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Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Reviews: Monochus Diabolos, Dopefight and Winter Storm

Monochus Diabolos - Monkeys Of Satan (metal)

self released, 2011, CD EP, 41m, £5

As the American accented news report begins to recount the misadventures and civilian casualties of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, you expect the insistent and doom-laden 6/8 groove it floats over to erupt into a verse, or a big chorus, with a lyric that spells out exactly what the band thinks about it. Well, I guess that’s what does happen, but the commentary they offer is directly to the point: ‘Murder One’ is the name of the song, and that’s its only lyric, grunted in an angry snarl.

Most of the songs are songs, but they have that same directness. This trio does not beat about the bush: they take their musical enthusiasms, and without bothering about conforming to any particular set of conventions, they blend them together into a sound that seems familiar, but doesn’t bear a close resemblance to anything else. 
Sticking mostly to a mid-tempo groove, Monochus Diabolos’ material runs the gamut of heavy rock textures, from static chords floating on a sparse drum and bass framework, to crunching unison riffs; vocals are predominantly clean, impassioned and soulful, but sometimes boil over into growls and shouts that acknowledge the more extreme varieties of metal, and also betray the punk attitude that lurks just beneath the surface of much of this music.
Si Green (guitar and vocals) is not a shredder: his solos are not stratospheric displays of speed and technique, but carefully crafted stories told with texture and melody. This is really what makes this band outstanding: it’s the variety and sense of development in the guitar, which when it steps forward doesn’t always play something that sounds like a solo as such. While it isn’t ever quite as experimental as Tom Morello, it takes a similar approach, and if there’s one band I would pick up on to draw a comparison, it’s Audioslave.
You’d be unlikely to listen to Monochus Diabolos and think ‘oh, that sounds like Audioslave’, but they build their musical house from the same materials: a tight and solid foundation of deep, funky bass and drums grooves; a sonically rich and varied palette of textural guitar work, with a wide dynamic range; and a vocal delivery that is utterly committed and sincere (not to mention tuneful and explosively powerful).
All of this comes together with the maximum dramatic impact on the EP’s closer, ‘Death Brings Peace’. The track opens with a sample of Robert Oppenheimer’s chilling 1965 speech in which he quotes the Bhagavad Gita in relation to the first detonation of a nuclear bomb. As the sample concludes, a dark and ominous groove develops, starting with the drums, and the song (which is a long one) stays on the one chord, as it visits every degree of intensity between dead calm and raging storm. The guitar solo is a masterpiece of sonic manipulation, throwing great wailing sheets of noise across the groove, and doing what every solo should: stoking up the intensity of the song to breaking point.
There was not much money spent on recording, mixing or mastering this, and it really plays to the band’s advantage: this music is so raw and heartfelt that over-production would kill it. The measure of a good mix is how alive it feels: regardless of how good the individual instrumental sounds are (and I have to say that the bass and drum sounds are a real pleasure to listen to, not just the guitar), a mix can still fall flat, and feel lacklustre. Not this one: the balance is just right, and allows the very fine performances from each player to blend coherently into a thunderous whole, which has been compressed and normalised enough to reproduce it, but not to tame it. Excellent material, solidly and creatively performed, with no frills and a whole lot of passion.

Dopefight - Buds (sludge/ stoner metal)

self released 2010, CD album, 50m 45s, £6

There’s a select group of bands that bridge the gap between sludge metal and stoner doom: if you’ve heard outfits like Bongzilla or Electric Wizard then you’ll know what general ballpark you’re in, in terms of approach and texture. The guitars are filtered through an extreme, rich, thick distortion (from which the genre of sludge metal takes its name); the riffs are slow to mid tempo, heavy and ominous, although often pretty funky; and vocals, when they come in, are a hoarse, angry shout, nearly submerged in the mix.

This is very heavy music, almost brutally so, but it is not designed for drunk people to go wild to: it’s designed for very stoned people to methodically beat their brains out to. The savage, bass heavy impact of the riffery has a bewildering, physically pulsating effect, that blurs the listener’s sense of reality: this is earth moving music, like heavy dub, which shares dub’s hypnotic throb, and its simplicity. Any unnecessary complication would undermine the rooted inevitability of its juggernaut groove.

If you were in any doubt as to this music’s direct address to a specific biochemically induced perceptual state, the album’s title and especially its cover should set you straight. Those buds in the photo are not tulips on the point of flowering. And the chinese take-away on the back cover is not the kind you have because you’ve worked hard all day and you’re really hungry: it’s the kind you have because you really enjoyed the one you had ten minutes ago. Or wait, was that yesterday? My mouth is awfully dry all of a sudden.

Precision is not a characteristic that is usually associated with this psychic state, but it’s something this music needs, and has, in spades. Or maybe precision is the wrong word: unity is perhaps a better term for the single, gestalt, geological togetherness of this band, as they generate a wall not so much of sound, as of masonry. I’m not saying that they’re bricklayers, but their music has a great deal of solidity and impact.
This material does not place great technical demands on the players that execute it, but it’s not everyone that could play it, as it is born of a specific set of skills. Sonically it is the product of a finely tuned awareness of instrumental timbre and the technological means of tweaking it into shape; and expressively, it is laid down righteously deep, with total commitment and belief. These players are having fun, and playing the music they love, but there’s a real artistic integrity here: this is a band that walks the walk. There are some really juicy, blockbuster riffs on this recording, and they play every one of them like they mean it.

Winter Storm - Serenity In Darkness (gothic/ melodic metal)

self released, 2010, CD album, 50m 2s , £10

Winter Storm play slow to mid paced metal, with plenty of heavy, but nothing too extreme, garnished with sweeping, melodramatic female vocals. The band themselves specifically name check gothic metal as an influence, although their music is a lot less doomy than that might lead you to expect.

There’s a variety of bands in the broad areas of gothic and symphonic metal I could namecheck to give you some sense of where Winter Storm sit in the spectrum: Within Temptation, Epica (to some extent), Nightwish, Lacuna Coil (to a small extent) all bear some resemblance. The symphonic element is in the dramatic sweep of the compositions and arrangements more than the instrumentation, and in Hannah Fieldhouse’s sometimes operatic vocal delivery; the gothic element is in the mood and lyrical content. There’s nothing revolutionary or groundbreaking, but the band is pleasingly distinct in its style: once you know their sound you’ll be able to identify it. Where they stand or fall is in their songwriting and performances.
The melodies in this collection of songs take ear pleasing paths through the chords, and are delivered with a pure, rich and powerful voice. Really good melodies can take your breath away, by taking one turning when they have set you up with an overwhelming expectation that they will take another: once they grab you like that, they’ve got you at their mercy, and they can take you anywhere they want. That doesn’t happen here: the tunes are far from being pedestrian, but they can be a little obvious to my ear. The songs are good overall, however, with dramatic structures, a strong scaffolding of well crafted riffs, and expressive chord sequences.

The band are very accomplished and professional sounding, delivering some driving, muscular metal grooves with a good deal of relish and energy. They’re not going to drop jaws with their technique, but that’s not what they’re about: Fieldhouse’s lead guitar work is all about the sound and melody, and pays refreshingly close attention to texture and timbre, something which is not on the radar for a lot of otherwise interesting metal soloists.
The overall sound of this recording is very full, but I have to say its apparent dynamic range is far too limited for my liking: it has a polish and sheen that is impressive, but it sounds to me to have been squashed flat in mastering, which is a shame, because it robs it of a lot of the drama that is such a strong feature of the songwriting. It is also very bright overall, which as a bass freak I struggled with initially, but on reflection I think I like the effect, which runs counter to current convention in heavy rock, and it certainly doesn’t make for a thin sound.
So overall, I’d like to hear some more melodic risk-taking in the composition, and I think the production could have a lot more space and life in it; but this is a band with some sincere, well structured songwriting, that brings a real sense of darkness and melancholy, which is driven home like a thunderbolt with some very tight, heavy riffing.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Weekly Roundup: All The Things That Happened, That I Noticed And Was Interested In

The critic frowns.

I’ve been thinking about musical traditions and their importance to ongoing stylistic growth. Tradition is contested ground in jazz, which has an ultra-progressive wing and an ultra-conservative one: even the most experimental jazz innovator will extoll the importance of the tradition however. There are very few jazz fans who would deny the value and importance of Satchmo, Duke, Hawk, Prez, Bird, Diz, Monk and many more nicknamed historical ‘greats’, and there is a sense that someone like Ornette Coleman earns the right to blow atonally through a plastic saxophone by first learning how to make the changes in the style of his more conventionally minded predecessors. Being able to play the traditional form of 4/4 swing is considered a basic necessity for any functioning player. If you stop to think about it, it’s a little odd that such a new form, whose central tradition is one of fusion, inclusion and innovation, should place so much importance on its inherited musical practices; perhaps its very novelty leads its practitioners to seek a solid historical context to hang onto, which with something so new requires a very rapid pace of canonisation, and gives the scholar or academic a paradoxically important role.
Tradition is also an important idea in pop music, where the related idea of authenticity denotes an uncompromised commitment to a personal artistic vision, rather than a technical grounding in historically established practices. Pop has always been associated with novelty, ephemerality and disposability, but at the same time it has always recycled formally and stylistically: when punk wanted to turn the whole shebang on its head, it did so by re-radicalising 50s rock ‘n’ roll with 60s sonic technologies. Technology has always been a driver of innovation in pop, with some of the most outwardly abrupt breaks with tradition coming in the field of electronic music: what’s interesting there, is that those new sounds have become important traditional touchstones, as though, like the jazzers, pop musicians are seeking validation and ‘authenticity’ by placing themselves in a historical context. Nowadays, with the simultaneous availability of the music of every time and place, fans of popular music look back nostalgically to the 60s and 70s at least as much as they look forward to the teens and imagine the future.
Clearly, without tradition there can be no innovation: everything needs an opposite to define itself against, but it does seem weird that at a time when I am discovering some of the most creative and imaginative popular music I’ve ever heard, there is also such a strong streak of conservatism, particularly among the best selling guitar music (which is laughably referred to as ‘indie’). Interestingly, some of the experimental music I have recently reviewed(specifically the work of James Beaudreau) is grounded in a very traditional approach to the guitar. Tradition can provide the materials for innovation, just as innovation can provide the materials for tradition.
It was the deaths of a brace of significant historical figures that got me thinking about the above. Last week we’d lost a pioneer of electronic music, and this week there was a further changing of the guard. I have to say, it’s pretty amazing to think that a central figure in the first flowering of blues was alive until last week.
I don’t usually link to other peoples’ album reviews in my news roundup, but this is a fundraiser for the incredibly creative, and gravely ill Tim Smith of Cardiacs, and it’s an extremely good album:
This just tickled my fancy: 55 tracks, adding up to less than 3 minutes of music, and ‘the world’s smallest album’.
Everyone knows MySpace is dying, and the statistics in this article are well known, but it’s the anecdote in the last paragraph that’s interesting: in the end, the value of a publicity channel to musicians trying to make a living, is the ease of translating it into revenue, and this says all you need to know about MySpace.
SEO (that’s Search Engine Optimization) is about to be radically transformed, in a way that will hopefully stop putting crappy content farms at the top of search results, and favour genuinely relevant content. This should play to musicians’ advantage, but you still need to think about SEO if you want to maximise traffic to your site.
A truly useful and informative article on building a good website without getting mired in techno-designo-confuso-headexplodingness.
Google’s music service is about ready to roll out, it appears, and further call into question the distinction between hearing and ‘owning’ music with its cloud storage facility.
My five albums on heavy rotation at the time of writing are as follows:
Cardiacs - Heaven Born and Ever Bright (pronk)
Los Chicharrons - Roots Of Life (funk/ house/ world)
Patrick & Eugene - Everything & Everyone (fun!)
Zook - Music From The Accumulator (minimal funk)
VA - Oi! A Nova Música Brasileira! (alternative Brazilian)

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Review: The Scoobs at The Bull in Colchester

The Scoobs are a well oiled groove machine. I guessed that they would be, having played with two of their number in the past, both of whom I consequently knew to be very funky men, but it was pleasing to have my expectations confirmed. More pleasing still was to discover how non-generic this band is: it’s not that they are self-consciously boundary pushing, or deliberately setting out to innovate, just that their collective enthusiasms cast a wide net, and they’re serving up the whole rich diversity of their catch.
So just what does that include? I heard one of their number describe their music as a ‘world groove fusion’ which is a term that’s been used to cover a multitude of sins, but in their case it means that you might hear hints of funk, calypso, reggae, high life, merengue, chimurenga, ska and probably a few more besides. I can report (thankfully) that this makes for a true fusion rather than the mess it might turn into in less capable hands.
This is a group of experienced musicians: The Scoobs are celebrating twenty years together this year (apparently they were all about ten years old when they started). Experience doesn’t show in chops, which any monkey can have in spades by their late teens if they practice obsessively enough, but in knowing what to do with them. Everyone had a share of the limelight during the course of their two sets, and without exception they showed off their skills without noodling or shredding: just a few tasty licks or fills, designed to enhance the song rather than draw attention to the player. It’s that taste, restraint and (dare I say it) maturity that is key to strong, deep groove playing, of the kind that leaves space for the dancers to move into, rather than spelling the rhythm out on every beat like a demented typewriter.
Their material was mainly full band grooves, and mainly original compositions, although there were some more tribal sounding feels with lots of percussion (and some didgeridoo), and some well chosen covers. The latter ranged from a well worn but effective warhorse like ‘Low Rider’, to the rarely revisited classic ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)’, and it was nice to notice that a bit of creativity had gone into the selection.
In fact, creativity was as much in evidence as groove, in a very low-key, self-effacing manner. There was nothing outlandish, jarring, or particularly challenging (except to the most sheltered pairs of ears), but the band’s huge range of stylistic touchstones were continually intermeshed in ways that were never obvious, and were always directly to the point. And the point was? To bring the party, of course, which is exactly what they did.
Their performance and presentation was consistently happy, friendly and relaxed, always focussed outward at the audience, and always moving with the music; they looked as though they were having as much fun as they’d like us to have. And that’s about the size of it: no frills, no gimmicks, no outlandish performances or musical gymnastics, just deep, earthy grooves, light, catchy melodies and an unaffected pleasure in being there and sharing their music. That’s a formula that’s hard to top.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Reviews: Turner Cody, Caustic and Trans Auto Radio

Turner Cody - Gangbusters (folk rock/ Americana)

Boy Scout Recordings DIB017CD, 2010, CD album, £4.99 
(also available as DD)

The rhythm section performs a steady folk rock groove in well worn harmonies; melodies follow symmetrical antecedent-consequent contours, through notes that are consonant and predictable, while the lyrics follow suit with consistent terminal rhyme schemes in tight couplets. It’s all very accessible, in a sing-song Americana style. Does that sound a bit dull? Well it ain’t.
Some things do not need messing about: an apple does not need chocolate sauce; good whisky does not need cola; beautiful women do not need make-up; ‘’Round About Midnight’ (when Miles recorded it) did not need solos. And Turner Cody’s astonishing, breathtaking verbal imagery doesn’t need any clever musical tricks to make it shine.
Having said all that, the arrangements are in fact very good, and imaginative, from the richly expressive brass scoring in ‘Au Revoir’, through the rhythmic upper register lead guitar on ‘Mon Amour’ andWindows On Atlantis’, and the bass clarinet on ‘Big Surprise’, to the slippery bass fills in ‘The Only One I Had is Gone’. The grooves are organically tight, and the vibe reminds me of The Band on Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes.

Good songs are not just about a good lyric, with whatever music slung at it to make it a song. The poetry, as with all poetry, in any art form, is a compound experience, formed and articulated in the whole work, at the point of intersection of its constituent elements. The whole is, axiomatically, greater than the sum of its parts, so what I have already said should not be taken to suggest that this is an album of conventional songs with clever words. These arrangements are the right arrangements, and Cody’s melodies carry his meanings explicitly, with his cadences expressing precisely whether his thought is incomplete, or has reached some kind of conclusion.
The lyrics on this album deal with big themes and small ones, frequently in a single breath. Vernacular language, humorous exaggeration, biblical or classical references, colourful metaphors, redemptive aspirations and touching, deep, everyday pathos are mashed up together into a soup of thought and feeling, and emitted in a stream of consciousness that is often reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s early days, or the work of his antecedent, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Sometimes the leap between two consecutive ideas is thrilling and audacious, and at other times it’s so huge that the result reads like nonsense: there are always meanings to be found if you stop and think about it, but sometimes there are simply too many of them to settle on one. Some would take this as a shortcoming or a failure to communicate, and they may be right, but it always seems to me like playfulness, a joy in the world of words and meanings too great to let Cody stop piling them on.
Either way, he is an extraordinary lyricist, and clearly a man who will continue to say his piece, and give voice to the content of his heart and mind, whether or not anyone wants to listen to him. I’m familiar with a few of his recordings, and I can’t say that this one represents a major departure, but why mess with a continually productive creative method? He isn’t showing any sign of running out of ideas, and if you don’t know his work, this album would be an excellent place to start.

Caustic - 666 On The Crucifix (electro-industrial)

Metropolis Records MET 719D, 2011, DD single, $5.90 (Metropolis website, US & Canada only), £6.32 (iTunes UK, equivalent to $10.12)

The difference between a single and an EP in the digital musiverse is a bit of a moot one: some EPs consist of three short tracks, or one long one, and some singles (like this one) clock in at a longer time than some classic (LP) albums. What Metropolis have given us as a taster for Matt Fanale’s forthcoming Caustic album is the eponymous track in its album version, and three remixes; a Gothsicles remix of another album track; a Null Device remix of another; and a couple of tracks that won’t feature on the album.
The unalloyed track sounds like we might expect, given what Fanale has said about his forthcoming album, which will be his first for Metropolis, who are the industrial big boys in North America. It has far more of an electro-industrial, dancefloor vibe than much of the powernoise insanity to be found on This Is Jizzcore or …And You Will Know Me By The Trail Of Vomit; it is also the beneficiary of a far glossier production process, with tight, heavy bass and a very full soundstage. With Dynamic Range Day coming up shortly I maybe shouldn’t admit to it, but I think it benefits from a compressed and normalised sound: Caustic has always been a project that’s about fun, and it makes sense for Fanale to turn out some big, bangin’, floorfiller choons. His distinctive satirical approach to writing seems to be intact, and his brutal, menacing vocals certainly are.
The remaining tracks display a similarly polished, professional production, and satirical attitude, while touching a number of bases stylistically. The Be My Enemy mix of the title track adds some crunching guitars to stir up a wonderfully destructive industrial metal sound; Caustic’s rivals for the title of industrial music’s official court jester, The Gothsicles, contribute vocals and a mix of ‘I Play Computer’ that is basically hard edged trance; ‘Chum the Waters (Null Device Mix)’ is pretty much dubstep, with some nice lyrical rhyming; and ‘666 On the Crucifix (666 On My Deadline Mix By Torrent Vaccine)’ contributes a power noise beat, but with the same club friendly focus as the other tracks.
Matt Fanale has gone all out to put together a really good package for this single: it’s a shame that in Europe we fall through the cracks in the distribution model, and have to pay nearly twice as much for this as if we could download it direct from Metropolis. That needs fixing, although I’m sure it won’t be an issue for the album when it arrives. Price notwithstanding, this is a very entertaining, full on, mental, headbanging selection of dance tunes, and a great teaser for the forthcoming Golden Vagina Of Fame And Profit.

Trans Auto Radio - 3 (post-rock)

self released, 2011, DD single (‘triple A side’), £free

Around a quarter of an hour of predominantly instrumental rock music, recorded with energised post-punk guitar sounds, this short release is enough to set out their stall, but not, I suspect, enough to demonstrate the full range of Trans Auto Radio’s potential. There is a good deal of variety on this release however, in several ways.
First, the guitar sound ranges between clean, and buzz-saw distortion; secondly, the band has a good command of dynamics; and thirdly the three tunes here are composed with a strong sense of journey, despite the lack of fully developed lyrics. Where the dynamics hit a peak the instrumental textures thicken, and vice versa. Chord sequences are written with a powerful sense of emotional momentum.
There are synths and keyboards, well exploited in the complex arrangements, as well as brass and reed instruments, and some sonically inventive guitar work that introduces a scent of noise-rock to proceedings. Within all this textural, chunky, guitar based homophony, there is some nice melody: from the trumpet in the long build through the middle of ‘Drowning’, and from the lead guitar in ‘Let It Hang’, leading up to a well utilised sample of the famous Howard Beale ‘mad as hell’ speech from Network.
The textures and sounds of this recording are very pleasing in their own right, with an excellent, warm recorded sound on all of the core rock instruments, although a lot of the listening pleasure for me came from the overriding sense of narrative: textural music can be static, but Trans Auto Radio is anything but. This is a band that’s going places, hopefully in more than one sense of the term!

Monday, 21 March 2011

Weekly Roundup: All the News That’s Fit For Me To Randomly Notice

I've made a Facebook page to help publicise my writerising: you can visit it by clicking the box on the right of this page (and then don't forget to like it!)

I hope that I’m building an audience. I mean, I know people are looking at this blog, and I know there’s more of you now than there were before; but I hope some of you are reading it specifically because of my frankly weird approach. I have talked, and will talk in the future about how I write about music, and why I do it that way, but I sometimes worry that it’s hard for people to stick with me when what I review is so seemingly random. Most blogs specialise to some degree: I set out very deliberately to feature indie-pop alongside jazz, black metal alongside bossanova, and misanthropic technical death grind alongside ambient folktronica. Because it’s all music, and although it’s certainly worth acknowledging music’s immediate stylistic context, it should all be examined on the same basis, in my view. Personally, I can find something to love and hate in every genre, and while I know that everyone reading this will probably hate at least one thing I love, my intention is to continue bringing the widest possible variety of music to your attention, and doing my best to get under its skin and enrich your listening.
So if I don’t discriminate on grounds of style or genre, how do I choose my subjects? I actively seek out music that ticks one or more of the following boxes, in rough order of importance:
  •  it’s local (to me)
  •  it’s by someone I know (and like)
  •  it’s unsigned, and is either DIY/ in need of exposure, or both
  •  it’s on a small label, the smaller the better
  •  it’s musically creative, experimental or plain oddball
  •  it’s in a genre or style that is subversive or underground
  •  it’s music that I feel is important to share for its sheer quality
  •  it’s just something I love listening to

But any artist can bypass all of that by sending me their stuff. I will review everything I’m sent. I may take a while to get around to it, and the review may not be incredibly long or in depth, but I will review it, irrespective of its style, quality, creative integrity or artistic validity. I like getting music for free, and I’ll pay for it with a review: if I don’t like it, then it might not be a glowing review, but it’s unlikely to be an unequivocally bad one, unless it’s either very generic, or it’s famous and has been over-hyped. When criticism is due, I try to make it constructive criticism, of a sort that might actually be useful to the act under scrutiny.
The reason I don’t tend to give bad reviews is twofold: firstly I’m a musician, and I know how it feels to get someone’s opinion on your work, good or bad. There’s a lot of work and emotional investment that goes into writing, performing and recording original music, and I have tremendous respect for that. Secondly, although I’m egotistical enough to think my thoughts are worth sharing, I’m not sufficiently arrogant to think that my unvarnished opinion is of any particular interest; so even if I dislike something, I’ll still talk about why the music sounds the way it sounds, and whether I think the artist was successful in realising their intentions, as far as I can discern them. What I won’t do is act as though the fact that I am writing about someone, rather than talking to them face to face, gives me the right to be rude or discourteous: there are some writers that think their job is about dishing out a verbally agile trashing to anything that they don’t like the sound of, but I have to say that on the whole they don’t come across as though they know why they feel that way about the music.
Here’s an example of constructive criticism meted out for the best reasons (and some damned fine writing to boot):
This is an interesting view on why the music industry is still dominated by stars, and why it may well continue to be, despite the traditional institutions’ loss of their traditional revenue streams:
If you live in New York, or can get there easily enough, East Village Radio are running a competition for two pairs of tickets to the last ever LCD Soundsystem gig, at Madison Square Gardens on April 2. The competition is on until Friday:
Jon Bon Jovi has gone on record to express the sort of conservatism that was obvious to many from the music he released in the mid 80s, and to blame Steve Jobs for killing the music business with his evil heathen digital devilry. I agree with Bon Jovi about the pleasure of getting your music in a nice physical package, but as for Steve Jobs, he IS the music business. And if someone could kindly kill it (not Jobs personally), they’d be doing music a great service.
This, to be honest, is the only music news of any real moment that I have to share: with the passing of one of its pioneers it becomes a little clearer that we are out of the first big era of electronic music, and into the next one, where sounds are processed as information, rather than as voltages, signals, or models of voltages. RIP Tsutomu Katoh:

My five albums on heavy rotation at the time of writing are as follows:
Cardiacs - A Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window (pronk)
Los Chicharrons - Blow For You, Blow For Me (funk/ house)
Maras - Raskol (black metal)
The Phenomenal Handclap Band - The Phenomenal Handclap Band (funky psychedelic rock)
Turner Cody - Quarter Century (folk/ country rock)

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Gig Review: Lemonparty Presents III at The White Horse in Sudbury.

Lemonparty Presents: three months in (that’s a quarter of a year), and I reckon this gig series is becoming a local institution. This time out the genre is indie, and the standard is consistently high across all three acts. In fact this month’s offering had the highest standard of playing overall, although for me it was probably a bit less musically interesting than the previous two nights. However, there’s a sizeable audience out there for whom tonight’s style would be preferable. It’s a challenge to keep finding bands for a night like this, despite the large number that are out there. Getting acts that can play on the night you need, in the right genre, to a reasonable standard takes some serious work, and Lemonparty deserve a lot of credit for keeping this night rolling. It’s things like this that make a local scene, and if you live anywhere near Sudbury (Suffolk) you should get out and support it.
Sarah Hunt (acoustic)
Opening for a couple of fairly noisy guitar bands is the sort of situation singer-songwriters frequently find themselves in, by virtue of the (not unjustified) conventional wisdom that dynamics should build through the evening. It doesn’t make for an attentive crowd, and a solo, self-accompanied singer really benefits from an attentive crowd. It’s understandable if people who are out to see a noisy guitar band don’t want to stand in silent, rapt attention, but I was ready to throttle a couple of audience members who stood directly in front of Sarah Hunt with their backs to her, and chatted loudly through her performance.
She rose to the challenge in the best possible way, by blasting out an unignorable rendition of Piece Of My Heart. She took her cue from the Joplin recording, rather than Emma Franklin’s original release: I grew up with that track, so I had high expectations. Luckily Sarah Hunt’s lungs and technique are well up to the challenge: she can nail a tricky scalar melisma, and has a powerful voice, that is also quite girlish and vulnerable. Occasionally, at the very top of her range, and at maximum volume, she can sound a bit shrill, but on the whole her delivery is mellifluous and ear-pleasing.
Having got the audience’s attention, I’d like to say she retained it with her mixed set of covers and originals, but they weren’t really all in the mood. She did what she could though, chatting naturally and getting some singalong action with tunes like True Colors (as an old 80s punk I will never be able to like that song, but it did the trick!) She’s a good singer, a good performer, and commands the stage with a friendly and engaging persona.
Never Ending Lights (indie rock)
Neverending Lights play melodic indie guitar pop. As often happens with bands in their genre the temptations of live performance put some crunch in their guitars that I suspect would be absent in a studio recording, but to my mind their sound was all the better for it. They had their instrumental sounds together, and played a tight entertaining set, with good dynamics and enough of a range of feels to keep things interesting. They are engaging and enthusiastic performers, and kept the audience nicely hyped.
Aside from a slight tendency to become a bit rhythmically ragged around funkier grooves, there’s not much wrong with this band, but I would like to see them put something a bit more distinctive into their sound. Either some leftfield ideas in their songwriting, or some more creative sonic manipulations could go a long way in making them stand out from the crowd. I never have a problem with bands choosing to work within a particular genre, but to stick in the memory they need to make the generic conventions their own, and do something arresting with them. So, a little bit generic, but a good, committed and entertaining set.
Stoney Road (indie rock)
Stoney Road take a similar approach to Neverending Lights, but with a stronger dose of rock, and their playing is at another level in terms of crisp, tight time feels and dynamic control. They’re all pretty accomplished technicians, but it’s the drummer who had the most chance to showcase his chops, and yes, he’s really got some!
Their singer was basically bursting at the seams with energy and passion, putting everything he had into every note he sang. It’s the kind of investment in the performance that gets me instantly on-side: it’s no easy matter to put yourself on the line for an audience like that, and I always appreciate it. Having a good voice helps as well, which he does. The audience was apparently largely drawn by Neverending Lights, so it had thinned out for Stoney Road’s set, and it was much harder work for the headliners, but their singer never let up with the audience interaction, which was conducted with an eagerness to please, and a modesty, that would be very hard to dislike.
Their set was peppered with covers, mostly from well within the compass of indie rock, but their penultimate tune was Play That Funky Music, which got the audience moving, and got the band grooving at their tightest. Quite ironic really, as that’s also what the song did for Wild Cherry, who were primarily a hard rock band, in the disco era.
Stoney Road are a tight, well schooled band, with an unpretentious, no-nonsense approach to crowd pleasing entertainment. It would be good to see them play to a more responsive, and larger audience, because it takes a certain critical mass to really develop a buzz: these boys are a top class party band, and I’m willing to bet they would have mosts crowds in the palm of their hands.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Album Review: Russ Sargeant - ‘Solitude’ (ambient/ jazz)

self released, 2010, DD album, £name your price

When instrumentalists release recordings, it’s not unusual for them to do so under a cover from which they stare directly, and intensely, at the listener. Jaco Pastorius’ eponymous debut is an iconic example, recently revisited by Jasper Høiby for the Phronesis album ‘Alive’. It says ‘listen, I am addressing an important statement to you’. Russ Sargeant stares from the cover art of ‘Solitude’, obliquely away from the viewer, refusing their gaze, his half smile suggesting some private, inward amusement, a hunted look in his shadowed eyes. This says something different: ‘I am engaged in a dialogue, and you are invited to eavesdrop’.
This is not to say that his music is uncommunicative; but it is contemplative. It seems to represent a process rather than a conclusion. This is born out in fact by the statement (on the album’s Bandcamp page) of his intent to ‘release tracks two or three at a time and build this album as I do so’. There is no indication as to whether he’s finished.
To say Sargeant creates soundscapes would be to gloss over one of his greatest strengths, as a melodist, but his recordings largely consist of spatial, layered pads, and melodies played on electric or upright bass. Sometimes the pads sound very like synthesizers (as on Dream The Brightest Dawn), but with some effects and an Ebow, anything is possible: what’s certain is that these tracks are performed as they sound here, using live looping technology. If you see Sargeant live he will realise these compositions for you with one or more basses and some gizmos.
The album opens with a beautifully warm and atmospheric landscape of heavily processed fretless bass delays, that builds slowly in layers, evoking for me the melancholy cityscapes (and soundtrack) of Blade Runner. After nearly three minutes the smooth and calming consonance is ruptured by a distorted voice, that cuts across the harmony as well as the texture; but even this fizzing distortion is cushioned and absorbed in Sargeant’s sound world.
There is a sense of distance, even anaesthesia, throughout this album: even the beautiful double bass melody he dedicates to Eberhard Weber is recorded very wet, and sounds very detached, for all that it is also expressive and heartfelt. Sargeant is fond of technological solutions that generate organic, nuanced sounds, such as the fretless bass, and the Ebow. His music is very pleasant to listen to, very visual and evocative, and seems very welcoming; but it remains enigmatic, and refuses to let you pin it down. We will never know exactly what Sargeant is thinking, because he does not seem to state it explicitly: it is as though we can hear one half of a phone call, a beautiful and moving series of utterances, but one that is not directed at us.
This refusal, to me, is the core of this music’s beauty. It is a refusal, as he refuses the viewer’s gaze in the artwork, to enter into the usual contract between musician and listener, and it is a refusal that is crucial to Sargeant’s creative integrity, bearing in mind that it is easy to read music of this sort in a simplistic way, as being simply ‘pretty’. A familiar musical vocabulary is deployed, according to a recognisable structure, but the listener is challenged to hear past the stock response, which is to hear musical meaning as a straightforward expression of a simple, singular emotional experience. The soundworld Sargeant opens up to us is a colder, lonelier place than we might initially guess from his textures and harmonies, but it is also a more complex and rewarding place to inhabit.