£0+ DD £5 CD
Why do I write reviews? Largely so that I can blag free music instead of buying it like everyone else, and so I can kid my conscience that my inane ramblings are an adequate substitute for paying musicians their due. Of course I can (and will, given half a chance) list any number of more high-minded motivations, but I always feel that the transaction is balanced in my favour; so when this CD was pressed on me by guitarist Simon Rollo, and a review requested with the circumspection of a man asking me to clean the diarrhoea off his sofa, I was amused, embarrassed and confirmed in my impression of Three Thrones, which is that whatever they’re full of, it’s not themselves. Self-effacing they may be, in person and on stage (except drummer Ben Harris, who’s sitting down), but their music is loud and forthright; there is a sense though, that it’s not really about them. They undoubtedly ‘put themselves into’ their music, with sincerity and passion, but it feels as much a process of exploration as of invention, discovering uncharted riffs and sharing them as faithfully as possible, with the minimum of showing off. ‘Black Kraken’ has some lovely lead guitar sounds, which are presented in such a way as to express their timbres and textures most completely, rather than to express the melodic invention or technical facility of the player. These four pieces all display a true enthusiast’s feel for the melodic, rhythmic and textural elements that make a riff both compelling, and heavy as fuck; there is no singing, and in the absence of a vocal melody the orchestration is almost monodic, with some limited call-and-response between Ian Neal’s grinding jackhammer bass and a guitar sound that might best be described as hairy treacle (when it’s flat out). There are three pairs of hands on one sledgehammer here, driving musical meanings so far into the earth that they become a part of it. This is a sonically intense EP, with playing as solid as masonry, and dramatically involving compositions that are as emotionally generous as they are formally creative, spinning narratives from a constantly evolving guitar sound, and the light and shade of their dynamics. Three Thrones is a truly superb debut release, from one of a wave of progressive sludge/ doom acts currently sweeping across north Essex and south Suffolk like a wave of conquering Vikings.
Styles and genres are a funny thing. I don’t think I’d be controversial in assuming that Lockersludge self-identify as sludge metal, given their name, even if they didn’t explicitly say so in their press release. They also name-check Crowbar as an inspiration, and there are audible similarities, but to be honest, they sound more like a hardcore band to me. True, their guitars are definitely on the thick and meaty side, and some of their riffs sound pretty metal, but on the whole the combination of hoarsely shouted declamatory vocals and anthemic rabble-rousing songs, with hell-for-leather, brutal playing make for a sound that would raise few eyebrows at a punk gig. I guess the balance hinges on whether the emphasis seems to lie more on the riffs or the songs; metal (to generalise wildly) is about the riffs and what they do to you, while punk (to generalise equally wildly) is more about what it says to you. Either way, (as regular readers will realise) I don’t mean any of this as a criticism, just as an interesting insight into the way that an awareness of style can inform artists’ practice. Falling On Our Faces collects five songs of enormous power and commitment, that seem ostensibly to apply a simple formula of full frontal rock artillery, but actually show a good deal of lightly-worn sophistication, particularly in the way dissonance is used to build tension, as with the lead guitar obbligato in ‘Grinding To A Halt’. This is balls-out, hairy music to get fired-up to, composed and performed with unremitting intensity. It’s good shit.
£4 DD £5 CD
Pleasingly consonant harmonised melodic hooks, an open and inviting sound, a generally non-heavy approach to rock textures, including piano and non-mental synth. Sounds conventional? Odd time signatures, disturbing whispered vocal intros, complex laminar soundscapes, intricate song structures, weird lyrics. What, at the same time? For real. Borderline bizarre and uncompromisingly creative, Tonochrome don’t feel the need to be anything less than accessible in their aesthetic, which values melody, rhythmic drive, shifting timbres, and the combination of intellectual and visceral stimulation I usually associate with the cinema. Is there a name for this sort of willfully unconventional creative practice? Well, a few terms have been bandied about recently: avant-prog, not-shit-prog (my favourite), avant-rock, vanguard rock (I suggested it once, to my knowledge nobody else has ever said it), and Matt Stevens came up with Prog In Opposition (too long a story to tell here, but look up Rock In Opposition if you don’t get the reference); the point being not that Tonochrome need classifying (I’m sure they’ll continue to be gloriously, idiosyncratically musical whatever we call them), or because they sound generic in any way, but because there seems to be something in the air. Guitarist Charlie Cawood also plays bass in the magnificent Knifeworld, central figures in an effusive avant-garde upwelling of creative and original rock music, of which Tonochrome seem to be the latest example to land in my inbox. So beyond the description above, how would I rate them? Brilliant writing, played with great precision and feel, very entertaining, and a rich meal of complex emotional flavours. Serious art, that’s a real pleasure to listen to.
Earthmass, with their second release, now have two tracks in circulation. This is the short one, at eight and a half minutes. The initial movement (can an eight minute composition have movements? In this case, yes) is a driving mid-tempo groove of dark minor harmonies and grinding distortion (with a small hole in the middle), which shifts gears seamlessly into a dramatic plaint animated by a simple bass hook, made unbearably moving by the unadorned simplicity of its vocal melody. Then it gets loud again, and other things happen. My aim is not to tell you everything that happens, but to point out that lots of different things happen, and that they add up to a very coherent utterance; this is music that could easily find itself being described as progressive, and one characteristic Earthmass share with the first wave of rock to claim that label is a concern with the potential of long form composition for thematic development. Ancients is not at all strophic, but it does make effective use of repetition, the simplest of ostinatos developing affective complexity by dint of their persistent presence and the most subtle of variations; the primary signifying mechanism of the composition is, as with the debut Lunar Dawn (Keep, Relic & Ritual), a mesmeric appeal directly to the brainstem, presenting its ineluctable sound as the tangible matter and physical cause of its meanings. A part of the same wave I mentioned above in reviewing Three Thrones, Earthmass confirm their already established creativity with this brilliant release.
Six tracks, under seven minutes; pretty much the opposite of the Earthmass EP reviewed above, then. Oh no. We can’t conceive. is constructed from blast beats, manic guitar riffing, demonic roaring and transgressive imagery; it is an essay in the jouissance of obscenity facilitated by the electric guitar (and associated technologies), which is a high fallutin’ way of saying that it’s an awful noise and a lot of fun. Guitarist Scott Crocker will be familiar to regular readers for his prolific output under the Barren Waste and The Light That Kills banners, both roughly a bazillion miles away from DrugRunner in terms of creative practice (although Barren Waste had its moments in noise rock mode). What is not a bazillion miles away is the committed creativity and total independence that informs the work – there’s a lot going on in these short, piledriver songs. Like the cover, with its disappointed steaming turd couple, this music is both funny and completely insane. I’m tempted to say ‘good shit’, but it’s too obvious, and I’ve used it once already in this roundup; so let’s just say that if you hate this, you were probably meant to, and that if you don’t hate it, you will enjoy the hell out of it.
Ian Thistlethwaite’s latest solo release, Fiddlepunkalopogus, consists of a variety of well trodden session tunes (we’re in Celtic fiddle territory), set to a rough and ready punk rock accompaniment. This collaboration with FK:Dup features a fistful more well known pub-stomping melodies, apparently recorded with the same equipment and in the same space, but this time accompanied by a churning engine of dark and uncompromising electronics. This is actually a very effective way of breathing new life into the material, which has been so used and abused over the years that anyone who actively consumes folk music will definitely have heard it; attacking its potential on an instrumental level would be a very large ask, and would commit you to years of full time practice if you wanted to say anything that hadn’t already been said by the likes of Seán Smyth or Martin Hayes. Of course there have been no shortage of fusions over the years, but this one works particularly well; it presents the material very straightforwardly, and essentially responds to it rather than interpreting it, with a very creatively deployed arsenal of sounds and beats. Thistlewaite’s tone is husky and raw, recorded without the exquisitely smooth full range clarity that is probably the norm on fiddle records nowadays, but also without the claustrophobic lifelessness that tends to accompany that approach; he sticks to the middle tempi, and phrases with conviction and understanding. All in all Aloha is a very successful experiment, and I hope to hear more in this vein.
Blues rock is well-charted territory, and when a band claims it as their own I tend to steel myself for a restatement of the themes that made for gig-going tedium in my teens; at one time only blues bands could get gigs, and their licks? I know them. Cherry White play bluesy material, rather than just twelve-bars, which helps a lot (knowing exactly where the harmony is going tends to undermine narrative tension a tad), and while their approach is hardly a radical departure from the traditions of the genre, they strike pretty much the right balance, bringing enough novelty (and enthusiasm) to proceedings to sound fresh. One common pitfall they avoid is in not assuming that we’ll be really impressed to discover that the guitarist can play his instrument, including (gasp) the high notes; instead their EP showcases some really nice playing, from all quarters, and a tight, compelling groove, but no grandstanding, and no emotional histrionics. In fact, while there is warmth, and invitingly catchy melody, there is also a welcome cool restraint about the sound, especially in Charlotte Jo Hanbury’s vocals, and every time it sounds as though it’s about to get cheesy and melodramatic, the melody pursues just the right contour to convince even this cynic. There’s nowt to upset any applecarts here, but these are some shit-kicking songs, superbly performed and recorded.
Runny Bum Records £0+ DD
I’ve mentioned a couple of underground rock scenes above, and Paul Rhodes has connections to both of them. He’s recorded most of the interesting bands in the Essex/ Suffolk borders, and is a big fan of the quietly burgeoning British avant-rock scene, of which he deserves to be a central part, if only he can find enough musicians up to the technical challenge of performing the bizarre and demanding material he writes and records as Hobopope And The Goldfish Cathedral. He tends towards hardcore and thrash textures, although he employs a wide range of dynamics and densities within his complex compositions; tonally dissonant much of the time, phrased in asymmetric additive rhythms, his material is also characterised by disturbingly absurdist lyrical themes and a tendency to turn corners abruptly. Corsair Carnage was recorded some time ago, but this Bandcamp release is its first public outing; as far as I know it features Rhodes’ playing exclusively, including his first attempt at recording with an electronic drum kit (which is quite impressive given the complexity of the material). The sound is very clean and full, but still informed by that ragged integrity which is Rhodes’ trademark as a producer, while the performances are full of commitment and (appropriate) insanity. I can really only sum this up by raving incoherently about its brilliance, and demanding that you listen to it immediately.
Automation Records AUTO041 $0 DD
Keyboard Kid produces for Lil’B, founder of the Based movement of West Coast weirdo hip-hop, which, while slightly more notorious than it deserves to be (I know of some equally whacked-out and creative stuff that hardly anybody has heard of), is a fertile site for innovation at the moment. Challenger is a slab of phat yet skittish electro, more atmospheric than floor-filling, but still very heavy in the bottom end; there’s not a great deal to it, just a simple statement of a timbral/ rhythmic idea, but it’s a very enjoyable listen, and a finely tuned piece of work.
Killamari Records £0+ DD
Only a bit of water celebrates these two collaborators, from Bristol and Boston respectively. Sam Krats is a rising name, with a history of association with known felons Grem!i Da Muke and Chattabox leading onto collaborations with some well known names; Nabo Rawk was news to me, but on the basis of this track I’ll be following his progress with interest. Step Back is pretty old school, an irresistibly funky slice of boom-bap blessed with poised verbal swagger. It’s not saying anything excessively radical, but it’s a splendid head-nodder, backed with an equally funky remix from Jim Sharp and the obligatory instrumental and acappella versions. Top tune.