Archive for July, 2010

Review: Black Soul Strangers – Animate

Black Soul Strangers emerge from Ireland with clear ambitions for commercial radio. They are even described as “pop rock” in their press release although one suspects the band themselves would want a slightly edgier label. No matter, ‘Animate’ contains a clutch of songs which could catapult them into the big league

Attention has rightly focused on ‘The Haunting’. It has the potential to become one of this summer’s anthems; as the tender but tense verses build in to a euphoric chorus and an even more thrilling finale. However far this quartet get, they can say they have at least one truly great song to look back on. Tellingly, ‘Panic Sets Direction’ and ‘Lies’ provide a stirring opening blast but aren’t nearly as memorable.

There’s actually a satsifying aggression to a lot of ‘Animate’, with fiery guitars and pounding rhythms driving each song but the record never quite catches fire, perhaps because they are reminiscent of a recent slew of British bands with designs on the stadiums. That said, ‘Tristia’ sparkles with imagination; its chiming intro, yearning vocal and insistent levels of intensity form a standout in the middle of the record.

Black Soul Strangers operate in that field which straddles alternative and pop rock. Overall, they offer little that the likes of New Rhodes or South haven’t done before but like them they also show signs of greatness. It’s now just a case of seeing whether they can build on it.

Web Sites:
Black Soul Strangers Official Site
Black Soul Strangers MySpace

Further Listening:
New Rhodes, South, Blackbud, Thirteen Senses


Review: Gentle William – Gentle William

Gentle William has made significant contributions to records from the excellent Junkboy in recent times. His solo output contains the essence of dreams too but in this case they’re unsettling visions.

‘Untitled 13’ appears to be a tender instrumental but the quivering atmospherics are an indication of the approaching menace. ‘Reclaiming Land’ features a discordant violin and is not unlike ‘Laughing Stock’-era Talk Talk in its bleak, seemingly improvised execution. ‘Limpit’ is similarly morose with melodion wheezing away under the sadness of it all. Then we have ‘What Freud Said About Longing’; with the sounds within being as challenging as the title suggests, as weird alien noises congregate to what appears to be little purpose. Pleasingly, ‘Twelve’ returns to melodic form with its off-kilter hook redolent of Hood in their prime and last track ‘Untitled 8’ is a plaintive acoustic number.

Gentle William makes queasy rather than easy listening; where tracks appear as disparate fragments whose meaning is unknown. However, for most of the time it’s fascinating and evocative and there’s a sense of being alone, lost at sea on a ghost ship.

Web Sites:
Gentle William MySpace
Rainboot Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
The Third Eye Foundation, Talk Talk, Hood

Review: Loren Scott – The Full Clown Service

Loren Scott has been described variously as “a London rocker”, “a thought provoking artist” and simply “ace”. As it happens all these descriptions are accurate for this singer and songwriter who shows remarkable depth and versatility on her second album. Aided by a sterling line-up of backing musicians, ‘The Full Clown Service’ is a classy alternative rock affair

Scott is blessed with a fine voice; sometimes so deep you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a male artist. She casts a brooding presence on just about every track on here from the half-gloomy, half-grungy opener ‘Don’t Let Love…’ to tense instrumental closer ‘Perimeter’. ‘So Many Reasons’ and ‘Opium Of The Week’ are top notch indie rockers with plenty of soul. It’s indicative of the overall quality of the record that even low-slung instrumental ‘London Fields’ sounds atmospheric and important whilst the vocal hooks for ‘Sunday’ are complemented by strings. Best of all is ‘Glass’; a beautifully mysterious piece of work with Scott lending her ghostly presence over a shimmering backdrop.

The production for ‘The Full Clown Service’ is spot on with spacious arrangements perfectly complementing the breathy quality of Scott’s own tones. Equal parts haunting, intense and emotional, this is a seriously good artist who doesn’t need any quirky gimmicks to stand out.

Web Sites:
Loren Scott Official Site
Loren ScottMySpace

Further Listening:
Dawn Dineen, Tracy Shedd

Review: The Artificial Sea – Unwritten

It was back in 2006 when The Artificial Sea released their debut, the rather fine ‘City Island’. With the wounded sparrow vocals of Alina Simone complemented by Kevin C. Smith’s sonic meddling, they created a dark, compelling world, mixing the industrial with the pastoral. Now they’re back and just as confrontational as before.

‘Kaleidoscope’  reveals the full extent of Simone’s range in her emotionally cracked delivery (part Beth Gibbons/part folk singer) as Smith – aided by baritone guitar and cello – creates a glistening backdrop. Although this opener is hardly pop music, most of ‘Unwritten’ is far more esoteric and – to be frank – weirder. A lonely trumpet adds to the already rather moody ‘The Gift’, ‘Baited Breath’ is based on the simplest of drum loops with Simone left to fill in the wavering melodic gaps, whilst ‘Brighter Days’ wavers even further but Smith’s insistent guitar and eerie effects provide the ballast to form a very good song. Then the bravest moment of all is saved for last with a re-imagining of Ravel’s ‘Le Gibet’; a sure sign of the eerie minimalist roots which underpin The Artificial Sea’s performances.

With their innovative and uncompromising take on torch songs, comparisons will inevitably be made to Portishead. However, that’s certainly no bad thing since this is another group of musicians prepared to experiment; leaving an indelible impression on any style they take on.

Web Sites:
The Artificial Sea Official Site
The Artificial Sea MySpace

Further Listening:
Portishead, Cranes

Review: Star FK Radium – Blue Siberia

It makes a change to be able to write about an instrmental trio who don’t fit under the post-rock banner. In fact, guitarist Bill Martien, drummer Matt Clarke and violinst Alissa Taylor are closer to modern classical. It probably sounds a bit dull on paper but this trio are actually dynamic and rather exciting.

‘Training Wheels’ begins in maudlin fashion but then Taylor’s violin seems uplifted, as if cold winter has transformed her into spring life. The fiercely intense ‘Speedbike’ is a straight duel between Martien and Clarke; allowing them to return to rock roots, whereas ‘Life In Slow Motion’ and ‘The Clearing’ are both wistful and pastoral. Throughout, Clarke’s drums are crisp whilst Martien and Taylor play emotionally-powered melodic battles with their instrument of choice.

On the surface, the three elements seem at odds with each other, yet further investigation reveals that – whatever pace the players stick to – their vision is undoubtedly singular and in harmony. The overall effect is reminiscent of early 4AD Records.

Web Sites:
Star FK Radium Official Site
Star FK Radium MySpace

Further Listening:
The Milling Gowns, Dif Juz

Review: Highspire – Aquatic

It took three years for Highspire to get their debut released back in 2003. Its follow up has taken even longer not that it’s particularly noticeable given that ‘Aquatic’ seems to be rooted in 1991, perhaps even more so than its predecesor. Still based around frontman Alex White and multi-instrumentalist EJ Hagen, this American duo are certainly faithful to the music that inspired them.

True to form then, Highspire take the early 1990’s route of “walls of sound” and blank vocals; frequently recalling the likes of Chapterhouse and Ride. ‘What Lies Before’ is one of the stronger earlier tracks thanks largely to its insistent jangly melody but many of the earlier tracks pass by in an amorphous blend of layers. Surprisingly, the second half is better than the first with Hagen in particular raising his game. ‘Dusted’ is noticeably edgier; driven by melancholic hooks and effortless vocals whilst ‘Dead By Dawn’ is the closest they get to My Bloody Valentine; often the hallowed ground for fans of the FX pedal. Meanwhile, the infectious finale ‘Joke’s On You’ emulates the underwater guitar sound suggested by the album title.

As an album, ‘Aquatic’ is more like a pastiche of shoegazing in its pomp than the kind of record which breathes new life into the genre. Therefore, its appeal is likely to be restricted to those who remember the scene first time around but as I got into the album it revealed more treasures than I’d initially given it credit for.

Web Sites:
Highspire MySpace
Reverse Reverb Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Ride, Chapterhouse, Stellarscope, Daniel Land And The Modern Painters

Review: The Polar Dream – Follow Me To The Forest

The Polar Dream come from Guadalajara in Mexico; not the kind of area normally linked with post-rock releases, although their compatriots Kobol dispense a pleasing brand of jazz-electronica which has already been reviewed on these very pages. The Polar Dream represent a more familiar, melodramatic approach with a cinematic feel.

In typical post-rock way, ‘The Mountain’ sets the scene in epic fashion. Towering guitars and twinkly melodies are all mixed up together in to a lather smelling distinctly of Sigur Ros. ‘La Aldea’ is similarly bombastic but the inclusion of a melodica and trumpets on this track and the accordion for the utterly charming ‘Aurora At My Window’ adds unique elements. The group largely favour loud over quiet but – despite its opening shot of crashing waves – the piano-driven ‘Endless Tale’ adds much-needed subtlety, whereas ‘Leaves In The Sky’ also deserves a mention with its swooping key changes reflecting a sense of romantic longing.

What is most impressive about ‘Follow Me To The Forest’ is that it is resolutely tuneful. The disadvantage is that perhaps it’s a little too indebted to past masters of post-rock to truly shine in its own right.

Web Sites:
The Polar Dream MySpace

Further Listening:
Sigur Ros, Collapse Under The Empire

Review: Quack Quack – Slow As An Eyeball

The main surprise about Quack Quack is that they’re not from Chicago, such is the obvious comparison betweeb them and jazz/post-rock kings Tortoise. In fact, Quack Quack are not even from the USA but Yorkshire in England. ‘Slow Is An Eyeball’ is their first album and shows that they have ideas aplenty of their own.

Key to the band’s sound is the rhythms. In fact, on occasions two of this trio actually play drums. In typically contrary style, ‘D Motherfucker D’ is an inventive but unthreatening duel between baroque keyboard melodies and percussion, with the result being a wonderfully weird dead heat. ‘Toc H’ possesses a playful exterior but its undercurrent is tense whilst ‘Big Sounds’ is another great showcase for the rhythm section. Admittedly, there is a slight tail-off in quality as the album draws to its close, although ‘Bird Parliament’ keeps up the quirky delights and ‘Jack Of None’ should please lovers of Krautrock. 

Importantly, Quack Quack have heart as well as intelligence. There’s a real sense of fun detectable in the creation of this album, which can be appreciated equally as much by the listener.

Web Sites:
Quack Quack Official Site
Quack Quack MySpace

Further Listening:
Tortoise, Jaga Jazzist, Sand

Review: Conrad Vingoe – Simple Secrets

Amidst a large crowd of 1970’s-influenced singer-songwriters, Conrad Vingoe stands out more than most, so after last year’s high quality ‘Spare Buttons And Bones’, it’s a pleasure to hear the follow-up just a year after. Although Vingoe has never been one for ambitious arrangements, ‘Simple Secrets’ could be viewed as a back to basics record with Vingoe producing and playing the vast majority of instruments himself. Once again, the final results are thoroughly likeable.

Vingoe’s references are fairly easy to spot. The Kings Of Convenience-like ‘Fuel For Fire’ rubs gentle shoulders with the spare Nick Drake-inspired arrangements of ‘Flow’; here the guitars are strummed perfectly as Vingoe’s tremulous performance takes centre stage but at just two minutes I couldn’t help feeling short-changed by it as good as the following track (the celebratory ‘Mountains And Sea’) may be. There’s an apparent ease to the intertwined melodies of ‘One Of These Days’ and ‘Tattoo’ that is both instantly engaging and soothing.

Good that the album is though, there are also a few moments which drift by pleasantly and are hard to remember five minutes later and if there is a criticism of the record it is that it lacks killer tracks, rather it’s a model of consistency. Yet always at the forefront is Vingoe’s voice; imbued with enough warmth and tenderness to carry even the slightest of songs. I just wish he’d explore his darker side a little more.

Web Sites:
Conrad Vingoe Official Site
Conrad Vingoe MySpace

Further Listening:
Nick Drake, Declan O’Rourke, Kings Of Convenience

Review: True Womanhood – Basement Membranes

True Womanhood’s chief claim to fame thus far is that they wrote a World Cup song for Slovenia which was initially dismissed as “a chant to the devil”. On hearing their first EP, it’s easy to see why for this Washington DC trio make the kind of music which seems built for horrific imagery; using huge walls of sound and disturbed vocals to convey their macabre message.

‘The Monk’ eases the listener in with a widescreen rock arrangement and some classic post-punk key changes located in both the chiming guitars and frontman Thomas Redmond’s vocals which swoop between pitches most impressively.  It is, by some distance, their most commercially-friendly offering. The demonic ‘Dignitas’ sounds like it may have been recorded in a death chamber with the words chanted rather than sung as the almighty crash of percussion collapses around it. ‘Magic Child’ is punkier with dissonant layers of instruments making it rather difficult listening material. A similar fate befalls ‘A Diviner’, ‘Rubber Buoys’ is an unholy alliance of post-rock and scratchy lo-fi whilst ‘Shadow People’ represents a bone-chilling finale.

In the end the successes of ‘Basement Membranes’ are the same as its failings. That’s because there is an abundance of ideas but  when they all join together in to one track, they don’t necessarily click, making for a rather cold but admittedly compelling experience.

Web Sites:
True Womanhood Official Site
True Womanhood MySpace

Further Listening: