Hope to see you there.
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6th October 2006
Butterfly Crush has upped sticks to : www.myspace.com/butterflycrushzine.
Hope to see you there.
22nd July 2006
OUR SMALL CAPITAL, Immune To Bad News CD ep
Stornoway's William Campbell, the former Astrid and Reindeer Section member who writes and sings for this band, is - I'm fairly sure - the same William Campbell who produced that rather lovely, seemingly very scarce single credited to himself and Kevin MacNeil that I enjoyed numerous times on evening radio shows late last year.
On this EP, the music of Our Small Capital comes close on occasion to that tender folk-styled lament. The final song, 'Regret School,' embarks on contemplative strumming that is lazily, dreamily coloured by patches of Delays-like sunset radiance, while the initial phase of 'A Way Around The Gospel' adds a flaxen acoustic to a dandelion breeze of lilting guitars before accelerating hard into power-pop that suggests The Posies circa their Frosting On The Beater. This clean, muscular guitar-pop sound is one that is also sported by 'River' - hyped-up riffola that isn't too focused on being cool and fleet to make pit-stops for slow, solid rock as it speeds along - and by 'Rhesus Positive,' which is like one of those old, slow-burning AC Acoustics songs that are slick with Scottish Gothic. It's also the EP's best song, distinguished by a nice incompatible-blood metaphor and sounding doomed and exultant as a pilot sky-writing a declaration of love while knowing that his plane is going down.
Lyrically, however, Campbell is speaking the same language throughout each and every one of these four songs as he was on last year's single, which saw him present himself as a man haunted by years spent in a small town that doesn't make it easy to let the past go. Nowhere here is he more explicit about this than on 'Regret School': 'I have been lost in my fractured past, some soul-sick longing ... today will be my past, it's my way of living.' You can even fancy that you hear this in his voice, which has a habit of gaining in strength and intensity as though striving to achieve release before at last softening to a resigned falsetto. 'A Way Around The Gospel' is his most forthright, let's-shape-our-own-destiny gesture of defiance, but more problematical and interesting is 'River''s chorus of 'It's a childish thing to use the word "forever"' - wanting to move on in life, but perhaps having to learn to accept an innate perverse streak that will destroy any possibility of attaining something stable enough to nullify the past's constant curse. A good songwriter, this one.
5th July 2006
METALLIC FALCONS, Desert Doughnuts CD
A band whose members pose against a background that might be taken for that of a snuff movie and are clad in garb suggestive of the burkha, ETA, the feathered dress of some American Indians and the vengeful ghoul of the Japanese Ring movies is, it hardly needs saying, a band from which enigmatic and provocative music should be expected.
So it proves with this Brooklyn-based duo (one of whom is CocoRosie's Sierra Casady), who in Desert Doughnuts have made a debut album that might be filed alongside the master Scott Walker's The Drift as one of the freshest and most eccentric records of this current revolution round the sun. At times it sounds like a rocky and sheer tower of song in which Godspeed You! Black Emperor commune with Jefferson Airplane; at times ingenuous, soothing, spare and Far Eastern, a little reminiscent of Peggy Lee's Sea Shells and Stephin Merritt's Showtunes; and at times like Azure Ray rolling out their sepia-toned music-box of tricks for the soundtrack of a film adaptation of Donna Tartt's A Secret History.
It begins, however, with an ethereal tumult of Elysian voices, organ and guitar, but this dawn chorus's clamorous display of life soon retreats to unmask a desolate valley of ashes. A languid organ emits pale ambient light like a sallow sun hovering above a lone androgynous figure who sings, with Nico-like enunciation, of some wished-for 'white mountain' before finding itself in the middle of a freeway and surrounded by a fast-paced, tinny roar of guitars and drums.
If the topography established here seems to identify elevation with spiritual release from flat, barren spaces, then the two subsequent songs, 'Airships' and 'Nighttime & Morning,' envisage the attainment of such dispensation in terms which suggest what may be the almost terminal obliteration of the self: 'Come with me where rainbows die, come with me where birds fly'; and 'Night-time is for the boy who can fly ... We close our eyes until morning.' The former song is, appropriately, a fatalistic shadow-theatre waltz through melodic post-rock with the same dramatic sense of impending desserts (Desert Doughnuts?) as a Sergio Leone Western in which death is always poised at the edge of the frame, waiting to pounce and seize. The latter is a piece whose grave piano and burnt-out guitar combine in movements of sleepy, disintegrated consciousness and taut, instinctive repetition; but it is chiefly notable for its beautiful beginning, which has the voice of Antony drifting like sweet incense through ambient hiss, the effect being that of a song that draws the wanderer into an old church that he subsequently discovers to be empty of people and yet not devoid of presence.
Another guest performer, Jana Hunter, crops up on 'Pale Dog,' which revisits 'Airships''s waltzing rhythm. Here the dominant textures are provided by the chimes of a scratchy acoustic guitar, militant drums and withered-flower vocals of Hunter, who effectively conveys the impression of a crippled seer remembering a remote town's bloody history of settlement. Similarly, the atmosphere-smothered vocals on 'A Heart Of Birdsong' (featuring psychedelic guitar from Devendra Banhart) suggest an aged, weary, yet not quite spiritually defeated geisha; and indeed, as the Falcons' costumes imply, a thematic concern with those who have been, and those who continue to be, the victims of marginalisation and violence is present and correct throughout this work. On 'Disparu' (from the Latin 'dispar,' i.e. 'unequal'?), a sorrowful chill of angelic spirit voices encircles a childlike, saucer-eyed croon: 'Where are the angels? They disappeared one after the other, like the Indians.' More sanguine in the sense of hope rather than of blood is 'Snakes And Tea,' a scorched lullaby from the flickering flames of early rock 'n' roll's swooning and sentimental balladry, which sounds like a bright feminist bite into forbidden fruit.
Somewhere between the fate of being brutalised or hollowed-out in the wasteland and scaling the peaks of supra-sensuous freedom lie an incalculable number of stories, and rest assured that Desert Doughnuts has its share of these.
27th June 2006
EPIC45, Drakelow CD ep
As the notes that accompany this release explain, the creation of these eight instrumentals by Staffordshire's : Epic45 was shaped by the experience of a journey into Drakelow - a disused, labyrinthine military complex which from the early 1940s has existed subterraneously in the Worcestershire countryside - and by the subsequent re-emergence into a rural England with its connotations of home and security destabilised by that glimpse of an alien-seeming past.
This unsteady binary of 'above' and 'below,' of a present made suddenly tenuous and uncertain and a past which conversely seems extraordinarily powerful and real, is reflected in the music that is to be enjoyed here. Few would dispute that Drakelow's most intense and consuming pieces are its two longest, 'Tunnel 1' and 'Tunnel 2,' which afford audio environments constructed with such relish for detail that the listener can almost smell and taste the cool, dark earth and damp. One is a supremely ominous mesh of drones with a clanking rhythm track like the sound of barrows being carted around in a mine, placing you claustrophobically in a solitary trudge through unknown miles of torchlight flicker and quaking shadows, your sense of hearing heightened too acutely for your imagination's good. The second 'Tunnel' is sound like an image seen through the lens of night-vision - a dense, blurry mass, but with all movement appearing with the clarity of the unsettling assortment of persistent scratches and rattles that one hears here, prompting thoughts of something living attempting to gnaw and pick its way out of an enclosure.
If this signals metaphorically the hidden past awakening and making itself known, it is a suggestion that is consolidated by 'They Cut Into The Hill.' In this track, a wistful and cryptic shiver of Boards Of Canada melody is the will-o'-the-wisp guiding the explorer deep into fascinating ambient sibilance that is vibrant with spectral drones verging on human moans, and these swell up in response to burrowing electronic penetration and the rushing in of birdsong from the world above.
Forming a contrast with such compositions are more airy, delicate and 'musical' excursions such as 'Cold Evening Colours' and the tellingly titled 'Vanishing Britain.' These are engaging strips of melodic analogue electronica, a little like Ulrich Schnauss if he'd played the organ for the choir in his youth, and their offhand elegance of form belies the deep, Hardy-esque feelings which palpably lie beneath - feelings about the sublime indifference of Nature and the remoteness of its beauty from the humanity it dwarfs. These impressions are also conveyed by what is perhaps Drakelow's finest piece, 'Spires Against Summer Sky,' whereon electronic bell tones click apace and are swathed hazily in chords of gossamer husk while a guitar, like a river modulating its surface appearance in accordance with the nature of the sky under which it flows, murmurs softly in sympathy.
And yet, amidst this sense of shrinkage in the presence of sublimity, there is also a perceptible comforting calm and optimism which lead one to suspect that the bottom line here may be, as it was for D.H. Lawrence, that 'That which informs it all is there, and can never be lost.' This is, in any case, a wonderfully rich piece of work.
20th June 2006
STEPHEN BEAUPRÉ, Macro-House 12" ep
A highlight-provider of Akufen's admirable Fabric mix CD, Montreal's Beaupré is one of those blessed manglers of beats and pieces who are successful in squaring a willingness to fracture and scatter with a strong fancy for grooves and tunes. This is evinced in microcosm by the multi-track female vocals that zig like noisy, excitable ghosts across the impishly syncopated rhythm of first sally 'Misshapely.' Made shrilly phantasmal by electronic warpage and skewed by frantic editing, these voices constitute, nevertheless, an oblique kind of melody that is catchy as all hell.
Swirling along with these in the track's pungent mystic fug are occult crinkles and curls of a guitar whose cabbalistic chimes are redolent of both sounds from Southwest Asia and, to my great 90s' summer nostalgic delight, Orbital's 'The Box.' The guitar returns for the descent into 'Stay Here Every Night''s spiral curve of minimal tech-house, which is suctorial and deep as the plunge in a dream into dreaded abysses of dangerous desire. Heartening soul-girl vocals come and go in bright blinks like flashes of a camera, but don't dispel the murk of the breathy, predatory male whispers - 'You're gonna stay here every night' - which hang heavy and smoky over all like a suspended mass of gasoline exhaust in heat.
On 'Baby Shine,' however, the honeydew voices move well to the fore, as Beaupré cheerfully melts to a creamy consistency the 80s pop-funk substance of Cameo and Mtume, so to spread it lubriciously over dub-wise tech-house with all the tantalising spareness of an hour of sunshine in a reign of grey weather. Like the two pieces on the A, the sense in which this may accurately be termed 'Macro-House' is a beautifully 'less is more' one.
13th June 2006
TERENCE FIXMER, Silence Control CD
The general post-acid-house depoliticisation of dance is a development often bemoaned, but feverish, zealous records such as those of Lille's Terence Fixmer remind one of how powerfully revolutionary the sounds of electro and industrial techno can feel even now. It must have something to do with the sense of raw jouissance ex machina, a jail full of prisoners beating out a slew of deafening rhythms on the bars of Max Weber's iron cage of capitalism and making the wardens ill at ease. It's finding the cure in what would kill, reflected by how electronics which so often sound distorted and sick to the marrow are made to become instruments of tremendous force and animation, and are put to use with a marksman's precision. Passivity is clearly anathema; 'silence control' urges the noise of protest; and the first track, fittingly, is entitled 'Resistance.'
However, for all that this album gets itself high on ruthless speed and hunger for life and truth, there's also a perceptible ambivalence about such a motoring mode of existence. This manifests itself primarily in 'Running After Time,' wherein guest vocalist Bruno Quartier - going for the full Gahan - sings of beginning to find the world a pure blur of linear progression. He's looking out from the eye of a fast-life hurricane of stinging electronic shafts, demented pizzicato stabs and the unexpected welling-up of monumental synths, gorgeous and bedazzled. This track follows on from the mercurial cosmic disco of 'Inside One,' in which the rapid-rotation motion of psychedelic synths makes one think of the Traveller in Wells's The Time Machine as he watches the blinding rush that is the future life of the planet, whole millennia gliding by before his gaze.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it is directly after these two tracks - specifically, on the majestic 'Far Away' - that Fixmer's grinding electro falls under an ethereal spell. True, there's no real let-up in pace or pitch of intensity, and indeed the track provides the album's most sensational moment when a second wave of imperious, swarming synths comes cresting over the first in what constitutes a coruscating climactic phase. In the thick of this, though, are Fixmer's capacious, dreamscape god-whispers which sound as though they're issuing from broiling clouds in a Romantic painting, and which exhort someone - or something - to 'Move me far, far, far away.' Together with 'In Green,' wherein the rumination 'This is good grass' leads into the overlaying of the electronics with a kind of weird, one-man Gregorian chant, 'Far Away' indulges the occasional desire to disengage from, rather than rage against, the machine.
Apart from these, Silence Control revels in velvet hammer EBM juggernauts which are seldom purely instrumental, sometimes activating the technique of delirious and eroticised nervous-wreck grunts and ululations as tried and tested by the likes of Suicide's Alan Vega and DAF's Gabi Delgado. The idea, again, is to turn exhaustion into strength; just as 'Are You Electric?' witnesses Fixmer programming beats which sound like Hollywood punches and singing as if to express absolutely nothing of his soul, but everything of his existence in an inhumane society, and attempting to convert this recognition into the impetus to be 'electric' in body, mind and spirit.
Appropriately, then, the album concludes with 'Under The Rain,' a track whose spirit is caught between fear and loathing of the world and jubilation at its possibilities as rain-slicked streets at night are caught between darkness and the shimmer of electric lights. If you like your electronica like a blast of Tyrolese mountain air - cleansing, refreshing, but with a sharp reminder of cold hurt - then Silence Control is a record you should try.
9th June 2006
DAN CURTIN, Tricks Pt. 1 12" ep
The North American Midwest takes boundless flak for its perceived cultural deficiencies, and a hothouse environment for techno may well be among the many things that an outsider is unlikely to imagine the region as being. Since the early 90s, however, it has sustained what one presumes to be the sleeping, eating and breathing of techno by Ohio's Dan Curtin, who this year has finally become more than a name to me by virtue of his Echozeichen EP (lit up by a remix from Someone Else, who cuts only diamonds) and by this expertly crafted quad of digital paeans to sex in cars and other rhythmic contact with the interfacial points between biology and industry.
Side One here comprises two joints of tech-house hustle with the buzz of caffeine (or stronger) and real funky red meat on their minimalist bones. 'Side Out' is speckled with rapid syn-drum swirls like the cartoon eyes of the hypnotised, and the overlay of electronic fluting and mewling brings to mind birds clotted on trees and unrestful cats in afternoon heat. Its suave African-American voice samples are succeeded by some more suave still on 'Be With You,' which positively reeks of gel, cologne and male conceit. A subtle, worming rasp of a bassline tongues the ear and makes it nasty; but the stolid beat is brightened by metalloid drum patterning and warm throbs and thrills of colour and light, making it also mightily nice.
On Side Two, Professor Curtin delivers 'Back Seat,' an exemplary lesson in how to artfully exoticise the elementary 4/4 pounder, multiplying percussive clauses to dizzying extremes and piping in haunting vapours of soft, yet somehow ghostly-sinister, sounds of twilight secrets. This is a fitting prelude to the more complex and abstruse 'Undergroundz,' a deep-laid ferment of rainforest robotics which brings to a head these tracks' effective combination of lush life and clean 'n' dry, precise mechanics.
We Are The Ones We've Been Waiting For is the album, and it should be intriguing to discover how Curtin has handled the larger canvas. This EP, regardless, is a bag of tricks not to be missed.
8th May 2006
THE ORGAN, Grab That Gun CD
Though there must be a certain amount of satisfaction to be garnered from the fact that a band named The Organ has produced a record of such organic self-consistency as this, there is a decidedly more palpable amount to be had in precisely that simple and harmonious coherence itself. The devotion of the Vancouver female five-piece to the three-minute pop song format, together with the absolute stylistic constancy with which they realise that commitment, gives to Grab That Gun the pleasingly classical feel of an analogue-era LP - or, in respect of the album's bang-on-thirty-minutes running-time, of a download-era CD (granted one believes that persistent chatter about 'the death of the album' might be of real use in ridding us of the plague of discs distended by dangling looseness and overabundance).
From the opening song 'Brother,' with its vague scent of incestuous love and urgent language of youthful crisis, the tenor of much that's here is one of breathless gothic drama that marks out the band as spiritual cousins of the gents of Interpol. Like Interpol, too, The Organ's songs crackle with alternately coarse and glassy guitar that owes much to early Cure, Cocteau Twins, Passions, Psychedelic Furs and Smiths, and that implacably tingles and bites like the shredding of nerves. The basslines, for all their ominous post-punk rigour, bounce on the beat as though on a trampoline, while the high trills and low moans of the electrified organ bring to mind T.S. Eliot's description of 'the human engine ... / Like a taxi throbbing waiting.' And all of this, one comes to feel, reflects the mind and presence of singer Katie Sketch, in whose lyrics sensation is simultaneously lusted after as an antidote to ennui and dreaded for its ultimately debilitating consequences (oh, the 'oh's are multitudinous - desire, satisfaction and death in one), and who languidly drapes over the music her depressive-Deborah-Harry vocals like burial shrouds of warm leatherette.
Happily, Grab That Gun is not so homogeneous as to lack stand-out moments of excellence. One of them, 'Love, Love, Love,' sees Sketch repeating that word as if to emphasise its meaninglessness and, paradoxically, to force it into some kind of meaning through sheer force of will in a song that's tortured by a lack of alternatives to selfish and mechanical models of sexuality: 'See the people sitting over there, / I want to kiss and touch them everywhere. / Oh no, not because I really care, / Oh god, no, no, I wouldn't dare.' Even more intriguing is 'Steven Smith,' the probable sly titling of which (try it out as 'Steven of The Smiths') becomes apparent when one reads the lyrics as a kind of subversive take on 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,' with the female 'speaker' driving round a Morrissey who is the very antithesis of the passive and awkward figure he claims to be, and who cuts across his deceptive romantic talk of 'heavenly' death side by side with the promise that she will impact as destructively on him as he and his 'gun' are sure to do on her: 'When everything is quiet, / The ringing in our ears will be awfully violent, / And then there will be silence.'
If too much of a good thing hasn't somehow made you insensible to the steady stream of assured and intelligent bands that has been issuing from Canada in recent years, then here is yet another that is fully deserving of your open ears and mind.
1st May 2006
NATHAN FAKE, Drowning In A Sea Of Love CD
One of the most commented-on aspects of records by Boards Of Canada is the sublime effectiveness with which they can summon a sense of times past, and so when the Boards' sonic inkwell is dipped into by some young pretender's quill it is usually with that precise knowledge of that which their warped, slightly off-colour keyboard melodies are so apt to inscribe.
However, while such musical signification does feature on this first album of electronic instrumentals by Norfolk boy Nathan Fake, the ends to which it is put differ immediately and strikingly from those of the BOC brand of evocation in which the 'memories' are kept always at a certain distance from the listener and enveloped in a sometimes disquieting otherness, like a strange house visited in a recurring dream in which one door remains forever locked and vaguely ominous. But on Fake tracks such as 'Charlie's House,' a baroque tapestry of silvery strands of sound, the aura of former days seems recollected with the utmost clarity and nostalgic yearning, seems devoid of alien character, and seems purely warm and joyful. The very finest example of this is perhaps 'Bumblechord,' the track on which this album's most eye-wateringly exquisite melody is played on resonant burnt-ochre synths as light percussive touches plash like rain on baking gravel or tarmac, and you can taste the weather of your half-remembered childhood summers.
Drowning In A Sea Of Love, though, is still some ways from being the wholesale bliss-out banquet that its title might indicate. In this respect, the CD design seems a telltale giveaway, filling its little booklet from the front cover on with pleasant photographs from Fake's own boyhood while reserving for the back of the case an image of a bomb plummeting earthwards. It's difficult to say whether the sequence of compositions is intended to correspond to the chronology of a life, and to argue that it is could easily lead to acts of over-assuming. 'Stops,' for instance, has a chirpy and incessant electro-xylophonic melody to which it adds contrapuntal heavy-weather drones and harsh draughts of shuffled-up heavy breathing. Is this, the opening track, raising the curtain on the primal scene?
What is certain, nevertheless, is that the first half of the running-order is dominated by tracks and titles that imply that the object of focus is an individual's formative period. In addition to those pieces already mentioned, there is one named 'Grandfathered' that rivals Vitalic's 'La Rock 01' as a superlative electronic representation of being or feeling in some thrilling state of motion, though instead of the Frenchman's blood-twisting rollercoaster this is all blurry, 360-degree melodic rotation - woozily slow, admittedly, but the excitement lies in those moments when the shaky, pixelated synths explode like fireworks into crushing over-driven ecstasy amid seraphic swells of machine-girl harmony.
After this apparent first phase, the record moves into more mature moods of dark doubt and passion. Thus Fake overlays the brooding and cruising analogue chords and breakbeats of 'The Sky Was Pink' with the electroluminescent screeches of a dying-swan guitar, while the gently waltzing rhythm and tender lamplight sounds of 'You Are Here' constitute an amoroso prom-night slow-dance that gets lovingly drenched in sub- (or, perhaps, supra-) rational static-burn distortion. And from there, Fake is not so much drowning in a sea of love as drowning in a sea of downbeat reflection through the few fuzzy electronic meditations that take us through the album's final act to its conclusion.
To admirers of any or all of M83, Ulrich Schnauss, Casino Versus Japan, Four Tet and, of course, Boards Of Canada, I can warmly recommend this full-length excursion into the romance of post-rock Proustronica as being of the first water.
19th April 2006
GUI.TAR, Push In The Bush 12" ep
The rescue from obscurity of some of the post-punk era's neglected masterstrokes by well-informed plate-spinners such as Hell, Felix Da Housecat and The Glimmers is not such an uncommon occurrence, with 'Elle Et Moi' by Max Berlin, Chaz Jankel's 'Pleased To Meet You' and Savage Process's 'My Heart Begins To Beat' being but a few notable treats of that vintage to which those DJs have introduced me and, doubtless, many others in the last few years.
Listening to 'Push In The Bush' by French/Italian duo Gui.tar, one need not close one's eyes and stretch one's imagination to any great lengths to fancy that a remix of a similar all-but-vanished winner is revolving on the turntable - not, to be sure, a thing rippling with funk and disco charisma like those cited above, but rather a trebly, enigmatic, indie quelquechose with the lily-whiteness and dark depths of a Pre-Raphaelite painting and belonging to the same sonic blood group as the likes of Artery and The Wake. In actual fact, however, the inscrutable, reverie-bound male vocals and petrified electronics picked out in forlorn echo are Gui.tar's very own, and so too of course are the keyed-up, Savas Pascalidis-like techno-funk bassline and beats in what is most certainly one of 2006's freshest-sounding pieces of electronic heaven thus far.
A more conventional tack is taken on 'Blender Destruction,' which bubbles and fizzes along relaxingly like the Mouse On Mars of old beneath some contrasting elements that provoke a growing sense of peculiar unease - lewdly fleshy feelers of bass, clammy acid-techno dripping and a manic teeth-brushing motif which has all the inexorable persistence of descending Tetris blocks when they begin to hurtle down at their quickest.
The paranoid-dysphoric vibe is retained for the wonderfully cinematic 'Friday Only,' which with its thrusting noir bassline and sad, spooked miasma of synth sounds like what may have resulted if those notorious KGB agents with poison-tipped umbrellas had pursued a second career in classically sinister-edged Italian disco.
The German imprint, Careless Records, may prove to be just as worth keeping on top of as the artists - a conclusion I come to following its release of 'Jealousy' by Miss Le Bomb, whose tracks presented on her MySpace page ought to please in particular those who still carry a torch for the magnetic, energetic Lady Miss Kier.
18th April 2006
THOMAS SCHUMACHER, Lust 12"
While it is not difficult to think of less predictable and uninspiring propositions than a dance track based on the bassline of 'Billie Jean' - which the German Schumacher has roughly snatched, filtered and looped - I can't deny that the cleverness of this relentless record is such that my turntable's stylus had in fact traversed very little of its surface before consciousness of that sample's provenance was permitted to slip towards the back of my mind.
If 'Lust' is looked on as conservative dancefloor fodder, then, it is at least a saliently superior example of its type, setting in motion its famous Jackson groove amidst the noise of a train station before letting it go steaming through long, dark tunnels of rhythmic percussive effects - almost losing it in the process - while lascivious whisperings and austere knells of techno complete its voyage in sound.
The Base Twelve mix which backs it goes one better by interjecting samples of 'Dis Poem' by Rastafarian bard Mutabaruka, whose playing with the Word/Flesh divide and evocation of world-spirit are complemented by soft, spiritual organ chords to add a dimension of the divine to the libidinous drive of Schumacher's original mix. Readers au fait with the use of that same spoken-word source by Bobby Konders's Massive Sounds for 'The Poem,' a classic NYC deep house track of the late 1980s, ought to be intrigued to lend their ears to this more than respectable companion piece.
11th April 2006
HEARTZ4, Intimacy Girl 12" single
A specimen of the art practised by one : Daze Maxim, 'Intimacy Girl' is a tense and eerie reel of fleshless techno minimalism in which ominous computerised bell-tones flicker like a faulty, fly-strewn strip of too-bright electric lighting; intermittent, high-pitched electronic whines rise up suddenly and unnervingly like the blood flooding up and out of the toilet bowl in Coppola's The Conversation; and a paralysed, unintelligible male vocal - more bizarre in its way than any to be found on the new Knife LP - sounds as though the final, defeated speech of a dying man.
For the B-side, Someone Else (see review of 10/04/06) opts to remix this haunted, tortured thing by pulling it up off the bathroom floor in the high-rise apartment block and dragging it on to the dancefloor of the house music club downtown. Filling out the original's fleecy rhythm track with harder, faster, funkier bass and beats that leap like fleas, smothering the vocal in a prickly fuzz and making free with his trademark palette of multi-textured industrial noise-bursts, Else pleasingly tailors the raw material to his own bubbly temperament - even if he doesn't offer anything that digs in its claws in quite the same way as the original's awesome, compulsive unease.
10th April 2006
SOMEONE ELSE, Witty Little Wawa 12" ep
: Flowchart's Cumulus Mood Twang - an enduring document of dedicated-to-pleasure excess way out in a wild blue yonder of surrealist ambient techno-pop - is one of the great obscure masterpieces produced by music in the 1990s, failing to find inclusion even within one of the multifarious, best-kept-secret-packed lists of Paul Morley's Words And Music. The album, released on Carrot Top Records in 1997, constituted both an end and a beginning; the conclusive peak of the Philadelphians' electronic evolution from their origins as quirky exponents of breezy Stereolab groove and My Bloody Valentine noise nirvana, but also the year zero for Sean O'Neal and co.'s subsequent transmission of their always present, wonderfully distinctive freakish fluids through the bloodstreams of underground house and techno.
As Someone Else, O'Neal has shot off solo to sharpen the cutting edge of tech-house's most experimental and adventurous inclinations, and a recent profusion of vinyl activity seems to have enabled him to garner from that community a measure of the respect for his ingenious ways with sound which, for his recordings with Flowchart, he has richly deserved without much reward for these past ten years. And, judging by the splendour of platters such as Witty Little Wawa, there's hope that O'Neal may yet match Cumulus Mood Twang with an album that will be just as exotically alien and yet just as genially, even goofily gratifying as that finest hour.
For what is most remarkable about cuts such as 'Funny Wawa,' a long-distance marathon of digital wet lip-smacks and warm pulses with a seedy kerb-crawler of an electro bassline bringing up the rear, is the extent to which O'Neal makes whole chunks of your brain believe that this is pop you're hearing, over and above a visceral prompt to body movement or avant-garde manipulation of sound (though it is very much both of those things as well). The rhythmic and melodic alchemy he performs with voice samples (in 'Funny Wawa,' his own and those featured in a parent-child conversation about E.T.), colourfully warping them and chopping them up to his own magic formulae, communicates such an irresistible sense of playful fun and worship of the fine arts of catchiness that one might enjoy this in a spirit closer to that in which one enjoys hits by Lipps Inc. or Yello to that in which one enjoys, say, Jan Jelinek. You might say that it's like a jolly fat man inside a businesslike minimalist man's body.
'Ticky Ticky' gets busy with the same sort of earworm trickery by having jack-in-the-box cartoon-network samples popping out at all kinds of sound-angles to the main rhythmic mutation-junket of clicks, fumes, squelches and loved-up bass oscillations like purring machinery; but it's the third of the tree tracks, 'Wahoo Uniform,' that is most worthy of a gold medal here. Slower and spacier than its fellow contestants, one can admire the intricate craft responsible for the amazingly variegated percussive textures of the track's beat matrix, but one has just got to adore the repeating, long-drawn 'waaaahoooooo' which comes in halfway through over chirruping beats, sounding something like throat-singers from outer space touching down on a blue Hawaiian beach amidst Nature's nocturnal chorus.
As it turns out, O'Neal's Unfoundsound label - which, as distinct from his other labels, Foundsound and Fuzzy Box, specialises in free download-only releases - also repays listener investigation. (Personal recommendation - the soothing pastel-colours-and-coffee-cups techno of the Frayed mini-album by Fidget, alias regular Flowchart member Erin Anderson). Here's hoping, however, that time spent releasing other people's music isn't eating up too much time in which Mr Sean could be concentrating on making his own, because it's a true joy to rediscover him on such cracking form.
6th April 2006
THE FOAMBOY DELUXE ARKESTRA, Innocent When You Dream CD
Spring would scarcely be spring nor autumn be autumn without a new Foamboy album to savour amidst the fresh green/dead brown leaves, and a sense of that much hymned-to intoxication with that which dear old Nietzsche calls the 'drive of spring' is certainly not to be found wanting on his latest one.
Innocent When You Dream's recurring musical motifs do include Sigur Rósian organ and Christmas tree twinkles - touches tending to infuse proceedings with a sanctified air and a roseate glow ostensibly more suited to battling S.A.D. - but the track on which they're most prominent ('Dream On, Dreamer') ties them to colossal TNT drum sounds and an insistent chorus that seem spurred on by the thirst for sunshine and rebirth. And this, unmistakably, is what comes crying out of the sustain-release structure of opener 'Bon Voyage Sweetface,' which casts adrift bumping beats and hypnotic vocals on a serene expanse of marine electronica between its scintillating solar-flare choruses, launched with a guitar sound that's snow-blind bright.
From this point it seems probable that, at some stage of this release, Foamboy will be found casting himself in the mould referred to by Macca when he sang of how 'some people want to fill the world with silly love songs,' and that stage arrives in the shape of 'Baby, I'm A Star.' Destined, I suspect, to become many people's most or least favourite moment on the album, this adds an almost worryingly infectious melody like a slowed-down Supremes to heart-throb beats and a feather-light, tickling-sensation guitar-and-electronics arrangement. Perhaps signalling an element of his playful and slippery live personae creeping into his records, it's Foamboy in out-of-time, 'public glamour, private hell' pop-star mode, a postmodern take on a half-forgotten figure of the 50s or 60s such as Morrissey might venerate.
In spite of all this fervour, though, at least an equal portion of the CD is given over to blissfully unwound, secular and sensual devotionals. 'Try On Me, I'll Try On You,' 'While I'm Sleeping,' 'You Can Have It All' - each is a heaven of double-tracked, lucid-dream vocals, Zen hip-hop beats and romantic guitar like sparkling eyes that recalls Painful-era Yo La Tengo. 'While I'm Sleeping,' possibly the best of the three, suggests itself as similar to that which might be the end result if someone like Boom Bip were invited to remix Neu!75's wistful trance, 'Leb Wohl.'
'Swans' brings a duskier, sultrier edge to that particular dream-happy party. Leading one to picture a tryst on a hill overlooking Raymond Chandler's L.A., its taut and trembling guitars are like the night air tingling with the whole of that city's vast morass of love and sin. To extend the analogy, the electro-hazey grand finale 'Am I On Your Mind?' plunges us right into the heart of the contemporary, Michael Connelly version of that ruthless city of lights, with M83 and Public Enemy both coursing through the wires of the power grid.
If all of this immersion and getting lost eventually serves to take us far from that original reawakening of the world and of the spirit, then the spring-like 'reawakening' of the disc's penultimate track may be a reminder that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Beat-free, based on sober organ and violin chords and with vivid and piercing guitar like the bloodied thorns of a rose, 'If We Should Ever Meet...' has a sharp, almost painful clarity to both music and vocals that's appropriate to its theme of new love as cruel betrayal.
'Dream On, Dreamer,' then - Innocent When You Dream's keynote communiqué, perhaps; a fair explanatory tag for the ever-expanding Foamboy oeuvre, most definitely.
3rd April 2006
FULL CRUMB, A Well-Aimed Blow To The Thorax CD
Full Crumb is a new avenue for the channelling of creative energies belonging to one Rob Jones, a dedicated 4-tracker interviewed in 2003 for the paper incarnation of this zine on the basis of his role in Stoke's rustle-and-murmur pop marvels, Trilemma.
Yet that duo's fine-spun, wistfully charming aesthetic, often amounting to some of the most impalpable and elusive arrangements possible for some of the most immediate and substantial themes ('Heideggerian ontological stuff, but also working-class treachery and hand-jobs,' to quote from the aforementioned interview), is not to be found in the ascendancy in Full Crumb. While the fi remains defiantly lo and Jones's lyrics still crackle with erudition, observations from a canny eye, a relish for language and a partiality for Elvis Costello-like cryptic wit and subversion of cliché, the dominant paradigm guiding the music seems to have shifted, in whimsical pictorial terms, from the butterfly fluttering delicately among the leaves and flowers to the butterfly feasting hungrily on carrion in the forest.
Raw, but never lacking in beauty owing to their sure grasp of melodies that please tout de suite and persist in the memory long after, tracks such as 'High Friends In Places' and 'Harpoon Brochure' pivot on earthy, supple grooves with vice-like riffs, while in the likes of 'Shrapnel Garden' and 'Asteroid Car-Park' the listener encounters their brooding brethren - truculent or haunted or both - whose psychedelia-soled pussyfooting and figure-hugging funk serve as a further indication that Full Crumb, unlike Trilemma, aim to exploit a band dynamic. This also figures in 'Blood, Change And Plans' - a short-lived spate of rumpled guitar-pop and strongly charged emotion that sounds a chip off the Boyracer block - and, most impressively, in the cool and dry 'Angel Brains,' on which the model rock rhythm and blistering solo seem graced by the spirit of Robert Pollard (and just take a look at some of the song titles!) as Jones delivers some pungently satirical lyrics on a cheated-on partner taking a perverse pride in being the relationship's snow-white redeemer.
There are, however, a handful of songs on this sixteen-song collection which suggest that the appeal which hushed spell-making has for Jones continues to exert a powerful pull, and in which, therefore, the spirit of Trilemma persists. Most compelling among these are 'Askance,' which shimmers eerily like a ghost-town seen through a heat-haze; 'So Grow Some Wings Then,' with its vocal melodies that touch fascinatingly upon plainsong; and 'Life Is Not A Stream' (it's a pond full of amber cream, or a house or a foreign seam'), which comes awake with television or radio audible in the background and dazzles with acoustic harmony-pop sublime enough to imbue with a real sense of visionary power those opaque and suggestive existential metaphors.
In 'Nightingale Stew' there's even a kind of extremely effective and affecting compromise reached between the subtly stirring quality of these latter recordings and the clout of the plugged-in band. Here, amidst twilight garden serenity and vocals sweet and melodious as Keats's 'light-winged Dryad of the trees,' rough guitar, bass and drums become instruments of lilting cadence and rich, lotus-land textures which mingle like tints of pink and blue in an evening sky.
Obtainable from Rob himself for a mere thirty pence plus an A5 SAE - contact him for further details at firstname.lastname@example.org - A Well-Aimed Blow To The Thorax is a selection which consolidates Mr Jones's status as one of the UK's most intriguing pop craftsmen at the deepest of grass-roots levels.
31st March 2006
THE LUBRICANTS, Songs Of Hate And Love MP3 ep
The work of the same accomplished wags who in recent years have disported themselves on Belfast stages in guises such as The Essential Penguins, The Will Self Abusers and Prostitutes In Paris (and one half of whom is fifty percent of The Diskettes - see review of 23/03/06), Songs Of Hate And Love is roughly equivalent to a movie musical for which each one of five directors handles a vignette embodying a particular perspective on the individual's messy but necessary business of adoring or abhorring another.
'To Date You Is To Hate You,' the first tale to be told, suggests a surreal black comedy segment in which the protagonist's big number is delivered in a morbid ecstasy to the sounds of a kind of minimalist musical dandyism. As the ricocheting beats of a drum machine are topped by rippling, waxen-toned piano like music from the phantasmal hotel bar in Kubrick's The Shining, the borderline-cuckoo hero declares that his self-inflicted Oedipal punishments of blindness and exile are compensated for more than amply by virtue of having liberated him from the poison of someone's presence.
This mood of slightly comedic rapture is sustained by the succeeding slice of the pie, simply titled 'Love Song #1,' whose singing amorist reminds one of Punch-Drunk Love in his betrayal of his Cupid-struck condition as selfish, unhealthy and ridiculous, for all that it is the fucking best. The glimmering keys are like light-bulbs blinking out a Morse code rhythm - having, of course, become sentient and sympathetic in deference to the besotted one's 'smile and the world smiles with you' philosophy - and these are added to stocky box-room beats and subdued and sweet bass guitar and electronic organ sounds on a song that is, in sum, like both a superior They Might Be Giants and air-con on a scorching hot day.
Not a single word of the same might be said of 'I Don't Love You And I Never Will,' during which a director of caustic French farces is surely the guide of the camera eye as it focuses on a staunchly non-requiting cabaret singer warning, 'Don't even call me if you're terminally ill' to a Gallic gloom-pop backdrop in which piano and organ are whipped up into a hard, swirling rain.
In the subsequent narrative, one that is not so very far removed from that of a certain E. Annie Proulx novel recently adapted for the flicks to no small degree of acclaim, our film ascends to a new and deeply impressive level of emotional potency. Not many songs released this year will better 'A Cowboy Alone On The Range,' whereon a pebbly percussion track taps out a rhythm like a memory of rattling along the wagon trail while the organ, soft yet crushing, suggests a despotically beautiful full moon in a time of heartbroken despair. Just as Des Esseintes in Huysman's A Rebours is the owner of a triptych displaying three key poems by Baudelaire, the vocals throughout this EP take as their trinity of inspiration performances by Stephin Merritt, Dudley Klute and LD Beghtol - collectively, The Three Terrors - and it is in the song of the crooning cattleman that these influences are most fully and delightfully matched.
Rounding off the final fifth with a superabundance of pessimism, 'There's Nothing Quite As Dangerous As Love' could quite conceivably cap a concluding episode in which the most classically tragic character, who has stumbled through the background of the previous four stories like the Wandering Jew, gets to tell his own story at last. The music, which canters ahead with the feel of a fateful one-way street, weaves together silky-skeletal threads of The Cure's Disintegration and Fleetwood Mac's Tango In The Night to good, late eighties-ish effect.
All five songs are obtainable as free MP3s from this journal. The film is yet to be written.
23rd March 2006
THE DISKETTES, Floppy Disco CD
Belfast's The Diskettes consist of one Michael Sodem and one Barry Cullen, each an esteemed off-and-on player at offbeat and ludic pop and electronica in his own right, and listening to their collaborative efforts on Floppy Disco is a lot like getting cosy in a favourite nook of one's childhood.
Here there is little real darkness, unless one counts the Sunday evening television, Christie mystery sense of unsavoury secrets hidden behind elegant facades that is created on 'Ancient Stuff Marvellous,' which contains a measure of eerie and melancholic music box weeping beneath its liquid synth bleeps. Nor is there any perceivable sex or rock and roll to take you out of yourself, and what there is in the way of drugs tends to produce effects similar to those incurred by Jon Snow's psychedelic ties; which is to say that, no matter how powerful the strangeness, one is given to find oneself soothed and reassured rather than disordered in the mind. Thus it comes as no surprise when on 'Ham! Ham! Ham!' - a rather lovely melding of minnikin bass and beats with Blue Jam's blend of the mad and the sad - a traditional BBC voice reports that 'from 1920 until 1960, the pattern of narcotic addiction in the United Kingdom was restricted to about four-hundred people, mostly professional, and largely addicted to morphine. All of them were middle-class adults and middle-aged.'
There is, however, no trace here of the all-too-familiar resinous aroma of some laptop kids' staid chill-out set. For proof of this release's restless invention, one need listen no further than opener 'Oh - What's The Bloody Point?' This adds to some satisfyingly flinty beats a wealth of bijou keyboard sounds which, while seeming to make like a documentary on climate change and mix the arctic with the equatorial, spin synthetic threads of cultured melody and resonance that spurn utterly that undemanding joy in repetition that has characterised electronic emissions from many a bedroom. Equally impressive is the Ookie Cookie mix (for the last five tracks of this disc provide alternate takes on selections from the first seven), hacking and hewing at the original until it haemorrhages a flood of rainbow-coloured essential fluids.
Other tracks bustle along in a Nordic, Royksoppian groove or gorge themselves on squeezy, squeaky synths with all the beauty to be had from naive charm, but it is 'Paris, At 6' which marks Sodem's and Cullen's creative imagination hitting another peak in a burst of zigzag rhythm, askew analogue synth melody and spectrographic whisperings of the time and place of the title, the piece as a whole evoking the assertion of fluid 'private time' over against uniform 'public time' like an aural twin to Dali's 'The Persistence Of Memory.'
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of this (mini-)album is that, unlike a great deal of the home-recorded electronica that has emerged during the last ten years, The Diskettes sound as though they have effortlessly generated their own content instead of studying and emulating the whole gamut of fellow travellers. And for this, salutations are their due.
20th March 2006
THE TAMBORINES, What Took You So Long 7"
Vinyl débutant(e)s The Tamborines are one part boy to two parts girl, one part French to two parts Brazilian, and all Londoners sounding all-American with music insinuating easeful, breezy Saturday afternoons spent somewhere beautiful along the California-Florida sunbelt.
'What Took You So Long' hangs out parading a pithy, gold-rush guitar sound and nursing a love-lies-bleeding melody in its breast, triggering thoughts of a merger between Grand Prix Teenage Fanclub and the Tobin Sprout side - the most fey and winsome - of Guided By Voices.
What elevates it above simple honey-sweetness, however, are the splendid hypno-psychedelic bubbles blown by organist Lulu Grave and the way drummer Veronique Luis pounds on her drum-kit as though it's lately gone and done her wrong. On B-side 'The Great Division,' a betrothal of neo-power-pop and 60s acid picnic with just a hint of The Cure in their Wild Mood Swings, the clever touches of Luis and Grave combine to produce an ecstatic, deal-clinching instrumental climax of a quite unexpectedly high voltage and intensity.
It seems strangely suitable, then, that their label is named Decadent. The Tamborines, like much belonging to that art movement of old, plainly get a kick out of making hay with primitive, sensual power, and who can say that in their chosen field of sunshine and jangle this love doesn't make them pretty much unique?
15th March 2006
DAVE SWAIN, Istvan Zsolt's Plane Ticket CD
Though written and recorded at home in a small town in Northern Ireland, the tracks that make up Istvan Zsolt's Plane Ticket major - as the album title suggests - in well-defined international concerns. The once heard, never forgotten single 'Sportive' (see 16/11/05 review) lays bare through sampling the similitude of Russian and North American imperatives in the sphere of 'the couple,' and one looks to U.S. hip-hop for the genealogy of its beats while the glacial Slavonic melancholia of the synth chords inspires thoughts of trains rumbling through industrial graveyards and wild surroundings in Eastern Europe.
Its blackly comic tenor, and the sense of dismay instilled by the hybridising, homogenising, tyrannical aspects of globalisation that might be identified as underlying it, is returned to here on 'Line Central.' Pulsing club beats are joined by wayward guitar as Swain's attractively low-key vocals - plain, detached, but at the same time movingly plaintive elsewhere on the album - take on slightly derisive transatlantic traces while communicating lines such as 'in this brave new world, note how clipped the accents are - a complete hash of forgotten histories.' There's a sceptical wryness to words and melody both, but there are measures of ambivalence and sympathy in the song's snapshot of a young immigrant woman in London that bring it far from simple didacticism.
Darker, perhaps, is 'Sun Over Simferopol,' on which gorgeous, offbeat bedroom disco-pop resembling that of Orange Cake Mix and Spring doesn't conceal the fact that Swain is singing of a place generally referred to either in terms of the numbers of deaths in its war-torn history or in terms of the numbers of tourists and businesspeople who pass through it year upon year, a 'frozen,' 'broken' place en route to money and leisure.
'Goodnight America,' paired with 'Sportive' on last year's 7" and appearing here with a soundly emphatic a capella coda to press the point home, represents a further facet of Istvan Zsolt's interest in the flow of power in a globe that's all mixed up, asking questions about the effects of U.S.-spawned mass-media on millions geographically or simply spiritually estranged from weakened, discrete, indigenous cultures. Thus it may appear fairly self-explanatory also to have a track named 'Media Monkey,' which sounds rigorously true to its title. The effect of echoing footwork capers rhythmically across a frisky melody that is harsh and metallic as though emanating from some bizarre wind instrument, and Swain's barking, distorted, indecipherable vocals complete the impression that this is every inch music from the realm of Mark E. Smith's 'Idiot Joy Showland.'
This irresistible little foray into tuneful frenzy borders on the CD's more intensely experimental and opaque moments such as 'Icy Queue ( alt rudey )' and 'Nt Wrkng,' these being fluctuating, discombobulated sound environments spattered with sampled speech, postmodern anti-narratives that ultimately confound one's natural instinct to make the random cohere into a satisfying unity. While these point towards post-everything chaos and confusion, 'School Salad' (wishing to negate the world of Jamie Oliver as Herbert's Plat Du Jour did that of Nigella Lawson?) could be a joke about the emptiness of it all, as affectedly grandiose keyboard melodies soundtrack a sampled commentary on the twentieth century to the present day that is mercilessly edited of all factual or non-factual content.
Though much of Istvan Zsolt strews fragmentary non-songs such as these amidst the kind of occasionally dissonant, always dissident lo-fi pop tunes referred to above, it refrains from doing so at the album's tail-end when there is, very broadly speaking, a shift in subject matter from the political to the emotional. Swain's guitar and vocals feature at their most untreated and clean on 'Recuerdo,' a tender requiem for a dream that would fit well on a compilation starring Robyn G. Shiels and Desert Hearts; 'Last Year's Visitor' meditates on friendship while abstract electro-tones gently lap and purl; and the desolationist, hope-against-hope modern mantra 'Drive And Trust' seems to hold in its hands the still-beating heart of OMD's Organisation as it soldiers on into the darkness in search of a light.
This record has been a long time in the making, but the constant freshness and longevity of art that holds no qualms about carrying within it a strong degree of muddle and mystery should prove true of Istvan Zsolt as it has of many a unique, uncompromisingly left-of-centre treasure trove before it.
13th March 2006
THE UTOPIANS, Britain's Littlest Killer CD ep
Previously The Uterus Women, the increasingly macabre imagination of Nick Carlisle now sports a new trading name under which it has found fresh realisation in the Brighton-based misfit's first full album, the soon to be released Britain's Biggest Killer. From this venture, recorded with the assistance of current second in command Heidi Heelz, are taken the three highly immediate tracks at hand. Each is an expert formula of pop pleasure, punk friction, dread and detestation with unshakeable shades of Orwell and Kafka and humour with the bitter almond kick of a capsule of cyanide.
Clear candidate for signature-tune status ' "The Utopians" ' leads tellingly with a ticking timepiece intro into an attack, from the standpoint of an anti-traditional tradition of otherness and change, on the boredom of what Mr Carlisle unerringly terms 'the current climate of happy happy popstar call centres.' A compulsively twitchy rhythm and the bristling of gratifyingly viperish guitar and analogue synths are capped by the eerie stage-whisperings of the artist's beloved mellotron, which pervade the piece like the creeping tendrils of some sinister fog, while the implicit equation of the banal slavishness of the pop culture under fire with standard office drudgery links the song with EP closer 'Stamp It Out!' Thereon, an implacable Klaus Dinger beat puts the boot into a Devo with delirium tremens and seven shades of synth sickness as Nick sings of the demonising, top-down authoritarian attitudes raising cries of 'witchcraft in the workplace.'
Sequenced between the two of these is the startling 'Piece Of Me,' a mechanoid electro-punk thrash of exquisite precision in which guitars whir like rotary blades and The Vichy Government's Jamie Manners adds surly Ulsterisms to Nick's rapid-fire yelp in what all adds up to a brilliant, heartfelt caricature job on Belfast's hard-man breed.
Since utopia has often been said to involve, in the words of Ernst Bloch, the 'melancholy of fulfilment,' it seems slightly wrong here to talk about the full achievement of innate potential. Instead, with a follow-up to Britain's Biggest Killer already in the works, it may be more fitting to think of the possible strangeness and greatness of that which is yet to come.
27th February 2006
SPARKS, Hello Young Lovers CD
Few sane individuals, I suspect, would argue that the brothers Mael were not languishing in the artistic doldrums pretty consistently in that nigh-on a quarter-century which separates 2002's Lil' Beethoven from 1979's No. 1 In Heaven, that famous tour de force of savage, diamond-studded disco hysteria which remains the gleaming pinnacle of their achievement to date. Whence emanated the sparks for the Lazarus-like renaissance as heralded by Beethoven is a matter on which it is no doubt idle for us to speculate, but Hello Young Lovers is breathtaking proof that its adamant will to innovate rather than to hark back to fruitful past campaigns was no mere flash in the pan.
In truth, the core of this new set is much the same inimitable - not to mention improbably successful - highly-strung yet harmonious compound as instituted by Beethoven. Welcome back, then, gleefully exorbitant, computer-generated mock-Wagnerian orchestration; piano passages of soft Simone soul-jazz and of Liberace luxury; audacious outbursts of fist-pumping hard-rock; and Russell's vocal parts reproducing by binary fission until it seems as though scores of Oompah-Loompah Russells are chorusing in your ears ad absurdam. Sister songs also are apparent - 'Here Kitty,' like Beethoven's 'My Baby's Taking Me Home,' is a cool and collected postmodern carve-up of Jazz Age musical tropes in the spirit of (The Real) Tuesday Weld, while 'The Very Next Fight' offers 'blood on the floor of some posh restaurant' in place of the 'candlelit dinners...lovely times' of the former record's 'I Married Myself,' that gently comic psychoanalytic case study being granted, in the manner of Woody Allen's Melinda And Melinda, a darkly tragic twin.
There is, however, a fair amount here for which not even Beethoven could really have prepared us. '(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country?,' for instance, rather suggests the distinctly bizarre scenario of Mel Brooks and John Fashion Flesh breaking down and rewriting Michael Jackson's 'Black And White.' Here the duo go on a Broadway show-stopping spree as crisp and clinical Echoplex and giddy twists of trumpet weave a lively, simple rhythm reminiscent of something off of Paul Simon's Graceland - a sly reference to U.S. cultural imperialism to complement the lyrics' allusion to the military kind? - while Russell enunciates the words of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' like a curious archaeologist translating the inscription on a relic of a long-dead civilisation.
Also, it will be noted that one of the odd little ironies of twenty-first century Sparks is that the new style, with its definite leanings towards the operatic and epic, is at times more than mildly evocative of the music being made by certain of their early-to-mid-70s peers in flamboyance while the Maels themselves were engaged in an altogether snappier, dare I say proto-punk form of adventure. Once on Hello Young Lovers they remind us of those bygone days in which they served as a slim and slinky glam-pop machine, though this they choose to do through the somewhat unexpected (yet totally apt) prism of T. Rex. The smouldering 'Perfume' pleases with a sensuous pout of a lead vocal and a lithe, knowingly Bolan-esque melody, providing the album's least tradition-spurning moment even as the acutely self-aware, complexly problematical lyrics champion the thrill of the truly new over novelty's typical traces of the familiar through an implicit discourse on real and artificial beauty.
Yet if there's one out of these ten songs whose lyrics are most thematically telling for the opus as a whole, then 'Metaphor' may well be it. Its Devo-do-dapper-chamber-pop stylings might sound rather middling and slight when compared with such monumental, seemingly effortless efforts as 'Dick Around' and 'As I Sit To Play The Organ At The Notre Dame Cathedral,' but its concern as stated in its title is at the very heart of Hello Young Lovers' amour-propre-puncturing view of human behaviour as basic animal instinct (just check out those fluffy white bunnies all over the cover) rigged-up in a variety of pretty and pompous narratives of transcendence. Spinning out exaggerated versions of such narratives so as to let us see right through them all the more easily is something that Sparks do very well indeed, and in a range of fascinating ways.
'Chicks, dig, dig, d-i-g dig, dig metaphors.' As they say.
13th February 2006
HIGH CONTRAST, Fabriclive.25 CD
Drum and bass has long seemed to me a genre particularly prone to ghettoising its brightest lights under a bushel of arid imaginations well-suited by those dourly cyberneticist noms de guerre, a context in which the recent rise to widespread recognition of the genius boundary-bumping Welshman Lincoln Barrett, a.k.a. High Contrast, might be regarded as something of a refreshing anomaly. Having begotten surprise-packed taste-explosions of albums in True Colours (2002) and High Society (2004), Barrett has given every indication that he holds no truck with those paddling in the shallow end of the D 'n' B pool, and one would fully expect the selections mixed by him into a set for luminary-magnet London club Fabric to reflect this.
And, for the most part, they do. Twenty-two cuts are crammed into one hour plus of rapid transit, sabre-rattling beats; basslines coiling out of the speakers like well-fattened deadly snakes; sensuous urban Utopias of high-tech electronics, plush and misty as a smoke-filled and elegant theatre and garlanded by rich samples of vinyl obscurity; rollercoaster phasing effects and vocals drifting in and out of the ether in a way that's often evocative of ancient energies channelled through modern currents, like the timeless songs of the gods atop a Himalayan mountain transmitted through radio signals from a distant soul station somewhere in downtown Detroit.
Minimal tends, more often than not, to trump maximal. 'Love Insane' by Craggz & Parallel Forces sparkles with a beautiful and strange symmetry when broken down to the beat and its pensive, sun moon and stars piano melody, and later Blame's 'Solar Burn' segues into 'Summer Sun' by Logistics in a fabulously easeful sequence of smooth and subtle weather-watching dazedness.
Logistics's bites at the cherry here are, in fact, multiple, and each is deserving of comment. 'Life Rhythm' provides an early mix highlight by virtue of its sweet honey-bee bass oscillations and snatches of sunshine sound turning flower-child cartwheels, but the collaboration with Cyantific which follows may have just a little too much love to show to the 80s - 'Flashback' is essentially a junglists' take on one of Felix Da Housecat's eminently more dispensable Moroderised-to-the-gills cop-show car-chase fantasies. Cyantific's 'Ghetto Blaster' is far more on the money where that decade is concerned, pinballing and pogoing a course through streets of hip-hop-hungry sonic lust. Nor do the 80s disappear there, as High Contrast too indulges himself with a new track on which interlocking DNA chains of prog/AOR guitar and vocals and a monumental synth melody conjure thoughts of Genesis or Stevie Nicks flashed forward ten or fifteen years to the D 'n' B Big Bang.
There are included two other similarly layered and massive tracks that stick in the memory with a vengeance. State Of Mind's 'Real McCoy' strongly suggests Underworld in its epic-atmospheric swim through a city's fast and fierce stream of collective consciousness, the role of riddling Tiresian prophet being played in this instance not by Karl Hyde but by a sampled Jamaican king of the dancehall. Then there's Klute, East Anglia's perennially underrated Peel favourite of yore, whose 'Hell Hath No Fury' is an iron fist of crazed percussive action in a velvet glove of cuddly celestial spheres, sounding a little like a speeded-up enactment of chaos theory on Earth as baby angels shed tears from above.
If there's one individual featured here whose work I most fervently wish to hear more of, though, it's samba boy DJ Marky, whose 'Restart' lets loose a sexy and mysterious slipstream of orchestral dreams, shiny things and cooed mermaid voices to send you into reveries in which may appear the sunken city of Is or the mystique-laden statues at Capri in Godard's Le Mépris. It represents, perhaps, the Godardian dimension to High Contrast's general aesthetic as well. In these musical times of grit and Grime, it's a fine thing to have those in 'Urban' music making sonic suggestions not of some flat rendering of reality, but rather of its beautiful transfiguration.
30th January 2006
THE CONSPIRACY VS. PINEAPPLE, Analogue Years 84-97 CD
Duncan Pope's seasoned Conspiracy project can appear as something of a Janus-like entity, forever forward-planning like a chess grandmaster while keen to keep 'in print,' as it were, the finest of its former glories. Thus while we wait for the century's first and doubtless carefully honed and toned Conspiracy album, Pope and company are ensuring that the underground's appetite for their stuff stays healthy with the release of this nineteen-track retrospective on Gallipoli, the latest label to have them.
It isn't just The Conspiracy's archives that have been trawled through, though, with material from the time-obscured annals of Pope's 1980s clan, the reportedly almost-bagged-by-Geoff-Travis Pineapple, also having been resurrected for fresh consumption. And what a laudibly discerning selection this sounds, headed-up by the blindingly precise punk-rock rasp of 'Repulsion' and 'Johnny Hero.' Hackles rising and blood boiling and the sound all pots, pans and distortion, these are tracks that are as sure of savage riff, automaton rhythm and ideological target as anything on Joy Division's An Ideal For Living EP, with Pope expelling brilliantly bilious contorted vocals and thrillingly vivid language from a thoroughly Rotten gob.
Thereafter it's like the band, with quality never dipping, are flitting through random chapters of Simon Reynolds's Rip It Up And Start Again with an eclecticism which makes it hard to believe that these songs aren't those of Noughties postmodernists plundering the past. 'Premonition' is whisky-and-soda pop, all sheets of fire-and-ice glassy fierceness that seem to merge into one space the 70s Manchester of Buzzcocks and Joy Division and the 80s Liverpool of Echo And The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes. The tracks which follow are better yet - 'On Edge,' an arachnid-dipped-in-an-inkwell guitar scrawl and squirming rhythm making excellent ill-at-ease post-punk for the hips; 'Drugs,' swimming in sombre psychedelic sadness with saxophone fins somewhere near a Jamaican records shop on a grey day in Peckham; and 'Onamatopoeia,' a distantly menacing absurdist game played under an ominous raincloud of Keith Levene guitar.
If this Pineapple 'side' of the disc demonstrates that Pope has been adept at pressing all the right buttons in his recordings since a young pretender, then the tracks on offer on The Conspiracy's half - many of them frayed rock grooves, heavy stuff made as compact and spiky as a balled-up porcupine - serve as proof of the ways in which he's progressed since that time. The charmed and witty way with profundity and profanity in his lyrics-writing has simply gone from strength to strength (even if there are two songs which make mention of 'silky thighs'), while excursions such as that involving the cold, dripping funk of a 1993 song refusing to be blinded by the dawn of the Clinton era ('Welcome To America') have resulted in no musical tangent seeming too outré to be embarked on.
The talents of ex-Conspirator Mark Baker are also made very conspicuous by the inclusion of two compositions written and sung by him, dispelling any lazy supposition that Pope's many collaborators haven't added more than their two cents' worth to the music's value over the years. Baker's enchanting 'Where Will It Take You' features sighing bass and skipping bass blowing through a delicate twilight zone between Portishead pier and Prokofiev forest, while 'Melissa's Garden' exudes a US college-rock melodic sugar-rush sensibility that is markedly less original but no less bracingly pleasant.
Clearly, if it's potent, inventive art you seek, contemptuous of fashion and with a dedicated seriousness and independence of mind, then The Conspiracy (like Pineapple) has been here for you. Get in on it while it still is.
21st December 2005
THE VICHY GOVERNMENT, A Very Vichy Christmas (MP3s)
Available as part of the download-only Have Yourself A Filthy Little Christmas album on the Filthy Little Angels label, these made-for-Christmas numbers substantiate, by dint of their very existence, the fact that the beat of these splenetic synthers’ pop heart will never allow it to be concealed for long beneath the floorboards.
Admittedly, the instrumental ‘(One More Widow) One Less White Christmas’ fairly successfully turns a deaf ear to that heart's insistent throbbing, being almost as strikingly sober and plaintive as the duo’s old festive stab at Jona Lewie’s ‘Stop The Cavalry.’ Wringing from ‘Jingle Bells’ a pained and permanent three-note grimace - the defective musical greetings card of the soul - Andrew Chilton applies to it some disarmingly pretty yet tellingly doubtful melody before all melts away upon the sounding of the knell (the provenance of which is most evidently not Bells On Sunday on Radio 4). Should the listener require a reminder that 2005 has witnessed more than its share of death and suffering on a depressingly vast scale, then he or she need look no further than this.
‘Christmas Is Cancelled,’ on the other hand, is possibly the most spilling-over-with-vitality track that
Accentuating the original’s simmering resentment in lines such as 'stood by the fireplace, you look ridiculous,' they take on board as they go interpolations of ‘Common People’ and ‘Oliver’s Army’ (the latter a pert comment on the melodic similarities of the tune they’re covering) along with some fine gratuitous swearing and other small but significant touches of their own. One for the career Best Of, here.