OLI HAS MOVED! I'll still post excerpts here for the time being, but to read my articles in full, visit

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Farewell Blogger! Join me at my new site!

I will no longer be posting any new material here: if you'd like to keep reading my stuff (and you know you would) then come and bookmark

My archive will be slowly transferred to the new site, as and when I find the time, and then gradually truncated and removed, until there's nowt left but some links.

Karda Estra – New Worlds (psychedelic/ progressive/ chamber music)

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No Image NI DL 15, 2011, DD album, 37m 50s, £1

This album opens with a strummed guitar chord, and an oboe. The oboe is an instrument not often featured in rock, jazz, popular or folk music, and it signals with its presence that we should prepare ourselves for a variety of ‘not often featured’ elements. There are some sounds of rock in here, electric bass, distorted guitar, drum sounds and synthesisers: but these elements take their places in a broader soundworld, as seats in the orchestra pit rather than swaggering stage performers.

I could perhaps best describe this music as ‘chamber rock’, although in truth its orchestrations are larger and more potent than that might lead you to believe. They often feel more intimate than they are, possessed of a paradoxical quietness, a calm which survives many potentially disruptive changes of direction. Arranged for bits and pieces of a rock band, in various combinations with oboe, violin, flute, EWI, clarinet, trumpet and voice, the material on New Worlds takes its melodic and harmonic cues to some degree from the psychedelic rock tradition, and to some degree from twentieth century classical music. I realise that it’s my job to describe this music for you, and that’s something I pride myself on being good at, but I’m going to stay fairly general, because I can’t call on any well known precedents, and really, you’ll have to hear it to get it. And you really should hear it, because this is extraordinary music.

Read the rest of this review here

etokle – The Golden Bear And Other Works LP (drone/ ambient)

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Auraltone Music AM005, 2011, CD album, 50m 14s, $9.99

Sometimes when you visit my site to read a review you find yourself struggling through some complicated exposition on a rarely considered aspect of experimental music, full of technical terms and pointless intellectual gymnastics. I’m sorry about that. I’m a bit self indulgent sometimes. However, if I suspect that enough of my readers will be unfamiliar with an unusual style or genre to warrant it, I do feel it’s worth spending a bit of time on explication.

Drone is a style characterised by the use of sustained tones: not long notes in the normal sense, but single tones, generated by a variety of means, that may continue for ten or twenty minutes, or even longer. It bears a certain conceptual, and sometimes aural resemblance to minimalism, in the way that certain generative conditions may be established at the beginning of a piece, which cause a repeated or continuous sound to gradually change over an extended period; it is also clearly not concerned with the usual valuations of performance skills as indicative of musical value. There is also a relationship with ambient music, which under certain circumstances may be hard to distinguish from drone; drone music certainly addresses some of the same ideas, with its emphasis on the production of an atmosphere, and its interest in timbre to the exclusion of rhythm or melody.

Read the rest of this review here

Fit And The Conniptions – Sweet Sister Starlight (blues rock/ folk rock/ singer-songwriter)

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self released, 2011, DD album, 39m 22s, 

£name your price

Although I have written elsewhere about the singularity of the song as an artistic form, and the fallacy of regarding it as merely a fusion of music and poetry, it can be observed that most singer-songwriters focus their efforts more on one aspect of their craft than another. Some are principally instrumentalists, some singers, some emphasise composition, and some are primarily poets. My impression is that Wayne Myers, the ‘lead Conniption’ falls into the last category.
This is not to say that he neglects the music. These are some well crafted arrangements, with that relaxed feel that comes from a group of musicians comfortable in each others’ company and well in command of their musical materials. The style is generally a bluesy, melancholy folk rock, performed with a good sense of space and dynamics, at slow to medium tempos. There are some splendid musicians on this recording, including trumpeterKevin Davy, who played with Lamb, and guitarist Sean Taylor, whose own Corrugations is one of the best albums I picked up from other performers when I was playing accompanist on the singer-songwriter circuit.

Read the rest of this review here

VK Lynne – Whiskey Or Water (blues rock/ singer-songwriter)

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self released, 2009, CD album, 34m 57s, $9.99

VK Lynne plays to the mythical archetype of the strong but vulnerable, hard drinking rock chick: how much of that is VK Lynne the narrator of this sequence of songs, and how much of it is VK Lynne the writer and woman is above my pay grade to speculate, but there’s a powerful sense of sincerity in this music. God crops up quite a lot, which I’ll return to below, and unless an artist is playing to a specifically religious audience, which Lynne does not seem to be doing, that’s sticking your neck out.

Musically she doesn’t stick her neck out too far, preferring to work within a genre and master its conventions: from reading her bio it seems that producer James Thomas has as much to do with the sound of this album as she does, and he is obviously a consummate professional. Stylistically it is informed but not enclosed by the conventions of blues based hard rock: there is also some country in the mix, and a more inventive approach on a few songs. Everything is precisely right about these arrangements, the performances that realise them, and the way they are recorded and mixed; another team would have made some different choices, but they couldn’t have showcased these songs to better effect. Regular readers who know my taste for black metal, free improvisation, psychedelic prog, experimental electronica and so forth may be surprised to read me praising something that is as generically conventional as this, but generic conventions can be manipulated to expressive effect as much as any other musical material, and they are used here with a huge amount of knowledge, sophistication and imagination.

Read the rest of this review here

Monday, 30 May 2011

Monday Musings: What’s So Good About Music?

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The critic explains.

I’ve been thinking back recently to my abortive attempt to train as a secondary school music teacher, and the furious bout of self-examination it induced. The process, which was not a positive one, but from which I learned a great deal, forced me to question, and explicitly articulate the value that I place on music. This is a very interesting question: most people will not be able to provide you with a coherent response, and there is clearly no single answer, any more than there is one single music. I intend to simply set out my view, and explore what questions are raised by the issue.
I came to realise early in my training that I disagree radically with the way that music is valued by ‘society at large’, and by academic institutions in particular. The ways that music is valued in a British secondary school are basically good ones: it is valued as a creative art form, a cultural artifact, a professional skill set, and an academic discipline. As I began to think through why it all seemed so wrong to me, my first realisation was that it would be very hard to inculcate an enthusiasm for music in most children on any of these bases: so long as music is conceived as ‘cultural’, ‘professional’ or ‘academic’, it will seem to be exclusive and other. Even in the sense of a creative art, most people see music as the exclusive preserve of the ‘talented’. So what is it that I think is so wrong with this picture?
I would contend that music is more than all these things: I believe it is a basic human faculty. It is my belief that music is as fundamental an aspect of our humanity as speech, conceptual reasoning or tool use. Music is the recognition, exploitation, reproduction, manipulation and enjoyment of patterns in sound. Finding and using patterns is what we do: when we learn or analyse anything we are recognising pattern, and this fundamental behaviour as applied to sound is not just expressed in music, but in language, and therefore in thought. Put simply, if we didn’t enjoy playing with sounds, we would not have learned to talk, and without names for things we could not have developed a capacity for abstract thought, or become self-aware in the way that we understand the term.
click HERE to read more

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Reviews: Hope and Social & Fresh Like Dexie

These reviews can also be read at

Hope and Social - Sleep Sound (alternative rock)
Alamo Music, 2011, DD album, 42m 50s, £name your price

I remember at school my art teacher exhorting the class to stop drawing tiny pictures in the corner and to cover the page with bold strokes, to step out and give voice to whatever it was we wanted to express. Well, there are no bushels on top of Hope and Social’s light: they fill the canvas; they are bold; they are bright colours and big gestures; and they give every impression of having forgotten where their navels are.
This album is bursting with positivity, not of the sort that pretends bad stuff isn’t happening, or that the world is mainly composed of puppies and flowers, but the kind that celebrates the whole sordid, beautiful complexity of existence. It’s not just what the lyrics are about, but it’s the big, bouncy beats, the enthusiastic delivery, the sweeping orchestrations, and the loose, comfortable feel, that never dwells on the effort that went into recording these carefully crafted and creatively arranged songs.
It may be that this isn’t the sort of thing you like: if so, you won’t like it. If, on the other hand, it’s even anywhere near the fringes of your musical taste, you’ll almost certainly like it within the first few bars. It opens with a choral arrangement, which immediately signals with its vocal timbres that it is neither church music, nor a hastily appropriated pastiche of a township choir; and it quickly launches into an irresistible groove that owes something to ska, but is really an expression of the band’s own magpie rhythmic sensibility. This is a recurring theme: almost everything in this music has some familiarity about it, but you can rarely put your finger on exactly what it is. These players and arrangers have digested their influences thoroughly, and the contents of this album are stylistically their own: it sounds almost traditional, but is highly original without ever pursuing novelty for its own sake.
If there is any style or era that Sleep Sound’s combination of big beats and expansive orchestrations puts me in mind of, it’s the late 1980s, and bands like The Waterboys and Big Country: it’s not that there is an overt influence, but there’s that sense of scale. Like those bands, Hope and Social have found a majestic grandeur in the particular and the ordinary.
The core of the album’s sound is a traditional rock lineup, but the arrangements are a tour de force, with brass, strings and vocal arrangements that always sound exactly right, never out of place. I’m a big fan of keeping it simple, and using the minimum of cleverness to achieve your expressive intentions: while all of these songs would sound just great with an acoustic guitar and a single voice, Hope and Social have done the exact minimum, finding the right arrangement for each song, and showing an admirable objectivity and self-discipline in knowing when to stop. You could hand these songs to any of the world’s top professional arrangers, and I’d be extremely surprised if they released any more of their potential than the band has on this album.
This music has sadness and melancholy in it, and not every song is upbeat, but it is joyful music, and it is also a rare and valuable thing, rock music you can dance to. Rock music that it’s very hard not to dance to, in fact! If you want music that will move you, get you swaying, and then uplift you with a big anthemic chorus; if you want music that taps a real emotional meaning, without sentimentality or kitsch; if you want a studio album that will leave you feeling like you’ve been at a gig, then get this.

Fresh Like Dexie - Step In The Sun (funk rock)
self released, 2011, CD EP, 9m 8s, £3.50

Fresh Like Dexie are funky. Very funky. I’ve been a fan of funk since I first heard Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and the Parliafunkadelicment Thang in my late teens, and I devoted a lot of time after that to studying the music, so I have some idea whereof I speak. In the more than two decades since then I’ve heard a lot of bands playing funk, and more than a few of them falling on their faces in the attempt. Funk can sound pretty busy to the uneducated, and it takes some application to strike the right balance, between putting in enough tasty links to make it exciting, and looking after the One. The One is crucial: every little flourish of tricky syncopation is there to emphasise the One. A funk groove is made up of the One, and of all the other stuff that exists to make the One fall as heavily as possible. Fresh Like Dexy are on the One.
The curious thing is that it takes many musicians quite a few years to develop the maturity necessary to understand this. Funk is not an opportunity to display your chops; it’s just that chops are required to play it. This band (whose members look very youthful on their CD artwork) have the chops, and the maturity to know what to do with them.
There are no horns in this, just a four piece rhythm section and some vocals, and the grooves are more of the continuously rolling variety beloved of the early 90s acid jazz scene, than the spatial type practiced by James Brown and his many acolytes. In fact, this band could have slotted in very nicely to the acid jazz scene, had they been born about twenty years earlier (by the look of them).
I can’t think of anything I don’t like about this band: they have an extremely likeable exuberance about them, an enthusiasm that is tempered only by the precision with which they play. Their singer is soulful and technically adept, with a very nice line in phrasing: you can hear that her voice still has room to mature, and open up a little, but that’s no criticism. The material is sophisticated and intelligent, with a good command of harmony, and the arrangements are full of variety and imagination. If they’re half as good live as they are on here they’ll be a kickass party band. I’m impressed.