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albums - may 2015


   

Al Berkowitz - 'A Long Hereafter, Nothing Beyond'

From Spain, Al Berkowitz take their name from a US musician whose backing band they performed as until he left, leaving them to retain his name for their own releases, or something equally complicated. Perhaps he never actually existed, or there's another reason but that's all a bit by the by when actually listening to 'A Long Hereafter' which is one really cleverly put together album, and first track 'You And I' definitely kept me listening its mixture of sampled sounds from Astrid Gilberto type easy listening and actual flamenco guitar is the kind of sound that a lot of bands have attempted but that Al Berkowitz appear to have perfected. They sing in English, utilise flutes and violins at every opportunity, and they're really good with it, however they got their name. I didn't quite get the complete album as a download so I'll do my best with this one, and as the influences switch from 1960s europop to something nearer the 13th Floor Elevators with 'The Frenchman And The Rabbit' the Berkowitz's, while they seem uncertain if the song is best taken at garage punk speeds or as a ballad, also seem to know exactly how to change the timing of the song without it seeming too forced or thrashy when it speeds up again and as the eight tracks I was able to download develop 'A Long Hereafter' develop the Berkowitz's reveal themselves as recreators of the soft pop music of the late 60s and early 70s, while managing to avoid sounding too clichéd while doing the recreation thing with some accuracy.

'How Could We Get Ourselves Lost?' is probably the first song I've ever heard that I can properly suggest is very influenced by Simon And Garfunkel, right where the string section appears over the guitar and vocal, and it's performed without so much as a hint of the irony we could expect if (say) Robbie Williams or Blur got their hands on it. Then it's back to the garage for 'Farewell My Lady' which has some very loud crashing cymbals and a surf guitar riff that's reminiscent of pre-Sparks collaboration Franz Ferdinand. Obviously a band with more than one aspect to them, and the title track is a mood enhanced slow one, with Serge Gainsbourg in his more obscure mid 70s persona lurking somewhere in the background. With four of the tracks apparently missing from my copy of the album, I've probably missed out on one or two of the highlights of 'A Long Hereafter' although I did get final track 'Sensitive, Not Dramatic' which is a grimy sounding slice of noir-ish guitar and warped sounding electronic rhythms and which also has a tune of the sort that's the making of 'A Long Hereafter', the work of a band that whichever influence they choose to work with, always remember to add a proper chorus. A band I only stumbled upon by chance, Al Berkowitz are inventive and often unpredictable musicians and 'A Long Hereafter' is very worth some moments of your own time.
www.alberkowitz.com

JG


The Catenary Wires - 'Red Red Skies'

It's described as a mini album, but 'Red Red Skies' appears to have a sufficient number of songs on it to qualify as a full album release. I've heard several albums that contained less than nine tracks, although after listening to the duo of Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey I began to get the idea that with a form of minimalism at the heart of their music, the Catenary Wires don't want us to think of them as a full band, a completely realised project, and the music is entirely that of one guitar and two voices, unalloyed with production trickery or really anything other than just the duo and their guitar. Perhaps it was even recorded on a phone, during a quiet evening in their kitchen. If the Catenary Wires lived next door to you, several months could pass before you were aware that you had musicians for neighbours. The 'less is more' approach doesn't appear to have damaged them professionally though, as with a live itinerary that has included New York, Tokyo, Europe and a lot of shows throughout the UK there really does seem to be an audience for the softly played and occasionally acerbically brilliant songs they perform.

That is where it can always get a bit difficult for a one guitar duo. The songs need to be really good to make an impression and despite the doubtlessly warm reception they've received as live performers, the Catenary Wires are probably to be excused a touch of nerves on releasing their first album - on 10" vinyl, just to make the point a little more directly. Both Rob and Amelia were members of 80s indie popsters Talulah Gosh and about half a dozen other bands since then so we can be assured they know what they are doing. First track 'Intravenous' opens with a series of plucked guitar notes and a multi tracked vocal from Amelia and it really isn't very difficult to imagine the song (and the other eight) being performed at a breakneck jangle, with polka dots and tambourines flying off in all directions. Importantly, the album opener and its accompanying tracks sound like something of the C86 ethos hasn't ever quite left the Catenary Wires, with shades of the Marine Girls and 14 Iced Bears never far from their songs. That's all well and good, I hear you say, but is 'Red Red Skies' just a collection of rediscovered demos of songs now three decades old or are we really getting something new and innovative from these indie veterans and, if you are asking that question or anything remotely like it then just don't bother listening to the Catenary Wires as you are far too cynical to appreciate anything they're doing. Everyone else, settle down with a cuppa and let the Catenary Wires remind you that old hipsters never die, they just make proper Indie MOR for the now greying survivors of the cassette wars.
http://www.thecatenarywires.com/

JG


Black Rainbows – Hawkdope

Even the title Hawkdope suggests homage to Hawkwind, and certainly Black Rainbows' last exploratory jam-laden outing would give the veteran spacerockers a run for their money. With the metallic haze of biker anthem 'Monster Of the Highway' and psych-drenched meditation of 'Chakra Temple', 2013's Holy Moon, an ep only really in name, was a fuzzworshippers' wet dream. Disappointing then, that on their latest release the Italian hard-rockers plunder the more conventional trail of hellraising laid down by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

Gabriele Fiorini's nasally vocal stylings and Iommi-esque hard-riffing on opener 'The Prophet' immediately transport you back to classic Ozzie Osbourne and Black Sabbath. The spiralling metal motifs and driving blues set the tone for Hawkdope, and while metal music doesn't generally stray from a fairly predictable course (all part of the charm), this album could use a few more sonic pit-stops over its 40 or so minutes.

Ironically, a rather clipped production doesn't help matters with stoner rock. While Holy Moon's exploratory edge allowed the band to open up the throttle sonically, this time round there are more songs but they sound muted at 4 minutes. If you're stoned, you don't generally mind a few lost minutes here and there, surely Hawkdope's missing ingredient is what its title alludes to?

Black Rainbows use radio samples to rack up the atmosphere of their music, but aside from a police walkie-talkie the no-nonsense fuzz-driven blues of 'Wolf Eyes' doesn't make any great inroads. The 9-minute title track can lay claim to being a space jam, bassist Dario Ioce and new drummer Alberto Croce driving the song along with Fiorini's snarling guitar, while a certain amount of electro-twiddling on 'No Fuel No Fun' propels the song into a 'Silver Machine'-like stratosphere. But most of the album falls back on a classic hard rock default position, the sort of music Led Zeppelin took to dizzying heights on their “rough-round-the-edges” sophomore of 1969 and the hard-rock template bands like Black Rainbows tend to follow.

Nobody said they had to re-invent the wheel. Catchy-titled 'Hypnotize My Soul With Rock'n'Roll' and 'Jesus Judge' again crunch the Sabbath gears, no bad thing, but I wonder where exactly the 'Hawk' comes in? Exceptionally, 'Waiting For The Sun' is reminiscent of 'Hurry On Sundown' the unusual intro to Hawkwind's eponymous 1970 debut, sun-kissed and acoustic before the band rev up again. But the Italians struggle to break from type. Even the album's slow-burning closer 'The Cosmic Picker' sounds surprisingly land-bound. Again, in an obvious attempt to follow the direction of 1971's In Search Of Space where spacerock all got started, the song benefits from a nice lull in the middle, but somehow still comes back sounding like 4 minutes on repeat.

You won't get much objectivity from the metal fraternity on this one. Perhaps you have to be high not to notice what Black Rainbows' Hawkdope is clearly missing. By celebrating the hard-riffing blues of classic bands, it apparently does what it says on the tin. A bit more 'Hawk' and 'dope', and then we can really ride and watch ourselves go by on the other side of the sky …

Matthew Haddrill


Cantalouper – Reproduction

Ian Curtis and Joy Division enjoy a legacy that bands continue to explore. Sometimes it's difficult to say what touched people so deeply and profoundly about Curtis, perhaps his lyrics and the band's intensely-atmospheric music, even the personal struggles which led to his suicide? The darker elements often rise to the surface, but sometimes people forget it was very much a struggle of life and death, epitomized in the lyrics of a song like Joy Division's 'Dead Souls'.

There's more than a hint of this on Cantalouper's latest album Reproduction. 'These Little Deaths' conveys the sort of dark imagery characteristic of Joy Division, especially with its metronomic beat and melodic bass. Lyricist Levi Dolan sings about the tragedy of a child's death as he whips himself up into a frenzy: “So let's speak in majestic tones/of this desire that burns our bones/but not for being satisfied/It's just to keep us crucified.” 'Crybaby' follows a similar mood and intensity, tales of a bully, with powerful instrumentation redolent of The Cure's darker side or Joy Division's 'Transmission'.

But the music of the Columbia Montana-based band's sophomore (the follow-up to Kramer-produced Mandrakes in 2009) is more nuanced. The poppy-sounding 'Stuffed Animals' is a reverie to the images of children storybooks and the blurry lines between language and childhood experience, the song set to an endearing singalong patter. Upbeat and melodic opener 'Parking Lot' relates some of the trials of early sexual encounters and the sensitivities of adolescence in a light-hearted way. Also with neat hooks, 'Katydid' is a recollection of childhood experiences we mistakenly try to reproduce as adults. The idea of hide and seek contained in the lyrics is a powerful metaphor. When his eyes are open, Katy has disappeared only to re-appear in the school year books some time later.

Powerful dark imagery inevitably pervades Reproduction, futile to fight it. Dolan sings about putting the flowers by the grave of a loved one in '1986' and his eyes go all watery as he tries to read a postcard he's brought. Sleepyhead' has that cloying mellotron sound that Joy Division used on 'Decades', the singer's rather dirgy voice wavering unsteadily as he sings: “Go go to sleep, the morning will come/But first it's time for nightmares.”

Sometimes you think you've got a handle on Dolan's lyrics, but then he hands you something oblique or philosophical. A lot of thought goes behind the words. Reproduction's central message seems to be contained in the album's closing song 'All Grown Up', with the singer recounting some of the dangers of looking back and ritualizing the things that made us happy when we were kids. The message resonates: it's the looking in the mirror and noticing who we've become so we can move on with our lives. Although Ian Curtis wasn't able to do that, his words memorialize his existence and keep tugging away at our consciousness:

“Someone take these dreams away,
That point me to another day,
A duel of personalities,
That stretch all true realities.
That keep calling me...”
(Joy Division – Dead Souls)

Matthew Haddrill


Killwave – Death By Distortion

There's a nice dark driving intensity about the songs on Killwave's Death By Distortion, and while I'm sure they won't escape comparisons with early British goth-rock bands like Bauhaus or Sisters Of mercy, it's the elements of film noir and Bowie-esque theatricality which stand out on the Chicago-based band's latest album.

They're not averse to a good tune, either. Opener 'The Calling' raises a mean darkwave ruckus over George Pinto's distorted vocal, the kickdrum-driven chorus and the dark electronic bass motoring the song along like some crazed John Carpenter 70s film soundtrack. 'March' matches its intensity with a crazed Bowie-like rant about raising a finger to The Man and marching to the beat of your own drum. The lovely thick layers of industrial sonic granite hewn out of the song add to its dance-friendly stomp and solid hooks.

The dark atmospheres Killwave generate are a credit to Jim King the band's synthesizer maestro, but Death By Distortion sounds very much a band effort. More industrial disco on 'Shake', this time clamped down by an unashamedly clattering ZZ Top rock beat, a nod to guilty pleasures everywhere in its rock claustrophobia and the band's drummer Bran X demonizing the song.

There's brooding melancholia on 'Cloud', the robotic drum and mellotron at the start like Joy Division's Closer material but then the song gathers spooky intensity as Pinto despairs: “I'll just keep on going to the wrong side of town/There's a cloud that surrounds and swallows everything I do”. There's more of this character-play in Low-end Bowie 'Box' where the singer goes in search of more dark secrets. 'Drive' on the other hand is mildly robotic and Krautrock, with an opening that indulges delicious 60s b&w film fantasies of driving off into the night, with its sinister melodrama you almost expect Peter Lorre to appear out of nowhere. The song's intensity has trace elements of great British underground band The Sound.

It's a fine line between homage and pastiche. Interpol and Editors trod it pretty well, but did they have as much fun? 'Bad Boys' plays up the awkward factor, but the tempo soars again, while album closer 'Spiral' eases things down gently to close. Death By Distortion has a nice overriding concept and the Chicago band's incessant and tight playing ensures a suitably theatrical impact. With solid hooks and spooky inter-woven ideas matched with playful shadowy imagery, Killwave want you to come over to their darkside, but you may not want to leave.

Matthew Haddrill


Marvin Gaye - Marvin Gaye: 1961-1965 Boxset

It's hard to appraise the career of a musical legend without getting involved in all the personal struggles. What's remarkable about Marvin Gaye 1961-1965 Boxset is how unremarkable it actually is. the first in a 3-part series of vinyl boxset re-issues, Marvin Gaye's first 7 studio albums represent his struggle to establish himself as an artist in his own right, rather than being lent on by Tamla Motown's founder Berry Gordy (who, to make things even more complicated, had become family after Gaye's marriage to his sister Anna). After a brief spell with doo-wop group The Moonglows and work for Motown as a session musician, the singer was inducted into the Detroit label's hit factory. This boxset includes stereo mixes of his 1961 debut, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, That Stubborn Kinda Fellow (1963) and When I’m Alone I Cry (1964), available for the first time ever in the LP format. There is also Hello Broadway…This Is Marvin (1964), Together, his 1964 duets album with soul singer Mary Wells, the classic How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You (1965), and finally A Tribute to the Great Nat “King” Cole (1965) completes the 7-disc collection. There's no What's Going On, no Let's Get It On, and certainly no Sexual Healing. These will come in parts 2 and 3!

Singer Kim Weston once famously remarked that there were 3 sides to Marvin Gaye: the deeply spiritual believer (guided by Marvin Gaye Sr. his overbearing father, a fundamental pentecostal minister); the charismatic singer with the “golden” voice; and the insecure performer who suffered anxiety attacks. The deep splits in his personality are best summed up in his most famous song. 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine', about the anxieties of a lover who believes a rival is stealing his girl, was autobiographical like so many of Gaye's songs. Drugs would exacerbated these afflictions in the later stages of Marvin Gaye's career, with tragic consequences.

Which all seems a million miles from this collection. Marvin Gaye 1961-1965 chronicles the period before all the creative peaks and troughs in his career. There may be good reasons why it doesn't get the same sort of media coverage. The soul legend’s debut in 1961 was only the second release on Motown, which was struggling commercially at the time. The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, despite its title, is an album of pop and jazz standards of the day, like Cole Porter's 'Love For Sale' or the Rodgers and Hart composition 'My Blue Valentine'. The inclusion of R&B numbers 'Never Let You Go' (co-written with Anna Gordy) and 'Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide' (Berry Gordy) sit oddly alongside the jazz-infused stuff mostly played by Gaye (on piano and drums). 1962's That Stubborn Kinda Fellow took Gaye in more of an R&B direction, although the singer shares many of the writing credits, including the eventual UK Northern Soul hit 'Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)'. Gaye was backed by Martha And The Vandella's and although not commercially successful, his second album spawned a number of charting hits.

Motown wanted him to be like Sam Cooke, but Gaye wanted to be a crooner. The bombastic and largely underwhelming “big band jazz” style of When I’m Alone I Cry in 1964 did little to resolve things. Even his voice sounds uneven and under-rehearsed. It was immediately followed by an album of soulful duets with Mary Wells. Together became Gaye's first commercially successful album and one that improved his profile as a soul artist, but when Wells was 21 she was advised to leave Motown and the singer had to find another partner. The rather puffed-up jazz standards of Hello Broadway ape Sinatra and Nat King Cole. The recordings are more polished with Gaye's voice starting to shine, but the whole atmosphere is rather surreal and peculiar, and the results far from convincing. Gaye finds his voice finally with 1965's How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You, the pendulum swinging back towards the Motown R&B stable, with the Holland-Dozier-Holland title track giving the singer his first major taste of success as a solo artist. One senses the last gasps of the jazz singer on A Tribute To The Great Nat King Cole released in the same year just nine months after Cole’s death. The push-me-pull-me world of Marvin Gaye in this collection would drive him on to greater things, but must have added to the pressures that dogged his life.

In the BBC documentary 'What's Going On: The Life And Death Of Marvin Gaye', made just after the artist's shooting by his father in April 1984, Berry Gordy admits he was wrong about Gaye's epic song-cycle What's Going On released in 1971. It was the final straw for artist who was criticized heavily by the Motown executives. Gaye's career was characterized by these moments when he was isolated artistically and had to show great resolve to continue. Ironically, on this collection it's probably How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You that stands the true test of time and gives you an inkling of what would follow. Gaye's voice sounds honeyed and seductive, and really coming into its own. Songs like 'Try It Baby' (in which he was joined by his heroes The Temptations), bastard child of Grapevine 'No Good Without You' and sumptuous 'Need Somebody' all very much followed the designs of Berry Gordy's hit factory. A coherent musical statement in turbulent times. Although the boxset sampler takes you on a tour through the 7 albums, I prefer to park my ears here!

Matthew Haddrill


Various Artists: Shirley Inspired (Earth Recordings)

Rozi Plain's rendition of the Shirley Collins song 'Long Years Ago' was a surprise hit last summer. The song's hazy guitar tones and Plain's doleful voice tell the story of a maiden waiting on the shore for her drowned lover. I didn't realize it was part of a Kickstarter appeal to raise money for the making of 'The Ballad Of Shirley Collins', a feature-length documentary about the celebrated British folk singer, now in her eightieth year. The stories behind Collins' songs are always fascinating. This one, for example, was originally recorded by folk musician John Hasted, but Collins' version ended up on the 1960 album A Pinch Of Salt: British Sea Songs Old And New. Hasted had in turn collected it during the last war from a soldier whose identity is now a mystery. And so it goes, the ghostlike remains of the past live on through folk music.

More a chronicler and arranger of traditional songs than a songwriter in her own right, Britain's 'first lady of folk' famously accompanied folklorist Alan Lomax on his trips through the American south in 1959, collecting field recordings of then unheard of artists like Bessie Jones and Mississippi Fred McDowell. These ended up on the collection known as 'Sounds of The South', the inspiration behind the Coen Brothers' 2000 film 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?', and were no doubt crucial in the direction Collins' career took when she got back to Britain.

Although involved in the late 50s revival with artists like Ewan MacColl, the singer's music really came alive during the golden age of British folk rock which followed. She teamed up with guitar wizard Davy Graham for the 1964 album Folk Roots, New Routes, which paved the way for a more eclectic approach, and a series of Renaissance-influenced albums recorded with her sister Dolly in the 60s and 70s ushered in a new era of recording. It was the Collins sisters' use of ancient instruments in modern settings that influenced groups like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span to think of new ways of extending the electrification of the genre in this country. The rest, as they say, is history.

Many artists have donated recordings of Collins' songs to generate funds for The Ballad Of Shirley Collins, and Earth Recordings have made these available on a 6-sided vinyl compilation Shirley Inspired to coincide with Record Store Day on Saturday 18th April this year.

Bitchin Bonnie Billy Bajas's drone-heavy version of classic soldier song 'Pretty Saro' is a great way to part the waves, Oldham (with yet another alias!) despairing at being alone and so far from home (the song was one of Collins' earliest, from her 1959 album Sweet England, but re-appeared on many subsequent recordings). The freak folk interpretations of the singer's work are also strangely poignant, re-working her rather austere but “golden” tones. Meg Baird (of Espers)'s vocal on 'Locks & Bolts' spooks the hell out of things with wailing guitar undercutting the traditional accompaniment, and equally haunting is the sparse Americana of Angel Olsen's 'The Blacksmith' (both songs are from 1963's Heroes In Love).

'Shepherds Arise' is the nativity-themed traditional Copper Family song which ended up on Shirley and Dolly Collins ill-fated album with The Young Tradition, The Holly Bears The Crown (recorded in 1969, although not seeing the light of day until 1995). Crying Lions grace the song with traditional vocal harmonies. Beautifully erudite London-based Slate Islands reading of 'Proud Maisrie' is in a similar vein, the classic full-voiced treatment sounding something like Sandy Denny or Norma Waterson.

The ramshackle charm of Graham Coxon's 'Cruel Mother' (from 1967's The Sweet Primroses) shows the new lease of life Blur's guitarist has found through the guitar-based folk of artists like Graham or Bert Jansch, while Paul Smith's curious version of 'Geordie' is all swirling harmonies like a Scott Walker ballad (from Collins' celebrated 1970 album Love Death & The Lady). There's also the downright weird (Belbury Poly's 'Cambridgeshire') and esoteric (Eric Chenaux's 'Just As The Tide Was Flowing'), some contributions are certainly more expected than others. But for me, the pick of the bunch is still Rozi Plain's dreamy summer ballad, which feels like the dusting off of an old black and white photo to peer into the past ...

Collins retired from formal recording and performance in the late 70s. She still gives talks about music and occasionally makes public appearances. The account of her trip with Lomax 'America Over The Water' was published in 2005, and she is also noted for her research into the music of Romany people in the south of England. She received an MBE for services to music at the end of 2006. There's a great breadth of material on Shirley Inspired, surely one of the best ways to get acquainted with the singer's oeuvre, sampled gradually and regularly to find the bits you like. The film project may have stalled, so please give generously. 'The Ballad Of Shirley Collins' is one of those films that just has to be made for the good of the nation!

Matthew Haddrill


Steven Wilson - Hand.Cannot.Erase

Steven Wilson has never been one to hide the darker elements of his work. Danish film maker Lassie Holle brought some of these out in his 2008 documentary 'Insurgentes' accompanying Wilson's debut solo release of the same name. Described by Wilson in interviews as “a portrait of a musician in the 21st century”, the press focused on the destruction of iPods and the hectic rockumentary type stuff, Wilson flitting from country to country trying to make sense of it all. Holle's film is, however, essentially a study of dark imagery underscored by music at the more experimental end of the artist's oeuvre. “Strange beautiful we like ... but we also like decay" Wilson comments with photographer and cover designer Carl Glover as they gaze out over the bleak landscapes of Dungeness, Kent, and the resting ground of a disused nuclear power plant. Then it's off to the “Island of Dolls” at Lake Xochilmilco just outside Mexico City, where the music for Insurgentes was recorded, with all these amazing dolls hanging from the trees everywhere putting him in mind of Victorian photos eulogizing the dead by laying them out serenely in open coffins. It's Steven Wilson's fearless exploration of these darker 'sides' that make him such an unusual and compelling artist.

And he's at it again on his latest release. Enigmatically-titled Hand. Cannot. Erase is a concept album inspired by the life of Joyce Carol Vincent whose remains were discovered in her London flat in 2006, an estimated 3 years after her actual death. It was a bizarre story at the time, but when the dust settles chillingly bleak: how could an attractive outgoing but terribly damaged woman who withdrew to her apartment not be missed for such a long time … friends, relatives, neighbours, even the social security office, all assumed she was off somewhere else enjoying life. A testament to the disconnectedness of modern life, a theme which recurs in Wilson's work. The whole series of events may have attracted the artist to write a fictionalized account from Vincent's perspective, but also these themes of death and decay keep re-emerging as the intrepid explorer sets off again into the heart of the psyche ...

It's not to say Hand. Cannot. Erase is morbid or depressing. Musical boundaries have never posed a problem for Wilson, and the immense and imaginative sonic landscape he creates on this album feels at times like a lost classic of the 70s, arguably Mr “Man Out Of Time's” halcyon era of retrospectivity. But he's a magpie, too, so he creates a nice collage effect by throwing in elements of 80s pop, metal, electronica, folk and many other things besides, and that's just in the epic prelude '3 Years Older'. Equally with tracks like 'Home Invasion', a slight return to the free-jazz he explored on 2011's Grace For Drowning, or the classic prog ELP noodling on songs like 'Regret 9', the latter pulling up short with a soft ending and eerie voices in the background, the great expansive sound is skillfully engineered by Steve Orchard with Wilson handling production and mixing duties.

Crucially, Israeli vocalist Ninette Tayeb gives 'voice' to the protagonists thoughts in the spoken word 'Perfect Life', the story of an earlier encounter and bonding with a foster sister, and supplies the operatic vocals to back Wilson's singing on 'Routine'. The pulsating rhythms and synths on the former inject something interesting but at the same time disquieting into the song, refusing to follow the classic tropes of prog, so instead ending up sounding electropop. The latter, on the other hand, is a more straightforward whig-out, something like early Genesis or Yes. Wilson's voice is noticeably empathetic and understated throughout Hand. Cannot. Erase., an odd juxtaposition with the music which at times is slightly overblown. Mood is the key, like on 'Transcience' which glides off atmospherically in another beautiful direction with acoustic folk guitar, the sort of interlude Pink Floyd might have slotted into their classic albums of the 70s.

A little bit of distortion in the voice on the sprawling Bjork-like orchestral electronica of 'Ancestral' expresses a kind of frightened emptiness, Wilson's prose telling the imagined story of a person becoming more and more isolated. Complex layers of loops, strings, synths, strings and stinging guitars heighten the tension, and the inevitable duality of bursts of power matched with a creeping atmosphere of gloom and eerie darkness. When there is any kind of respite, like on 'Happy Returns', it quickly turns sour, a family reunion that should provide security for the protagonist actually yields to vulnerability and isolation:

“Hey brother happy returns it's been a while now/I bet you thought that I was dead/But I'm still here, nothing's changed, nothing's changed/Hey brother I'd love to tell you I've been busy but that would be a lie/Cos the truth is the years just pass like trains/I wait but they don't slow down, don't slow down”


So 'Time Flies' doesn't it (to coin an earlier phrase), but on Hand. Cannot. Erase, Steven Wilson tries to know the unknowable about Vincent's life and all the complicated fragments that must have fitted together. 'Ascendent Here On' is the piano-driven epitaph delivered without words by a boys choir and the sound of children in the background. Chilling, but sensitively done again, more elegiac than morbid, like the Victorian graves in the Insurgentes film! There's a mass of things going on throughout this album, so best to sit back and let the whole thing unfold in front of your ears. Surely, a treatise on alienation and loneliness, but with a soundtrack that resonates with an inward beauty. Wilson has combined accessible elements of modern-day pop with the prog rock he celebrated on 2013's supernatural-inspired The Raven That Refused To Sing to create a fascinating conceptual piece of work. There's always much more to Steven Wilson than smashing iPods.

Matthew Haddrill


A Place To Bury Strangers - Transfixiation

I’m loving kick-start track “Supermaster” from the word go and I’m feeling there’s a similarity close to ‘Marry Me Tonight’ era HTRK, which you’ll hear mainly in the guitar as it Keith Levene’s it’s way through your skull. The tempo carries the contents of catalyst-noise induced fusion back and forth in the same motion as the moon moves the sea. “Straight” is frantic! I could imagine this being amazing live. One thing The Strangers have always been known for, is their D.I.Y self customized guitar pedals, and this track really shows the power in destructive 6 string wreckage once displayed by Thurston Moore many moons ago. The thing that makes this lot so great, is they pull it off in such a contemporary style that it more than separates them from your everyday Sonic Youth influenced group, with whom will end up writing songs that could be an extra bonus track on ‘Goo’. “Love High” takes an unexpected u-turn down the path of ‘Psycho Candy’ era Jesus and Mary Chain, whilst stood outside CBGB over 45 years ago hearing ‘Pablo Picasso’ by The Modern Lovers blaring from inside! “What We Don’t See” starts off sounding like a bad ketamine trip, which then climbs into a joyous surf voyage through the school yards of both Mary Chain brothers Jim and William Reid. “Deeper” borders on Gang of Four’s ‘Call Me Up’ until the vocal comes in sounding like Rob Zombie, who proceeds to stamp his way over every living soul in the world, whilst repeating the word: “Deeper” over and over. “Lower Zone” is an instrumental dish served on a Chinese plate filled with lo-fi beats and occasional bursts of guitar spells, not that far off that of Dublin’s no wave quartet Girl Band. “Now It’s Over” begins in an industrial region; with screeching guitar patterns; carrying Iggy Pop across a desert of broken glass! “I’m So Clean” is a slab of beef from the first second in, whilst dripping with gravy and napalm. It’s on par with Primal Scream’s ‘Accelerator’, only due to the nails across a chalkboard guitar attack sequence. “Fill The Void” is an off beat pile up on a motorway to begin with, but erratically changes into a speedy menace, which drives bass heavy and chaotically fuzzy! It’s like being back at an Ikara Colt gig 13 years ago listening to this and I think that’s mainly because of the drums. Transfixiation ends with “I Will Die”, which more than reeks hazard. This will be the closest they’ll ever get to sounding like Jon Spencer’s old blow out brigade Pussy Galore, who are responsible for some of the loudest shows New York has ever witnessed, well them and The Cramps of course. ********* 9/10

Gavin Tate


Elvis Perkins - I Aubade

Elvis Perkins hasn't let the tragic events of his life get in the way of what has been a fruitful musical career so far. Ensconced at home writing his first novel, his latest album I Aubade, quite a while coming, makes another fascinating departure for the now Hudson Valley-based artist.

Any sense of the doom-laden on Perkins' elegant debut Ash Wednesday in 2007 would have been perfectly understandable. The singer-songwriter lost both his parents before he was 30. His father, the famous actor Anthony Perkins, died of AIDS in 1992, and Perkins' mother, the photographer and actress Barry Berenson, amazingly was one of the passengers of the ill-fated American Airlines Flight 11 flown into the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001. Recoiling from these horrors, the uncanny resemblance to Thom Yorke in the strains of Perkins' vocal might have been expected, but the folk-infused songwriting had more in common with artists like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Pete Seeger. 2009's Elvis Perkins In Dearland was the ambitious follow-up, adding musical sophistication with a full-on band and a real tangle of instruments and styles. "I don't let doomsday bother me; do you let it bother you?" he hollers on the rousing New Orleans jazz-infused 'Doomsday'. Perkins it seemed had shaken the blues and arrived as an artist.

So, I Aubade will come as a bit of a surprise. Not so much a backward or forward step as an interesting one to the side. Most signs of the Dylanesque have vanished in the haze of these experimental and audacious recordings. There's no 'Shampoo' or 'While You Were Sleeping' to get your musical bearings, and no band as such, either. The singer-songwriter plays and arranges most of the music himself on these home recordings. Sonically, the results are understandably lo-fi but delightfully spectral as Perkins creates a heady coctail from (mainly acoustic) instruments and found sounds, delivered with a fragile and intimate vocal. It's an approach epitomized by the song 'I Came For The Fire', closely-miked almost to the point of claustrophobia, but with all these other marvellous noises floating around to give it an odd and interesting character. The haunting flute and wavering keyboard (but is it a mellotron? who cares?) create the sort of pastoral sound you can hear on Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle of 1968.

Could 'All Today' be the aubade of the album title? Surely a song between parting lovers at the break of day, Perkins' conjuring up the spirit of John Lennon in his voice? And once more on the rather haunting falsetto of 'My Kind'. Images drift in and out of consciousness and odd buzzing sounds give this album a feel like a sweet hallucinogenic haze. 'Gasolina' frames its dark whisky-soaked Americana like a nursery-rhyme: “Go ask for the gasoline Mama, say please oh diddy please may I have the gasoline” putting in mind something sweet and sickly like treacle.

Yes, I Aubade is very treacly. The playing around with sounds is quite charming. '& Eveline' is a good illustration of that, the classic folk motif mysteriously breaking into Bossanova half way through, in yet another dream sequence, and its complex layering of instruments and sounds even revealing a dulcima somewhere in the mix. 'It's Now Or Never Loves' begins as the conventional ballad, a gentle melancholy in Perkins' voice, but eventually picks up into something sounding like a Beach Boys harmony. He works his impressionistic story-telling nicely into the mysterious 'The Passage Of The Black Gene' (“I saw a woman out in the evening/Going her merry way up the city block/Stricken by a strange pose bent out of shape/The pose of a puppet master gone/Looking up to a light across the road/She froze for a moment and then moved on”), and Andean instrumental 'Accidental Tourist (A White Huayno Melody)' is another album highlight, providing a lovely atmospheric interlude, a 'step back' moment on the album, shades of Vini Reilly and Durutti Column in the latin guitar playing.

Indeed, I Aubade has many different 'shades' to it, the experimentation inevitably working better on some songs than others. 'Am' sounds slightly cluttered with all its noisy effects, although there's some lovely bar-room piano in the middle section. Very hard to tell what 'Hogus Pogus' is all about, and 'My 2$' and 'Wheel In The Morning' are deliberately rather low-key and psyched-out. But it's the little gems of pop music hidden away in each sonic exploration which give Elvis Perkins' latest album its true appeal. This kind of sonic stuff percolates around in the brain, so you catch yourself humming it in a lift or some such place.

The brave move artistically should continue to challenge people about what to expect from this unusual artist. Good luck with the novel, by the way!

Matthew Haddrill


The Nightingales – Mind Over Matter

Membranes' frontman John Robb once described The Nightingales as “The misfits' misfits” of the punk era, actually in his post-punk treatise 'Death To Trad Rock' published in 2009. Robb's online rock music and pop culture magazine/blog Louder Than War were quick to get behind Birmingham's revitalized punks' latest release Mind Over Matter. Originally formed from the remnants of legendary band The Prefects in 1981 by singer/songwriter Robert Lloyd, The Nightingales were immediately championed by BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel and joined the roster of great indie artists on London-based Cherry Red Records. Their Pigs In Purpose debut appeared in 1982, and they also featured on the classic compilation Pillows & Prayers of the same year. The band only recorded 3 albums together in this early configuration, many comings and goings of personnel, Lloyd always keeping things fluid. They eventually split up in 1986, but not before they had made a dent in people's consciousness, touring with The Clash and odd pairings like Nico, even Bo Didley, and Lloyd had established himself as a humorous and biting lyricist. (“I’m too tired to do anything today, but tomorrow I’ll start my diet, and answer some of my fan mail” he rants on ‘Elvis: The Last Ten Days’ from the band's debut). They fizzled out basically. Lloyd became more invested in the management of his own label Vindaloo Records and working the tricky balance of combining gainful employment with a solo career (Me And My Mouth was released in 1989, a project in which he worked with Steve Nieve & Pete Thomas of The Attractions), so even Cherry Red's definitive retrospective of the Nightingales Pissed & Potless in 2001 hardly readied us for Nightingales Mach II, a very different proposition altogether.

Rather than cashing in on punk nostalgia, the re-formed Nighingales in 2004 have successively pushed the boundaries of their post-punk expression, recording a steady stream of albums on almost as many different labels (For Fuck's Sake was self-released last year). The ascerbic wit is still very much at the heart of things, but Lloyd has gathered around him musicians who can take things to the next level. Their latest album, like the last 3, was recorded in Germany at Hans-Joachim Irmler's Faust Studio. The legendary German prog rockers' in-house engineer Andreas Schmid is now The Nightingales bassist, joined by Violet Violet drummer Fliss Kitson (2012) and former Prefects guitarist Alan Apperley (2014). Lloyd has smashed the mould for re-formed bands, his new lean 4-piece becoming a real beast of a post-punk band!

So the swagger that greets the listener on opener 'For Goodness Sake' is something along the lines of The Fall-cum-The Birthday-Party-cum-Pavement, Lloyd ranting away about the decaying human condition. There's no hanging about either on 'The Only Son', quite Staxy with the Northern Soul “shah-doos” in the chorus. Mind Over Matter throws the musical terrain wide open, and there are some oddities, too, like 'Gales Doc', with Lloyd narrating his own mockumentary about a band of “honest riffs and simple motifs … somewhat superior to other combos … more varied in their approach ...” Tongue slightly in cheek, I would have thought …

'The Man The Time Forgot' sounds more like classic rock, powered along by Kitson's infectious “rumble in the jungle” tom toms, a dueting rant with Lloyd before the Black Sabbath-like power chords send the song stratospheric. When did they learn to play like that? The album's not short of powerful moments like these: “You're talking and you're not saying anything, you're talking and I'm hearing nothing!”

Of course, it wouldn't be The Nightingales without Lloyd taking a few swipes at cultural norms. Set to what sounds like the glam rock of The Sweet's 'Blockbuster', 'Taffy Come Home' is the album's curious torch song, chronicling the tribulations of the Welsh psyche, while 'Great British Exports' is another blow to our complex British pride with its references to tea breaks, awful football and slavery, putting the 'Great' back into Britain, obviously!

'Ripe Old Age' is possibly the dark companion piece to 1986's 'How To Age' from In The Good Old Country Way. The jollification of ageing in the latter (“Growing up is an appeal from love/You just hang around and you'll age/The fear of death by experience is outweighed/Yeah God gives life and God gives disposable razors for shaving off your unsightly hair/Is all a part of ageing ...”) is replaced Lloyd's darker contemporary take on the matter: “Everybody’s getting fat and old…the world’s running low on fun…everybody’s living too long”.

There's a sort of free-form jazz interlude in the rambunctious playing on 'For Different Folks', and 'Stroke Of Genius' enters with birdsong and whirring keyboard, like something 70s and psychedelic, Kitson singing away mysteriously in the background. The interesting sonic counterpoints give the album an exploratory feel and richness which would probably be lacking in the earlier version of Nightingales. Save the best to last with 'Bit Of Rough', which starts with some rock'n'roll crooning before veering off into battering ram drum chaos and searching muscular power riffs to accompany Lloyd and Kitson's vocal sparring. Crrrrazy!

For those writing a treatise on ageism, it might be worth starting with Nightingales Mach II. John Peel once commented about the band that: “Their performances will serve to confirm their excellence when we are far enough distanced from the 1980s to look at the period rationally and other, infinitely better known, bands stand revealed as charlatans". Seems The Peeler was right, but as Mind Over Matters reveals a band at the height of their powers, reports of The Nightingales demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Matthew Haddrill

 

Future Of Forestry - 'Pages'

There is something infallible about the sound a combination of acoustic guitar and cello can make. Add some softly brush stroked drums and that's the first track on 'Pages', the eloquently performed 'Hold My Hand'. Theirs is a sound that at first hearing I had thought hailed from somewhere in northern England, like the Lake District or up around Durham somewhere, but Future Of Forestry are from San Diego, the American one, and taking their name from a CS Lewis poem just adds to the slightly odd concept of Californians wishing they were from Leicester, or similar. It is usually (and traditionally) the other way around. You won't care a lot about where Future Of Forestry are really from though. As 'Pages' develops, its fourteen tracks are just about as mesmerically blissed out and minimalistically played alt.folk as it can get.

UK folk influences are only where it begins for Future Of Forestry. Performing together since 2004, the band are centred around multi instrumentalist and something of an auteur Eric Owyoung, who has forgotten to credit any of his co musicians on the album or anywhere else in Future Of Forestry's social media pages. It's such a finely made album though, and Owyoung himself displays such a level of musicianly qualities that by the time 4th track 'How To Fly' slips into play, with its echoes of vintage Lambchop and all those other Americana bands whose names are remembered only by those with extensive US alt.folk collections (what happened to that Sunday evening show that was on Virgin radio a decade ago?) that 'Pages' takes on a life entirely of its own, laid back, mellow, consistently well played and verging on mind numbingly gorgeous, regardless of whether any other musicans were involved or if Eric Owyoung recorded it all himself on an 86 track pro tools station. Seriously good modern MOR that it's very nearly impossible to dislike.
www.futureofforestry.com

JG

 

Death And Vanilla - 'To Where The Wild Things Are'

The problem with an album like 'To Where The Wild Things Are' is that you think you've heard it before, or something very like it. Yes, you've heard practically all of its composite parts, the retro focused rhythms that recall Sterolab and Neu, the looped electronics that could remind you of Add N To X and again Stereolab, the sampled harpsichords that originated with the wistfully elegiac tones of 60s Ye Ye pop, Marianne Faithfull b sides and Eurovision hopefuls of years gone by, the whole underplayed combination of those elements given a fuzzy glow by the valve and mono based production, it's all in Death And Vanilla's second album. Yes, you've heard parts of it before, but taken in its totality you probably haven't heard those put together with quite such consummate skill. Death And Vanilla's second album is really quite a good one, perhaps explained by their originating from Sweden, where just about every new album is a minor masterpiece of some sort.

A few weeks ago I heard them on R6, and while album track four 'California Owls' isn't entirely representative of the rest of 'To Where'. mostly on account of its being an actual song instead of a dizzily psyched out sound collage but no matter, and as the bleeping electronics fade into the Stockholm eveningtide (the owls are probably just visiting), Death And Vanilla have very likely worked their not inconsiderable charms upon you. I'm liking it, the same way I like discovering obscure late 60s/early70s Europop, late 90s electronica and Stereolab tracks I haven't heard before and they did record a lot of stuff. It's all very pleasant and indeed verging upon twee but Death And Vanilla save their very best for the last, with the epic soundscape of 'Something Unknown', which is about as beguiling, gently sinister and cinematically realised as anything similar I've heard either more or less recently. Memo to whoever is producing the remake of the 1973 cult classic 'Don't Look Now': I think I've found something for the soundtrack.
www.deathandvanilla.com

JG

 

Thieves By The Code - Tales From The Green Muse and Beyond

Opener “So Slick” starts with an introduction of radio samples from the 1940’s followed by meat heavy guitar that is more beefy than Andre the Giants cat !! Can hear all sorts going on. Psychedelic slow downs with split second samples as the rhythm section triggers! Amazing production here and quite akin to Wolfmother. “The Stalker” is an unexpected gem, sounding like Black Sabbath’s ‘Planet Caravan’, but as if it was on Verve’s 'A Storm In Heaven’, instead of Paranoid. The sudden break in to alt rock adrenaline, the guitar climbing up a wall of never ending circus’s. They have a Queens of the Stone Age meets Soundgarden quality about them. Third track “Black Devil” displays the musicianship of the group; with lot’s of changes throughout; and the vocal reaches heights that only the likes of Robert Plant would be capable of. Screaming guitars followed by amazing speed ups. On to “Studio 54” which starts off sounding like the Tetris theme gone wrong, and then falls in to a down tempo yet distorted ballad, still heavy with high pitched guitar sounds that could shatter a glass conservatory !! Usually a slow song mid album means carnage is on the way. “Must Free Desire” is monstrous and reminiscent of Rage Against The Machine’s 'Evil Empire’ album. A message in the lyrics is an obvious hit at religious orders, and for them to stop preaching. I agree! “Turbo Minchia (part deux)” begins with a drum intro, along with film samples and sounds from another dimension. This is my favorite track so far! Like Zeppelin’s 'Black Dog’ but with more balls, and amazing vocal harmonies. It then speeds up, and the guitars rip you apart with psychedelic spells not heard since The Pretty Things 'SF Sorrow’ era. They’re gonna have a hard time beating that. Title track “Tales From the Green Muse” starts off with a sample cameo from Brighton’s Thieves, and then layers of driving guitars and bass heavy. Singer Alex’s voice has an almost falsetto quality, which suits the song immensely. “Tripple Negatives” is off beat in areas, many stop-starts, wailing guitars on the breakdowns, and a fade out on the outro! “Turbo Minchia” looks to be the prequel of what was already the highlight of the album for me so I’m hoping for a match. I’m not disappointed. It’s a monster of a track, and looks to be an instrumental that you never want to end. Haunting bass lines with rapid drumming, and the guitar cuts through bones. Album closer “Captain Pugwash” is a rock'n'roll demon, with see-sawing guitars, and has a multi change of sudden breakdowns of tame organs, which then fires into country meets progressive rock. I’m finding it hard to keep up with them, and just as I think I’m there, the meat wagon of hectic guitar pulls back into the drive. ******** 8/10

Gavin Tate

 

Ambrosia Parsley – Weeping Cherry (Barbes Records)

Singer-songwriter Ambrosia Parsley finds ways of looking back to propel herself forward on Weeping Cherry. The former singer of Shivaree has been out of the spotlight since the eclectic Americana band's last official release in 2007. There's always been a smokie sort of film noir reverie about Parsley's singing (many will remember Shivaree's 'Goodnight Moon' which appeared on the Kill Bill 2 soundtrack), and there's plenty of that on her debut solo release, but she's come storming back with moorish and spooky psych-rock arrangements reminiscent of bands like Mazzy Star and Portishead.

Weeping Cherry is a series of conversations with the dead, songs for relatives, bandmates and friends who passed away recently, but the album sounds cathartic, a release from the pain the singer must have felt. Parsley worked out the arrangements with musicians Chris Maxwell and Phil Hernandez who form her new band The Elegant Too. The album's striking for its cohesive sound. Surprise highlights are the creeping electronica of 'Make Me Laugh', the jazz vocal and spirally atmospherics like Portishead-circa-Dummy, and the sultry country of 'Rubble', shot through with soaring psych-drenched guitar.

Opener 'Empire' with its sparse tapped-out rhythms and garage-rock organ sounds like it escaped from a 60s time capsule, and the title track starts out like an Everything But The Girl acoustic ballad before some stirring radiophonic effects. Parsley's voice cracks slightly with emotion, like she's singing out under the stars (or the magic of the weeping cherry blossom, at the bottom of her garden in Catskill, New York). 'Catalina' is equally intriguing, the jazz singer again spooked by its 60's sci-fi soundtrack of monsters, flying saucers and the earth stood still.

The tempo picks up on rock-oriented 'The Other Side' with its Neil Young-esque guitars raging away, and 'Skin & Bone', powerful gospel and blues resonating with a peculiar surf guitar twang, the familiar chorus sounding like it must have flipped out of a 60s jukebox somewhere. Intelligent retro then, and there's more of Parsley's characteristic doo-wop vocals on the schmaltzy bonus track 'The Answer' at the end, dusky shades of Julee Cruise and Twin Peaks.

The comparisons with Portishead are not entirely moot, as Parsley shares a similar vocal style and slightly-awkward performance mannerism to Beth Gibbons, preferring to engage people with her voice. And yet there's also something very cinematic about the rolling Americana of this sultry chanteuse's debut. Jazz greats like Peggy Lee and Billie Holiday wowed audiences with their voices, but also made time to develop their own material. Ambrosia Parsley may have to deal with the spotlight once again after her impressive debut.

Matthew Haddrill

 

Braids – Deep In The Iris

Recording each of their albums in a different physical space, there's a strong searching quality about the music of Canadian band Braids. They were saddled unfairly with the shoegaze label on their guitar-driven 2011 debut Native Speaker, probably more to do with Raphaelle Standell-Preston's singing style being compared to Elizabeth Frazer of The Cocteau Twins than the band's actual music, which is generally quite diverse. Sophomore Flourish//Perish felt more subdued, built up patiently with electronic layering rather than the explosive outbursts of its predecessor. Preston's songwriting ruminates on grief and loss in what appears to be an exercise of self-restraint, but the floodgates finally open with whoops of joy on the album's closer 'In Kind': “Left my conscience/In quotations/Said just what they wanted to/Say is isn't true”.

There are a lot more of these breakthrough moments on Braid's latest work Deep In The Iris. The 3-piece (keyboard player Taylor Smith and drummer Austin Tufts remain after the departure of the band's guitarist Katie Lee in 2013) who hail from Calgary, Alberta, bring deeply held feelings to the surface and work through them with a rich and diverse sonic palette which includes the earlier electronic influences but doesn't feel tied down by them.
Preston is full of forgiveness for past wrongs on piano-washed opener 'Letting Go', the mood of the song fresh and upbeat, and the singer's voice spiralling like Elizabeth Frazer. There's a lot of this free-spirit throughout the album. 'Happy When' starts out gently like a freak-folk ballad basking in its own haze, Preston's reflections striking a chord: “Sit down with emotion/Take the time to feel it/Like a cloud across the mind/Never holding on to/Let it all just belong”. But the song gathers pace and intensity, with a delicate electronic array of pastoral colours, like a sunny summer's day, but emotions quite palpable in the singer's voice.

 

There's a nice warm flowing sound to the melodious mainly piano-driven songs. Electronic drumbeat flourishes invigorate and give Deep In The Iris very much the feel of a pop album. Dance-friendly 'Taste' is a delirious reflection on the idea of re-discovering love, twisting and turning romantically each step of its giddy way, while drum'n'bass-infused 'Blondie' is even better, a rollercoaster ride tripping in its own headspace.
Catharsis comes from the deep emotions expressed. Probably no more so than on the “difficult” 'Miniskirt', where Preston recounts feelings of violation from a sexual encounter, and traces the confused self-hate back to domestic abuse she witnessed as a child. This time, the heavy dosage electronic musical backing recalls Boards Of Canada's slightly off-kilter charms, and serves Preston well as she works up a powerful rage to exorcise the ghosts, finally singing “My needle thin miniskirt is all mine”.
'Warm Like Summer' ends the album on mixed emotions, the ups and downs of love, but the mood of the song remains defiantly upbeat as Preston sings: “I feel like giving up, why is it always so impossible?”
Recorded partly in Vermont, upstate New York, but also the mountains of Arizona, Braids emerge on their latest album in both a different place sonically and emotionally. Deep In The Iris follows Bjork's recent example of using songwriting to express deep personal feelings, and with it the Canadians have achieved their most commanding and empathetic music to date.

Matthew Haddrill

 

Icky Blossoms – Mask

'Oomph' (dictionary definition)
noun/informal:
1 Energy, vitality, enthusiasm
2 Sex appeal

Icky Blossoms's growing mastery of electronic music has added some 'oomph' to their sophomore Mask. Sarah Bohling, Nik Fakler and Derek Pressnall wrote the songs independently, but then let ideas snowball as they sent files back and forth. With the help of producer/arranger Mike Mogis, the delicious mutation of sound on their latest album shows off all manner of influences, the dance-friendly electropop of the Omaha Nebraska band's 2012 eponymous debut this time hewn with brooding bass-heavy atmospherics and the raging intensity of electro-punk.

Icky Blossoms thrive on these apparent contradictions. Opener 'In Folds' begins and ends with swirling electronic bass and 90s grandstanding funk-pop (think Duran Duran on acid!), but hermetically-seals Bohling's vocal in a sugary disco mix, something like Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne, the song riddled with neat hooks and spiky guitar. You don't catch your breath for long, 'Wait' follows suit with more fuel-injected bass-driven electropop, and further down the running order, 'The Spiral' shares the excitement, awakening memories of Yello's classic 'The Race', especially with its chanting and strong driving bass. An album highlight.

Dance-friendly 'Living In Fiction' is more like the electro-punk of The Rapture with its neat pop hooks and disco beat, while 'Away From You' glides with a futuristic sheen as Pressnall goes all goth-like (“I wanna live forever/I don't wanna die/Cause dying means I'm away from you”). 'Want You So Bad' slows the party down briefly with its epic widescreen intentions, but reverts to type with a Giorgio Moroder Electric Dreams-like backing.

But it's the darker visceral moments when the band really excel. At it's most intense, Mask trips over into the recesses of electro-doom Suicide, or the digital hardcore of Atari Teenage Riot. 'Phantasmagoria' lifts off into sweaty clubland, thrashy guitars and a brow-beating chorus bouncing off this dance anthem. There are some very odd 'mutated' hybrids on this album, organic sounds converted to electronics, and back again. For sheer dark intensity, it's hard to beat 'Silver tongue' and the album closer 'Terror Nothing', thrashing out tribalistic mantras like the show-stopping 'Sex To The Devil' from the band's debut. The twangy guitar and blistering distortion is apparently determined to close the album as ferociously as it began.

Mask is a blast, actually, sonically cohesive but utterly fearless, as Icky Blossoms ratchet up energy levels to a fit of peak, and then drive you right into their vortex of dance energy. OOMPH!

Matthew Haddrill

 

Lorenzo Montana – Vari Chromo (Navigation Records)

Brian Eno's famous quote that ambient music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting” may have become an excuse for producing background music or ear candy for some, but sonic explorers like Lorenzo Montana prefer instead to surge forward and extend their sonic palette with each release. Initially, the Italian producer and musician made a name for himself working with pop artists to create atmospheric soundtracks (his collaboration with Italian electronic artist Tying Tiffany on her Through The Lens side-project produced the song 'Deep Shadow' for the 'Hunger Games' soundtrack in 2012), but Montana has also released a series of albums in his own right, taking a strong thematic approach to ambient composition.

Sometime protege of the father of modern ambient music Pete Namlook* (Montana released his early material on the German electronic artist's legendary Frankfurt-based 'Fax +49-69/450464' label, including a collaboration on the Labyrinth series), their music has a lot in common, combining the processed analogue synthesizers of the early Krautrock pioneers with a modern IDM palette of melodic and rhythmic electronic bass, granular processed beats and various 'found' or digitally-produced sounds. There are strong hints of the natural world in much of Montana's music (intrigued by a religious ritual in a mountain village in Italy, 2011's Serpe was essentially a concept album about snakes!), and you can certainly hear that on some of the songs on his latest album Vari Chromo, not to mention the beautiful artwork of a bear by Ukrainian artist Christina Polovinkina which features on the cover.

Vari Chromo is the final part of a trilogy of albums on Dublin-based Psychonavigaton Records, following 2013's Eilatrix and last year's Leema Hactus. Recently relaunched, since 2000 Psychonavigation has provided succour and sanctuary to many electronic artists pushing the frontiers of this musical genre. Montana's latest effort is a welcome addition, its polished series of mood pieces again marvelling at the magic and mysteries of the universe, but giving them a futuristic sheen with machine-like textures and rhythms hinted at in the titles.

The first 3 songs each suggest homage to early Krautrock. Dramatic and distopian 'Siberia' opens like a modern classical piece, its piano bathed in a warm electronic dayglow, but the song is then propelled forward with clean processed beats and synthesizers, at once retro (circa Klaus Schulze's classic 1975 Mirage album) and forward-looking, in much the same way Ulrich Schnauss managed on his recent A Long Way To Fall album. Outerspace synths and sequencers on 'NeKto' give it the classic Vangelis 70s film sci-fi soundtrack epithet, although curiously the analogue synthesizer at its epicentre suggests the prog grandeur of Pink Floyd's 'Welcome To the Machines'. 'spOOt' samples spluttery electronic effects before exploding into life with rhythm and melodic bass synths underpinned by an electronic harp and curious animal noises.

Montana wraps his naked eye view of the universe with chilling futuristic themes. 'Crystal Waves' is a march of the robots, with its distorted techno beat and sampled choral effects, while 'Hy-Brasil' booms and bubbles like a Yellow Magic Orchestra track with radiant carnival-like splashes of colour in its melodic synths. After the introductory drone, sci-fi themes emerge once more as 'Tek-Kyah' scapes its sound with tron-like rhythms and a machine-enslaved metronomic beat.

But then 'Anya' chillaxes, its simple piano chords treated with gentle “blasts” of air. The synth meanders across the wide open soundscapes, before a rising drone “inundates” the music. The album's short title track twinkles with “inside a glass” radiophonic effects, joined with odd electronic drums and pastoral sounds. Slow breathing at the outset of 'Green Room' marks another album scene change, the faintest of vocals threading their way through the song's subtle chord changes and mood shifts, playing out with a synthesizer tuned like a guitar (one of Namlook's famous tricks!).
Epic closer 'Phase Constant Oscillation' is very much like progmasters Tangerine Dream, eerie soundscapes that unravel slowly revealing a hidden undergrowth. “Distant” sounds again evoke the idea of open space, but with warmer more intimate sounds emerging in the foreground. Montana has said there's often woodland and forest universe in his music. In Vari Chromo's battle between machines and nature, happily it's the latter that wins out!

* Pete "Namlook" Kuhlman is often over-looked as an artist, but he drew from the 'classics' like Schulze and Hans Joachim-Roedelius and became a pioneer for new ambient music made from the 1990s onwards. Namlook's music evolved out of hard trance and other experimental and atmospheric electronic styles. He produced many records in his own right, but became better known for his collaborations. Namlook also schooled many artists through his Frankfurt-based record label 'FAX +49-69/450464' (also known as simply FAX or FAX Label). His unexpected death from a heart attack in 2012 when he was only 51 years old robbed us of a prolific and great artist who will be sorely missed. The two volumes of Namlook's The Definitive Ambient Collection are highly recommended for anybody interested in this kind of music.

Matthew Haddrill

 

The Declining Winter - 'Home For Lost Souls'

Fourteen tracks of ambient guitar based songs and instrumentals, and my review nearly ends there as the music of The Declining Winter isn't that which readily lends itself to a very descriptive wordage. It's music that verges on several things : on minimalism, on spoken word rather than lyrics, on modern composition, on a more developed type of music that relies less on repetition, and on electronica. Various members of The Declining Winter have been making music since the 1990s, have collaborated with a host of other musicians and producers some of whose names I recognise and their hallmark sound, a guitar or piano part played over a backdrop of collaged sound with live and electronic percussion, provides him with a multitude of possibilities. If the first track is redolent of Tortoise and the last has a jazz rhythm influenced take on the soundscaping then that just reveals that, even if you find 'Home For Lost Souls' a bit undemanding in its earlier passages then it's worth staying with the album, just to uncover what The Declining Winter are subtly keeping partially hidden from their listeners.

The musical format may not vary and while the reliance on repetition combined with the occasionally whispered vocal begins to develop a momentum of its own, it's left to the pleasantly contrived musicality of the songs in their entirety to either stand or fail which they don't - fail that is, although that momentum I mentioned earlier does seem to slow things down a fraction too far on one or two tracks but 'Home For Lost Souls' isn't a rock album, it's an ambient one with, as it progresses, a definable focus and energy at its centre. I don't know quite enough about The Declining Winter to really appreciate exactly what their intentions are although given the scale of the album and the range of sounds they employ. And the structure of the music is an sometimes confusing one. The Declining Winter walk a not so obvious tightrope between post rock and the electronic world, and as the album unfolds the tensions in their music slowly make themselves known, with a need for continual reinvention providing the tracks with what impetus they possess. 'Home For Lost Souls' is a thoroughly well made album, the work of some very skilfull musicians and it requires more than one listen to really get it about all of those ideas The Declining Winter are continuing to work on.
www.thedecliningwinter.com

JG

 

Super Luxury - 'Ten Solid Years Of Applause'

Or 35 minutes of near unlistenable avant-noise punk garage post - any kind of music you can think of a genre for sludgecore hyperballast chaotic messy actually funny and eventually weirdly impressive music. Sort of. Are Super Luxury at the forefront of an entirely new type of rock, something like Bincore or just an an accident that happened in the studio when the four Super Luxuriators decided to make an artistic statement about The State Of The World Today and quite by chance someone recorded it? I don't think so, I think they've recorded 'Ten Solid Years' deliberately on purpose to remind us that songs don't always need a beginning, middle and end. Or a tune. Or sound like anything that anyone else has ever recorded, which is possible. You haven't, even if you've spent a lot of time looking for very obscure and difficult sounding albums by bands that even all of their members hadn't heard of, heard an album like 'Ten Solid Years' before. Ever.

Aware that the rock music world is turning away from the thunderous double timed and melodic thing and towards proper sounding songs with actual guitar solos, Super Luxury, contrarians that they very wilfully are, drop any pretence of being a definable kind of band and, turning their amps up to slightly under full volume, make the sort of noise that is guaranteed to either empty any venue they might turn up at, or see those amps suddenly fall silent as the aggrieved club managers switch off the onstage power, which I've only ever seen happen once and, no, I won't tell you who that was. While I was researching this review I found a lot of mostly positive receptions for 'Ten Solid Years' on other websites so there is definitely an audience for this sort of thing. I just hope no one mistakes Super Luxury for some cynically pretentious Britpop band, or something electronic or even a proper heavy rock band as they are actually none of those things and if nothing else I need to admire their consistency in making every track on the album sound a bit different, although the overall effect is of four blokes not quite making it home after a very demanding evening in their local boozer, breaking into a music shop and attempting a cover version of Nine Inch Nails 'Head Like A Hole' while deliberately using the least expensive instruments in the shop. That good. Really.
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JG