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albums - oct 2011


Collapse Under The Empire - Shoulders And Giants (Sister Jack)

‘Shoulders And Giants’ is a “…two-part concept work that thematically deals with the human existence, the dream of advancement, a life of absolute freedom, isolation and death…”, with the concluding part released in a years’ time. Performed solely by Chris Burda and Martin Grimm, this is Collapse Under The Empire’s third full length release and follows a recent appearance on the Deep Elm ‘Emo Diaries’ series.

Successfully marrying different genres of music can prove a tricky business and so often the results can ultimately disappoint. ‘Shoulders And Giants’ features what could be described as electronic post-rock. However this is post-rock of a far greater focus and intensity than the meanderings and repetitive quiet-loud format of many bands labelled with the same tag. At the foundations of this album is a driving but subtle electronic undercurrent. Built upon these foundations are layers of Pelican-style guitar work, refreshingly live drums and a tinkling of piano. The result is a record of huge cinematic sound, engulfing the listener with its many textures and its refusal to relent or to lose focus. This is an unusual and certainly distinct release, but more importantly, a very enjoyable listening experience.

Mark Whiffin


Five Mile Island - Failed States

Based around Leeds, Five Mile Island return after their 2009 debut album ‘Satellites’ with a new collection of songs.

‘Fall On Me’ instantly reminds of The Bluetones with its fiddly guitar opening. The talk-singing vocals appear in contrast to the intricate backing music. Immediate comparisons seem to signal a number of similarities with the Irish band Whipping Boy. However it is not long before the promising opening is sunk by the truly unremarkable ‘Monk’, a plodding mess of a track and one which soon triggers the filler warning alarm. ‘Drive’ and ‘Full Band Backing’ demonstrate well how to use a very repetitive lyric to create a slightly sinister lullaby, with the latter reminding strangely of Gallon Drunk at times. Sadly it appears the band have spent time sweeping up studio floors as ‘One Man Up’ features a guitar riff very similar to the Stone Roses’ ‘Love Spreads’ only slightly faster. Alongside ‘Win Win Win’, ‘One Man Up’ feels very out of place with the rest of the album.

There are hints of promise here but File Mile Island need a musical self-audit to establish where their strengths lie as ultimately this album appears to be an amalgamation of Shed 7 and I Like Trains and is not particularly successful.

Mark Whiffin


Benjamin Francis Leftwich - Last Smoke Before The Snowstorm

York-based singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich has that breathy vocal quality about him which seems too much 'in vogue' these days. They say that immitation is the greatest form of flattery, but surely even Dylan must have rued the day he strapped on the battered old guitar and became folk troubadour, with the legions of pale immitations down the years. It never seems to dry up, that's the problem, just when you think it's all over, Mumford & Sons drag you in again! Happily, Benjamin Francis Leftwich, steers clear of the bland with his confessional and thoughtful lyrics, much more at the Elliot Smith or Nick Drake end of the singer-songwriter spectrum. And it's the lyrics on his debut Last Smoke Before The Snowstorm which really intrigue and tug at your heartstrings. Track opener 'Pictures' is a good case in point, truly classy:

"If you crash a car into your best friend's house
would you be quiet as words came out of their mouth
Stop! Don't do it I have been waiting for it
Stop! I knew it would come

If you find a guard next to your girl friend's bed
Would it be hard to sort out your spinning head?
Stop! Don't say that dear that you wanted him here
Stop! Don't give him the clear

Take a picture of them

If you are afraid don't be, I have the whole thing planned
We'll start a motion baby when we find the land
We will be thankful to all our friends
They didn't leave us till we got to the end

Take a picture of them

If you find your faith in your parent's God
Don't be so quick to point out the flaws in it
You've been around and you see the way that things work
But you need a compass to get around your house"

It's an album of beautiful enchantment, set in the classic folk tradition with simple musical accompaniment, often just Leftwich and his guitar. In much the same way that the Smoke Fairies' Through Low Light And Trees did last year, it gently eases itself into your consciousness and repays lots of listens. 'Box Of Stones' is anthemic and sounds a bit like Arcade Fire in sombre recollection. '1904' has odd historical references, and the music is backed with delicate fiddle playing staring into old God's eyes. Like much of the album, 'Butterfly Culture' is haunted by introspection, and 'Atlas Hands' sees more soul-searching with "People in the churches started singing above their hands
They say: "My god is a good good and he cares!"

'Stole You Away' sounds so familiar, something which Crosby, Stills and Nash could have put together, or Neil Young in his 'Harvest' ('Are You Ready For The Country?') era. You could get tired of songs like 'Shine', until you read the irony behind the lyrics:

"I could wait with you by the water
I could wait with you for the winter to come
I could stand with you with your snow boots on
I hope you find the love that's true
So the morning light can shine on you
I hope you find what you're looking for
so your heart is warm forever more"

Like a good whisky, it's probably impossible to take Last Smoke straight. This album's dripping with half-expressed sentiment and irony. Leftwich is abandoning us to our fate, but doing it with the sweetest of soundtracks, he wants us to believe that love often ends with spitting poison and cold hearts. It's a bit harsh, but love is a many-sided beast! On 'Snowship' he warns us "be careful what you wish for when you're young!" And then the lugubrious finale 'Don't Go Slow', my personal favourite, slow and drawn out, with a real feeling of claustrophobia in every one of its bars. Lovers swallow each other whole ... Last Smoke Before The Snowstorm is a wolf in sheep's clothing, make no mistake about it!

Don't go slow miss all the things that you need
Love and hate run through your head to your feet
Saw you first in the car on the way to the lake
Catch you there
If my bones were wrapped around you
my skin was right in front of you
and you smile and close your eyes
I'm yours tonight

If you stay I promised to keep you alive
For all these days
When you found that like a feather from out of the plain
you've got time

If my bones were wrapped around you
My skin was right in front of you
And you smile and close your eyes
I'm yours tonight, I'm yours tonight

Matthew Haddrill


Cosmo Jarvis – Is The World Strange Or Am I Strange? (25th Frame)

It's been two years since we last heard from Cosmo Jarvis and his double album Humasyouhitch/Sonofabitch, which I distinctly remember as rubbing me up the wrong way; so let's see what the closing of the noughties did to the Devonshire songwriter and film-maker.

The album opens with his first single (from January!) Gay Pirates, praised by none other than Stephen Fry – a story about, surprisingly, two gay pirates who are abused and inevitably thrown overboard. Whilst the lines about salty water and gang-rape might make you cringe your own face off, the rest of the track will somehow charm your face back on. And by the end of it, not only will you want to play it again, you'll have a complete face. That's pretty good going.

For those unfamiliar, Cosmo Jarvis is a ukulele/mandolin/piano/guitar-wielding menace; with (often but not always) the pace of punk but the sounds of folk. This latest album, certainly in comparison to the first, sheds light on a maturer Jarvis – both in terms of subject matter and musical composition. I'm happy for the guy, he has abandoned his jack-the-lad bit-of-a-twat expedition and settled for semi-acoustic good times.

Upon starting this album, I didn't think I'd make it to the end. The last two tracks dive off into some noisy nonsense, perhaps an homage to the Jarvis that was, but he's won me over, this is a pretty good album. A little poorly timed perhaps; the bouncy sounds of Summer might struggle in the icy depths of Winter, but maybe you can slap it on your iPod and take it to the sunbeds. 7/10

Thom Curtis


Rubicks – The Rise of the Giddy (Sharp Attack)

The mainstream music press can't get enough of Rubicks; their début album Miniature from five years ago was met with critical acclaim, as was the follow-up EP three years later. From what I can gather, Rubicks are an amalgamation of every synth-led female-fronted pop group in the history of time. It's Blondie, Siouxsie and Goldfrapp in one full-on atmospheric explosion. There's no delicate endearing sequences, it's all big sounds. You know when you go to a gig and there's a support band on you don't know who have just reached a point in a song where they start repeating the same couple of lines that you can't quite work out while the music builds and builds into a frenzy where you aren't quite sure what's going on? That seems to be a recurring theme here, on the opening tracks at least. The second half of the album dips away into a slower, minimal theme – like Bowie had single-handedly written an album for Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

I'll be honest, for a band dubbed as the aforementioned accumulation of Blondie and co, I was expecting some radio-friendly hard-hitting synth pop tunes – the closest to that being Where You At or the single Is This Love? But instead, it's taken more of a War Paint approach. That said, War Paint are very popular at the moment, although mostly amongst women. While I can't claim to be enjoying this hugely, I can't ignore that it will make a lot of people will wee themselves with delight. 5/10

Thom Curtis


Runaround Kids – Linked Arms (Philophobia)

Linked Arms is the début album from Wakefield's Runaround Kids – the indie dirge-rock trio who have been on the scene in one capacity or another for a couple of years, completing BBC Introducing line-ups at Reading & Leeds and various other festivals. They offer a glimpse of the indie that was, that raw sound that dragged skinny jeaners into rooms to tap feet and nod heads. Not the indie that made everyone wear fluorescent paint, and not the indie that wanted to be wonkier than Picasso's finest pieces. There's no synth, no drum machines, just good old fashioned drum bass guitar vocal.

Yeah the vocals struggle to accurately follow a melody and yes, the guitar sound is a pretty raw and messy but, as previously established, that's the joy of the sound isn't it. They sound like a hundred other bands rolled into one, but I'm struggling to name one of them. I want to say Hot Club de Paris, but they're a bit twitchier. The vocal style at least.

There is a variety of song types whilst retaining the same over all feel – from fast and erratic to slow and melodic – but my top pick is probably Last July; a medium-paced tune about post-college adolescent life with the recurring line “the friends you fuck and then you talk about how much you hate it.”

In conclusion, a good effort. A step back from the perfectly recorded radio-friendly indie of the moment and a reflection on the underground scene that hides behind its popular mainstream breed. 7/10

Thom Curtis


Soma High – Secrets That Didn't Happen (The Animal Farm)

This is the début from Soma High – indie rockers from the south coast. The comparisons I wish to draw are quite literally on the tip of my tongue (or fingers as the case may be) but alas they're out of reach. Let's break it down.

Ignoring the vocals, the music is dark and subtly grimy. Not the kind of grime that makes you feel literally dirty post-listen, but just that little edge that makes you grit your teeth whilst you nod along. The opener It's Easy has Radiohead-like guitars twanging away whilst a soft pad fills the remaining void. Paper Chaser has huge pounding stadium-anthem chorus guitars, and Big Boy Shoes has a funky slightly Brit-pop riff that rolls into a pacey rock track. Three tracks in and I'm struggling to put my finger on a defined sound.

Then the vocals – there's an element of Yorke-like whine, a splash of Pigeon Detective melody-avoiding, but nothing overly ballsy. Whilst the rest of the band might be taking part in an epic chorus the vocals refuse the invitation to melt your face and instead remain at a bit of a moan. On the final track You Know, they work blissfully with the gentle piano but elsewhere they struggle a little bit.

My pick of the album would probably be Lo Fat, a track with the pace of a classic indie boogie-tune but that undeniable fuzzy grunt from the guitar department and a chord progression that may be simple but just makes you nod in agreement. Yes.

There's a lot of potential here, and I'm incredibly exited for what could be next... 7/10

Thom Curtis


Howling Bells – The Loudest Engine (Cooking Vinyl)

This latest offering from Howling Bells opens with Charlatan, featuring guitars with that distinctive hill-billy twang that makes you picture toothless men strumming wildly on a fretless neck. And then Juanita Stein's smooth vocals show up and blow your initial country-stomp vibes out the water. The track then continues onwards in a delightful fashion; “you're not a man, you're a beautiful charlatan.”

Howling Bells are no doubt considered indie rock, but don't let that confuse you. This isn't twitchy or synthy – it's extremely well-worked old-fashioned guitar-driven indie. Stein's voice is a real winner and is complimented perfectly by the rest of the band; these aren't enormous rock anthems, they're a thinner intricate breed that can't fail to impress. Gentle rhythms coupled with a scattering of intricate licks; it's hard to fault a band when they don't really do enough to possibly do anything wrong.

Besides the opener; my top picks would probably be The Wilderness for it's sweet little riff, and Secrets for... everything. Imagine if the Kills weren't so boring, yep, that's it, you've got it. 8/10

Thom Curtis


Teletextile - Glass (Lili Is Pi)

Founded by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Pamela Martinez, ‘Glass’ is Teletextile’s first European release.

‘Glass’ begins with very short harmonious choral-like piece ‘The Moment’ before ‘I Don’t Know How To Act Here’ bursts to life, featuring interesting and unusual drum patterns and vocal arrangements reminiscent of Feist. Out of character with the remainder of the album, Teletextile appear keen to implement changes of pace during this song , slowly teasing out a PJ Harvey or Anna Calvi rocking conclusion. ‘What If’ and ‘The Lark’ slow the pace somewhat but there is no let up in the intensity and both songs meander hauntingly. During both these tracks it is impossible to not be reminded of Kate Bush as the elegant vocal sits atop a tantalizing piano melody, resulting in the raising of hairs on the back of the listener’s neck. Concluding tracks ‘Safer One’ and ‘Safer Two’ close the album in beautiful fashion, heavily dosed with delicate piano and, in the case of ‘Safer Two’, poignant, soulful vocals.

Despite the consistent pace found over many of the tracks, it is a great achievement that there is such variety present; that this is possible is due simply to the staggering instrumentalism featuring banjos, harps, choirs and on more than one occasion accordion. ‘Glass’ can certainly be stored safely in the category ‘Albums that will appeal to the mainstream but whose depth will attract lovers of more experimental sounds’.

Mark Whiffin


Little Roy - 'Battle For Seattle' (Ark Recordings)

My computer didn't like this album, which I took as something of an ill portent, considering it's a reggae interpretation of Nirvana songs, probably Seattle's best known export aside from the vast array of Microsoft products no-one can actually live without nowadays. So, do you like reggae? You'll probably like what Little Roy's done with those Nirvana songs you recognise, particularly if you also like Bob Marley's later work, the mainstream acceptable sounds of 'Exodus' and 'Kaya' providing much of the musical inspiration for the reggae part of the music here. Matter of fact, if you'd never heard of Kurt Cobain and someone told you this was a Ziggy Marley album, you'd probably accept that as fact. Bigger question though, is 'Battle For Seattle' something of a novelty or able to stand on its own merits? Little Roy's version of 'Come As You Are' doesn't add very much to the original, but other tracks such as 'Silver' and 'Polly' work really well, both in their reinterpretations and as reminders of exactly how good Nirvana were, at their best. I can't help recalling the story about the unfinished album John Lennon was reported to have begun recording in Jamaica and then abandoned, and it's doubtful any of those tracks will ever reach an audience. Little Roy can expect some enthusiasm for what he's done here though.



Maria Taylor - 'Overlook'

If there's one influence that's detectable across the nine songs that make up 'Overlook', then that is unquestionably Alanis Morrisette. Listening more closely, I can also hear guitar parts and other things that point to exactly where Maria Taylor and her producers decided to construct the template of their album - REM, Jah Wobble (really) and somewhere in the electronic department, Robbie Williams. If there's one thing Maria Taylor doesn't apppear to lack, it's ideas, and it'd sound a bit cheap were I to suggest they're all other people's, which they aren't. It's just that, as songer songwriter albums go - and I am hearing more of these recently - it's a bit overproduced.

When a female guitarist and vocalist makes an album, the more those recordings focus just on the basics, the songs and voice, then that's often what makes the album a worthwhile listening experience. Maria Taylor can both sing and play guitar, but you'll need to listen very carefully to really hear her amidst the layers of synths, glockenspiels, fuzzy lead solos, flutes, trombones, wind chimes and probably the sound engineers phone going off in the studio more than once. Second track 'Matador' is a prime example of this, a song mangled almost beyond recognition by some overenthusiastic mixing board acrobatics. I won't suggest that everyone goes back into the studio and rerecords the entire album on a 4 track cassette, it's just that it does sound very like Maria herself is almost sidelined by the overbearing production values which very nearly drain every ounce of personality from her songs. I like her lyrics though, not a dangling plastic carrot to be heard anywhere.



Darren Hayman - 'The Ships Piano' (FortunaPop)

Piano and a minimal drum/bass/vibes backing is the thread that links the songs on 'The SHips Piano'. The production is sparing and has an agreeable acoustic ambience to it, the songs sounding as if they were done in one take in an extensively carpeted studio lounge. Alright tunes too, although the tone remains determinedly soporific and, while the overall effect is gently mellow and the production captures the keyboard textures of Hayman's piano in some smoothly silken depth, it's the vocal that provides the actual counterpoint to that most prominent feature of the album.

Really, and Darren Hayman is on one or two of his songs audibly aware of this, it's the vocal that is the one weak aspect of the album. Hayman's voice never really matches the instrumentation, and while it's impossible to fault his musicality, his voice cracks when it should soar and the album would work so much more succesfully with another vocalist to carry the gently breezing melodies. As it is, 'The Ships Piano' is an album I enjoyed hearing more than I expected I would, which says much about the musicianship. I could listen to Darren Hayman's piano playing for an hour or two, although I realised that's what I was listening to, and disregarding the singing. Anyone who thinks Chris Martin is one of our finest male vocalists of the last decade will inevitably disagree with me, although Darren Hayman and his backing band can congratulate themselves on the quality of their playing throughout.



Civil Civic - 'Rules'

An electronic duo whose electronic skatepark soundtracks are already well thought of by many, their first album leaps out of the speakers like an agitated wilderbeeste, like a grinding collision between a freight truck and Kasabians crew trailer, like MGMT challenging the Chemical Brothers to a throw of boules inside the CERN collider, while it's switched on. Years ago, sci fi writers and others would attempt to predict what music would actually sound like in the future, and Civil Civic are one of those very on-the-button kind of bands we get nowadays whose tunes are not of this time, that could appear at any moment in history from 1969 onwards and generate the same mixture of awe and regard and manage to sound indefinably of the present moment, whenever that is.

First impressions count for much, and I've already played 'Airspray' about five times, such is the thrall its combination of evocative pop harmonics and electroclash bravura has upon me, and the rest of the album retains its momentum and 'Street Trap', 'Sky Delay', 'Lights On A Leash' and every other track on the album , with their seamless juxtaposition of electronics, surf guitars, ethereal atmospherics and pure driving energy make 'Rules' a lung-emptying thrill-a-second aural rollercoaster of a listen. Were the tracks longer and had Civil Civic a vocalist they'd doubtlessly go massive all over us with astonishing rapidity, but for now they can just settle for magnificent. Really, 'Rules' is a quality slice of electro and no one who hears it will walk away feeling short changed.



Various: The Bristol Reggae Explosion 2: 'The 80s' (Bristol Archive Records)

Unlike its predecessor, the music on vol. 2 of these collections of vintage reggae from the Bristol area is entirely studio based, but again the stand out tracks are the work of Black Roots, whose live tracks are the real highlight of volume 1. They do it again on this release with 'Pin In The Ocean', a seven minute extended dub workout that's the equal of any of their Brit Reggae contemporaries although perhaps more of a rootsy vibe than that of Aswad, the most succesful UK reggae band of the 80s.

There's also a wider range of musical styles contained on vol2, from the deep roots of Joshua Moses and Alfred McIntosh, through to the dubby pyrotechnics of Zion Band and 3-D Production, and the techno influenced Ragga of Dan Ratchet that makes its influence heard at the end of the 80s. Anyone with even a passing interest in the music and its development will find this of interest, and for fans of the genre it's a worthy addition to the collection.



Mastodon – The Hunter

Mastodon have made a series of impressively technical and impressive heavy-metal albums.
Leviathon (2004) is one of my favourite Metal albums of all time and may well be up there as a favourite album.

Mastodon have had too little of the spotlight shone their way. Other heavy bands are getting the mentions, while being in no way as magnificent as Mastodon.

If you like heavy music then Mastodon are a band you should definitely be listening to. If you don't like heavy music there is every possibility that Mastodon would still blow your hair back and put the fizz in your soda. I was always of the opinion that everyone should like Mastodon. This magnificent album makes that argument particularly well and you really should give it a listen … before listening to all the other albums they have done.

Made with more urgency than normal and without a “concept” beyond naming it for the dead brother of Ben Hinds. The Hunter is a thoroughly great example of how to make heavy music that doesn't suck in any way.

Christopher Carney


Shonen Knife – Free Time

Shonen Knife have been around forever, They are a Japanese Pop-Punk band and that means that I expected them to sound like the soundtrack to a super-hero cartoon.

I cannot think of anything to write about Pop-Punk. I cannot think of anything else to write about Shonen Knife.

If you can imagine how a Japanese, female, pop-punk band sounds then you know roughly how this goes? If you like what you've come up with, you'll like this album. If you like everything else that Shonen Knife have done, you'll like this album. I can say, with happiness that they also don't sound like that band that did that song about going woo hoo.

Love Song is kinda cool...

There can be, maybe, two bands per genre that get to get away with doing the same thing over and over again. I don't think Shonen Knife are one of the two for pop-punk. However I don't think this album is bad, I just think I get exactly what I expected. Boo Hiss.

Christopher Carney


Water Tower Bucket Boys – Where The Crow Don't Fly

Bluegrass! Do you know of it? It was what the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Was. Dolly Parton thinks that it is mint and Hayseed Dixie turn Kiss and AC/DC songs into it. I think you like it when I am flippant about things. I am being flippant. It suggests that I don't care about anything and that means that nothing can hurt me. So even if you don't like my flippancy, I don't care, so you're opinions matter not.

The first song on this EP sounds like a rubbish version of We Can Be Strong by Willie Mason, only with bad lyrics and a fiddle. However, the rest of the EP (4 songs) sounds like fun. Pilgrim Song holds itself above the others by not sounding like a bar room scene from a movie set in the deep south and also by being very good. In fact, the songs on this EP are ordered to have the best tracks in the middle and after. Strange.

I get the impression that this is a band safe within their genre. People who like Bluegrass will like them and if you heard them while drinking, you'd like them too. You wouldn't buy their records and please please please, don't let Bluegrass have a trumpet-rock style revival.

Christopher Carney


White Flag/Verses You – Levitate The Listener

I love a good split CD!! I don't know if this is a split in the you do our songs and we'll do yours sense, but I do know that I love a good split CD. It is how I have discovered a bunch of bands, for instance: Hot Water Music, Dozer and Rancid.
It is something I would like to be part of because it always strikes me as a thing bands that are friends (should) do.

I bet track 1 (The Mad Ones – Versus You) is named after a Kerouac quote...oh, it is and it uses the quote from On The Road as the verse. I wouldn't hold this against them. I am finding it harder than expected to find this a problem.

Sometimes it is easier to be a band that isn't part of a popular movement. I, perhaps, think I am saying that the scrutiny you receive is less tempered by the prevailing sneer which things that are popular receive. Is it easier to be more objective about something you haven't already been told is “cool”? That seems awfully self evident.

The Versus You section of this split is very good. Good quality, well played punk-rock. Not great. Not life changing. No paradigm shifts here. A nice spread of rock sub-genres embraced though, which is pleasing in this instance.

White Flag? White Flag? No. Don't do that. For instance, don't ever start a band called The Mild Chilli Peppers or The Mossy Stones or White Sabbath or White Flag. Pun names or clever names are like brand new cars, they lose a third of their value almost immediately. Prince gets away with it because that is his name!

I would have preferred a band called White Flag to be awful. It would make things easier. I could write a terrific review that mostly involves insults and bile and you'd laugh and I'd have kept the gnawing sense of futility at bay for a few moments.

White Flag are great. Riotous, rocking, powerful. Every word you've heard written about The Wildhearts (only without the sense of anti climax that I have so often felt when actually listening or watching them.) They have a song called Dido and it is excellent. (every word you haven't believed about Dido?)
I would like to think that White Flag have so much confidence that they chose their truly awful name in order out of pure confidence in their songs.

This split CD is worth your time!

Christopher Carney


Captain Quentin - Instrumental Jet Set (From Scratch)

Captain Quentin hail from the province of Reggio Calabria in Italy and ‘Instrumental Jet Set’ is their second album to date.

An instrumental release that covers a wide range of genres at times seems as rare an X-Factor contestant without a ‘strong back story’. However, ‘Instrumental Jet Set’ appears instantly comfortable whether experimenting with afro rhythms, heavy synth sounds or partying with all sorts of twisting guitar riffs. Regularly diving into proggier waters before seemingly submerging itself back into surf-rock this is a fascinating release. The sound itself feels organic, and despite a range of genres, never forced. At times the rhythms remind of Y Niwl, recently seen touring and playing as Gruff Rhys’ backing band. There is unquestionably a summer, up-beat vibe to this album and it won’t be long before the most unmoveable of hips start swaying and the most rigid of necks begin nodding in enjoyment and appreciation.

Mark Whiffin


Steven Wilson - Grace For Drowning

What else to say about Polymath Steven Wilson that hasn't already been said, and put far more knowledgeably and eloquently than by myself? If you don't believe me, have a look at Murat Batmaz's review of Wilson's latest album, Grace For Drowning on Amazon at the end of September, very studied and cross-referencing lots of musical points, truly stunning.

Progressive Rock is legendary for inspiring such devotion from its legions of fans, but the fuss may be justified in the case of Steven Wilson. It seems there aren't enough bands and side-projects to contain all of his musical ideas and invention, hence the need for a solo album to distill exactly where his musical head is at these days. Coming off the back of an exhausting year-long tour of Porcupine Tree's well-received 2009 album The Incident, Wilson decided to take a rest in 2010 ... for 2 weeks! He then started recording his second solo album (the follow-up to Insurgentes in 2008), but also finding time to produce Opeth and help remaster the King Crimson back catalogue! There's no way to stem creativity, is there?

Grace For Drowning is a 2-album-concept, the classic freewheeling trick for allowing things like 'prog' sprawl (one thinks of Miles Davis Bitches Brew, Genesis The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway or ELP's Works which in characteristic ELP-fashion was released in 2 double-album volumes!), but Wilson wants us to listen to it as 2 separate 40-minute albums. The first, Deform To Form A Star is lighter, with elements of soft-rock and pop and shorter songs generally, while the second, Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye, is supposedly darker with more improvisation. Practically-speaking, it's hard to separate the 2, as they share many of the same musical motifs and lyrical themes. For example, some of the musical phrasing developed in 'Sectarian' on the 1st album is taken up again on the 23-minute jazz opus 'Raider II' on the 2nd (itself preluded on the 1st!), so I was left with the feeling the songs had a chronology and that was why he arranged them in that order.

While the sort of quiet-loud noise rock and ambient textures of debut Insurgentes are characteristic of bands like Radiohead and Tool and Wilson's own musical mainstay Porcupine Tree, Grace For Drowning is dedicated more to the idea of musical arrangement: film scores, choral pieces, psychedelic influences and jazz improv. 'Remainder The Black Dog' is an album highlight and draws heavily on this jazz influence, with the beauty of Steve Hackett's guitar playing beyond words ... but Murat supplies a few, far too technical for me! 'Grace For Drowning' and 'Belle De Jour', the openers on each 'side' of the album, sound like Ennio Morricone film soundtracks, and he's even allayed worries of over-indulgence with a string of pop-rock numbers: 'Deform To Form A Star' is classic prog and will doubtless keep the fanbase happy, 'No Part Of Me' is beautiful in many ways, with a curious little flourish of Robert Fripp-like guitar (it probably is actually Robert Fripp, who also appears on the album!), and finally 'Postcard' which would make a brilliant pop song if it weren't so achingly sad.

There are lots of twists and turns on Grace For Drowning. 'Index' has odd sequencer and programming sounds which quickly draw a veil over the bright optimistic opening, and of all the songs it sounds most like Porcupine Tree (perhaps indicating where his heart remains?). Oddly titled 'Track One' is one of those topsyturvy twisting songs that invites the listener into a fairytale world which then turns dark with brooding guitar drone, spiralling into nightmare; in other words, classic King Crimson! 'Like Dust From My Eye' tries to end on a light-hearted note but struggles to disguise its bitterness:

"That's something that you're laughing at me
And I hope you know what it is that you're laughing about
Cos it won't be long now till they're reeling you in
The same situation, the same disappointment you bring
So I hope you're happy with the impression you make
Deep in denial like you planned it this way
It sure has to be like dust I have cleared from my eye
Words have no meaning so why stare up into the skin
Breath in now breath out now ..."

Yes, take some deep breaths ... but then it fades out with a sprinkling of ambient moondust for 3 minutes.

There's a lot of attention to detail here, Wilson loves the idea of the artefact, the piece of music you can hold in your hand as a record, and I could imagine collectors carrying around their vinyl editions of Grace For Drowning with an eye-catching gatefold sleeve aka Exile On Main Street, The White Album or The Wall. In fact, Kscope Records have really gone to town on the presentation, finding ever-more ingenious ways to shift 'the product'; in this case, the Deluxe Edition contains not only a third CD with outtakes and demos, but also a 120-page hardback book and Blue-Ray DVD's of various photo galleries and films, all sanctioned by the artist himself.

Luckily the music's pretty good, too. In fact, you can't really fault Steven Wilson's musicianship and inventiveness. He has created a musical artefact: Grace For Drowning is an album dedicated to the lavish musical arrangements of the late 60s and 70s where the 3-minute pop song was briefly jettisoned for sprawling and ambitious so-called 'concept' music and the beginnings of pomp rock ... thr rich cousin of progressive rock! Aside from all the cleverness, which undoubtedly has its place and will only enhance Wilson's reputation as a great creator of music, it's basically a bloody good listen!

Matthew Haddrill


Love Among the Mannequins – Radial Images (Function)

Despite a bit of a ropey name (just makes me think of dodgy 80’s pop videos for some reason), Love Among the Mannequins create quite an agreeable din to my ears. ‘Radial Images’ is an album made up of scratchy, distorted guitar which fully takes advantage of dynamics to bring an ill-disguised hyperactivity of enthusiasm to proceedings.

Sitting somewhere between the garagey and mathy, ‘Radial Images’ is actually a concept album of sorts – all the songs being inspired by historical figures, whether hero or villain. Admittedly that’s a pretty wide remit which encompasses Russian composer Alfred Garyevich Schnittke and French mime artists Marcel Marceau. Obvious comparisons with stoner garage of Pavement occur in the likes of ‘George Robert Price’ with its languid chord changes while the more frenetic opener of ‘Nikolei Fyodorovich Fyodorov’ and ‘The Does’ brings to mind a punkier element not dissimilar to Nottingham’s Punish the Atom. Some cracking scratchy harmonics on ‘Marcel Marceau’ too (in a suitably instrumental piece of course).

Undeniably likely to best entertain in a live format, this album nevertheless breathlessly rocks its way through 13 tracks without pausing for much of a breath. It’s quite a skill to keep things as interesting as this when just relying on the flag-bearing guitar and drums but Love Among The Mannequins have achieved this with some distinction.



Olof Arnalds - Olof Sings

Olof Arnalds takes a breather from traversing the fault-lines of Icelandic and English folk to re-interpret some Country & Western standards on 'Olof Sings'. This is a short collection of other artist's songs that went down well on her recent tour, with only Hank Williams' 'Please Don't Let Me Love You' being a noticeable omission. For the Icelandic artist, it's a brave step to engage with these songs in English, and curiously most of them recount tales of passion and sexual infidelity from a male point of view (no Dolly Parton or Tammy Wynette here!), but then Arnalds is no stranger to odd juxtapositions.

The songstress and multi-instrumentalist has been steadily building her career over the last decade, working with a cluster of mostly Icelandic musicians, notably Sigur Ros, Bjork and the electronic band Mum. But Arnald's music is more in the classic folk tradition, she herself was classically-trained but self-taught on guitar, and with a voice of fractured beauty which tends to silence rooms, she has been compared with the likes of Kate Bush, Vashti Bunyan and Judee Sill. She usually accompanies herself on guitar or charango, a 10-stringed South American lute, and the simple stripped-down approach transfers easily to her live shows where the music takes on a hypnotic quality. She has recorded 2 solo albums to date, the most recent being last year's Innundir Skinni (translates as 'Under the skin'). Assisted by long-time collaborator Kjartan Sveinsson of Sigur Ros, it was warmly received and featured a number of songs in English: the Joanna Newsom-like dreampop of 'Crazy Car' which sounds delectible when Arnalds sings lines like "you got mojo, you got soul ... fight fire with fire", and 'Surrender' with the ubiquitous Bjork on backing vocals:

As a collection of well known C&W songs, Olof Sings hardly sends the pulse racing, and it may just be a tie-over before the next major release, but Arnalds' voice does carry a certain charm which certainly offers a 'different take' on each song. She changes the person 'he' to 'she' on Gene Clarke's 'With Tomorrow' but this seques neatly into a version of Springsteen's 'I'm On Fire' with all its sexual tension narrated by a man, strangely at odds with Arnald's rather twee vocal which suggests she'd rather actually put out the flames! Her interpretation of Arthur Russell's 'Close My Eyes' sounds hymnal, but again the words are all sensuous, with lovers in cornfields or running through the woods over watery dew. It's a song which features prominently in Matt Wolf's 2008 documentary about the overlooked genius: 'Wild Combination: A Portrait Of Arthur Russell'. Although written by Neil Diamond, Johnny Cash made 'Solitary Man' his own on the American recordings made with producer Rick Rubin in the twilight of his career. Arnalds' vocal is now more feisty but it still sounds a bit of a campfire song with somebody unburdening themselves. The curious juxtapositioning continue with the Bob Dylan classic 'She Belongs To Me', although according to the words of the song she clearly doesn't (belong to him!):
"She don't look back
She's got everything she needs, she's an artist
She don't look back
She can take the dark out of the nighttime
And paint the daytime black"

The ep ends and climaxes with Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso's 'Maria Bethania'. Set more in the folk idiom and written for his sister during the singer's exile in London in the 70s, it playfully describes a woman who "has given her soul to the devil and bought a flat by the sea", Arnalds' voice again sounds more self-assured and full-blooded.
The recent tour has been a great success and people warm not only to the delicate voice of Olof Arnalds and the simple stripped-away music, but also her idionsynchracies and willingness to explore new areas as both singer, musician and artist. After struggling manfully (pun intended (!)) through the songs on Olof Sings, her voice finally takes pride of place, offering a clear signal of intent: expect to hear a lot more from this talented singer, particularly in English.

Matthew Haddrill