Various Artists – Without Kibou There Is Nothing (punk)
Kibou Records KIBOU003 2013, DD & 7” EP, 12m 1s
£4 7” (red and black vinyl inc. DD)
Twelve minutes is a respectable length for an EP, but with eight tunes on this disc they’re still pretty much crammed in, none of them clocking in closer to two minutes than one-and-a-half. If you think that makes this sound like a sampler, you’d be very wrong: although these bands clearly have much more to say than can be heard here, these eight songs are perfectly concise and self-contained distillations of energy, political rage, atavistic catharsis, humorous aural vandalism or whatever the appropriate term may be (and I’m sure it’s different for each song). What the eight bands collected on Without Kibou There Is Nothing have in common is an allegiance to the frantic and hair-raising end of the punk-rock spectrum; but although it’s pretty much all flat-out intense, the songs are also accessible, rabble-rousing anthems. Rackety without drifting into the avant-garde, and fun without drifting into pop, for me these bands strike the perfect balance; there’s clearly a single coherent aesthetic sense informing the curation of this music. This is the work of James Scott of The Domestics (their stirring ‘Self Abuse’ is the second tune), whose record-releasing and distro nom-de-guerre Kibou Records is; his enthusiasm, commitment, educated ear and activist approach to music could and should serve as an example to the wider music industry. Motivated by a love for the sounds, and informed by a collector and a fan’s awareness of what makes a great release, he’s come up with the sort of record that could disappoint nobody (except those who would have no business buying it in the first place). Before you even hear it your first encounter with this record will be startling, its translucent red vinyl blotched with exploding black bile making it physically fetish-worthy as an object, irrespective of its contents, and the cover is adorned with a collection of photos as brilliantly curated as the music. The whole package is a joy, inside and out, a gripping listen and a tactile treat; if you like hardcore punk, you should buy it. The easier we make it for Scott to break this even, the sooner we’ll see more excellent releases on his young label.
Spiritwo – Primitive Twinship (art-rock)
2013, DD EP, 19m 48s
Angry, bereft and celebratory, ‘Soul Mate’ is a song as complex as the experiences that might be supposed to have inspired it, although its surface is as simple and as irresistible as a fist. It milks the dramatic power of rock’s classic narrative dynamics, but it’s strikingly clear where the tradition ends and Spiritwo begin. It’s an arresting opening to an emotionally and sonically powerful EP. Singer and writer Yael Claire is clearly determined to communicate something specific, and is on an all consuming mission to find the exact language that will be capable of containing it. Whether she is succeeding only she can say, but the music that’s coming into being as a consequence is as unique an expression of a creative individual’s schtick as anything out there. This is not to underplay the contribution of the rest of the band, which includes the artistically promiscuous Charlie Cawood on guitar, but I get the impression she’s the main driving force here; however, the realisation of these songs would be a very different beast without the inventive texture-making and rock solid grooves of her cohorts. There are echoes of the hollowed-out gloom of the post-punk era, in Yael Claire’s singing and in aspects of the arrangements, most notably the stiff funk of ‘Alchemy’, but the band’s sound is no more beholden to those influences than it is to the sources of its heavy rock riffing or its proggy synth lines; the impression I get is not one of stylistic derivation or inheritance, but of the erudite command of a wide range of musical materials. Spiritwo is a band that really knows its stuff. Key to the impact of this music is Yael Claire’s dramatic and flamboyantly expressive vocal delivery, which encompasses a wide range of effects, from an angry shout to a mock-operatic falsetto; ‘Sometimes’, in particular, is a maniacal roller-coaster of intensity and emotional commitment, but her dedication to the production of meaning through the acting out of her songs’ meanings is never less than absolute. Many of the pieces on this release are new versions of those included on the 2012 album Alchemy, which features electronic production, and, as far as I know, none of the other current band members; I would surmise that this EP is a re-boot of the Spiritwo identity as a more rock-focussed, band project. It also differs from the earlier recordings in its lack of any overtly middle-eastern sounding material, although you can still hear hints of Yael Claire’s Israeli cultural heritage in some of her melodic ornaments. I liked the established sound, but if this is statement of the band’s future direction, I have no objections or regrets. Primitive Twinship is a great recording, truly creative and deeply involving songs, brilliantly arranged and produced, and superbly performed by all concerned.
Tonochrome – Interference (avant-rock)
2013, DD & CD EP, 17m 52s
£4+ DD £20+ limited edition of 16 CDs in individually screen-printed boxes by Hedvig S. Thorkildsen
I don’t know whether we’re meant to infer a ton of chromium or some colourful tones (although the latter would certainly be appropriate), but Tonochrome is a name that’s becoming firmly associated in my mind with creative and unconventional rock music. This is only their second release, and the last one was an EP too, so I guess the book’s still open as to what sort of band we’ll all remember them as, when we’re reminiscing on the porch in 2066, sipping our sherry, or Red Bull and vodka, or some other quaint historical beverage. However, a clue as to their direction of travel might be gleaned from the fact that while Interference has added eighteen minutes of music to the twenty-one that were already released, it has only added one song, to whit, ‘Interference’. If you go and look at the Bandcamp page you’ll see that it’s broken up into sections, and indeed, when you listen to it there are several distinct episodes, but it is nevertheless one long composition, played straight through as a single story, rather than a medley of songs connected by segues or creatively irrelevant interludes. This is not ‘pop’ behaviour, assuming as it does an eighteen minute attention span, and the possibility of meanings that require this larger canvas to articulate themselves. Tonochrome plainly harbour some serious creative ambitions, and the more expansive formal structure of their music is matched by the complexity and artistic rigour of the stuff it’s made from. The sound of their sophomore release represents a natural enough progression from the character of their debut, and it’s very recognisably the same band playing, similar compositional concerns being worked out in the same sort of affective space; but the Tonochrome EP was composed of five very distinct songs, sequenced according to a relatively conventional set of assumptions about how to put a few rock songs together into an EP. This is different; if that was a short story collection, Interference is a novel. It opens with a fade-in, some percussion, shortly joined by a bass rocking a potent combination of distortion and vowelly filter-sweep; we’re pretty quickly into a heavy guitar riffing groove with gorgeous harmony vocals floating above it, which sounds great, but could easily have been the opening of a regular length song. Instead it does its thing (with variations) for a bit, then subsides seamlessly into a gentler dynamic and hits us with chapter two. Rinse and repeat. The instrumental texture is basically a set of iterations of crunchy rock with synth and electric piano, but the possibilities thereof are exploited to their full dynamic potential (or near as damn it), without any individual voice feeling it needs to be present all the time, or take the ‘lead’. Harmonically a lot of it is in approachable rock territory, but there are subtly deployed elements of atonality or dissonance at many points, and some beautifully ethereal chord changes. I haven’t analysed the lyrics, and I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess as to what this is ‘about’, but it is rich with meaning, easily enough to keep me rapt for eighteen minutes and wish there was more of it. This is an excellent release on all levels; creatively satisfying, emotionally diverse, totally involving and played with a feel that is never worse than absolutely spot-on. Top-whack malarkey, this.
Tamara And The Martyrs – Shit Joan Shit (art-rock)
Big Red Sky Records BRSCD026 2013, DD & CD EP, 12m 16s
£2+ DD & CD
Tamara Parsons-Baker, who seems to be primarily focussed on her band now, as far as recording goes, has resolutely refused to be defined by the expectations that attach to singer-songwriters. I would love to witness her belting out the terrified and furious sounding conclusion to ‘Come And Get Me’ at an open mic session full of polite and harmonious amateur strummers. Shit Joan Shit compiles two originals, and a compelling reading of the perennial ‘Stagger Lee’, a nineteenth century song that holds the distinction of glorifying the African-American violent criminal underworld nearly a century before N.W.A. had a crack at it. Parsons-Baker’s own material is somewhere outside the mainstream of whatever stylistic tag one might want to slap on it, particularly ‘Come And Get Me’, which strides majestically through themes of creative power and its loss on vast, hefty shanks of rock. But these two songs evince a somewhat less idiosyncratic view of their subjects and of musical aesthetics than her single Get Him Out, or its flip side, a brief choral version of ‘I Stuck It Out’, or several other songs to be found on the less technically accomplished Lover; and that feels like a bit of a retreat to me. Of course it’s hard to assess an artist’s work on the basis of so few recordings, but there was a distinct tendency toward the avant-garde fringes of rock, which is a particular interest of mine; ‘Warm Kiss’, with which this EP closes, is a beautiful, powerful song, arranged and performed with a great deal of drama (not melodrama), and it showcases a songwriter of considerable facility and creative integrity. It’s a great piece of work, and very well recorded to boot, so I’m not going to slate it at all, but it definitely takes a more conventional approach than many of the more joyously unhinged earlier recordings. That’s no criticism, of course, just an observation; Tamara And The Martyrs are really coming into their own as a band, developing a quite distinctive sound, and producing some very powerful, artistically coherent recordings. I’m definitely in the market for a full-length album.
Cotton Ponies – Zwist (math rock)
Discorporate Records DISREC25 2013, DD & 12” EP, 21m 15s
€5+ DD €12+ 12”
Opening track ‘O’ takes about two and a half minutes to settle into something that resembles a fully functional rock texture; that’s a pretty good way in to talking about this music. Cotton Ponies sneak up on rock, they sidle alongside it, not meeting its eye, and slap it with a feel-change before it even knows they’re there. Or to put it more prosaically, they use some of rock’s basic materials, but orchestrate them in unexpected ways, layering rhythms that always add up to whatever they’re supposed to add up to, but which feel altogether off-kilter. Until the final track there are no conventional vocals to make Zwist easy to get a handle on, leaving the listener to seek its meanings in its weird rhythmic augmentations, diminutions and displacements, in its absent melodies and its oblique, schematic harmonies. There is a clear set of echoes from the world of noise-rock, particularly in Cotton Ponies’ instrumental timbres, but for all that this is a collection of six short pieces between two and five minutes in length, the music quite deliberately frustrates any attempt to read it as a set of songs. Continuities are established for the sole purpose of disrupting them; there is much here that will linger in the memory after listening, but nothing that the listener will find themselves humming in the shower. This is not to say that musical ideas are not given the space they need to make themselves clear, but that they are juxtaposed in ways that suggest a fundamental dissatisfaction with the prevailing conventions of rock composition. This is a band that does not abandon the creative process once the music sounds ‘right’, but which pursues formal invention until it sounds oh so very stirringly wrong. Extremely intelligent and rewarding music.
Western Skies Motel – Reflections (acoustic ambient)
Audio Gourmet AGN072 2013, DD EP, 14m 47s
Although it’s easy to hear Reflections as a melancholy EP, I think that’s a slightly superficial characterisation of it; the feeling of the music is more one of liminality than sadness, of a state of perfect poise between two states. That which is to come and that which is to be lost are both equally in view, and both equally unattainable from the precisely balanced perspective articulated here by Western Skies Motel. Nostalgia and anticipation are both elements, but so is a profound and enveloping calm. The music is built around the sound of an acoustic guitar, its meticulously arpeggiated, harmonically open chords creating conditions rather than narratives; there are also other elements, such as a subtly integrated harmonium, and some feedback effects, but none draw any attention to themselves. Reflections is a place, one which will accommodate the interested listener for as long as they choose to leave it on repeat; all human life is not here, but that’s kind of the point. Three tunes define spaces like the dusty rooms of a little frequented motel, from whose rain-spattered windows we can take a moment to gaze out at a world as empty as possibility. A quietly powerful release.
Word Or Object – Tom Jenkins Is A Cunt (grindcore)
_Ultra Yonic 2013, DD EP, 2m 58s
No noise artists were harmed in the making of this release! I say ‘release’ because EP hardly applies to something less than three minutes long, while five tracks is stretching the definition of a single. Evading the descriptive capacities of common coinage is a laudable quality in music, but there’s more. Tom Jenkins (Glaswegian noizebastard also known as Genetic Noose) is, of course, a man, not genitalia, but he’s volunteered for the abuse, and several more so-titled releases are planned by other artists. Word Or Object’s take on the concept is brief and brutish grindcore; this music is over quickly, and it is extremely nasty, both of which are recommendations in my book. Not sure if it involves, guitars, electronics, both, or maybe just goats: when a sound source is this distorted it doesn’t really matter. It’s a lot (a lot) of fun to listen to, and your granny won’t like it.
Yuan Mekong – The Vertical Hold EP (electronica)
Dreamdark 2013, DD EP, 19m 2s
Yuan Mekong, judging by their combination of name, song titles and visual presentation, seem to inhabit a symbolic landscape that integrates Far Eastern and Teutonic elements. The Vertical Hold EP opens with stuttering vocal samples of a distinctly oriental character, in a song named ‘Eftwyrd’, an Anglo-Saxon word for ‘becoming again’ or a renewal of existence; in Christian terms, the resurrection at Doomsday, or in pagan ones, the day after Ragnarok… Another song, a melodic confection of colourful and rhythmic synthesiser pulses, is named ‘Rainbow Bridge’, an idea from Norse mythology, Bifrost, the road from Earth to Heaven. Another is titled ‘Superluminal’, which refers to an optical illusion in astronomy whereby certain distant energetic objects seem to travel in excess of the speed of light. I make no claim to have decoded this EP’s symbolism, or even that it has any intentionally esoteric meanings of that sort, but it’s worth noting that its song titles are as gnomic as its timbres and cover art are candy-coated. The tunes are constructed from a relatively circumscribed palette of synth voices, propulsive but predominantly beatless mechanisms of glittering and inviting sound; the atmospheres they produce are spacey and ethereal, strange but pleasant, and rather less intense than the transcendentalist leanings of their titles might suggest. But that doesn’t imply any disjuncture between verbal and musical meaning: this is serious and complex work, which rewards an immersive and sensual response as much as a detached analytical one, with, in each case, beauty and simplicity.
Eons – For All We Know (ambient)
Edged edg002 2013, DD EP, 2m 31s
Some music is ambient from the bottom up, built from the barest of musical gestures, and the gentlest of interventions; For All We Know sounds as though it was huge and epic, and then everything fell away until we were left with this core of emotional abjection. The music pulses like the sea-swell of a distant storm, felt across a vast ocean; the rain, the wind, the thunder and lightning are all vanished and forgotten, but this immersive, immensely powerful movement remains. The music uses glimmering synth pads, glitchy drones, piano, subterranean bass, concrete elements, dolorous strings, and on one occasion it lurches into a rhythm of wide beats and howling guitar chords. Its atmospheres are beautifully gloomy, but it’s far from one-dimensional, and there’s a good deal of light and shade to it; the production is both inventive and painstaking, with a good sense of the balance between allowing each idea the space to breathe, and moving on before its meanings are over-determined. This is calm music, but too rigorous to be completely comfortable, or easy listening; instead it demands that its listeners find their own beauty in its deep and stirring aesthetic landscape. Wonderful stuff.
20 Days In – Propagation (indie rock)
Painted Ox Records 2013, DD EP, 14m 43s
Melodic and accessible rock, that takes post-hardcore as a launchpad and leaves it far behind. This is all about texture and gloaming melancholy atmospheres, punctuated by dynamic peaks that rely more on thickening orchestration than the usual histrionics. Punishing unison riffs are notable by their absence; 20 Days In assemble their arrangements from tight, simple grooves, colourful guitar ostinatos, and a broad, cinematic sense of narrative dramatics. Startlingly groundbreaking it’s not, but it’s consistently creative and inventive, and it’s informed by a great feel for melody that makes for some very enjoyable music.
The Sound Of Sight – Crumpled Clothes (alt-pop)
Meat Fer Manners MFM-001, DD & CD EP, 8m 17s
£0+ DD £5+ CD (limited edition of 24 in handmade sleeves)
In terms of their textures and timbres The Sound Of Sight nail the vibe of 1960s British pop pretty precisely, and the songs are a good fit too. Which is fortunate, because they specifically say that’s what they do (in their Bandcamp tags). There’s a fair amount of whimsy in this music, which is also a defining characteristic of that 60s sound, but not enough to make it insubstantial. These are insistently positive, entertaining songs, performed with a light touch and the right degree of vim, impeccably arranged and produced, overflowing with a delight in gentle wordplay and warm, open harmonies. It’s utterly, unfeasibly charming, and you can even dance to it. What more could you ask for?
Matt Watson – New Life (singer-songwriter)
2013, DD EP, 14m 34s
Matt Watson’s opening salvo is a full broadside of his powerful, hoarsely impassioned voice. This is his most striking attribute as a performer, although he has all the necessary bases covered. The songs are forward-looking and optimistic, as you might imagine from the EP’s title, with accessible, infectious melodies; ‘A New Life’ and ‘Hanging Around’ are driven along by chunky, emphatic strums on an acoustic guitar, but ‘Buttons’ has a subtler bluegrass swing to it, and ‘Loopalele’ is an evolving Afro-Latin groove with a simple chant by way of a vocal. Watson has clearly made the crucial observation that everyone has already heard a lot of sincere, wordy songs with acoustic guitar accompaniment, and his creativity extends beyond the crafting of his lyrics and melodies. Well conceived, well executed and a very engaging listen.
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