Archive for August, 2013

Review: Passarella Death Squad – Giant EP

Daniel Passarella was a hard as nails defender who had the distinction of being the only player to feature in both Argentina’s World Cup winning squads in 1978 and 1986, before going on to manage both the Argentinian and Uruguayan national team. It is not known what he would make of Passarella Death Squad, an outfit better known for being a cult clothing designer than a nocturnally-flavoured electronica act but they certainly give proof that they have a great chance of being successful in two fields of the entertainment industry.

Passarella Death Squad EP Cover

For opener ‘The Stars And Stripes’, the pulsing electronica and an emotionless but impressive vocal from Emilie Albisser summon up the feel of a night time drive on a deserted freeway. The arrangement is hypnotic and serene, echoing the downtempo instrumentals of Junior Boys. ‘Blue Lips’ has a similarly cool, lonely edge. The EP’s title track is oddly reminiscent of Dead Can Dance thanks to the somewhat arcane warbling of Albisser whilst the last track, modestly named ‘Untitled’, supports the idea that it is possible to make something elegant and attractive out of drone music.

‘Giant EP’ presents a quartet of classy tunes perfect for those post-midnight chill-out moments. The only criticism may be that the vocals and arrangements sound a little too detached to love, so much like their inventive fashion items, they are outwardly sophisticated and attractive. Now they need to display a human side to make them truly stand out.

Web Sites:
Passarella Death Squad Official Site
Passarella Death Squad SoundCloud

Further Listening:
Dead Can Dance, Junior Boys, RealPolitik


Review: The Graveyard Tapes – Our Sound Is Our Wound

Comparisons with Radiohead are often dished out for acts with even a moderate taste for experimenting but in the case of The Graveyard Tapes, it’s a fitting description. Matt Collings and Euan McMeeken have already established a reputation as prolific musicians, largely in the field of ambient/electronica and here they team up for a fine album, brimming with ideas to match the early hours of the morning angst.

Graveyard Tapes Album Cover

Drone-dominated opener ‘Gravebell’ isn’t the most alluring way to start a record. Neither is ‘Bloodbridge’ but the juxtaposition of McMeeken’s vulnerable vocals against stentorian piano and Collings’ wintry ambient effects makes the song a stark, quietly beautiful affair. ‘Gravebat’ is characterised by skittering beats and mournful horns, sounding not unlike an out-take from Talk Talk’s ‘Laughing Stock’. Despite the bleak, panicky nature of the vocals, there’s an underlying addictiveness in the wonderfully rhythmic ‘Insomniac Dawn’. Indeed,  there are signs of a steady progression into increasingly melodic territory and the good news is McMeeken and Collings don’t lose their instinct for invention either. ‘Hunting For Statues’ could even be defined as catchy such is the hypnotic nature of the track. Reassuringly, though, the sombre title track and equally morose ‘Wolves’ ensure the album ends on a melancholic note.

‘Our Sound Is Our Wound’ is a cleverly sequenced album where the music begins slowly and lugubriously but then slowly works its way to a level of urgency before then settling down again into a pit of despair. In between all kinds of interesting things happen which only leads to anticipation of the next project involving these two artists.

Web Sites:
Lost Tribe Sound Label and Shop Site
Bandcamp Stream for The Graveyard Tapes – Our Sound Is Our Wound

Further Listening:
Caught In The Wake Forever, Matt Collings, Radiohead

Review: Coloured Clocks – Nectarine

If there’s one thing Melbourne’s James Wallace can’t be accused of it’s a lack of ambition. Modestly described as “dreampop”, Wallace filters psychedelic rock, prog, indie and shoegaze into his vibrant second album ‘Nectarine’.

Coloured Clocks Album Cover

‘Uncovered Sun’ and ‘Fading Light’ set an early standard for subdued verses which explode into bright choruses with the Wallace vocal in turn converting from a hushed whisper into the kind of impassioned falsetto which would give The Bee Gees a run for their money. On a couple of occasions this technique proves to be a limitation but at its most exuberant, as on ‘Maze’, he sounds like a solo version of Foster The People, complete with epic fade-out.  There’s an awful lot to be discovered towards the middle of the record where Wallace proves extremely adept at giving his songs unexpected twists. ‘Nobody’s Watching’ and ‘Somewhere’ meander into psychedelic territory whilst eleven minute centrepiece ‘Ice Cream’ resembles a multi-part suite as it begins like a crestfallen ballad but ends in a warped guitar wig-out. Only the proggy build-up to ‘Don’t You Believe’ comes across as over-inflated but at least Wallace makes up for it with the 1980’s last dance vibe of ‘Orion’.

As much as Wallace strives to make each song more experimental than the last, he seldom loses sight of the importance of melody. Furthermore, his performance in front of the mic may be irksome to a few but no one can deny his commitment to the cause.

Web Sites:
Coloured Clocks Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Foster The People, Deerhunter

Review: Music For Voyeurs – The Long Sleep

Music history will show that there have been a multitude of recordings inspired by personal tragedy. It can provide often beautifully poignant results but can equally lead to suffocating bleakness that is simply too painful to bear. After the devastating loss of his girlfriend, London-based journalist, photographer and musician Rick Senley then had to contend with his own physical problems too and ‘The Long Sleep’ resulted from a period whilst he was learning how to walk again. Thankfully, given Senley’s gifts for painting a picture with his delicate arrangements, the musical document of this testing period is actually a pleasure to listen to.

Music For Voyeurs Album Cover

‘Music For Voyeurs’ gets off to an incongruous beginning with what seems like a relaxation tape with motivational words and a gentle harp melody. Then there’s ‘Probably Time To Go Now’ and ‘September’; tracks which marry relationship guidance advice with chiming guitar seemingly plucked straight out of the Durutti Column and July Skies’ handbook of introspective key changes. Gradually, this initially odd mix of dialogue and music begins to make sense. There’s more than a hint of The Montgolfier Brothers’ melancholy and nostalgia on the sad piano motifs forming the basis for ‘Broomstick Night Electric’ and ‘Someone Else’s Life’ whilst there’s a real sense of loneliness and faded romance on the beautifully played and narrated ‘Jane’. ‘Tonight Will Be My Birthday’, meanwhile, contains the refrain of “don’t worry about it” but one senses there really is (or was) a lot to worry about.

Senley’s promise that this album is “the sound of giving up on life but without the courage, a coward’s lament” is not going to be the most obvious way to convince listeners to be drawn in but one can hear hope amidst all the apparent sadness and pretty melodies. ‘The Long Sleep’ may, at times, be too reverential to its influences but Senley has crafted a very tuneful, varied and complex set of compositions which warrant repeated listens.

Web Sites:
Music For Voyeurs Official Site
Music For Voyeurs Media Player

Further Listening:
July Skies, Durutti Column, The Montgolfier Brothers

Review: ampersand – I wish I were who I was when I wished I was who I am

ampersand is a largely solo project from Johannesburg, performed by Warren Cohen.  His third release, ‘I wish I were who I was when I wished I was who I am’, perfectly encapsulates the current Zeitgeist for haunted lo-fi pop.

ampersand EP Cover

There is a distinct chill in the air from the moment the spindly guitars usher in opening track ‘First Fifteen’. This guitar drone lasts for over a minute before Warren Cohen’s ghostly tones first enter the fray. Despite, one imagines, having limited resources at his disposal, Cohen and his producer/mixer Alex Hing create something a lot more lavish-sounding. Witness the backing vocal and huge drums for ‘Now Here, Nowhere’ and you’re clearly listening to a bedroom-studio team with aspirations to be Phil Spector. In total contrast, ‘Stole It From The Doctor’ strips everything back to just Cohen and his acoustic guitar, with every pluck resonating round the room, before the track enters a metamorphosis into a frazzled pop coda. This track segues into the excellent ‘Safe Hands’ where the intensity is ratcheted up a few notches further and by the end of EP closer ‘The Hoarder’, it’s hard not take to feel slightly relieved when this crazed, albeit riveting, music is over.

Make no mistake, ampersand holds nothing back to make this experience more agreeable to lovers of gentle music and there is a distinct impression that one is experiencing the soundtrack to a descent into madness. Yet the EP is never less than  compelling and you can file this next to Deerhunter, That Ghost and all those other acts who like the vintage pop sound twisted and distorted beyond recognition.

Web Sites:
ampersand Bandcamp Page

Further Listening:
Deerhunter, That Ghost

Review: The Helio Sequence – Negotiations

In the time it has taken for The Helio Sequence to release their latest album, the likes of The Walkmen and Beach House have rather stolen the band’s thunder. Sure, Beach House have a striking female vocalist at their disposal and The Walkmen are the go-to band for those nights of alcohol-fuelled regret but that epic, sumptuous and rich production could also be traced back to The Helio Sequence’s superb fourth album ‘Keep Your Eyes Ahead’; a truly wonderful album that was somewhat glossed over at the time. Having contended with frontman Brandon Summers losing his voice leading up to that previous album, misfortune struck again when the band’s studio was destroyed by floods. It would take a hard heart to not want this talented duo to succeed but despite making all the right moves, they have fallen short with their first album in five years.

The Helio Sequence Album Cover

‘One More Time’ has all the ingredients: tonnes of echo, Summers’ rich vocals, Benjamin Weikel’s thunderous drums and a Phil Spector “Wall Of Sound” approach to production. ‘October’ boasts the required ringing guitars. Indeed, everything is big, even the more understated moments. A few tracks stand out, largely because they aim to do something different. ‘Downward Spiral’, ironically, signals the upsurge with its subtle ambient pop melody and Summers’ vocal is at its most vulnerable. A similar trick is repeated for ‘Silence On Silence’ and the quality is there again for ‘Open Letter’ where Summers opens himself up to further emotional outpourings. In fact it’s the maturity shown by Summers which salvages this record from pomposity; he always steers from the edge of all-out bluster even if the arrangements don’t.

So the overall sound of ‘Negotiations’ is impressive but there is something missing to make it unique or rather too many things have been added to make one think it’s been over-produced. Now the feeling is the window of opportunity has passed. ‘Negotiations’ is by no means a bad album; if it were released a couple of years earlier it would be held in the same esteem as their peers but there’s that immediate sense that they now sound like the imitators. A real shame, even if one day ‘Keep Your Eyes Ahead’ will get the lost classic status it deserves.

Web Sites:
The Helio Sequence Official Site
Youtube Video of ‘Downward Spiral’

Further Listening:
The Great Depression, The Walkmen, Beach House, Arcade Fire

Review: Paul J Fox – Paradises

It’s never an easy task to have to change your performing name. Such is the case with “The Artist Formerly Known As Coastal” who now makes music under his somewhat less romantic real name of Paul J Fox. Yet since May 2012 alone the Belfast native has been both prolific and versatile. After first coming to my attention with the superb DIY surf pop of ‘Crumble Blue’, he has experimented and excelled in grunge, lo-fi and now ambient waters. Indeed, in the time its taken to release ‘Paradises’, a further single and compilation have been made available too.

Paul J Fox EP Cover

Almost immediately the cavernous swells and jangly FX of ‘We’ll Be Ghosts By June’ makes one think back to the Cocteau Twins’ ‘Head Over Heels’ era. That same spirit of the  early 4AD Records roster is referenced on ‘Hearts (Melted)’, ‘New Cross Gate’ and ‘The Beach, Somewhere’ where Fox summons up the murky mystery of The Wolfgang Press. There are also echoes (in both senses of the word) of Vladislav Delay’s skill in making aged machinery sound lonely and melancholic. In fact the whole EP evokes the atmosphere of music emerging from forbidden, underwater tunnels.

The only chink of light of the paradises promised in the EP title appears at the end of the record. Yet the vintage melody to ‘Aloha Oe (Farewell To Thee)’ possesses the aura of the last waltz on Earth as the scratched vinyl defiantly plays on whilst the gramophone is submerged into a subterranean oblivion. Of course, whilst these descriptions may portray the impression of a nightmare, there’s a beauty to these tracks which only reinforce the belief that Paul J Fox is a virtuoso performer who can turn his hand to any genre he wishes.

Web Sites:
Bandcamp Stream for Paul J Fox – Paradises

Further Listening:
This Mortal Coil, The Wolfgang Press, Cocteau Twins, Vladislav Delay

Review: Zoon van snooK – The Bridge Between Life & Death

Inspired by his love of Björk, Múm and others, Alex Snook set off on an adventure to Iceland, the country of these artists’ birth. Naturally it seemed only right that he should make an album during his stay there. It made perfect sense too for Snook’s adoption of the folktronica sound on past releases owes a small debt to Múm in particular.

Zoon van snooK Album Cover

Despite the somewhat ominous suggestion of the title, the overall mood of ‘The Bridge Between Life & Death’ is one of joy. Its apparent from the quirky beginning featuring the rarely used (or even seen) sound cradle where the melody can only be described as cute and colourful. ‘Björn Of The Mendips’ recounts the tale of a legendary dog, ‘Snorris Saga’ contains some very audible snoring and the titular bridge is so-called because of its location between a nursing home and a cemetery. All of this suggests some wonderful Scandinavian fairy tale full of fascinating characters and secret places and that’s really what it sounds like.

Strings, found sounds, electronica and a variety of unidentified instruments all contribute but above it all is Snook interpreting these myths and poems into musical form. There are lovely flowing instrumentals such as modern classical piece ‘The Verge Of Winter’, assistance is enlisted from various local guests including Benni Hemm Hemm for the gloriously moving ‘Thufur Thoroughfare’ whilst the frenetic ‘Magret The Outlaw’ adds intensity to the mix.

On his previous album, ‘(Falling From) The Nutty Tree’, Snook had the ideas but there were so many of them the results were as confusing as they were inspired. For ‘The Bridge Between Life & Death’, however, he has nailed the cohesion and the result is one of the most tuneful and vibrant albums you will hear this year.

Web Sites:
Zoon van snooK Tumblr
Lo Recordings Label and Shop Site
Youtube Video of Zoon van snooK’s ‘The Verge Of Winter’

Further Listening:
Four Tet, Minotaur Shock, Múm

Review: Ikebana – When You Arrive There

Band names usually offer the merest suggestion of what kind of music they will produce. In a rare exception, Japanese female duo Ikebana are named after a form of flower arrangement. This naturally suggests art and delicate beauty, which is something Maki and En turn out to be very good at, in sonic terms at least. ‘When You Arrive There’ is their second release and one which could be classed as minimalist dreampop.

Ikebana Album Cover

Perversely, the album begins with ‘Ends’, where even the opening the sample of clanging bells suggests some kind of finality. Then reverb-heavy guitars emerge, caught halfway between the effects of Cocteau Twins and July Skies’ levels of fragility. The songs here are apparently simplistic in arrangement but complex in emotional impact. Witness the ringing, strumming guitars of ‘Alone’ set against the melancholic vocals and try not to be moved by the lonely echoes of the song or marvel at the way Maki and En harmonise like restless ghosts for ‘Rose’. ‘Kiss’, the longest track, builds from a timid romantic ballad to a strident, hypnotic finale. Other tracks are barely there in terms of structure but the impact of them is still strong. The track ‘Ikebana’, for example, would sound like a demo track to the untrained ear but after a few listens each key change seems startling and vital; like we’re hearing the advent of a new era for experimental music.

‘When You Arrive There’ draws parallels in both spirit and sound with A.R. Kane’s first album ’69’. It possesses those same elements of fragments of song, mysterious, dreampop arrangements and an ethereal beauty which is wholly mesmerising. With reference to the album title, one feels Ikebana have arrived there already.

Web Sites:
Ikebana Artist Page on Flau Label Site
Youtube Video for ‘Alone’

Further Listening:
A.R. Kane,  July Skies, Cocteau Twins

Review: pacificUV – After The Dream You Are Awake

It’s been a real hive of activity on the pacificUV front recently. Main man Clay Jordan started this project in 1998 and had just two albums to show for the act’s first decade. Yet in the last two years Jordan, now assisted by two permanent members, has really knuckled down with the Athens, Georgia act releasing an EP, album number three and here comes the fourth long player.

pacificUV Album Cover

The album begins confidently with retro-futurist synths and big percussion ushering in ’24 Frames’. Sure, those detached vocals remain but here they form a calm contrast to the brash arrangement. Add in the shiny chorus and there’s a case for pacificUV becoming the American response to The Pet Shop Boys. There’s a similar mood of tasteful, melodic electro-pop running through ‘Christine’ and ‘American Lovers’ but both are bolstered by energetic New Order-style rhythms. It’s perhaps a compliment to say that the weakest track here is a rather insipid cover of Billy Idol’s ‘Eyes Without A Face but their original material rarely falters. Elsewhere one can hear Ladytron, for the approriately icy ‘Russians’ and M83’s instrumental epics  inform ‘Run’. Yet amongst these fine songs, the appearance of ‘I Think It’s Coming’ and its sun-kissed, blissed-out wonder is surely one of the album’s defiining moments.

So pacificUV might still be pigeon-holed in the bracket of dream pop but the influences of 1980’s synth pop are just as prevalent. In fact the only thing holding back pacificUV from wider coverage is that those vocals might just be a little too detached to fully engage the ears of the casual listener.

Web Sites:
pacificUV Official Site
Bandcamp Stream for pacificUV – ‘After The Dream You Are Awake’

Further Listening:
New Order, Pet Shop Boys, M83, Washed Out