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.
This is my first encounter with Andy Jackson as a musical artist in his own right, though I’m previously familiar with his work as sound engineer with latterday Pink Floyd and on one of my favourite albums of all time, Fields of the Nephilim’s Elizium. As recordist and de-facto sound designer on the latter, he realised the – progressive – potential of a band whose originality and seriousness of purpose is too often sidelined beside ‘Goth’ clichés revolving around liberal application of flour and swathes of dry ice. Frankly, it’s a fuckin’ masterpiece.
Signal To Noise isn’t that. It’s very much of a piece with Jackson‘s work with latterday Floyd and, to an extent, Fields of the Nephilim, albeit significantly different to either.
Jackson plays all the instruments and sings. His vocal style perhaps most resembles Richard Wright when he takes the lead on Floyd cuts such as Wearing The Inside Out (from The Division Bell) and the latter’s solo album Broken China. Musically, he’s more than competent – sometimes very good. What’s missing is the character, the yearning, tortured depth of a Gilmour or a McCoy.
Much like The Verve‘s Richard Ashcroft, or Johnny Marr, one is left with the impression that his best work is to be found within collaborations – his real skill, with due respect to his day job, is embellishing (or teasing the best from) the ideas of others. STN is good – a propulsive, atmospheric, reverb-drenched thrum that draws the listener in – but it’s not great. What it shares with TER – in contrast to Elizium – is it’s unrelenting, mid paced, monochrome tone. Sure, there are ebbs ond flows; but no gnarls: nothing explosive or grating, such as …At The Gates of Silent Memory… or Submission to shock us out of easy-listening torpor.
There’s surely an element of pastiche/homage which, whilst it perhaps suffers by comparison to the best of Floyd‘s work, acquits itself somewhat favourably next to the warmed-over ramblings of The Endless River. That Jackson conceived these tracks as songs rather than mere instrumental atmospheres is the key factor here. There is a focus that TER lacks, and his voice is possessed of a certain grit that neither Gilmour nor Wright can (could) manage.
As much as I enjoy the album I can’t but help feel that a certain something is missing, if only by a hair.
But therein lies the separation between talent and genius…
In the case of prog-pop supergroup, Flying Colors, one might argue the case for a moniker that promises more than it can reasonably hope to deliver. Factor in the title of sophomore release, Second Nature and the musical nostrils detect an air of, what? Complacency? Pretencious indulgence? If the latter is the former, less so.
In point of fact, the (album) title has been hanging around on the substitute bench for quite some time. Aficianados of the neo-prog revival will doubtless be aware that two members of FC have previous together: Mike Portnoy and Neal Morse have collaborated extensively over the last decade and a half; as the American half of Transatlantic; on most of Morse’s solo records and also in tribute acts such as Yellow Matter Custard, paying homage to their shared love of The Beatles. Second Nature was a working title for what eventually emerged as Transatlantic in 2001 (S.M.P.T.e) and was also mooted as a name for that band’s second (and best) album, Bridge Across Forever. It’s perhaps not coincidental that that two-words cliché has finally come to rest on the sleeve of a record that, at times, bears more than a passing resemblance to the project on which Mssrs Morse and Portnoy first joined forces.
Open Up Your Eyes also opens the album, and there’s no denying a more than passing similarity to TA and solo- Morse material. It’s a 12-minute ‘epic’ that wouldn’t have been out of place on a TA album and more than justifies its running time: full of melody, harmony and hard-rockin’ hookiness…
The album also finishes with a long-form piece, albeit one quite unlike any previous. Cosmic Symphony is an, er, symphony in three parts; the first of which comes closest thusfar in living up to Portnoy‘s boast that FC dip their toes into the nu-prog/indie-art-rock waters occupied by Muse/Radiohead. Casey McPherson‘s vocal and the timbre of the song bear an uncanny resemblance to Muse circa The Resistance. As a piece, the languid mood reminds me particularly of Montréal, the narrative-based centrepiece of Marillion‘s Sounds That Can’t Be Made.
In-between, the album ploughs, for the most part, the same hooky, hard-rock groove as FC‘s eponymous debut. McPherson is a stronger, rockier singer than (Neal) Morse; Dave LaRue a less melodic, less conspicuous low-end presence than Pete Trewavas and (Steve) Morse : in short, FC adhere closer to rock convention than TA, which is no bad thing following the – relative – disappointment of Kaleidoscope, which generally found (Neal) Morse‘s superior melodic gifts sidelined in favour of fancy, less-memorable arrangements.
Bombs Away irritates me, featuring a melody that feels familiar yet I can’t place.
Points are lost – lyrically – for The Fury Of My Love: it’s the kind of misogynistic, ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ crap that one hoped rock might have deserted decades ago. On the plus side – melodically – it echoes vintage Tears For Fears. But in the main, Second Nature rescues victory from the jaws of a defeat that seems pre-ordained in the title of both album and band. It’s an album that manages to balance – like the aforementioned TFF – virtuosity and accessibility very well indeed. Lead single Mask Machine perfectly exemplifies this, whoaoahwhoahwohoah: singer McPherson achieving the kind of leg-up Ray Wilson ought to have been granted when he briefly fronted Genesis in the late ’90s.
Not without problematic aspects, FC have managed to deliver one of the most interesting. listenbable rock albums of 2014.
(That’s not a typo, by the way 😉 )
If you’re a music fan like I am, if music means as much (or nearly so) to me at forty-one as it did when you were a spotty sixth-former; then, like me you likely have a small, select mental roster of artists whose work exerts an almost black hole-like gravitational pull on you and your purse-strings. Your heart leaps at every scrap of information pertaining to their latest upcoming project and on release day – or these days, pre-order opening more likely – you’re first in the queue to click on that PayPal or KickStarter button; never mind that you’ve yet to hear a note of the promised new songs or that an electricity bill is imminent…
Along with – for me – Pet Shop Boys, Marillion, Steven Wilson, Neneh Cherry, Johnny Marr, Transatlantic, Scott Walker; Christian ‘Bic’ Hayes has become one such artist. You may know his work via his involvement with Cardiacs, Levitation, Dark Star, Panixsphere, Ring or his own previous solo releases as Mikrokosmos, and if those names ring a bell, you’ll quickly realise he’s a man with a nose for an interesting musical detour. As it happens, and incongruously, he also played live with PSBs when they toured their Release album, which demonstrates a certain chutzpah: one does not step lightly into Johnny Marr‘s shoes.
If previous Mikrokosmos releases are anything to go by, he’s no less interesting as a solo artist than as his contribution to the aforementioned projects might suggest. Both Mikrokosmos: In The Heart Of The Home (2006) and Mikrokosmos ii: The Seven Stars (2007) are exploratory albums, recalling (musically) The Beatles‘ psychedelic phase, the prog/punk collision of his days as a Cardiac and post OKC Radiohead‘s twisted, glitchy electronic rock. His Jonathan Donahue-laconic (albeit relocated to Westminster) tones effortlessly inhabit a sometimes-shifting, occasionally-jarring, precisely-fuzzy landscape of feedback, jangle, FX and washes that bear comparison to latterday Talk Talk, if only for their sheer audacity, single-mindedness and unlikely gravitational appeal. If the hard rock/post-punk elements take something of a backseat by comparison to Levitation/Darkstar period then this serves as an incentive to listen harder. In a sane world, this guy would be a national treasure; at least in my geeky world. This is progressive music, indulgent in its way, albeit in service to a good musical cause. Both ItHotH and TSS were pressed – onto CD – in very limited numbers (500 copies apiece) and the fact that they are still available to buy as such almost seems a crime, though I doubt it concerns Hayes unduly: he is nothing, one suspects, if not a musician’s musician: a lover, a geek.
You can listen to the new album, Terra Familiar in full here (I haven’t – I’m waiting for the CD 😉 )
and the two previous instalments
via Bandcamp. If you enjoy imaginative, original music that respects the past as much as its own muse, then Hayes is your man. The download button is your friend, geek 😉
p.s. some highlights from Hayes past:
WTF?! Yeah, that was my initial reaction. Not in a bad way, though…<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/109573972″>Potty-Mouthed Princesses Drop F-Bombs for Feminism by FCKH8.com</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/fckh8″>FCKH8.com</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
Easier to berate kids for using cuss-words than face up to the crushing realities of sexual violence, gender stereotyping and pay inequality. Is this clip effective? Jury’s out on that one; but it’s certainly on-message…
I could pick, but I’m not going to. This is one of those odd occasions – District 9 springs to mind – when po-mo irony kinda works for me.
Some fine rock albums have been released this year: Pixies’ Indie Cindy; The Arcade Fire’s Reflektor; Elbow’s The Take Off And Landing Of Everything; Mex’s Dr Jekyll & Mrs Hyde; Bushman Bros. Condensation Fear (of which more later) and Mastodon’s Once More ‘Round The Sun. I’m tempted, on first impression to say that Opeth’s just-released Pale Communion has earned its place on the top of this distinguished pile… and then some.
Much of previous album Hertitage (2011) sounded like Opeth were trying to be a different band: out with the metal, in with acoustic, jazz-folk meanderings. If their previous ‘departure’ album, Damnation was merely Opeth without the loud bits, that album pointed the way down stranger paths, often veering miles away from anything resembling rock. If you’re not familiar, imagine Talk Talk‘s Spirit Of Eden meets Nick Drake. Even when metal did occasionally rear its head and holler – as on Slither – it sat uneasily amongst the other brooding, wandering compositions. Being an homage to metal of yore, and the – then – recently-departed Ronnie Dio in particular, it exposed a little of trad metal’s roots in the R’n’B scene which was a proving ground for Dio and his contemporaries. It’s perhaps noteworthy that this is something that Scandinavian ‘extreme’ metallers have, historically, eschewed doing; especially whilst labouring under the moniker ‘black’. But if the album had soul – and even the harshest of prog/metal critics must surely acknowledge that singer, Mikael Åkerfeldt possesses a spine-tinglingly soulful set of pipes, when resisting the temptation to growl like Cookie Monster – it was rather of the ‘tortured’ variety.
So it surely comes as a surprise to come across a track like Goblin, five tracks into PC: as if relocating a Dirty Harry car chase to ’70s Stockholm streets in winter, Opeth have never sounded so groovy. There’s an element of homage/pastiche (most writers have reached immediately for the song’s Italian namesake – I’d also venture Barrett Martin‘s Tuatara soundtrack collective, and also the instrumental breaks featured on the last Steven Wilson album) but not a whiff of ripe Gorgonzola. And PC is full of such statements of intent.
Opener, Eternal Rains Will Come has the feel of fellow Swedes, Katatonia when they dial back on the metal, replete with sweet melancholy, albeit pushing the ‘prog’ further than they’ve yet dared. It’s three minutes before we hear any vocals: a knotty, stuttering instrumental section giving way around the two minute mark to some characteristic Åkerfeldt clean guitar melodies. Heritage also began with a three-minute instrumental but they have little else in common: this song – and album – are a very different proposition, despite my initial impression formed from hearing trailer single, Cusp Of Eternity. The latter – and second track on PC – would have fitted fairly comfortably on their previous release. Most everything else, not so much.
If Steven Wilson once purloined a little of Opeth‘s metal grit when he first hooked up with the band back in 2000, then River suggests Åkerfeldt has called in the debt: the two writers evidently share a certain melodic sensibility, but Opeth have never so closely approximated the bittersweet tone and structural development of a Wilson/PT piece. The harmonies are beautiful.
Voice of Treason‘s stabbing strings and twinkling Rhodes piano recall Apollo 440‘s most Stealth Sonic exploits at the start, before taking off on a thrilling crescendo that finally gives way to a few bars of quiet, almost spiritual reflection. This fades into final track, Faith In Others: also a cinematic, string-drenched piece it’s surely Åkerfeldt‘s best ballad to date. It’s a fitting closer that reminds me, in its emotional maturity and expert mastery of tension and release rather than style, of Marillion‘s latterday balladic excursions; such as Sounds That Can’t Be Made.
And yet, all musical reference points aside, the tone, melodies and arrangements are unmistakably Opeth. If Heritage represented Åkerfeldt‘s time in the wilderness, ruminating and expanding his musical mind in all directions; PC sees him digging deep, consolidating all that he has loved and absorbed over 3-plus decades as a music fan and bringing it to bear in the evolution of his own style.
Where Heritage was sparse, this is lush; and whilst the former’s twinkling, intriguing subtleties are still there, they here serve to augment rather than carry the songs. Åkerfeldt told it true: this album is very much about melody, but it also resurrects and reimagines what was great, dynamically about the band’s latter metal recordings; keyboards, strings and drums lending much of the weight once provided by guitar parts. Yoakim Svarlberg (keys) and Martin ‘Axe’ Axenrot (drums/percussion) really excel thruout; and on reflection I realise – as I suspect many fans will – that it was that dynamic range and richness, as opposed to the metal per se that was missed on Heritage. I’ve grown to appreciate and enjoy, if not really love the latter; but this… this is something else. If you’re an Opeth fan of old who lost the faith over the last couple releases I urge you reconsider. PC is stunning from start to finish – or as near as damn. To date, Blackwater Park has been my gold-standard Opeth release (honorable mentions for Ghost Reveries and Deliverance: silver and bronze) but with this album the band have crested a new peak of creativity.
Heaven and Earth, or Himmel und Erde is a traditional German dish of potatoes mashed with apple sauce, served with black pudding or fried sausages. What’s missing from Yes’s recently-released album of the same name is the meat (Linda McCartney onion and rosemary for me, thanks 🙂 ): several listens in, I’m quite enjoying the flavours but I’m still hungry, the latter being more than one can say about the cast of players on the album.
It’s a fine line between joy and mere contentment that divides H&E from its predecessor, 2011’s Fly From Here. I listened to FFH just today, and its fresh, vibrant melodies resonate in my mind as strongly as they did on first listen. It would be a mistake to suggest that the latter was a spiritual successor to Drama but it was undeniably a product of the same chemistry. In particular, the fingerprints of Trevor Horn are all over it in terms of the smooth production and emphasis on memorable melody. H&E is altogether a more restrained, low-key affair in the main. On the one hand, I salute Yes for, as ever, refusing to repeat themselves; on the flipside, I have to say I miss the passion and commitment that they so rarely failed to muster. Even during the ‘pop years’ with Trevor Rabin, one never doubted that the band were unwavering in their dedication to a revitalized, AOR vision of Yes, even when the results were not always to my taste.
The ‘no Jon, no Yes’ brigade will probably be quick to pin the blame on latest recruit (singer), Jon Davison; but that would be unjust: he does his utmost to get his ‘Jon‘ on and carries it off well enough- more so than Benoit David, if anything. The problem here is an overpowering whiff of complacency in the musical department. The closest the band come to old-school Yes is on closer, Subway Walls, which is a Davison-Downes composition, ironically (they’re the group’s two newest recruits). Much of the rest veers uncomfortably close to Asia at their ponderous, soulless, prog-lite worst. What we miss is depth, detail and cadence that, even if not immediately memorable, resonates and draws us back to listen again and anew. This is something that Yes mastered early on and that more recent exponents of ‘Art Rock’ from Opeth, to Fair To Midland, to Sweet Billy Pilgrim, to Everything Everything have done much better since.
H&E isn’t as bad as some critics might have one believe: it’s a pleasant listen and many Yes fans will enjoy it. But if this turns out to be the band’s swansong, it can scarcely be said that they’ve left on a high.
Is a far cry from:
And it’s the difference between applying cleverness to bolster a weak idea and enhance a strong one; albeit both simple.
More meat; less potatoes thanks…