It has been a long while since I reviewed any music: my life became rather full of obligations, which reduced my output and eventually halted it altogether. Between then and now I have had the chance to reflect on what had become a somewhat procedural activity, and I have reached a few decisions. From now on, I will write about only one record at a time, and I will write about only those submissions that I feel are particularly interesting objects for discussion, rather than prioritising by quality, by aesthetic preference, or by the receipt of a physical submission. However, at the point at which I realised I couldn’t possibly square the circle of continuing to write reviews and meeting the various commitments I had taken on, I had just prepared for a set of reviews, a ‘roundup’ of twelve albums, and begun to make some notes for them. On resolving to return to music criticism, I decided that whatever direction my music writing would take in the future, I would tend to this unfinished business first.
The term hamartia refers to the defining flaw of the tragic hero. It was once regarded as a moral failing, although modern authorities have characterised it as intellectual error – I imagine its meaning as a concept in Classical dramaturgy is not identical to either, but related to both. Regardless, it is something without which the hero of tragedy is no hero: it is the flaw that makes him worthy of interest. I haven’t analysed their lyrics in detail, but Eyes Of A Blue Dog tell us on their website that it is in relation to this trope that they deploy imagery of ‘hedonism, morality, debauchery and pleasure’. One might speculate that their distinctive combination of electronic and bodily sound production is also related, each field flawed by the other, made both tragic and beautiful. Layered atmospheres, indebted to dreampop, are structured by muscular beats and thrown into relief by fat-toned, uncial trumpet. Elisabeth Nygaard’s cool vocal delivery maintains an air of detachment, even as it offers easy, analgesic comfort to the ear. On Hamartia the band stand a little apart from the involving emotional web they produce, enunciating their observations with the ruthless sympathy of a third-person narrator – albeit with the grammatical intimacy of the first and second. This is an album of intelligent, attractive, and decidedly accomplished pop.
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The soaring violin that enters early in opener ‘Kissed by the Sun’ is the most distinctive thing about the sound of this idiomatically faithful progressive rock album. Sadly that’s its only appearance. It has to be said however, that if you’re looking for marks of distinction, musicianship like that which The Aaron Clift Experiment display is not something you encounter every day. The playing is superb, and the arrangements are sophisticated, employing a wide range of textures and devices. Although Outer Light, Inner Darkness is far from unconventional, it is often melodically and rhythmically inventive, and it is very cleverly orchestrated, with a powerful sense of narrative drama. There are thunderous passages of heavy guitar, and three tunes feature beautifully sonorous string scoring, but neither of these textures dominates, taking their places among the other resources in play, and made to serve the needs of the over-arching affective story. For the ‘prog fan’ there’s not much to fault about this superbly realised and produced recording, but for all its sophistication and even experimentation, the album rests on unexamined conventional assumptions around musical aesthetics and performance, and its lyrical texts do not seem particularly insightful, classical allusions notwithstanding. It does what it does very well, but challenging it ain’t, and ultimately it seems only to revisit territory that has already been very well-trodden indeed.
The Mining Co.’s brand of Americana tends toward the melancholy, with a sparse sound as full of wide-open spaces as the landscape it evokes. Elements like pedal steel or organ serve to bind the bare bones of the rhythm section together and smooth them out, but the voids they bridge are really the heart of this album. It’s not exactly American gothic, and it’s not even really gloomy, although it might present a dark surface superficially: it’s more that it has a wistful affection for loneliness. Burning Sun & The Atomic Powers Within is a hymn to the joy of melancholy. The record is realised with a gentle, un-showy approach, placing notes where they need to go and giving them room to spread ripples in the listener’s attention: guitar breaks are more like washes of colour; rare vocal harmonies are simple thickenings of the texture; the drums are a subterranean rumble. The acid test of such a record is, of course, the quality of its songs, and on that front Mike Gallagher, for whom The Mining Co. seems to be an alias, definitely has it covered. They’re as simple and as idiomatically exact as the arrangements and performances, but they turn their corners exactly where they need to, and most importantly, they offer a nuanced take on the country music tradition that is not groundbreaking, but that is aesthetically unique. Whatever it is Gallagher is selling, you won’t get it elsewhere.
This is an amateur record, in the best sense of the word. The most accomplished recordings, however professional they may be, are only worth a damn if their authors are also amateurs, if they are playing for love. You can hear the sheer pleasure Carl Scott takes in his music-making in every note here. There’s nothing flash about these songs or performances, but they are realised with polish and panache, the production a tissue of clarity and understated invention. The songs are mainly built on grooves, with an episodic structure, propelled by Scott’s vigorously strummed open-tuned guitar, which gives them an open, outward-looking quality. There’s a strong element of progressive rock in the orchestration and stylistic palette, although little of its complexity or conspicuous virtuosity, and the songs are well served by Sam Thurlow’s excellent percussion work and Fern Teather’s expressive backing vocals. The lyrics present an individual perspective on life and landscape, one that is animated by the personal and social histories embodied in the present, Scott’s vocal performances presenting his observations with sincerity and gusto. This album sets its sights on an achievable creative goal, and then completely overshoots what would have been required to achieve it, simply bursting at the seams with the sheer zeal and glee that went into its making.
This is a live album, but not in the usual sense: where concert recordings are usually presented by musical artists as ancillary to their studio releases, Savour Life is a primary document. Keith Sadler was attempting to address a problem that has dogged recording artists since the inception of the medium: studio recordings, for various reasons, often lack the very elements that give an ensemble its value: commitment, intensity, coherence, risk, rapport. Conversely, live recordings rarely have the clarity of the studio, and the performances are rarely as precise. This, Sadler’s first album-length release, was recorded before a paying audience in a concert venue with the intention of favouring the former set of values: as a consequence its edges are rough, the acoustic instruments lack depth and clarity, and the performances are far from seamless. These ‘faults’ serve only to enhance the listening experience, however, to create a sense of presence and frailty that is both compelling and emotionally involving. Original songs and well-chosen covers are both delivered with complete commitment, but also with a generosity and a lightness of touch that highlights just how much of the performing musician’s craft is about creating a connection with the audience. Well-written, well-played, and well-lived: this is not only a very listenable album, but one that communicates its affective and aesthetic meanings far more effectively than many far better-resourced productions.
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The Posies are not afraid to own their stylistic associations: ‘We R Power’ is the title of this record’s opening track, and the predominant texture throughout is exactly the kind of energetic guitar pop that you might expect from something that’s described as ‘power-pop’. So far, so retro: this is a band that’s been around for thirty-years, and power-pop was not a new style at its inception, but it is one that’s endured solidly beyond the end of its tenure as a commercial genre. The Posies are little known in the UK, but they had a couple of early 90s national chart successes in the US, and they are continuing to plough a furrow founded on the traditional ingredients of appealing melodic hooks, sweet harmonies, propulsive rhythm section feels, and feel-good lyrics focussed on the ups and downs of romantic relationships. Solid States is realised with very slick and sophisticated orchestration and production, resulting in a seamless and accomplished wall of noise which is engaging and immersive, if somewhat lacking in the raw, rough edges that sometimes help to give listeners a handle on guitar music. It’s an emotionally uncomplicated sound, constantly moving forward: this is excellent driving or party music— not overly reflective, and dwelling on the negative mainly only in order to elicit a sense of recognition. New ground is not being broken, but the record is enjoyable and generously entertaining.
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This is pretty basic, old-school stuff, something for which there’s an ongoing demand: sometimes you just need to shout ‘fuck it’ and knock back some beers. Resistance 77 have some politics, but it’s nothing earth-shattering: the popular press are a bunch of liars, the state is not your friend, politicians are crooks, war is pointless… Princess Di was assassinated? Songs like these are less about persuading anyone to change their mind than they are about waving a banner for the like-minded to congregate around and party out the fury. As one appositely-titled song has it, this is music for those who, however old they get, will always be ‘Young & Wrong’. Named on their 1979 formation to indicate an allegiance to the sounds of 1977 that by then were being displaced by thrash, the band still cleave pretty closely to the founding formulae of British punk, grinding out a foot-stomping river of loud, lo-fi guitars, tight power-pop beats, anti-virtuosic vocals and solos and never diminishing angry energy. Something important happened around 1977, an explosion that threw shrapnel in every direction, and some of it still shows very little sign of changing course.
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Textural delicacy is married to a demanding and finely-shaded harmonic palette in this collection of lyric-scale pieces, which hover with fruitful indeterminacy on the boundary between composition and improvisation. The vocabulary echoes modern jazz and ‘new music’ in more or less equal measure, although the orchestration, whose resources are pizzicato bass, trap drums, vibraphone, accordion, clarinet and tenor sax, leans clearly towards the former, and I expect most listeners will file Super Petite under ‘weird jazz’. The ambiguous tonalities of these ten short compositions produce somewhat unsettling atmospheres, which may be disorientating for the less adventurous ear, but the material is not heavy or brooding, and the performances are shot through with glimmering threads of wit and humour. It is obviously hard to say, as a listener—especially to a recording—what is extemporised and what is composed, but there are ensemble passages which are quite obviously scored, and others which it would have been a pointless waste of effort to write out for a group of skilled improvisers. However, irrespective of what went on the other side of the mic, the specific aesthetic values of emergent and constructed music-making are deployed to secure particular affective results, results which are frankly startling. A portal is opened in the meniscus that separates the ordered cognitive domain of composition from the gnostic heterotopia of improvisation; beauty is found at the edges of musical languages. This is a strikingly insightful album, and deeply involving for any listener willing to be as attentive as it deserves.
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If The Claudia Quintet open a portal in the boundary between reason and gnosis, then Laniakea systematically erode it, spreading like a colonial organism over both sides of that membrane. A Pot Of Powdered Nettles is built up in laminations of gradually evolving drones, a chorus of vocal and non-vocal voices, ranging from deep, doom-laden guitars, through melancholy chants, to twinkling upper-register filigrees, moving in atavistic unity through slow waves of expansion and contraction. The sound is sonorous, complex, and ponderous, with pronounced devotional and ritual qualities—it is as much the trace of a process as it is an aesthetic object. This music is made in memory of Ian Johnstone, a Coil associate whose north London home was a refuge for various creative people, including Daniel O’Sullivan of Ulver (and previously of Guapo) He collaborates here with Massimo Pupillo of Zu to share a lasting reverberation of the sacred space that Johnstone’s home enclosed. Though experimental, and produced with little respect for established idiomatic boundaries, A Pot of Powdered Nettles does not set out to disturb or unsettle, and does so only incidentally, in offering ways of hearing and modes of experience which may be unfamiliar to some listeners: it is an unselfish record, which attempts to relate the isolated granularities of experience to broader, deeper continuities. The extent to which it succeeds will depend on the willingness of the listener to become a celebrant in its ceremonial soundworld—not too steep a demand, given the broad textural beauty of the aural cloth that O’Sullivan and Pupillo weave, unfolding and billowing in clouds of colour until it fades on a crackle of static, foregrounding the fugitive materiality of the recording.
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A solo live-looping acoustic guitar performance, devoid of vocals, sounds unlikely territory for adjectival phrases like ‘punk energy’, but if there’s a tangible affective distinction between the live set that makes up most of this record and the studio versions of the songs, it’s that. You can hear Matt Stevens sweating this music over his battered guitar. The harmonies are expansive, with just a mordant edge to their enveloping consonances, and although the melodies are shapely, they usually take at least one unexpected turning before they find cadential closure – but it’s the sten-gun savagery with which he chops out his rapid-fire chordal textures that lends this record its relentless energy. There is light and shade of course: ‘A Boy’ is a study in lyrical tranquility, ‘Oxymoron’ is a mid-tempo chorale that’s all about its melodies, and there are pretty moments in every tune. But when Stevens plays live he gives it everything, and you can hear that investment in each note of this record. The live set closes with the overwhelmingly anthemic ‘Big Sky’ from his second studio release, and is followed by a small but perfectly formed selection of mostly unreleased studio material (including the superb ‘Peccadillo’, recorded for a 2011 compilation). And with that, Matt Stevens’ solo career is parked on indefinite hiatus: you’ll have to listen to The Fierce and the Dead if you want more (which, of course, you do).
Absurdity is a strategy. Like a Zen koan, Jumble Hole Clough juxtaposes the ridiculous to the profound, and highlights the paradox that is at the heart of both. Lyrically, this album veers between the luxuriantly psychedelic and the apparently random—between un-sense and non-sense: there is probably a useful distinction to be made between the ‘un’ and the ‘non’, but it needn’t hang us up here. Colin Robinson’s arrangements are built on grooves, often with swirling soundscapes elaborated above them, although the orchestration is never excessively elaborate, and the music as a whole seems addressed to whole people. It impels the body to move, it envelops the experiential faculty, and it elicits questions: it delivers a triple-lock, on pelvis, heart and head, which is really as much as you can ask of any artwork. There seems to be a significant element within the arts’ audiences that likes meaningful enquiries to be made with a straight face, and that element (well represented in the prog-rock fraternity) may not be able to take this music seriously; but what Robinson understands, in common with the Zen masters, the proponents of deconstruction, dramatists such as Tom Stoppard or Samuel Beckett, and a broad element in culture as large as the straight-faced one, is that nothing can be truly profound if it is humourless. Laughter is, like knowledge, a knife, and on Bela Lugosi’s Dad it is deployed incisively.
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All music is a re-speaking of things already said, but it is one thing to take the histories of your immediate antecedents as given, and another altogether to make music from a deep engagement with those stories from which we construct the absent past. Craig Fortnam knows many such stories, and in the re-tellings which constitute his large ensemble, North Sea Radio Orchestra, we can hear many aspects and episodes of the grand epic that we could refer to, roughly, as ‘British music’. The broad parallelisms of early music, the intricate counterpoint of the Baroque, the virtuosic communities of ‘folk’, the affective shadings of chamber music and the pastoral, the wry mischief of psychedelic pop… In rooting his creative practice so deeply Fortnam escapes the straitjacket of genre, and reclaims style as a theatre for creative work, rather than a set of simple menu items. The music on Dronne is orchestrated in complex textures, timbrally rich and harmonically nuanced, but it is always open and appealing, and however dense it gets it is never dark. Light can always find its heart, through paths purposely left clear: melodies are poised on tiptoe above the tonality, and chord sequences pronounce human narratives that we have all heard before with absolute novelty. This music digs deep through the soil on which it stands, and finds a kind of indigeneity unrelated to the political artifice of nationality—one which overtly strays beyond the shores of this little island and into France. Without ever offering the comfort of safe stylistic familiarity, or the reactionary aesthetics that go with it, Dronne is a garden of abiding and nourishing beauty, to which I will return repeatedly.