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albums - december 2012


   
 

Lukid - Lonely At The Top (Werkdiscs)

Lukid continues his prolific workpace with the release of ‘Lonely At The Top’ on Werkdiscs, the record label run by Darren J. Cunningham of Actress fame.

Combining murky beats with looped vocal samples, ‘Lonely At The Top’ manages to maintain its focus throughout with only with one the twelve tracks clocking in at over four minutes, a surprising discovery for a record of this genre where tracks, as well as albums, are often sprawling in scope and length.

The variety of the music on display is interesting and Lukid appears reluctant to stick solely to one genre. Fleeting anywhere between almost instrumental psychedelic pop and the harsh beats pioneered by acts such as the aforementioned Actress ‘Lonely At The Top’ offers many glimpses of possible inspiration. ‘Talk To Strangers’ would certainly feel very at home on the Underworld masterpiece ‘Second Toughest In The Infants’, while tracks such as ‘Riquelme’ remind of artists such as Flying Lotus and Baths.

Mark Whiffin

 

Ben Gibbard - Former Lives

It has been almost ten years since Washington songwriter Ben Gibbard, best known for fronting Postal Service and Death Cab For Cutie, has released solo material - and this is his debut full-length album. Death Cab are still operating with a release of their own this year, and Gibbard is keen to make clear that this is a side-story as opposed to a new chapter, with these songs spanning “eight years, three relationships, living in two different places, drinking then not drinking”.

The album opens with a brief accapella track Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby, which was apparently recorded on an iPhone in the rain. It’s the audible equivalent of a doodle on a magazine; a whimsical ditty if you will. But from there, the album sinks into the straight-forwardly rhythmic Dream Song, and Teardrop Windows. There is just a splash of folk in there, perhaps nestled in the guitar tones, and these tracks certainly stand out from recent Death Cab tracks which have arguably pushed the bands sound. In a way, these return to a more conventional, tried and tested recipe.

Following these solid tracks is the slightly punchier Bigger Than Love, a duet with Aimee Mann; and Lily, a brief twinkly number that is kind of this albums equivalent of I Will Follow You Into The Dark, but minus all the hooks. Something’s Rattling however, is something of a mariachi number with latin-style guitars, horns, and strings. Based on an old cowboy yodel, it’s a light-hearted track to say the least.

There is a slight air of cheesiness about the latter tracks, although that’s to be expected of this songsmith who has been crafting cutesy songs for fifteen years now. A Hard One To Know is a pleasantly pacey track which tells the age-old tale of men struggling to understand women, and is certainly one of the stronger tracks in this closing half which is turns more and more country by the second. I’m pretty sure that’s a pedal steel guitar on Broken Yolk in Western Sky.

The album closes with I’m Building A Fire, a gentle acoustic that oozes DIY recording and brings the album to a quite lovely end. All in all, this isn’t bad at all. Somewhat obviously for a project which spans such a vast time, there are plenty of tracks which flirt with Death Cab’s previous sounds whilst still sounding fresh and original. It’s quite middle-of-the-road, even by Death Cab standards, but it isn’t half bad...

Thom Curtis

 

Bellowhead – Broadside

It's not hard to see what all the fuss is about. This 11-piece English folk band, formed by melodeon player John Spiers and fiddler Jon Boden back in 2004, have earned a bit of a reputation with their ability to put on a real show. Size may not be everything, but with a series of well received and (latterly) commercially successful albums, not to mention some well publicized festival slots, they have secured their place as a sort of 'all-comers' old-time music band aiming not so much to popularize the genre but rather blow it completely out of the water. It's another valiant attempt to rid folk music of its stuffiness, in the same way people like Martin Carthy and Fairport Convention did in the 60s, much to Ewan MacColl's chagrin, and the new folk revivalists and old-time traditionalists have been scrapping it out ever since.

But with the most recent revival well under way in England in the noughties was there really such a need for Bellowhead? Neo-folk is big business these days, witness Noah And The Whale, Bat For Lashes, Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons et al, and it seems traditional folk is now the new folk! Well, even if there wasn't a need for them, Bellowhead would have invented one, and anyway full marks for their dogged persistence. They've built up an interesting dynamic with their 'big band' sound, 11 players collectively managing about 20 different instruments, giving the music a full range of sounds and tempos, strings, brass, woodwind, percussion … and potentially 6 different singers, although Boden as de facto band leader tends to take the lead on most songs. They've made some major inroads in the festival circuit, their performances at Latitude and Glastonbury in recent years are the stuff of legend, although, like the Pistols gig at Manchester's Free Trade Hall in '76 you do wonder who was actually there? Cynicism to one side, it's the undoubted 'wow factor' that appeals to people the breadth and length of the land, and this band don't tend to disappoint, like on Jools Holland's recent Later:

For me personally, it's a problem of scale. This size tends to make them sound like an orchestra rather than a simple folk band, and Boden's such a natural showman anyway, he just can't play things straight. So many of his songs scream out for a wider screen (or a bigger audience), it's like music searching for its own musical. Alas, most of it is conceived and played in the boozy atmosphere of the British pub where everybody's having such a rollocking good time nobody would think write anything like a narrative down, so the Bellowhead oeuvre remains destined to be frustrated, small songs looking for the big time.

Not that they seem particularly worried, if the press release for Broadside, Bellowhead's latest album, is anything to go by. The last album Hedonism was quite a big seller in folk circles, and they appear confident this will follow suit. Accordingly, we should expect something “Bigger, bolder, brassier and more brazen than ever” from a band with a “lust for life” and an “electrifying dynamism” whose music is a “bottomless box of magic tricks”. Any doubts about the playing abilities of “one of the most exciting live bands on the planet” are dealt some short shrift, too, with reminders (should we need them?) of their “thunderous festival performances” where they “treat every gig as a party”. So is it all going to be bigger and better … onwards with the music?

Broadside follows a similar pattern to Hedonism, a collection of songs for Bellowhead to interpret in their own inimitable way. Some are traditional arrangements, like Northumberland miners song 'Byker Hill' evoking the ghosts of the past in its chorus “Byker Hill and Walker Shore, Collier lads for ever more”. The social clubs in Newcastle remain, the tenement rows of houses are still there, but communities ultimately now lie stripped of their history, identity and industry. I remember reading an article that speculated how the miner's strike in Britain might have been different if Sting's 'We Work The Black Seam' had been released at the time. Some people think Scargill and the unions might have actually defeated Thatcher. Doesn't sound very plausible, does it? Anyhow, Bellowhouse have defiantly breathed some life back into this old song. And they've taken The Copper Family's traditional folk tune 'Thousands Or More', a welcome and pleasant surprise, starting off like a Maddy Prior/Steeleye Span song, before speeding it up and hitting a fierce tempo with some fiddle playing that reminds me of Kris Drever's version of the Boo Hewerdine classic 'Harvest Gypsies'.

More often than not, there are nautical themes on Broadside. 'Roll The Woodpile Down' and '10,000 Miles Away' are typical sea shanties, but the former sounds so far removed from its Florida origins as a negro sea hauling song it sounds like it could be auditioning for Michael Flatley's Riverdance. A bit less polish and a bit more spit, please. That may be why people found the Pogues so endearing, that rough diamond quality which is often missing here. The second of the songs, on the other hand, stays a bit more true to its origins and Bellowhead give it the brisk nautical treatment … and you can enjoy their Pirates Of The Caribbean video:

They're prepared to have a go themselves. 'Betsy Baker' is one of their own but inspired by a local Wiltshire songwriter, nice opening riff, the fiddle and brass make it sound like an old 60s Kinks or Beatles standard rather than any particular folk ballad. There's a nice melody as the singer laments the perils of unrequited love. 'Black Beetle Pies' is unusual, the sort of fairground tune you could imagine Tom Waits having a go at, banging away on xylophone with a half-crazed vocal and chorus. Neither of the last two songs are typical of Broadside, but the album's better for having them aboard. 'The Wife Of Usher's Well', another traditional arrangement, is one of those tragic gothic tales, a mother praying for the souls of her dead sons who she believes will be returned after a year of mourning. 'Dockside Rant' accompanies the merriment down at the harbour, continuing the nautical theme and 'Lillibulero' is satire set to the music of Henry Purcell, a song so full of bluster those Bellowheads have given it the stretched-limo drinking chorus again.

During the 16th and 17th centuries many songs were written down on song 'broadsides' and kept by people like Samuel Pepys for collectible posterity. But the Bellowhead's Broadsides are no doubt the more riotous variety, a collection of songs going off like cannon fire in this heady mix of traditional and modern interpretations of folk tunes. I'm still not a convert, but love 'em or hate 'em you can't really ignore Bellowhead … so best join 'em … “Byker Hill and Walker Shore, collier lads for ever more ...”

Matthew Haddrill

 

Ben Folds Five – The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind

The album starts with a piano being hit very hard and the fuzziest bass and the loudest bass drum. Hearts soar because, can it be true? Ben Folds Five have returned and they sound like Ben Folds Five should!!! Track one then quietens down quite a bit and I feel a little let down. A proper listen reveals that this track is actually pretty great, I just got caught up in my own expectations. The chorus gets pretty noisy too. It's all good.

Noise! Sadness! Humour! Harmony! Songs about people from 'back home'!! Songs that bloody jam and make you want to go on adventures!! This album actually has everything you'd want from it. I maintain it doesn't quite have enough of the noise and Ben referencing James Taylor might be a little too self aware, but it's great. Oh, it's pretty clear that Ben's lost himself another wife too. You'll know what that means.

In this sense, the first track is a perfect opener as it perfectly encapsulates what I think about the album. I wanted them back and I'm happy they are, I wanted them noisier than they are but when they're noisy, they're really great and wait...these quiet songs are pretty great too. I'm glad I went back and listened to those. Hey, this albums getting listened to an awful lot. Oh!

This could very easily have been an entirely enthusiastic review, in fact someone who had been waiting for this album a little less than I had would probably have written that review. I am almost certainly a victim of expectation, however I can still see that this is a wonderful return which matches how welcome it is.

Christopher Carney

 

Sonic Boom Six – Sonic Boom Six

Maybe it's because I was around in the early 2000's when there was a lot of music like this. Maybe that's it. No, it isn't that at all. I'm certain it isn't. This is just awful. Awful. I don't want to spend any more time on this bloody album. Nu-metal was pretty grim the first time around. Even without the misogyny and bro-mentality it's pretty grim. In fact, not even wilfully combating closed mindedness in lyrics is enough to make me want to find anything worthy in this album.

“Reggae posters in Polish grocers, getting on like chips and Samosas” is a properly brilliant line though.


I'm annoyed by the obvious use of video game-esque sounds and I'm pretty sure I was annoyed back when it was tried first time too. Except for Bis. They were charming.

I dislike this album quite a lot. I think it is bad music, recorded badly. Avoid. Play video games instead. They're meant to sound like that. I feel like I have wasted the time I have spent on it.

Christopher Carney

 

...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – Lost Songs

I'm really glad that ..Trail Of Dead exist. I put it like that because I'm not die-hard, I own their albums and I've seen them live, but I don't talk on a forum about them. Do you see? Yes, I think Post-Rock is a good idea.

I'm really glad that they've really not disappointed. Part of me really likes that they sound a bit like early Idlewild (again? Maybe). I have no problem with a band having A Sound. I have a problem with a band boring me. I am not bored. ...Trail Of Dead have a sound? Yeah they do.

I read that they've got some pretty regular collaborators back for this album and I think you can tell. The music gives the impression of a band playing while facing each other, whether they did that or not. It feels intuitive and sounds like a living thing because of it.

I think I've done ...Trail Of Dead a disservice by mentioning their sound. I didn't want to make them seem in any way two-dimensional. They sound like you'd hope, but not always as expected. It's a difference that makes an enjoyable listen even better. Spikes off a high plateau. If I thought for a moment that they'd sounded lumpen, I'd suggest that this album sounds like a reawakening. Maybe it's just the sound of a band noticing their good thing is A Good Thing. Too rare.

There's an awful lot to like about that and as a result I like this album an awful lot.

Christopher Carney

 

Grasscut - Unearth

Grasscut follow up their 2010 debut “1 INCH : ½ MILE” with Unearth, delivering a generous slice of chilled out electro-pop.

Gratuitous comparison to a more established band: “Imagine someone has heavily sedated Hot Chip and you’re on your way...” I don’t say that in a derogatory sense, this is no bad thing. Using drum machines, synths, strings, samplers, and guitars, Grasscut have created a quite beautiful, melancholy ode to the United Kingdom. It’s the aural equivalent of a collection of landscape paintings.

My only real criticism is that, emotionally, the running order can be a little uneven, jarring from mood to mood. For example, Resevoir, a haunting track evoking the tragedy of Capel Celyn “swim through the village, the bank and the post office”, is followed closely by Stone Lions, an optimistic, upbeat, childlike song about changing suburban landscapes. It’s a minor criticism but it does mean the album feels like it’s missing a natural flow and comes across like a collection of songs, rather than an album. Having said that, they’re a great bunch of songs, pleasant without ever being insipid or boring, with plenty of nice touches and flourishes to keep you interested (including some perfectly placed sampled 1950’s broadcasts).

“Shall we make some noise, shall we break our toys” they ask in ‘Blink in the Night’, I can’t honestly imagine Grasscut doing either, but that’s okay. Unearth is music to listen to when the night is winding down and the sun is about to come up, it is bittersweet hope perfectly executed.

Unearth is a good, solid album and I can’t think of many who would actively dislike it, but for me it’s a touch too nice to be great album.

It’s a record I like, not one I love.

Milo

 

Band Of Horses – Mirage Rock

Once you are called Band of Horses, you must be vigilant. You can never put yourself in the position where the pun Bland of Horses can be used against you.

I am pretty certain that I've never found this band bland. I have found it, at times, hard to listen to an entire album of theirs but I have never found them to be bland.

Since I got Mirage Rock, I have listened to it often. I've enjoyed the faster songs and the very obvious chunks of CSNY that shine through. I confess that I have listened to it start to finish rarely, but I have listened to it all, often. I guess that the weight of having a particular sound will cause that occasionally. The issue, I think, is that this time the influences (recurring and otherwise) are a little more obvious. If that is a criticism, and I think I do mean it as one, it's the only one.

Faint praise it may seem, but this is yet another brilliant album by Band of Horses. It may possibly be a less brilliant than more recent things, or it may be that this kind of good, this often makes you yearn for a different flavour. Once you've finished.

Christopher Carney

 

Anja McCloskey – An Estimation

Anja McCloskey is half German, half American, a multi-instrumentalist, she lives by the sea (Southampton) and her instrument of choice is the accordion. I like this woman already. Her musical CV is impressive too, having played as part of numerous musical outfits including, Haunted Stereo & The Irrepressibles, she’s also been a session musician for hire. Now McCloskey has turned her attention to her own music and I have her debut ‘An Estimation’ in my hands.

To put a label on her, Anja McCloskey’s hat rests on the Alternative Folk peg, a folky Sundays if you like. The first thing that strikes me is how simple her songs are. For such an accomplished musician her arrangements are sparsely populated, a guitar or two, a little violin or accordion; throughout it reminds me a little of Blur guitarist Graham Coxon’s “The Sky is Too High”, another sparsely recorded debut.

Just like Coxon’s first outing, An Estimation is a dark, brooding affair and in parts can feel a little heavy going. (Again) like Coxon, Anja has kept her vocal fairly low in the mix, (a sign of a lack of confidence in her voice?) which is a crying shame because she has a really pretty voice, I’d like to have heard a lot more of it.

‘The Italian’ and its neighbour ‘Instigate It’ are album highlights, while the bridge of ‘Quite Low’ is breathtakingly pretty. I wish there was more to praise, but while I wouldn’t say any of her work is poor, it just didn’t grab me. And I really wanted it to.

An Estimation also reminded me of the first time I listened to Emmy the Great’s ‘First Love’. Both albums have a similar feel, and while First Love I had to persevere with, on the fourth or fifth listen it sank in, and I was hooked. I tried to persevere here, but there is no getting away from the fact there’s a shortage of attention grabbing tracks.

Sparse production works when you can rely on the lyrics hooking you in, but An Estimation doesn’t offer enough wit, tenderness or brutality for me to become attached; an issue compounded by the decision to keep the vocals low in the mix.

There’s a lot of promise here. McCloskey is undeniably a talented and passionate musician with a beautiful voice, one who’s next album I’ll be really interested to hear. In the meantime I’ll be revisiting First Love.

Milo

 

Nine Black Alps - Sirens (Brew Records)

Since forming in 2003 Nine Black Alps return after a hiatus of three years with ‘Sirens’, their fourth album, and first for Leeds’ label Brew Records. Despite great initial press hype, complimentary reviews of their debut album and glowing reports of their early live shows, it could be argued that the band have not hit the commercial success they were tipped for.

‘Sirens’ is crammed full of infectious choruses and rippling guitar riffs. The emphasis is clearly on a combination of pop and rock and many of the tracks are instantly memorable. As a whole the album reminds of Ash’s second full release ‘Nu-Clear Sounds’; combining heavier tracks (‘Don’t Forget To Breathe’ and ‘Living In A Dream’) with pure pop-rock (‘Be My Girl’) whilst also containing the obligatory slower songs in the middle (‘Hand Me Down’) and towards the album’s conclusion (‘What You Wanted’). However comparisons can also be clearly drawn with bands such as Wilt, Joyrider and Biffy Clyro who have ridden similar pop-rock waves.

‘Sirens’ is an enjoyable release overall and hopefully many who enjoyed the band’s earlier releases will be prepared to give the album a listen as, despite producing a sound associated with days passed, the band are still displaying great relevance.

Mark Whiffin

 

Hathors - s/t

Ever had a moment when listening to an album or track that you think is very familiar to you, something you've heard a couple of hundred times over and that suddenly sounds very different, inspired even? I had a moment like that with Nirvana a month or two back, when I finally got the idea about exactly why Kurt remains such an Icon - it's because the music was pretty well superb and Nevermind still cuts it even today. Perhaps I hadn't ever really listened to it but when I sort of did .... anyhow, Hathors are Swiss and they're very big Nirvana/Grunge aficianados, and I need to say that after the over two decades we've had to assimilate all things Seattle based that they're cranking out the downtuned riffs and throat shredding vocals with an infectious enthusiasm that might even make you forget where they got the ideas from in the first place. Of course there's a bit more to them than just sounding a lot like an early 90s checked shirt wearing detuned guitar wielding Sub Pop by numbers soundalikes, but any of you Kurt worshippers out there will appreciate Hathors enormously, if you can find their album site amidst the innumerable New Age sites they share their name with - Hathor was some Egyptian deity or other, a lot like Dead Kurt really.
www.last.fm/music/Hathors/Hathors

JG

 

Viv Albertine – The Vermilion Border

Viv Albertine sounds eager to make up for lost time on 'I Want More' at the beginning of The Vermilion Border, actually the solo debut album from the London-based artist who was very much at the vanguard of the punk movement in the late 70s:
“I've been a fake, I've been a fraud/Faking awake when I was bored/Show me your love, if you feel it/I'm not ashamed to say that I need it/Show me your tears, show me your heart/Show me desire, take me apart/I want more, I want more”
Albertine played guitar with The Slits, a band whose influence was doubtless felt more widely (and deeply) than a glance at record sales would suggest. They were the art school girls hanging out with the Pistols and The Clash in the London, then teaming up with legendary dub reggae producer Dennis Bovell to record the seminal post-punk album Cut on Chris Blackwell's Island Records in 1979. The choice of label was no coincidence: the band fused reggae with other types of world music and jazz rhythms, along with all the punk attitude of the time. Their music subsequently informed generations of art-rock bands like Sonic Youth, Gang Of Four and Talking Heads. The recent album by Warpaint The Fool was another timely reminder that The Slits are not forgotten. The band originally split around 1982, and although they reformed in 2005 (with little involvement from Albertine), any further plans were sadly curtailed by singer Avi Up's death from cancer in 2010.

So The Vermilion Border comes off the back of a 25-year absence from the music business. And it seems Albertine really did retreat from music, married and threw herself into family life and even changed her career to become a film-maker. For whatever reason, it was only in 2007 when she finally picked up her old Telecaster guitar and started playing again. A solo ep Flesh was subsequently released on Thurston Moore's Peace Ecstatic Label in 2009, which was followed by a series of impromptu gigs in and around London, where the artist lives.

The impression you get from interviews and press releases is that Albertine's isn't the sort to do things by halves. It's certainly true on The Vermilion Border where she's invited a whole host of musicians to join her. So the album features many well known (you might almost say 'household'!) names, particularly bass players (a different one 'colouring' each track, is that some kind of record?) like Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads and Glen Matlock of The Sex Pistols. She also duets with her old chum Mick Jones on 'Confessions Of A MILF', for one of the album's standout tracks.

The results are more sophisticated than the earlier ep, much of the album is richly orchestrated, a far-cry from her earlier punk or experimental influences. Don't worry though, middle-age hasn't blunted Albertine's wit, nor the youthful-sounding energy in her music, still capable of packing a punch, like on the opener or Sonic Youth-influenced 'Little Girl In The Box'. Reflective songs like 'The False Heart' and 'The Madness Of Clouds' owe something to the balladry of Marianne Faithfull on her quintessential Broken English album, and curiously, a lot of The Vermilion Border also sounds like Charlotte Gainsbourg's work with Beck on 2009's IRM.


The whole thing works on lots of different levels. Lyrically, there's transition from anger, disillusionment to finally breaking through and personal discovery. Once Albertine's middle-aged housewife has peeled the potatoes and heated up the fondue on 'Confessions of a MILF', the song veers manically into Stepford Wives territory, the final chant “There's no place like home” sounding almost catatonic as the song slowly chokes itself to death. Similarly, 'Hookup Girl' bemoans a failing relationship after its fairytale beginnings (“I was his forever girl/I was his favourite person on the world/Now he is asking me to be his hookup girl/It's obvious he doesn't know me very well/In fact that is my idea of sheer hell/To be a hookup girl”). This is great power pop, Go-Go's style with a nice tempo change and rush of guitar in the middle. As the Slits guitarist Albertine shared the vocals, but on this album she's coming into her own. She's obviously getting a lot of stuff off her chest, but it's not all bitter-from-love songs. 'Becalmed (I Should Have Known)' is another impressive pop song, the nod and wink at her old love in the lyric backed with a solid hook and some funky thunderous bass and harp to boot: “Every human encounter is an adventure/A journey into the unknown/Don't you get over me just yet/When the tide turns I'll come home”.

'Still England' is the curious swansong, a bit like the wonderfully sardonic Luke Haines and Black Box Recorder, an homage to her adopted home (Albertine was originally from Australia), namechecking a vast array of British cultural noteworthies while arguing “It's still England/It's still England/No one likes us/We don't care/Syrup of figs and apples and pears”.

It's hard to know what to make of an artist who's been away for so long? Should we judge Viv Albertine's debut on its musical merits alone, or let it remind us that her former band The Slits were far more than just a footnote of musical history? Either way, on The Vermilion Border this Anglicized oz unequivocally stakes her claim for another bite of the cherry!

Matthew Haddrill

 

RNDM – Acts

Rather than anything experimental, as the name would suggest, RNDM's Acts actually sounds and feels like the new Joseph Arthur album. Joseph who …? Originally from Akron, Ohio, prolific singer-songwriter Arthur is one of those artists with the apparent knack of “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”. Discovered by Peter Gabriel in the mid-90s whose Real World Records released the songwriter's debut Big City Secrets in 1997, he was soon touted as the next Springsteen, but never quite managed to pull it off. Even with a rush of albums (and labels!) during the next decade, which may be part of the problem, Arthur has struggled to repeat the haunting reverie of critically-lauded 2004 album Our Shadows Still Remain. A series of creative and commercial flops and serious questions about his lack of quality control (the 16 songs which ended up on 2006's Just Let's Be were reputed to have been culled from around 80 original recordings!) have all left Arthur rather bereft and receding into cult-like obscurity as an artist. His live shows, on the other hand, have become the stuff of legends, as he layers and loops sounds to back his gritty vocal style and create a very special kind of blues experience, one which he freely makes available to fans through regular recordings.

None of this can have escaped Jeff Ament, although the Pearl Jam bassist faces a different kind of problem. Few would argue that his band have been able to match the creative heights of their debut Ten in 1991 and sophomore Vs two years later. But with a steadily growing fanbase and each repeat album they have turned their back on the whole grunge business and ended up aping Neil Young's power chords for 2 decades.

So while one of them produces shed loads of music, the other sells insane amounts of records. Luckily, they both generate excitement and intensity in their music, and on RNDR there's a nice match between Arthur's gutsy blues vocal and guitar playing and Ament's rolling bass. They are joined by Richard Stuverud who has drummed for bands like War Babies and Three Fish (with Ament), the randomness (RNDM is pronounced 'Random') in the group's name actually refers to how the music came together, as Ament describes in the press release:

“The chance encounters of everyday life shape us in more ways than we can imagine. From them spring unexpected opportunities, exciting new directions, burgeoning friendships and, quite often, great music.”

Featured song 'Modern Times' and 'The Disappearing Ones' are basically full-on power pop in the vein of Springsteen and U2. Arthur's growl on 'Darkness' almost out-grunges Eddie Vedder, and 'What You Can't Control' has that U2 marching band beat like on Rattle And Hum's 'All I Want Is You' or somesuch. With the help of Pearl Jam engineer Brett Eliason, the band have managed to capture a freshness about their music, so Acts comes across as a ballsy no-nonsense piece of American blues and rock. Standout track 'Hollow Girl' has a cool hook followed by a nice mood turnaround mid-song reminiscent of Ament's other band, while 'Look Out!' soars with Neil Young-like howling guitar, and there's a hard riffing that reminds me of Jason Newsted's Echobrain project a few years back. 'Williamsburg' breaks the tempo slightly, with Arthur's falsetto and wah-wah pedal, and closing track 'Cherries In The Snow' has the characteristic Springsteen-like harmonica, like on The Boss's classic Nebraska album.

So there's nothing really random about the RNDR, just good old-fashioned blues-rock played by a power trio at the top of their game. This year has already seen the release of Joseph Arthur's latest album Redemption City along with a re-issue of his inspired 2002 collection of ep's now released as one package Junkyard Hearts. Sooner or later this artist will have the success he deserves, that's if he doesn't manage to screw things up again, and meantime RNDM seems like a nice stroll in the park for all concerned. Ament and Stiverud originally experimented with the idea of being Arthur's backing band, but the project snowballed. On Acts, they sound like they got it together and had a lot of fun in the process. It all says a lot for power trios like Cream, ZZ Top, Police, Rush … and Nirvana! Oops, spoiled the party!

Matthew Haddrill

 

Collapse Under The Empire – Fragments of a Prayer (Finaltune)

A quick site search and I suddenly realise that we’ve covered the last four of Collapse Under the Empire’s releases, almost uniformly to great praise. So for consistency alone, Fragments of a Prayer does not disappoint.

This 10 track album forms an interlude within the band’s two part concept project ‘Shoulders and Giants’ & ‘Sacrifice and Isolation’ but as members Chris Burda and Martin Grimm confirm, ‘Fragments of a Prayer’ just provides a further outlet for creative ideas not tethered to the original concept.

It’s no surprise to find that every track is impeccably produced and the rock/electronic crossover is pretty reminiscent, if less visceral, than that of Maybeshewill. The absence of any one stand out track such as ‘The Sirens Sound’ on their previous EP could be perceived as a slight weakness but undoubtedly the overarching feel of the album is one of cinematic grace which could very easily find its way into your record collection. 7/10
http://www.collapseundertheempire.com

SB

 

The Gaslamp Killer - Breakthrough (Brainfeeder)

The debut album from The Gaslamp Killer finally arrives following many years for William Bensussen as a leading figure in the world of instrumental hip hop. Having co-founded the legendary Low End Theory club night in Los Angeles, produced Gonjasufi’s highly praised ‘A Sufi and a Killer’ album and created mix albums for the likes of Finders Keepers it could be argued this solo release is well overdue.

‘Breakthrough’ begins the way it intends to go on, with a murky wash of voices straddled with various bleeps and technological whirring sounds. These soon give way to some traditional sounding chanting before sweeping strings signal a change of track and Gonjasufi’s distinctive drawl opens ‘Veins’, instantly captivating despite its brevity. ‘Breakthrough’ not only showcases a range of guest vocalists but also the eclectic musical nature of The Gaslamp Killer. ‘Holy Mt Washington’ is a fine example of a relaxed instrumental hip hop track, full of warmth and appearing untroubled but the false sense of calm is soon shattered by the impending doom soaked tracks such as ‘Flange Face’. Not afraid to dabble in numerous different styles it is the live drumming that really differentiates this release from others in similar genres. Another Gonjasufi collaboration, ‘Apparitions’, provides the album with its stand-out moment and it is equally as enthralling as the first. ‘Nissim’ is surely the finest example on display here of The Gaslamp Killer’s incredible eclecticism, draped in a heavy Eastern European Romani influence, and featuring a sole yiala tambur before the track ascends into a sunshine euphoria.

‘Breakthrough’ is an enjoyable listen and one that will directly appeal to all fans of the Brainfeeder label. However it is also one that needs to be heard by all fans of (instrumental) music which haven’t bought a record from the hip hop genre since DJ Shadow’s ‘Endtroducing’.

Mark Whiffin

 

Cuddly Shark – The Road to Ugly (Armellodie)

Frankly, if there is nothing on a Cuddly Shark album for you to love then there must be something wrong with you. Tasty’s favourite Highlanders (well, after Christophe Lambert, and technically he was Frenchie anyway) return with their second album and it’s more than a match for their debut.

Building on their familiar self effacing themes and general social dissidence, ‘The Road to Ugly’ gallops off at a rare pace and before you realise it, punkabilly opener ‘SPMG’ has already morphed into ‘Overpriced’. You quickly realise that Cuddly Shark are one of those bands who seem to give off the vibe that they just knock up their tracks in five minutes in a garage somewhere and that’s why they all seem so vibrant. Yet at the same time, when you start to unpick the tracks it starts to become apparent that there’s a fair bit of cleverness and effort gone into them and they might not just be DIY hackers afterall.

Take the instrumental ‘Fiddley Dee’ for instance, no doubt some reference back to traditional Celtic music and brought up to date with a punk vibe but without all the pomp of the Mumfords.

The other repeat aspect followed through from the previous album is the wit in the lyrics and the fact that Colin Reid still appears to be having difficulty getting laid. ‘Body Mass Index’ provides the catchphrase for the album title when Reid recounts another one of his unsuccessful attempts with the ladies, resulting in him being told he was too fat. Ah well, don’t be bitter, write a song about it.

Namechecks would have to include Presidents of the USA and occasionally The Pixies (in the less rockabilly moments of ‘My Ipod Made Me Do It’, ‘Trigger Happy’ and the frankly ace ‘Pull the Finger Out’). This flitting from punk folk to out-and-out indie rock is one of the most refreshing aspects of ‘Road to Ugly’ – not many bands can pull that trick off without it sounding a bit artificial.

Finally, proving they are not all hapless fumbles in small town discos, Cuddly Shark retain their happy knack of luring you in with a few flippant tracks before delivering something quite poignant and beautiful as a post script – this time prettily delivered as ‘Out of Site out of Mind’ and ‘Local Hero’. Bloody lovely Cuddly Shark. 9/10
www.facebook.com/cuddlyshark

SB

 

Electric Shepherd - 'The Imitation Garden'

Somewhere, there's some kind of serious Guitar Race going on, where obscure and middle ranking Metal bands strive to outdo each other in the 'Loudest Noise Since Peter Frampton's Live Album' contest, and very serious contenders for next years award are Electric Shepherd, a band that don't just attempt (and at least partly succeed) to entirely reconfigure the accepted Post Rock standards, whose amp shredding experimentation has arrived at a sound that, under certain conditions, the casual listener might accept was that of a little known Can/Grateful Dead bootleg from 1972, and as if that wasn't all they then reveal themselves as Led Zeppelin - not a band inspired by Led Zep, but the actual real 70s stadium and hotel wreckers, with vocalist Robert Plant mixed out of the tracks just to add to the confusion.

And then, just to add some proper Underground style vibes to the already verging upon overwhelming proceedings, Electric Shepherd then reveal their prime source of inspiration - the work of Sci Fi writer Philip K Dick, whose short stories provided the basis for the plots of films such as Total Recall, Blade Runner and Minority Report, and discovering that the band share their name with the production company set up to administer the late writers estate did, I need to admit, raise my cynicism levels slightly. I then decided that Philip K Dick would probably approve of Electric Shepherd's overwhelming Heavy Metal assault on their listeners senses and even wondered if they were some kind of prank connected to the late authors will - 'I bequeath that thirty five years after my death, a band shall perform highlights from my favourite albums, as well as providing publicity for my short stories instead of just those big glossy films that I never liked a whole lot anyway'... Heavy Rock fans, here's a message to the future from the writer of 'We Can Remember For You Wholesale'.
www.electricshepherd.bandcamp

JG

 

Castrovalva – You’re Not In Hell, You’re In Purgatory My Friend

Bonkers and brilliant, if I only had two words to describe the third album from Leeds based “noise-hop” trio, Castrovalva it would be these two. In fact, if it was up to me, I would probably have called the album ‘Bonkers and Brilliant’, they chose instead ‘You’re Not In Hell, You’re In Purgatory My Friend’.

I’m completely new to Castrovalva and as I scanned over the press release it was full of the usual: “unique sound” “ground-breaking act of…” “building a loyal fan base from explosive live shows” etc. etc.…. To be honest I’ve read the same quotes time and time again and have become a bit numb to them. [Just as a side note, is there a big book of “What to say in band press releases” or “Band press release copy for Dummies” that everyone copies and pastes from? If so, it’s time they write a new one]. Anyways, I only digress to set the scene, a scene in which I had zero expectations of what I was about to expose my ears too.

Album opener ‘Best Friends Go To Purgatory’ starts with 40 seconds of reverbed wailing and atmospheric vibrato guitar. My expectations went from ‘zero’ to below…. Then at 0.41 it’s interrupted with a heavy bass guitar riff and pounding rock drum beat, 15 seconds later all hell breaks loose and I felt a giant grin creep across my face. The song ends with the chant “best friends they come and go”… I can’t even begin to describe at how brilliant a lyric that is… Track one is done at 1.49 and I’m sold.

What follows is an insanity genre mash-up, you’ve got bass driven metal/rock riffs, you’ve got grime mc’ing, noisecore screams, rock vocals, falsetto harmonies, dubstep synths, hip hop rhythms and arse kicking rock drums. I’ve been bemoaning the death of rock music for the past 15 years; with a few notable exceptions it’s a genre that’s died and been exhumed more times than Dracula. Here we have that rare gem, a contemporary rock record… and I bloody love it.

None of these tracks (except the closer ‘A Vultures Eyes’ – which reeks of The Beatles ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’) get past the three and a half minute mark, but each one seems so much longer. Usually that would be a criticism, but in Castrovalva’s case it’s simply because they pack in and cover so much ground into each song. One minute you’re listening to a beautifully panned 1960’s do-wop melody, the next thing you know a distorted bass guitar is trying to tear off your ears; it should be a disaster but it’s fabulous. These songs have either been painstakingly crafted or Castrovalva have a spontaneity that verges on genius. Either way it’s hugely impressive.

I’ve been telling my friends, if you like the crazy of Pixies, the urgency of bands like Future of the Left & Pulled Apart by Horses, make sure you get a little “You’re Not In Hell, You’re In Purgatory My Friend” in to your life, and I would recommend you do the same.

Milo

 

Sonic Youth – Smart Bar Chicago 1985

Immediately engaging and noisy, this live album, the earliest ever live recording of Sonic Youth, grabs you buy the hair and demands your attention. This record has been mastered from the original tape recordings and consists of much of Bad Moon Rising but has something to offer both old and new fans, with a previously unrecorded song, Kat ‘n’ Hat. Their set is, although apparently messy, is in fact incredibly thought out and sculptured. Each song flows from one to the next and before you know it, you’ve listened to over an hour of music. The only difference is that after the hour is up, you’re half inspired, half exhausted. As they play their raw, experimentalist sound, one can feel their energy and involvement. It really does offer a radical and new sound for an eighties record, probably in part due to drug influences referred to at the end of the album. The whole album seems personal and it is quite possible to get lost in their blurry haze of distortion and feedback.

Matt Bull