Review: Woman’s Hour – Conversations

Let’s be honest. We’re not exactly short of bands evoking the early-mid 80’s period of synth pop. Woman’s Hour are the latest to try their hand at this style but there’s something different about them from the outset and their reference points seem unusual; blending the sophisticated synth pop of early Pet Shop Boys (particularly their song ‘Love Comes Quickly’) and the comforting, nocturnal glamour of Sade. This description may not set pulses racing but this is a band who never over-exert themselves; retaining a detached cool throughout this confident yet never overbearing debut.

Woman's Hour Album Cover

From the first impressions of ‘Unbroken Sequence’, Woman’s Hour could be compared to bored, lovelorn students but then hit on the required urgency for a strident chorus. The title track is content to simmer; it’s a quiet murmur of a song but one which sums up the elegant despair of the album as a whole and for the album’s first single, ‘To The End’, they marry sadly-spoken lyrics of absolute commitment (“Take everything you know and go with me to the end”) with the kind of simple, understated electronica more commonly found on The Wake’s albums. Similar levels of romantic obsession are captured on the perfectly-titled ‘Devotion’ and here the innocence and fragility of the words (“When you’re gone I feel empty. Need your love to surround me.”) are given further strength by Fiona Burgess’s doomed, helpless tones. The effect is stunning in a subtle way.

The nearest Woman’s Hour come to a busy modern production is on the closing ‘The Day That Needs Defending’ and in a rare break from melancholy, ‘In Stillness We Remain’ has a lightness of touch and a suggestion of happiness but this is arguably the least interesting song on the record too. Thankfully, the dip is followed by the best moment, where ghostly “ooh ooh” harmonies, a steadily insistent bassline and the detached yet involving vocals of Burgess dovetail to perfection.

Some might dismiss this music as too mannered and there are times when ‘Conversations’ treads an uneasy line between understated sophistication and boredom. Yet one feels that, rather like The XX, Woman’s Hour have considered every move they make with their less is more approach and it would be fair to say that the more desolate they sound, the better they actually are.

Web Sites:
Woman’s Hour Official Site
Video for Woman’s Hour – Our Love Has No Rhythm

Further Listening:
Pet Shop Boys, Sade, The XX, The Wake

Review: A Singer Must Die – Venus Parade & More Songs Beyond Love

It was back in the mid 90’s when I first heard The Divine Comedy. Neil Hannon’s rich vocals, witty lyrics and Joby Talbot’s wonderfully ambitious productions proved to be one of the most enduring acts of the late Brit pop era and it’s hard not to think fondly back to that time when I encountered the music of France’s A Singer Must Die.

A Singer Must Die Album Cover

Manuel Bichon is credited as composer as well as being guitarist and bassist and it is he who conducts the lush backdrops and choral arrangements whereas Manuel Ferrer’s gloriously emotive vocals add the final ingredient to their swish chamber pop. They are brilliantly served by the stylish, yet edgy pop of ‘Smoky Mourners'; cleverly adding gutsy indie guitars to contrast the dynamic Ferrer. ‘Still Worlds’ and ‘The Sordid Tango’ follow suit and seem to be cut from the same cloth as prime period Hannon. The last song on the original album, ‘By The Dawn Of Monday’, is a refined triumph too; opting for the kitchen sink approach, military drums and all.

The final five songs form ‘More Songs Beyond Love'; effectively a bonus to the original album and they are classy additions to an already exquisite experience. Here Ferrer and Bichon arguably stretch themselves even more. Ferrer gives full vent to his flamboyant side for the perfectly judged swoon pop of ‘The Fortress’, there’s an intense Bond-style thriller (‘As If We Could Make Unique Things Twice’) and it would take a hard heart not to admire ‘Christmas Will Never Be As It Was’ even at this time of year. The group end the performance with a graceful, subtle little number called ‘A Right Arm Beyond Love’.

There may be occasions when A Singer Must Die fly a little too close to the sun but their music is underpinned with a wry smile and kept on the ground by the weight of melancholy. A Singer Must Die are the new go-to guys for those who like classic, romantic indie pop bolstered by big production values.

Web Sites:
A Singer Must Die Official Site
A Singer Must Die – Venus Parade & More Songs Beyond Love

Further Listening:
The Divine Comedy, Misty Roses, The Fabulous Artisans, Avril

Review: Cliff And Ivy – Springtide Of Pure Reason

Marketing themselves as Alaska’s only goth band, Cliff and Ivy are formed around husband and wife team Cliff Monk and Ivy Silence. Whilst it’s hard to deny their claim for local honours, ‘Springtime OF Pure Reason’ is certainly a pleasingly ambitious record which encompasses a breadth of genres.

Cliff And Ivy EP Cover

‘Get Up’ ensures the EP sets off to a fun, punky start where chanted vocals mix with swirling keyboards and wild guitar shapes. The staccato vocals and playful arrangement prove that comparisons with Devo are entirely justified. The next track is the same song but in “explicit” form so we can only assume the first version is for a family goth audience. After this punchy beginning, the group are in a sombre and more reflective mode for ‘Lost Your Soul’. Revolving around a simple descending (yet highly addictive) keyboard hook, the song immediately grabs your attention, whilst the doomy chorus is reminiscent of Sister Of Mercy. ‘Superclass’ somehow balances an incongruous mix of 60’s girl pop vocals and heavy metal with dignity intact. Then, for the final two tracks ‘Transplant’ and ‘Radiant’, metal plays a prominent role again but this time alongside dark poetry, with Ivy Silence performing a fine Siouxsie Sioux impersonation for the latter.

So, in truth, the goth label only tells a small part of the Cliff And Ivy story. The group covers an impressive array of musical bases and moods amongst these five songs, which should cement their position as the best goth/punk/spoken word/metal hybrid in Alaska.

Web Sites:
Cliff And Ivy Official Site
Cliff And Ivy Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Siouxsie And The Banshees, Sisters Of Mercy, Devo

Review: Berlina – Berlina

In the latest in a series of slightly misleading dream pop/shoegaze band names, Berlina is the work of Madrid resident Alfonso Herrero and his co-musicians. To date, they have recorded just two EPs and it’s their self-titled second release which is under the microscope here.

Berlina EP Cover

In what some would say is a brave move, Herrero sings in his native Spanish tongue but it’s a good decision as his tones add a haunting counterpoint to the dreamlike backdrops. ‘Tiempo y Transfiguración’ (Time and Transfiguration) is dramatic but – even more so – rather eerie as swooning guitars and soothing keyboard washes fade in and out, wrapped around Herrero’s breathy vocals. It’s an intoxicating beginning. The synths are piled on high for ‘Sintex’ which – at only two and a half minutes in length – essentially serves as an interlude to the epic final track. ‘Estado de Naturaleza’ (‘State Of Nature’) begins with three minutes of scene-setting, driving Krautrock rhythms but then the track evolves; bringing in ghostly vocals, some equally spooky synths and an extra dose of funk muscle. It’s a testament to Herrera’s arrangement skills that the song never flags during its nine minute duration.

Berlina delight on each track with breezy, ambient washes adding an air of intrigue to proceedings, in a not dissimilar way to Auburn Lull or Mahogany. Naturally, when judging an act just on seventeen minutes of music, one can never get too carried away but this is certainly an excellent, mysterious and beguiling introduction to Berlina’s music.

Web Sites:
Berlina Bandcamp
Video for Berlina – Tiempo y Transfiguración

Further Listening:
Mahogany, Auburn Lull, The Meeting Places

Review: Shadowpeak – Shadowpeak

The name may suggest a goth rock outfit but Shadowpeak are a band more concerned with shoegaze and dream pop, it seems. However, this band from Utrecht in the Netherlands certainly belong to the dark side when it comes to inspiration on their brutally effective first EP.

Shadowpeak EP Cover

‘Daisy’ begins as slowcore but then grinds its way to a near-apocalyptic state, then slows down and repeats the formula once more. It’s an attention grabbing and intense beginning for the band which relies on only the faintest of vocals. Grinding guitars are to the fore again for ‘Inside My Dreams’ which features some murmuring female voices but it’s another rather bleak affair. So too is ‘Remembrance’, a track with the most pronounced gothic rock leanings thanks to its spindly guitar interplay, whereas for ‘Falling Down’ and ‘Wild Dreams’ the feet are pressed firmly down on the FX pedals; the folk vocals emerging on the latter providing a rare moment of fragility. Not surprisingly, by the time of the pummeling, breathless finale ‘Fernweh’, Shadowpeak’s energy must have been well and truly sapped, bringing a close to this EP.

To play on the name of the band, they could do with peeking out of the darkness a little more at times because this is heavy, murky material which could do with some variety. Having said that, the relentlessness musicianship and aggression of Shadowpeak’s performance should prove to be very durable for head nodders everywhere.

Web Sites:
Shadowpeak Bandcamp

Further Listening:
My Bloody Valentine, My Majestic Star

Review: Placebo – Loud Like Love

Of all the bands who existed twenty years ago, it is perhaps surpising that Placebo are still a going concern. This is the band who created anthems called ‘Teenage Angst’ and ‘Nancy Boy’, after all and – for many – will forever be associated with a particular era and demographic. After 1998’s brilliant and mature ‘Without You I’m Nothing’, their star appeared to be on the wane at the turn of the Century but a long recording gap seems to have reinvigorated Brian Molko and co. for their latest album.

Placebo Album Cover

There is a sense of reassurance when the title track opens up with a supercharged burst of guitars and percussion, followed by Molko’s eternally bruised vocals which have gained a certain richness over the last few years. ‘Scene Of The Crime’ is a muscular, driven song and – proving the relevance of the band – there is an on the money, state of the nation song about social media called ‘Too Many Friends’ (“Too many people and I’ll never be there for”). Backed up by the satisfyingly chugging ‘Rob The Bank’ and the hooky and stylish ‘A Million Little Pieces’, all appears to be well in Placebo world. Admittedly, despite plenty of production heft, a couple of songs struggle to linger in the memory (‘Purify’, ‘Exit Wounds’) but the skittering beats of ‘Begin The End’ and a reflective ‘Bosco’ help to restore the quality of the first half of the album.

‘Loud Like Love’ is a slick and largely flab-free album, containing a number of tracks which will sit proudly alongside their classic anthems for future set lists. Proof indeed that Molko can also speak to a considerably more mature audience after all those years of making songs for the disaffected youth.

Web Sites:
Placebo Official Site
Video for Placebo – Too Many Friends

Further Listening:
Pine For Cedars

Review: Rat Trap – Halfway To Infinity

If Rat Trap’s three album career were a school report, they performed with merit on their indie folk-flavoured debut ‘The Western Boundary’ and achieved distinctions in alt rock for the follow-up ‘Blueprints Of A Paper City’. It seems a long time ago when I wrote about the California-based band’s first album in 2011 but main songwriter Grant Simmons has actually only just graduated from high school.

Rat Trap Album Cover

A sense of confusion and inner turmoil is apparent from the opening line to their new album: “Lately I’ve been sleeping in a head that isn’t mine”. It’s the first of an opening two parter called ‘Canoe’ but it’s the second part where Rat Trap show their arranging prowess much better; augmenting a stylistically varied song with string and brass instruments. Then they unleash the brilliantly wired and infectious ‘Exploding Head Syndrome’ and – in a similar vein – ‘Hippopotamus’ revisits their favourites Pavement with a typically awkward, off-key melody. ‘Creeks And Rivers’, meanwhile is a lovely, bittersweet tune featuring a sweet vocal turn from Simmons. Yet this album is as much about sensitive souls as arch songwriting. On that score, some of the material comes across as rather timid but ‘The Best A While’ rings and chimes delightfully and ‘Saltwater’ is a joyful ramble through strings and piano.

The album closes in somewhat valedictory fashion via the fading keys and poignant words (“The swan only has one song”) of ‘Outro’. It represents a somewhat fitting finale because this is the band’s last outing for the “foreseeable future” as presumably the band members find their next path after graduation. So it’s the end of a musical era but the beginning of something exciting for the individuals concerned. Whatever happens, ‘Halfway To Infinity’ presents the last part of a musical trilogy in growing up and Rat Trap have done themselves very proud throughout.

Web Sites:
Album Stream for Rat Trap – Halfway To Infinity

Further Listening:
Pavement, Belle And Sebastian


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