Monday, 28 July 2014

Review: Nest - Retold (Serein)

"Retold", the first full-length album from instrumental duo Nest, is about to receive a welcome release on vinyl, having previously been available on CD and digital formats.
It therefore seemed an appropriate time to post a review I wrote in January 2014 that I neglected to add here at the time:

(pic taken from the Serein website)

The corner of music that often gets labelled "ambient classical" or "home listening" is a somewhat overcrowded one. Taking their cues equally from the worlds of electronic music (Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Cluster), contemporary classical music (Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Philip Glass) and other pioneers of hushed instrumental music (Harold Budd, Labradford, Stars of the Lid) the music of Max Richter, Deaf Center, Library Tapes, Nils Frahm et al seamlessly blends samples, synths and programming with strings, piano and other acoustic instrumentation. This approach makes perfect sense, of course. As Max Richter has noted, in using electronic instruments and effects, he is simply using the tools available to him today as part of his musical palette, just as composers of the past used whatever tools were available to them when they wrote for piano or strings.

Occasionally, from the myriad releases associated with this genre, something floats to the surface that stands out from the crowd. Nest's "Retold" is a fine example. Perhaps because of its limited CD run on the Welsh micro-label Serein, it is an album that too few people seem to know about. (The CD is now sold out, although the album is readily available in mp3 format.)

Nest is a collaboration between Serein label owner Huw Roberts and Deaf Center's Otto A. Totland. Deaf Center's "Pale Ravine" is quite rightly regarded by many as a high water mark in the field of 'ambient classical' music, and I'd have no hesitation in saying that "Retold" is easily its equal. The elements that you might expect are indeed present in the music: ambient drones, melancholic piano lines, field recordings, a strong cinematic feel to much of the music. But what makes the album stand out for me is the quality of the music, its diversity, its warmth, the emotional impact and how well the album flows and works as a whole. It is an incredibly beautiful and beguiling journey.

Picking out favourites is a largely pointless task because it works so well as a whole, but "Kyoto" is perhaps worthy of particular note for its strong melody and intriguing interplay of piano, field recordings and what sounds like sampled harp or koto. "Charlotte" is another highlight, featuring a simple and highly effective piano melody, reminiscent of some of Labradford's later tracks, around which other elements are skilfully woven. The delicate and understated "Wheatstone", meanwhile, draws this highly consistent album to a close with customary restraint and precision.

Hopefully this album will receive a well-deserved second CD pressing and gain more coverage than its initial run. It is worth noting that the digipak artwork for the CD version complements the music perfectly. On the evidence of "Retold" and the label's other releases, it is apparent that Serein, like predecessors Touch and ECM, puts a lot of time, thought and effort into the physical presentation of its releases, something that is arguably lost with their mp3 incarnations.

Postscript, 28th July 2014:
The new double vinyl edition of "Retold", featuring two additional new tracks, can be ordered here.  Serein will also be reissuing Brambles' "Charcoal" album, again for the first time on vinyl.  This is another excellent set of tracks, not a million miles away from "Retold".  If you visit the Serein website, I also highly recommend buying Imprints' "Data Trails", a collection of dynamic, experimental ambient instrumentals, quite possibly my favourite album of the year so far. 

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Review: The Sound – Jeopardy / From the Lion’s Mouth / All Fall Down… Plus (4CD box, Edsel)

Popular music is peppered with bands that really should have crossed over into the mainstream and enjoyed wider appeal, but for often unaccountable reasons, remained comparatively unheralded.  In the realm of ‘indie guitar bands’ The Go-Betweens, That Petrol Emotion and Kitchens of Distinction spring immediately to mind as bands that should have been huge.  Similarly, whilst recent years have seen renewed media and consumer interest in a slew of post-punk bands, with the usual suspects like Joy Division, PiL, Wire, Gang of Four and Magazine garnering the lion’s share of the coverage and praise, London’s The Sound have remained largely unsung. 

At the time of their existence, from 1979 to 1988, much the same situation existed.  The Sound’s records often met with unanimous critical acclaim in the music press, yet they never managed the same mainstream success that, say, Joy Division eventually achieved.  Neither did they gain the same sizeable cult status of their contemporaries The Chameleons and The Comsat Angels, bands with whom they shared certain sonic similarities and aesthetics.  Somehow The Sound remained unjustly under-rated and overlooked. 

Collecting together the band’s first three albums, EP tracks, radio sessions, incendiary live performances and a scattering of hitherto unreleased tracks, this new box set represents serious value for money.  The music is spread over four CDs housed in replicas of the original albums’ outer sleeves, alongside an informative 36-page colour booklet containing an essay on the band, interviews and full lyrics.

The Sound’s 1980 debut album “Jeopardy” is a taut and flab-free blast of post-punk energy.  Recorded in a cramped studio in London in just a week, reputedly on a budget of under £1000 - remarkable particularly as the band were signed to a major label, Warner Bros’ Korova imprint - it feels like the work of a band with incredible need and focus, desperate to get their message across.  Musically, there are similarities with label mates Echo and the Bunnymen’s debut “Crocodiles” and The Teardrop Explodes’ early catalogue, particularly on the organ-driven “Heartland”.  Singer Adrian Borland is a man possessed, his vocals often damning or brimming with disgust: “Who the hell makes those missiles when they know what they can do?” he spits on arguably the album’s highlight, “Missiles”.  “Jeopardy” was a fine statement of intent, still heady from the excitement and verve of punk, but moving into something new, deeper and more finely crafted.

“From the Lion’s Mouth” followed exactly twelve months after the début, its sound comparatively measured and polished, perhaps in part due to the involvement of Hugh Jones as producer, fresh from his work with on Simple Minds’ “Sons and Fascination” and Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Heaven Up Here”.  The songs, at their best, such as on the opener “Winning” (particularly in its live incarnation elsewhere in this set) and “Skeletons” are easily the equal of “Unknown Pleasures” or “Script of the Bridge”.  The production on the album perhaps reins in the ferocity and energy a little too much at times, but it’s still a mighty fine album demonstrating the band’s growing musical maturity and self-assurance and Borland’s superlative lyric writing.  “Silent Air” is a particularly affecting and effective confessional, its lyrics compounded by the delivery, Borland’s voice occasionally cracking slightly, as it often does on these recordings.  There’s an honesty and directness to his lyrics; perhaps one of the reasons that The Sound have stood the test of time so well.  

By their third album, 1982’s “All Fall Down”, The Sound were under pressure from their label to produce a record that was a commercial success.  The band, meanwhile, appeared to be more concerned with expanding their musical palette and experimental artistic expression.  These competing pressures yielded mixed results, with the album occasionally falling awkwardly between the two.  That’s not to say that there aren’t excellent moments, though.  “Monument”, in particular, is a gorgeous and sumptuous pop song, whilst “Calling the New Tune” is reminiscent of Gang of Four’s “Songs of the Free”, released the same year, boasting relatively glossy production values and definite crossover potential.  At the same time, one can only imagine the look of horror on the faces of Warner execs when they first heard “Glass and Smoke”, seven bloody-minded minutes of percussion-heavy repetition and discordant guitars.  Needless to say, commercial success did not follow “All Fall Down” and The Sound were dropped by their label.

The final disc in the set brings together two live performances originally broadcast on BBC Radio 1 in 1981 and 1985.  The first catches the band in full flight with a set drawn from the first two albums and a sound midway between the raucous immediacy of the debut and the assured control of the second.  The 1985 concert finds the band sounding far more atmospheric and textured, although the recording occasionally sounds very much of its time due to the synthesizer sounds and the addition of saxophone, courtesy of Fiat Lux’s Ian Nelson.  Even so, the song writing and Borland’s passionate delivery stand out, particularly on an excellent take on “Total Recall” from their album “Heads and Hearts”, released the same year by the independent label Statik.  There’s also a return to the debut album with a solid and expansive eight-minute take on “Missiles”, bringing the box set’s contents full circle.

The Sound eventually called it a day in 1988, after which Adrian Borland continued primarily as a solo artist but also as a producer to bands including Felt, The Celibate Rifles and Into Paradise, while other band members retired from music or passed away (keyboard player Max Mayers died as a result of an AIDS-related illness in 1993).  Borland had long experienced debilitating mental health issues and these eventually contributed to his premature death from suicide in 1999. 

From time to time, The Sound’s albums are reissued and gain respectable coverage; a book appeared a few years ago and now there is talk of a documentary film being made about Borland and his music.  If there is any shred of justice left in this world, this box set will further cement The Sound’s reputation as one of the great post-punk bands.   Whilst the five hours of their music might be a daunting prospect, if you have any interest in post-punk past or present, this box set deserves your time and attention.  It will repay you handsomely.

This review also appears on the Adrian Borland and The Sound website and in [sic] magazine.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

In Concert - bands I've seen live...

A few years ago, I spent upwards of two hours each day on trains and buses, commuting.  Killing time, I started a list of every gig I'd been to over the years, asking friends and Google to help plug the gaps.  Here are those gigs I can remember, with many more lost to snakebite consumption and the mists of time.

1981 The Human League (Stafford Bingley Hall, 21.12.81)

1984 Fiat Lux (Stafford Polytechnic, 13.01.84)

1985 The Cult + Cactus World News (Hanley Victoria Hall, 29.05.85)

Balaam and the Angel + The Rose of Avalanche (Birmingham Powerhouse, 13.09.86)
New Model Army + L'armourder (Birmingham Powerhouse, 12.10.86)
Red Lorry Yellow Lorry (Birmingham Irish Centre, 14.10.86)
The Mission + The Rose of Avalanche (Birmingham Powerhouse, 23.11.86)

Marc Riley and the Creepers (Stafford College, 06.02.87)
The Mission + All About Eve (Birmingham Odeon, 27.03.87)
Flesh for Lulu (Stafford College, 12.06.87)
The Mission + Balaam and the Angel + All About Eve + The Wild Flowers
(Birmingham Powerhouse, 06.09.87)
The Godfathers (Stafford College, 06.10.87)
All About Eve + The Shamen (Birmingham Burberries 10.11.87)
Fields of the Nephilim + Hunters Club (Keele University, 04.11.87)
The Cure (Birmingham NEC, 06.12.87)
 Primal Scream + The Passmore Sisters (Stafford College, 11.12.87)

All About Eve + The Wonder Stuff (Birmingham Powerhouse, 23.02.88)
The Mission + Red Lorry Yellow Lorry (Birmingham Hummingbird, 18.03.88)
The Mission + Red Lorry Yellow Lorry (Birmingham Hummingbird, 19.03.88)
All About Eve + The Bolshoi (Manchester Apollo, 13.05.88)
The Damned (Stoke Shelley’s 31.05.88)
Pop Will Eat Itself + The Wonder Stuff + Dawn After Dark + Yeah God
(Birmingham Powerhouse, 24.07.88)

The Highliners + The Lilac Time (Stafford College, 08.10.88)
Ghost Dance + The Batfish Boys (Stafford College, 04.11.88)
The Sun and the Moon + Onionhead (Birmingham Irish Centre, 16.11.88)

The Wonder Stuff + The Last Gang (Birmingham Hummingbird, 24.03.89)
Pixies + The Wolfgang Press (Birmingham Hummingbird, 24.04.89)
The House of Love + Lush (Keele University, 01.06.89)
McCarthy (Manchester Boardwalk, 24.06.89)
The Cure + Shelleyan Orphan (Birmingham NEC, 20.07.89)
The Darling Buds + Lush (Keele University, 18.10.89)
The Jesus and Mary Chain + The Perfect Disaster (Birmingham Hummingbird, 08.11.89)
Christian Death + Red Lorry Yellow Lorry (Birmingham Burberries, 26.11.89)
Loop + Lush + Dreamgrinder (Keele University, 06.12.89)

Sonic Youth + These Immortal Souls (Birmingham Hummingbird, 09.09.90)
Cocteau Twins + Frazier Chorus (Birmingham Hummingbird, 29.10.90)
Pale Saints + The Edsel Auctioneer + The Prayers (Wolverhampton Civic Hall 17.11.90)

Bongwater + A.C. Temple + Dogbowl (Birmingham Edwards No.8, 17.03.91)
Cardiacs + Levitation (Wolverhampton Polytechnic, 02.05.91)
Dr Phibes and the House of Wax Equations + Mr Ray’s Wig World (Stoke Wheatsheaf, 12.05.91)
Cranes + Papa Sprain (Stoke Freetown Club, 28.05.91)
Godflesh + Treponem Pal + Bagman (Birmingham Edwards No.8, 02.06.91)
The Primitives (Tamworth Rathole, 23.06.91)
Reading Festival 1991 – Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr, Teenage Fanclub, The Family Cat, De La Soul, Iggy Pop, James, Mercury Rev, The Fall, Carter USM, Nitzer Ebb, Pop Will Eat Itself, Kitchens of Distinction, Chapterhouse, Sonic Youth, The Sisters of Mercy.
Nine Inch Nails + The Wolfgang Press (Birmingham Goldwyns, 10.09.91)
Cranes + Moonshake + Earwig (London ULU, 11.10.91)
Slowdive (Stafford College, 12.10.91)

The Young Gods + Silverfish (London Astoria, 23.02.92)
The Fall (Stafford College, 17.03.92)
The Sultans of Ping FC + Radiohead (Stoke Wheatsheaf, 18.05.92)
Glastonbury Festival 1992 – Television, The Fall, Spiritualized, Primal Scream, Kitchens of Distinction, Lush, The Blue Aeroplanes, The Breeders, The Orb, Billy Bragg, Strangelove, Dr. Phibes and the House of Wax Equations, The House of Love.
Miranda Sex Garden + Simon Fisher-Turner (Outdoor performance at the Edinburgh Festival, 08.92 - Derek Jarman tribute)
Fuel (The Venue, Edinburgh, 08.92)
Throwing Muses + Unrest (Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall, 05.09.92)
The Lemonheads (Manchester Boardwalk, 07.10.92)
Suede + The Auteurs (Stafford College, 16.10.92)
The Sundays + Butterfly Child (Manchester University 27.11.92)
The Wedding Present + Moonshake + Tse Tse Fly (Birmingham Hummingbird, 13.12.92)

Belly + The Cranberries (Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall, 13.02.93)
That Petrol Emotion + Molly Half Head (Stoke Wheatsheaf, 17.03.93)
Levitation + The Godivas (Stoke Wheatsheaf, 10.05.93)
Cranes + Slowdive (Manchester University, 09.06.93)
Mint 400 + Skyscraper (Birmingham Jug of Ale, 17.08.93)
A.C. Temple + Coping Saw (Leeds Duchess of York, 01.10.93)
Mazzy Star + Swallow + Dolphin Smile (Manchester Hop and Grape, 21.10.93)
Hair & Skin Trading Company + Pram (Leeds Duchess of York, 25.10.93)
Red House Painters + Heidi Berry (Leeds Duchess of York, 26.10.93)
Chapterhouse + Seefeel + Reload (Leeds Duchess of York, ?.11.93)
Radial Spangle + Sundial + Idaho (Leeds Duchess of York, 15.11.93)
The Wedding Present + Girls Against Boys (Leeds Town & Country Club, 06.12.93)

Madder Rose (Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall, 04.02.94)
Cocteau Twins + Seefeel (Wolverhampton Civic Hall, 07.02.94)
Cocteau Twins + Seefeel (Leeds Town & Country Club, 09.02.94)
Chest + Grandads Don't Indicate + Babyglide (Leeds Duchess of York, 08.04.94)
Submarine + Rosa Mota + Sidi Bou Said (Birmingham Jug of Ale, 16.04.94)
Bob Tilton + Dead Wrong + Polaris (Leeds Royal Park, 09.05.94)
Spoonfed Hybrid + Boyracer (Leeds Duchess of York, 17.05.94)
Codeine + The Spinanes (Leeds Duchess of York, 06.06.94)
Disco Inferno + Papa Sprain + Marion (Manchester Roadhouse, 27.07.94)
Jeff Buckley + Faith Over Reason (Edwards No.8, Birmingham, 31.08.94)
Kitchens of Distinction + Drugstore (Leeds Duchess of York, 10.94)
Stereolab + Laika + Oscar (Leeds Irish Centre, 31.10.94)
Electrafixion + Marion (Leeds Duchess of York, 14.11.94)
Nub + Polaris + Zoopsia (Leeds Packhorse 26.11.94)
Strangelove + The Bluetones (Leeds Duchess of York, ?,12,94)

PJ Harvey + Tricky (Leeds Town & Country Club, 06.03.95)
The Whipping Boy + Strangelove (Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall, 25.05.96)
Sidi Bou Said (Leeds Wayhead Records in-store performance, 29.05.95)
Cardiacs + Sidi Bou Said (Leeds Duchess of York, 30.05.95)
The Young Gods (Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall, 16.06.95)
Radiohead + Sparklehorse (Leeds Town & Country Club, 01.11.05)
Buffalo Tom + Puressence + The In-Breds (Leeds Met University, 09.11.95)
The Wedding Present (Hebden Bridge Trades Club, 02.12.95)

Heavenly + Bis (Leeds Fenton, 20.01.96)
Polaris + Ebola + Suffer (Leeds Packhorse 16.02.96)
Stereolab + Tortoise (Bradford University, 13.03.96)
Baby Bird (Stoke Stage, 13.10.96)
Mazzy Star + Sparklehorse (Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall, 01.11.96)
Pram + Snowpony (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 08.11.96)
Low (Wolverhampton Varsity, 11.96)

Pram + Novak (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 11.01.97)
Placebo + dEUS + AC Acoustics (Wolverhampton Civic Hall, 26.02.97)
Pram + Donkey (Birmingham Jug of Ale, 12.04.97)
Mogwai + Arab Strap (Wolverhampton Varsity, 30.05.97)
Mogwai + Navigator + Crest + Novak (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 06.06.97)
Tindersticks + Ultrasound (Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall 15.10.97)
Arab Strap + Magoo (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 11.12.97)

Urusei Yatsura + Prolapse (Wolverhampton Varsity, 13.03.98)
Arab Strap (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 23.04.98)
Avrocar + Magnétophone + Halon 1301 (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 02.09.98)
The Freed Unit + L'Augmentation (Birmingham Flapper&+ Firkin, 13.10.98)
Swell + Half Film (Wolverhampton Varsity, 17.10.98)
Bob Mould + Mercury Rev (Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall, 23.10.98)
Ma Cherie for Painting + Magnétophone + Avrocar (London, Upstairs at the Garage, 13.11.98)
The Land of Nod + Longstone + Magnétophone (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 22.12.98)

Kreidler + Avrocar (Birmingham Finn & Firkin, 16.04.99)
Autechre + Boards of Canada + Aphex Twin (DJ) - Warp 10th Anniversary Party (Old Truman Brewery, London, 11.05.99)
Aston Court Festival, Bristol (17-18.07.99) - Rae & Christian, Experimental Pop Band, Roni Size & DJ Krust, Feeder, Angeltech, Dark Star
Ma Cherie for Painting + Tank + Calvados Beam Trio (Birmingham Jug of Ale, 08.10.99)
Do Make Say Think + Rothko + Epic45 (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 10.11.99)
Magnétophone (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 08.12.99)

Lazarus Clamp + Yellow6 + Jameson (Birmingham Jug of Ale, 29.01.00)
Gallon Drunk (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 15.03.00)
Alphastone + Yellow6 + Radio 9 (Notting Hill Arts Centre, London 01.04.00)
Plone + Magnétophone (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 05.04.00)
The Chameleons (Manchester Academy, 03.06.00)
Mahogany + Saloon + Curtis Newton (Leicester Princess Charlotte 08.08.00)
Mahogany + Saloon + Curtis Newton (Birmingham Jug of Ale 09.08.00)
The Wisdom of Harry + Minotaur Shock (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 23.08.00)
Low (Wolverhampton Varsity Tavern, 11.11.00)

V/Vm + Andrea Parker (Custard Factory, Birmingham 30.03.01)
Fly Pan Am + Karamasov + Dreams of Tall Buildings (Medicine Bar, Birmingham, 03.05.01)
Epic45 + Yellow6 + Schengen (DJ) (London Notting Hill Arts Centre, 02.06.01)
Tarentel + Yellow6 (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 19.06.01)
Radiohead + Sigur Ros + Beck + Supergrass + Humphrey Lyttleton (Oxford South Park, 07.07.01)
Electrelane + Kaito + Chemistry Experiment (Reading Rising Sun Arts Centre, 20.07.01)*
Double Life of Veronique + LOFT + Yellow6 (London Spitz, 04.08.01)
Telstar Ponies + Bill Wells (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 19.09.01)
Trans Am + The Fucking Champs + Calvados Beam Trio (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 17.10.01)
Lamb (London Forum, 19.10.01)
Telstar Ponies + Bill Wells (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 19.09.01)

Epic45 + Yellow6 + Millimetrik (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 23.01.02)
AMP + Yellow6 + 2 By Bukowski + Lucky Dragons (London Notting Hill Arts Centre, 09.02.02)*
Echoboy + FortDax (London Notting Hill Arts Centre, 22.02.02)
Oblique Lu Nights Festival, Nantes, France (22 - 23.03.02) - Jaki Liebezeit, Thee Majesty, Greg Weeks, People Like Us, Blectum from Blechdom, Simon Fisher-Turner.*
Grover + Epic45 + Los Planetos del Agua (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 18.06.02)
AMP + Yellow6 (London Notting Hill Arts Centre, 20.07.02)*
V/Vm + Kid606 + Jega (Manchester Attic, 29.09.02)
Charles Atlas + Longstone + Yellow6 (London Notting Hill Arts Centre, 16.10.02)

Low + Byrne + King Creosote (London Union Chapel, 15.03.03)
They Came from the Stars I Saw Them (Oxford Cellar Bar, 16.04.03)*
Yellow6, Epic45 + Innerise (London Notting Hill Arts Centre, 19.04.03)*
Yellow6 (Sheffield Glen Howe Park, 30.08.03)
The Clientele + July Skies (London Spitz Bar 03.09.03)

Squarepusher + London Sinfonietta + Jamie Liddell (Basingstoke Anvil, 16.03.04)
Headphone Festival - Hot Chip, Adem/8 hours, Yellow6, Janek Schaefer, Rashamon
(London State51 Factory, 17.07.04)

Clinic (Oxford Zodiac, 23.07.04)
Epic45 + July Skies (Sheffield Glen Howe Park, 07.08.04)*
Staffraen Hakon + Dialect (Leeds Brudenell Social Club, 19.09.04)
Christ + Yellow6 (Stoke Talbot Inn, 17.10.04)*

LCD Soundsystem + Maximo Park (Leeds Cockpit, 13.02.05)
Hood + Semi-Squared + The Unpleasants (Leeds Brudenell Social Club, 17.02.05)
The Wedding Present + Scanners (Leeds Met University 06.03.05)
Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe (Leeds Faversham, 26.03.05)
Piano Magic + July Skies (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 04.04.05)*
Joanna Newsom + Six Organs of Admittance (Leeds City Varieties, 11.04.05)
The Durutti Column (Leeds Cockpit, 24.05.05)
Four Tet + Battles (Hebden Bridge Picture House, 03.06.05)
Hood + Epic45 + Pedro (Manchester Night & Day, 22.06.05)*
Epic45 + July Skies + Yellow6 (Sheffield Glen Howe Park, 09.07.05)*
7 hertz + Jez Riley French + Bela Emerson (Leeds Holy Trinity Church, 08.11.05)

Helios (Upstairs at Santiago, Leeds 17.04.06)
Arve Henriksen (Leeds Parish Church, 11.05.06)
Adem + Tunng + Vashti Bunyan (Leeds Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, 11.05.06)
Max Richter Ensemble (Leeds College of Music, 12.05.06)
Fennesz + BJ Nilsen "Spire" (Leeds Town Hall, 12.05.06)
Hot Chip + Napoleon IIIrd (Leeds Cockpit, 21.05.06)
Howling Bells + The Cinematics (Leeds Cockpit, 18.10.06)
John Foxx (Leeds Holy Trinity Church, 03.11.06)
Sylvain Chauveau + Felicia Atkinson + 7hertz (Leeds Holy Trinity Church, 25.11.06)

Adem + Vashti Bunyan + Juana Molina + Vetiver (Leeds City Varieties, 20.01.07)
Fitkin Wall (Graham Fitkin & Ruth Wall) (Halifax Square Chapel, 15.06.07)
Library Tapes + RandomNumber + Fran Rodgers (Leeds Holy Trinity Church, 30.08.07)
Stars of the Lid + Pausal + Glissando (Leeds Holy Trinity Church, 27.11.07)

Low + The Helio Sequence (Leeds City Varieties, 17.04.08)
My Bloody Valentine + Spectrum (Manchester Apollo, 29.06.08)
Bibio + Epic45 + July Skies + Millimetrik (Wheaton Aston festival, 17.05.08)
Wire + Lonelady (Leeds Cockpit, 09.09.08)
Echo and the Bunnymen (Bingley Myrtle Park, 31.08.08)
Yellow6 + Glissando (Leeds Brudenell Social Club, 19.10.08)

Saint Etienne + The Pastels & Tenniscoats + Seeland (Moseley Park, Birmingham, 05.09.09)
Gary Numan (Wolverhampton Civic Hall, 30.06.09)
Epic45 + July Skies + Yellow6 (London Union Chapel, 10.10.09)

July Skies + Avrocar (Birmingham Victoria, 29.04.10)
The Hardy Boys + Spy Movie (Shrewsbury Old Post Office, 15.05.10)
The Wedding Present (Wolverhampton Slade Rooms, 16.07.10)
Billy Bragg (Shrewsbury Folk Festival, 29.08.10)
Echo and the Bunnymen (Birmingham o2 Academy, 04.12.10)

Echo and the Bunnymen (Birmingham Symphony Hall, 25.09.11)
Harold Budd + The Necks (Stan's Cafe AE, Birmingham, 24.11.11)

Portico Quartet (Manchester RNCM, 10.03.12)
Jah Wobble and Keith Levene "Metal Box in Dub" (Hebden Bridge Trades Club, 23.03.12)
Montgolfier Brothers (Bramsche Bar, Todmorden, 24.05.12)
Low (Halifax Minster, 13.07.12)
Scritti Politti (Hebden Bridge Trades Club, 04.08.12)
Supersilent with John Paul Jones + Aki Onda (Manchester RNCM, 16.11.12)

2013 Edwyn Collins + Gary McClure (Hebden Bridge Trades Club, 14.04.13)

2014 Olan Mill + Hybernation + Rough Fields (Bradford FUSE Art Space, 01.06.14)

*I played as Portal (either solo or with Rachel and occasionally Jon from yellow6) at these gigs.  I played as part of yellow6 at a few of the gigs listed above too, but I can't remember exactly which ones.

Bands I've definitely seen, but can't remember when or where...
A.C. Temple + A Witness? (Stafford Irish Club)
Adventure Babies (Stafford College)
AMP (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin)
Band of Susans + Head of David (Birmingham Barrel Organ)
Bear (x3 at least)
Below the Sea + Epic45 + Innerise (London Whitechapel Arts Café, 11.02?)
Bleach (Tamworth Rathole, 1991)
The Blue Aeroplanes (Derby Wherehouse, 92?)
Boyracer (Leeds Duchess of York)
Broadcast + Woodbine (Birmingham)
Butterfly Child + Papa Sprain + Disco Inferno (Manchester PJ Bell's, 1993?)
Chest (Leeds)
The Chiefs of Relief (Stafford College, 1987?)
Coping Saw (Leeds Duchess of York)
Delicious Monster (Cannock Bowling Green)
Delicious Monster (Wolverhampton)
Delicious Monster (Birmingham Jug of Ale)
Dr Phibes and the House of Wax Equations (Tamworth Rathole)
Empress (Leeds Brudenell Social Club)
Epic45 (Stafford Market Square)
The Family Cat + The Glass Hammers (Stoke Freetown Club)
Front Line Assembly (Cannock Bowling Green) - although they refused to go onstage after an argument.
Hollywood Beyond (Stafford College, 1987?)
The Jack Rubies (Stafford College, 1987?)
Jacob's Mouse + Simmer (Tamworth Rathole)
Kitchens of Distinction + The Popinjays (1990?)
Kitchens of Distinction (Walsall JBs, 1988)
Molly Half Head (Leeds Duchess of York)
The Moss Poles (Stafford College, 1987)
New Fast Automatic Daffodils (Stoke Polytechnic)
Quickspace (Leeds Packhorse, 1996?)
Red Lorry Yellow Lorry + Godhead (Stafford College, 1989)
The Snapdragons (Stafford College)
Sparklehorse (Leeds Duchess of York)
Tiger (Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 1996?)
Tse Tse Fly (Leeds Duchess of York, x3 at least)
Urusei Yatsura + Backwater (Leeds Duchess of York, 1994?)
The Wild Flowers (Stafford College, 1987)
The Workhouse (Oxford Zodiac)

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Going Blank Again: the Problem with Shoegaze

The reunion of early 90s 'shoegazers' Slowdive has been causing ripples of excitement across the internet in the last week or so.  Slowdive were one of a raft of bands, many from the Thames Valley area around Oxford, Henley-on-Thames and Reading, that also included Chapterhouse, Ride, Moose, Lush and Revolver.  The bands were initially celebrated in gushing terms in the UK music press, although the term "shoegazing" was pejorative, which makes its appropriation by fans of the music somewhat bizarre.  (And it's hardly up there with "queer" or "nigger" in the world of political re-appropriation, is it?)

The bands were clearly influenced by My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, A.R. Kane and so on, pioneers of effects-driven, guitar-based music that had taken 'rock' music into exciting new places.  But therein lay the problem: most of the 'Thames Valley' scene took these influences but did nothing new with them.  Arguably they often took a step backwards into more traditional rock/pop.  Guitars were lazily strummed, and the old conservative chords, melodies and verse/chorus structures were used and reused.  They just happened to employ more than a few chorus pedals, flangers, phasers and a blur of reverb. 

I saw many of these bands live at the time, and for the most part, they were pretty poor.  I saw Chapterhouse twice and walked out of each gig (I'd gone to see the support bands, electronica duo Reload and ambient dub experimentalists Seefeel, respectively).  Chapterhouse had little onstage presence, nothing to add musically and some of the most out of tune (yet mumbled) vocals I've ever witnessed.  Likewise, I saw Slowdive a couple of times, once when they played at my local college when their first EP came out and I'd gone along out of curiosity after glowing praise in Melody Maker, and again a few years later when they supported Cranes.  Slowdive were by no means terrible, but they weren't exactly amazing either.  It seemed to me that they'd taken much of their inspiration from the Cocteaus and MBV, yet somehow missed what was truly great about both bands.

At the same time as these bands' emergence, far more interesting things were happening in another musical corner with not entirely dissimilar influences.  Bands like Moonshake, Earwig and Disco Inferno were also influenced by bands like MBV and A.R. Kane, but they had embraced the experimentation and sonic exploration angles and had something worth saying.  With the odd exception, most of shoegazing bands had clearly nothing much to say about anything.  Where was the politics?  Where was the insight?  In the UK, we'd had over a decade of Thatcherism and John Major's punitive and regressive "Back to Basics" Conservatism.  There was plenty to be pissed off about and push against.  But these bands seemed to thrive on blankness or some vague (stoned) notion of escapism.  Alongside having something worthwhile to say, bands like Moonshake were wrestling with new technologies, particularly sampling and MIDI, opening up whole worlds of possibilities.  As part of this, they'd also embraced the "studio as instrument" approach of dub pioneer Lee 'Scratch' Perry.  It all made for far more exciting listening.  

There was a definite sense that the shoegazing bands quickly felt left behind and irrelevant, evident by departures into completely different musical arenas (Moose's idiosyncratic country/MOR-meets-post punk, for example) and Slowdive's embracing of technology for their third and final album "Pygmalion".  But by then, it all felt like "too little, too late."  They'd had their 15 minutes of fame.  The music press moved onto rave, then the often depressingly retrogressive genres of grunge and Britpop, taking many of the fans with them.  Shoegaze seemed dead in the water and was soon forgotten about.

Shoegaze has had something of a renaissance in more recent years, however, partly as a result of a number of artists citing them as an influence or being compared to them in the press, from Ulrich Schnauss and Mahogany to the more recent exponents of 'chillwave' and darker bands like The Soft Moon and Tropic of Cancer.  The time was obviously right for Slowdive to reform.  And good luck to them - there is evidently a groundswell of fans, many from a generation too young to see them play live in the early 90s, eager to pay good money to see them now.  I'm sure that they will undergo critical reappraisal as well, having been harshly and perhaps rather unfairly treated in the press by the mid-90s.  I revisited some of their records and some other 'shoegazing' stuff recently (I own a few, my wife has a few more), and found, by and large, that they still don't do it for me.  They're often nice enough and many of the 'right' ingredients are there, but the final outcome just isn't for me.  They often sound like the bands weren't really trying hard enough, merely content to plod along with some lazy strumming and distinctly average songwriting.  As Lush once remarked, it leaves me cold.

Monday, 23 December 2013

An Education: studenthood in the 1980s

When I attended college in the mid to late eighties, there were distinct groups within the student population.  This tribalism was, by and large, good-natured, although there was always a sense of mutual antipathy between the 'alternative' teens and those they labelled 'townies' or 'casuals' (identifiable by their Benetton tops, Farahs and Adidas trainers - labels, it appeared, in a precursor of so much of today's fashions, were everything).

As I've mentioned before, I resided largely at the 'goth' end of the spectrum with my love of all things 4AD, The Chameleons and Joy Division.  Tempering it slightly was my enthusiasm for the electronic fare of The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Coil, and via John Peel, the more guitar-centric sounds of The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Smiths, Yeah Yeah Noh and other bands at the 'shambling' end of C86.  My sartorial style (and I use the word "style" very loosely indeed) was assembled from charity shops, jumble sales, market stalls and Oasis in the centre of Birmingham, a collection of clothing and music retailers under one roof that was something of a Mecca for goths and indie kids.  I certainly wore plenty of black: skinny-fit jeans, baggy jumpers, Chelsea boots and a leather jacket; as well as having a penchant for paisley shirts and 1960s Burton overcoats.  My hair was an unruly mop, achieved with hairspray-encrusted crimpers and far too much time and effort.

Other factions at college included 'psychobillies' with their quiffs, brothel creepers and King Kurt t-shirts; 'indie kids' in 501s, Harrington jackets, DM shoes and regulation Bernard Sumner haircuts; and their close relatives, the 'cuties' with anoraks and satchels augmenting vintage shirts and v-neck jumpers for the boys, and sixties' floral dresses for the girls.  There was a smattering of die-hard punks too, all studded leather, anarchy symbols and coloured mohawks.  Some people regularly crossed these borders in their quest for individuality or self-expression - I recall friends whose hair would alternate between bowl-cut and spiky mop on a near-daily basis, whilst others would experiment with different styles of clothing or completely reinvent themselves overnight.

Every Friday night the Student Union would host a gig and/or indie disco with cheap entrance fee and subsidised bar, with snakebite and black costing a mere 60p if I remember correctly.  During my years at college I saw more bands than I can now recall - possibly due to my intake of snakebite and black - but I vividly remember seeing Primal Scream, The Fall, Marc Riley and the Creepers, The Wild Flowers (local heroes along with The Mighty Lemon Drops), The Godfathers, Ghost Dance and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry.  I probably paid no more than £2.50 to get into any of those gigs.  The indie discos were always riotously fun occasions too that would unite the different factions on the dancefloor.  Tracks like Spear of Destiny's "Liberator", The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" and The Pogues' "Sally MacLennane" would seemingly get everyone, goths, psychobillies, punks and indie kids alike, piling in for a good-humoured and consensual ruckus.

It's fair to say that I enjoyed my college years greatly.  Possibly related to this, I now teach in a further education college, although not the one I attended as a student.  The experience of today's students is nothing like it was for me 25-plus years ago, however.  Student Unions, in colleges at least, seem to no longer exist.  The building in which I saw all of the aforementioned bands - and in later years the likes of Suede, The Auteurs and Slowdive - is now part of the college's reception area, and there isn't even a common room any more.  I'm also struck that the student population today is far more homogeneous, with fashions bought 'off the peg' in high street stores, rather than assembled, mix-and-match, from charity shops and rag markets, and hand-dyed in covert experiments at home.

My students are, by and large, a fine bunch of young adults, far removed from many media portrayals of "youth today".  They're also happy, of course, with social lives that revolve around technology, social media, large scale music festivals and clubs.  But when they ask me about my experiences of being a student, it quickly becomes apparent to both sides how much things have changed, how comparatively little freedom they have now, how they are constrained and pressured due to current funding arrangements, and just how lucky me and my peers were.