Archive for June, 2008

Review: The Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead

Portland, Orgeon has achieved a reputation for being the place to be seen for wannabe indie stars in America. Already home to the likes of The Shins, Modest Mouse and The Dandy Warhols, The Helio Sequence are one of the less “known” names, yet after hearing their new album for the first time I was immediately struck by the heart of the record and its original melodic structures.

The Helio Sequence CD Cover

‘Lately’ not only sets the high standard for great songs but also gives witness to a fantastic widescreen production where guitars shimmer, some light electronica bubbles away whilst Brandon Summers’ throaty warble all help to deliver an opening full of colour and beauty. Impressively, The Helio Sequence only lose momentum right at the end of the record. In between, the dramatic ‘Can’t Say No’, ‘Hallelujah’ and the title track deliver on big, emotive choruses which emphasise their commercial potential.

Another point that struck me is that there are only two core members to the group yet the sound they make is huge. Along with guitarist/vocalist Summers’, there is just keyboard player and drummer Benjamin Weikel who is credited. Yet despite their obvious ambition, the duo also understand the need for space as well as melodrama. To this end, ‘Shed Your Love’ is a lovelorn spine-tingling number that sounds as desolate as the Australian desert. Meanwhile, ‘Back To This’ is pure class; some bouncy yet understated beats, smooth synths and glistening guitar shapes complement a dreamlike tune. In fact, they only lose their way for the drunken Americana of  ‘No Regrets’. Otherwise, ‘Keep Your Eyes Ahead’ is one of the most deeply satisfying albums of the year.

Web Sites:
The Helio Sequence MySpace
The Helio Sequence Official Site

Further Listening:
The Great Depression, Argentine

Review: The Static Silence – Found

It used to be so dfficult to maintain togetherness within a group when the members position themselves in far flung areas of the world. Then the Internet was invented and suddenly things got a whole lot easier. Rachel Staggs and Matt Bartram recorded their music in their respective Texan and English homes, with Staggs putting together the final mix. I would hesitate to call the results “shoegazer lite” but ‘Found’ definitely occupies the softer side of the dreampop genre.

The Static Silence CD Cover

The duo both have a track record; Bartram is a member of Air Formation whilst Staggs has served time in (amongst others) Experimental Aircraft. Staggs’ vocals are – if you can forgive the oxymoron – strong on fragility and I was often left to recall the song-based material of Portal when listening to the melancholic likes of ‘Looking For Light’ and ‘Candles’. The evil-sounding drones employed on ‘Set In Starlight’ indicate a darker sound but otherwise the music is relaxing rather than unsettling. In the case of ‘Time Bends’, for example, the song embodies the essences of fairy tales and lullabies. ‘Lost’, meanwhile, stands out for Staggs’ haunting tones above some shifting, experimental layers of sound.

Key to the success of this mini-album is the melodies underpinning each track; ensuring each song is tied to a solid footing. What comes across equally as well, though, is that Bartram and Staggs clearly occupy a similar mindset and ‘Found’ is a cohesive record that’s perfect for floating away to.

Web Sites:
Distant Noise Records Label and Shop Site
The Static Silence MySpace

Further Listening:
Portal, Slowdive

Review: Guy Gelem – Works

Guy Gelem’s debut for Split Femur Recordings is a minimalist set of tracks which combines guitar, laptop and cello. This three-pronged approach works well in a delightful half-hour of gently stimulating music; the twenty seven year-old London dweller faring well in combining three very different forms of instruments in to a cohesive whole.

Guy Gelem CD Cover

For the opening shot of ‘Rise’, intricate guitar patterns are weaved over cello melody, resulting in a lovely haunting composition. Elsewhere the approach is rather more understated, journeying from the timid twinkling of ‘Answers’ via the noirish ‘Drawing Dates’, on to the menacing Windsor For The Derby-esque ‘Phlegmatic’ and concluding with the stark ‘Three’.

The music never sounds over-complicated and the electronica elements are used sparingly; letting the cello provide much of the melodic core. ‘Works’ is a fascinating and original start for a new name on the scene; skilfully evoking rainy day atmospheres just as much as spy thrillers set in French towns.

Web Sites:
Guy Gelem MySpace
Split Femur Recordings Label Site

Further Listening:
Windsor For The Derby

Review: Harold Nono – To The River Lounge

Harold Nono is an Edinburgh-based solo artist with a penchant for unusual electronic music. The title to his third album may suggest an excursion into tired easy listening territory but ‘To The River Lounge’ is actually an exercise in quiet but inventive instrumentals, albeit one which is accompanied by an omnipresent sense of unease.

Harold Nono CD Cover

Most tracks feature the common themes of experimental, almost Teutonic electronica and Oriental female vocal samples. ‘Lullaby’ is a haunting opener which reminded me of the mysterious work of Argentina’s Mus. Yet at the most undemanding level, ‘Rain’ is the closest we get to easy listening; a lush ambient melody set to running water, which wouldn’t sound out of place at a health spa.

After this brief lull, ‘A Third Of Birds’ is where the music really shifts from the mildly diverting to the faintly unnerving as the music – in its own subtle way – starts to close in on the listener with its noise of animal chatter and choice string effects. Then ‘Tacky Tigers’ enters the fray; a disarmingly pretty, twinkling tune suggesting a particularly warped but wonderful update of Disney’s ‘Fantasia’, whilst ‘A Bigger Spider’ suggests the threat of more horror to follow. Finally, the chilling child vocal samples for ‘Lightbox’ ensures the mystique is maintained right up until the end of the record.

Although there are comparisons to be made with other musicians, Nono seems to be in a field in his own. ‘To The River Lounge’ has its own distinct feel which sets it apart from so many other exponents of instrumental music.

Web Sites:
Harold Nono MySpace
Bearsuit Records MySpace

Further Listening:
Mus, To Rococo Rot

Review: Hammock – Maybe They Will Sing For Us Tomorrow

Firstly, I apologise for the lack of recent postings on the site. The truth is that I have been suffering with a migraine since Sunday and have only started to feel better today.

What a relief, therefore, that the first CD I review since recovering is as serene and gentle as Hammock’s latest album. This Nashville duo have been earning rave reviews for their dreamy post-rock sounds for several years now. One of their more famous supporters has been Jonsi Birgisson from the now pretty much ominipresent Sigur Ros. It was for them, that Hammock performed live for the first time and ‘Maybe They Will Sing For Us Tomorrow’ is essentially a studio version of that unique evening’s work.

Hammock CD Cover

Having only heard one previous album by Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson, I can only compare to that record, 2006’s ‘Kenotic’. ‘Kenotic’ impressed me for its wordless but strongly melodic tracks which reminded me of both The Workhouse and Slowdive. ‘Maybe They Will…’ is dreamier stilland it’s a sumptuous listen where each track merges almost seamlessly into the next. With the absence of beats and vices, though, what Hammock refer to as their “essence” is just a little too floataway at times. This is a record where I find it hard to remember single moments from the tracks an hour after I’ve heard them.

Nevertheless, the strings employed for ‘The Kind Of Life Keeps Breaking Your Heart’ bring the track to a stunning emotional climax whilst ‘Elm’ shimmers just enough to tingle the spine. ‘Elm’ is the start of an impressive three-track run also consisting of ‘Razorback Drug Town’ (which suggests like it should be a hard rock anthem devoid of irony but sounds more like a Robin Guthrie solo piece) and the simplistic but beguiling ‘Eighty-Four Thousand Hymns’.

On the debit side, ‘Maybe They Will…’ is not an album to excite the listener by any means and amongst the abundance of effects it can sound superficial but it’s a set of quality, multi-layered ambient music, perfect for relaxing too. I just wish I’d reviewed it when I first got my migraine and it might have cleared up a lot sooner.

Web Sites:
Official Hammock Site
Album Site
Hammock MySpace

Further Listening:
Sigur Ros, The Dead Texan, Robin Guthrie

Review: Bauhaus – Go Away White

It took some persuasion for me to finally invest in Bauhaus’ latest and (presumably) final album. Not just because it’s difficult to recreate the magic a quarter of a century after they last released new material but also because Bauhaus seemed rather inconsistent on their albums. However, as 1998’s compilation ‘Crackle’ confirmed, their best moments put together proved them to be an inventive and dramatic outfit whose most thrilling moments still have an influence. The word “thrilling” only occasionally applies to ‘Go Away White’ but it’s a dignified return, which makes surprisingly good use of a mere three weeks in the studio.

Bauhaus CD Cover

Given the limited time the band members played together, the songs have a predictably raw intensity. Nevertheless, Peter Murphy’s ghostly howl has lost not a jot of its power whilst Daniel Ash’s guitar remains a violent instrument cutting through the night sky. ‘Undone’ is classic Bauhaus with Murphy’s vocal crossing between shrieking and a low moan whilst howling guitar and the Haskins brothers’ rhythm section forge a tight, intense backing. I was also highly impressed with ‘The Dog’s A Vapour’: a five-minute mood piece until all band members unleash the sound of pure horror. It’s also a record where Bauhaus prove they weren’t just the definitive goth band but also ones who could embrace glam (‘Too Much 21st Century’, ‘Adrenalin’), moody ambience (‘Saved’) as well as bit of banter between band members (‘Mirror Remains’). Overall, not bad at all for eighteen days’ work.

Web Sites:
Bauhaus Official Site
Bauhaus MySpace

Further Listening:
David Bowie, Virgin Prunes, Magazine

Review: Empty Rooms – Lacuna

The San Francisco quartet Empty Rooms first came to my attention in late 2005 with an excellent EP which called to mind some great cult acts such as Breathless and Bauhaus. Two and a half years on, ‘Lacuna’ shows that we still have a group out of time but they’re all the better for it, as they’ve produced another classy EP.

Empty Rooms CD Cover

The haunting ‘All’s Well’ is ushered in with drums straight out of the Comsat Angels’ school of post-punk; whilst ghostly vocals complete a downbeat but mesmerising opening. ‘Off With His Head’ is delivered at a quicker pace, with a noticeably brighter mood and epic sound as the chorus kicks in. Then they momentarily lose their edge with a fairly pedestrian instrumental called ‘Twenty’, before recovering for the highlight ‘We’ve Been Waiting For You’. Here the guitars ring out over ferocious percussion whilst the vocals delightfully resemble China Crisis rather than the usual predictable  post-punk references. I can boldly state that – along with the likes of Bell Hollow and For Against – Empty Rooms are a group who represent all that is good about a 1980’s glum rock revival.

Web Sites:
Empty Rooms Blog
Empty Rooms MySpace

Further Listening:
The Comsat Angels, Bell Hollow