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albums - may 2012


Chelsea Wolfe - 'Apokalypsis' (Pendu)

I really don't know enough Greek. The title of Chelsea Wolfe's album refers not to mass destruction but to the word that 'apocalypse' is derived from, which means 'lifting of the veil'. Didn't know that now, did you (yes I know one or two of you did)? There is however a near impermeable veil of sorts hanging over the ten tracks on LA based songwriter Chelsea Wolfe's second album, and a tangible air of actual mystery which is rarely achieved with the consistency that Wolfe and her musicians bring to the table here. I will admit that albums like this don't often reach me and that I'm far from knowledgable about the influences both musical and artistic that inform the actual music but in all honesty, 'Apokalypsis' is probably best heard without preconceptions about 'DoomFolk' or whatever verging upon sensationalist description music writers are prone to when albums such as this appear within their orbits. Aside from Chelsea Wolfe's assiduously created image - and the visuals which accompany her songs are very stylishly put together - her songs contain far more in the way of depth and emotive range than her Darkwave image might lead you to expect. Yes, the drums do thud and the vocals do echo, but there's a sundrenched optimism lurking somewhere deep even within the more soporific moments of the album and just too much going on in the background for 'Apokalypsis' to slide into stereotypical Gothic morbidity. There are some quite spectacular talents at work around, and including, Chelsea Wolfe and 'Apokalypsis' strikes a subtle balance between Darkwave histrionics and classic singer songwriting of the Cheryl Crowe school. A committed performance from all involved, 'Apokalypsis' contains a subtle grandeur at its heart and fully deserves its forty or so minutes of your listening time.



Ty Segall And White Fence - 'Hair' (Drag City)

Now I don't want to sound like I'm just getting a bit overly critical for its own sake, but after reading that the NME had given 'Hair' an impressive 8/10 and that other prominent critics (Pitchfork, the Guardian etc) were just as enthusiastic about Ty Segall and his Fence collective, I did wonder if they'd heard the same album as I had. Not that 'Hair' is a bad album by any means, just that those other critics had obviously heard a more complete, unvandalised version of it. My copy is the pressing which was remixed by some vindictive gremlin whose grudge against West Coast guitar music led him to speed up the vocals to helium-inflected levels and run a load of squally electronic noise over what are some basically alright tunes. The first four tracks are at least listenable but there's something of the thwarted experimentalists about Ty and his Fence and while they can rattle out a competent rock number the forced sounding and self conciously 'wacky' atmosphere turns a bit stale and you might wonder why Ty and friends don't just drop the new psychedelia thing entirely and make the electronica album that they both obviously want and would prefer to. You've already heard this sort of thing done better, and I'm giving it 5 out of ten.



Stranglers - Giants

If there's one late 70s band whose music has lasted and whose songs can still raise an eyebrow or two then that band is, beyond question, the Stranglers. Their mixture of grinding R'nB energy, full on punk obnoxiousness, inspired musicianship and complete and utter lack of regard for what anyone else was doing or what was considered properly 'cool' has left the Stranglers with a niche entirely of their own amongst their well documented Punk band contemporaries and almost four decades on from their first demo recordings 'Giant' is ten tracks of entirely new songs which reveal that Guildford's most notorious musical export have lost none of their abilities, their wry humour, or indeed their ability to overwhelm with startling unpredicability.

Opening track 'Another Camden Afternoon' is an instrumental which begins pleasantly enough when suddenly the unmistakable growl of Burnels bass guitar slides into the track and, if that's a sound you recognise, you will listen to the entire album twice and spend a day or two perusing the Stranglers back catalogue while discovering their lesser known more recent works and wondering why one of our most talented and innovative bands have never really found the South Bank respectability that so many others enjoy. With Baz Warne continuing to fill Hugh Cornwell's boots and Jet Black and Dave Greenfield knocking it out like New Romanticism never happened, 'Giant' is the sound of a band who, while they haven't got it to prove anymore, are continuing to make music that's as idiosyncratic and awkward and downright original as any of their contemporaries or indeed anyone else ever recorded. Listen to 'Giant' and wonder exactly how influential the Stranglers are, and why you don't listen to them more often.



A Sun Amissa – Desperate In Her Heavy Sleep (Gizeh Records)

Richard Knox (Glissando) returns after last years’ spelling binding ‘The Rustle of Stars’ release with Freédeeric D. Oberland. This time he is once again joined by Angela Chan (Glissando) and long-time friend Owen Pegg. Having preluded the album with 'Beneath the Heavy Tides', a 3" CD release as part of the highly respected Hibernate Recordings' 'postcard' series, the band release their debut album on the equally acclaimed Gizeh Records label.

‘Desperate In Her Heavy Sleep’ opens with the most beautiful and sparse guitar playing, hauntingly coupled with a range of minimalist drones, slowly enthralling the listener. Seemingly determined to once again meticulously craft every layer of sound, Knox has produced another stunningly complete musical passage. On the journey we hear evidence from the sinister undercurrent of the aforementioned drones in contrast with the sweeping strings and attentively plucked notes who plead their innocence regularly throughout. Gathering pace in parts at the speed of a tortoise slowly ascending a challenging slope strangely conjures up an atmosphere as equally hypnotic as the hundred-times- faster chugging rhythms of Neu!

There is no doubt that this is another of those albums from Gizeh Records and Richard Knox that demands uninterrupted listening to fully appreciate its depth and beauty. Climb into bed, turn off the light and prepare to be transported into the entrancing world of A Sun Amissa.

Mark Whiffin


Haight - Ashbury - 'Haight Ashbury 2 : The Ashburys' (Lime Records)

San Francisco has always had a reputation as a home both spiritual and actual for eccentrics, beatnik types, proper weirdos and the unconventionally talented. Taking their name from 'Frisco's' best known street corner, the Glasgow trio pay open homage to the edgier side of the late 60s music of (specifically) the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, and also the Jesus And Mary Chain and by definition the bands whom the Reid Brothers took their inspirations from whoever those were. Sounds like fun, yeah? Well, Haight Ashbury's second album is, if your shuffled listening is incomplete without reverb drenched and mildly sinister summery guitar pop anthems, probably obligatory.

That isn't to say Haight Ashbury are mere retro copyists. Oh no, they're far too subversive and wryly comedic to just churn out covers of 'White Rabbit' and 'Sidewalking' although performing those with accuracy would require abilities beyond the average, which Haight Ashbury definitely appear to posess to some extent and it doesn't take long for the band's less than subtly presented taste for irony and outright satire to appear. Calling a song 'Maastricht 'A Treaty' is a surefire way to evoke nostalgia amongst your listeners, assuming that those listeners get perceptibly misty eyed whenever EU politics of the early 90s are mentioned, let alone sung about in the style of the Carpenters as produced by Phil Spector. The first track on the album is the only overtly 'political' one though, and the rest of the album consists almost entirely of blissed out folk tinged psyche pop although some listeners might wonder why these Scots ladies are singing with toothsome US accents, although that's probably just Haight Ashbury's wilfully hedonistic and artistic tribute to Grace Slick, Cass Elliot, Janis Joplin and any other hippy chick vocalist you can name. Right on, man.



Laurence And The Slab Boys - 'Lo-Fi Disgrace' (Grumpy Records)

Laurence Reid was a member of the Cinematics, an alright Glasgow band who released two albums before the inevitable pressures of touring took their toll and the band split, seemingly without making much of an impression here although they had a more favourable reception in the US and Europe, which would perhaps explain why Larry Reid and probably one or two other former Cinematics are now part of Berlin's ever growing expatriate Scots musician community (they can probably count Travis's Fran Healy among their neighbours) and 'Lo-Fi Disgrace' was recorded there. Don't expect stereotypical Krautrock electronics though, 'Lo-Fi Disgrace' is for the most part a skilfully, even smoothly played guitar album, its songs owing much to Reid's (I assume it's his playing) atmospheric tremelo laden six string abilities, one that starts to reach Dire Straits levels of laidbackness around fourth track 'The Fruit That You Knew'.

That's the other thing about 'Lo-Fi Disgrace', the Slab Boys really aren't taking things entirely seriously and there's a streak of mordant, verging upon actually morbid humour running through its 11 tracks, although I'm probably misinterpreting the enthusiasm of a group of musicians whose 'difficult third album' is finally seeing daylight and that's probably what gives 'Lo-Fi Disgrace' the added gravitas you might expect from a band with the experience the former Cinematics now have. Sounding like the seasoned industry veterans they actually are, Laurence And The Slab Boys might downplay their performance here but there's an unmistakable mainstream gloss to their songs, and quite likely more film soundtracking on the cards (a Cinematics song appeared in 2011 rom-com 'What's Your Number?').



Radio Moscow – 3 & 3 Quarters

Listening to Radio Moscow's The Great Escape Of Leslie Magnafuzz, released on Alive Records last year, is a bit like rifling through the great treasure trove of 60s American garage rock, something like Jac Holzman and Lenny Kaye's classic Nuggets compilation on Elektra Records, which eventually mushroomed into a boxset of gems in 1972. The sort of sonic territory groups Blue Cheer and the Allman Brothers would go on to popularize as classic rock in the 70s, not to mention one Jimi Hendrix, of course! Singer, guitarist and mainstay of the group Parker Griggs knows how to tap into this rich seam of blues psychedelia. Far too simple to label his band stoner or swamp rock, the inventiveness of his guitar breaks with all their pedal effects and studio trickery are worthy of Jimmy Page's work on early Led Zep, or possibly those doyens of free-spirited psychedelia and much beloved of John Peel, The Misunderstood. Of course, it's some kind of nostalgia trip for most of us (“Hey, hey, mama, said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove. ..”), the sort of music that pushes a lot of buttons ...

3 & 3 Quarters comes hot on the heels of that release and is due out in June. It's a curiosity though, actually Griggs' unreleased debut from 2003, so these raw and deconstructed early demos showcase a garage-band aesthetic and style that Kaye coined as 'punk rock' before he formed the Patti Smith Group. There are certainly hints of how it could all morph into the current melting blues incarnation of Radio Moscow, but you'd have to listen carefully!

Griggs has kept most of the songs down to under 3 minutes and the energy of these recordings jumps out and bites you like the proto-punk of the Stooges or MC5! On opener 'You're Doing It To Me' the singer yelps and hollers through a spikey blues number that is pretty much the template for the next 11 songs. 'Here I Come' is backed with psychedelic fuzz guitar and howls like Roky Erickson and The 13th Floor Elevators. 'She's Mine' struts and arches with the swagger of MC5's classic 'Kick Out The Jams', while 'About To Crash' is more jangly new wave and a nod in the direction of Dick Dale's surf rock. Standout 'The Stomp' is probably the best indicator of Parker's Hendrix predilections, with lots of distortion and wow-wow pedal effects, and 'On Your Own' and 'Confusion' echo the punk and slime of Swedish punk label Killed By Death. These are solo recordings, and they are a wonderful testament to the mind of an 18-year-old psychedelic cave-dweller (the name Radio Moscow comes from Nikita The K's 'Go Go Radio Moscow' from the classic underground compilation You Gotta Have Moxie!).

So jump back to 2003, and 3 & 3 Quarters is a take-no-prisoners salute to Grigg's early heroes. It's the torch paper that ignited Dan Auerbach's interest in the band, and the Black Keys singer/guitarist produced Radio Moscow's eponymous debut in 2007. You're unlikely to hear anything like this from the current line-up who have just completed a tour across Europe. It may have been a promotional ruse by the record label to keep the focus on the music in the light of some warm-up gigs in January which went spectacularly badly. Griggs lost his former bandmates Zach Anderson and Cory Berry in a nasty on-stage altercation that ended in the guitarist needing stitches to his head. Hastily reconvening with music buddies Billy Ellsworth on bass and Lonnie Blanton on drums, happily the rest of the tour seems to have passed off with only musical incident, this video is available on the band's website, a recording made at their gig in Paris:

So 3 & 3 Quarters is more a blast from the past and curious stopgap for Parker Griggs and Radio Moscow (actually a long way anything The Black Keys ever recorded, either!), but 3 albums down the line these early gems unearth the garage-heart lurking within the band's singer and guitarist and not only hint at an amazing potential but make a compelling musical statement in their own right!

Matthew Hadrill


Wind-Up Birds - 'The Land' (Sturdy)

Treading the thin line that separates comedy and social observation, the Wind-Up Birds aren't taking any prisoners, perhaps as they've nowhere to actually put them. Listening to the assorted tales of urban angst and everyday moments going weirdly awry, it occured to me that none of them take place in anyone's home, and definitely not in the homes of any of the Wind-Up Birds. Perhaps this is down to the fact that if they rehearsed their frantic own-brand of agitated lo-fi actual punk rock round at any of their own places their neighbours would sign a petition for their immediate eviction, what with the frantic guitar overload, speedfreak drumming and the sort of lyrics that get you thrown out of the bookies for 'acting funny'.

I know the Wind-Ups won't object if I make comparisons with the classic 70s punk that they take some of their inspiration from, and if I say that first track 'Being Dramatic' sounds a lot like Mark E Smith fronting the Damned then some of you will appreciate that the Wind-Up Birds are both studious interpreters of our musical past and verging on crazed commentators of today. Throughout the 11 tracks that make up 'The Land' there's a throwaway acerbic wit that, while it'll take more than one listen to get all the wordplay and in-jokes, had me wondering why bands like this aren't making more of an impression and getting the radio play their inspirations did back in the day. Radio 6, play the Wind-Up Birds. Do it now.



Daniel Land And The Modern Painters - 'The Space Between Us' (Club AC30)

I really, really wish Daniel Land would do something. I'm not suggesting that he take his Modern Painters down a raucous, beer and adrenaline fuelled metallic route, that he remix his album entirely in the manner of electronic ambience or even dance mixes, or that he provide a more recognisable tribute to that other Modernist performer, Jonathan Richman. I won't even suggest that he makes his music sound a bit more like Coldplay, whose influence is detectable in parts of 'The Space ...' . Matter of fact I don't exactly know what I'd ask Daniel Land to do if I were behind the console of his studio. Correction : I do know what. Daniel Land, turn that guitar up a little more than a fraction and feel a bit less self conscious about the possibility of someone describing your music as 'Dreampop' or even (some of us still use the term) 'Shoegaze'. Your songs could certainly carry more definition and actual voume without going all Doomrock on us, and it'd prevent listeners such as myself from reading last weeks emails, making several cups of tea, and actually starting to listen to something else while 'The Space ...' was wafting out of the speakers of my admittedly underpowered CD player. I want to like this album, I mean I really like the sleeve, into which a definite effort has gone, and the first two or three tacks had me nodding and humming appreciatively. It sort of drifted out of my attention after that though, and for around half an hour I practically forgot there was a CD playing in the background as I wandered around my flat pondering the condition of the microwave and the hallways need of decoration.

Perhaps I'm missing the point entirely though: 'The Space Between Us' is perhaps an extended exercise in the competing dynamics of generated sound and actual silence, and during live performances the bands second guitarist stands silent and immobile as a surreal commentary on amplfied sound, on the nature of what we call 'rock' music, and as a simultaneous interpretation of an extended version of John Cage's '4 33'. Speculation on my part, but exactly what are an audience to expect from a band called the Modern Painters? Possibly something a little more colourful than this 9 track exercise in background muzak.



Malcolm Middleton - 'Human Don't Be Angry' (Chemikal Underground)

Even former members of Arab Strap mellow a bit when they reach a certain point in their careers. A bit. In an interview I read a week or two back, Middleton made no pretence of his new album being a thoughtfully concieved and musicianly departure from much of his previous work, and there's very little on 'Human ...' that would make an uninformed listener immediately connect its mostly instrumental tracks with anything Arab Strap ever did, or even with his own unpredictably chaotic solo output to date. If that makes this album sound like a desperately serious bid for artistic cred then Middleton and his audience needn't worry as he already possesses that in several now rusting buckets, and the only giveaway that this mostly instrumental album even originated north of Berwick is Middleton's own sardonically brogueish vocal, perhaps added to the album to reassure fans that those rumours about Aidan Moffat having accidentally removed his larynx during an all night Irn Bru session were entirely unfounded.

A lot of people will like 'Human Don't Be Angry', and it's a very serious contender for Album Of The Year among his own fans, Arab Strap fans, people that like music from Scotland, people whose collections include Mogwai, Slint and Neu albums, and while it's possible to detect Middleton's own caution in perfoming music in a very different format from that he's usually associated with, he has also placed a few references and Strap-ish jokes into the tracks to keep listeners on their toes throughout, such as 'Asklipio' which starts off sounding a lot like a cover of Air Supply's MOR classic 'All Out Of Love'. I got that one, and other listeners will doubtlessly find other hidden gems in Middleton's wryly composed mini epics. Not making me angry, at any rate.



Sansa - 'Saviour' (Koolmusik)

Every summer, for as long as I can recall, one or two really catchy and infectiously poppy songs find their way onto British airwaves, into our charts and eventually jukeboxes across the land, from Europe. Songs like 'Words', 'Joe Le Taxi', 'La Dolce Vita', 'Voyage Voyage', the list is added to every year or so it would seem. Trouble is, no-one ever remembers who sang them, perhaps because these songs are also placed into the Novelty One Hit Wonder section where they languish unheard except for at Skool Disko evenings, 18-30 reunions, office parties and suchlike. Now, we've no excuse for not remembering the name of the Finnish songstress whose album this is, at least those of us who own a particular brand of music player, but this has me mildly concerned regarding the possibility of something known as 'product placement' which often happens in big budget films where manufacturers pay to have their products displayed during key scenes, not that cinema goers care too much but this is the first album I've ever reviewed whose artiste shares their name with an electrical product.

Forgetting that for a moment, 'Saviour' is quality Europop and will sound good on just about any brand of stereo equipment, if quality Europop is something your holiday listening is incomplete without. There's even a cover of 80s Italian disco number 'Boys Boys Boys' (originally performed by Sinitta although I had to look that up) that turns a full blown cheese anthem into a thoughtfully composed and atmospherically performed ballad unrecognisable from the original. I liked Sansa and her songs a lot more than I'd usually admit to on an IndieMedia review site and might even buy a new mp3 player.



Tenacious D – Rise Of The Fenix

There's a difference between a slogan t-shirt and a comedic style. The difference is that the slogan t- shirt has only one joke, which becomes less funny every time it is seen. What would be even worse is if you got the impression that the people throwing the t-shirt at you figured that you'd like it, because you're stupid. This is exactly the impression Tenacious D's third album gives. They even call track two Low Hanging Fruit. Everybody now has an easy way of describing this album and The D's approach to it.

Rise of The Fenix, with it's phallus-bird front cover, is a tired, sloppy, bloated and, worst of all, ill-natured album. If you're using profanity as punctuation, where you used to use it to make things funnier, it gives the impression that you're grasping for ideas. It smacks of no effort, coupled with no ideas. Starting an album with a reference to the critical reception of your previous album is also one of the most ill-advised moves I've ever encountered. That and the mostly dull songs puts you in the same company as The Stereophonics.

Crammed with moments which cause groans where there used to be smirks and genuine discomfort where there used to be chortles, Rise of the Fenix represents a misunderstanding of where the line between funny and crass is and also that there is no longer an understanding of what was best about Tenacious D in the first place. It wasn't rape jokes.

However, there is an alternative position. Tenacious D have always been, to some extent, a satire of rock bands. This may just be the logical extension of this. After all, it represents the trajectory of nearly all the bands The D love. Following a good natured and sprightly début which casts those responsible as loveable, there follows a slightly bloated follow up which, though good, is outshone by the previous effort. Within this there are hints that life in a band is darkening the good nature, but only at the edges. There is still hope. Then comes the third album, confirming the worst fears and sounding angry and bored and ungrateful. All this can do is make people lose interest. Tenacious D have described this arc. There was absolutely no need for them to. The world needs fewer bloated failures.

There is an episode of nearly every single high school drama where people form a band, get popular and fall apart. Even Sabrina, The Teenage Witch had one! Freaks & Geeks used the idea very well, doing what Tenacious D have failed to and using established ideas within a genre to do something interesting – something which Tenacious D themselves were once capable of. The only source of comfort is that not a single good idea was wasted on this album.

Christoper Carney


Bezoar - 'Wyt Death'

Reading the press blurb for this Brooklyn band had me anticipating wall-of-feedback sludgecore and opening track 'Burn Everything', with its jaunty folk guitar rythm and catchy vocal refrain had me wondering if I had downloaded the right album. Bezoar were only softening me up though, and next track 'Vitamin B' is a full on aural assault of exactly the kind the press release was warning me about, referencing as it does bands such as Electric Wizard, Celtic Frost and Darkthrone, none of whom I can say with any assuredness that I know very much of. How about 'Florence Machine fronting Arctic Monkeys covering the collected works of Hawkwind'? - a sentence which contains reference points I can both recognise and properly relate to.

It's all here, the swirling contorted guitars, the thunderous drumming, the operatic vocals and really, if you like fast loud heavy rock music, you'll probably find a place in your album collection for Bezoar, in between Pink Floyd's 'Meddle' and something by Whitesnake.

(Memo to US music critics/writers : can you please not refer to music like this as 'Sludgecore'? Overly cynical limeys such as myself crease ourselves with laughter at generic descriptions such as those)