Archive for January, 2015

Review: Involved – Revolving Maze

Informed by four decades of electronic music and aiming to “curate fresh sounds” from the genre, Maryland’s Joe Dorsey and Korea-based Reivilo Enoignor have set their targets high on their first album as Involved. What follows is fifty minutes of soundtrack-worthy material which demonstrates two composers finding fertile common ground via their remote connections.

Involved Album Cover

In an early statement of the dark cinematic feel to the record, ‘Ingress’ introduces shadowy synths and rolling piano and ends with a Kraftwerk-esque melody, then the single ‘Machiavella’ augments the consistently lush keyboards with ghostly female vocals samples and motorik beats. Yet just as the album starts to feel slightly flat after the subdued, morose ‘Radiation Leak’, ‘Inner Spaces’ and ‘Angular’ locates the perfect space between busy electronica and a sense of light and optimism. Further special moments follow, in particular the chilling title track, populated by subtle but seductive key changes and enigmatic ambience; fully justifying its nine minute length. Meanwhile, ‘Patient’ is as suitably epic and energising as the finale ‘Egress’ is soothing and elegant.

‘Revolving Maze’ isn’t quite as dynamic as the title suggests but every moment here is appropriate filmic. Unusually, the more complex and intricate the track is, the more memorable (not to mention involving!) it becomes. So it’s another worthwhile cross-continental collaboration then.

Web Sites:
Hidden Shoal Label and Shop Site
Involved Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Dissolved, Radio For The Daydreamers


Review: Sounds Of Sputnik – New Born

Sounds Of Sputnik is the brainchild of Roman Kalitkin; one of many promising acts to emerge from Russia in recent times. It actually transpires Kalitkin is something of an old hand with twenty years service to post punk and shoegaze to his name. Here, he teams up with Ukranian duo Ummagma (who themselves produced two excellent, eclectic albums in 2013) to present ‘New Born’; drawing on a myriad of genres and contributors in the process.

Sounds Of Sputnik Album Cover

‘New Born’ sets the album off to a flyer with an addictive keyboard riff, bruising guitars and some strident vocals from Ummagma’s Shauna McLarnon. It’s an impressive multi-layered tune even if hearing it in five alternative versions is possibly stretching it a little. Nevertheless, some big names have been roped in to lend their hands, most notably OMD producer Malcolm Holmes. For the soaring ‘Light Scheme’, Alex Kretov and McLarnon team up on some lovely, interweaving harmonies backed up by Kalitkin’s dreamy backdrops. Although this album was released in the summer, ‘Blizzard’ seems so seasonally appropriate now and its fuzzy, experimental leanings and the doomy, post rock flavour which informs ‘Shades Of The Cosmos’ show the quality of Kalitkin’s production credentials. That said, it is still the vocal-led songs which stand out the most, exemplified by the final original offering; a lively Lush-like offering named ‘Overdrive’.

The remainder of the album concerns itself with the alternate mixes. Even considering each variation of ‘New Born’ adds something extra (‘Morozov’s glitchy beats, Oleg Mezherovsky’s excitable techno and a crispy, crunchy performance from the aforementioned Holmes), the Sputnik remix – thanks to its employment of pulsing dance beats and plenty of echo – is possibly the most memorable version. As for the alternate takes on ‘Light Scheme’, Fran Ashcroft takes this already euphoric song to an even dreamier level whilst Brazil’s Mind Movies evolve and morph the original into a busy psychedelic concoction.

Granted, ‘New Born’ may have benefited from a few more original tracks but the multiple versions are each worth more than just a cursory listen. Moreover, Kalitkin and his helping hands have put together a bright and consistently fascinating album.

Web Sites:
Sounds Of Sputnik Bandcamp
Sounds Of Sputnik SoundCloud

Further Listening:
Ummagma, Broken Social Scene, Elika, Lush

Review: Upperfields – Waterways

When the two main members of a band seem to be pulling in opposite directions, conflicts can often arise. However, in the case of Pennsylvania’s Upperfields, who marry dreamy psychedelia with American folk music, the two major forces sound perfectly aligned.

Upperfields Album Cover

You can hear the evidence immediately on the yearning Country rock leanings-meets-Beach House production for ‘Runner’. ‘Seascape’ fascinates too with a full-bodied chorus which is arguably bettered by some gorgeously languid verses and a flamboyant but beautifully melodic instrumental coda. ‘Find My Way’ slows down the pace further still, which serves to extend the glistening guitar passages for even longer as frontman Shaun Gould gives full vent to his heartache.

As the second half begins, ‘Tests’ is a little more wayward; drifting into progressive waters but despite its unsettling temperament its sprawling ebbs and flows would work well in the live environment, whilst ‘Rich’ presents the most disappointing moment and it can be no coincidence that the least adventurous/most rock-oriented track is also the least riveting. ‘Untethered Bells’ begins in similar fashion but the swirling keyboards and the song’s emotional ache ensures the album is brought back to its former glory.

People will look back to My Morning Jacket or Grandaddy as reference points but Upperfields are making their own mark here; embellishing their moving songs with epic, richly textured arrangements. ‘Waterways’ encourages us all to dream again.

Web Sites:
Upperfields Bandcamp

Further Listening:
My Morning Jacket, Grandaddy

Review: DigitalNativeDance – Los Canarreos

Did anyone request instrumental themes for an imaginary 1980’s US cop show? Possibly not but DigitalNativeDance have produced one for us anyway. Tom Welsh is the musician behind the awkward moniker and has produced a fine set of pastiches; evocative of a time when PC didn’t stand for political correctness.

DigitalNativeDance EP Cover

‘Sunrise Intro’ offers the kind of slinky jazz fare which will have fans of (BBC comedy series) The Fast Show being compelled to say “Nice!”. The title track is festooned with rock guitars, twisting funk bass lines and the kind of synth-led atmospheres which can only suggest blazer and jeans-clad cops coasting along in their convertible. ‘Ocean Drive Through’ is the least demanding track and although it struggles to justify its six minute length it’s perfectly chilled out; dispensing some clean synth lines and a lilting, shimmering ambience in the process. This just leaves ‘After Dark’; a nocturnal yet bouncy number which sounds not unlike a Scritti Politti backing track thanks to its extravagant deployment of synth-funk, slap bass and other so-called 80’s crimes.

We’ve been down this road before, most recently with Rich Bennett’s ‘Buddy Cop’ project from 2010. Like that record, ‘Los Canarreos’ isn’t a release to take too seriously but converts to Grand Theft Auto and dyed in the wool Miami Vice fans will find a new soundtrack to enjoy here.

Web Sites:
DigitalNativeDance SoundCloud

Further Listening:
Rich Bennett, Jan Hammer, Scritti Politti

Review: Lutine – White Flowers

It’s hard to think of an act which doesn’t make you think of the past on some level. Formed in Brighton last year, Lutine’s Heather Minor and Emma Morton will make you question which Century you’re living in. Yet this otherworldly folk music is much more than a vintage curiosity.

Lutine Album Cover

An air of elegant doom may dominate but there is certainly no lack of variety in terms of arrangement. ‘Synnove’ finds its roots in the 60’s/70’s folk scene, as do the relatively optimistic and bluesy ‘So It Goes’ but many songs go much further back for source material. Chilling renditions of traditional material (‘Died Of Love’, ‘Death And The Lady’) are balanced against the gentle etherealism of ‘All I Have Is Gold’. The subtle samples of distant bird song are scattered throughout the record but become particularly noticeable on a spare ‘Come Wander’. Amongst these charming delights, it’s the lovely title track which proves most enduring as the duo’s quivering tones tell a valedictory tale and it’s followed closely by the beautifully played ‘Sallow Tree’ where the lyric of “ancient words bring me down” seems like the mantra which informs the whole of ‘White Flowers’.

Lutine may be a little frail and delicate for some but the simple purity of these songs and those spine-tingling vocals are enchanting. It’s another winner from the always inventive Front And Follow record label.

Web Sites:
Lutine – White Flowers Bandcamp Page
Front And Follow Label and Shop Site
Lutine SoundCloud

Further Listening:
All About Eve, Nicola Harrison

Review: Alexia Avina – Kind Forest EP

Whereas some are given fifteen minutes of fame, Montreal-based artist Alexia Avina gives herself a mere ten on her debut EP. Yet via the medium of dream pop, freak folk and ambient music, she doesn’t waste the opportunity, by offering a quartet of sweetly seductive songs.

Alexia Avina Album Cover

The first impression, ‘(bored) Summer’, is resplendent with carefully plucked strings and Avina’s appealing, crystal clear voice. Her opening words of “I wanna go, free the things that hold me, I sit so still, waking in an avalanche” as well as being a tad eccentric, reveal a desire to escape from restraints. It’s a charming opener and ‘Rain + Boy’ uses a remarkably similar refrain but this time Avina is content to murmur mysteriously whilst the arrangement moves along at a glacial pace. ‘Walk Home’ runs even further with the ambient gauntlet and – as beguiling as her voice is – minimalism is a good fit for her. It is without doubt another dreamy moment on the EP but for the award of most memorable song, the honour must surely go to ‘Bedroom’. Here Avina’s ululations provoke tingling of spines and goosebumps too, which become even more pronounced when accompanied by the delightfully hypnotic melody. In this magical setting even a lyric of “Ooh would you wait there while I drift to sleep here in your room” convinces with innocent intentions.

‘Kind Forest EP’ evokes images of a young girl left alone with a box of clockwork toys. Yet as the instruments tick away, Avina seems to be awaking from the naivety of childhood to take the next stage in her life. Perhaps we’ll learn more about it on her next EP.

Web Sites:
Alexa Avina Bandcamp

Further Listening:
My Favourite Things, Ikebana

Review: The Mercy Alliance – Some Kind Of Beautiful

They hail from Washington DC, they name their first song after their home state and their songs have that breezy quality which seem destined to be heard whilst cruising down endless freeways. Yet as the The Mercy Alliance’s latest album develops, those images of carefree days on the open road quickly subside and the melancholic side of the band begins to shine through.

Mercy Alliance Album Cover

Sure, the opening ‘Washington’ immediately speaks of freedom and freeways within the sighed vocals, warm basslines and ringing guitars. It’s the kind of tune which make you think this is the season of sunshine (as I write this in the middle of a British winter). ‘Angel Of Mercy’ and ‘All For The Love In You’ pile on heavier, truly driving guitars and propulsive rhythms but the infectious chorus hook (“Everybody’s trying to tell me. Some kind of beautiful story” for the former) ensures the summery outlook continues.

Then something very interesting happens. ‘Moving In Time’ and ‘This Is How They Know’ mark a change in pace; the former being a slightly eerie offering and it’s the first of several songs which echo the latter days of The Comsat Angels, as does a snarling country-inflected ‘Libertine’. Finally, by the time of the wonderfully subtle finale ‘Drifting In’ (“broken radio, static frequencies. I sit and watch you go”), the feeling of freedom has been replaced with a tangible sense of loss.

Given the radio-friendly quality of their material, it’s surprising The Mercy Alliance aren’t better known. Furthermore, as well as the acknowledged American influences which inform ‘Some Kind Of Beautiful’, there’s a real depth and introspection to this album which becomes ever more apparent as the story unfolds.

Web Sites:
The Mercy Alliance Official Site
Video for The Mercy Alliance – Washington

Further Listening:
The Comsat Angels, Wilco

Review: Order Anura – Order Anura

Funereal bedroom songs are the order of the day for Ivan Heemskirk. Via his Order Anura outlet, this Michigan solo artist has created a bleak and chilling debut album which he recorded “very slowly” in his apartment.

Order Anura Album Cover

A church organ melody lights up ‘Fiercely Aglow’, adding a richness and warmth to contrast with Heemskirk’s thin vocals, which recall Bernard Sumner’s early efforts behind the mic. Yet even though it would be stretching it a bit to compare the approach to Joy Division, Heemskirk seems to be striving for the same spiritual vibe as ‘Atmosphere’ and sometimes doesn’t fall that short of such a lofty target. Thanks to its spare, gospel-like arrangement, ‘Where You Are’ could have been recorded in the 1950’s; Heemskirk’s tones are more strident this time and form an important part in making this track one of the more optimistic-sounding efforts.

Stylistically, the songs vary little as one murmured vocal accompanies another grand keyboard melody and events take an even darker turn on the second half of the album. Firstly, on ‘Time Will Bend’, as the singer bemoans “You are so far away”, the ability to haunt the listener becomes stronger. ‘Underwater’ is appropriately submerged in distortion as our hero’s soliloquies appear to be sinking into the depths of the abyss; an idea confirmed by the despairing aura of the last of Heemskirk’s self-written pieces, ‘Helpless’. Bizarrely, the album ends with a version of Nintendo Gameboy tune; presenting a somewhat incongruous footnote to what has gone on before.

In terms of emotional reach, Order Anura isn’t as convincing as last year’s Black Walls’ magnificent ‘Communion’ but then little music is, in fairness. However, within the limited confines of his bedroom studio and inevitable lo-fi production, Heemskirk has developed his own world of gloomy processional music. This could have been a depressing listen but the warmth and intimacy of these songs presents a surprisingly moving experience.

Web Sites:
Order Anura Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Joy Division, Black Walls, Tyler Sullivan

Review: The Glass Set – First Image

Boston, Massachusetts act The Glass Set admit to being brought up on a steady diet of UK post punk acts and this much is clear on a darkly impressive mini album EP which takes on shoegaze and gothic genres along the way. This description alone might make you think you’ve heard all this before but there’s a noticeable maturity and complexity to their songs which ensures their music lurks in the memory.

The Glass Set EP Cover

For the first song ‘Luckiest Girl’, Joel Cohen’s murky guitars and Allen Esser’s thick, pounding percussion are interwoven deliciously with Leah Callahan’s sweet innocent vocals and Cohen’s own haunting murmur. It’s an unusual yet intoxicating beginning; echoing the shadowy work of early Breathless as much as any female-fronted shoegaze act you could care to mention. Callahan becomes a more dominant presence on ‘Elephant And Castle’. Here the arrangement is stripped back for much of the song; where the band are content to build a ringing, chiming foundation on which the singer can deliver a dominant yet classy performance and when the song enters its inevitable loud phase it is done so in a superbly controlled way.

The title track seems slightly wayward at first with male/female vocals colliding and fading into each other above warped guitars but credit to the band for experimenting with production and this clever, complex track grows in stature after repeated plays. A more commercially-friendly ‘Ooh La La’ proves that The Glass Set can “do” pop if the mood takes them and here the melodies flow from every key change. The final two tracks are plunged back into ethereal darkness; with ‘Keep It To Yourself’, especially, bringing gothic influences into the mix.

The Glass Set may have been hailed as “Joy Division fronted by a female Morrissey” by their local press but there’s a ring of truth to the hyperbole since ‘First Image’ is laced with well-judged Mancunian influences and their frontwoman has the charisma to ensure they rise to the top of similarly-styled bands.

Web Sites:
The Glass Set Official Site/Bandcamp
Video for The Glass Set – Elephant And Castle

Further Listening: