave me more… I dig your voodoo and I dig your vibe – I really think that we could make it.” He seems to be suggesting that as much as you choose your own poison, perhaps you choose your own magic too.

There’s plenty to be said about The Prime Of Our Decline. Most simply, it’s unabashed nu-prog done right, from its flamenco beginnings and sea-shanty lilt to the Zappa-meets-Yes riffage, the jumping glockenspiels and the dancing Gong-honkery when it gets up to speed. I could wax lyrical about the slippery percussion allsorts and the stellar rattle of Khyam Allami’s Brufordian snare drum; or about the cheeky burst near the end when the band briefly channels multiple ’70s prog bands in rapid slice-and-dice succession. Throughout its seven-and-a-half minutes, the song also keeps its streamlined shape – as slick as any pop hit you’d care to mention, its tricks with meter and texture cunningly sheathed within a hurtling, bell-swiping, sing-along whole.

Yet this too is a song about footholds; about grasping (and grasping at) your place in the universe. Knifeworld have a knack of dissecting difficult feelings via swirling psychedelic sleight-of-hand – this time, astronomical. Even as Mel and Kavus yammer about black holes and passing stars, their sunny-sounding chants are shot through with evocations of hubris (“we could foresee the day / when nature would bend to our will”), lonely voids, being cast adrift and self-disgust (“orbits and revolutions of the heart / have changed me into something I hate.”) They might be playing at being starchildren, but they’re still weighed down by dark matter.

Somewhere between these two songs there’s In A Foreign Way, a stately chamber-pop jig wobbling under sideswipes at its metre and batterings at the foundations. As the band hack and bounce, the melody doggedly maintains its rhythm, like an Irish matron under attack from a gang of larky Newton’s cradles. Appropriate: underneath the avant-rock fun (including the brief injection of a slice of Henry Cow) this is a song about the frayings and fixes of middle-age.

Kavus frets and kvetches as things unravel around him, old bungles come back to plague him and the familiar becomes blurred. As he does his best to perform running repairs, a chant circles his head – “Where you up to, where you up to, where you up to?” to which the resigned reply is “halfway…” It’d be grim if it weren’t for the zing of the music – stippled with tuned marching-band percussion and the clatter of brains happily at work. That’s Knifeworld for you, though – few bands make it so evident that the sheer joy of music can always salvage something from the darkness.

Knifeworld: ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’
Believer’s Roast, BR008
CD/download EP
Released: 11th June 2012

Buy it from:
(updated, May 2015) Original EP now deleted: all tracks are now available on the compilation album ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’.

Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

REVIEW – Elephant: ‘Allured/Actors’ single, 2011 (“a slow jam that’s strayed”)

6 Jun
Elephant: 'Allured/Actors'

Elephant: ‘Allured/Actors’

“Oh, hello, / I’m a never-ever-let-it-show – / But I know that you know. / Maybe I should let it, let it show…”

On past evidence Elephant have a knack for drawing us in while admitting to little. Their debut single mingled dream-pop with reggae and industrial chill, and cold electronics with fairy-tale flashes. They ride on a solid understanding of black pop, yet constantly swerve away from it into Euro-cool whiteness. They readily confuse, and they excel in oblique feelings – perhaps they can’t help it. Amelia’s blank singing, their aloof and obscure post-punk textures, their taste for quick-cut lyrics and surreal, visual word-imagery… while their work so far is memorable, all of it’s a conundrum. Yet for a moment, on this second single, everything is clearer.

With only the subtlest indie-pop bleachings and dream-pop shadings, Allured is an R’n’B piano ballad: plain and simple. There’s the deep, minimal support of bass. There’s the gaps, space and swat of a heavy-lidded slow sex-beat; the sparse flick of tambourine like a shimmying skirt-fringe. Essentially it’s a slow jam that’s strayed out of the dance club in its heels and skintights, taken a wrong turning past the taxi rank, and been painlessly swallowed by Elephant’s dreamy way of doing things. In the video we watch as voyeurs as Amelia and Christian languidly nuzzle and smooch each other – lengthily, and uninterruptedly. Either they’re answering that “are-they-aren’t-they?” question that’s hung around Elephant since the beginning, or they’re very committed to the world of this particular song.

Whether Elephant have simply been infected by R’n’B’s outright and intoxicated sexuality, or whether they’ve swallowed it deliberately, is open to question. I suspect the latter. Few areas of twenty-first century pop haven’t rolled over and submitted to R’n’B’s sweaty vigour and its gobby, blinged-up sex’n’suss’n’opportunity confidence. While some diehard indie-poppers might still scream and scrub it off; or cling to older schools of soul, Elephant see a good thing and slurp it up, embracing and engulfing it in their turn. So here they are, reaching out greedily into the wide-open mainstream while happily sunk in obsession, drunk with sensuality.

Only the lyrics retain that peculiar Elephantine distortion. Amelia rolls the words around on her tongue, dabbing them with glottal stops and her own strange short-circuiting shifts of accent or syntax, whether wriggling into a tangled lick of coyness, circling orgasm (“our own anatomy, so I find the path – my brain / it carousels instantly, drives me to insane,”) or swimming in a stupor of surrendered identity (“I dreamt he’d written me… He took me away, crossed me away from the crowd…”) By rights, this clotted wordplay should cripple the song. Instead it lolls sexily across the beat, as if on the brink of falling out of bed.

Then the B-side – Actors – throws us right off the scent. Same old Elephant; entirely different set of clothes. Rather than the wallow of bass and beats, here are acoustic guitars on the strum, a skinny ice-rink organ, and a dose of fast-paced pop soufflé which chuffs around its drum track like a toy steam train. It’s a tune for people in mini-dresses to run around Paris to, or chase summer bicycles through Spanish Harlem. Once again, Amelia’s dazed delivery and tangled string of lyrics ensure that it keeps the Elephant stamp.

It’s anyone’s guess as to what she’s singing about this time – “hop around aimlessly, simply surrender to time. /Animations out past under the feet, imitating a shadow spine.” Somehow the words fall into place as she sings of paying the rent “with a monogram eye” or murmurs about “the highest apple in the tree.” Perhaps, like many of the best and sexiest club hook-ups, it’s just a happy accident.

Elephant: ‘Allured/Actors’
Memphis Industries, MI0193S/D
vinyl 7″/download single
released: 18th July 2011

Buy it from:
Memphis Industries.

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REVIEW – Elephant: ‘Ants’ single, 2011 (“somewhere between love-gone-wrong and epilepsy”)

30 May
Elephant: 'Ants/Wolf Cry'

Elephant: ‘Ants/Wolf Cry’

Band named after large thing actually sounds small. Single named after tiny things suggests that small-sounding band (named after large thing) could go massive. Sometimes I love pop’s ridiculous anti-logic.

Elephant are two. Christian Pinchbeck coaxes noises out of computers and wrangles chittering textures from guitars. Amelia Rivas plays old sounds on modern keyboards while swimming and sighing distractedly through the middle, avoiding eye contact. It’s synth-pop, allegedly, but it’s also nothing quite so obvious. Amelia and Christian may or may not be a couple, but that’s not clear either. With Elephant, not much is.

Ants is Elephant’s debut single, and it spends its three minutes cunningly, surprisingly persuading various things that shouldn’t work together to cosy up and make something which does work. A gentle reggae bounce, a dribble of whiter-than-anything psychedelic guitar direct from Cocteau Twins; a roughed-up reedy synth figure like a bass accordion with hiccups. As for what the song might be about, it’s somewhere between love-gone-wrong and epilepsy; like David Lynch reimagined as lovers rock. “I’m tired and I’m bruised for you,” Amelia murmurs, moping elegantly across the backbeat. “The war that I fought made my body contort… I’m down in the black, and I’m blue.”

When we talk of indie-pop being sickly, we usually mean that it lacks power. Here, sickliness is power. Unease and disease blend together, reality is erased by symptoms, and experience is somehow amplified by the giddiness and blank alarm. Throughout, there are references to buckling knees; to floating and amnesia and jump-offs; to falling to the ground or into song. Even the chorus avoids clarity in favour of hallucinatory warp (“Ants now scurry on the floor, / I just can’t remember before,”) with all perspective thrown right out-of-whack. Yet Elephant snatch a victory from these flashes of confusion and disaster, sheathing them into a subtle, catchy, play-it-again heartbeat of song; a cool, black-and-white flicker of distress call.

While Ants cloaks strangeness under bits of spooky washed-out reggae ballad, its flipside Wolf Cry goes for out-and-out surrealism in a stream of Bunuel electro-punk. Amelia sings of seasons, seafarers and parted lovers. Deeper into the song, she jinks these acid-folk fairytales into blurred dreams of power struggles, throwing out images of hunky aristocrats or “militants on the roof.” Everything hangs together – precariously – over Christian’s alienated instrumental bonework: a flat backdrop of flat echoing skitters, deep red bassquakes, ghostly chords and spray-can snare hits. As the song riffles balefully through its repertoire of cinematic flashes, impressions build and cut (“the ticking of a clock, jumps to interior,”) or flirt, archly, around games of obscurity (“we all wear a mask to a fellow passer-by.”)

Ultimately, Wolf Cry comes apart in the fingers if you squeeze too hard (the strange syntax, the dodging of plot, their mingling of seduction and avoidance) in much the same way that the story of Ants comes to us half-melted. Elephant have a knack for this kind of anti-logical play, squeezing into the gaps in the story. Besides, they’ve already demonstrated that they’re masters at magicking something coherent out of disorientated fragments – not least via a fine mournful tune or two. Evasive or not, they’re very much in the room. I suspect that I’m going to go on talking about them.

Elephant: ‘Ants’
Memphis Industries, MI0172S
vinyl 7″/download single
released: 17th January 2011

Get it from:
Memphis Industries.

Elephant online:
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November 2011 – EP reviews – Elephant’s ‘Assembly’ (“how the war is contained”)

20 Nov

Elephant: 'Assembly'

Elephant: ‘Assembly’

Though Elephant’s Amelia and Christian actually hail from semi-rural English idylls (Pontefract and Stroud), their band is a London band and behaves like one. Rather, it presents itself in the way many pop bands made in London by incomers tend to. There’s something a little guarded about Elephant’s music – detailed and consuming notes from the inner life versus a chilly, self-constructed poise. It’s difficult to see which side is winning. It’s interesting seeing how the war is contained.

Two previous singles, ‘Ants’ and ‘Allured’, have dabbled in pop-reggae and R’n’B respectively, merging these with Amelia’s dazed and distorted lyricism and Christian’s avant-garde dream-pop trickery. With ‘Assembly’, Elephant now seem to be moving into more mainstream territories – more Anglo or European, certainly a little whiter. Think of a tranquillized Yazoo strained through 1960s West Coast pop; and then through the submarine guitar rills of Cocteau Twins, Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine. Think of a poppier yet more introspective Broadcast.

Think, also, of slow-paced black and white movies in which no-one seems to do much. While most synth-pop blazes outwards, Elephant’s blanched-out songs (offhanded in manner but carefully constructed) are always on the verge of collapsing inwards. Smooth swatches of organ, pulses of vintage keyboard and a solid sense of classic pop songwriting provide their work with an anchorage. But even when the synth trills and frills are at their liveliest, Elephant are increasingly trading in infinite shades of grey – monochrome filigree, slanted shadows, deadened responses. Amelia’s hopeless, surrendered sigh should be the band’s weak point, flattening Elephant’s pop soar into a graceful, endless nose-dive. In practise, those last drops of romance which cling to her resignation render the songs that much more intriguing.

Within the songs, the band’s brains are ticking away even when they sound as if they’re dazed by cough-mixture hangovers. Under its icy shrouding, Assembly pop-bops and puppy-bounces like The Teardrop Explodes; but still takes its medication straight to a frozen heart, anatomizing and dissecting the impact of closeness gone wrong. “It’s like a disease,” complains Amelia. “Think too hard, the brain goes cold.” While she’s dishing out a few sharp survival tips amongst the scalloped echoes and fairy-dust twinkles – “don’t dwell on who won’t dwell over you” – most of the song is convalescence and consolidation. “I have a mind,” she muses, pulling herself in. “The rest is numb, just a skeleton.”

The deeper into the EP you go, the further Elephant conceal outright emotion under festoons of Cocteau Twins guitar, blood-pulse synth and studied blankness. This is happening even as the lines they deliver lean more and more towards the romantic. Even the desert island setting of Shipwrecked doesn’t cut the chill. Amelia wanders through blurs of physicality (“shuffle, ricochet on the ground”), then fails to connect (“don’t try to confuse me again, / you speak so slow, sand falls on my head”) and finally all but gives up (“What’s the point of time? It dissolves in the sea. / If you sail with the tide, will you shipwreck back to me?”) While Christian’s sounds trail and spiral onwards, Amelia chases a half-stunned chorus – “that’s where my heart, the rest of my heart is” – as if grasping after a pair of slow-moving balloons.

The imperious blast of keyboards at the start of Hopeless herald an out-and-out dizzy love song. It’s part classic ’60s girl-group, part hi-NRG synth-pop. In its way – in Elephant’s particular way – it’s even quite triumphant. Elephant’s way, though, usually involves some kind of collapse. Amelia spins through the middle of the song, twirling like a stray leaf, sounding happy to be blown around by feeling. “Hopeless I know, I sway to and fro – / I can’t hide from you.”

But by the end of the EP, Elephant are hiding out. At Twilight is a step back to their earlier, artier work: from its swallowed-up chorused vocals and witch-queen intro, to its deathly pace and dreamy lyrics about a “circus moon”, it’s also deep trip-hop collapsing into Gothwave. A bass pulse lags and limps outside of the funereal beat: Amelia stares at her hands and murmurs “I need to leave, but I don’t know how,” as a foam of feedback gradually fills up the space. Inner life boiling over? Perhaps. Elephant play a teasing game with their songwriting tensions. It makes us keep listening.

Elephant: ‘Assembly’
Memphis Industries, MI0200CD/D
CD/download EP
released: 14th November 2011

Buy it from:
Memphis Industries.

Elephant online:
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November 2011 – live reviews – RoastFest music festival @ The Unicorn, Camden Road, London, 12th November (featuring Arch Garrison, Matt Stevens, Stars in Battledress, Redbus Noface, Thumpermonkey, William D. Drake, Knifeworld, Sanguine Hum, Admirals Hard) (“trailing bright scraps of music”)

18 Nov

It’s a bit like coming home. My first venture out into gigworld for a while, and I’m walking into a rough-looking rock pub out on the elbow of Tufnell Park. Not so many years ago, the Unicorn was a genuine trouble dive in the industrial frownage north of Kings Cross – just a spit away from the troubled estates around Caledonian Park. Reinventing itself as a part-time heavy metal venue a few years ago turned out to be its salvation. Now it’s been turned around to become a friendly local. The only blood’n’guts making an appearance is on the death-metal flyers by the door.

Today The Unicorn is packed out with a warm crowd of allsorts-people whom you could never easily pin down as a clear scene. Arcane T-shirts stretch around comfy bodies; hairstyles range from metallic red to casually balding, The people here are as likely to be agricultural workers or car-hire operators as hipsters or metalheads, and they’re almost as likely to have flown in from Italy or Poland as have driven or walked in from Worcester or Camden Town. In between acts, the PA spits out recordings as diverse and potentially divisive as John Adams, The Melvins, King Crimson or early ’90s agit-samplers Disco Inferno. Nobody seems in the least bit disorientated, nor do they pester the DJ for Kasabian. In any stylistic sense, confusion reigns. In an emotional sense there’s the warm, scruffy feeling of a tribe who coalesce only occasionally, but always feel very much at home when they do so.

I’ve been here before. This is the Cardiacs flavour. Although Cardiacs as a band are now several years gone-to-ground, as a culture their rampaging jigsaw of unorthodox sensibilities and connections survives – even thrives – through a network of enthusiasts and musical heirs. Uber-fan and hitchhiking hero Adrian Bell is bouncing around the Unicorn swapping stories, spilling his beer and enthusiastically flogging his Cardiacs book. Snooker star-turned-prog champion Steve Davis is here, proving once again that his enthusiasm stretches much further than simply supporting ’70s legends over at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. That silver-tongued James-Bond figure also doing the rounds (plugging a dedicated Cardiacs disco at “battle volume” for next January) turns out to be Dominic Luckman: he’s evidently taken plenty of lessons in suave since his gurning, flour-covered years behind the Cardiacs drumkit. Other former Cardiacs will be performing in various permutations throughout the day: although to be honest this is less to do with tributes or fan-service than it is to do with the tendency of certain musicalities to continue beyond the brand name.

The whole kit and caboodle of Roast Fest itself has been put together by Kavus Torabi. Recently a Cardiac (and before that, in The Monsoon Bassoon) he’s currently heading up both his own band – Knifeworld – and the Believers Roast label that’s hosting the event. This also means that he’s today’s overburdened one-man juggling act. When I first catch sight of him, he’s boggle-eyed with worry, stapling a merchandise board together and hoping that everything will stay together. A self-styled (or self-slandered) psychedelic flake, Kavus seems to half-expect chaos round the corner and for all of this to come tumbling down around his ears. As ever, he’s doing himself down. While he’s relatively new to the full weight of carrying a cottage industry (let alone two, plus the bottled randomness of a mini-festival), his instincts are true and his audience sound. This feels as if it’s going to go well.

It also starts quietly as Craig Fortnam makes his first appearance of the day in Arch Garrison, a solo project which has a tendency to flit between one man-band and acoustic trio. On this occasion it’s a duo, with Craig joined by James Larcombe (today’s man-of-many-bands) on a variety of reedy little keyboards. Initially their sound is ornate and a little introverted, with James drawing angular pipelines of awkward tune across the artful spinning cogs and involved strums of Craig’s acoustic guitar. Together they build up a succession of gangling, summery blueprints; intricate and skeletal folk-baroque miniatures which scroll across time and pitch like attenuated Heath Robinson gizmos.

Some of the wedding-cake decorativeness of Craig’s main project (the retrofitted chamber ensemble North Sea Radio Orchestra) is present and correct, as is a taste of the baroque side of Michael Nyman. Yet Arch Garrison is less formal than either of these, and although seemingly delicate and fey to the point of flimsiness, the music is actually underlaid by an assured, precise musicality. Craig’s acoustic guitar-playing, in particular, is tremendously strong: part Renaissance lutenist, part gutsy Nick Drake fingerpickery, and part atomic clock. Sometimes he also sings – in an easy and distracted murmur, as if daydreaming in his front room.

In spite of this air of detachment (and with the help of an audience that’s warm and receptive from the start), musicians and crowd move closer together as the set progresses, and as the songs take on life from their elegantly quilled and tapestried beginnings and shamble out into the room. Arch Garrison’s music clambers off the Unicorn’s shabby stage like a hung-over peacock emerging from a cardboard box – bedraggled but with flashes of finery. Wreathed in compassion and energetic flourishes, a sweet-natured, gently chiding call to art and arms called Six Feet Under Yeah comes across especially well. Borderline precious they may be, but by the end of the set this band’s earned the kind of affection you’d give to a battered family heirloom.

I’ve heard plenty of loop musicians in my time. Once you’ve seen one they’re like gateway drugs to hundreds of others. (I’m sorry – I’ve battled my addiction for years, but it keeps coming back…) Most of them are sit-down sound brewers: reserved in aspect, slowly adding detail to their patterns, absorbed in their banks of effects pedals.

Matt Stevens cooking up a loopstorm, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Matt Stevens cooking up a loopstorm, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Matt Stevens isn’t like that. A hulking figure – wild of hair and beard and with the imposing build of a rugby forward – he’s also afire with nervous energy, hailing his audience with a delighted sportsman’s roar. As regards potential gear-fiddling, he looks more likely to hurl himself onto his pedals and roll across the stage, wrestling with lashing cables and flying components, rather than indulge in prissy fondling. In the event, he settles for stabbing owlishly at his pedalboard as he hacks into his set with furious enthusiasm, attacking a battered acoustic guitar with the energy of a born-again busker.

Even if Matt is an extroverted bear in a loopers’ community of aloofness, he’s still obliged to spend some onstage time engrossed in loop-science. This he does both with earnestness and the air of a smouldering volcano. Bashing aggressively-strummed chords into the loop in order to build up his layered compositions, he crams in his extra details later, subverting his acoustic noises with wah-wah or strange compressions which bring out new instrumental parts like falls of slate or torn hunks of burnished copper. Throughout, a powerful rhythmic momentum is key (whether it’s expressed via out-and-out rockiness, a stuttered systemic pulse or a slither of percussive noise) as is Matt’s total involvement in what he’s doing. If he couldn’t squeeze the next loop idea out, you feel that he’d burst. His joy when things fall into place is palpable.

That said, Matt’s seasoned enough not to dissolve into petulance when things don’t go right. There’s not an error that can’t be turned into an opportunity, not a glitch that can’t be an excuse for a new bit of fun. Even when a string snaps with a whip-like crack, its echoed ghost is built so assertively into Matt’s wall of sound that the piece would ultimately have been less without it. Plenty of loopers reference the more academic touchstones of the genre – Shaeffer and Stockhausen, Fripp and Eno. Matt Stevens has some of that too, but he most definitely grabs us by the scruff of our collective neck to drag us back to the roughneck folk days of John Martyn and his rattling Echoplex (now there was a man who knew something about chance and hazard…) And as he tears us off a Moebius strip, we love him for it.

Fighting an unsympathetic sound mix, Stars in Battledress aren’t having it easy. Of course, life isn’t generally easy for massively over-educated brothers who form art-rock duos, mix up rolling minimalism with genteel English folk and a jigsaw of elaborate lyrical conceits, and then act as if they’ve teleported in from a 1930s gentleman’s club.

If Stars in Battledress were, in fact, playing all of these factors up for laughs (as if they were some kind of parody lounge act), they might be quids-in for a while. The problem is that while they’re flushed with a vein of dense and playful humour, they’re also entirely sincere. Almost everything that makes them remarkable – even wonderful – also makes them hard to sell in England. It’s probably one of the reasons why their gigs are rare these days.They’re willfully out of time; hothouse blooms in a climate that doesn’t favour greenhouses. Even the reviews they inspire turn artful and drip sepia.

The precision brotherhood: Stars In Battledress, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

The precision brotherhood: Stars In Battledress, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

As ever, Richard Larcombe cuts an intriguing figure – a pocket-sized handsome devil, part scholarly fop, part English pop eccentric (as if the two have never been known to overlap). Occasionally, you feel that his air of genteel amusement will slip away and he’ll suddenly go for your neck. Until then, he plays master-of-ceremonies with mixed breeziness and nerves, darting his head like a kestrel, picking fastidiously at his big jazzman’s guitar. His wicked grin and arched eyebrow seep into his vocal tone – a well-spoken tenor, moving between rich warm folk-drone and spooked falsetto. Smiling kindly behind his keyboard, James Larcombe is the obliging laid-back Swann to his brother’s sardonic Flanders: playing fluidly, bringing the solidity to support Richard’s genial spikiness.

With the audience on their side despite the sound flutters, Stars In Battledress treat us to a five-song set, forging a path through shellac-scented easy listening, deep English folk music and Canterbury-esque whimsy, all laced together with strands of Chicago art-rock, cycling piano lines and a dab or two of prog-rock glue. On spec, this sounds like a pile-up. In fact, every song is carefully thought through: lovingly hand-crafted and loaded with the kind of shrewd, floridly verbose lyrical wit that plays a circling game with its listeners. A blowsy chunk of psychedelic antiquarianism, Come Write Me Down references both copperplate and the Copper Family. If Morrissey had been forcibly cut-and-pasted into an Ealing comedy, he’d probably have riposted with something like Fluent English (in which Richard spirals defiantly through levels and levels of social awkwardness, a passive-aggressive cad-seeking missile).

More touchingly, Richard dedicates the brand-new Matchless Bride to his own wife (clambering over and dismissing both Cleopatra and Helen of Troy en route) and behind the dry theatrical wit, the Larcombes occasionally demonstrate a more elusive side. Pinocchio Falls In Love takes Disney and pulls it somewhere towards Syd Barrett in chapel, losing itself in hypnotic circles. The roaring distorted guitar fanfare of Remind Me Of The Thames Or Else, meanwhile, reminds us that this is a band that listens to Battles and Voivod as eagerly as it does to Northumbrian bagpipe reels.

Though it’s been nearly thirty years since Mark Cawthra was a Cardiac, you could still describe him as the band’s second severed head. In early lineups he’d hop around between keyboards, drums and singing, egging Tim Smith on to greater and greater heights of manic invention. These days, he’s still multi-instrumental, but the jibber and twitch of the early years has been replaced by something more relaxed and thoughtful.

Mark Cawthra of Redbus Noface plays a wry and mournful chord, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Mark Cawthra of Redbus Noface plays a wry and mournful chord, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

On record, Mark’s Redbus Noface project stretches slightly askew of classic English mainstream pop, ending up like a slightly more psychedelic Chris Difford. Live (with a pickup band of assorted Cardiacs and other friends) Redbus Noface are considerably chunkier. They present a drenched crash of solid rock musicianship, run through with a soft vein of melancholy – and, on this occasion, substantial technical hitches. Mark, fronting the band on guitar, deals with his setbacks with patience; which is something that could also be said for the majestically glum music.

It’s not that the band are miserable, per se. It’s more that they’re operating under a glimmering halo of resignation; of acceptance, of carrying on. Hard to put your finger on, though if you’re carrying a few more years it becomes easier. Compared to the jumping-jack of the Cardiacs years, the current Mark is soberer, but if the energy is reduced, the wisdom is broader. The Redbus cover of an early Cardiacs song, Let Alone My Plastic Doll, takes the stubborn heels-dug-in-tone of the original and fills it with grime, sand and saturated weight. In the process, it makes it weightier, more substantial. Mark Cawthra is not what he was. He’s more – and it’s neither show nor tell. It’s feel.

Usually Thumpermonkey can rely on various supports. On record, it’s the studio playground in which Michael Woodman can shore up his ambitious musical constructions with assorted sound trickery. Out live (and minus the gracings of harmonies, samplers, mandolins or keyboards) it’s at least helpful to have a bass player to pin down the foundations of their brooding new-prog grind. (Think Killing Joke meets Van Der Graaf Generator meets Tool, and then get frustrated at how poorly that captures their music’s sly muscularity and brainpower.)

Tonight they have neither of these things. Instead, Thumpermonkey are appearing as a two-guitarred power trio with the basslines covered by octave pedals and a Rush-like determination to dance their way over the personnel gaps by sheer skill and musical ingenuity. Fortunately Michael and his main foil, Rael Jones, have this in spades. They also have a batch of complex, restless songs which roar out from the stage: a slowly swirling mass of ever-altering metallic riffs in shades of grunge-baroque, hardcore punk and ermine cape, all staked into shape by Ben Wren’s needle-sharp drumming and topped off by Michael’s rich baronial voice.

Thumpermonkey get mean, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Thumpermonkey get mean, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

The latter’s a sound which demands attention. Scorning both sterile heavy-metal strutting or the self-righteous monotone screech of hardcore (though he can roar and scream with the best of them) Michael unleashes a vocal ever bit as striking and expressive as his Escher-knot of instrumental patterns. As he and Rael crash and chisel out the guitar lines, Michael treats us to a series of hard-rock soliloquies: heady declamation, musings, ominous mutters and runaway wails adding the muscle to his intricate lyrics.

In turn, this fits neatly into the undulating, stuttering landscape of Thumpermonkey’s music. Even when the band’s stripped down, the music thrives – catching at your ears, presenting tantalising gaps of rhythm and tension. Thumpermonkey know that if there are enough good ingredients in the stew, then there’s no such thing as overcooking. They may have always been a band with too many ideas, but they’ve become brilliant at blending and poising them all. They also visibly enjoy their arch humour, a witty blend of pastiches from cyberpunk to Gothic melodrama to art cinema oddity.

It’s got to be said that as metallers (even of the brainiac kind), they don’t quite look or act the part. Few obvious tattoos are in evidence; and they could shed their roles as easily as their T-shirts. Rael – part bespectacled boffin, part spindly golden eagle – prowls the stage with the barely-suppressed excitement of a toddler at Christmas, while Michael – even in full yell – has the cuddly softness of a plush-doll Paul McCartney, complete with smile and shaggy moptop. Look them in the eye, though, and see the twinkling confidence of men with total self-belief and the humour to enjoy it all the way to the end of the set and home. Ultimately it’s the music which sets Thumpermonkey’s ranking, and on every bit of evidence here, that’s pretty high.

William D. Drake comes complete with a throng of “So-Called Friends”, including the Larcombe brothers, Mark Cawthra (back behind the drumkit) and the Trudy’s Jon Bastable on bass. With singer Dug Parker and clarinetist Nicola Baigent also squeezed in, there are almost too many people to fit onstage. Richard Larcombe has to comically mountaineer his way back and forth between songs, a guitar swivelling around his body like a slapstick plank – you’d almost expect a Spike Jones soundtrack of thwacks, boings and yelps.

Such is the geniality onstage, however, that any clouts from a straying instrument would be taken in good heart. Squeezed they might be, but the seven-piece band do some sprawling justice to the clutch of Drakesongs on offer tonight. Each of them spring gently open when played, an overstuffed old trunk full of homemade melodies and worn-down reeds. Another onetime Cardiac, Bill Drake used to exude jollity and warmth around a chubby smile even when he was slathered in smeary slap and rolling out a convulsed fugal organ line. Two decades on, the freak trappings have long since washed off but the warmth has blossomed.

William D. Drake (and the Larcombes throwing shapes), RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

William D. Drake (and the Larcombes throwing shapes), RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Upfront at his piano, Bill’s like the avuncular monk in charge of the brewery. For a while, the November evening turns to a leaf-strewn end-of-summer afternoon as he sings in his split, woody voice – a kind of innocence in itself, straining heartily against its natural restrictions to break out into a flattened earnest roar or into a conversational softness. His songs thrive on ripples of piano and clarinet, on the hoppity bounce of half-forgotten novelty records; on hushed moments of old English reverie. It’s as if they’ve sprung up from a snowed-in village, put together by a group of people enjoying the warmth of companionship. One of the newer songs – Homesweet Homestead Hideaway – travels sedately from happy plonk to sea music, and from chamber music to music hall, all in a single unrolling skein.

The So-Called Friends nearly overwhelm the stage: Knifeworld transcend it. Tonight, they’re the only band that really do. Maybe it’s because they’re Kavus’ own band, briefly releasing him from organiser’s headaches, letting him take up his white Gretsch guitar and fire off a little compositional lightning. At any rate, Knifeworld take their set at full-tilt, as if they’re playing on excited tiptoe prior to leaping through the ceiling. Even the sonic missteps or rough patches don’t slow them down – any occasional keyboard plunk or fluffed vocal note is scooped up and along to fuel their energy.

In more than one respect, the band bristle. Grown to a six-piece (and swallowing up a couple of Chrome Hoof members along the way), they now have electric pianos and bassoons poking out of them like crazy hairpins. Kavus’ veering and breathless songs need no less these days. Crammed with escapologist riffs, abrupt time-changes and flagrant decorations, they’re like manically accelerated conversations complete with excited table-bangings. They’re also like mashed-up city traffic – dozens of different ideas like wandering cars, edging into narrow streets, getting squeezed into a bigger and more diverse picture, but somehow managing to manoeuvre and thrive.

Knifeworld roar into action, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Knifeworld roar into action, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Up at the front Kavus’ gruff and friendly bark of voice mingles with that of his vocal foil Mel Woods. They sing with a chatty roughness which almost, but not quite, disarms the furious musical mechanisms churning away behind them: part prog, part Rock-In-Opposition, part surreal shanty. Chloe Herrington’s steely bassoon playing is the newest Knifeworld ingredient, as tart as molasses and threading a new dark vein through the songs, most of which are newer work, including the benign lurches of In A Foreign Way and the chittering pump-riffage of Pilot Her.

The best comes last. Fully warmed up, Knifeworld lock in a few more gears, summon up a few more notches of the power and launch into The Prime Of Our Decline, a piece so new that it’s still glistening. It rampages past our ears and through our brains in a blizzard of lights and joy. It’s a streaking Mediterranean storm of flamencoid prog pulse and haul song, flashing out memories of John McLaughlin, Yes and Fred Frith (each at the peak of their communicative powers), but it also sustains along its entire length, the heart-racing punch of a top pop hook. I feel my jaw drop. For five minutes, the entire band seem to be leaning into an ecstatic curve; or levitating an inch above the Unicorn’s scruffy stage carpet. It’s not often that I see a band suddenly move up a level, right in front of me. It takes my breath away when it actually happens.

It does strike me that, were most of these bands American, they’d be getting proper respect. All credit to them for coming together to light up this obscure little corner of North London, but they’re still running along in a distant neglected parallel, some way out of the club of the British musicians who are properly celebrated, who are held up as the exemplars of what we ought to be doing as a musical nation. Some of them have been at it for years in one form or another, and to see their clear talent unrewarded is hard.

It’s something to do with a pop aesthetic worn down to a neurotic sliver, I suppose. An idea is always easier to sell if it’s been pre-formed and pre-warmed; and not only does the emphasis on the shape of the British pop song often end up as a straitjacket, British musical jingoism has a flipside of fawning insecurity. From a British perspective, it often seems as if it’s only Americans who are allowed to experiment, to embrace their own whimsy to the hilt, to draw in something less urban and less in cahoots with fashion; and in Britain it’s only American musicians who are allowed to be celebrated for this. The Roastfest roster – profoundly British, without a pop art flag in sight – flip a cheerful collective finger at this notion.

Still, I have to admit that coping with Roastfest’s rich stew of acts in relentless succession does eventually take it out of you. I’m flagging by the time Sanguine Hum arrive onstage. Not too long ago, they were called The Joff Winks Band, and they used to lie to people. Travelling under a classic-pop flag to mislead people, they played beautifully, wrote intricate Canterbury-mellow prog-rock songs while pretending not to, and made the kind of tasteful support-band ripples you’d expect if you spent your time opening for people like Joseph Arthur and Regina Spektor.

Prog of a more delicate stripe... Joff Winks of Sanguine Hum, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Prog of a more delicate stripe… Joff Winks of Sanguine Hum, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

In parallel, Joff and his bandmates also had alter-egos. They explored a lighthearted, Anglicised post-rock as Antique Seeking Nuns, and pegged out some spacey textural music as Nunbient. Maybe proving themselves in these fields has given them the confidence of finally making themselves over as an overt prog band. Hurray for that.

During the course of their set I drift around the pub, a little dazed by standing and by keeping myself fuelled on bar snacks. Consequently Sanguine Hum’s airy prog blend – in which Rhodes-propelled Camel mellowness blends with occasional Zappa seizures – doesn’t grab enough of my wandering attention. By the end of the evening my impression of the band is hazy, and my notes too vague to be of much use. Sanguine Hum seem cleaner and more polite than anyone else on offer – they’ve kept the classic ’70s pop sheen, for certain – and I have to nod to both Matt Baber’s bright, dazzling keyboard touch and Joff’s sweet-natured frontman work. The rest of what they are will have to wait until we next cross paths. Sorry, Joff. Not your fault. I just wasn’t quite up to it this time.

The evening ends with a big, scrappy folk noise. Admirals Hard don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are – émigré Plymouth art-rockers gone acoustic (plus a few London friends), indulging hometown roots with a string of traditional sea-shanties. The affable Andy Carne fronts this busman’s holiday, but both of the Larcombe brothers are back onstage too, along with chunks of The Monsoon Bassoon (Dan Chudley on bass and fur cap, while Kavus, letting his hair down at the end of the night, jangles a mandolin). Onetime Foe drummer Paul Westwood plays harmonium and hammered dulcimer; Tungg! singer Becky Jacobs joins in too.

In fact, everyone sings – not just the whole band (with the affable Carne performing as much as an MC as lead vocalist) but the audience. While Admirals Hard have been known to fling in shipworm-friendly covers of Cardiacs and Iron Maiden (their take on Stranger In A Strange Land is surprisingly convincing as well as funny), these aren’t needed tonight. At the end of a day of invention, the trad songs cheerfully mop up. An international audience of music obsessives let down hair and inhibitions, drink the last of the bar dry and sing along to All For Me Grog, Eddystone Light and Thou Hast Drunk Well Man; the roaming Janners and honorary Janners onstage let their accents broaden, strum out a sound like a skinny Pogues and imagine a rolling deck. With the bar drunk dry, that’s probably not too much of a stretch by now.

Finally we disperse into the November night, trailing bright scraps of music as we go. I head for Archway, humming something complicated, or something simple. Something warm. Something welcome.

Buy a memento:
Various Artists: ‘The Central Element’ (compilation album with one track from each Roastfest band) – available from Genepool.

Arch Garrison online:
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Matt Stevens online:
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Stars In Battledress online:
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Redbus Noface online:
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Thumpermonkey online:
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William D. Drake online:
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Knifeworld online:
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Sanguine Hum online:
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Admirals Hard online:
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The Unicorn, Camden online:
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July 2011 – EP reviews – Knifeworld’s ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’ (“full of waterline clunks and creaking timbers”)

10 Jul
Knifeworld: 'Dear Lord, No Deal'

Knifeworld: ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’

Three things.

Firstly: three years after Kavus Torabi’s old employers Cardiacs were forced to drop their torch (leaving their compulsive, convulsive music scattered on the ground), he finally seems to have acknowledged that he’s the person to pick it up what remains and to run on with it. Secondly: the transformation of Kavus’ Knifeworld project into a full band with fresh blood and new sounds (Craig Fortnam’s burnished-copper basslines, Chloe Herington’s fierce battery of reeds, Emmett Elvin’s assured way with harpsichord and Rhodes) give it some of the sturdy anchors it’s lacked and has hankered for. And thirdly: if a boy grows up near the sea, you can take him away from it but he’ll wash back in on his own tide.

Possibly inspired by Kavus’s native Plymouth, ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’ has turned out decidedly maritime. Oceanic and naval metaphors wash gently through it and open it up with watery fingers. At the very least, Kavus is pushing the boat out. While Knifeworld’s previous single ‘Pissed Up on Brake Fluid’ was a catchy straight-ahead rock belter (belying the band’s complex and wandering spirit) their follow-up EP places an expansive musical imagination upfront.

Pilot Her is the opener: an unreliably cheerful tugboat jolting along as triple-jointed power pop (both nicking from and nodding to Cardiacs, via the choppy beat-slipping riff from Too Many Irons in the Fire). As the band judder out the chorus, Kavus plays fretful figurehead. “Plans that give themselves away,” he muses. “All of the things she did for me… she’s all I hear, she’s all I see.” Lyrically it’s something more than boy-meets-girl, something less than happy-ever-after. Musically, it could be some kind of corps anthem (when the band aren’t spasming away at thrash-metal in the breaks) until a squad of sway-backed woodwinds amble past in a completely different rhythm.

Elsewhere, Dear Lord No Deal itself is lost somewhere in the hull, tinkering around and looking out for a hatchway. A raw acoustic strum, clambering over ever-changing Zappa-esque strata of rhythm or mood, it bumps into harpsichord and tootling organ as it goes. Its queasy narrative avoids looking too closely at anything, perhaps for good reason, as shapeless guilts, confusing awakenings and dawn-flits are all seeping into the picture. “I got a bad feeling about last week and now it’s time to split the scene – / I kept my part of the bargain, kept myself unseen.”

Furthest out there is HMS Washout, in which Knifeworld reveal just how far they’ve cut loose. Foreboding, despair, elation, and vivid whisper-to-wallop dynamics unfold over fourteen rich minutes of compelling maritime mindscape. Little is explicit, though the song hints at a landscape of betrayal and abandonment (“Touch them, the bridges that can’t take the load… it always seems like it’s someone you know…”). Much of it is cryptic, including the gently washing centre section in which a thick-tongued Kavus, becalmed like the Ancient Mariner, whispers murmurs of disillusion (“Cut loose and with scurvy, / crew sent me seaworthy / and all that I could say / was ‘Saw their arms away’…”) only to be answered by an eerie choir of drowned sailors.

Throughout, the music breathes and turns like a treacherous sea. Sometimes it’s an ominous ambient lull full of waterline clunks and creaking timbers; sometimes a fragmented shanty; sometimes a blaze of unhinged trumpet-mouthpiece riffle and thunderous drum pummel (part Mahavishnu spray, part Pharoah’s Dance burnt up in a rush of St Elmo’s Fire). Laden with psychedelic paranoia and stranded at a midpoint of grief, the song finally bursts out into a defiant apotheosis. A looping math-rock guitar reels; violins, saxes and woodwind at full joyous stomp; and the song’s own troubled lyrics snatched back up again, this time as a battle cry.

It might be lonely out there, but they’ve dragged up exultation with their very fingernails. From some angles, it’s all much like a post-punk re-imagining of A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers; the sea-bound, expressionistic Van der Graff Generator nightmare epic of isolation, regret and madness. While Knifeworld ultimately offer something less explicit (and maybe, more accepting), they’re tapping into the same wild ambition. Torch grabbed. Hurtle on.

Knifeworld: ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’
Believer’s Roast, BR004
CD/download EP
Released: 4th July 2011

Buy it from:
(updated, May 2015) Original EP now deleted: all tracks are now available on the compilation album ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’.

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

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

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

Listen. They’re singing at his bedside.

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

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

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

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

And now, all silenced?

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen. He’s alive. He’s alive.

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

Buy it from:
Genepool (CD) or iTunes (download)

Tim Smith online:
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‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1’ online:
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August 2009 – album reviews – Knifeworld’s ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’ (“a dense and complicated thicket”)

24 Aug
Knifeworld: 'Buried Alone (Tales of Crushing Defeat)'

Knifeworld: ‘Buried Alone (Tales of Crushing Defeat)’

Barely two tracks in, and (against a backdrop of spidery chords and distant whistling bird-noise) you can hear Kavus Torabi sigh “way to go – a scream fanfares the notion / that fortune and art don’t make good bedfellows.” He ought to know. Since the early 1990s, he’s fought plenty of tough uphill battles in order to fuel strange, intoxicating and awkward music: eight years of startling psychedelic math-rock with The Monsoon Bassoon and six of dogged multi-jointed expressionism with Cardiacs (plus digressions into latterday Zeuhl, madrigal, folk and chamber rock).

You could have forgiven Kavus if he’d played safe on this first, pseudonymous solo album. As one of those people who knows just how ecstatic and luminous music can become if you have the determination to push and ride it all the way, he’s also learned the hard way about how ambition and application don’t necessarily open the ears of the public – or stop the wheels coming off your band in a shower of sparks. Then again, musicians of his omnivorous and kaleidoscopic nature will never be truly happy rolling around the same well-trodden streets as everyone else.

True to past Torabi form, ‘Buried Alone…’ is a dense and complicated thicket of an album, infested with a riot of ideas: an explosion of technicolour shagginess to set against a rank of forward-sweep Britrock haircuts. Anyone who remember the cyclic romps and the full-tilt joyful roar of The Monsoon Bassoon will find some recognizable DNA in here. Yet if that former band was bottled lightning, then Knifeworld is a far more scattered beast. Standard rock instrumentation clusters, interlocks and spins apart in a glorious swirl of noise: an additional palette of clarinets, toy xylophones, violins and santoors adds wood, spit and rattle to proceedings. Crowded and impossibly animated (with multiple styles rubbing up against each other), the album sounds as if Kavus has ripped off the top of his head and let a decade’s worth of listening and imagination just spill out. Yet everything finds its own step in the dance.

Singled Out for Battery exemplifies the intricate wildness on offer, as shivering walls of electric distortion set off a dancing chorus and fairy-ring reels on recorder, guitar and piano. Hollered psychedelic tabloid headlines cartwheel through the verses and everything builds to the kind of exultant boiling guitar solo that suggests King Crimson and Hendrix dancing together around a ‘Wicker Man’ maypole. Large swathes of the album resemble an unstoppable pile-up in Toytown. Propulsive alt.rock riffery worthy of Pixies, Buzzcocks or Shudder to Think is sandwiched by bursts of staccato chamber music or thorny-backed melodic wanderings reminiscent of Henry Cow. Spindly Syd Barrett mumblings sprawl into unresolved mantras, while multi-angled web-work phrases on acoustic guitar are mown down by breaks of crushing thrash-metal.

In one corner, soft voices lilt mysteriously across a barren heathscape; ecstatic and sinister. In another, a dayglo Latin chant flirts with crunching power riffs, hammer dulcimers and fluting see-saw Mellotron before tangling with a crash’n’burn burst of Nancarrow player-piano. In the middle of it all there’s even a delirious single, Pissed Up On Brake Fluid. Horn-heavy and stuffed full of chart-pleasing hookery, it rampages happily towards indie rock radio entirely on its own terms. It’s about a deal with the devil going embarrassingly wrong; or it’s about failing to beat your own devil; or it’s about pranging your car as a metaphor for life. Kavus fires it straight through the center of the record, like a jaguar through a hoop. It soars past – waving the same catchy, compulsive freak flag as The Monsoon Bassoon’s Wise Guy – and then it’s gone, leaving fiery paw-prints on the swarming musical landscapes which surround it.

Despite all of this wildness and waywardness, you can’t simply write the album off as pure self-indulgence. Although Kavus shuffles all of his elements with the free inspiration, impulsiveness and rough edges of a true experimentalist, he also has the structural suss of a prog-rocker to back it up. His wrestling scatter of ingredients ultimately fall into patterns that make sense, however eccentric. On The Wretched Fathoms, jazzy woodwind slashes force themselves onto a lurching tune and drag on the beat like grappling-hooks. Open childlike melodies are mounted atop Corpses Feuding Underground: but underneath it’s restlessly shucking its way through shifting ground and moods, fitting in rockabilly guitar grumbles and brass parps as it does so.

As you might have guessed by now, ‘Buried Alone…’ isn’t an easy listen. Nor, despite the ambition and diversity of its strong medicine, is it all that it could be. Towards the end the album bellies out into a string of uneasy warped dirges which don’t quite match the inventiveness of earlier tracks. Yet this is also the most genuinely psychedelic rock album in ages, and one of the very few psychedelic albums which genuinely deserve the title. Rather than losing himself in noodling out aural wallpaper for stoners, Torabi offers up a succession of yawing mind-flickers which weave between thought, dream and reality as much as they do between styles.

The battered, urban feel of the album – suggesting stretches of blasted fox-ridden scrub ground between Hackney tower blocks, untended bomb-sites and smog-smeared children’s playgrounds – only adds to this. In the gaps between (and within) songs, ominous sounds filter through: the caw of a raven, leaking water, booms of collapse, and distant sirens from hunting police cars. Then there are the lyrics: on first hearing, an obscure word salad sung in earnest, artless tones by Torabi and guest singer Mel Woods (from Sidi Bou Said). Picking deeper into them – past the twirl and bounce of the music and the witty, tongue-in-cheek dips into outright bafflegab – and you find the corpse in the bathtub, a raw web of terrors and regrets rising to the surface.

That hammy album title isn’t just there for a joke. Across the record, there are seeded references to “broken hands”, friends who “hide real agendas in the sidings”, or the terrible phone call that tells you “there’s been an accident.” Corpses Feuding Underground jitters over the fragility of relationships, with unresolved threats looming from both above and below ground, from both the living and the dead. Kavus frets about the return of claustrophobic “clammy horror”, mutters “I’ve buffer-zoned my friends, shut the family out” and wonders aloud “is it vibrations what make us tick over, / or is shrugging doubt, death pulling hard at your cuff?” On No More Dying, over a panicked rotisserie of New York minimalism (computerized piano edge and pulsing Philip Glass clarinets) he wails “all my friends, one by one, sever their correspondence.” The same energy that fires up the album has its flipside in the paranoia which shakes things to pieces. On the swaybacked Severed Of Horsehoof, an exhausted Mel seems almost to have given up. “Just go to sleep,” she sighs, resignedly. “I wish I could…”

Throughout ‘Buried Alone…’, there seems to be a recurrence of the same “be-he-alive-or-be-he-dead” uncertainty that’s also soaked its way, from the beginning, through the work of Cardiacs. A visceral confusion, which ends up rendering Knifeworld’s patchwork of song more vital. Perhaps it’s due to a conviction that whatever life there is – with all of its nightmares, random churnings and visits from the dark side – it is (or has been) precious. “Oh, we dazzled when we were alive” muse Kavus and Mel together on Torch. On the final champing swirl of Me To The Future Of You, Knifeworld’s vision of Armageddon is suffused with acceptance and love. “When oceans earn the right to dry up / and stars have fallen earthward by the score. / Ah the end reeks of familiar, of ever after me to you… / Lips and lids are closing, it’s alright.”

It’s peace, of a kind: an admission and demonstration that our peculiar battles do have meaning in the end.

Knifeworld: ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’
Believer’s Roast, BRR 002 (5060078526074)
CD/download album
Released: 17th August 2009

Get it from:
Genepool, Burning Shed or Bandcamp

Knifeworld online:

Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

August 2001 – EP reviews – Spratleys Japs’ ‘Hazel’ (“halted by the tiniest thing”)

10 Aug
Spratleys Japs: 'Hazel'

Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’

More songs brought out of the woods in a bloody enormous bucket, then? A bucket that’s small enough and big enough to hold the moon and all the stars in the night sky, in one drink of water…

‘Hazel’ is a single, of sorts. It’s a little taste of Spratleys Japs, the youngest bud on the twisty family tree of Cardiacs. If you believe some of the yarns being spun about them, then they’re a cunning trans-Atlantic bud, gene-splicing Cardiacs’ abrasive brand of psychedelia (in which punk squawk and London brick-ends collide with a particularly rowdy mediaeval minstrels gallery) with singing urchin Jo Spratley and a gaggle of American high-desert rockers called the Rev-Ups. If you believe some of the other rumours, the hybrid songs that resulted were recorded in a spooky little shack deep in damp, spidery New Forest darkness: head Cardiac Tim Smith going outlaw as he pulled them all together with an audience of rats and a tenuous umbilical of dodgy power lines. Hence my strange intro back there. Hence the babbling.

(Anyway, Cardiacs lie. It’s best to remember that.)

Regardless of rats or forests, Hazel sounds neither young nor American. It’s a stately, ghostly, mouldering-castle fanfare – tear-blown strings, brass, kettle-drums and harps. It wheels massively in the sky like a planetarium show, or booms out low and ponderous like a ritual march. Just as it seems to have settled into its dinosaur vastness, it’s halted by the tiniest thing… Jo’s child-size voice, squished and distorted to a ghost-broadcast tinniness. She sounds seasick, she sounds strained and flattened as wallpaper; and she’s keening out a desperate minimal anti-tune from some dusty corner, words smeared beyond recognition. Everything (bar a shimmering, failing wall of high Mellotron) just stops – dead. Then the Jo-ghost fades, nervous guitars stir the air, and the orchestra pours in again. It’s the same tune, but transmuted somehow from its original pomp into something overwhelmingly compassionate. Then it all happens again. Then it happens no more. What they’re getting at defies the workings of my brain; but it digs up my emotions, as if it’s forking up mulch.

Two other songs – Curfew and the sleepy, knotted Secret, both voiced scratchily by Tim – are closer to the usual Cardiacs bashes. They clamber, jagged and monkey-like, around the whole-tone scale. They’re like folk songs forgotten in the womb, carrying a scolding kind of order in their baroque keyboard structures and the little child-choir voices. Perhaps they deal with more complete stories, on a more human scale: one of the Gothic scenarios which bubbles up is about a woman desperately trying to muffle a pealing bell, using her own body to hold off her husband’s execution. But it’s elsewhere that Spratleys Japs are really active on the borders of instinct: where they’re at their most stimulating. No answers. Exposure. A little fear. Good medicine?

A jarring change of gear after the spooky grandeur of Hazel, Home is just upsetting. There’s not much to it – just some captured seconds of studio chatter during which Jo breaks down into a panic attack, whimpering and gulping like a scalded child. Tim and sundry other SpratJaps leave the tape rolling, heartlessly, as they prepare for the next song. It’s intrusive, it’s claustrophobic, it’s horribly naked. It could well be a prank. But along with Hazel, it does get to the back-ways of the heart. Sometimes Spratleys Japs do this with a soothe, sometimes with a jolt, but they do it as if they’re twitching a curtain aside to reveal something outside the normal angle of view: something beautiful, terrifying or wondrous, but unquestionably there. Something which changes you just by being seen.

Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’
All My Eye And Betty Martin Music, AME CD002 (502127203848)
CD-only EP
Released: 2001

Get it from:
Cardiacs official store or second-hand.

Spratleys Japs online:
Homepage MySpace Last FM

June 1999 – album reviews – The Monsoon Bassoon’s ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’ (“gloriously twisted tunes with gritty, testifying zeal”)

15 Jun

The Monsoon Bassoon: 'I Dig Your Voodoo'

The Monsoon Bassoon: ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’

You could say that The Monsoon Bassoon are like three train-tracks converging on a single set of points. Going full-tilt on the first is a savage, grinning, tuneful thing from that edgy end of indie-rock that spawned Pixies or Shudder To Think – one eye a gimlet, the other a Catherine wheel. Riding the second, there’s a rigorous interlocking mechanism poised like a mantis: its lifeblood a nerve-pumping mix of math-rock mesh and prog rock verve. Careening along the third track is a thrashing shotgun wedding of baroque black metal and head-fuck psychedelia, steam spurting out of every joint. High speed. Impact imminent. This could be messy.

In fact, it ends up as something wonderful. Where there should’ve been mangled smoking fragments strewn across the neighbourhood, an ornate and brand-new beast is racing ahead. Gleaming gears whirling, showering fat sparks – taking on the stodgy, mulchy, rotted-down state of guitar rock and carving an intricate furrow through it, smashing exuberantly through fences en route. Ten tracks of delirious celebratory intricacies, and explosive rock detonations, ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’ rejoices unashamed in the sheer excitement of motion. If you could fix it so that a tropical rainstorm blasted through a double reed, you’d probably end up with this kind of melodious shrapnel.

The very thought of latterday psychedelic rock can prompt a checklist: druggy sonic syrup, honeybee harmonies, static songs, ad-infinitum wobbly jamming… Forget that. Instead, and for starters, imagine a roller-coasting XTC arguing their way down the corkscrew. Imagine Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci if they’d been shorn of their Brian Wilson fixation, off their heads on chaos theory and frantically shagging a stapling machine. In The Monsoon Bassoon two duelling slashing guitars, a fat-geared-but-light-footed rhythm section and three urchin-meets-starchild singers (Sarah Measures, Dan Chudley and Kavus Torabi) fractalise their songs into manic battling melodies. There are pop hooks aplenty, generally on the verge of turning into egg-whisks and grappling irons: there’s an alphabet soup of puzzling riffs, quirks and blissful deranged woodwind. If the band are clearly enthralled by their own avid craftmanship, they’re also firing up their gloriously twisted tunes with gritty, testifying zeal, running the shoe-leather off the soul-punk poseurs.

Even so, managing to bag an NME Single of the Week with each of their three singles so far must have been as vividly strange for the Bassooners as their songs are to everyone else. At a time when artier British tastemakers generally save their praise for musicians across the Atlantic – Flaming Lips and Pavement, Jim O’Rourke, Godspeed, Dave Pajo and his ever-unwinding adventures – left-field rockers over here are rarely given many sniffs of approval. While there are some exceptions, the Bassoon doesn’t fit the gaps in the sorter. They lack the 1960s classic-pop castellations of the aforementioned Gorky’s or Super Furry Animals; nor do they have the latter’s comfortable indie pounding and canny dilution of experimental juices: nor do they ever resort to those sullen, reductive punk-gang posturings with which Mogwai feel they need to justify their own rugged sound-paintings. Operating right off the critical and commercial radar, driven by a stubborn and guileless enthusiasm, the Monsoon Bassoon give off the impression of a band mounting an unexpected coup which is as much of a surprise to them as it is to everyone else.

That said, a shortage of ambition – or of sheer bloody cheek – is the last thing that this band need to worry about. With joyous, inspirational disregard for their own dignity, The Monsoon Bassoon blow the lid off the whole shebang in a well-overdue explosion – and the last that I heard, it was still heading skywards. When The King Of Evil kicks in at Mach 3 (with its interweaving jitterbug melodies and Sarah purring her foxy way along the switch-backing melody) and when it closes in a welter of rough’n’ready choral excitement, giant celebratory chords and the sound of Kavus and Dan’s guitars utterly losing it, screaming in delight… you can hear liberation. This is rock music flowering into shape without the usual restrictions on decreed shape, or on fashion manifesto; and it’s all the better for it, yelling “fuck you, get out of my way!” while in the same breath flashing a brilliant grin and adding “but you can come too.”

There are left-field forebears to spot, for sure. Beyond the Naked City reed-punk and the manic gearshifting, there’s a chainmail of intent and disciplined guitar patterns (equal parts Television and Henry Cow) while their zeal for distressed chords and textures would do Sonic Youth proud. Blue Junction – in which meticulous chamber-minimalism suddenly explodes into New Wave thrash – anchors them to Steve Reich, as does their ‘Magic Roundabout’ way with a circling riff. Sometimes the band resemble a younger, more hyperactive King Crimson (those revolving guitars, Sarah’s daredevil flutes and reeds, the way the music booms back and forth between celestial minimalism and bellowing, screaming blasts of red-hot air) yet they have more of a sense of sheer fun and active dynamism. The lunatic shadow of Cardiacs walks alongside them too – unsurprisingly, as it’s Tim Smith’s jaggedy production that’s trimming off any of the album’s residual cuteness, feathering the guitars with a swarming shiver, and turning the music into a multi-coloured paintbomb blowing up in a garage.

But The Monsoon Bassoon are very much their own people – sporting their irrepressible pop edge; spin-drying their surreal, prismatic lyrics into motion-blurs; bouncing melodies off a riot-ballet of pummelling rhythms. The band’s collective readiness to go from ragged pop coo to thrash to heavy prog to freak-noise – all at the flick of a wrist – ensures that nothing has time to go stale. They could be strafing and racing, relentlessly hammering a metallic riff to death until it haemorrhages rainbows, as they do on The Constrictor and Commando. Or (as on Soda Pop And Ash) they could be fattening a snakey wisp of wistful melody on those knotty guitars and skewering your attention through your third eye. Or – as on the fragmentary, wonder-struck Volcano – they could be sliding off the edge of the world, pupils dilated, as a lone glissando guitar scribbles hazy colour across the sky. Whichever way they go, a brainstorm of invention is guaranteed to hit you in the ears at just the right moment, spinning the music into a fascinating new course.

Wise Guy was the first of their singles to wear a bizarre groove in London indie-radio playlists and has lost none of its ability to set your head dancing. Six minutes of choppy pop (as if they’d collided the best bits of ‘Red’, ‘Fear Of Music’, Living In The Past and Paranoid Android to audaciously tuneful effect), it periodically explodes like axe-heads coming through hotel-room doors, twirls pirouettes, and leaps up to a trumpeting, triumphant, speaker-melting fanfare. Kavus, Dan and Sarah babble about uncut diamonds and flashbulbs and gravity gone bored; about digging (perhaps into trouble, probably into revelation), and about “three silver sixes” (which might be about dice, and might be about something more occult). Both wild and meticulous, the music races away into a game of pouncing, quick swap grooves and joshing body-slams. Through the flashes, the song’s actual meaning is more elusive, more felt than voiced; it flirts around you and threads its way into your instincts, dancing on giddy splinters as it does.

Yet in spite of the tangled, giddy innocence their enthusiasm suggests, there’s more to the Monsoon Bassoon than just adrenalin art or an agreeably scrambled psychedelic circus. As their leaf-storm of lyrics tumbles by, it leaves scratches of faith, fear, things seen from the corners of eyes and in the corners of souls. Flashes of purgatory, intimations of danger – “lovely tornado, / who is such a fucking laugh, / turns up on my turf… Like glass I may crack. / Unlike glass I’ll not be replaced.” The menace lurking in the places where a glittering chord can’t hurl illumination. It’s all of a piece with the band’s fizzing, open spirit of inquiry: it’s the other side of the receiver. Their journey offers fractured glimpses of disturbing places – a kaleidoscopic stream of raw life-jolts, bad comedowns, metaphysical jitters and naked feelings all fusing together.

It takes guts and risk to walk the Bassoon’s kind of wayward line, to let yourself be carried along in the impulses of creating this music’s headlong rush. Towards the end of the gloriously-titled Fuck You Fuck Your Telescope, there’s a panicked, repeating wail of “wake up teetering everyday.” On Blue Junction the music bursts from serenity into pulsing frenzy as soon as Kavus blurts “he was out of the country and down on his luck / when you came out laughing and I came unstuck.” Among the chopping riffs and lofting spirals of Best Of Badluck 97, Kavus is seething and licking wounds. “I broke my neck to kiss her / The year this mother went up to 11. / Saddle-sore and still there’s more… / No sword of iron ever struck such blows. / Such a swarm of death, self-centred I… / Inside I’m six foot deep.” Shortly afterwards, the whole group carols “and I can’t catch up, / and I can’t wake up, / and I won’t grow up, / and I can’t stand up” as if their collective backs are against the wall, and all that they can do is sing the threat away: a harmony of defiance.

The forbidding tones of In The Iceman’s Back Garden (slow, pagan, cathedralline), closes the album like a shower of luminous earth hitting a coffin lid. It’s the sort of epic you’d expect from a band stuck into their fourth album, grown-up, newly spiritual and eager to wrestle with the indifferent savagery of the universe. A world away from the vivacious peekaboo of Wise Guy, it’s no less impressive. If the former was a firework display, Iceman is the glow on the lip of a volcano, showing that The Monsoon Bassoon are just as effective when rooted to the planet and letting something dark and troubling seep through them to the surface. It starts off as dark embers, slowly fanned and building up to destroying flame: an enormous iron clang, then a foreboding clarinet, intoning over the top of a massive, bells-of-doom guitar lattice that’s enough to send most of the Goth bands of the world running home to mother. And this time there’s an almost religious terror in the vocals – a fierce song commemorating the end of something as it has been known, and tinged with fear as to what will happen next.

The voices and lyrics are murky, mysterious, entranced. Faces, dirt, hair, stars, cries and eyes creep out of the word-darkness – little clues. In one of the few clear moments, they’re keening “He won’t dare…” There are a few moments of tumbling vocals, slashing guitars and urgent reeds during which the whole thing seems to whirl: then the guitars flail and the clarinet screams as a fierce, beautiful, terrible light pours down from above. A final, desperately beautiful chant, then they beat our hearts to death with a riff the size of the sky before bursting into a stream of starry feedback that sweeps all before it. If the apocalypse is going to be this beautiful, roll on Doomsday.

Stubborn, ludicrous, gloriously eccentric; ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’ is all these things: but it’s also one of the bravest, most exciting British rock albums of its time… by a long twisty neck. Jumping the tracks with style and a vengeance.

The Monsoon Bassoon: ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’
Weird Neighbourhood Records, WNRS4 (5 024545 078428)
CD-only album
Released:
7th June 1999
Buy it from: Best obtained second-hand. (Note, April 2013 – Believers Roast plan to reissue this along with the rest of the Monsoon Bassoon catalogue at some point in the next few years.)
The Monsoon Bassoon online:
MySpace Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music
 

December 1998 – live reviews – The Sea Nymphs @ The Falcon, Camden Town, London, 13th December (“a long curving wave of sea-songs, swimming keyboards, children’s play-rhymes”)

18 Dec

In reality, the music room at The Falcon is a tumbledown concrete box shoved out onto a bit of waste ground. Right now, though, we could easily imagine it transformed by our collective warmth, enwebbed with flowered arbors and the hum of big lovable insects.

This is good. The air’s alive with a warm, fireside excitement and the sound of a zillion Christmas triangles. Up on stage, Tim Smith has just flicked us one of his weird little opening-envelope smiles. Bill Drake – goateed and woolly-hatted, somewhere between pharoah and trainspotter – settles in behind his keyboards, half-in and out of the parallel universe he normally inhabits. Someone bleats like a sheep. Everyone laughs. Sarah Smith – unreservedly sexy and wholesome, like a fairytale milkmaid – readies her saxophone, smiles mischievously.

As they make a showing for the first time in years, The Sea Nymphs bring us the same sense of unguarded wonder that we’d get from watching some obscure and exquisite little beast uncurl itself from hibernation or hatch out of a chrysalis. There’s that, and there’s their uncanny ability to awaken the sort of love that I haven’t felt sweep through a concert for ages. We’re crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder – on any other day, we’d be the usual indie-rock cattle, and we’d feel it. This time, it feels more like being a step away from holding hands.

It’s as if we’re all buoyed up on a long curving wave of sea-songs, swimming keyboards, children’s play-rhymes; of twinkle-fingered piano, folk fragments, and pale running saxophones; plus Edward Lear, Edward Gorey, and all the other unguarded wistful subconscious flickers that may (or may not) inform The Sea Nymphs’ music. Somehow, they’re managing to remove the tarnish that’s caked onto the joy that we’ve almost forgotten: that straightforward joy at being alive. Because this is music that disarms and rebuilds somehow – it’s ducking aside from the panicky hurtle of London neurosis that’s going on outside, and taking us with it.

This may seem a woolly cop-out; as if I’m just burbling. The truth is that The Sea Nymphs, in work and in performance, seem to be offering a mystery of creation that doesn’t bear too much thinking about. Too much breakdown won’t break the spell – it will just ease you out of it, painlessly, like a splinter; into the cold again. And that’s something which you don’t want to happen. Within Sea-Nymphs-space, we’ve all found a place in which we very much want to be. We want to rest in the anchoring embrace of Tim’s warm and rounded basslines, to cotton on to how the querying melody-hop of Little Creations sounds like a baby making its very first connections. We want to enjoy the unselfconscious way Sarah rejoices in striking a gong, as if she was dusting a clock.

As the tipsy near-waltzes sway around the air, as Tim, Sarah and Bill’s voices twine and alternate (from naked and frayed harmonies to scratchy yelps, to impossibly sweet helium coos) we’re given the opportunity to pig out on a different kind of instinct than that triggered off by the standard lash of rebellious rock noise. There’s something baptismal in that sound – the little lilts of Shaping The River, the cries of “sponge me clean again” vaulting over a chunky acoustic strum. Maybe it’s something to do with a natural, maternal comfort. The key line of Blind In Gaiety And Leafy In Love is “she smells just like you and she smells just like me”, while Appealing To Venus stretches out a begging hand to an absent goddess, pleading “dwell among the people. / Come back to us, we need you.”

Maybe – behind the celebratory music and those rosettes of voice and exhilarated sax, lofting toward the ceiling – the vulnerable flutter at the heart of it all is the fears. Fears at the treacherous terrain of potential fuck-ups and traps, opening up like a dirty promise before newborns as they begin their blundering pilgrimages onward from birth through a childhood and adulthood of busts and confusions. “Back to square one… / large as life and twice as natural… / Let’s not reinvent the wheel; open that can of worms…”

Still. Here and now Sea Nymphs restore our openness – our willingness to ride our curiosity. For a brief time, at least, it becomes our strength again; and when, in Mr Drake’s Big Heart, the band tell us “something’s going to happen today”, we all feel as if we’re a part of it. After tonight, at the very least, we’ll have been able to say that we were together for a while, and it was good.

The Sea Nymphs online:
Homepage MySpace

The Falcon, Camden online:
Homepage

June 1998 – EP reviews – The Sea Nymphs’ ‘Appealing to Venus’ (“(they) sound as if they’ve crawled their ungainly way out of a Vincent Ward peasant odyssey of quivering, shipwrecked dreams and prayers”)

3 Jun

The Sea Nymphs: 'Appealing to Venus' EP

The Sea Nymphs: ‘Appealing to Venus’ EP

There’s something about the ‘Appealing to Venus’ EP which sounds incredibly ancient. Not dated, as such – for all its leanings towards progginess, it’s nothing passe or stilted, and any awkwardness is an integral part of the charm. No, it’s the murky timelessness and pre-tech fragility of the songs. It’s music in the trembling, bewildered nude; emerging from its shell of strength to blink in the light. To voice, in a halting manner, its own concerns, as the bright lights and brash neon of the pop scene whirl around it, uncomprehending.

Not that it’s come from nowhere. The Sea Nymphs are an (almost) acoustic alter-ego for the manically electric and intense Cardiacs: a mass of scrawny acoustic guitars, ‘Rock Bottom’ harmoniums, mellotrons and melodicas, baroque Black Death keyboards, crumhorn saxes and touchingly scratchy singing. Cardiacs’ convoluted songs have always had threads of Early Music woven into them. With The Sea Nymphs, we get to wind back along those threads and see where they lead.


 
These four tracks (salvaged from the Nymphs’ criminally ignored debut album) exorcise, or exercise, Cardiacs’ curiosity about pre-pop. You can hear old folk melodies seeping into Low Church music, shreds of sea-shanties and work-song, ramshackle European fragments existing independently of the blues or classical traditions… the bits that pop forgot, in other words. Though compared to, say, Dead Can Dance’s lordly, haughty take on Early Music, The Sea Nymphs sound as if they’ve crawled their ungainly way out of a Vincent Ward peasant odyssey of quivering, shipwrecked dreams and prayers.


 
Listening to the reedy, march-y slog of careening organs, plodding piano and parping synth on the title track, you hear a heartbreakingly wistful devotion. In the giant cathedral boom of Up in Annie’s Room, string synths smear the shuddering air around Tim’s cracked, lost, voice, swallowing it up in a churchy swamp of sound. He sounds as if he’s trying to outshout a God who’s cold and indifference to his vulnerable defiance. The mediaeval shawm-sneeze of God’s Box – fifty people on comb, paper and bells – seems lighter, The Sea Nymphs – flotsam and jetsam but its skipping ward against evil (“God’s good, the Devil is bad – he always gives me money,”) sounds ambiguous in Sarah’s blank, gauzy, little-girl vocals. “Never Setting Things on Fire, / never bad,” she sings, as if considering her options.


 
It’s left to the exquisite Shaping the River (in which a lilting falsetto choir sways, shanty-like, behind watery spangles of piano) to bring us something to warm our bared hearts. A work-song, something shared; a relationship with nature even as you alter it: “River in the middle of / Nowhere / Three of us suck on its heart, / and its head. / …Plant the heart, all from the heart / … only in the heart.”


 
The skeletal bonus tracks – lifted from even older tapes by Mr & Mrs Smith & Mr Drake (the prototype Nymphs) – pull us further into blurry pasts. There’s Bill’s gentle, bemused Camouflage, a twelve-tone sprig on Syd Barrett’s nursery-rhyme legacy. The meandering but intensely purposeful tone poem Little Creations clambers like a drunken squirrel from branch to branch, complete with manuscript rustling and equipment fumbling. Hymn rounds everything off; a live bootleg of Tim blinking over an austere organ sound, a pagan taking his first faltering steps into the chapel. These songs, too, have that unnervingly ancient-but-ageless quality; the same indefinable, painful, yet suspect innocence that haunts the songs of Robert Wyatt or Elizabeth Fraser.



 
Which all means that The Sea Nymphs are both as frail and damp as a newborn, and as old as the hills. Just listening to them pulls you back that much closer to the original greenwood, little shoots cracking their way out of your hidden memories.

The Sea Nymphs: ‘Appealing to Venus’
Org Records Ltd., ORGAN 044CD (5 028151 010445)
CD-only EP
Released:
1st June 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Original EP best obtained second-hand. Appealing to Venus, God’s Box, Up in Annie’sRoom and Shaping the River all appear on the eponymous debut album by The Sea Nymphs (available as a download from The Alphabet Business Concern), while Little Creations and Camouflage appear on the lone eponymous album by Mr & Mrs Smith and Mr Drake. Hymn is in fact a Cardiacs song used as an early 1980s set closer: the version here was recorded at the 1984 Stonehenge Free Festival and appears nowhere else apart from on bootlegs.
The Sea Nymphs (Cardiacs) online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Amazon Music
 

January 1997 – live reviews – Podsdarapomuk @ The Hope & Anchor, Islington, London, November 13th 1996 & January 23rd 1997 (“passages of dreamlike contemplation with surges of magnificently tangled art-rock splurge”)

29 Jan

Podsdarapomuk - concerted action (photographer unknown).

Podsdarapomuk onstage (photographer unknown).

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

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

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

Daniel Klemm in contemplative mood. (photographer unknown).

Daniel Klemm in contemplative mood. (photographer unknown).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podsdarapomuk - concerted action (photographer unknown).

Podsdarapomuk – concerted action (photographer unknown).

Podsdarapomuk online:
Homepage MySpace Last FM

The Hope & Anchor online:
Homepage Facebook

November 1996 – mini-album reviews – Bunty Chunks’ ‘Brain Ep’ (“violent eccentricity and an atmosphere of coded warning”)

16 Nov
Bunty Chunks: 'Brain Ep'

Bunty Chunks: ‘Brain Ep’

A bizarre, triple-jointed noise, ‘Brain Ep’ is twenty-two minutes worth of sixteen razor-honed two-minute songs. Any band of indie stoners could copy this note for note, slow it down by two-thirds and still end up with enough music for three years of releases. Bunty Chunks slam it all out at once. They’re probably one of the only groups who could deliver you a full concept album using only a split 7-inch with Napalm Death. And the Ep is short for Epilepsy.

So what kind of band would name themselves after a dismembered issue of a long-defunct girl’s comic? Well, theirs is a sound of seriously intense stunt guitar, twitchy hardcore tub-bashing and voice-of-doom Valkyrie vocals from Lisa Bailey. It’s as if Steve Vai (during his Zappa tenure, not his metal stardom) had skidded on the soap during bathtime, crashed through the window dripping and naked as a newborn, and finally fallen splat through next door’s roof, straigh into the middle of a women-only workshop of opera lessons. (Yeah, well, things like that happen to me most weeks…) I could also suggest L7 doing a jigsaw with Wire, Slapp Happy being forced to speak after being shut away and mainlining espresso for a solid month, or a Public Image Ltd. lineup with a Zappa complexity fetish. Otherwise there don’t seem to be many precedents for Bunty Chunks’ music. Which is a shame, because then life would be a lot more interesting than it actually is.

‘Brain Ep’ delivers a fruit salad stunt-punk, where the guitar weaves ridiculously complicated loops as Lisa vomits up hairball blasts of surrealist rhetoric. These in turn are decorated with scattered ad-slogans, one-liners and dismembered moments of sharp poetry. Seemingly taking as much influence from random cartoons and Rorschach blots as from real life, Bunty Chunks lean heavily into a disturbed world of childlike imagination and often topple into ludicrous playroom weirdness. Songs sport titles like Dog Made of Foam, Kojak Ring of Confidence or Fly Away Sausage Boy. Lisa’s lyrics are full of sinister, comical transformations: feet turn into chickens, stirrup pumps hurl abuse, and even Pavarotti reveals a hideous alter-ego. Yet there are stories in there too (embedded in the word-rashes) even if they do seem to have been tied in knots by a Turkish masseur and forced through a shattered kaleidoscope.

Lisa’s unstoppable voice – iron-hard and utterly committed, with a car-alarm urgency – is key to this. Taking what could otherwise be colourful whimsy, she pushes it out sounding like no-nonsense observation. She can navigate the paranoid mutterings and memories of a vagrant (in Hobo) or hurl out chattering expressions of rage at the demands of scrounging friends and partners (in Pay Up Ape). Similarly, she can also handle the put-upon fretting that sizzles in The Cat Tooth; the feverish dreams of mortality and aging in We Grow Up With Bones; and all of the bizarre characters that these songs suggest are marching in and out of her memory and life like a plague of amorphous, opportunistic aliens. (“Years later I would say I realise then, the only thing you can sell and still own… he was not a cripple, but he could pretend to be like no other.”)

While there’s little variety in her arresting, confrontational tone, its sheer conviction nails Bunty Chunks’ apparent flights of fancy down hard to the tarmac, rendering them as gritty as life in a rotting tower block. Despite the hallucinatory feel of the band’s songs, her edge gives them a visionary clarity. Lisa’s simultaneously the person who urgently buttonholes you for attention in the wasteland, and the woman who’s guarding and watching at the door, keeping a hard eye on the inside and the outside. Balanced between violent eccentricity and an atmosphere of coded warning, ‘Brain Ep’ comes across like a lifetime of very tricky parallel-dimension social work, carried out in a city of grotesques.

Considering that they’re the ones who got us into this, Bunty Chunks make pretty good guides to get us through. This in spite of the fact that they’ve junked verse-chorus-verse, and you’d better come in strapped up for a relentless (sometimes irritating) barrage of storm-tossed notes. But it’s worth the visit. At the very least you get to see Lisa and the other ‘Chunks playing with giddy intent: within sight of a million tunes yet never settling on any particular one, with eyes and ears stretched far too wide open to settle for anything as simple as boy-meets-girl. “Brain ep convulsions.” You said it, Lisa. Fits for a queen. So where’s the sixty-minute triple album, then?

Bunty Chunks: ‘Brain Ep’
Noiseburger Records, NB5 (5019148710073)
CD-only mini-album
Released: 1996

Buy it from:
Long deleted – look for this second-hand.

Bunty Chunks online:
LastFM

March 1996 – live reviews – Tori Amos @ Royal Albert Hall, Knightsbridge, London, 9th March (“the Raisin Girl is not communicating”)

11 Mar

It shouldn’t be like this. Call Tori Amos kooky, pretentious, over-precious, almost anything you like – but don’t call her boring. Not possible. A woman whose mouth and piano strive to out-motor each other, a torrent of perverse creativity, a handful of sharp pins in satin – Tori is riveting even when she’s being irritating.

So why am I spending so much time – up here in the balcony seats – bored? Why the itching urge to check my watch, when on previous tours I’ve been hanging on the edge of my seat?

The reason is that tonight the Raisin Girl is not communicating. Webbed up in the twinkling Santa’s-grotto lights of her stage set, leaning hungrily into her piano or capering over the keys of her harpsichord, Tori is playing resolutely inwards. Hips raked backwards, fingers thundering out melody, head and neck curved to the hovering mike, her face is turned out to us with that familiar elfin, ever-so-slightly ruthless expression. Despite the thrumming love emanating out to her from the capacity crowd, despite the on-stage company of Steve Caton and the soft, sly voices of his textural guitar, she’s never seemed so alone.

For someone who’s opened herself up to us as much as Tori has, this is sad. It’s particularly sad when you consider that she’s playing in Britain, the country that cradled her when she was the unknown émigré and winced as it took the charged barbs of ‘Little Earthquakes’ to its heart. At certain gigs you can feel the heart of the audience, as if it were one huge collective animal. Here, as at all of the Tori Amos gigs I’ve been to, it feels like the love borne for someone you know intimately, quietly, unreservedly.

Tori, though, is having none of it. We sit patiently through some of her recent interminable doodlings (Little Amsterdam is not longer slinky, just tedious; Not The Red Baron is beauty in search of obscurity) and specks of nonsense (the pointless verbal confetti of Space Dog). She plays on. This year, she’s not responding.

No, it’s not blandness that she’s offering us. The fury in her songbook is served well: a scorching rampage through Precious Things with a carnal girl-growl, a twitchy Crucify. The demanding sarcasm of Leather and the tingling, surfing buzz of Cornflake Girl (in which Caton kicks up a silvery storm of rhythm guitar) kick in with that familiar strength. But the sharing that used to set Tori apart from the herd… gone. That grueling romantic break-up with her engineer and onetime confidante Eric Rosse; the red-tinged and ruthless period which spawned the ‘Boys For Pele’ album; both seem to have left her wired and defensive. There have been too many considered steps back from the poised-tenterhook tenderness of Silent All These Years (which, significantly, she doesn’t play tonight.

Maybe this is why Bells For Her – previously a trembling inward coil of twisted, conflicting love played out on a treated piano – has somehow changed into a horrifying banshee curse now that she’s conjuring it out of her harpsichord. Maybe this is why few songs tonight sound as flat-out relished as the vicious, vampiric Blood Roses; why the more restrained snarl of Doughnut Song falls flat; why her infamous, languorous cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit (still missing that essential final verse, but this time with a capricious insert from ‘South Pacific’) seems like a letter abandoned too soon. Oh denial, oh denial.

Tori can still touch and be touched, though. We’re reminded of this in a mutually terrifying moment, one that we’d rather have avoided. Her first-person rape account, Me And A Gun, brings an absolute silence down into this huge hall – and a sense of stretched, time-slowing horror. Suddenly, about four-fifths of the way through, she stops. Dead. Her hand moves to her face in a movement that seems to take forever. A century passes – a terrifying gap into which our attention tumbles. Then she pulls herself together, finishes the song. Swallows the last word, stumbles offstage into darkness and tears.

At a time when she’s professing the most arrogant creative strength, Tori actually seems to be – more than ever before – walking wounded. Despite an assured China, the encores fail to restore confidence. Putting The Damage On trembles and falters; the love-regrets in Baker Baker now seem as detached as a pallid watercolour. Sweet Dreams breaks off as she drums out the rhythm on the lid of the harpsichord and the words slump out of her memory. A harmonium finale of Hey Jupiter is broken-backed, limping off-pitch, beaten down beyond the point of hope. She may have claimed to grab the perverse power of the volcano goddess – from here, it looks as if it’s burning her up from within.

But… so much love filling that enormous Victorian barn. If only she could have brought herself to reach out and accept it.

Tori Amos online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace LastFM

The Royal Albert Hall online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter

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