I’ve loved all sorts of music in 2019. I’ve not been able to write about as much of it as I would’ve liked – life is quite different in my world to how it was a few years ago and writing about music has never paid a single bill of mine – but music has given me joy at times this year, comfort at others and often accompanied me in times of stress and pressure. I’ve made quite a long playlist with songs from albums of mine that were particular favourites, but a list longer than 10 albums takes too long to read, so in that vein, here’s my top 10 of the year
Her Name is Calla ‘Animal Choir’
Sadly, this is the final album from the majestic Her Name is Calla. I have no doubt that they’re the best band that most people who claim to like music that falls into lazy categories like Post-Rock, Indie, Alternative and so on have never heard of. They’re truly a great band and this is their best album, a marvellous coda on a fine and, so far, grossly underappreciated career.
Shalosh ‘Onwards and Upwards’
I love me a good piano trio. Shalosh are an exceptional piano trio, particularly if you like your jazz trio’s to have rock leanings too. Which I very much do. So there you go.
Rymden ‘Reflections and Odysseys’
Another jazz trio, this time on the excellent Jazzland Recordings from Scandinavia, this one came as a pleasant surprise to me as I knew nothing about it when I pressed play. Enegetic, playful and muscular. This is high-quality stuff.
Son of Cloud ‘Son of Cloud’
Some albums are quick listens, the kind that you know are good, even excellent, but that don’t stay with you for weeks, months, perhaps even years afterwards. The self-titled album from Son of Cloud isn’t like that. It’s the best singer-songwriter album I heard this year by a million miles. A thing of true beauty and power, with some great songs and a thread of narrative to the album that will stay with you long after you’ve finished listening. More people should know about this album. Many, many more.
Flight Brigade ‘Chased By Wolves’
Indie rock bands who forefront guitars seem to be an endangered species in 2019. I love Flight Brigade because everything about them, their sound and their songs are impeccable and timeless. Their songs stay with you and their show is one of the best you’ll see from a band of any stature in the contemporary scene. Don’t miss them in 2020.
Pedro the Lion ‘Phoenix’
Listen to this, listen to “Quietest Friend” and then come back and tell me that the genius of David Bazan hasn’t grown with the resurrection of his awesome band Pedro the Lion. One of the greatest songwriters of this or any other era, full stop. And when he rocks, it’s extremely satisfying. Oh for a visit to the UK in 2020.
Portico Quartet ‘Memory Streams’
Probably the best live band in the UK right now, this newest record from Portico Quartet is among the most cohesive and potent of their career, even rivalling ‘Isla’ for power and emotion. Some of my favourite moments of this year have been watching them play, too.
Telefon Tel Aviv ‘Dreams Are Not Enough’
I have such a strong connection with the music of TTA. It has been with me through some of the best moments of my life, as well as some of the hardest. To find Josh coming back with the first new album under this name for a very long time this year was a joy tinged with sorrow as to what was lost and a hope that the great music of that past could be matched. I didn’t dream he could surpass the beauty of previuou records, but he pulled it off. A great album.
Hammock ‘Silencia’ and ‘Undercurrents’
Hammock are absolutely at the top of the game as regards ambient music and they only cemented that position and reputation in 2019. Not only did they complete a recent trilogy of albums with the beauty of “Silencia” but they released a monthly series of longer-form pieces named “Undercurrents” throughout the year too. Do seek that one out.
Sugarfoot ‘In the Clearing’
A glorious slice of country rock from Norway to close out the top 10. It will make you smile, no doubts at all.
And to finish things off, here’s the longer playlist:
Have a fantastic Christmas and a great start to 2020.
I’m listening to a cover of ‘Take On Me’ (don’t tell me you don’t know which song I’m talking about) and I feel myself being transported. Music used to make me feel like all the time. Not so much these days. I’m getting old. And now I find that what is doing it for me in my mid-thirties is a ridiculously thunderous drum solo in a jazz trio version of an 80s classic. We do all become our parents eventually after all.
I’ve written often about not having enough time to write about all the music I get sent to review. It piles up in my inbox and around my office, accusingly. And then there’s the music that I find out about the way everyone else does. On this occasion, I discovered Shalosh through a magazine advert. So pre-internet. They looked enigmatic in their photo and the sparse, carefully chosen description drew me in, promising songs which built in intensity (check!) and passion (check!) to a tumultuous conclusion (check! or I might have invented that last one myself).
So off I toddle to my streaming provider of choice (so millennial) and I press play, before picking my jaw off the floor a few minutes later. What a sound. Shalosh are newly-signed to ACT Music and their new record ‘Onwards and Upwards’ is quite simply the best jazz trio album I have heard in many a long year. I’m not going to go on and on and on about it, just implore you to listen to it. And then listen to it again.
I’m late with posting my list of favourite albums of 2018, with a sprinkling of early 2019 tracks too. I find I don’t have time to write long, flowery and descriptive eulogies to why albums are good, so instead I made a Spotify playlist. Do listen to it below and if any of the tracks I picked tickle your earbuds, I’d recommend the albums they come from wholeheartedly.
Now 2019 is in full swing I’ll be doing something similar on an ongoing basis through the year, as I find new things I love, so keep an eye out!
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!
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.
“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.
I’ve not written any of these columns in 2016. Partly it’s because I’ve been exceedingly busy. Partly it’s because I wanted to change the focus of them. For a while there back last year I wrote about almost everything that I was sent by bands, artists and PR people. I totally respect the hard work it is to promote yourself as a band, and the hard work that PR people do on behalf of their clients, so I thought it was important to write as much as I could about as many artists as I could when they came my way. Which is noble, perhaps even laudable. Except that these columns started to go down well as people shared them and the sheer volume of music I was being sent became unmanageable. I had folders of stuff to review, organised by release date, then those got too big, and so I just gave up. I’ve been writing c1 review per week fro Drowned in Sound this year. You can find my writer’s profile there by clicking on this sentence.
And so I resolved after a fair bit of stress that I needed to be nicer to myself this year, and not feel quite so beholden to everyone and everything. I said to myself that I’d only write about things that truly gave float to my boat, that the title of this column would once again be apt.
And then I didn’t get round to writing any columns.
I’m trying to rectify this. There’ll be a couple of pieces in the next few days about some fantastic albums and EPs that have given me much joy this year. Some of them you’ll know about. Some you may not. That’s the fun of things like this. So, if you’re a PR person, the review you’re waiting for is probably coming. Unless I didn’t love the record you sent me. In which case it may very not be. Sorry about that.
To start things off again though, it’s a great joy, perhaps even a privilege, to share with you the new single and video from the fabulous TaRee. ‘The Way I Do’, as a song, is a sumptuous piece of soulful R&B. It has a great, sweeping chorus. TaRee’s vocal is a thing of wonder throughout. It’s pretty much the perfect soul single.
But there’s so much more to this piece than that.
When I recorded for the Ghostree EP in Nashville way back in 2011 (in what feels like another lifetime), our producers Kevin Bruchert and Brandon Perdue (who just won a Grammy, way to go Brandon!) had just finished recording the Crazy Love EP with TaRee. The first time I heard that EP was one of a few rare moments when music was not just something I enjoyed, or even loved, but something which touched me to the deepest extent imaginable. That voice, the power in the songwriting. That amazing voice (I know I’ve mentioned it more than once, it’s for effect). Even though the EP was a mere 5 tracks, and was designed as a demo, it stayed with me for near-on 5 years. I returned to it often. Once heard, ‘All We Are’ from that EP cannot be forgotten. It’s impossible.
And I waited. And waited and waited. Waited for TaRee’s inevitable domination of the world of Soul/RnB to come to pass. I was perplexed when it did not, even angry at the injustice of it all, that someone with such talent, so many great songs, could not find ears to hear.
But now, finally, things begin to come to pass, with this amazing project. I could talk about the video and its powerful storyline relating to police brutality and the oppression of Black people, but really you should just watch it, take its message to heart, download the single and support TaRee in her continuing artistic endeavours. There is, honestly, no more exciting a Soul singer in the world right now than TaRee. Don’t miss this.
This is a special return from Ex Libras. Much fancied around the time of the release of their debut album Suite(s) and its follow up EP Cut(s), the band went off the radar for several years leading up to the release of this comeback EP, which is undoubtedly something of a triumph. I missed them first time around (more fool me) so as the first bars of the title track’s sinuous groove kicked in I was taken aback. The press release likens the band to Radiohead and Foals and this is not too far wrong. There’s something of the compositional creativity of the former mixed in with the aggression of the latter as each of the EP’s four tracks wend and wind their way to some particularly fascinating musical destinations. On this evidence a full length album can’t come soon enough. Ex Libras are certainly a band to watch.
Andrew Wasylyk – Soroky
Now a member of Idlewild, previously a member of The Hazey Janes and sessioned for Electric Soft Parade and School of Language, Andrew Wasylyk has a stellar pedigree and. on the strength of this musically strong and lyrically emotive album, a promising future. Beginning with the woozy piano of ‘Last of the Loved’ and its intelligent use of chromatics (not to mention a fabulous Crowded House-apeing chorus), Soroky is a fine album. Centrepiece and high point ‘Empress Ballroom’ calls to mind Grizzly Bear at their most opulent, whilst ‘Morning Falls to Blue’ builds gloriously to a cinematic climax. This is an album full of musical intelligence and with enough twists and turns to keep even the most demanding listener happy.
Nova Heart – Nova Heart
Watch the video for Lackluster No. below
I get a lot of music sent to me. A lot. Not much of it is classified as ‘minimalist post-punk/electro from Beijing’ so when the debut album from Nova Heart landed in my inbox my interest was piqued. The band feature Helen Feng who, the press release reliably informs me, ‘has been dubbed the Blondie of China’. The record was mixed by Rusty Santos (TV On the Radio, Animal Collective) and there is something of a Dave Sitek influence throughout. As you’ll hear from ‘Lackluster No.’ if you watch the video above, things brood and shape-shift without ever really losing control. ‘No Controversy’ and ‘Evil’ both ricochet along percussively, the latter one of several tracks here to feature some wonderfully jarring guitar effects work. ‘Right Wrong’ has a synth-driven, disco-infused chorus to die for, and ‘My Song 9’ could pass for some of the best recent work of Russian shoegazers Pinkshinyultrablast. This is a wonderful unexpected surprise.
Jono McCleery – Pagodes
Watch the video for an acoustic version of ‘Desperate Measure’ below
When you’re blessed with the kind of voice that Jono McCleery is (it’s the kind that could stop you in the street singing the phonebook, or whatever the modern equivalent of that is) the temptation could be to skimp on the other crucial element of the solo artist’s art: the songs. On ‘Pagodes’ everything works beautifully in tandem. McCleery’s vocal performances range from wistful and intimate, as on ‘Age of Self”, all the way to the understated yet complex ‘Fire In My Hand’ where the emotion causes cracks to appear on more than one occasion. Having been featured as a vocalist with Portico this year, perhaps it’s no surprise that there is plenty of jazzy electronica here. ‘Halfway’ draws you in with its syncopation before letting rip with a gorgeous chorus that wouldn’t have been out of place on the recent Grasscut album. Allied with this, tracks such as ‘Bet She Does’ position McCleery as an acoustic singer songwriter par excellence, whilst ‘Pardon Me’ takes things in a piano-driven Benjamin Clementine direction. What is clear at the end of the listening experience of this album, and it is an album to be experienced rather than consumed, is that Jono McCleery is a prodigiously talented artist deserving of a much wider audience. Don’t miss this album.
If you’re eagle-eyed, or your memory is better than mine, you’ll remember that I swooned over the performance Esther gave at this summer’s Irregular Folk Festival in Oxford. The best compliment I can pay this driving EP of dark, brooding techno, is that as I listened, I remembered each of the songs from that performance. These are four beautifully crafted tracks. Esther has a haunting, spectral voice, which cuts through even the most densely populated track. She also has a winning way with a vocal hook. Each song here contains within it the kind of chorus that pop hit factory songwriters kill for. The fact that the emotion of each song is so keenly felt is even more to Lane’s credit. At times reminiscent of the best bits of Poliça, this is sterling stuff that should be all over the radio. For me, the best track here is ‘You Know’, which grows and grows in to a real electronic mini-symphony, but to pick favourites is to potentially diminish the power of this collection as a whole. Just listen to it.
USA Nails – No Pleasure
Watch the video for ‘I Am Normal’ below
USA Nails brings together members and ex-members of Oceansize, Hawk Eyes, Kong, Future of the Left, Silent Front and Dead Arms. So you know what you’re getting. This is fast, loud, uncompromising, technical and downright heavy and fun post-hardcore. At times it reminds me of These Arms Are Snakes, but I may well be ignorant in this regard. The album barely lets up from the first to the last. ‘You Sing For Yourself’ is monstrous and its time signature changes are a joy. The distorted bass of ‘Laugh It Up’ gives the pummelled listener something to hold on to in a sea of musical chaos, and ‘Make Me Art’ really tips things over the edge in to an extra dimension with some brazen guitar work. If you like your rock records to actually rock, this second album from USA Nails is for you.
Victories At Sea – Everything Forever
Listen to ‘Bloom’ below
Victories At Sea are probably the most exciting band to have emerged from Birmingham this decade. They’ve been supporting Editors this month, so their progress in to the hearts and minds of the indie-loving nation is virtually assured. But is the record any good? Well, in a word, yes. Citing influences ranging from Slowdive to Mogwai and all the way through to dancefloor fillers Factory Floor, this is a record the like of which 2015 has not seen. That in itself is a great thing to be able to say about a debut album from a British band. Much more than the sum of its parts or influences, Victories At Sea make a truly unique artistic statement which is a real joy as the year wanes to its end. ‘Florentine’ is a driving indie pop song with a pumping rhythm bed. So is ‘Up’, which reminds me of the brilliant Losers from a few years ago (featured members of Cooper Temple Clause as I remember). DMC is darker and largely instrumental, creating a foreboding atmosphere which leads in to ‘Poles Apart’, a song with another great pop chorus, and swathes of guitars which envelop the listener like a winter fog, before the track lets go in a percussive coda. Is this a pop album? Yes. Is this a post-punk album? Yes. Is this a rock album? Yes. Is this album beyond simplistic categorisation and simply one of the best of 2015? Most definitely.
So, dear readers, I’ve been extremely remiss recently and not posted about any of the myriad records I’ve been sent. I bet you were having palpitations. This will be a long post. There are a lot of records to cover. As such I will be perhaps somewhat more cursory than I can be on occasions, prone as I am to verbosity in the Word Count department. Take it from me though, there’s a lot to love in each one of these releases. Some of them are very special indeed. I’m writing about them in no particular order. See you on the other side.
Lovedrug – Notions
Watch the video for Spinning Out of Control below
I’ve loved the music of Lovedrug for almost half my life. That’s a scary thought. ‘Everything Starts Where It Ends’, the band’s second album, was a vastly underrated indie rock masterpiece. “American Swimming Lessons” from that album remains one of the most wonderfully bombastic American rock songs of recent memory. Whereas, in the past, the band were driven on an urgent alternative rock plane, now things are a lot straighter, more radio-friendly. On this album, Michael Sheppard plays almost everything, as well as producing and mixing. In a sense, it feels like more of a follow-up to his recent album with the Boys on the Radio moniker than it does to Lovedrug’s last album Wild Blood, but this is still a potent record full of great songs. I just wish, personally, though that the handbrake had been let off a few more times. Maybe on the next album!
Any trio which claims to root themselves in jazz and heavy metal (not that there are that many, admittedly) is going to get my attention, and that’s exactly what Zeitgeist have done. Their self-titled debut album may only contain five tracks, but they are all weighty, both in terms of length, and in terms of ambition compositionally and in terms of performance. The off-kilter ‘Haiku’ is a particular highlight, as melodic and rhythmic shifts you might normally expect to see on a Meshuggah album are carried off delightfully in the realm of the more traditional jazz setting. For me, this band have no true reference points. They’re closer to The Bad Plus than, say, Trichotomy, with the odd nod to Neil Cowley Trio, but something about the way the three instrumentalists combine leaves them out in a realm all of their own. One to seek out.
Get the Blessing – Astronautilus
Watch the video for Phaenomena below
Show me a fan of modern jazz or, to hell with it, intelligent progressive music, who finds it hard to fall in love with Get the Blessing and their incredible blend of rhythm and brass and I’ll show you….well, I don’t know what I’ll show you, because I’ve not met anyone who’s spent any time in the company of any of their albums and failed to fall head over heels in love with them. “Astronautilus” continues the band’s recent form, with a series of solid-gold grooves and crescendos which build so meticulously that they’re on top of you before you even realise they’re there. Opener ‘Carapace’ is an astonishing example of one such. ‘Monkfish’ shows another string to the band’s bow, as wailing brass compete with a head-spinning drum track. This has to be one of the finest jazz releases of 2015. Do not miss it.
Fred Abbott – Serious Poke
Watch the video for ‘Adrenaline Shot’ below
You might have already clicked play on the video for ‘Adrenaline Shot’, the opening track on Fred Abbott’s debut album. If you haven’t, and your day is on the drab side and needing a boost, I strongly recommend you stop what you’re doing this instant and listen to this song. There, feel better? I thought you would.
Fred Abbott used to be part of Noah and the Whale, the ultra-intelligent pop band who achieved dizzying success a while back. Now Abbott’s back, and he’s brought all the musical intelligence which characterised his former band at their best moments, whilst adding a heady dose of straight ahead rock and roll. At times, this touches on Tom Petty, at others, such as on ‘Awake’, it is Bruce Springsteen’s name that most easily comes to mind when searching for a comparison. If you like your singer-songwriters to have a widescreen sheen, ceiling-high choruses and just the merest hint of an alt-country twang, then “Serious Poke” is the album you’ve been longing for.
Sons of Kemet – Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do
Sons of Kemet emerged with their twin drum and twin brass attack two years ago in a blaze of publicity and a Mercury nomination. Most of the publicity seemed to centre on the presence of the huge hair and huger talent of Seb Rochford in their ranks, but in a sense, this was an unfair distraction from the visceral and vibrant qualities which characterised their debut album, “Burn”. Instead, as on “Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do”, it is the compositional talent of Shabaka Hutchings which most persistently demands, and merits, attention. These are simply brilliant pieces of music, fantastically conceived, and faultlessly executed. Whether it’s on the understated yet insistent ‘Breadfruit’, or the gloriously expansive ‘Tiger’, this is a band which, far from being at the peak of its powers is only just seeing top gear in the distance. The sky is the limit for the potential of this quartet.
What we have here is some fine, mostly very chilled and downtempo, electronica. Ash has been receiving support all over the shop from BBC 6Music DJs, so there’s no doubt that this debut album is going to make quite a dent. His roots in trip-hop are obvious throughout, particular for me on the gorgeous ‘They Do Not Know Yet’, while ‘Six Eight’, which is in…..6/8 immediately follows, showing the jazzier leanings which lift this from being a one-paced slow groove record into being a collection suffused with gravitas and beauty. At thirteen tracks, the album is quite a lot to digest in one sitting, but it works well as an extended snapshot of the breadth and depth of Walker’s talent and potential. The gloriously named and otherworldly ‘Root Veg’ is a woozy late album highlight not to be missed, too.
Autobahn – Dissemble
Watch the video for ‘Society’ below
This is gloriously uncompromising stuff. Seemingly universally lauded, “Dissemble” is a hard pill to swallow at first, but one that has serious restorative powers. Equal parts Cooper Temple Clause-esque squall, as on opener ‘Missing In Action” and foreboding, krautrock-esque drive on ‘Immaterial Man’, which immediately follows it, the album is really singularly indescribable. Built on unshakeable melodies, and with the unmistakeable vocal performances of Craig Johnson giving the band an extra string of individuality to its bow, there is simply no way that this album will not end up as one of the albums of 2015. By the time the dissonance of ‘Passion’ cavorts its way into your heart and mind any thought of resistance will be long gone. Autobahn must be a fearsome proposition live. Make a point of checking them out.
Sweet Baboo – Boombox Ballads
Watch ‘Walking In the Rain’ below
Like the most impenetrable prog rock album, now our attention turns to a gorgeous album from folk-influenced singer and songwriter Sweet Baboo. Don’t be fooled by the winsome strumming that begins opener ‘Sometimes’, there’s a depth and resonance to this album which is on show the moment the strings, brass and what sounds like an accordion, spring into action at the song’s coda. ‘Two Lucky Magpies is a beautiful piano ballad augmented again with legato strings, whilst the yearning of ‘I Just Want to Be Good’ would be bound to cause anyone who heard it to invite Sweet Baboo in for a nice cup of tea. Chock full of memorable choruses, and meticulously constructed soundscapes, if this is your introduction to Sweet Baboo, as it is mine, you won’t be disappointed.
Maserati – Rehumanizer
Watch the video for ‘Rehumanizer II’ below
Something special here from Maserati. I’m new to the band, and a search to try and work out where this fits in the canon of the band is less straightforward than it might first appear to be, but I make this their eighth album. Whether it turns out that I can’t count, or not, all the evidence suggests that Maserati are a band who are still on the up. Their blistering amalgam of metronomic krautrock, programmed drums and explosive passages of full on psychedelic rock wig outs is a potent combination. Best exemplified in the stupefying end to ‘End of Man’, really there are few bands as exciting as Maserati in full flow on the scene at the moment, on this evidence. Only ‘Montes Jura’ breaks the mould on this set, with more of a focus on the glistening synth-driven 80s element of their sound, it is a nice diversion, a brief pause, before the rock returns with a vengeance. This isn’t out until October 30th, but get prepared, this is a fine album.
Hills – Frid
Watch the video for ‘Milarepa’ below
Once again, this is heavy stuff, on the third album from Gothenberg-based Rocket Recordings (Goat et al) signees Hills. This is cited as their ‘most intense and out of mind outing yet’ and it’s not hard to disagree. Opening groove ‘Kollektiv’ may very well take you over. By the time it lets you off for a few seconds with a Sitar-esque interlude, you will probably be under the band’s spell, not to emerge until 60s influenced closer ‘Death Will Find A Way’ has wound its, erm, way round and round your subconscious. In between times, ‘Natural Drone’ proves itself one of the most correctly-titled songs of recent times, carrying within it some lovely squalls of guitar, while ‘Och Solen Sänkte Sig Röd’ really stretches things out, it’s near 11 minute peaks and troughs among the record’s most satisfying moments. Best taken as a whole though, “Frid” adds to Rocket Recordings’s stellar recent output. Hills appear to be another band not to miss live, should the chance arise.
Muncle – Hot Brain
Watch the video for ‘Chicken Or Egg’ below
Muncle is the brainchild of one Mike Griffifths, a Bristol-based multi-instrumentalist and longtime member of several fine bands, some of whom I think (if I have this right) I shard a stage with in a previous life. On ‘Hot Brain’, which was mastered by Ed Woods ((Jamie Lenman, The Xcerts, The Who, Idlewild), but otherwise self-recorded, produced and mixed, Mike presents a stark study of his personal and private frustrations, doubts and questions. So, you might think this would be an introspective record. You’d be wrong. It explodes in to life with the wall of sound that is ‘Kick Up A Fuss’ and barely lets up from there. ‘Glass To the Wall’ is a fantastic, Reueben-esque series of melodic twists and turns. ‘Obituary’ has a chorus that Blur would be more than happy to steal, while the breakdown in ‘Mother Was Right’ is a spellbinding moment. Lots of people make records at home. Not many of them turn out as good as this one.
I could write reams and reams about why Laura Cannell and her album, “Beneath Swooping Talons” are among the very most exciting of my most recent discoveries. I could wax lyrical about the sheer emotional power and resonance of her instrumental performances, about the meaning they convey without recourse to anything as trite and trivial as words. I could tell you that this album has reduced me to an awed hush on more than one occasion even as I’ve been preparing this post. But really, when it’s all said and done, you’d be better served clicking the link above and spending some time immersing yourself in the these pieces yourself.
Alif – Aynama-Rtama
Watch the video for Holako (Hulagu) below
I can’t claim for one minute to be a World Music aficionado, but something about the heady mix of Eastern and Western styles on this debut album from Alif has quite beguiled me. As you’ll hear from the track in the video above, Alif are a band bridging the gap between cultures, in a similar way to another of this year’s success stories, Mbongwana Star. Listening to the way the Buzuk and the Oud dovetail so beautifully with keyboards, bass and drums, all topped off with traditional Arabic poetry, the feeling really does come that a kind of musical and consensus has, if it has not been reached, been made possible. If ever listening to an album can make me feel ignorant and narrow-minded in my appreciation of what music has to offer, this one is it. There isn’t an album I’ve heard in the last few months which has caused as deep an emotional response in me as this one. Make a point of seeking it out.
Light Music, from Milwaukee, Canada, are described as an ‘epic pop band’. Rarely has a genre description for a new band with a debut album been more apt. As you will have heard if you’ve clicked on the link to listen to ‘Nessum Dorma’, the opening track from “Ocean’s Daughter” there is a lot going on with this music. The button marked ‘skyscraping ambition’ has been pressed in the studio. Everything about this record is huge. The mix is full and layered, the drums sound huge (just check out the build in the part on ‘True Colours” for one example) and the songwriting wilfully seems to take things in unexpected directions. At times, the scope is Muse-sized. At others, Civil Twilgiht and Circa Survive are the closest reference points. Tiis is beautifully executed heavy modern pop music.
Shannon and the Clams – Gone By The Dawn
Watch the video for ‘Corvette’ below
‘Gone By The Dawn’ is the fourth album from Shannon and the Clams. Unless you were there the first time around, it’s unlikely that you will have heard anything like their mix of 50s surf rock (‘I Will Miss the Jasmine’), bar ballads (‘My Man’) or stomping dancefloor fillers (‘Point of Being Right’, which, itself reminds me of the best of Nicole Atkins) before. This is music full of attitude, and with a clear aesthetic, but without the songs such acts rarely get as far as a fourth album, and Shannon and the Clams have songs aplenty. The title track is a luscious waltz which teeters on the blink of melodic collapse throughout to an enormously satisfying degree, whilst ‘Telling Myself’ swings and rolls along at quite a lick with a trademark 50s guitar riff whilst lead singer Shannon Shaw, whose vocals are fantastic throughout the album, somehow contrives to sound a little (a very little) like Julian Cassablancas at his most rasping. You’ll find yourself humming the chorus for the days. This is a fun album. Remember when people made those?
“Spark”, the new album from exceptional talent Kat Reinhert shows her vocal and compositional versatility. She has a a voice which seems to crest melodic waves endlessly, and these thirteen songs provide ample moments with which she can show her prowess to its full extent. Over the mournful groove of ‘Heavy’ her tone is easy, light and precise. “My Arms’ gives her a chance to show her depth and warmth over a light and playful melodic backing. ‘Little Compartments’ builds from an ominous-sounding beginning into an atmospheric climax. What is most pleasing about this set is its musicality. Each player is enabled to show their chops as the record is peppered with solos and instrumental passages which, rather than merely filling time, add greatly to the whole. What cannot be escaped however is that it is Reinhert’s voice which makes this album as special as it is. She is a special talent.
Small Feet – From Far Enough Away Everything Sounds Like the Ocean
Watch a live video for ‘Gold’ from this album below
Simon Stålhamre, the main driving force behind Swedish band Small Feet, is purported to have learnt English from watching television as a virtual recluse after leaving school early. I wish watching television did me that much good. Small Feet’s debut album is as extraordinary as the backstory of its primary songwriter. ‘Gold’ the opener is a strident, acoustic-driven piece of emotive 60s pop. It is immediately followed by ‘River’, which sounds like a Simon and Garfunkel offcut, by way of Scandinavia, yet with a much deeper emotional depth than even the much-lauded duo could match. Quite a claim that, but there we are. When the chorus hits, and the reverb-drenched vocal harmonies find the sweet spot, there’s nothing else in the world that matters apart from seeing what happens in the rest of this song. Very few debut albums can grab and hold a listener to this extent.
There are too many other strong moments here to describe them all. The haze which floats above the groove of ‘Backwards Falconer’ is an unusual and enticing touch, while ‘Lead Us Through the Night’ has a lovely instrumental break which we hear through a fug of reverb and delay before vocals return with crystalline clarity.
I was going to say that perhaps this is the album Neil Young would make if he had spent his life in Scandinavia. Perhaps Justin Vernon’s process and output would be similarly affected by a spell in Northern Europe, but in actuality, there is only one Small Feet. This is a deep, important piece of art.
HeCTA – The Diet
Watch the video for ‘Sympathy For the Auto Industry’ below
So by now you will have heard that members of Lambchop, noted alt-country mainstays as they are, have decided to take a turn not just leftfield, but have planted an entirely new field of their own. In case the listener is in any doubt, the uncompromising four-to-the-floor of ‘Till Someone Gets Hurt’ opens the album and, within seconds, any worries about this being a pastiche or tokenistic attempt at electronica are dispelled once and for all. This is the real deal. As an organ pulses in the song’s latter section we could be on any refined and discerning dancefloor in all of the world.
And nor does the pace slow down, either. ‘Prettyghetto’ has an outrageously funky bass riff as its jumping off point, which is oddly reminiscent to me of short-lived hitmakers Hockey, while ‘The Concept’ utilises atmospheric synths and quirky vocal samples to make its point.
Throughout everything, hooks abound. There is a beating pop heart in the midst of this record, but it never once, not even for a second compromises on its primary objective: this is music to get you moving. It is impossible that it will fail.
There’s just too much music in the world. I can’t listen to it all. Why should I bother? You might think be thinking such thoughts as the seemingly endless stream of fairly average music spews all over the internet. It’s a good job you’ve got me then, isn’t it. Loads of releases to get through today. A lot of different genres. There’s something for everything.
This band features Max Portnoy, son of Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater. Max and the rest of the band are 15 or 16. Some reviews of this record I’ve read are quite snide in saying that the age, or lack of experience, of the band members tells. I think this is nonsense. This is straight-up high quality progressive metal. Throughout, Max’s drums are stellar. So much nuance in the playing. The songwriting throughout is killer too. Opener ‘The Edge of Sanity’ is a strong start, with effervescent instrumental solo-ing and a great hook of a chorus. The genre might be somewhat esoteric, but if progressive metal is your thing then Next To None are a band you need to watch out for.
Daniel Blue, lead singer of Motopony, has one of those voices. It is instantly reognisable. It can turn its hand (or should that be voice, I don’t know) seemingly to any genre or style of song and give it a beauty, an intensity, a vulnerability, that other, often much-vaunted singers just can’t reach. This is a welcome return for the band, now featuring new members and something of a new sound, following a long wait from their splendidly woozy self-titled album. Whereas that record was marked by an almost spectral beauty and the electronics of erstwhile colleague Buddy Ross, this album takes much more of a 70s glam stomp approach to proceedings. The first half of the album is dominated by fuzzed out guitars, competing with Blue’s caterwauling vocal to splendid effect. This is Motopony but not as we knew it. As he sings “Life, in 1971, I wanna be there, I wanna have fun” it is clear that Daniel Blue and his cohorts have got as close to living in 1971 as it is possible for a bunch of bearded wonders in 2015 to manage. One listen to this joyful summer record and you’ll be wanting to join them.
Watch the lyric video for ‘Don’t Forget the Joker’ below
It’s wrong, isn’t it, that one of the first things I notice about Mike Vennart, live guitarist for Biffy Clyro, member of British Theatre, former member of Oceansize and now solo troubadour extraordinaire, is that he has grey hair. Yes, yes it is wrong. I have grey hair too. I also have a lot less talent than Mike Vennart. I’m just jealous.
If you like any of the aforementioned bands, or you like your guitar rock literate and inventive one minute and crushingly heavy the next, this is an album for you. Time signatures change all over the place, like its effortless. It isn’t. The songs are chock full of hooks. Just watch the video above and tell me you can’t remember the chorus by the end. More than that, though, it just rocks. ‘Retaliate’ is a muscular song with a buzz-saw riff and a skyscraper of a chorus. ‘Infatuate’ explodes into a glorious groove and when the release of the chorus hits it feels just like people tell me Opium does.
It takes a special musician to marry progressive technicality with pop song structures and hooky riffs, but Vennart manages this to a tee. Don’t miss this record.
It feels almost superfluous to write about Wolf Alice and their debut album, “My Love is Cool”. You might have seen them at Glastonbury last weekend. You’ve probably heard or read people swooning and raving about them. The album has quickly garnered the status of being the most exciting British guitar music debut of the year. There is an assuredness about the band, and the album, that makes it plain that they know that stardom beckons. So, what of the record, is it worth giving in to the hype and giving Wolf Alice a chance?
Well, in a word, yes. This is a beautifully-constructed, shoegaze-leaning album. Songs like ‘Bros’ will work splendidly on the radio but serve notice of their explosive potential in the live setting. ‘Lisbon’ begins taut before, in point of fact, exploding. The song does this twice. It is exhilarating. There’s really no other word to describe the evocative nature of the visceral and yet intensely melodic coda at the song’s climax.
Elsewhere, ‘Swallowtail’ and ‘Soapy Water’ show a more considered and nuanced side to the band. At times it feels like Wolf Alice are a band yet to truly settle down in to their final identity. While they’re figuring it out, it’s a lot of fun being a fly on the wall.
With Son Lux freshly expanded to a three-piece, the seemingly boundless compositional creativity of main man Ryan Lott has a fresh scope and impetus. “Bones” is a gorgeous album. ‘Change is Everything’ is the closest thing there has ever been to a Son Lux single to my ears, a spine-tingling moment on an album of tingle-inducing moment. ‘Flight’, with its (synthesised?) flutes, gives the listener a real sense of, well, flying. “Are we now what we’ll be, are we fixed or free?” Lott asks. This is music which feels free, free to explore the recesses of the possibilities of orchestrally-infused electronica. It’s the kind of music that is so intricate, layered perfectly realised that it has the potential to cause the head-shaking wonderment of other musicians, if not their outright retirement.
Elsewhere, the rolling percussion of ‘Undone’ as it breaks down into a bossa nova slink and then continues upon its merry, rolling way, is a contrary centrepiece for the album. We might not know what it is trying to be, but Son Lux are in constant and complete control. Just follow meekly after them. It’s for your own good.
This is the debut full-length album from Mutoid Man. This band features members of Cave in (Stephen Brodsky) and Converge (Ben Koller and Nick Kagaeo). If you don’t like your music hard and fast, with hints of melody, then you should probably move along;. If you’re still with me, then we’re on to something special here.
I must be one of the only people still allowed to post on the internet who thought that Cave In’s album for major label RCA, “Antenna” was something of a masterpiece. Apparently if you like the band you have to hate it, which is a shame, as I really quite like it. It blended heavy pop-rock (herein lay the problem, I believe) with progressive passages, and enough aggression to make you sit up and take notice. Cave In toured with Foo Fighters. They played them off the stage, and then sank without trace. This was unfortunate.
All of which to say, I was pre-disposed to liking “Bleeders”, in spite of the fact that it is a lot faster and harder than anything on “Antenna”. Brodsky’s crystal clear melodic vocals remain intact. He really has a fantastic set of pipes. Throughout the riffs are intricate, yet accessible. The experience of these guys shines through. They sound like they’re having fun, but also at great pains to show that they can really play. It’s not right to single out individual tracks. This is the best punk/post-hardcore album of the year. Nothing else will come close. Mutoid Man are an exciting, potentially important band.
Yesterday, my wife and I had the tremendous joy and privilege of being part of what, having been there, I can only assume to be The Greatest Music Festival you’ve never been to. It’s called Irregular Folk. It’s in Oxford. It’s on today. You should stop reading this and go now. Come back to my waffle later.
Right, did you have a nice afternoon and evening? Have you sampled the amazing local pies, spellbinding local brews, the ambiance of the venue, hand-crafted by the amazing Vez and her team of volunteers? Did you find yourself transfixed by the bonkers and yet oh so right musical fare on offer? Did you, latterly, find yourself wishing this sort of thing happened all the time? Yes, so did I. Jolly good, we’re on the same page. Now you can sit back, relax and read about what I thought of yesterday.
Irregular Folk was up against it yesterday. It rained. A lot. The Perch, a wondrous pub that my wife tells me is an Oxford institution, is only reachable by car or across fields. Sadly, this led to some people staying away. They missed a treat.
Arriving having already dried out once that day, we ran the gauntlet (well, my wife ran, I sat back in my wheelchair and let it all happen) from the comfortable confines of the pub to the majestic marquee which housed the event and, dripping, stepped inside, to find ourselves transported to another world entirely. The marquee had it’s own bar. This means it wins. Aside from this, the decor in the “room” was to die for. Photo frames, candles, books meticulously positioned, I’m not really doing it justice. Suffice to say that it is obvious that Vez’s skill in room design is unsurpassed. Not just that but, and this is quite a feat for an event taking place in a tent, the sound was absolutely flawless. Having played several festivals in my previous life and suffered the consequences of half-bottomed line checks and elastic band and mice powered sound systems, to hear everything so clearly and so obviously how it was designed to be heard, is something for which Jimmy Hetherington, the event’s sound guy has to be applauded. This was quite plainly no smalltime festival, this is a boutique event which deserves to be more widely known.
So, we so far have locally brewed beer, locally made food, beautiful ambiance and situation, fantastic sound, and crap weather. But what about the acts themselves? Sadly, we’d missed Theo Bard and Gitta De Ridder by the time of our arrival, but having heard the rest of what was on offer I will hastily be checking them out. As we entered the tent, the inimitable George Chopping was finishing his set of spoken word. George was the compere for the event, and if his contributions between sets were anything to go by, this would have been quite something. The man was a mine of witticisms, social commentary and one-liners you had to hear to believe. He says the kind of things you might find yourself thinking, but censoring, in the interests of propriety, but then wishing you hadn’t. George doesn’t, and as the evening wore on, his contributions added a huge amount to the camaraderie which developed between stage and audience.
Next up was Esther Joy Lane. She delivered a taut set of beat-driven electronic pop songs. Listen to one of them below
Listening to this again the morning after, the mix of Grasscut, Lapalux and Howling in the beats reinforce the view I formed at the time that Esther would be a perfect fit for the Ninja Tune roster. It seems almost unbelievable that she has only been performing live since January of this year. Already featured on BBC 6Music, and no wonder, this is an artist who could go far. I’m truly excited to hear a fuller release from her, and I hope that a label such as Ninja Tune will support her in fulfilling her obviously huge potential. Of course, I could be way off in knowing what Esther’s ambitions are! With a slightly fuller sound and the confidence that regular gigging can bring she can become major player on the UK scene. Her set yesterday was over all too soon.
Next up was the wonderfully named Bastardgeist (or Joel to his friends). How do you describe the music of Basstardgeist? Well, like Esther Joy Lane, he makes ample use of a MacBook Pro, producing and manipulating beats and swathes upon swathes of atmospheric synths. He also has a falsetto to die for. Although based in New York, his music is infused with textures found around the world. Perhaps most intriguingly of all, many of his tracks on display this evening are built around an amplified Thumb Piano. Yes, a Thumb Piano. It’s bonkers, and should be rubbish, but instead is gloriously claustrophobic one minute and open-endedly orchestral the next. It’s pop music. It’s obtuse dance music. It’s fantastic.
I was transfixed. I wanted to learn to play the Thumb Piano. I want to tell everyone in the world how fantastic this music is. All in the space of 30 minutes. Bastardgeist is playing Norwich this evening and then returning from his home in New York later in the year for a headline tour. I will be in the front row.
Did I forget to mention that the staff at The Perch braved the squalls to bring food to us from the pub throughout the evening? They did. Ample space between sets could be a disaster at an event like this, but actually it merely served to give more focus to what seemed to be the primary aim of the event, to enjoy a relaxed time together in the presence of artistic greatness.
Next up were C Duncan. Chris and his band are on the cusp of releasing a lovely debut album on Fat Cat Records, had travelled from Scotland to play, iced cakes for the event (naturally, Vez makes cakes for the performers, because she doesn’t have enough else to do) and presented a polished and diverse set of electronic folk songs. Having spent some time with the album in preparation for writing about it in July, it was a pleasure to see how well these songs transferred to the live stage. Once I’d got over my disgust at how young the band looked (I think I’m getting old) I was captivated by their close harmonies, and the way they were able to move seamlessly from fractured folk on the one hand and stomping summer-inspired pop on the other. It was a great set. I hope that the addition of a drummer to the live act will give them an added punch and confidence, without taking away the intimacy they were able to convey as a trio. And, in case I didn’t spell it out, the album is one to keep an eye out for.
Next, there was more bad news. Laura Moody, the night’s headline act was unwell and unable to play. It’s her birthday today so I hope she’s better! She had been replaced at the last moment by another artist with a fantastic name, Salvation Bill. I’d never seen, experienced or known of Salvation Bill up to the point when he meekly appeared on the stage at around 9.30. My life will never be the same having witnessed him. This wasn’t a set at a festival. It wasn’t even an event. This was something else entirely. You’d think that a guy, a guitar, some backing tracks and a drum machine couldn’t do much damage. You’d be wrong. Salvation Bill has a voice to die for. Like the best bits of Matt Bellamy, Chris Martin and Kate Bush (!) and he obviously has a musical mindset permanently directed towards “set phasers to stun”. I wish I could tell you what the songs were about, but I really have no idea. I recollect one about a barking dog which ended up dead, and another which had something to do with prison, but I have to be honest, I was alternating between laughing at the audacity of the lyrics, and the compositional mastery on display to take proper notice. Chords progress in ways that every producer I’ve ever had has told me that they’re not allowed to, however much I’ve argued. Melodies strain at the bounds of common sense before, each and every time, tumbling over in to the supposed abyss of wrong, only to turn out to be perfect. That the evening finished with a chorus of looped howling dogs while “Bill” cavorted round the venue playing a deranged saxophone solo might make it sound like some kind of debauched nonsense, but it was a perfect end to a really special evening.
My only sadness is that I can’t be there today.
One final note. The bill of the evening flowed perfectly. It had been meticulously curated. It made perfect sense, in spite of making no sense at all. For this, and for so much else, huge kudos to Vez. Irregular Folk is a new “Do not miss” date in my diary. Make sure you don’t either.
So, I got busy. I got behind. At some point, the sheer volume of music people who’ve read things I’ve written or who I’ve been in touch with has become huge. What’s astounded me most of all is that the absolute vast majority of it is absolutely brilliant. However, the sad and honest fact is that I just can’t write about it all, much as I’d love to. And so, I’m returning to the original premise of this series of posts. If I hear something which I think is fantastic, and necessary listening, I will write about it. I hope that whoever reads this will grow to trust me that I don’t knowingly or willingly listen to stuff that is no good. I hope you’ll also trust me that if I hear something and don’t write about it, it’s because I either don’t get it (this happens!) or I just didn’t love it enough to write the kind of positive review I think is the only kind worth writing.
And so, with that said, let’s do something of a mopping up job.
This is a musically fine EP of crunchy radio rock. In places it reminds me of the long-mourned (by me, at least) Leeds band The Glitterati. At others, The New Regime come to mind. As you’ll see (and hear) from the video above, there is plenty of musical intelligence to go alongside the aggression and lyrical aggro. That said, having initially glossed over the record, on the grounds of finding the lyrical bombast somewhat cliched and tiresome, I have thoroughly enjoyed it having returned to it. The band start a UK tour next week. I’d recommend checking them out. I hope someone cheers them up somewhere along the way too.
Sharon Van Etten – I Don’t Want To Let You Down EP
Sharon Van Etten has a fantastic voice. She writes powerful songs in which she, it seems, revels in laying herself entirely bare. This brief five track EP begins with the groove-driven title track which, at first sight, appears to be a jaunty little number, until she starts singing that is. ‘Just Like Blood’ slows things down, featuring the kind of piano riff that Thom Yorke would be proud of. Van Etten’s layered vocal close harmonies and occasional dabbles with alternative melodic choices are really to the fore here. ‘I Always Fall Apart’ is in a major key, a major key! And yet, as the title suggests, she always falls apart. If only she could be happy, just once.
Flippancy aside, Sharon Van Etten is a fabulous singer-songwriter and still criminally underrated. She’s playing Glastonbury next week. If you’re lucky enough to be there, do make a point of seeing her. Hopefully there’ll be a new full-length album from her before too long.
Watch the video for the Radio Edit of ‘Pink’ below
And now for something completely different. This is the debut release from Scottish instrumental post-rock/punk/funk/electronica/unclassifiable four-piece Outblinker, and damn fine it is too. Comprising two tracks, but weighing in at a hefty and concentration-requiring 23.02, this is punishing stuff, in just the right way. The fusion of acoustic and electronic instrumentation feels just right, as ‘Pink’ builds in it’s first 6.45, followed by a breakdown propelled on bleeping synths and competing melodies. It is wonderful, hypnotic and yet at the same time there is so much going on that you find your mind being drawn to different places in the mix. One minute a drum fill holds the attention, the next there’s a new synth layer to wrap your mind around. It truly is stupefying stuff.
Double A-sided with ‘Blue’, a much more menacing slow burner of a track which, again, draws you in to an unexpected degree, this is an exciting debut release from a band who have arrived fully formed. Here’s hoping for more, and soon.
Another great new discovery from Edinburgh, Urvanovic, whose name sounds like a Yugoslav player from Italia 90 (or is that just me?), offer a delightful take on music hall pop. It’d be lazy to cite Belle and Sebastien as an influence, but this seven-piece are certainly in that ballpark on “Amateurs”. Thankfully though, tracks such as ‘Bubblewrap’ and ‘The Mine’ have enough drive and punch about them to elevate Urvanovic above any potential criticisms for being ‘pastoral’ (pop music’s answer to beige) or twee. This is beautifully constructed, multi-layered pop music for the discerning listener. Another band who must be an incredible live proposition.
We’re dotting right along the genre gamut today! Next up is the debut album from French DJ Superoze. I have to admit to not being an electronica aficionado, as I think I have done on these pages before, but this album has a beautiful hue. I don’t know if it is meant to be, but as the record carries me along, it is a soothing listen. Superpoze has collaborated with a heap of people. I’ve heard of none of them. What I do know is that ‘North’, ‘Time Travel’ and ‘Ten Lakes’ are brilliant expositions of relatively minimalist techno. I’ve been writing this post for ages now. I’m inventing genres. The mixes are spacious rather than attacking your senses. Time drifts by as you become more and more involved in the slowly-developing musical landscapes.
Do you like electronica? You will find this sates your thirst. Do you dislike electronica? Try this. Do you have no idea what electronica is? Try this for starters. With apologies to Superpoze for my lack of understanding!
And on we go again. This time we find ourselves in the realm of woozy, folky psychedelia. ‘Between the Channels’ pulses along on a bed of Rhodes and off-kilter guitars, building a backdrop for J Fernandez’s sweet vocals. “Communication is a waste of time between the channels” he tells us. Preach. There’s a lovely use of strings here, along with some lovely chord progressions which take things in a 70s prog direction (honestly). This first taste of J Fernandez indicates how well his music fits on the roster of the wonderful Joyful Noise! (Son Lux, Thee Oh Sees) on which this album is released. If you’re a fan of that roster, this’ll fit beautifully in amongst your collection. You’ll be able to tell right from the get go.
From this beautiful introduction, we’re taken on quite a journey. ‘Read My Mind’ weaves and winds, once again combining synth and guitar layers to good effect, never getting in the way of J’s compelling vocal delivery. Once again, a lovely tag section is a highlight, and there’s a choppy funk guitar solo thrown in for good measure. Elsewhere, ‘Holy Hesitation’ has more urgency, with an elastic bass line delivering us into a daringly scored chorus. ‘Apophis’ grows from an organ-driven beginning, the album’s most relaxed moment, while closer ‘Melting Down’, to all intents and purposes, puts its title to music, as everything progressively comes apart over the course of six and a half minutes.
An album for the summer, this is a fine place to start with the singular talent of J Fernandez.
Watch the video for How it Goes from the album below
And now to an album so good it basically defies description. If you like prog or psychedelic music, this is one for you. If you think the Hammond B3 is the greatest of all musical instruments, this is an album for you. If you like slow burning progressive epics, this is an album for you. If you like anarchic romps, this is an album for you. If you want to gain a snapshot of why Birth of Joy are one of the best live bands in Europe, this is the album for you.
Recorded over two nights at the prestigious Ubu in Rennes, France, this is a dizzying document of the live prowess of a fine band. I first came across Birth of Joy through my love of Motorpsycho, Spidergawd, and a lot of other European bands who straddle the edge of ‘normal’. To my shame, previous album, “Prisoner” was one I never quite gave enough time to. Having digested this amazing effort, that’s a mistake I will have to rectify forthwith. If I were to write about individual tracks I’d be here all day. Suffice to say, this is a raw, ridiculously high-energy double album you don’t want to miss.