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.
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!