Archive for September, 2014

Review: The Penguin Party – Mesherlek

The Penguin Party’s career thus far has been represented by an especially fun variation of the new wave scene or, in their words, “XTC covering Chas ‘n’ Dave”. Led by the tongue in cheek lyrics of singer/guitarist/music show host Dave Milligan, ‘Mesherlek’ is unlikely to win new converts but maintains the usual, curiously affable Englishness.

The Penguin Party Album Cover

When the first few songs on the album include ‘I Wanna Be A Cult’ (which comes complete with recorded crowd noise and a sitar solo) and a track named ‘Token Tree-Hugging Ecological Song’ performed as a brass band ensemble (“It’s not very heartfelt and it’s not very long”), you’d be absolutely right in thinking this is music that doesn’t take itself too seriously. To hammer the point home further, the Ska-flavoured ‘Do You Know Who I Am?’ is a catchy little number in an acceptable Chas ‘N’ Dave tradition but ‘The Ballad Of Zorro The Cat’ and ‘Let’s Go Down To The Seaside’ are surely a step too far into Vaudeville.

Putting the humour to one side though, does ‘Mesherlek’ stand up as an album? There’s certainly a real mix of styles of here but some songs really stand out. Assisted by gentle strings, ‘The Anti Russell Brand’ is unerringly melodic with an ace chorus whilst the infectious ‘Glorious’ possesses a lovely flow (and that’s not a hip-hop type of “flow”, suffice to say). Then later, ‘Trust Games’ is reminiscent of prime period Squeeze and the uncharacteristically moody ‘My Big Bad Self’ recalls early Pulp.

Less consistently satisfying on a musical level than 2008’s ‘See Thru Songs’ but certainly wittier, ‘Mesherlek’ treads that uneasy line between music and comedy but emerges as a strangely lovable beast overall. So it’s a thumbs up to this particular knees up, then.

Web Sites:
The Penguin Party Official Site
Bandcamp Stream for The Penguin Party – Mesherlek

Further Listening:
Squeeze, Chas ‘N’ Dave


Review: North Atlantic Drift / Northumbria – North Atlantic Drift / Northumbria Split

Eight years ago, I remember writing about Boltfish Recording’s Tandem Series which matched up two like-minded electronica acts to record a split CD. In the main, the idea worked very well and it’s hard not to think back to those days with this new split release from two Toronto-based acts, North Atlantic Drift and Northumbria. Polar Seas Recordings released this mini album in May this year, although given the colder temperatures now, their contributions make me think of the onset of Winter, before Autumn has barely begun.

North Atlantic Drift / Northumbria Split Cover

North Atlantic Drift (Mike Abercrombie & Brad Deschamps) is the more concise of the two acts. Their introduction, ‘Ursa Minor’, comes across as the aural equivalent of shifting snow gathering together on the threshold of an avalanche. ‘Polaris’ is a more strident number, where the beats resemble claps of thunder and the melody and arrangement is suitably filmic and evocative of some great ice palace. The orientally-flavoured majesty of ‘Ursa Major’ is a further gesture of confidence but the last contribution, ‘Perpetual Daylight’ is redolent of the grace and melancholy of Vangelis’s Blade Runner soundtrack or – to use a more recent example – Stars Of The Lid.

Northumbria (Jim Field and Dorian Williamson) contribute just two of the six tracks but half of the total running time. ‘Cold Wind Rising’ is essentially huge walls of rib-shaking drones; enough to shake the foundations of even the sturdiest of outbuildings. As an instrumental track it offers little in the way of tunes or emotion but plenty in creating images of monstrous ice creatures. In contrast, ‘Vanishing Point’ may feature heavily reverbed bass and guitar chords but the overall picture – helped in no small part by some serene electronic washes – is much more hopeful in outlook.

The two acts actually complement each other well even if Northumbria’s approach to chilly ambient music is a little frostier than North Atlantic Drift’s slightly easier on the ear compositions. Winter is definitely coming.

Web Sites:
Bandcamp Stream for Northumbria – North Atlantic Drift / Northumbria Split
Polar Seas Recordings Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Boltfish Recordings, Stars Of The Lid, Vangelis

Review: New God – Firework

When you are forced to abandon your studio because of a skunk invasion, you know you’ve been unfortunate. This cruel fate was encountered by New God AKA brothers Kenny and Curt Tompkins who upped sticks from Maryland to Baltimore to acquire more expensive but thankfully polecat-free recording space and finish their second album.

New God Album Cover

There’s a fair few bands who marry Beach Boys-style harmonies to a hazy dream pop production and the opener ‘Firework’ is a noteworthy disciple of this movement. It’s a brilliant beginning but not one which entirely represents the overall New God sound. Granted, the vocal stylings and modern effects for ‘I Know Something About You’ and the sleepier, lullaby-like ‘In A Flash’ follow a similar course but ‘Demon Chant’, ‘Ocean Hum’ and a lovelorn ‘Dumb’ are all about the vocals rather than fancy studio tracks and the mantric leanings have closer links with the folk and hippy scene. Meanwhile, ‘Summer Girl’ dispenses with the 21st Century further still with a virtual psych rock pastiche. The experimental pop of ‘More’ also impresses but it’s the mysterious hidden track which tantalises the most, where the twinkling keyboards and thick acoustic guitars create a magical backdrop upon which the Tompkins brothers sing their hearts out once again.

It’s interesting to note that the brothers recorded their vocals in an abandoned racquetball court and the natural reverb creates the perfect atmosphere to support these spritually uplifting songs. Maybe those skunks did them a favour after all.

Web Sites:
New God Official Site
Yellow K Records Label and Shop Site
Video for New God – Firework

Further Listening:
Simian, The Beach Boys

Review: Seasurfer – Dive In

For lovers of shoegaze and dream pop it’s heartening to know there are no shortage of labels and bands who specialise in these genres but it’s even more rewarding when albums emerge which possess that much sought after crossover potential. Hamburg’s Seasurfer feature the experienced trio of songwriter/guitarist and Dark Orange member, Dirk, strident bassist Mikel and the band’s frontwoman, Berliner Dorian E.

Seasurfer Album Cover

It’s hard not to be drawn into the opening track ‘Stay’, which immediately pulls you under its spell, submerged in Mikel’s driving rhythms, the swooping distinctive vocals of Dorian E. and thunderous guitars from Dirk. The production is similarly dense for the remainder of the album, not far removed from Lush’s early records, although Dorian E. is a much more dominant presence and she has to be, given the oceanic levels of effects she is in danger of being drowned in. That said the music engulfs the listener in a good way; the melodies and hooks are clear for all to hear.

Even tracks which exceed the six minute mark (the immense ‘Dragon Song’ and dreamy finale ‘Fireworks’) offer seductive and sustained brilliance whilst ‘The Big Panthers War’ possesses all the drive and intensity which naysayers would accuse the shoegaze movement of usually lacking. They even move seamlessly between the relatively poppy ‘Cloudjumping’ to the cavernous instrumental ‘Under Water’. The band probably overcooks it a bit when Dorian E. sings in her native tongue for the title track but it’s another song with a German track title, ‘Winterblume’, which is possibly the key moment. Here, Dorian E. is in goddess mode, rising above the washes of reverb with a very moving performance.

Embracing modern production values whilst sticking close to the spirit of classic shoegaze, Seasurfer are one of those rare bands who live up to their band name as well as their album title. Dive in? Well, it would be rude not to.

Web Sites:
Bandcamp Stream for Seasurfer – Dive In
Saint Marie Records Label and Shop Site
Video for Seasurfer – Dive In

Further Listening:
Lush, Her Vanished Grace

Review: Braid – No Coast

Braid are chiefly known as a seminal 90’s indie rock band from Illinois, who peaked in 1998 with their ‘Frame & Canvas’ album. This culminated in rave reviews and a European tour but alas they burned out soon after and have only recently returned to the live circuit.

Braid Album Cover

The keys to the band then and now are held by Chris Broach and Bob Nanna who provide a sustained, two-pronged guitar and vocal attack on the eardrums. This being their first album in over a decade, Braid are in no mood to mess about either. ‘No Coast’ begins with a ‘Bang’, quite literally. It’s an explosive song full to the brim with propulsive rhythms (from dynamic duo Todd Bell and Damon Atkinson), bruising guitars and emo vocals. It’s followed by ‘East End Hollows’ where the first of their distinctive harmonies is thrust upon us and the group sound phenomenally youthful singing “you take these dreams and throw them out the window”. For the title track the vocal and guitar hooks are slowed down but just as addictive and now they offer an emotional ache to go with it. Even the lyrics are designed to be sung along to: ‘Someone please call the police!’ is yelled for ‘Damages!’ whilst “This is not a revolution” is the main tagline for, well, ‘This Is Not A Revolution’ .

After the tight and infectious first half, though, Braid do rather lose their way with songs racing by as per the earlier tracks but not quite leaving the same indelible impression as before. However, they recover for the stop-start and drive of ‘Lux’. Then comes the real killer song. ‘Doing Yourself In’ may mention “the sweetest melody” but the song’s combination of portentous lyrics (“at 23 she sees the future, her dreams are dark”) and heartache-inducing guitars create a sad and poignant moment far removed from the otherwise chipper outlook of the record.

Twenty years into their career, these guys seem more energised than ever. All of which makes the band’s description of ‘No Coast’ as a “rebirth” perfectly understandable and the content is mature enough to ensnare more than just the emo kids too.

Web Sites:
Album Stream for Braid – No Coast

Further Listening:
HIJK, Pilot To Gunner

Review: R.O.C – R.O.C

History tells us that London’s R.O.C make albums at the rate of one every decade. It’s not a great statistic but amongst record company wrangles, this is not a reflection of the quality of their output and it would be fair to say that this most unusual band would be much better known today if fate had dealt them a better hand. The reissue of their self-titled debut from 1995 at least gives R.O.C a chance to elevate them above footnote status.

R.O.C Album Cover

R.O.C have always been mavericks; musical magpies intent on messing with listeners’ heads. Vocal duties were shared between Glaswegian import Karen Sheridan, who provided the street sass and Fred Browning, whose every utterance suggested a warped mind was at work; none more so than on ‘Sylvia’s Thighs’, a sinister-sounding tribute to Emmanuelle actress Sylvia Kristel. Joined by fellow musician and founder member Patrick Nicholson, they made a formidable trio.

Early impressions can be deceptive so ‘Desert Wind’ may essentially be chill out but with a caveat that there is a strong sense of danger lurking round the corner and it’s an accurate impression given what is to follow and the next track, ‘Excised’, couldn’t be more different. Against a rock and harmonica backing, Browning unleashes what can only be described as a verbal assault and only R.O.C could begin the song with a recording from a friend’s wedding.

The busy funk pop of ‘Hey You Chick’ was the band in their most commercial guise but it’s one of the few tracks which hasn’t aged so well. Yet on the pop potential front, the band fared better on the infectious ‘Dear Nicky’ and the Browning-led crazy, carousel ride that is ‘Clouds’. Yet the album is arguably at its best towards the centre. Firstly, there’s a subtle moment of sublime ambience courtesy of ‘Balloon’, then for ‘Real Time’, Sheridan’s seductive whisper is the perfect foil for some aching post-rock backing and the effervescent ‘I Want You I Need You I Miss You’ still sounds effortlessly cool today.

R.O.C sought to challenge the listener and this is evident on a sprawling, eclectic album which, at over an hour in length, could have done with a bit of pruning but contains plenty of indications that sampling, ambience, dance, rock, creepy thoughts and a little bit of pop really could work together. The follow-up ‘Virgin’ saw the band streamline their ideas into more cohesive form but the start of this story is a compelling one which now deserves some much overdue respect.

Web Sites:
R.O.C Official Site
A Demo of R.O.C’s ‘I Want You I Need You I Miss You’

Further Listening:
Sneaker Pimps

Review: Coriaplex – One Way To Forever

When an album is described as an “emotional journey”, it’s hard not to think of some doomed X Factor contestant, yet in the case of Lewes’ Jules Bangs the claim actually holds true. Back in the 1990’s, Bangs was apparently the bass player in Birdman Ray. Now based in Lewes in the UK, whatever his old band sounded like, his new musical identity as Coriaplex must surely be a much more understated affair.

Coriaplex Album Cover

The introductory ‘Deep Into The Heart Of The Sky’ is distinguished by bright, ambient flavours, with a Mike Oldfield-esque guitar melody. It’s a delicate start but then this is a rather delicate album. Amongst the proggy titles, there are certainly plenty of gems here, such as the quietly atmospheric acoustic number ‘Eta Carinea’ and ‘In The Arc Of Forgotten Light’, which builds into some hand-wringing post-rock. Slowly but surely Bangs begins to make his mark.

‘Of Hope In Endless Sleep’ brings in a desolate piano and the effect once more is deliciously spare and melancholic; every brush or caress of the percussion seems well considered too. ‘Ghost On The Carousel’ is as haunting and nostalgic as the title suggests and by the time of the extended finale ‘Infinite Momentum’, it feels like day has passed and night has begun as Bangs recalls the warm tones of Labradford on what is possibly the best track on the album.

Mature without ever being dull, ‘One Way To Forever’ washes over you after the first couple of listens but eventually its subtleties begin to have the effect the “emotional journey” promised. All things considered, Bangs has made a late night delight.

Web Sites:
Coriaplex Bandcamp

Further Listening:

Review: Abee Hague – Novus

Abee Hague hails from Falmouth in Cornwall, an English town more famous for its harbour than its burgeoning songwriting talent. Still in her teens, Hague’s debut EP not only showcases some wonderfully mature vocals but also plenty of production savvy.

Abee Hague EP Cover

Hague has a fine soulful range which she demonstrates fully in first song ‘Bringing It Back To You’. She is due to visit India “to learn about music and life” and the song’s inclusion of native Eastern instruments is the first indication that we are witnessing a young artist prepared to experiment with arrangements, when the easy route would be to be stick to a rigid R&B formula. ‘The Way It Is’ revolves around languid, chilled rhythms and some neat sax playing; its nocturnal vibe and Hague’s own vocal ululations making it a definite highlight. She reaches further into her reserves for ‘WOAH’. Even though the premise of a song whose chorus consists entirely of the word “WOAH” doesn’t set the heart racing, it’s the most soulful and mature number here.

Another tasteful track follows in the shape of ‘Valentine’ and although Hague sings with the required heartache, it’s the least interesting song in terms of arrangement. In contrast, the aquatic effects on ‘Now Breathe’ successfully convey the feeling of being trapped underwater and the singer’s strident vocal emerges unscathed, despite the unnecessary inclusion of a showy guitar solo. Finally, (although not officially included on the EP but provided in the download I received) ‘Never Make Him Happy’ is a contribution from London-based producer Après with Hague lending her vocals to the club-friendly mix. The combination is quite sublime with Hague providing some deliciously smooth tones to accompany the warm arrangement; making it an after hours delight.

Although Hague’s style could be loosely described as soul and R&B infused with electronica, there’s actually a lot of bases covered here and she eases impressively and seamlessly into other genres on these subtly-textured songs. Her travels to Asia may provide the enlightenment she desires but it’s her musical journey from here which will prove most intriguing.

Web Sites:
Abee Hague Official Site
SoundCloud Stream for Abee Hague – Novus EP

Further Listening:
Kaela Sinclair, ROSïE & The Bees, Ellie Goulding

Review: The Wind-up Birds – Poor Music

Like the Jam if they had come from Wakefield rather than Woking, The Wind-up Birds have fought hard to establish their Northern rock credentials. That’s not Northern rock in the Oasis sense of course but music made by Yorkshire lads whose tales are raw, real and vivid. After a long sequence of EPs, the real test for the Leeds band came in 2012 when they released their first album, ‘The Land’. Political and fiery, they passed with flying colours and now comes the follow-up.

The Wind-up Birds Album Cover

‘There Will Be No Departures From This Stand’ begins typically with a protest song, albeit a challenging, hook-free one, which might make sense of The Fall comparisons but unlikely to get them on Radio 1 anytime soon. It’s an unwieldy start but they hit their stride for third track, ‘Bus Drove Off’, which recalls teenage youth set to an escalating chugging riff whilst ‘Two Ambulance Day’ and ‘The Gristle’ recover the group’s ability to make anthemic music; both are high on drama and rough and tumble rhythms. The definitive moment, however, must be a “Song Or Two’, where they deliver a typical outsider view of a middle-class band’s gig (“I never felt more alone when the lead singer said everyone say “yeah”… I had to leave”); employing the band’s skills of slowly ratcheting up the tension before the frontman spits out vitriol in the manner of the most passionate trade union worker you could possibly imagine. Even film director Guy Ritchie gets it in the neck and it’s a track which boasts one of the album’s best choruses, to boot.

Across fifty minutes though, all the anger and working class grief can be a bit too much to take in one sitting. So you’re thankful when a relatively straight-ahead and jolly indie punk song like ‘Mate Crime’ shows up and primitive experiments with electronica (‘Bar Sadness’, ‘Jesus Puns’) evidence a willingness to embrace more modern music. However, The Wind-up Birds’ concerns always engage with a modern audience (even if they are tempered with stories of misspent youth) and their output continues to become more accomplished; never compensating on their trademark fury and dry wit.

Web Sites:
The Wind-up Birds Official Site
Bandcamp Stream for The Wind-up Birds – Poor Music
Video for The Wind-up Birds – The Gristle

Further Listening:
The Jam, Arctic Monkeys, The Fall

Review: What Moon Things – What Moon Things

Listening to New York’s What Moon Things it’s easy to believe they were conceived in a dark mouldy basement. In fact it’s hard to imagine them existing anywhere else for this is a band who sounds like they’re operating in society’s gutter amongst the meths swilling vagrants. Fortunately for us, this means some cracking “lumbering shoegaze” too.

What Moon Things Album Cover

From the opening trauma of the ‘The Vampire’ the vocalist already seem on the verge of cracking up while the band play a fuzzed up variation on slowcore; lurching towards an almost drunken finale. ‘The Astronaut’ puts all the elements into more coherent and hook-heavy form though, where the wails and murmurs convey crazed emotions as the band produce their finest off-kilter pop moment. Quality-wise, that song is accompanied by the dream pop-flavoured ‘Squirrel Girl’ whilst the chiming, infectious ‘Staring At The Radio’ builds from disarmingly pretty chiming post punk/new wave guitars into a gloriously intense finale.

Judging by the line “My brain’s full of holes” on the bleak finale ‘Sun, Where’s The Fire’, all three band members have earned a rest after half an hour of committed vocals, sludgy stoner riffs and clattering percussion. Yet the album is thrilling and visceral from beginning to end, which means What Moon Things have stumbled on to something special here.

Web Sites:
What Moon Things Tumblr
What Moon Things – The Astronaut

Further Listening:
The Walkmen, Six.By Seven, Menendez