Monday, 30 May 2011

Wot Gorilla?
New Arrival
Out Now
Rating: 4.5/5

After catching their set at Live at Leeds I immediately got my hands on Wot Gorilla's work to date; that is to say, their self-titled debut EP and this, their second. Possibly the only downside to what is otherwise a nigh-perfect recording is this- 'Fear of Flying', the opener, is by far the best track on here. Not only that, but out of the three tracks and an interlude, the second strongest is also the second track, '3 DAB's and a Chang', leaving the closer, 'Shoes for Traction' to seem more functional where on a lesser EP it might be a stand-out.

Sooner or later I'm going to have to stop saying this because I will have actually learned a thing or two about math-rock, but for the moment I still know little enough to confidently say that as far as I know, this is as good as it gets. Make sure you also check out their first effort as well, if only for the excellent 'We Go Way Back Like Like Spinal Cords and Car Seats' and '6 Double 5 3 2 1', the latter a track name which almost literally has math in it (ha ha). For me their greatest moments are when they go from the most abstract, angular material to the biggest guilty-pleasure pop rock; witness the “was that the engines cutting out?” middle eight of 'Fear of Flying' to get an idea. Though this may be Wot Gorilla's greatest weapon, they use it sparingly and it consequently never gets old.

The final verdict: highly entertaining, quite possibly future-proof rock.

[Both WG? EPs are now free to download; use the links above]

New Podcast... #13 - The Prog Nouveau Revolution

Friday, 27 May 2011

Air Cav Free Downloads

Phew. Today has been bloody exhausting, but at least I've put a decent dent in my reviews pile. I've got one more bit for y'all before I pack up for the day though: Air Cav have kindly put up their first two singles for free download from their bandcamp. Click below to get at them, that is all. 

Day For Airstrikes
Into the Comet
Out Now
Rating: 4/5

Judging by their more recent material (the Adam, Wez, Ian, John, Danny, Rita, Sue and Bob Too EP), I was rather expecting a similar experience when returning to their first album Into the Comet as a recent convert to the band. Instead there's actually more of a guitar-led approach to the compositions, and to bastardize a famous quote, “is that a looper I see before me?” Yes, ha fucking ha indeed (spot the reference for +10 EXP, it's been a long day), I hear you cry; but on tracks like the densely-layered 'Quiet!!!!! Warmbear' and 'Cosmonaut', the interplay between the guitars is definitely front-and-centre as the er, selling point of this band (as if they needed something so crass). Like fellow Manchester progsters Cyril Snear, they're not above the inclusion of brass here and there, and I'm totally down with that.

Personally, my favourite cut is 'Reichstag', possibly the most timbrally interesting, not to mention arguably the most epic in scale; though I'll admit that 'Cosmic Horse' is a strong contender for the crown. In terms of honourable mentions, you've got to bring up 'Honestly Honesty Bosun Smee', which is definitely the most massive-sounding if you're listening on speakers. In particular, the combination of thick fuzz-bass and staccato drums driving through the guitar figures in the first section of the song are a clear highlight of the album. The track as a whole bears some comparison to Steven Wilson's 'No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun' from Insurgentes, except, y'know, without a vocal.

Overall, it's an accomplished first record. Let's be honest, most bands are sensible enough to stay clear of instrumental music unless they know they can do it well, and Day For Airstrikes are no exception. It's also worth elaborating that whilst this record is clearly the result of a considerable amount of effort well-spent, their newer material shows signs of a highly gratifying development of their sound, and I rightly have high hopes for album two.

Rumour Cubes
We Have Sound Houses Also
Out Now
Rating: 4/5

Imagine 'Where I End and You Begin' from Radiohead's Hail to the Thief, shorn of all bass and drums and that's roughly what greets you upon first hitting play on Rumour Cubes' excellent EP. Before long a kit and bass enter, and whilst the drumming is perhaps a little unimaginative, the rhythmic hook on the bassline more than makes up for it. For some reason I'm put in mind of Yes, but that could simply be because I listened to The Yes Album three times yesterday and can't get 'Wurm' out of my head. Nevertheless, it's when the E-Bow gets shelved and the distortion pedal kicked, that the track ('The University is a Factory'; Foucaldian power analysis or anti-fees critique, I wonder?) really gets going.

After the extended post-rock of the opener, the punchiness of 'Rain on Titan' (Blade Runner reference?) is unexpected, to say the least, and the violin leads counterpoint the violin figures nicely. Again, there's a crescendo and fade; though the track is surely more concise, it's no worse for it.

For my money though, the best track is the third, 'At Sea', which is kind of like some crazy folk-shoegaze crossover, like Air Cav if they decided to adopt the evil atmospherics of Trent Reznor, I don't know. It builds to a gentle peak and then that's that, the end of the EP. I hear more material is in the pipeline, so it'll be interesting to see where the band take their sound next: hybrid anti-folk or post-rock both beckon, and from this first offering, it's hard to see exactly which path Rumour Cubes will take.

Big Fat World EP
Out Now
Rating: 5/5

Five-out-of-five. Quelle surprise, I know. Now, let's be honest, the question was always going to be how far into this review I could get before referencing Curve. Oops.

Right, so jokes aside Curve are one of my favourite bands, and I'm going to get all of that out of my system in one go: Dean Garcia is a genius, SPC ECO's record 3D is an opus, Rose Berlin is an incredible singer with a personality and voice all of her own, and musically on Big Fat World SPC ECO bear comparison to a more dark-ambient inflected take on the more downtempo stylings of 2002's Gift.

Though 'Feels Like Flying' is more upbeat in tone, it's still driven along at a laid-back pace by their trademark mixture of programmed and (presumably) live drums, and as such doesn't actually make as significant a change to the overall feel as you might expect; rather it more serves to round off the EP in a more strictly narrative fashion.

The real surprise is instead the title track, which unites the dual virtues of being both upbeat and up-tempo. It's saccharine dream-pop at the genre's most intoxicating and joyful, and brings to mind 'Clean Coloured Wire' or 'Subtober' by Engineers in its use of texture and dynamic shifts, surely no bad thing. Throughout, Berlin's vocals rise above the instruments, counterpointing or intertwining where appropriate, and occasionally hitting perfect resonance with the thick basslines of Garcia.

Basically, this EP is just fucking great, and what's more, it's now fucking free. As Sean Connery would say, “sherioushly? YESH!” Man, I can't believe I just wrote that. 

The Fierce & the Dead
If It Carries On Like This We Are Moving To Morecambe
Out Now
Rating: 4/5

As one might expect from having heard their previous efforts, TFATD's record is for the most part an exhilarating blend of krautrock, space rock and upbeat progressive motifs that owe as much to Neu! as they would appear to be beholden to say, Portishead. The overall effect is something like a kinetic, instrumental take on the first Secret Machines album with a rather greater degree of electronics and somewhat cleaner production.

The first track, 'Flint' begins with washes of auto-oscillation before a driving motorik rhythm kicks in and carries the piece from start to finish, aided by sparse guitar figures. On 'Part 2' there's initially a continuation of the theme before an abrupt sturm-und-drang turn to loud post-rock two minutes in that's somewhat reminiscent of God is an Astronaut. Other tracks like 'The Wait' are more consciously sparse post-rock, but there's a great degree of variation; 'H.R.', for instance sounds like nothing so much as The Bends-era Radiohead, and 'Landcrab' is kind of like the older, thrashier, fuzz-bass, alternate-tunings fare that Placebo used to deal in so well.

Recent single '10x10' makes a welcome return, and the collection closes on 'Andy Fox', a brass-laced atmospheric number that builds round a bass hook to something sinister and brooding that just about recalls first-album Muse b-sides (seriously, go have a listen if you don't believe me). Though I've done a lot of name-dropping here (even by my standards), that's mainly because I'm always nervous about describing instrumental music to anybody, and I particularly don't like slipping into wanky 'palaces of sound' style writing (though sometimes it's unavoidable), so I'll close by referring you to the score, the fact that I took the time to write this, and the fact that it's a very enjoyable little record. My usual caveat remains: it's instrumental music, so if you're not into that then too bad. If you are, then have a listen and decide for yourself. There are plenty of ideas here to keep a leftfield music fan interested, and if you're not up for an album-length experience, I refer you back to their excellent last single 10x10

Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Prog Nouveau Revolution

Something is happening in Manchester, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with Egyptian fucking Hip Hop, The Courteeners, Beady fucking Eye or Oasis. In the dilapidated mills of Ancoats and the attics of Northern Quarter, something is happening; sounds scarce heard since Oceansize first took up amps are once again spilling out into the streets. A short distance away in Liverpool, the kids are turning out in their hundreds to see bands that are playing something familiar; whilst the sounds may be different, the attitude is the same as their Manchester comrades.

Let’s set the scene. In 1997, Radiohead released Ok Computer. Steven Wilson has been saying in interview for years that this album was the game-changer so far as modern progressive is concerned, and there’s certainly some truth in this. From my own experience, completely independently of one another, Mike Vennart and Sel Belamir have said exactly the same thing, and the second generation of post-Ok Computer progressive bands that are now springing up are usually just as quick to recognise this connexion.

Cyril Snear

In the wake of Ok Computer, a progressive rock record, becoming a worldwide phenomenon, a number of eclectic, but truly ‘progressive’ bands followed in Radiohead’s wake. The Cooper Temple Clause, Vex Red, Oceansize, My Vitriol, Amplifier, Biffy Clyro and Yourcodenameis:milo to name but a few took the alternative rock template and took it further, blending in trip-hop, electronica, post-rock, shoegaze, and, of course, classic progressive rock. These bands all emerged at around the same time, touring together and ripping each other off. There are echoes of Vex Red in Oceansize’s ‘Amputee’, just as much as early Biffy and Yourcodenameis:milo material can at times differ sonically only by the vocalist and number of guitarists.

Black Market Serotonin

Though it’s not immediately relevant, it’s worth pointing out at this juncture that two of the bands loosely associated with this ‘scene’, Muse and Biffy Clyro- the only two in fact still active besides Amplifier- are now two of the biggest bands in the world right now. Funny how things work out, isn’t it?

So what does this have to do with the music scene in the North-West right now? A lot, as it turns out. Though there are no direct parallels with the bands I’ve just mentioned, it’s impossible to say, separate out the Oceansize from the Yes when listening to a band like Trojan Horse, currently making waves in Manchester. Similarly, the post-grunge of Vex Red looms just as large in Liverpool’s Always the Quiet Ones’ sound as does Porcupine Tree. These are bands taking both old and new sounds, of any genre, and creating something as original as they can in the resulting racket.

Always the Quiet Ones

In Manchester labels have even sprung up- the Mind on Fire Collective, Akoustik Anarkhy, as well as my own, Superstar Destroyer, and besides the great bands represented by these (the motorik-riding waltzing melodies of Plank!, or Nine Inch Nails meets King Crimson tones of Black Market Serotonin, to name but two), there are still more bands that are fiercely DIY; the aforementioned Trojan Horse, as well as math-progsters Cyril Snear come to mind. Recently these two gained coverage in the national music press when they packed out an speakeasy-style back alley art gallery for an album launch gig.

The 'Snear live

A brief look down the Trojan Horse-curated ‘Japanchester’ fundraising shows is a who’s who on the leftfield right now; the dream-pop Patterns, Goddamn Electric, Day for Airstrikes and incredible From the Kites of San Quentin are all there, with a few bands (Go Lebanon, Nasdaq, Gnod) slightly conspicuous for their absence. From Huddersfield, there’s Charlie Barnes, who frequently travels to the city to peddle his own brand of bizarre prog-pop. As a one man show, he’s looping in the vein of Imogen Heap, albeit with spectacular vocals and an ear for the cinematic; with his band (‘the Geekks’), he’s like the love-child of Heap and Thom Yorke playing Oceansize covers. His debut album, Geekk, was as strong in my opinion as anything released by Kscope or any other label in the world last year.

Barely out of their mid-twenties, Trojan Horse are a band that are as established as any on the current scene. Their roots lie originally in hardcore, and sometimes this shows; for the most part though, their bearded frontman Nicholas Duke is content to associate with the scene that he named- appropriately- ‘Prog Nouveau’. He explains:

“Prog Nouveau is an umbrella term for what we see going on in the left field of the Manchester music scene right now. There are so many musicians bringing stuff out that is experimental, and challenging the status quo that is the bog standard crap in Manchester at the moment. It holds the reigns because of this nostalgic rose-tinted view of Manchester from 1977-’98 “the glory days” and there are plenty of bands flogging that dead horse, so it's become a mush now. Prog Nouveau is all those people who are willing to stick their necks out and push themselves and the music they are making to mean something more than just a 2-3 minute single that is about going out on the pull. Great bands and producers creating great music that isn’t restricted to a specific genre; the key is being forward thinking [enough] just to do it for themselves.”

Second from right: Nick Duke, in slightly less beardy times

In Liverpool there’s also a thriving scene, based both around musicians in the city and those studying at LIPA; what’s most interesting is that many of the most prolific bands on the scene have one or more members in common. As near as I can tell, Battleships, Pteropilot, Always the Quiet Ones, and In Casino Out all share one or more member in common; bassists moonlight as singers or guitarists and vice-versa, depending on which band is playing that night. Loosely speaking, the bands all mix and match from a broad palette of atmospherics beholden to early post-rock like Slint, as well as the obvious space rock of Pink Floyd et al, and then blend in one or more of the early 2000s bands mentioned earlier.

For Battleships, it’s Biffy Clyro; for Always the Quiet Ones, Vex Red, The Butterfly Effect, Oceansize and perhaps even a pinch of Failure or The God Machine (if we briefly dip back into 1990s space rock); In Casino Out wear their At the Drive-In pedigree on their sleeve and add early Cooper Temple Clause, Yourcodenameis:milo as well as Porcupine Tree’s more heavy turns. Pteropilot stand out as markedly more atmospheric in approach; I want to make the Hawkwind connection, but I fear that might be presumptuous; they are not lacking in riff-writing skills, however, and can pack a punch easily as hard as their louder cousins, despite often wandering off into Hammock or Sigur Ròs territory.

In Casino Out live at Hub Festival, May 2011

As Nick summed up the day Oceansize announced their split, “it’s up to us to wear the shit trainers now.” We’re ready; are you?

P.S. As you may have noticed, there are at least three free downloads available via the links above- you literally have nothing to lose by checking out these bands!

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Mojo Fury
Visiting Hours of a Travelling Circus
Granite Records
Out Now
Rating: 4/5

Somewhere on here there's an old review of People in Planes' first album, ...As Far As The Eye Can See; as I recall, it was actually probably more lukewarm on paper than I intended, for I fucking love that record, but the point I want to make with regards Visiting Hours is this: like PiP's first, Mojo Fury's debut is stunningly eclectic and capriciously brilliant. Unlike PiP's first, there are prominent synths, heavier guitars and a general industrial atmosphere that recalls Nine Inch Nails' first two records. The industrial People in Planes then? Maybe, but live at least you do get the impression that Mojo Fury have got so much more up their collective sleeves, just waiting to be set loose.

Though there's pretty much every texture from full-on alternative metal ('The Mann') to post-rock ('Electric Sea' and 'Lemon Marine'; no it is not fucking 'blissed-out' you hack fucks... rant over, I promise), somehow the all-pervading atmosphere of industrial gloom manages to make it all hang together in one coherent package. On 'Pill Pigeon is an Orange Wheel' (rad name, I know), there's even a brass solo over a kinda early Yes proggy bit, though I feel like I have to mention I'm a little disappointed with the recorded version of live highlight 'Runaway'. Here, named 'We Should Just Run Away' it lacks the jagged punch of its live counterpart and comes across more like Filter sanitised a little for radio play, which is kind of a shame.

They say that your first album is basically your greatest hits up to that point (or that you have your whole life to write it, depending on which idiom you prefer), and with Mojo Fury that really shows; clearly all these tracks are representative of the same group of musicians working together, but in the detail it becomes clear that this is more a flex of the muscles, a test of strength before their real bid for the prize begins.

Did I mention that it's still a fucking ace record in spite of all that? Well it is.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Now I am Twenty - Free Today only...

Alright people. Sorry as always about the lack of posting... 10 days until third year finals mean that I haven't been writing as much as I'd like. In general I'm being fuelled by Wot Gorilla? and BTMI! so if you want something to listen to, I'd go with them. Anyway, for today only, Superstar Destroyer Records is giving away the Now I am Twenty EP by Nowhere Again. To download the fucker, use the player below. If you do, I'd suggest 'liking' it and re-posting. Or not, it's your call. 

Monday, 2 May 2011

Spotify is dead... long live Spotify

I wrote this for the Student Paper's last issue of the year and it's a little long, so here's the full text (it will be appearing in a much-edited form)...

I have had it up to fucking HERE with people slagging off the recent changes to Spotify's terms of use. All you fucks going “wah wah wah, I don't get free on-demand music anymore” do you realize how spoiled you sound? The service has been changed because Spotify was losing money- not just a little bit of money, but £16.6 million pounds. Recently they passed a milestone of having one million subscribers, or about fifteen percent of its total active user base, and yet they are still losing money. They are a business, and it's therefore a no-brainer that they had to change their terms of use in order to survive. With the paid-up service, you can stream to a mobile device with no advertisements, and all for the price of three pints at the pub (or, to be fair, six in the union); that's incredible value.

More interesting perhaps is the argument I've seen a lot which goes something like this: “now Spotify is charging me to listen, I'll go and illegally download instead- that's lost money to the artists!” No, it's not. Lady Gaga reportedly makes something like £30k a year from streaming revenues, and she's the biggest artist in the world right now. Most artists are a lot smaller than that, and a cult musician who can tour the UK is still going to be lucky to make more than a quid here and there from Spotify or similar services. At a digital insider brief at the MIDEM conference in Cannes, figures were released that suggested a fan base of 105,000 regular streaming fans listening to an artist's record on a frequent basis with a one-and-a-half year record cycle were required to make a minimum-wage level income from streaming. Lest we forget, there's more than one person in a band, and there are families, agents and all the necessary detritus that comes with the industry that are going to need paying. In sum: your streams are not making anybody any money.

“Surely some money is better than no money?” Well, I'll admit you have me there; but if you really wanted to support artists then you'd pay the tenner. Better still, you'd sack up and buy some merch at a gig, but here's the kicker: not many people actually love music. Lots of people say they do, but you can use basic economic concepts like price elasticity and opportunity cost to expose them as liars. To wit: Spotify now costs £10 per month. All those who don't value the service will leave, as there is a high price elasticity of demand. I'm prepared to concede that the service rather than the music might be at fault, so let's go to a more concrete example- the CD (or vinyl LP, as if you're a canny internet dweller, there's not a huge price difference these days). A CD from a band you like is five pounds; you're interested. £10? Not so much.

This however is not what's happening. People have got so used to getting music for free that it's no longer a question of relative price, but of actually purchasing at all- opportunity cost. If you value the pints more than the CD or Spotify subscription, then you will pay for those instead, simple. This brings me to my final point; the reason the industry is on the ropes is because the size of the music market was overestimated. In the bad old days of overpriced CDs, you had to buy an album to hear that one track you caught on the radio; now, you don't. All of those lost sales have left a bloated industry struggling to shed fat in order to survive, because for most people, music is functional. Why pay £10 for a CD to listen to while you cook dinner? For that matter, why pay £7.99 for the download from iTunes? I can understand the reasoning even if I don't share it.

Ultimately true music fans want to support the art and artists they love, whether that means buying a CD or buying merch like t-shirts- there's always going to be a small market of people who demand these things. The key is that those who will leave Spotify on account of £10 per month for more music than they could ever want or need aren't really music fans at all, and it fucks me off that anybody could get self-righteous because for a little while they chose to get something for nothing semi-legally rather than outright illegally. Well done, give yourself a fucking pat on the back.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Live at Leeds Festival

Tall Ships Live
Ok, so I've spent all of this morning writing an epic review of Live at Leeds Festival. Have a read if you like. In the meantime, I'm off to SFTOC, where I've already missed NASDAQ. Curses!