Category Archives: Album reviews
Fresh(ish) harvest from BBO regulars Ghost Box, with a new partnership of Ed MacFarlane and Ed Gibson of Friendly Fires with Jon Brooks of The Advisory Circle. What should this aging fanboi expect from this new direction?
The template is set from the first seconds of the introductory title track. Distorted plucking, birdsong, needlescratch, and wavering flute. This is a Ghost Box album.
But! As soon as you settle into your rocking chair for an exploration of a grainy pastoral double-exposure landscape as ‘Black Rain’ starts with its chord washes and bass pulses, the extremely groovy rhythms and bassline kick in, and you’re on your feet. This track comes to you with fuel injection – toes tapping! Then vocals! Perhaps I missed something, but this is a departure from the expected – although expectations are subjective. A great synth phrase follows them up, and ghostly backing vocals keep us dreaming. There’s even a breakdown!? What’s happening? I’ll tell you what. It’s Pastoral Synthpop, in contrast to the paleofuture neon cityscapes usually associated with this style. Neon, but diffused through curling mist over a meadow.
After this cracking opener, waltzing bass wallows, pleading vocals, plucked scrapie guitar, flute trills and synth arpeggios make ‘Don’t Let Me Dream’ a sun-soaked drift down a very British river. Who’s up for a cruise? Then follow a couple of slowies, ‘A Simple Walk’, followed by ‘Daylight’, which starts mellow but gives it some oomph in the chorus. Arms-thrown-wide ecstatic dream chorus, brassy bass synths, naive little xylophone tinkles. This is another corker. Lovely drift-out chorus, one I could happily loop for hours like that one 6ths song about Hawaii.
It wouldn’t be a Ghost Box album with an ode to some bird or other, and ‘Sparrowhawk’ fits perfectly. Soaring, twinkling, watching, swooping, and climbing again with the hint of an acid tweak in its beak. A nice little interstitial, leading nicely into ‘Man and Machine’ and ‘Fluchtwege’. With titles like that, you’d best be channelling Ralf und Florian, or at least Jean-Michel. And they are – a bit.
The former starts a bit like an Oxygene hidden track, with a boppy shuffle/shuffly bop. The vocals bring it over the Channel and into the future / the bridge has some lyrics that are unusually optimistic about our relationship with the technium / and the chorus must be the machine itself, joyfully hooting its agreement with this sweet vision. A personal fave. ‘Fluchtwege’, with it’s arpeggios, chorus of soft voices and guitar licks, is a love song to textures. Rust, snow, dust, light, whispers, touch, the stars align. You half expect an erotic story set among the corn rigs. Echoing electronic textures, pulsing notes, minimal percussion combine in ‘Polymer Dawn’. Vocals blending in with just some phrases, layers build like rays of the sun edging into view.
Starting like a folk circle with picked guitar, tambourine and vibes, ‘First in an Innocent World’ turns into a waltzing electric ode to the new day. A swirling middle with hopeful yet triumphant chords, then simple phrases repeat and fade, as the album draws to a close.
Another classic Ghost Box album. The whole package – sound, imagery, voice, feelings. A couple of filler tracks don’t prevent this being a highlight of the year, and of the year to come. Should have been in the 2016 top thirty. Soz.
Persistent, aggravating headache? That’s the sound of ‘Born Defective,’ which opens Virile Strain Transmission, released in February this year. Much of the album is as harsh as the first track, with snarled, distorted or muttered vocals, clattering beats and lots of acidic squelching. It’s more abrasive than 2014’s Perpetual Dirt, and more experimental than last year’s Powerless – though that album isn’t exactly formulaic either, just a little more poppy in places.
It’s not all as fast-forward as that, though, as ‘L.A. River’ makes clear.
The reflective ‘Two Years Have Passed’ represents the still point at the middle of the album’s flow, before it rolls through into the glitchy, almost dubby openness of the tracks of the second half.
This was originally a cassette release; buy it (or digital) here. Looking forward to hearing whatever Michael Kasparis puts out as Apostille next year.
Warning Light’s new 2-track single is “dedicated to all my friends and acquaintances who for whatever reason are not with their friends/family/sweethearts for the holiday season.” I feel you.
It Looks Like Snow (08:29) – The musical equivalent of a still life of a lone house in a winter landscape, the snow muffling the swirling drone. Strings come in like low sun coming in through the window. Do you draw the curtains, or let it blind you?
Heading Home Songs (08:29) – The road reels out, with the lane so straight you seem not to be moving. The other voices in the car are smothered by your distraction. You want to get where you’re going. But once you get close, you enter the city, and energy picks up around you, as you finally arrive, with the same wind in your ears.
Beautiful sounds, and not a sleigh bell in sight. Pay what you want at Bandcamp.
“You are not alone, much love to you all.”
Much love to you too, D, and to everyone out there.
From the bulging BBO sac comes this nice little collection of distant noise and grinding ambient. This short abstract collection deserves a classic short matthewpetty stream-of-barely-conciousness™ review.
‘Fires in the field’ (04:01) wavering guitar washes drifting inland, dissolving into interference and eardrum buzz.
‘Sheltered’ (03:58) a rave taking place over the next hill, while the machines in the citadel who weren’t invited pump fluids into the patient on the gurney, the EEG giving the only sign of “life”.
‘While their backs are turned’ (08:41) at the riverside by the weir, we strip and clean our makeshift weapons. The pulse comes closer. Soon we must take a stand. But as they ascend over us, we realize they are not the enemy. They are leaving, and I think we’ll miss them.
‘Anabaptist’ (03:49) the runout groove contains a message? The bass shimmying along, making shapes with its hands, almost a buzzvoice. You could dance to it, if you were Gregor Samsa. Segue into…
‘Vow of dissolution’ (01:39) only two legs needed to dance now. The grind and the bass feel internal and persist and intensify until vow is promptly fulfilled.
‘Yielding light’ (02:31) chants and vocalisations deep in the warren. Stone surfaces channel it up to the observation deck where we meet for the first and last time, overlooking the fields where this began.
I am liking this one a lot. Name your price from good ol’ Bandcamp.
London’s sonic explorers have made their fourth record, and it’s an astonishingly confident effort. The thing that has always made Grumbling Fur hard to ignore is their combination of drowsy or startling psychedelic moments with honest-to-goodness (but never predictable) pop music. The bubbling, chattering rhythms of ‘Acid Ali Khan’ drift into the seemingly euphoric ‘Heavy Days,’ but on both tracks the heart-lifting spirit of the music is almost, but not entirely, undercut by the sweet but occasionally dolorous tones of Alexander Tucker and Daniel O’Sullivan, and by the latter’s strings.
The net effect is cheering, or restorative, but at some cost; this is music that is light-footed but also dense and complex. Samples and sounds mesh but the tensions between them are as important as the harmonies of the whole. It’s hardly homework for the ears and brain, though. Here’s ‘Heavy Days’ to demonstrate that:
Highly recommended – and perhaps the most accessible record they’ve done to date. Buy from Thrill Jockey.
Cathy Lucas – of Fanfarlo and Orlando, both BBO favourites – has recruited members of Tomaga, Floating Points, and Broadcast, as well as film maker and artist Elliott Arndt to form Vanishing Twin. The band are named after Cathy’s identical sister who was, apparently, absorbed in utero, so that she’s still part of Cathy (sort of. google it).
The album covers a lot of ground, as that list of reference points might suggest, but the tone seems to be set by a gentle collision between psychedelia and soundtrack/library music, held together by lovely percussion and Cathy’s voice. ‘The Conservation of Energy’ possesses a perfect pop sheen, while ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ makes me think not just of those 70s/80s US gamebooks but of Sara Lowes‘ own adventures in gentle psych. Beautifully produced by Malcolm Catto, there’s so much space in these recordings that this is about as cosmic as it gets – without a drone or fuzzed guitar in earshot.
And having a film maker (and flautist/percussionist, natch) on board means the videos are pretty damn amazing. This, for ‘Vanishing Twin Syndrome’, made me wonder (when my eyes had stopped leaking) if they were gently mocking a certain Swedish voodoo outfit:
And this video for ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ ticks many BBO boxes – brutalist architecture, peculiar figures in spacesuits (one playing a multiplug extension like a melodica), disembodied organs. It’s a bit like the BBO xmas party!!!11!
This is a rather special album from Soundway Records; a perfectly realised idea that’s also a musical adventure and certainly so much more than just a cheesy concept. I really think you should get yourselves a copy right now from their Bandcamp page.
I used to work with this bloke who had a joke that ended with the punchline “bus shelters, air raid shelters…” and I can’t remember what it was. It was probably a smutty joke, as he was a smutty man. He used to tell the joke at least three times a week. Now I very much appreciate an abandoned shelter too, but I think he and had different views about what activities we were using them for.
The recent release by A Year in the Country, The Quietened Bunker is an exploration of the abandoned and/or decommissioned Cold War installations (i.e. my favourite places). And (spoiler) it’s brilliant – an absolute contender for my album of the year. Every single track is expressive of the theme, though they all take a different approach to presenting it.
Keith Seatman kicks us off with Lower Level Clockroom, featuring dueling arpeggios and an icy pad mixed with the ominous ticking of a clock and snatches of speech or laughter. The occupants of the bunker counting down to nuclear Armageddon? The longer the track goes on the more it feels like you’re being led closer and closer to a disaster.
What better way to follow up that than with some genuinely unsettling drone? This comes in the form of Drakelow Tunnels by Grey Frequency and evokes a real sense of unease that conjures up images of moving slowly through abandoned tunnels, torch in hand illuminating corroded walls, doors and furniture, unsure what may lie around the next corner. The final 40 seconds or so of the track ends with a faint tapping sound on metal bunker walls, a chilling discovery perhaps of something or someone trapped down there.
Maybe the person trapped down there is the last man playing the last piano, star of the next track The Filter’s Gone/The Last Man Plays the Last Piano. The tinkling piano slowly mixes with static and synths, it’s beautiful and fragile and could fall apart at any moment.
There next three tracks take the tempo up, Aggregates II by Pannbrites introduces glitchy, percussive pulses, while Polypore’s Bunker 4: Decommissioned takes us down a much more horror route, enveloping us in a swirling wind of synths and a creeping beat. Comms: Seen Through the Grey by Listening Centre harks back to a time before the cold war bunkers were abandoned and East and West nations were monitoring each other’s communications. You could (almost) dance to this one.
Both Crafty Mechanics by Time Attendant and Crush Depth by Unknown Heretic are claustrophobic, doomy listens. The latter pushes in similar musical directions as Haxan Cloak and is as outstanding as it is terrifying.
Those hoping to end the album on a more uplifting note aren’t going to find it in Waiting For the Blazing Sky by David Colohan, but it is a ten minute long magnificent slab of swirling and droning synths punctured occasionally by snatches of dialogue; the perfect soundtrack as we watch the world burn. Indeed, events of the year 2016 may have us all waiting for the blazing sky, but not before you’ve got your hands on this compilation.
PS I’ve remembered the joke my old work colleague used to tell. It was: “I’ve lived a sheltered life. Bus shelters, air raid shelters…”, followed by a wink even more creepy than an abandoned bunker…
You look like you need cheering up. How about some smart, cheery punk-pop? As you probably know, the best place to go in Britain for that kind of thing right now is the village of Pity Me, Durham, the home of Martha and about six other bands (made up of some of the same people). This is their second record, and it’s fizzing with great songs. I am the original target market for political punk songs with four-part(ish) harmonies, and this has a) a song about anarchist Emma Goldman (‘Goldman’s Detective Agency’), b) a song about shitty precarious supermarket jobs (er, ‘Precarious (Supermarket Song)’), c) a lyrical shout-out to Billy Bragg’s ‘Greetings to the New Brunette’ (‘Curley & Raquel’, though here it’s “Celebrating my love for you/With a stick’n’poke and an Irn Bru”), and d) a closing song that squeezes in six references to the Replacements in 2 1/2 minutes, while (maybe) boosting Paul Westerberg’s claim to be a spokesperson for LGBT youth (‘St Paul’s (Westerberg Comprehensive)’). And all so English, but in a way that makes me think this miserable shitty country might have a future after all.
This makes it sound like clever-clever stuff, but this lyrical and political sharpness rides along on an irresistible musical avalanche of guitars and harmonies, broken by the occasional change of pace and mood. And they’re too knowing to let themselves look daft. Martha send themselves up for taking the mickey out of, and then falling for, the “naïve romantic shite” of being different, a bit like Jarvis might. Anyway, we should let the music speak for itself. First off, the blast of pure ‘existential crisis mix-tape on repeat’ fun that is ‘Chekhov’s Hangnail.’
And then there’s the solid gold pop of ‘Goldman’s Detective Agency,’ with some prize mucking about from the band.
Truth be told, I could keep listing songs from this album, it’s that good. Buy it! from Bandcamp – though we should mention here that they were signed to Fortuna POP!, RIP. It’s what you need right now – trust me.
jkneale (h/t Matthew White)
From Sweden’s Fluere Tapes label comes UFO Över Lappland’s eponymous cassette release, released in June this year.
The site describes it as “Plasmatic space waves peak tubes push bellbottoms and hardcore tudes to raise freak flags for the estranged teens of callous peoples.” Not sure about the bell bottoms frankly – The Young Ones taught me well – but some hardcore tudes and plasmatic waves are always welcome chez BBO. Plus aren’t we all estranged teens deep down? Certainly the lurid strangled prose below belongs in a sixth-formers rough book (are those still a thing?)
Clocking in at ober 12 minutes, opener ‘Keep On Keepin’ On Space Truckin’ ‘ has few f*cks to give, and gives them very reluctantly. Once the drums start, there is no stopping. The guitars chime and grind together, the electronics hover behind it all. Truckin’ is definitely the word for this. But this truck, grubby as it is, has hyperspace capability, the kind that has you looking through the front viewscreens as a cosmic slitscan conduit swirls past. Can the the tachograph keep up?
Midway along the journey, perhaps at an orbital rest stop, we take a pause and refuel, stretch our legs in the zero-gee. Out of the stop, back onto the freeway slicked with interstellar rain, refreshed by coffee and space crisps or something, we take the last exit to the final infinite destination, as guitars drums and synths crunch.
Bubbling synths die away as the destination is reached, and the truck is reversed into the loading bay as logistics technicians wait to receive the load of galactic shades to protect the eyes of the local heads from the brutal indifference of the universe.
We made it.
Apparently the Krell weren’t wiped out in one night by their monsters from the Id. Some of them escaped and moved to Sweden, where they provided the intro to ‘Podzol’. Then throbbing ceremonial drums and bass underpin the guitar and thin flute-like synth.
As the ceremony progresses, the standing stones reverberate with the bass, and the drums drive the faithful forward to the altar, where they each receive a party favour. Then it kicks off, and the purpose of the meeting becomes clear. Guitar soars, electronics drool, the drums fade away, leaving just the grind to clean up the mess.
Power is switched on, and the machines awake, with a crescendo of electronics, and bass like bleeping machines harnessed for the experiment. Drums pound as power is diverted from the city’s urban monads to the portal generator.
It seems to have worked – something has been let through. But the lab staff all agree that ‘Nothing That Lives Has … Such Eyes’. The entity starts to try and communicate, responding with an electronic howl to the experimenter’s repetitive guitar phrase in a hoarse plea for an explanation. But talks break down, and the lab is destroyed as the misunderstood and frustrated Galaxy Being upturns tables, smashes delicate equipment and eventually emerges into the dawn, confronted by the massed ranks of the military.
In the ensuing standoff, we aren’t sure if anyone will survive. Luckily, the visitor can simply fade out of this dimension.
Sadly the cassette-only bonus track will have to be left to our collective imagination, as the cassette is sold out. Perhaps if we all think together, we can read the magnetic particles on the tape, like in the CIA’s Project Stargate in the 70’s.
Alternatively, buy the files off a willing vendor, which is what the CIA ended up doing most of the time anyway.
This one goes back to August last year, but I’m not apologising. I’ve done enough apologising, dammit. It’s another one of those albums with people singing on it, so as I did with Debs, I’ll attempt to dig down into the tundra and bring up some core samples of reactive emotion.
Processed chords, acoustic strumming, and resonant strings combine with the vocals on ‘The Test of Time’ to create an opener that wouldn’t be out of place on an Ian McCulloch solo project.
Kindness is a risk indeed, but the sampled voice on the short-but-sweet sketch ‘Angel Breakdown’ doesn’t decide whether to stick with it or not. The gentle atmospherics of this track convinced me to go for it, though.
Album standout ‘Stars’ has a bit of the Richard Hawleys about it. Again, simple guitar, simple rhythm, simple lyrics, and that background atmospheric stuff that just gets me right there.
I have to admit I thought there were some pitch-shifted vocals in ‘Maple Leaf ft Daisy Davies’. Then I remembered I’m a Dad now, and decided it was actually quite cute.
‘The Light’ compares a receding taillight (on a bike? motorbike?) to the inspiration that you’re seeking. Perhaps the person leaving is what you need? This song actually gets quite heavy on the strumming, with a subtly disconcerting coda.
A sampled TV or radio gives a cosy Sunday feeling to ‘And Live’, but the guitar and backing occupy a much larger space than your living room. Expand your horizons? Or at least go for a nice walk in the refreshing drizzle, made better by the thought of coming home to tea and this album again.
Strings and strums on ‘You Have To Laugh’, with a gentle piano phrase, meander through this interstitial, leading into ‘My Shadow In The Maze’, which could be talking about a pastoral leafy labyrinth, or the dark twists and turns of trying to figure out how you feel. Then straight in with the atmospherics (they know how to get me), the guitar more distant than ever, ‘Rush To Wait’ is another compelling instrumental I could leave on loop.
Rain on the roof and processed piano accompanies the guitar on the album closer ‘Fool Man Runaway’. Guest vocals from Caoilfhionn Rose answer the lead vocals, and a tender piano phrase rounds it off.
Losing your shadow, now you’re seeing stars, then I talk to my best friend, and I finally made it out. A beautiful album, and they’ve had a few releases since it came out, so go and catch up, just at your own sweet pace.