Archive for April, 2010

Review: Rajna – Offering

Back in October last year, I wrote about Deleyaman, a multi-cultural act whose dark take on world music was reminiscent of Dead Can Dance. Their labelmates on Equilibrium, Rajna, are a French duo who sound a little like Dead Can Dance too as it happens. ‘Offering’ is their ninth album.

Employing a selection of ancient instruments they appear to provide an almost medieval form of music. Jeanne Lefebvre’s immense vocals are the obvious calling card (a solo turn on ‘Illa Saldé’ is the stunning evidence) but just as important are the arrangements from Fabrice Lefebvre. The title track is particularly poignant as the strings swell with Jeanne’s wounded cries, whereas ‘Epidauros’ is underpinned by Eastern rhythms which vary between menacing and frenetic. There’s even time for a Cocteau Twins-style moment; ‘Never Land’ recalling their mid-80s gentle period whilst Brendan Perry-soundalike and Deleyaman member Aret Madilian makes a guest appearance for the atmospheric finale ‘Quiet Hour’.

Although most of ‘Offering’ is sombre and slow-paced, it is never dirgey as the Lefebvres keep their songs varied and concise. This helps to create a moody and deeply involving set of songs that demand full attention.

Web Sites:
Rajna Official Site
Rajna MySpace

Further Listening:
Dead Can Dance, Deleyaman


Review: Echodrone – The Sun Rose In A Different Place

With a name like Echodrone and an album title of ‘The Sun Rose In A Different Place’, there will be no prizes for guessing which style of music this San Francisco-based act prefer. Formed by co-front person Eugene Suh and bassist Brandon Dudley, Echodrone borrow from various bands from shoegazing history and have presented a very solid first album.

‘Sway And Drown’ and ‘Winter Station’ are from the Slowdive school of angelic vocals and gently undulating melodies. ‘Pack Of Wolves’ is a real winner thanks to its strident rhythm section and the chilling lead vocals of Meredith Gibbons. After a lull at the middle of the record (‘Adrift In A Metaphor’ sets the controls for experimental noise but doesn’t really do much else), there is the unusual treat of The Cars’ ‘Drive’ redesigned as a shimmering pop gem. Then ‘Gravity’ again proves that Gibbons’ husky tones are possibly the band’s secret weapon.

Echodrone seem to cherry pick from various bands from the last twenty years and it’s hard to find anything particularly distinctive about their music. Yet what stands in their favour is that they have crafted a strong set of songs that reveal them as fine exponents of the genre.

Web Sites:
Echodrone Official Site
Echodrone MySpace

Further Listening:
Slowdive, Engineers, Her Vanished Grace

Review: PNDC&housework – Moments Of Grey Forgettableness

It’s fair to say that despite wide acclaim for their first two albums, PNDC and housework (a Serbian producer and a vocalist/guitarist from Greece respectively) are still very much a cult concern. So a stopgap compilation of alternate mixes and unreleased material is unlikely to get too many top DJs salivating. Who cares though? ‘Moments Of Grey Forgettableness’ traces the story of a couple of like-minded arists who are clearly more concerned with creating challenging music rather than record sales.

‘Punks On Diet’ sets the usual standards for a very muscular kind of dance and darkwave hybrid. The two versions of ‘Properties’ are very different, the remix uses feedback as its dominant sound whilst the original focusses on housework’s snarled delivery. ‘Animal Farm/D’Occasion’ meanders down several routes of eeriness whilst ‘Lights’, the gentlest of the offerings here, is underscored by a subtle but insistent rhythm and some impressive Bowie-like vocals; as a beguiling folk/electronic melody gradually reveals itself.

Here PNDC and housework’s music becomes murkier than ever as the essence of their work is boiled down to its bleak, experimental core. Now more than ever, it is possible to hear the influences of early uncompromising electronic pacesetters such as Cabaret Voltaire and The Wolfgang Press.

Web Sites:
PNDC MySpace
housework MySpace

Further Listening:
Cabaret Voltaire, The Wolfgang Press, Colder, DK7

Review: Massive Attack – Heligoland

As with any collaborative effort, one of the key aims is to maintain a sense of cohesion so that even when there are so many guests, the album still sounds like the trademark of the parent band. The band in question this time is Massive Attack who turned this potential problem into a fine art for three albums in the 1990’s. However, this is their first long player since 2003’s underwhelming ‘100th Window’. Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall is also back on board to assist permanent member Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja.

Much of Massive Attack’s material rises or falls on the strengths of its guests. The first, TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, proves to be an inspired choice. He adds menace to ‘Pray For Rain’ and there’s even space for him to try out a little Beach Boy self-harmonising at the end of the song. Martina Topley Bird – still chiefly known for her work on Tricky’s landmark ‘Maxinquaye’ album some fifteen years ago – provides further stellar turns; her strange but sweet mumbling style fits in well with the rhythmic ‘Babel’ and the beautifully hypnotic ‘Psyche’.

Honorary member Horace Andy’s (the only guest to appear on all Massive Attack’s five albums) contributions are much more worthwhile than for ‘100th Window’; helping to make ‘Girl I Love You’ a rumbling delight. Biggest surprise though, is Damon Albarn, whose emotional turn for ‘Saturday Come Slow’ proves to be one of the album’s strongest performances. Yet ‘Rush Minute’ surpasses even this; written by Del Naja, Marshall and relatively recent core member Neil Davidge; it’s a stunning collage of Del Naja’s threatening whisper, intense percussion and trip-hop.

It’s perhaps no surprise to learn that ‘Heligoland’ isn’t a groundbreaking album. It didn’t need to be really; Massive Attack did all that nearly twenty years ago. However, it is a return to the consistent quality of those earlier records. The songs meld seamlessly into one another and create a hugely attractive album which is deeply atmospheric and intoxicating.

Web Sites:
Massive Attack Official Site
Massive Attack MySpace

Further Listening:
Tricky, Psyrok

Review: Ahoora – Awkward Diary

The main benefit of being an amateur music critic is that I get to hear music I probably wouldn’t even think of listening to normally; some of it produced by bands from far flung corners of the world. Ahoora hail from Iran and they are unique in that they are the first and only rock band to have ever performed in their country with vocals. Quite simply, rock music is forbidden in their homeland. Not permitted to send out CDs from their country, ‘Awkward Diary’ is a download only release.

As the title suggests, the album does take a while to get used to. Ashkan Hadavand’s vocals do err a little towards the over-melodramatic; think Matt Bellamy given an odd Eurovision makeover. Guitars rage and are often distorted and the flamboyant keyboards can seem at odds with what is going on around them. Nevertheless, there is much to recommend here.

‘Masks & Balefires’ marries epic rock music with subtle electronica. ‘Alien’ is bizarrely impressive; the frontman’s performance is full of angst yet strangely sensual, whilst the music soars off in all kinds of directions from Eastern textures to Radiohead-esque experimentalism and ‘Closure’ contains enough soul baring to make you wonder how this group used to specialise in progressive metal music. Meanwhile, single ‘Crimson Baby’ is underscored by some extrovert keyboard flourishes and even the instrumental passages are worth a listen as they are packed with enough muscle and juice to match the baroque melodies.

Despite its well-worn influences, ‘Awkward Diary’ stands up on its own two feet as a fine album in its own right. It would be wrong to say this is a special album just because it comes from Iran; even if it had been produced in Europe there’s no doubt it would have received a lot of praise and exposure. Let us hope Ahoora eventually get this exposure and can play with the freedom they deserve.

Web Sites:
Ahoora Official Site
Ahoora MySpace

Further Listening:
Muse, Radiohead

Review: Babybird – Ex-Maniac

With no sign of taking it easy just yet, Stephen Jones continues the familiar pattern of the last two albums under the Babybird name where – far from Jones being increasingly inward – his music sounds as geared towards the pop market as at any other time. There’s even room for Johnny Depp to make a guest appearance.

The only blip to this apparent conformance is, of course, the lyrics, which are as uniformly warped as ever. Not many artists could craft a song called ‘Drugtime’ and make it sound almost nursery-rhyme like in its simplicity. On a solid and consistently good record, ‘Failed Suicide Club’ and ‘For The Rest Of Our Lives’ certainly rank amongst Jones’ mid-90s peak period and ‘Bastard’ boasts a muscular rhythm to match its “in your face” title.

It is in fact the Depp-guesting ‘Unloveable’ that is the most enduring moment on the record and although the actor’s guitar is largely perfunctory, it can’t hide a lovely song which builds quietly in to a rousing anthem. Continuing the quality, ‘Black Flowers’ is one of those touching ballads which tends to get sneaked in once in a while and is the first of a trio of lovelorn tracks which finalise ‘Ex-Maniac’.

Granted, Jones is perhaps no longer the underground hero he was during the 1990’s and the music (if not the lyrics) has certainly been smoothed over since those times. Yet ‘Ex-Maniac’ is, in many ways, exactly the kind of record a forty-seven year old man should be making; relying on the artist’s trademarks but still more than capable of writing fine songs.

Web Sites:
Babybird Official Site
Babybird MySpace

Further Listening:
Eels, Pony Club, Stephen Jones, Death Of The Neighbourhood

Review: Typewriter – Pictures From The Antique Skip

In the space of a few months there’s been an awful lot of activity on The Lucy Show front. Firstly, there was the solo debut of the band’s co-founder Robert Vandeven, then came the reissue of The Lucy Show’s debut album ‘…Undone’, originally released in 1985. Now the other half of the songwriting team, Mark Bandola, has a new record out under his Typewriter identity.

If there is a word to describe ‘Pictures From The Antique Skip’ it would undoubtedly be psychedelic. There are certainly nods to his shoegazing past (‘Bambino’ is awash with trademark jangle and effects) but largely it’s the sound of a man in love with a more distant past.

‘In Another World’ is  a jangly delight whilst ‘Arctic Circle’ and ‘In Your Atmosphere’ are airy and spacious. As the album develops, a pattern images where the songs are interspersed with brief experiments (mainly instrumental but some spoken word elements too). Then just when you think it’s safe to settle down after the gentle, whimsical ‘Impossible Beauty’, there’s a loud, noisy interruption courtesy of a live recording from Ausgang, a band Bandola played with in the early part of the century.

‘Pictures From The Antique Skip’ is too long and often lacks focus. Yet it’s hard not to admire the ambition, variety and sheer joy for making music that Bandola clearly still possesses. Crucially, that knack for creating a clever tune is something he’s never lost either.

Web Sites:
Typewriter Official Site
Typewriter MySpace

Further Listening:
The Lucy Show, Anton Barbeau

Review: Manual – Drowned In Light

For the last 10 years, Jonas Munk has crafted albums and EPs which unite electronica and dreampop. With releases for genre specialists Morr Music and Make Mine Music now to his name, for new album ‘Drowned In Light’, the Danish producer seems to be celebrating the past.

As a whole this record is mesmerising but not always for the right reasons. Much of the album can appear insubstantial at first; with some of the music rooted in a Krautrock groove and – with little variations in melody – the effect can even be sleep inducing. Yet when the guitar adds a much-needed sense of urgency, as on ‘Afterimages’ and ‘Blood Run’ for instance, the music is lifted beyond its polite shoegaze to a towering, powerful instrumental.

Amongst the most diverting moments, the blissful ‘Biarritz’ employs vintage analog synths whilst ‘Phainomenon’, an epic space cruise, recalls Vangelis. ‘Slow’ is just gorgeous; as if the Cocteau Twins’ quieter moments are bathed in folky atmospherics.

Listening to ‘Drowned In Light’ is like a journey through time where the synth pioneers of the last thirty years all receive a nod of the head, as Munk’s music floats above them in space, in true retro-futurist style. It is well recommended for those with an interest in the history of the genre but if you’re looking for pioneering electronic music, keep searching.

Web Sites:
Manual MySpace
Make Mine Music Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Portal, Cocteau Twins, Ulrich Schnauss

Review: Lost From Atlas – Lost From Atlas

Lost From Atlas are a young trio from West Yorkshire with a taste for the harder side of post-rock. They combine delicate and complex time signatures but often seem at the theshold of heavy metal or, at the very least, math rock. By genre standards, their thirty six-minute, nine-track debut is fairly concise.

‘The Horse You Rode In On’ is like a cavalry charge as angry guitars chime and then thrash away at anything that stands in their way. ‘For That Reason… I’m Out’ (the title, I can only assume, is a nod to BBC’s Dragon’s Den series) is another display of controlled aggression with arguably the most complicated display of chord changes. ‘Tom Robinson Must Die’ – another highlight despite its attention grabbing title – piles on the ache and the angst most impressively whilst ‘Man Is The Warmest Place To Hide’ builds up to a thrilling finale. Perhaps the most fascinating indicator of their future, though, is the pretty acoustic touches of ‘Fin’; revealing a hitherto unexplored gentler side to the band.

The main criticisms of Lost From Atlas would be, firstly, that it’s debatable they bring anything new to the post-rock table and secondly, that sometimes their propensity to show off their guitar wizardry threatens to undermine the melodic nature of their music. Having said that, they are a young band honing their sound on their first album and the playing skills cannot be called in to question.

Web Sites:
Lost From Atlas Blog Site
Lost From Atlas MySpace

Further Listening:
Parhelia, Explosions In The Sky

Review: The Hush Now – Constellations

Hailing from Boston, Massachusetts, The Hush Now appear to be offering all things to all men. Using elements of dream pop, power pop and general indie pop, their “eager to please” songs could have been quite annoying. As it turns out, their second album is a gem.

Thanks to its uptempo demeanour, much of ‘Constellations’ wouldn’t sound out of place in the times of Brit-pop. Frontman Noel Kelly possesses a very nasal vocal, the guitars jangle and every song seems centred around a bouncy power pop melody. This isn’t a bad thing but hardly a stylistic leap forward. Yet after the first couple of listens, some songs began to have more depth than I had initially given them credit for.

Indeed, there are plenty terrific moments here. The title track features nagging riffs, Kelly’s vocal is breezy and effervescent, the drumming is crisp and the fact that the song doesn’t feature much in the way of a chorus yet still demonstrates greatness is a testament to their skill. The gentle but substantial ‘Thorns’ is guided by ambient textures and subtle guitar chords whilst ‘Fireflies’ is propelled by an inspired banjo player. Furthermore, for ‘All You’ve Said And Done’, Kelly’s keening presence and the insistent guitars dovetail into hypnotic pop bliss. It’s a trick they repeat again for the finale ‘Carousel’ which is as head spinning a pop song as you’ll hear this year and is also their most obvious nod to the shoegazing moment.

Since it doesn’t fit in with the times, ‘Constellations’ could well be one of those records which is in danger of being overlooked. Yet for those who venture to discover it (and it’s free to download from their site), it reveals itself to be a classic indie pop record.

Web Sites:
The Hush Now Official Site
The Hush Now MySpace

Further Listening:
The Changes, Apples In Stereo