More by accident than design: now there’s a cliché; in music as in life. A happy accident occurred mere weeks ago, when noted British singer-songwriter, Steven Wilson lost his voice at a New York gig and back-up singer Ninet Tayeb stepped up to the plate to perform all his parts on a one-off rendition of his last, flawed album Hand. Cannot. Erase. Happy because said album was written in Wilson‘s imagination from the perspective of a female protagonist; and the aforementioned flaw is mostly, if not entirely the lack of authentic female voice. I can’t vouch for any improvement re Tayeb‘s rendition, only imagine it myself based on her contribution to the Brighton gig I attended: bluntly, she stole the show – and this on the back of three songs, including a fantastic take on Space Oddity.
There’s nothing accidental about Confessions Of A Romance Novelist, the latest release from Catherine Ann Davies – aka The Anchoress. It’s a concept album of sorts, and artful in the best way; pulling the prog trick of drawing together disparate styles, moods and time signatures into a cohesive whole.
Long Year recalls Morcheeba’s swampy trip hop; Popular invokes Kate Bush; p.s. Fuck You is smooth R’n’B with biting lyrics not quite disguised by perfectly understated delivery; Bury Me resembles nothing so much as Amy Lee – of Evanescence fame – in balladic mode; Chip On Your Shoulder is a bit Ladyhawke…
It’s wistful, confessional, soulful and angry by turns, gripping from start to finish.
Co-writer’s – Mansun‘s – Paul Draper‘s* hand is all over Confessions…, but unlike – the aforementioned – Wilson, he seems happy to play second fiddle. He contributes characteristic melodic sense to his duet, You and Only You, as well as instrumentation and production thruout, but never gets in the way of Davies‘ story.
As accessible, female-led art pop goes, this is up there with Alanis Morissette‘s – criminally-underrated ‘difficult sophomore’ – Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie; Paula Cole‘s – raw, incandescent debut, This Fire and Janelle Monae‘s Metropolis twofer.
Check in with the anchoress and order the album:
*Draper’s first solo . If it’s a patch on Attack Of The Grey Lantern and Six we’ll be in for a treat
‘…The four biggest British bands of the mid-nineties – Radiohead, Oasis, Blur and the Verve – had yet to release their iconic albums which would shape the course of the UK scene for the rest of the decade … Had this album been released as planned, it would have had a major impact on UK guitar music, standing shoulder to shoulder with the breakthrough albums by the bands mentioned above…’
…So reads the blurb on the Bandcamp website, thru which – in collaboration with Flashback Records – was realised the two decades-delayed release of Levitation’s ‘difficult second’. Like dead rock stars, ‘lost’ albums have a propensity for coalescing about them an impenetrable miasma of hyperbole and partial affection, fueled by a generally small but disproportionately loud and loquacious clique of devotees. Levitation attracted such a crowd back in the early ’90s, and deservedly so, in this writer’s opinion. Their early singles and EPs showed great promise, and debut album, Need For Not stands as one of the finest 45 minutes of rock music of that decade.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine Meanwhile Gardens impressing the pop crowd in quite the same way as Definitely Maybe‘s meat-and-potatoes rock. Blur and Verve both played something of a long game, by contrast; taking their time to hone their sound for the masses (though not as long as Pulp!) as did Radiohead later. King Of Mice as Christmas #1? Nah.
It would be a shame, then, to allow such overbaked pontifications to obscure the fact that, yes, MG is a very good album and one which, like another unlikely group of one-time pop superstars, Marillion, deserves a fair hearing.
It’s a very different record to NFN. In some ways, it’s almost a backwards step: live favourites/single material such as Bedlam, Rosemary Jones and Purgatory had a looseness borne of the jam: not a million miles from early Verve, albeit angrier, more brooding. NFN by contrast, was a much tighter affair, albeit retaining that otherworldly feel which fans of ’60s/’70s psych/prog instantly latched onto. As an album it feels very complete; exploding out of the starting gates with Against Nature, World Around, Hangnail and Resist before settling into the ebbs and swells of a more melancholy second set. Closer, Coterie actually reminds me of nothing as much as Fields Of The Neph circa Elizium: all cascading drums and layered atmospheres, and a couple tracks aside, MG adopts that (latter) as an album-length blueprint. It has both sprawl and purpose in good measure.
When it falls down it’s not for the most obvious reasons: Food For Powder begins the album but feels like an ending; Even When Your Eyes Are Open is the sole concession to verse-chorus-verse-middle eight-chorus… ‘pop’ songwriting and so sticks out like a sore thumb. I would have relegated those tracks along with Never Odd Or Even/ Greymouth/Going Faster to the EP for a more harmonious feel acrosss both discs.
Those gripes aside, all the qualities a fan would expect and want to hear are present and correct: Dave Francolini and Laurence o’Keefe are/were the best rhythm section in indie rock, and their instinctive interplay underpins and propels this album much as it did NFN (and Dark Star‘s 20-20 Sound all the more seven years after). Bodiless, King Of Mice and Imagine The Sharks are brilliant examples of ‘songs’ that hang on questing, dynamic rhythms augmented by atmospheric touches from guitar and keys; not to mention some characteristic orchestration courtesy of Cardiacs‘ Tim Smith during Magnifying Glass and Burrows.
And over all hangs Terry Bickers’ calculated anguish: background noise in his House Of Love days, now swimming gloriously to the fore.
MG is both recogniseably NFN‘s sequel but so much more, though ironically, it’s the judicial layering and sequencing of sound that takes it into – ethereal – new territory: like Talk Talk before them, and Radiohead a few years later.
Coolly sidestep nostalgia but make a point of (re)discovering this band before interest wanes. They need to regroup and get some gigs together.
You can do anything you want, as long as it makes sense… so sang Blaine Harrison on Making Dens, Mystery Jets 2006 debut.
The arc of MJ‘s career probably only made sense to them at the time – lurching from playful prog on the aforementioned, thru breezy dancefloor pop to Stateside-friendly AOR over the intervening years.
CotE leans towards the latter – and whilst it’s perhaps their most self-consciously ‘muso’ effort since MD, it’s no return to form, despite what you might have heard. That album was front-loaded with cleverness that is more court jester than crimson king: almost felt like the band were trying to butter us up with quirky ditties, You Can’t Fool Me, Dennis in order to slip the pomp and circumlocution of Zoo Time and Making Dens under the radar of the art-rock snobberati.
CotE is an earnest, slickly delivered product by comparison; nothing spiky, off key or frivolous to distract from its sense of purpose. No track breaks either: it’s a suite, Dark Side of the Moon-stylee, and like the Floyd classic, it’s an album attuned to universal themes, by turns fragile and grandiose, building track by track into something extraordinary. It actually sounds little like Floyd – except for the opening section of Blood Red Balloon, a melody which could have been written by Roger Waters – but inescapably belongs to the same tradition as DSotM and OK Computer. Harrison‘s voice is as plaintive as Thom Yorke‘s, albeit less whiney, and indeed, the album is altogether more approachable than anything the Oxford boys have achieved. I can imagine trailer single Telomere drew in a few of their fans, though, not to mention admirers of Keane, Public Symphony, Marillion, Muse, Turin Brakes. They followed it with Bubblegum (below) which neatly exemplifies the perfect hi-brow/lo-brow aesthetic.
One of the best albums I’ve heard in a while.
Way back in 2013 I posted a couple short missives/teasers (here and here) regarding Simon (son of Phil) Collins’ Sound Of Contact project with multi-instrumentalist/producer Dave Kerzner, and mysteriously failed to follow it up with an album review. Shame on me, then, for whilst Dimensionaut was initially a slow grower, it’s proved to be record deserving of repeated spins over the last year and a half. ‘Nu Prog’ is perhaps rightly derided for borrowing the musical template of the pioneering ’70s acts – long songs, instrumental showboating, conceptual contrivances – without really adding much in terms of originality or imagination. Certainly there are bands guilty on these counts – Riverside, early The Tangent and DeeExpus spring to mind – though for me the cardinal sin committed by such bands is their inability to oftentimes muster a memorable tune. Sound of Contact are not such a band, and whilst I enjoyed Dimensionaut from first listen, it was from repeated spins that I learned to really love it. Another recently-purchased album that falls loosely into the aforementioned ‘genre’ is Please Come Home by John Mitchell, aka Lonely Robot. The two artists (and albums) have, on the face of it much in common: overarching sci-fi themes; driving-force musical presences with a reluctance to commit their names to the project; a preponderance for hummable melody over musical excess (not always the case with ‘prog’ type acts).
Mitchell, and to a lesser extent, Collins are both well established ‘names’, at least on a cult-following level. As a long time Marillion fan I discovered the former thru his previous band Kino, featuring Pete Trewavas on bass guitar. He is also a key member of Jem Godfrey‘s Frost* project (third album, anytime soon?) whose Milliontown album remains a high watermark of Nu Prog. (Ironically, if casual listeners are familiar with Godfrey at all, it’s more likely to be thru his work with pure pop fodder such as Blue, Shayne Ward and Atomic Kitten). PCH could be an album by either of those artists, though, despite some input from Godfrey, it more closely resembles Kino. There is a certain ubiquity of melody and style which is distinctly Mitchell, albeit one which chimes rather well with Godfrey‘s and with the broader Nu Prog aesthetic. You can hear such an aesthetic in the work of bands as disparate as Fair To Midland, Doves, Everything Everything and Mystery Jets; one of making music that perfectly combines the demands of pop immediacy with complexity and depth. It’s not a million miles from the ’70s Art Rock blueprint mapped out by the likes of 10cc, Supertramp, or even Talking Heads. As early as the late ’90s, early ’00s, the idea that ‘Prog is no longer a 4-letter word’ had begun to creep back in. Albums such as Mansun‘s Six, Mercury Rev‘s All Is Dream, Pure Reason Revolution‘s The Dark Third and Secret Machines’ Now Here Is Nowhere attracted much critical acclaim. Radiohead perhaps deserve much of the credit for re-establishing the idea that musical ambition is a worthy pursuit, their own flowering spectacularly – in parallel with popularity and critical acclaim – on OK Computer and the Kid Amnesiac double-whammy. Dimensionaut and Please Come Home wear their cleverness more lightly than those albums: in spite of the sci-fi concept angle, both are perfectly enjoyable as pop pieces, for their well-written songs. Both, as is so true of the best of Nu Prog, hark back to ’80s/’90s pop/rock. I’m not a huge fan of Phil Collins‘ solo output at the best of times (as much as I love so much of his work with Genesis) but I’m not oblivious to the fact that he was incredibly popular; and that doesn’t happen without good reason. His son has clearly imbibed much of what was great about his writing: it’s almost a perfect balance of pop Phil/prog Phil. Lonely Robot tips unselfconciously its hat to ’80s singer-songwriting talent too, in the form of cameos from Go West‘s Peter Cox and Nik Kershaw. Both have, what I like to affectionately call their Porcupine Tree (and there’s another band that certainly belongs amongst the list in the previous paragraph) moments; where metallic riffing rudely, albeit appropriately intrudes into procedings in trademark Nu Prog counterpoint.
On first inspection, they could almost have been produced by the same crew, despite Mitchell’s and Collins’ distinct vocal styles (the latter’s eerily similar to his dad’s, as is his drumming): both exhibit the ubiquity of the new prog era as much as its accomplishment. The jarring, unsettling aspects that say, Robert Fripp, Peters Hammill or Hackett brought to the party back in the day (or latterly Radiohead and Secret Machines) are notable for their absence. Where Crimson, Van Der Graaf and early Genesis could sometimes be fuzzy and disorienting, Nu Prog is smooth prog. I’m conscious that I still haven’t provided a proper review of either album; but if you’re a fan of things proggy I hope I’ve maybe progressed a few yards in whetting your appetite. If you’ve made it this far, check out a couple soundclips now: these are not albums that you want to be missing.
If you loved Oceansize you’ll love The Demon Joke, the new album from former frontman Mike Vennart. The swathe of Unfamiliar material was a bit much for me to take in at the Brighton gig a couple weeks back – the potential was clear, but this isn’t music that gives of its best up front; it requires patience, the better to tease out the intricacies.
If you’re not familiar with Oceansize I’d fall back on ‘it’s Elbow (heartstrings) vs Mastodon (asskick) spiced with a little Faith No More (contrariness)’. And as much as I adore Oceansize‘s expansiveness I love that Vennart can satisfyingly cram as much into 4 minutes as his former band did into 8.
Mark Heron was all over the kit for four albums and as many LPs, and his Moon/Portnoy presence would be missed if new boy, Denzel’s math-y economy didn’t chime so well with the new music.. ‘He nails it, does he not’ opined Vennart at the gig: quite so.
The polyrhythmical plod of Duke Fame reels out tentacles of appealing melody whilst the easy singalong remains tantalisingly just out of reach, in the fine tradition of Money, or Turn It On Again. My favourite song here.
And maybe it’s the weight of taking the helm, but Vennart‘s vocal is suffused and enhanced by a new soulfulness previously only touched upon. FNM‘s Mike Patton was a discernable influence on Vennart‘s earlier work with Oceansize, and one that he audibly digs into once more, with added conviction. For the great soul singers – Gaye, Knight, Turner, Simone – sweetness and simmering aggression were like yin and yang: always in balance, even when unevenly distributed. Great rock singers, from Glenn Hughes, thru Morrissey, Mike Patton, Maynard Keenan to Andrew ‘Darroh’ Sudderth draw on this tradition; and Vennart exhibits it here too. Check out Don’t Forget The Joker.
Amends has the gravitas and compelling art-mospherics of the best of the ‘Size’s‘s closing epics, condensed into less than four minutes.
Sometimes less really is more. Vennart has succeeded in inhaling all that was great and memorable about Oceansize and expressing it with yet greater feeling, brevity and wit. ‘Prog’ doesn’t have to impose on our time to make its point.
This is possibly his best album… he compared it in recent interviews to the mighty, Everyone Into Position, which I still recommend unreservedly; though TDJ certainly gives it a run for its money…
Pre-ordered my copy of Vennart‘s debut album week before last. Pretty excited. For those unfamiliar (no pun…) Mike Vennart achieved artistic, if not financial longevity as singer/songwriter/guitarist with indie-rockers, Oceansize. Negotiating a scarcely-categorizable line between Post Rock, Nu Prog and Art Metal, this sadly-short-lived, Manchester-based crew infiltrated the hitherto-unimagined no-man’s land between Elbow and Mastodon, jamming to fondly-remembered tales of Cardiacs, Faith No More, Tool and Radiohead; refreshed by lashings of mushroom tea. Heady brew? Fuck yeah! And a finely-balanced one too: heaviosity aplenty for die-hard metalheads and cool for the too-cool Guardian fashionistas.
The best rock band to come out of Manchester for a decade.
A year to the day following that band’s dissolution, Vennart and fellow Oceansize cohort, Richard ‘Gambler’ Ingram launched British Theatre: a canny proposition, streamlining the distorted, glitchy and lush atmospherics of the former, whilst substituting a full backing band for laptop dancing. Not a million miles from Radiohead‘s Kid Amnesiac days, albeit grimier, more louche, sordid.
Ingram, and former Oceansize guitarist, Steve Durose both contribute to the new record, The Demon Joke, but to all intents and purposes it’s a one man show now. He launched the new tracks – or some of them at least – at a gig downstairs in Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar here in Brighton last week and I’m not ashamed to say that I couldn’t make head or tail of them. I felt the same way the first time I heard Effloresce (much like Trout Mask Replica, Angel Dust, Second Toughest In The Infants and Spirit Of Eden: sometimes brilliance takes time to absorb and process, even when it’s presence is instantly recognizeable).
In interview, Vennart references (second Oceansize LP) Everyone Into Position, both musically and personally, suggesting ‘I’ve not believed in a record as much since…’ which is good news for me, since EIP is my favourite ‘Size album, though follow-up Frames comes bloody close, and Trail Of Fire (from Frames) is not only my fave Oceansize track but perhaps my favourite song of all time. They didn’t play that at the gig, though they did pull a few classics out of the bag, including Music For A Nurse, Ornament (The Last Wrongs) ‘really long and fuckin’ hard to play’ and Part Cardiac. Even the deceptively-basic, Sabbath-y grind of the latter – from Oceansize swansong, the uneven, Self-Preserved While The Bodies Float Up – conveyed more emotional depth than their support act, Lithuania’s Mutiny On The Bounty, whose selection of sub-Depeche Mode b-side material merely served to confirm the futility of industrial, post-rock instrumentalism. The wank dripping from a sea of dumbly-nodding post-hipster beards. The ‘Size stood out from the crowd and one has a feeling that Vennart‘s new collection – written whilst on the road as Biffy Clyro‘s live utility guy, studio-enhanced and mixed by Gambler and Durose will too, thanks to a lifetime of musical geekality absorbed from Maiden to Radiohead. The live presentation was augmented by Durose on guitar and b/vox, Gambler on bass and keys and newkid Denzel on drums, who along with Jo Spratley (Spratley’s Japs) also appear on The Demon Joke. The latter is winging it to me as I type, whereupon the chance to make fuller sense and fall once-again in love will surely present itself…
Can’t wait, chaps 😉
Another track, Infatuate is also available upon preordering here
You know you want to…