Welcome to another installment of this, an (increasingly, it seems) occasional blog in which I wax lyrical about music and artists that have caused me to wax lyrical recently. Perhaps the (increasingly, it seems) occasional nature of this blog indicates how hectic my life continues to be. As I’ve written more for Drowned in Sound and Clash, I’ve also found myself being sent more and more music, from all over the world. As I can only listen to one album at once – if anyone has mastered a way of giving concentration to more than one at once please let me know – this means that it takes me a lot of time to digest things properly enough to be able to write something passably intelligent about them. For all the bands and PR people who have been waiting for these posts, I can only apologise. I am but one man. You’ll find in this blog quiet music, loud music, slow music and fast music. You’ll find music from at least three continents (unless I am mistaken). Some of it is bound to delight you. Some of it won’t be to your taste. Hopefully, none of it will appall you. Without further ado, let’s get cracking.
Bladed – Halloween in Bagamoyo
Watch the video for the title track to this wonderful album below.
At the start of this year, I received the hugest parcel of records that has ever arrived on my doorstep. My wife was not impressed with me, until she realised that the lovely people at Crispin Glover Records in Trondheim had, in effect, sent me every album they had released in the last three years. There were a lot of records. Crispin Glover is one of the most exciting and yet underappreciated labels in Europe. Releasing records associated with the astonishingly vibrant Trondheim scene, they have a diverse roster but maintain an unstinting devotion to only releasing albums of the highest quality. As a label home for many acts associated with one of my favourite bands, Motorpsycho (including one to follow shortly in this very post, Spidergawd), I was excited to delve in and listen to everything I could. The shining light, however, was not an album emanating from the Motorpsycho stable, but this, the third album from Bladed. Haloween In Bagmoyo is a nuanced and intelligent gem of modern pop-rock. Some commentators have compared it to a lost, female-fronted album by The Birthday Party. For me though, tracks such as ‘Lament of A Lost Young Radical’, with its glorious punch to the gut of a mid-section and its follower ‘A Clean Slate’ call to mind a more lyrical take on the early work of The Boxer Rebellion. That said, each track here is a trip of its own. There may only be 7 contained on this album, but so many ideas, such confident execution. The potent funk of ‘All Quiet From the Lighthouse’ is a real highlight, but to be honest this is transcendent music which defies categorisation. Mere words cannot do it true justice. It is a crime that this album has not been more readily written about and picked up outside Norway. The rest of the world is missing out. Make sure you aren’t one of them. And viva Crispin Glover!
Spidergawd – III
Watch the astonishing live performance of the Lighthouse suite below
Chances are you’ve never heard of Spidergawd. A shockingly small number of people have. This has to change. We’ll see how often I come close to saying similar things in this post, but “III” the (wait for it) third album by Spidergawd has to be, it just HAS TO BE one of the best albums that 2016 has to offer. Have you watched the video above? It’s a live rendition of three track epic that closes the album. It alternates between intricate and yet somehow still straight-ahead hard rock (watch the drumming of Kenneth Kapstad for a masterclass in in the management of live light and shade) and luscious moments of gentle atmospherics. Perhaps at times it’s even a little overblown, but isn’t that the point? Spidergawd is a collective of some of the titans of Norway’s hard rock scene who over the course of three albums have honed to within an inch of perfection the art of kicking back, rocking out, and yet showing at every twist and turn a level of musical mastery which is sadly lacking from the majority of records of this type. In fact, scratch that, there aren’t many records of this type. Spidergawd are out on their own in front of a pack that might chase them but will never catch or overtake them. ‘No Man’s Land’ explodes with a crunching riff that never truly settles and is all the better for it. Odd bars of differing time signatures make tapping, dancing or any other kind of thing along to this song almost impossible. It’s like the music is leading the band and they are obediently following. ‘El Corazon Del Sol’ has just the right amount of cowbell (sometimes less is more) and another smouldering riff. The bass of Bent Saether is monstrous, giving a perfect undercurrent to the roars of Per Borten’s voice and guitar. The chorus hook, “In you I see the heart of the sun:, when it comes, is a moment of intense satisfaction. ‘The Best Kept Secrets’ (an apt song title for such an underappreciated band) gives the foremost exposure of the album to the saxophone of Rolf Martin Snustad. Yes you did read that
‘No Man’s Land’ explodes with a crunching riff that never truly settles and is all the better for it. Odd bars of differing time signatures make tapping, dancing or any other kind of thing along to this song almost impossible. It’s like the music is leading the band and they are obediently following. ‘El Corazon Del Sol’ has just the right amount of cowbell (sometimes less is more) and another smouldering riff. The bass of Bent Saether is monstrous, giving a perfect undercurrent to the roars of Per Borten’s voice and guitar. The chorus hook, “In you I see the heart of the sun:, when it comes, is a moment of intense satisfaction. ‘The Best Kept Secrets’ (an apt song title for such an underappreciated band) gives the foremost exposure of the album to the saxophone of Rolf Martin Snustad. Yes, you did read that. Spidergawd’s secret weapon is his penetrating stabs of glory. Here it punches through with an urgency that feels just right.
I could go on and on and on. But you get the picture. This is glorious album. Anyone who likes rock music should listen to it and should marvel at every aspect of it.
Desert Mountain Tribe – Either That Or The Moon
Watch the video for Runway below
After two albums from Norway, here is one of the best British debut albums of 2016. As Jonty Balls cries “3, 2 1, lift off” at the outset of ‘Feel the Light’, the sense that what follows couldn’t possibly live up to such an introduction nags. However, within a matter of mere seconds, all concerns are rendered invalid as the first of eleven smouldering slices of shock and awe slides into view.
From then on there’s no let-up. Whether it’s the undulating groove of ‘Midnight Sky’ that takes your fancy, or the rock solid, unrestrained passion of ‘Way Down’, or even the scything guitar attack of ‘Heaven and Hell’, there is no doubt that something on this special piece of work certainly well. Throughout, the rhythm section of the brothers Jahn, Philipp and Felix, provide a powerful foundation on which these songs, all of which, it seems were desired to be ‘epic’ can swoop and soar.
At times, as on ‘Runway’, things stray a little too close to 90s Britpop for my taste, and there’s no denying that things are a mite more controlled and ordered than on the bands’ earlier EPs (seek them out) but by the time we get to ‘Interstellar’, any minor quibbles are incinerated. This song is one of the best of the year. If other tracks here are epic, then goodness knows what this one is. It builds and builds to a climax the like of which is rarely seen in these times of safe musical choices in the hope of radio play. I mean, for goodness sake, it lasts over 9 minutes and makes each second count.
I fear my words have not done this album justice. Listen and let it wash over you. You won’t regret it.
Field Studies – Rainmaking EP
Coming across initially as if they will turn out to inherit the same wheel-house (don’t you hate that phrase?) as Paul Epworth-endorsed synth-indie chaps Glass Animals, it is pleasing to report that the scope of the ambition of Field Studies extends far, far more widely. Just take in the glory of ‘Listener; below. All sunny groove and pleasant falsetto one minute, it all breaks down to a fabulously-unhinged instrumental coda just when you expect it to do that exact opposite. Isn’t that just what we want from up and coming rock bands. The element of surprise, the controlled detonation at the moment of greatest potency, this marks Field Studies as a band sure to transcend the humdrum and rise, forthwith, to the upper pantheon of British rock. Seriously, they’re that good. ‘Hushed Up’ is sprawling in its ambition, verging on Boxer Rebellion territory in its atmospherics, but far exceeding anything of the recent output of that band. A sinuous, Spaghetti Western-esque guitar riff underpins the whole thing, but there are so many twists and turns, so much musical ground covered and confidence shown that before the track is even half done I’m hooked. Perhaps the only current artist matching their ambition is Kiran Leonard. That’s nice company to keep. ‘Crook’ takes the aggression up a level, while closer ‘Verbatim’ is an atmospheric journey through swathes of piano and synths.
It cannot be emphasised enough when this EP releases on May 27th, you have to buy it. Bands like Field Studies deserve all the support we can muster. I haven’t written anything about the spine-tingling-inducing vocal tones, or the almost telepathic tightness of the whole ensemble, because there are elements to this EP which you just need to find out for yourself. So, and I cannot stress this strongly enough, make sure you do.
Enemy Planes – Beta Lowdown
Watch the video for ‘We Want Blood’ below’
This record came out of leftfield for me. One of what feels like dozens of albums I get sent on a weekly basis from PR companies who have read reviews I’ve written elsewhere, “Beta Lowdown” grabbed me straight away, even as I was thinking of skating right past it. I’ve already mentioned Glass Animals once in this post, but Enemy Planes have something of that vibe about them. Their sound is positioned somewhere between that pole on the one hand and a more restrained Silversun Pickups on the other. A particular highlight is opener ‘Automatic Catatonic’ which unfurls itself slowly around a wonderful, squelchy distorted bass line and syncopated groove as guitars and synths pop and swirl throughout the mix before the chorus arrives and lifts the whole thing to another level “when you know we’re not supposed to feel like this, and you know you can’t wake me with a kiss, let’s be honest, it’s a dead end” it implores, but this feels nothing like a dead-end. It feels like the gateway to something truly special. And so it proves.
The scattershot ‘Stranger Danger’ is another high point. Another spasmodic-dancing-inducing bass line drives the thing along, as the drums there’s some crystalline pure falsetto to contend with too. The track is unabashedly euphoric, a rare ‘up’ moment on an album of tension. Really though the whole thing fits together so well that to pinpoint individual moments is to miss the crux of what this record is about. It’s a delightful smorgasbord of atmosphere and emotion, best consumed thoughtfully and as a whole.
I gather this record has already found chart success in America. It’s no surprise. Hopefully, it will be well supported here too.
Laura Gibson – Empire Builder
Watch the video for ‘Not Harmless’ below
As album genesis stories go, the one which brought about “Empire Builder” from Laura Gibson takes some beating. She lost almost everything she owned when the building her apartment was in in New York blew up at the end of March last year. This pensive, alternately mournful and sonorous album is the result of the efforts she and an army of friends and collaborators have gone to in the following year not just to piece together the songs she lost, but to place her life back together.
And what a fine document of transition and renewal it is. Featuring members of Death Cab For Cutie, Neko Case, The Decemberists, as well as Alela Diane and the fabulous orchestration of Peter Broderick, this is a layered alt-folk odyssey. Ranging from the skewed, woozy psychadelia of ‘The Cause’, through the twee beauty of ‘Damn Sure’, with its singalong chorus, the cinematic sweep of ‘The Search For Dark Lake’, all the way to closer ‘The Last One’ which builds to a cacophonous climax, threatening to spin right out of control before ending the record on a sumptuously melodic note, this is precise and carefully constructed folk-pop of the highest order.
William Ryan Fritch – New Words For Old Wounds
Listen to ‘Revisionist’ the title track from William’s previous album, below.
I first came across William Ryan Fritch after he was enthusiastically promoted by the editor of Drowned in Sound. This guy’s music, as well as his consistency and his herculean work ethic, are something to behold. Over the last few years, in a series of 11 releases, Fritch has developed his compositional and performance techniques to such an extent that he must now be considered one of the cornerstones, no, one of the titans, of the orchestral pop/classical crossover movement. There are honestly not enough superlatives available in the English language to describe the joyous, giddy wonder of listening to a new WRF release, letting it envelop the senses and reveal the full extent of its symphonic glory. I know this all sounds predictably hyperbolic, but I care not! This is spellbinding stuff, the kind which makes the listener wonder ‘how the hell did they do that?’ and ‘Why does this work? It shouldn’t, but it does’ and finally ‘Why aren’t more writers and composers this fearless and unboundaried in their writing?’
See, this is what William Ryan Fritch does. He takes classical orchestration, the song structures of chamber pop and indie rock, and he twists and turns them into a whole new musical landscape which feels like it should always have existed, but sadly hasn’t. Until now. It might all seem a little much. It might pull a listener from their comfort zone, never to return. It will, whatever, be the most exciting new musical discovery you make this year.
With this new release, Fritch has added extra scope and bombast to his previously taut pieces. The addition of vocalists DM Stith on ‘Awake’ and ‘After’ (a reverb drenched melange of kitchen-sinked 6/8), Power Dove on the the hazy ‘Floats By’ and Ceschi on ‘Hold Tight’ adds a great deal, but it should be said that the best vocals on the record come from Fritch himself, on the thunderous ‘Entirety’. ‘Hold Tight’ has so many competing string melodies as to send the mind happily delirious, while ‘Disregard’ should be the soundtrack to a particularly demented superhero chase scene.
But, seriously, when this one comes out, you need to be all over it.
Ana Ćurčin – Sketches of Belonging
Watch the video for ‘Remain Calm’ below
Some of my favourite albums to write about are those that I knew nothing of whatsoever before they arrived in my inbox. It always feels like something of a risk to click to listen to a new, unknown (to me) artist. What will I find? Will I be disappointed (again), or will something special be waiting for me?
In the case of “Sketches of Belonging”, the new album from Ana Ćurčin, my expectations were gloriously exceeded. This is fabulous folk music from Belgrade. Calling to mind at times Damien Jurado, or even Damien Rice, and at others the beguiling fury of Glen Hansard/The Swell Season, this is a beautiful album, hands down the standout singer-songwriter release of the early part of 2016. Ana has a strong, clear vocal, sometimes redolent of PJ Harvey. She is equally at home in the gentle, confessional mode of ‘Anxiety’, or ‘Unkown’ on the one hand and the more confrontational, stomping ‘Alone’ on the other, by way of the sweetness of ‘Princess’ and the driving ‘Someday’. She handles all these stylistic shifts with aplomb, ably assisted by sensitive and evocative instrumentation throughout. Production by Goran Antović gives the songs space to breathe and flow splendidly, but really the centre of it all is Ana, her voice and her special songs. You might not have heard of or about this album, but you should. I want you to stop what you’re doing and listen to this album, right now. And then buy it.
Jealous Of the Birds – Parma Violets
Watch the video for ‘Goji Berry Sunset’ below
“Your name fizzes on my tongue”, says the chorus to the debut single from Jealous of the Birds ‘Goji Berry Sunset’. Well, one listen to this fine debut album from Armagh native Naomi Hamilton and it should be the name Jealous of the Birds that is on everyone’s lips. What begins as a seemingly pretty folk record with the aforementioned single, and the title track, takes a grittily rocking turn with ‘Russian Doll’ before the quirkily acoustic ‘Miss Misanthrope’ seems to return things to a kind of normality. Except it doesn’t, because the joy of this album is that there is no such thing as ‘normal’. So ‘Trouble in Bohemia’ is a jangly folk song, by way of a Nirvana-aping chord progression in the chorus and a rocking second half. ‘Tonight I Feel Like Kafka’ is propelled by a synth lead line, ‘Dandelion’ would fit on a Lotte Kestner album, ‘The Zodiac Bar’ has a militaristic rhythmic character and some beautiful close harmony work vocally before it lets go into an outro that would befit the finest of songs by The National.
Do you see, it’s all over the place, but it all works. This is music to sink your teeth into, music to be delighted by.
Nothing – Tired Of Tomorrow
Watch the video for ‘Eaten By Worms’ below (it gets a bit bloody)
Ten tracks of unrelenting, shoegaze-drenched modern rock thunder. That’s what the doctor ordered and is exactly what is delivered by the return of Nothing. 2014’s Guilty of Everything was a surprise hit. A surprise in the sense that no-one saw it coming, but that when it did come its place in the ears and hearts of those who like their rock music intense and melodic was assured. Released on Relapse Records, a label renowned for specialising in punishing metal, it was perhaps a shock to see such a clean sounding band emerge from their stable, but with “Tired Of Tomorrow” Nothing cement their status as a thoroughly important band.
‘Fever Queen’ and ‘The Dead Are Dumb’ open things up in noted Nothing territory. The grooves are slow and steady, the guitars are enormous, and the choruses are huge. Signs of artistic development really begin to emerge on the driving ‘Vertigo Flowers’ and ‘ACD (Abcessive Compulsive Disorder)’, tracks which take in myriad shifts in dynamic and tempo and seemed primed and ready for radio takeover. Elsewhere, ‘Eaten By Worms’ features some beautiful chromatic shifts and is probably the album’s most distorted song (that’s a difficult one to call!) whereas the song which follows it, ‘Everyone is Happy’ is, wait for it, something of an acoustic ballad. Who knew Nothing had the will to produce such a track? And yet, like everything else they touch, it turns to gold.
This is far from a subtle album, but if you’ve been wishing for something akin to the furthering of the recent grunge revival, you cannot let this album pass you by when it’s released later this month.
Heron Oblivion – Heron Oblivion
Listen to ‘Oriar’ below
Last year, I greatly enjoyed reviewing Meg Baird’s solo album, “Don’t Weigh Down the Light”. It was a fine piece of work, spectral folk songs paired with a soothing lilting vocal. What could be better? Well, it turns out that seven tracks allying that same glorious vocal with two members of riff-meisters Comets On Fire could at least run it close. That’s what we get from Heron Oblivion on this album, which in a post full of contenders for the crown of my album of the year so far, finds itself nevertheless right at the top of the pile. Everything about this record just works. ‘Beneath Fields’ rolls along before letting go of all inhibitions at just the right moment. You will have already heard ‘Oriar’, which explodes into action on a sea of furious guitar before taking on something of a mystical vibe through the verses. The sense of satisfaction when the riff returns, periodically throughout the track, is intense. ‘Sudden Lament’ is more of a straightforward, driving rock song, like the sort of thing Dawes would come up with if they got into more fights. And then comes ‘Rama’. Ah, ‘Rama’. 10.30 of a loping drum groove, over which all manner of quiet, loud, louder instrumentation is given full license to extend and express itself. The effect is marvel-inducing. If ever there was a song to truly give an impression of what a band wants to be about and known for, this is the one. ‘Faro’ wins the title for the album’s best riff, a squall of furious feedback which only gets more consuming as the song progresses. ‘Seventeen Landscapes’ has a deliciously funky bass riff at its heart which returns periodically like a faithful friend, whilst closer ‘Your Hollows’ takes things to their logical conclusion, a seriously deranged collection of riffs vying for the attention.
This is a great record. Don’t miss it.
Monomyth – Exo
Watch this amazing band playing live at The Paradiso, Amsterdam, back in March, below
Last summer I watched Monomyth with my wife, some friends, and approximately 4 other people, in The Craufurd Arms, the best small venue in the Midlands. You should watch the video above. It will make you happy to be alive. I promise you.
As will their new album, “Exo”. Any album which begins, like this one does, with a track which tops fourteen and a half minutes without outstaying its welcome has to be on to something. ‘Uncharted’ is comfortably rolling through its eleventh minute before hitting peak head-nodding temperature for the first time. The sense of anticipation as this point is reached is palpable, and when it comes the feeling it evokes is almost indescribable. Very few bands have the power and control to crescendo and diminuendo in the way that Monomyth do. The groove is always the key, but somehow, there are enough hooks throughout each of their noodling workouts to make this more than mere prog music. This is the creation of an atmosphere, a kind of altered state, which enables the listener to both rock out and transcend their surroundings. A truly rare gift.
Elsewhere, “Exo” does not disappoint. ‘Surface Crawler’ is a faster-paced workout than many would be used to from Monomyth, the crystal-clear mix bringing out every element of this pristine track. ‘ET Oasis’ builds to a climax worthy of the gone, much-lamented but not forgotten Pure Reason Revolution and includes some tasty Hammond Organ work. Synth pads and leads dominate the majority of ‘LHC’, whilst closer ‘Moebius Trip’ begins in a seething fury before the track, and the album, disappears to nothing on a bed of twinkling pads. This is, no doubt, Monomyth’s finest recorded hour. Do not miss them as and when they pass through your city this year.
Mugstar – Magnetic Seasons
Watch the video for ‘Flemish Weave’ below
Another psych-infused album. Another intense listen. Two songs comfortably cresting the wave of a quarter of an hour. Can my ears take it? As we edge towards the end of this marathon post (still with me?) we’re saving (almost) the most epic record until last. Mugstar are from Liverpool, have been around since 2003, and have committed their most intensive set of sonic explorations to tape here. This album is such a full-on listen it seems silly to try and analyse it, so I won’t, not properly at least. Suffice to say, everything you could possibly want from an instrumental, free-thinking, free-wheeling, psych-influenced rock band can be found herein. Everything. I checked.
‘Unearth’ is a monster of ups and downs, a solid rhythmic foundation leaving room for guitar attacks of various kinds. ‘Time Machine’ punishes with its propulsive main figure. ‘Remember The Breathing’ provides a kind of light relief, however maintaining the sense that things could kick off at any moment. The second half of the album emphasises melody over volume, as a succession of mid-tempo pieces showcase the full extent of the band’s compositional capabilities. And then we reach closer ‘Ascension Island’. All seventeen minutes and twenty six seconds of it. A lot happens during this song (as you might expect). It is the perfect way for a band like Mugstar, on a label like Rock Action, to close an album and, at the same time, to formally announce their arrival as a powerhouse of the UK rock scene.
Motorpsycho – Here Be Monsters Vol. 2
Watch the video for ‘Spin, Spin, Spin’ (not actually on this album but from the same sessions) below
For a final piece for this time, I turn, once again, to Motorpsycho. Having seen the band this past Tuesday on their sole UK date of this year, promoting “Here Be Monsters”, an album I loved, and reviewed for Drowned in Sound earlier this year, I was glad to pick up this companion piece, featuring the album’s title track. All power to a band who record a title track for their album and then deem it too long to fit on said record. The track is split into two parts here. Part 1 begins with layers and layers of synth strings before developing into a pleasant mid-tempo instrumental, with occasional vocal interventions. Just before the eleven minute mark, the tempo shifts to a much more strident push, showcasing the control of drummer Kenneth Kapstad to the full. The track closes with washes of guitar from Snah as it fades into the almost incidental music of ‘The Etchings Of The Seed Atom’. This, in turn, gives way to the raucous loss of control that is the first 2.38 of Pt 2. Out of the chaos, the monsters perhaps, however, emerges the order of the song’s extended outro. As the time signature seems to alternate between 5/4 and 6/8, guitar and synth melodies combine to bring beauty out of darkness as the track fades to nothing.
A glorious, quirky companion piece to “Here Be Monsters”, the album, perhaps here the three members of Motorpsycho have produced thier most wildly abandoned and far-reaching work to date. As a band which is always working, creating, on the move, it is fascinating to think just what could emenate from them next.