Tag Archives: Zappa-esque

June 2016 – upcoming gigs – North Sea Radio Orchestra play London and Salisbury (12th, 26th) with Daisy Chute and William D. Drake (and maybe some other people…)

30 May

After a four-year hiatus (punctuated only by a brief 2014 showing at a Robert Wyatt tribute evening in France) North Sea Radio Orchestra – the pocket alt.chamber ensemble formed by husband-and-wife art-rock refugees Craig and Sharron Fortnam – are returning to action with a couple of warm, low-key English shows in London and Salisbury during June.

North Sea Radio Orchestra, 2016

North Sea Radio Orchestra, 2016

Based around Craig’s aerial compositions (propelled by a fine lattice of nylon-string guitar or gestural piano) and fronted by Sharron’s grand, pealing mezzo-soprano, NSRO emerged fifteen years ago via a series of church concerts in the City of London. A familial, twenty-strong English-gala-on-legs, sporting a rugged/ragged choral section, they blended the feel of a market-town classical festival with the more omnivorous preoccupations of world-city musicians flitting between concert halls, experimental rock clubs and eclectic podcasts.

Notoriously, Craig’s tune-sense drew on a romantic-futurist melding of Britten, Zappa, Vaughan Williams, Peter Warlock, traditional and psychedelic folk, Victorian poetry and the bassoon-laden locomotional soundtracks of Smallfilms’ Vernon Elliott: while the musician-and-singer pool drew not only on moonlighting classical and film-score people, but also on London art-rockers with broad skills and wide-open ears. In retrospect, there are some superficial similarities not just between the NSRO and one of their clearest equivalents – the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, who enjoyed a comparable tidy balance between cosmopolitan genres and methods – but also between the NSRO and that ongoing wave of enjoyable pop-up community choirs who roll around with Beach Boys, Bjork and Pulp songs stuffed in their pockets. Certainly both of the latter share a “get-up-and-do-it” communal warmth which endear them to audience, plus a pleasing lack of collegiate polish (the NSRO’s choral parts managed to be disciplined and soaring and loveably rough’n’baggy, while Sharon’s lead singing has muscled in on uncolonized areas between classical diva, ’60s coffee-house folk and Yorkshire punk).

Having said that, the NSRO have always been a more serious endeavour, treating their inspirations and ongoing creative paths with a discreet and earnest gravity; something typified by their third album’s pre-hiatus digression into a more compacted style, in which minimalist and Krautrock influences subsumed their initial romanticism (and in which self-penned lyrics of connection, loss and retreat replaced their earlier settings of Tennyson and Blake).

Today’s NSRO are a more streamlined affair than they once were: a compact mostly-instrumental nonet with Sharron’s voice still to the fore. Many members may have gently fallen away (if not too far away), but most of the original players remain in place alongside the Fortnams. Percussionist Hugh Wilkinson, organist/monosynther James Larcombe, string players Harry Escott and Brian Wright, and Luke Crooks and Nicola Baigent on reeds are still all on board, Despite being absent for these shows (he’ll be back in the autumn) the ensemble’s newest recruit, percussionist and viola player Stephen Gilchrist, fulfils the usual NSRO criteria of strolling or scrambling across genre lines: as “Stuffy” Gilchrist, he’s best known for thrashing the drums behind Graham Coxon or Art Brut, or for doling out his pop-eyed alt.rock as Stuffy/the fuses or Stephen Evens.)

These new shows should contain material from the NSRO’s upcoming fourth album ‘Dronne’, due out in early September. The first signs of the album came from a minute-and-a-half of dreamy domestic phase music uploaded to their Facebook page back in January (see above). Various other hints which have seeped out suggest a further change of course, perhaps influenced by the inspired psychedelic folk course which Craig and James Larcombe have been following with their parallel project Arch Garrison . In James’ words: “the new NSRO album’s amazing – in my opinion rather further down the psychedelic avenue, particularly the long instrumental title track. The song we’ve recently done a video for (‘Vishnu Schist’) is without a doubt my new favourite NSRO song… I’ve been listening to it loads. There’s a Robert Wyatt cover on it too, which is lovely.”

Regarding the gigs…

Tigmus presents
North Sea Radio Orchestra + Daisy Chute
The Forge, 3-7 Delancey Street, Camden Town, London, NW1 7NL, England
Sunday 12th June 2016, 1.30pm
– more information here and here

In support at the Forge is Daisy Chute. Though she’s undoubtedly best known as one-quarter of glossy-teen pop/classical fusion queens All Angels, Daisy vigorously and actively pursues a broad sweep of additional music including theatre, education and modern folk. In addition to her frontline work as a singer, she’s an accomplished composer, arranger, orchestrator and multi-instrumentalist (guitar, piano, ukelele, banjo and pixiphone), and a member of varied other bands including Camberwell folk-pop quartet threeandme. On this occasion she’s going out under her own name, singing a set of self-penned folk-and-jazz inspired songs and fronting a quartet of Tristan Horne (cello), Will Collier (double bass) and Zara Tobias (harmonium and backing vocals).


 

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Salisbury Arts Centre presents:
Transplant Music Night: North Sea Radio Orchestra + William D. Drake + special guests
Salisbury Arts Centre, Bedwin Street, Salisbury, SP1 3UT, England
Sunday 26th Jun 2016, 8.00pm
more information

This one’s billed as “a special night of music to accompany Salisbury Arts Centre’s ‘Transplant’ exhibition” (more on that in a moment…) For this show, the support act is onetime Cardiacs member William D. Drake, who forged his own belated solo career alongside NSRO’s (simultaneously putting in time in the latter as both choir singer and occasional composer/pianist). Building on from his interest in Early Music, his stint as the classically-inspired keyboard wildcard amongst Cardiacs’ polystylistic punk tumult and his subsequent immersion in rootsier work, Bill has developed his own idiosyncratic approach to songwriting: baroque, playful and soulful. It’s culminated in his latest – and greatest – album, ‘Revere Reach’, which lovingly threads folk, rock, classical and mythic elements together in a compelling and timeless act of musical bridging.

 

There are also additional “special guests” mentioned on the bill. This could mean anything; but it’s worth speculating on location, on confirmed attendees and on similar associations including the ‘Transplant’ exhibition itself:

promo-mattcuttssculpture2016“Celebrating the interconnectedness between art forms emerging from the festival scene and the joy of being outdoors in nature, ‘Transplant’ brings together sculpture, image, music, poetry and living plants. Forming the heart of the exhibition, Matt Cutts’ wooden sculptures sit in ‘fields’ of wild flowers and trees. Accompanying them are huge batik paintings by Sarah Jones reflecting the beauty of trees. A soundtrack for the exhibition has been created from new music and field recordings by Sarah Jones and William D. Drake. The exhibition opens on Midsummers Eve (Tuesday 21st June) for a 6-8pm viewing, prior to the exhibition proper running from the 22nd to the 25th.”

Citing the fond connections between the world of Cardiacs and that of Salisbury is a pretty easy game. Not only have many former Cardiacs members and affiliates (the Fortnams included) ended up living around Salisbury, but the band recorded their reknowned ‘All That Glitters Is A Mare’s Nest’ concert film in the Arts Centre itself seventeen years ago. Bill Drake’s contributions to both Transplant concert and exhibition further binds the worlds together, but a closer look reveals yet more links. A long time ago (before the batiks), Sarah Jones was Sarah Smith, blowing a puckish saxophone and frail silvery backing vocals in Cardiacs. Before that, she was Sarah Cutts; born into an artistic Forest of Dean family and sister to Matthew Cutts, who himself put in a long stint as a Cardiacs roadie before returning to his sculpting work.

Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones

Whatever the main intentions, it’s clear that a nodding, benevolent Cardiacs spectre looms over the whole event, sealed by the nature-saturated green-fuse inspirations which collectively permeate the artworks of Transplant, North Sea Radio Orchestra’s pastoral heart, and the undergrowth of Cardiacs songs (with their fascination with life and damp and greenery). It could, in fact, be part of one of the ever-more regular waves of Cardiacs-related activity which ripple through English crannies and corners each year in the band’s absence, keeping alive their loving and cheerfully prickly approach to music, friendship and existence (see also the upcoming ‘Whole World Window’ benefit gig in Preston next month, which I’ll flag up again later in the summer). It may give some clues as to who else might turn up; or it might not.

However, I’ll leave any speculation there. Moving back to certainties, here are a few video clips of NSRO in the past – from their choral triumphs to their airborne or churchbound meditations – to pave the way for whatever they’ve got ready for us now.





 

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

30 Jun

More art-rock roars coming up…

Facemelter, 3rd July 2015

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

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

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

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

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

More details here, and tickets available here.

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Levitation: 'Meanwhile Gardens' (2015 issue)

Levitation: ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ (2015 issue)

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

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

Levitation, circa 1992

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

24 Jul

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:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Last FM

REVIEW – Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’ mini-album, 2012 (“like a prog-dusted bumblebee”)

18 Apr
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.

Artist online:
Facebook MySpace Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

REVIEW – North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP, 2002 (“the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider”)

28 Feb

North Sea Radio Orchestra: 'North Sea Radio Orchestra' demo EP

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP

Though it isn’t a patch on their ornately gilded live performances, there’s still much on the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s debut recording to give you an idea of their fledgling fragility and freshness. Making strikingly pretty voyages into English chamber music, the NSRO are a vehicle for the Frank-Zappa-meets-Benjamin-Britten compositions of the former Shrubbies/Lake Of Puppies guitarist Craig Fortnam. They feature a cross section of classical musicians and serious moonlighters from latter-day London art-rock bands like Cardiacs and Stars In Battledress; and they mingle a palpable innocence of intent with a taste for engagingly convoluted melodic decoration. All this plus eminent Victorian poetry too. At this rate, Craig will wake up one day to find out that the National Trust has staked him out.

He could use some backup, to tell the truth. This time, budget constraints mean that the NSRO’s flexible little company of clarinets, piano, violin, organ, cello and harmonium (plus Craig’s own nylon-strung electric guitar) gets squeezed into a recording vessel too small to give them justice. It’s a measure of the music’s innate charm that it transcends these cramped conditions, aided in part by the loving assistance of head Cardiac Tim Smith at the console.

Music For Two Clarinets And Piano, in particular, strides out in delicious pulsating ripples as it evolves from a folky plainness to an increasingly brinksman-like disconnection. The clarinets hang off the frame of the music like stunt-riders, chuckling and babbling cheerfully at each other, held up by bubbling piano. The keyboard trio of Nest Of Tables also overcomes the plinking tones of the necessarily-synthesized vibraphone and harp to embark on a long, waltzing journey over a stack of tricky chords: leaning on the piano, the benevolent spectres of Tim Smith and Kerry Minnear nod approval in the background like a pair of proud godfathers. Organ Miniature No. 1 (written and delivered by SIB’s James Larcombe) manages to find a convincing meeting point for relaxed Messiaen, strict chapel and the better-groomed end of Zappa.

For many it’ll be the three Alfred Lord Tennyson settings which encapsulate the heart of the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s appeal. Featuring the soprano vocals of Sharron Saddington (Craig’s longtime musical and romantic partner), they’re as tart and sweet as freshly pressed apple juice. Somehow they manage to dress the poems up in artful, beautifully-arranged chamber flounces and frills without swamping them in too much chintz. It’s a fine line, which the NSRO tread by matching Tennyson’s blend of mellifluous personal introspection and cosmological scenery with similarly perfumed and illuminated music. Soft but increasingly detailed puffs of chamber organ gently rock Sharron’s summertime lament on The Lintwhite, from where it’s cradled in its bed of harmonium. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Craig chooses to orchestrate The Flower (a fable of beauty, nurture and prejudice which conceals a sharp judgmental barb) with a muted brass arrangement reminiscent of another sharp musical fabulist, Kurt Weill.

The crowning glory is Move Eastward Happy Earth, where Sharron sings a hymnal wedding waltz over joyfully welling piano. Refusing to sing in either classical bel canto or pure pop, Sharron comes up with her own tones in a full sweep of approaches between urchin, candyfloss and diva: here, she carols in a kind of beautifully-mannered choirboy ecstasy. She’s backed up by an exuberant miniature chamber choir who sweep between yo-ho-ho-ing madrigal accompaniment and full-throated burst festive celebration via a set of boldly harmonised canons. It’s a little trek through the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider.

Perhaps that last idea is as fancifully romantic of me as is Tennyson’s own image of the spinning planet, racing him on towards his marriage day. Or perhaps underneath it all I’m being as phoney as John Major, last decade, waxing corny about a vintage Albion of cycling spinsters and cricket whites on the village green. Dreams of English innocence and cleanliness can end up trailing their roots through some pretty murky places unless you’re careful. Nonetheless, for three-and-a-half minutes North Sea Radio Orchestra could restore your faith in its well-meaningness – all without a trace of embarrassment, or recourse to snobbery. They earn their right to their genuine dreamy innocence, and (for all of their blatant nostalgia) to their sincerity too.

Shoebox recording or not, here’s a little piece of wood-panelled chamber magic for you.

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP
North Sea Radio Orchestra (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: 2002

Buy it from:
Best obtained second-hand.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

REVIEW – The Chewers: ‘Every Drop Disorganized’ album, 2011 (“a couple of junk dogs”)

31 Jan
The Chewers: 'Every Drop Disorganized'

The Chewers: ‘Every Drop Disorganized’

The Chewers thrust their faces, suddenly, out of the forest. They notice your startled expression, but they just cross their eyes at you. They’re not here to entertain you, let alone impress you. They’re sniffing around music, a couple of junk dogs, seeing what they can make of it. There will be bumps and boings: there will be scraps of sudden, enthusiastic remembering. There will be sudden interjections. There will be rather a lot of hammering.

The Chewers are Travis Caffrey and Michael Sadler, a pair of self-confessed West Virginian freaks. Most of what they do involves rudimentary guitar lines which complain like old suspension springs; drums thumped with a bastardized ritual technique; frowning stump-handed bass playing which is too big for the room but too inert to leave it. They sing, after a fashion – usually in a menacing deadpan creak, sometimes in a gruff lobotomized roar. Melodies are torn off, like unwanted paint: they strip everything down to a trapped and surly chug, then filter it through the sound of collapse. Sometimes they leave an electric organ broiling in the corner, add a layer of picked-out piano, or torment a fiddle with skeleton plucks or sawing skids.

These are the kind of tunes that could make a musician forget how to play. Their goofy, deadpan primitivism sounds like drunken mechanics banging rocks together in a Flintstones cartoon; or a couple of bears who’ve set upon and eaten a guy in a one-man-band outfit, then start fumbling at the crumpled instruments to try and get that interesting noise back. We’ve been here before, of course, with The Residents – and a musky, oppressive Residents reek hangs all over The Chewers’ faux-artless art music. At a root level, both bands work with the same kind of sub-technique – deliberately clumsy, deliberately short-sighted, attempting to sneak up on an idiot-savant approach from behind.

Much of The Chewers’ debut album ‘Every Drop Disorganized’ seems to follows a freak-show blueprint. Stirring a greasy canful of satire and nihilism, Travis and Michael are self-confessed cartographers of tiny personal hells. While what can be discerned of their settings, characters and stylings are unmistakeably American, they’re often fairly timeless. They present stark three-line drawings of insanities and self-inflicted rages, or of situations slewing into enmity or a crude revenge. Their Americana is absurd and brutal, part Faulkner and part ‘Gummo’ – the kind of storyscape in which thick-set dungaree’d inbreds drag their own coffins around on leg-chains and where frowning men, preoccupied with guzzling and paranoia, squat guard outside collapsing shacks, broken-down trailers and mouldering gambrel houses.

In fact (as with The Residents), what The Chewers do behind their Muppet voices and smeary, tarry-black humour is less elaborate and even more savage. With American Gothic, there’s some state of aspiration to fall from and some perverse pleasure in the decay. The Chewers, though, deal with lives apparently blunted by ignorance, obsession, violence and inertia from the start. You’re a brute; or a chump; or the target of someone else’s shills and exploitations – and you’re stuck with it. The misanthropic ranting of Human Scum is couched in brown-dwarf rock-and-roll, compressed to a broken stumble of sour fuzz guitar, splattered twang and thunder-drum. “Get your slime out of this house,” one Chewer growls on Get Out Of Town, while half a blues riff tussles with fragments of Dobro slide. “You left many things behind. / None of them was a friend.”

The Chewers clearly enjoy their grim and guttural journey. During breaks in dragging around those hope-coffins, they indulge in short instrumentals, deliberate guitar bungles and instinctual blobs of pick-up-and-play sound-art. The Scooby Doo caveman vocals and berimbau twanging on Who Ra makes that Residents debt even more explicit (it could easily sit alongside the faked rituals and pop-culture gags on ‘Eskimo’). Don’t Go In The Tent offers three minutes of machine pulse, bat-wing bellows-chords and drill-whistles. The Day The Circus Came To Town fools around with Autotune-whooping, kazoos and fiddle scrawls. The Chewers bring an exultation to this part of the work, delighting in the clash of noises.

Much of the music thumbs its nose at American aspiration while revelling in American orneriness and the palpable debris of American life. This makes absolute sense – the other key Chewers influences are those utterly American musicians and songwriters who stick like bones in the throat of their culture. The three Swamp Drag pieces bear the stamp (or stomp) of Tom Waits hobo-music pieces with their wounded marching drum, their dinosaur gronks and busted-suspension riffage, their broken-off stub of tune and the lost, frothing narrator winding his way inwards. Butterknife – with its deadpan sprechstimme and its indistinct, twisting story of marital discontent, murder and kitchen utensils – owes plenty to Frank Zappa .

Two other songs have a fairly explicit Captain Beefheart tang. The evangelism parody of Savior Pill crumbles like ripe old cheese as it lurches along on jazz cymbals and gnarled-up blues: although the lyrics, using the language of oldtime radio hucksters, are more Zappa. “Shouldn’t you have some relief? Call to see if you qualify… / Legs are restless, souls in strife. / Side effects include everlasting life. / Call in ten minutes and you’ll see the light. / Benefits are many, side effects are few – we’ll even throw in a Second Coming.” Beyond its guitar boings and grits-pan clunks, Fire on the Hill stumbles into trek poetry, painting the simple beauty of the outdoors in disconnected swipes and flashes while entwining it with the occult. “Trouble is following me through the long grass… / Voices beside me as I sit near the flames – the horses make noises, they drop through the dark… / Laughing is loud, / the crickets are chirping. / The sky is a dome.”

On the whole, though, Chewers songs are populated by fuck-ups. Convicts stuff their faces; some people fall down wells (where they wait, somewhat indifferently, for rescue), while others wander permanently off the trail. Damaged men sit alone in rooms, propelled into puzzling hallucinations by ringing telephones. The ambitious aren’t spared either. With the grinding punk-slurry riff and monotone delivery of Hollywood Car, Travis and Michael caustically lay waste to dreams of celebrity, reducing them to empty greed. “Rotten soul don’t get old… / Pledge yourself like all the others. / Step over your mom – skin is glossy like a magazine cover… / Smile through your teeth and ignore the poor. / You got your foot in the door. / You’ve had fifteen and you want some more… / Hollywood isn’t a workplace rat-race – / it’s a high-speed chase. / Cut off your nose to spite your face.”

Perhaps where all of this fails a little is in the way The Chewers allow their absurdism thicken into cynicism. Never really presenting their blundering song-characters as anything other than grim entertainment or easy meat, they don’t leave them the option of dignity. There’s rarely any of punk’s indignation; and not even much of Zappa’s frustrated disdain. On Specimen, they play a crude kazoo-laden cha-cha-cha and deliver a one-way story about a man becoming a test animal in a destructive medical experiment. On the strummed, limping lollop of Charlie Chum, they show even less sympathy for their hapless protagonist. “You should have seen this coming” they grunt, as they drawing a muddled, menacing picture of a man who first deceives and then overreaches himself; who “chews his words like cows chew cud… / believes every word he speaks.” Falling foul of the predators, he eventually pays the price – “Charlie Chum has got two hands – / one swats flies, one deals cards. / Deck is cut, game draws blood, / sharks tear Charlie Chum apart.” Travis and Michael, at least, seem to think he had it coming. Despite the murky flourishes, this never rises above the level of chump cartoon, and that’s a shame.

But perhaps I’m being unfair. Even at the very least ,the album’s cartoon-noir tone is enjoyable once you’ve attuned yourself to its sinister creep; and one track – an acapella ode to the joy of pancakes – offers some relief. As The Chewers sing, hiccup, belch and gargle their way through a gamut of American musical trademarks (a blues-grind, some close-harmony doo-wop, a prison song, a Spike Jones fusillade of comedy noises) they also recite a series of cheerfully dumb Bubba-isms in a thoughtful Jimmy Dean drawl. “Life without pancakes is hell on earth, / and I don’t mind my massive girth… / The only difference between beast and man / is – an animal can’t make a cake in a pan… / When they find me bloated in the gutter, / they can cover my coffin in syrup and butter.”

Though they top it off with a particularly dopey and violent twist (“The only way I’ll have my fill / is when they make one good enough to kill,”) it’s somehow an affectionate moment: one in which they embrace their all-American idiot as well as laugh at him. At The Chewers’ jokiest moment it all comes together – the stubbornness and rebelliousness that’s as much a part of Americana as is romance or beauty; the love of homemade noise and of squeezing music out from the pips; the thick’n’tasty bozo parade.

The Chewers: ‘Every Drop Disorganized’
The Chewers (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only album
Released: 6th February 2011

Buy it from:
The Chewers homepage.

The Chewers online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud LastFM YouTube

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP, 2002 (“the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider”)

5 Dec

North Sea Radio Orchestra: 'North Sea Radio Orchestra' demo EP

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP

Though it isn’t a patch on their ornately gilded live performances, there’s still much on the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s debut recording to give you an idea of their fledgling fragility and freshness.

Making strikingly pretty voyages into English chamber music, the NSRO are a vehicle for the Frank-Zappa-meets-Benjamin-Britten compositions of the former Shrubbies/Lake Of Puppies guitarist Craig Fortnam. They feature a cross section of classical musicians and serious moonlighters from latter-day London art-rock bands like Cardiacs and Stars In Battledress; and they mingle a palpable innocence of intent with a taste for engagingly convoluted melodic decoration. All this plus eminent Victorian poetry too. At this rate, Craig will wake up one day to find out that the National Trust has staked him out.

He could use some backup, to tell the truth. This time, budget constraints mean that the NSRO’s flexible little company of clarinets, piano, violin, organ, cello and harmonium (plus Craig’s own nylon-strung electric guitar) gets squeezed into a recording vessel too small to give them justice. It’s a measure of the music’s innate charm that it transcends these cramped conditions, aided in part by the loving assistance of head Cardiac Tim Smith at the console.

Music For Two Clarinets And Piano, in particular, strides out in delicious pulsating ripples as it evolves from a folky plainness to an increasingly brinksman-like disconnection. The clarinets hang off the frame of the music like stunt-riders, chuckling and babbling cheerfully at each other, held up by bubbling piano. The keyboard trio of Nest Of Tables also overcomes the plinking tones of the necessarily-synthesized vibraphone and harp to embark on a long, waltzing journey over a stack of tricky chords: leaning on the piano, the benevolent spectres of Tim Smith and Kerry Minnear nod approval in the background like a pair of proud godfathers. Organ Miniature No. 1 (written and delivered by Stars In Battledress’ James Larcombe) manages to find a convincing meeting point for relaxed Messiaen, strict chapel and the better-groomed end of Zappa.

For many it’ll be the three Alfred Lord Tennyson settings which encapsulate the heart of the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s appeal. Featuring the soprano vocals of Sharron Saddington (Craig’s longtime musical and romantic partner), they’re as tart and sweet as freshly pressed apple juice. Somehow they manage to dress the poems up in artful, beautifully-arranged chamber flounces and frills without swamping them in too much chintz. It’s a fine line, which the NSRO tread by matching Tennyson’s blend of mellifluous personal introspection and cosmological scenery with similarly perfumed and illuminated music. Soft but increasingly detailed puffs of chamber organ gently rock Sharron’s summertime lament on The Lintwhite, from where it’s cradled in its bed of harmonium. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Craig chooses to orchestrate The Flower (a fable of beauty, nurture and prejudice which conceals a sharp judgmental barb) with a muted brass arrangement reminiscent of another sharp musical fabulist, Kurt Weill.

The crowning glory is Move Eastward Happy Earth, where Sharron sings a hymnal wedding waltz over joyfully welling piano. Refusing to sing in either classical bel canto or pure pop, Sharron comes up with her own tones in a full sweep of approaches between urchin, candyfloss and diva: here, she carols in a kind of beautifully-mannered choirboy ecstasy. She’s backed up by an exuberant miniature chamber choir who sweep between yo-ho-ho-ing madrigal accompaniment and full-throated burst festive celebration via a set of boldly harmonised canons. It’s a little trek through the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider.

Perhaps that last idea is as fancifully romantic of me as is Tennyson’s own image of the spinning planet, racing him on towards his marriage day. Or perhaps underneath it all I’m being as phoney as John Major, last decade, waxing corny about a vintage Albion of cycling spinsters and cricket whites on the village green. Dreams of English innocence and cleanliness can end up trailing their roots through some pretty murky places unless you’re careful. Nonetheless, for three-and-a-half minutes North Sea Radio Orchestra could restore your faith in its well-meaningness – all without a trace of embarrassment, or recourse to snobbery. They earn their right to their genuine dreamy innocence, and (for all of their blatant nostalgia) to their sincerity too.

Shoebox recording or not, here’s a little piece of wood-panelled chamber magic for you.

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP
North Sea Radio Orchestra (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: late November 2002

Buy it from:
(Updated, 2016) Best obtained second-hand – although it’s as rare as hen’s teeth.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

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