Review: Paperhaus – Paperhaus

Influenced by the heavier end of psych rock, Krautrock, post-punk and possibly many other sub genres in between, Washington DC’s Paperhaus have been causing quite a stir and it’s easy to hear why on this assured, multi-layered debut album.

Paperhaus Album Cover

Thanks to its escalating guitar riffs, there’s an early sign of great urgency on opener ‘Cairo’. The contrast comes from the breathy vocals, which provide an insouciant foil to the intensity of the post-punk arrangement. It’s a tremendous start but the style isn’t actually representative of the album as a whole. ‘Untitled’ settles into a subtle interlude of attractive dream pop before unfurling into a guitar storm and thereafter the album edges towards a harder-edged sound.

Bluesy centrepieces ‘Surrender To The Night’, ‘Misery’ and ‘432’ are punishing, gruelling songs; the kind you’d expect from a veteran, well-drilled unit on their fourth album rather than a young quartet on their first. Towards the end of the record, the mood brightens somewhat thanks to the optimistic vocals and janglier guitars of ‘I’ll Send It To You’, with a brass accompaniment even suggesting Dexys Midnight Runners in their prime, even if the lyrical matter is resolutely downbeat.

Paperhaus’s forte is creating lengthy, complex songs which span genres in a manner which seems natural and unforced, rather than the hamfisted “something for everybody” approach of many of their contemporaries. They may sound groovy but – as their press release proclaims – Paperhaus are “not a band of hippies” and who are we to argue based on this bruising evidence?

Web Sites:
Paperhaus Official Site
Paperhaus Bandcamp
Paperhaus perform ‘Cairo’

Further Listening:
Deaf Horse

Review: The Van Allen Belt – Heaven On A Branch

If anyone should ask you “I’m looking for a band that don’t sound like anyone else”, then Pittsburgh’s The Van Allen Belt must surely qualify. If you can imagine an alien Karen Carpenter singing on The Avalanches’ first album, you’ll get a taste of what they’re about. This is only half the story, though, as we once more enter the curious, exotic world of The Van Allen Belt.

The Van Allen Belt Album Cover

Never ones for subtlety, the record kicks off with the ultra-bouncy ‘Rain’ and the ever distinctive, classically-trained voice of Tamar Kamin: part 60’s girl pop siren, part hectoring spokeswoman. The song is underscored by Scott Taylor’s highly imaginative turntable and percussion skills and it’s Benjamin Ferris who we have to thank for the subversive songwriting and production, as well as a selection of choices of samples and mad keyboards. Time has done little to diminish the fine balance of invention and craziness since 2010’s ‘Superpowerfragilis’, so when Kamin urges “Don’t you worry your head’ on ‘Words’ at the centre of the album, the warning might come a little too late for the uninitiated.

That said, ‘Clouds’ boasts another reliably creative production but the relatively mainstream melody provides a welcome comfort and contrast to the often unhinged nature of some of the songs. Humour is at the core of much of the The Van Allen Belt’s lyrics, not least on ‘Afternoon Walk Of Shame’ (where “Everybody Knows My Name”). Versatility is undoubtedly a strength here. Some tight percussion and Tom Altes’ bass add a slinky edge to the streamlined ‘Slopes’ whilst ‘Bandi Shaum’ seems to borrow inspiration from The Chordettes’ ‘Mr. Sandman’. Then demonstrating their cinematic potential, ‘This Is The Best Shower I Have Ever Taken’ is part dream pop, part lost Hollywood film score and ‘Different Storm’ captures the melodrama of a Bond theme.

‘Heaven On A Branch’ isn’t the most coherent album you’ll ever hear. It’s all over the shop stylistically and thematically but their songs are always touched by warped genius and this record is no exception. Long may their peculiar journey continue.

Web Sites:
The Van Allen Belt Official Site
The Van Allen Belt Bandcamp

Further Listening:
The Avalanches, The Carpenters, RedTails

Review: Graveyard Tapes – White Rooms

As if they weren’t busy enough with their other projects, when Edinburgh-based Euan McMeeken (glacis, The Kays Lavelle) and Matthew Collings (Splintered Instruments, Sketches For Albinos) decided to team up as Graveyard Tapes for the first time in 2013, they served notice that they were an inspired partnership. Touching on Radiohead at their experimental and angst-ridden, the results gathered on ‘Our Sound Is Our Wound’ were a highlight of the year. Sensibly, the partnership was renewed last year, giving us ‘White Rooms’.

Graveyard Tapes Album Cover

The album begins with an incongruous proposition. When faced with the image of a man singing “You raise me up” against a myriad of electronica and FX, It should be jarring. it’s actually rather thrilling with intense rhythms and guitar trails colliding beautifully with some genuinely heartfelt singing from McMeeken. One could almost say it was chart-worthy but for ‘Exit Ghosts’ the hand-wringing angst delves into more abstract territory as some gloomy keyboard motifs and drones lead to an inevitably doomed conclusion. Perhaps more attractive, though, is the stark ‘Sometimes The Sun Doesn’t Want To Be Photographed’ whose haunted piano and (what appears to be) sampled hordes of feet is both smart and bone-chilling.

Towards the middle of the record, there’s an even greater emphasis on experiments in noise, most notably for ‘Could You Really Kill?’ where the duo seem to be channelling the latter-day contributions of both Bauhaus and Scott Walker albums. Challenging and brave stuff indeed but it’s easier to be drawn to ‘The Secret Voices Of People'; a delicate, stripped-back song, arranged in the gothic simplicity of a This Mortal Coil cover. Special praise too for the finale, ‘I’m On Fire’, where McMeeken appears to be losing his grip on sanity; the skill here is that it’s not a last cry for life but more a subtle murmur as the victim seems resigned to his fate.

Many tracks were improvised with Ben Chatwin whose own releases under the name of Talvihorros are an indication of how harrowing this music could be. Balanced against this, though, are fragments of dark beauty to make ‘White Rooms’ as appealing as it is uncompromising.

Web Sites:
Lost Tribe Sound Label and Shop Site
Graveyard Tapes Bandcamp

Further Listening: Radiohead, Caught In The Wake Forever, Matthew Collings, Talvihorros, Hood, Eyeless In Gaza

An Announcement Regarding Leonard’s Lair

Dear purveyors of fine music and listeners thereof

The world of online music criticism has changed a lot since I made my first tentative steps back in Summer 1999. Back then there was the excitement of being offered actual physical CDs to review, which were often carefully prepared with a covering letter, a bio and – if I was really lucky – even the odd sweetie (I should now point out that I never took bribes). Now, though, I come home from work and am faced with 50+ e-mails and Facebook messages from independent musicians, PR agencies or random mailing lists. I realise I can cherry pick through these but to be honest my thirst for discovering new music and being passionate enough to write about it has diminished in recent times.

This isn’t a reflection of the music on offer, more a realisation that I’m now at the time of life (having just turned 41) that I’m more inclined to listen again to all the music I have enjoyed in the past rather than spend hours per week sifting through SoundCloud and Bandcamp sites searching for the next big thing and then analyse it in my slightly awkward way. I’ve always known there are better, more articulate writers out there and they can also write about music within a short time of the release date. In my current situation, I’m struggling to write about an album within 6 months of it being on general release!

I expect I will still write about music in some form but I just haven’t decided what form that will take yet. Perhaps it will be via the means of dance or even a vaudevillian puppet show. So a (possibly permanent) break from taking on new reviews seems like the best option. Until then I will do my best to finish reviews I’ve already committed to.

I would like to thank all the musicians, label reps, PR people and the readers of my blog (not to mention the original Leonard’s Lair http://www.leonardslair.co.uk site) for your support over the last 16 years or so. It really has been an honour to write about your work and to introduce it to people who might not have otherwise listened to it (there must be at least one of you out there!). I’ll still keep my ears alert for new music but just not with the same diligence as before.

All the best

Jon

Review: Memory Drawings – There Is No Perfect Place

Hibernate Records have come up with the goods on a regular basis when it comes to intelligent and atmospheric instrumental music. One could say it’s quite a coup for them to be the chosen home for a new album featuring Hood members but maybe it’s those Hood members themselves who are the lucky ones, as Hibernate have taken them under their wing. The Memory Drawings project boasts its own string section courtesy of cellist Florence Fawcett, Joel Hanson’s dulcimer and Sarah Kemp on violins. Add in Chris Tenz’s banjo too and you have the makings of a versatile chamber folk crew.

Memory Drawings Album Cover

‘The Island Of The Day Before’ is possibly the closest we get to Hood territory. The backing players create that distinctive rustic environment and Richard Adams’ sighed vocal and doleful guitar add to the blissful despair which characterised much of Hood’s back catalogue. Meanwhile the drawn out percussion on ‘There Is A World Without You’ will immediately cast minds back to 1999’s morose classic ‘The Cycle Of Days And Seasons’.

However, this is largely an album where the arrangements and interplay between the band members hold the key, rather than references to individual and past performances. Each wordless piece is a moving, achingly sad document, possibly to the ruins which dominate the album’s artwork, or perhaps just to life’s disappointments and regrets. Either way, it works. Even short fragments like the refined ‘I Could Live Like This Forever’, or a stately piano-led ‘In The House At Midnight’ make their mark on the soul and ‘Golden Afternoon’ manages to sound both merry and ominous at the same time. Most poignant of all, though, is the glorious title track which would have fitted perfectly on This Mortal Coil’s ‘It’ll End In Tears’.

The album is bolstered by a bonus CD of re-works and alternate versions. The most impressive contributions including full-bodied re-interpretations from Ryan William Fitch and typically chilling offerings from both Talvihorros and A New Line (Related). There also some lovely female vocal-led re-workings too, including a take on the title track which is the equal of the original.

Web Sites:
Memory Drawings Blog
Memory Drawings Bandcamp
Hibernate Recordings Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Hood, The Declining Winter, This Mortal Coil

Review: Sleep Rebellion – Empire Of Lies

Portland’s Sleep Rebellion promise “libertarian sci-fi lyrics” within a new prog/hard rock framework. If that concept fills you with dread then it may be best to turn away now but the more broad-minded listener will be rewarded with a surprisingly melodic and durable album.

Sleep Rebellion Album Cover

The title track sets an early template for heavy post-rock guitars and mighty percussion. Guitars and drums are duly slayed although one of the most pleasing elements is Chris McGraw’s strident yet somewhat innocent-sounding vocals. Even better is ‘Dark Is Our Fear’ which comes across like a prog version of Ultravox’s ‘Hymn'; a portentous anthem concerning surveillance state society, complete with a powerful chorus. Granted there are moments of over-indulgence with showy guitar solos (‘Helicopter Ben’) and unnecessary keyboard solos (‘Transhuman’) which threaten to undermine some otherwise impressive songwriting but for the most part the duo of McGraw and Randy Hart stick to a formula which merits repeated plays.

The unfussy ‘False Messiah’ makes a mockery of its six minute length with a lean, bruising, no-nonsense delivery, the synth-heavy ‘New Worlds’ is swish and energising and on ‘The Creator’ they could give Muse a run for their money. Furthermore, ‘The Agorist’ is rich and complex and the last song ‘Fearless’ is a defiant way to end the record (“Courage takes passion. Revolution takes persistence. So rise up, and join the resistance” sounds like a political call to arms at this time of year).

Those melodramatic lyrics aside, ‘Empire Of Lies’ is a record to be taken seriously. Their music may belong to another time zone (hereafter referred to as the retro-futurist prog period perhaps?) but the duo have created an album of largely memorable sturdy rock anthems and there’s certainly no crime in that.

Web Sites:
Sleep Rebellion Official Site
Sleep Rebellion Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Ultravox, Rush, Muse

Review: Daniel Halliday – Surface Tension

It was a decade ago when I first encountered Daniel Halliday’s work via his Motodestra project and this was my first introduction to his intricately-crafted guitar-based compositions. Since then he has released a handful of EPs under his own name and as Pictureville. Latterly this has included the sparse, acoustic-based ‘Haunts’ but new album ‘Surface Tension’ is closer in spirit to 2008’s ‘First Signs’.

Daniel Halliday Album Cover

Don’t be fooled by its tongue-in-cheek title, ‘Serenade For Tight Jeans And Metal Detector’ jangles delightfully; melodically speaking it’s akin to the lighter side of banjo duelling in ‘Deliverance’ you might say, although there’s a slightly melancholic edge to the arrangement which suggests not all is well in the Western world. That sense of darkness segues into sadness for ‘Recall’ where every ringing chord seems to resonate like another teardrop. The pattern of Western soundtracks versus pretty elegiac tunes becomes a common theme with the title track, ‘Streetlight’, ‘Night Scene’ and ‘Telegraph Hill’ all echoing feelings of languid, lovely loneliness. Meanwhile, the rambling, Wild West atmospheres of ‘There’s Fire On You II’ and ‘Foreshadow’ hint at cinematic ambition. Then, for the final excursion, ‘Last Wave’, there is the last sign of The Durutti Column comparisons but this time they’re imbued with the delicate insistence of The Sea And Cake.

A few may carp about a lack of variety on offer here and production-wise all emphasis is placed on the guitar skills of the musician rather than any outside accompaniment. However, it’s heroically tuneful from first to last note with no little emotional weight either, which means that ‘Surface Tension’ is another fine chapter in the Halliday catalogue.

Web Sites:
Daniel Halliday WordPress
Daniel Halliday Bandcamp

Further Listening:
The Sea And Cake, The Durutti Column, Ry Cooder, Mike Oldfield


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