Festival Internacional de Benicàssim 2013

Festival de Benicàssim 2013
Festival de Benicàssim 2013

For a festival once described as Glasto-del-Sol – with sun and sand instead of mud and rain – it’s somewhat ironic that, even at a fairly sweltering 30°C, it’s hotter in London this year.

Which isn’t going to stop 20,000 Brits stumbling about looking hot and bothered, of course. Playing spot the nationality on the beach at Benicàssim is laughably easy, and when the heat of the day forces those here under canvas to abandon their tents, every scrap of shade is taken up by bodies sprawled out, recovering for another “day” at the festival. A Spanish-style day, that is, which doesn’t start before 6pm and lasts through the night until 7am when stragglers are herded out the gates.

FIB (or just Benicàssim), draws fewer than half the 100,000 strong crowds that attend Spanish festivals Sonar, Primavera Sound and Bilbao BBK. Nevertheless it celebrates 20 years next year, assuming the rumoured financial worries turn out to be just that, and a dedicated following take a full week off to bask here in sun, sea, and sound.

Thursday, Everything Everything open their set of curiosity rock through thick swirling smoke, while headliners Queens Of The Stone Age tear into shameless rock-out numbers ‘Feel Good Hit Of The Summer‘ and the ludicrously catchy ‘No One Knows‘. When frontman Josh Homme raises his fist at the end, 10,000 hands raise in reply.

The boundless energy of Dizzee Rascal reduces the crowd to a grinning, sweating mess on Friday. Out in the punishing sun all day there’s casualties passed out on the tarmac, and when one girl gets in trouble at the front Dizzee stops the gig and has her hauled to safety. By now he’s well over his set time. “I can’t go off without playing Bonkers”, he says. Fortunately management agree, and the crowd pleaser gets another airing. Later, dubstep instigator Skream has the ground shaking under a rippling two-hour set of everything but dubstep – crunchy techno, chunky house, and some killer 90s old school hardcore pop classics.

benicassim-clashmag-87-full-page
England’s north represents on Saturday, with the Courteeners, Arctic Monkeys and Kaiser Chiefs drawing huge, singing, sometimes even weeping crowds of ardent European fans. Elsewhere Bastille beat their drums melodramatically, and the China Rats, who caused mosh mayhem during their 11th hour stand-in for Bat For Lashes here last year, reprise their energetic, Undertones-inspired pop.

Dominating the final day are The Killers, always a vein of welcome ridiculousness during the 2000s’ potentially po-faced guitar band renaissance, who behind grinning frontman Brandon Flowers leap onstage to ‘Mr Brightside’ and follow through with hit after hit.

FIB is a very continental mix of indie rock and Eurocheese DJs, of massive acts tempered with breakthrough bands: Swim Deep’s whoops and cheekbones from B-Town, Temples‘ 60s time warp psychedelia, or hype magnets like Palma Violets and Chvrches. Spanish bands have a good showing too: Dorian’s percussive, dreamy post-rock, wordless metallers Toundra, and Svper‘s bubbling electro-pop. The young crowd, swelled by post-GCSE, post-A Level celebrants, sometimes gives Benicàssim the feeling of Benidorm with much better music. And while Spanish-English relations remain cordial despite Gibralta, so long as you can brave the heat (or afford aircon), who wouldn’t relish a festival with that foreign holiday feeling?

 

[Words, pictures and daily blogs from the festival originally published on Clashmusic.com and in Clash Magazine issue 90, September 2013]

Kent Spong – vintage synthesiser repair

Former Glories featuring Kent Spong
Kent Spong: analogue repair man – Sound on Sound June 2013

Somewhere in suburban Surrey is an unremarkable semi-detached house much like any other. But despite appearances this dwelling doubles as a Tardis-like warehouse through which regularly pass examples of some of the world’s finest synthesisers. Musicians and synth collectors bring their ailing vintage equipment here, like pilgrims to the Lourdes of the synthesiser world, to the healing hands of Kent Spong – Synthesiser Repair Man. Sound On Sound talks to Kent about analogue’s enduring appeal, exploding Moogs, and the importance of knobs.

The enduring popularity of analogue synthesisers means that many vintage instruments have lived on decades after their designers imagined they’d be only so much scrap metal and plastic. The same keyboards circulate between musicians, studios and collectors, and the recognisable sounds of favourites like the Yamaha CS-80 or Minimoog continue to appear on newly released records – often in genres undreamt of when they first appeared, and decades after their designers imagined they’d be only so much scrap metal and plastic. Some were manufactured in such limited numbers – from the low hundreds to low thousands – that the small and ever-decreasing supply assailed by an insatiable demand has pushed prices beyond even the king’s ransom they sold for originally.

Kent Spong of Kent Spong Restorations (KSR) provides the repair and restoration prowess for RL Music, founded by his old school friend, synth dealer Richard Lawson. He estimates Yamaha manufactured only 800 to 850 CS-80s – the 100kg synth perhaps most associated with Vangelis’ albums and epic film soundtracks from the late 1970s and 1980s (China, Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner) – of which around 300 have come through his workshop. They were expensive in 1977, when they sold for £5,000 (the average UK house price was about £10,000); last month a fine example sold on eBay for £11,700.

“I have seen CS-80s that at one time would have been broken for spares, but now they’re restored, almost at any cost, because people are willing to spend the money to bring them back,” Kent says. “I would imagine there’s still about 700 in circulation – mostly in studios being used as workhorses, but when restored they behave themselves and can be used for touring.”

Keeping this select class of equipment functioning more than 35 years later gets harder as spares become more scarce. “The customised ICs in the CS-80 are not exactly abundant,” says Kent. “I used to be able to cannibalise a wrecked CS-50 or even a really destroyed CS-80 and break it down for spares. But you can’t do that any more because the machines’ value has risen by so much that even for a wrecked CS-80 people will want three or four thousand pounds – for something that doesn’t work.”

Today, there’s a full family of Yamaha CS-80, CS-70, CS-60 and CS-50 awaiting Kent’s ministrations, alongside an Elka Synthex, ARP Odyssey, MiniMoog, Juno 60, Prophet 5, Prophet 10, and a huge Oberheim eight voice – and that’s just in the front room. There’s no photo that can do justice to just how full of keyboards this house is (“It’s actually not that bad at the minute,” says Kent). It’s enough to make any gear-head go weak at the knees and cross themselves as if in the presence of holy relics.

“There is a degree of worship involved with people’s relationship to this stuff,” Kent laughs. “The people from After The Fire came round with a CS-80 they’d had from new, but had dragged around for years. It was in a pretty terrible state. We completely restored it, rebuilt the whole case – it took five weeks,” he recalls. “When he came over to try it out, he walked into the workshop, clapped eyes on it and burst into tears. Playing it, hearing it, he was just beside himself.

“Musical instruments can be a part of the musician. The way the instrument sounds and how it plays become part of the process of creation, even if it’s not right. I mean, people have brought in keyboards saying they’re perfectly in tune, but when I check they’re miles out. They’ve just got used to it being like that, and incorporated it into what they do.”

Such reverence or excitement is not always brought about by the equipment’s musical abilities, but for the potential to turn a profit – as is clear from the difference between £4000 for a broken CS-80 that costs £11,700 when restored, implying that even a few thousand pounds spent on restoration is money well spent.

“It’s interesting to note that these were flagship machines,” says Kent. “Flagship machines tend not to sell well. The CS-80, the Synclavier, the Fairlight – these were expensive in their day, they didn’t sell many so they stopped making them, and they’re worth a great deal now because there’s so few of them around.”

Compare this to the Yamaha DX1, the company’s flagship digital synthesiser of which only 140 were made, introduced in 1984 for £9,000 and now selling for £6,000. Or the cut-down but equally competent and hugely popular DX7, which can be snagged for as little as £200. There’s money in analogue gear like no other.

kentspong-3_4_5
Restoration station

Softly-spoken, bespectacled and capped with fly-away grey hair that gives him the air of a retired wizard, Kent’s interest in synthesisers was always musical rather than technical. Now 50, he’d always played pianos and organs as a child, and hearing Vangelis perform Chung Kuo (a favourite he’s covered) on breakfast television in the 1980s cemented his love for synthesis. “The sound just smacked me in the face. I fell in love,” he recalls. “I learnt how to use synths like everyone else back then, by spending hours in my room fiddling with knobs. It wasn’t until later when I started getting problems with keyboards that I started looking at the technical side of things.”

Kent did some occasional session work for a small label, Scabrie Reocords, and wrote music with Richard Lawson. “He was my partner in crime. I’d buy my keyboards and he’d buy his, and we’d put them together and make like Tangerine Dream,” he chuckles. “Every now and then we’d put together a demo and see if a record company was interested. They never were.”
Taking the time to repair a broken key on his Korg Mono/Poly circa 1982, he found friends were impressed by his willingness to open up the synth and get his hands dirty.

“Despite the electronics theory and skills I’d learnt, when it comes to repairing synthesisers there is no book you can buy – they operate outside logic in some respects,” he jokes. “You can understand how a capacitor and a transistor do what they do, but when it comes to locating faults on a machine that has aged well beyond what the designer ever imagined, you get very weird things going on.”

By the mid-1980s he had added synth repair to the computers repair he was offering at the time, starting with simple problems such as scratchy potentiomers and faders or broken keys.

Kent recalls: “Then you just rang up the company and ordered a part, but now a huge amount of what I do is scour the planet for obselete components. Paradoxically, now I can find a filter board for a Minimoog much more easily than I can find a computer board for a Korg M1. The M1 is about 20 years old while the Moog is nearly 40 years old, but the longevity of the M1 was never considered to be more than a few years before being superceeded so they made fewer spares, perhaps expecting lower failure rates. It’s much harder to find components for mid-90s equipment. The Roland JD-800, for example: if the keyboard membrane goes you’ll struggle to find a replacement.

“A lot of it comes down to trying to reach a price point – to reduce costs manufacturers would use components that were becoming obselete even at the time, so there’s no hope of finding them today. There are transistors in the ARP 2600 that are almost impossible to find, and are so specific that today’s drop-in replacements don’t work.”

With the silicon wafers of chips of the time fabbed on a six micron process compared to today’s wafers measured in nanometers, there is little chance of remanufacturing them ICs today – even if the dies, long since lost, could be found or reverse-engineered.

Undeterred, electronics sages have tackled that very problem. Jeroen Allaert from Ghent in Belgium spent years to painstakingly reverse engineer the original Juno 106 VCF/VCA controller PCB to produce a perfect clone that solves the manufacturing defects of the original. What does Roland think about this? They stock his parts.

“We generally find a lot of machines tend to fail in the same areas,” Kent says. “When someone phones me up to say one key of every six on their Juno 106 doesn’t work, I’ll tell them the VCF/VCA has probably gone on the voice, order the part ahead of time, and when the Juno arrives I’ll open it up and lo, that’s the IC that’s blown.

“It’s one of the most common faults alongside power supply problems. Some synths have PSU’s barely capable of running them, while others are overrated. The PSU in a CS-80 could power a whole village without trouble.”

Kent’s less common problems include an exploding Moog Modular which fired a lightbulb across the workshop, a faulty Synclavier disk drive that on inspection contained a huge dead spider, a ‘broken’ Korg PS3200 that actually just had no voice cards (from eBay, natch), a working Korg MonoPoly that inexplicably contained a man’s leather shoe, and a CS-80 inside which was nestled not only a rather nice gold man’s watch but a very old cheese sandwich.

While Allaert’s efforts are impressive, the circuit and chips (Roland’s IR3109) involved are (comparatively) simple. Once complex, customised and undocumented chips start failing, the game is surely over.

In Philip K Dicks’s seminal novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which became the film Blade Runner), Deckard desperately wants to buy a sheep for the status symbol of having a real animal rather than a synthetic equivalent. It’s only a matter of time before the surviving vintage analogue equipment becomes the ultra-rare, ultra-expensive ‘real’ animals in a field of ‘digital’ androids. But does it really matter?

Kent ponders. “Serious musicians want and relish the difference that analogue can provide. Nothing quite sounds like a CS-80. Nothing can really copy the sound of opening a filter sweep on a Mininoog. So yes, it does still matter.”

Kent Spong’s analogue Top 5

Yamaha CS-80 – “My personal favourite. It just sounds so, so rich. It’s so big – literally and metaphorically.”

Minimoog – “I love the Minimoog. Even apart from the sound, it has such great design: perfectly minimalist and compact, a case with an angled front laid out beautifully. It’s the Chanel Little Black Dress of the synth world. Wonderful.”

Moog modulars – “I love the old Moog kit too, the sounds of the 60s. Again, they look so amazing. They’re a nightmare to use though, you can spend ages with patch cables trying to get a noise out of it – but when you do its presence is incredible.”

Sequential Circuits Pro 1 – “This was a monosynth version of the Prophet 5. In it’s little case there’s a keyboard, stepping sequencer, arpeggiators, repeater, and modulation routing coming out of its ears. A fantastic machine.”

ARP 2600 – “This has really grown on me in the last few years. As an instrument it can be very tiresome to work on which has perhaps always tainted my opinion, but I really do like it, even more than the Steiner-Parker Synthacon. Another very expensive machine though.”

 

Black box with knobs on

“But owning them is part of it too – owning a Stradivarius violin is not the same as owning a Stradivarius DSP plugin,” he adds.

Software synths like Reaktor, Reason, the venerable Rebirth and any number of sample sets have brought musicians life-like sounds for reasonble prices. In fact, without the leaps and bounds digital sampling technology and computing power have made over the last few decades we’d be stuck with the same ‘string synth’ sounds instead of the sound of actual strings.

“You can download or buy a disc of the most incredible orchestra samples, but there’s nothing to touch,” Kent says. “For the drop of a hat and a few hundred quid – the price of a single session violinist – you have a complete orchestra in the studio. Digital comes into its own and allows you things that would never be otherwise possible.”

The appeal of that potential caused many to dump their gear and buy into the digital revolution. “I remember hearing the Kate Bush single with the broken glass sample [Babooshka] – the concept that someone was producing that by pressing a key was like magic. The keyboard player might as well have had a top hat, a cape and a waxed moustache. A lot of people were taken by that,” Kent recalls.

“I sold my whole collection – a PolySix, Mono/Poly, Prodigy, Roland MC-202 sequencer and CR-78 drum machine – to a dealer for £275 to put down the deposit for an Ensoniq Mirage. In hindsight, 20 years later you have that ‘doh’ moment when you realise the Mirage is worth fifty quid and the Prodigy alone is getting on for a grand.”

The irony is that the obsession with analogue keyboards’ sounds and their (usually pale) imitations of instruments means modern keyboards offer them too. “Recent keyboards always include presets that point to other keyboards – Moog bass, ARP this or MS-20 that, as after 30 years people liked that sound,” says Kent. “That it sounded nothing like what it tried to emulate in the first place isn’t important – now the aim is to recreate the original flawed imitation’s sound in all its imperfections.”

Perhaps these images of the cardboard box that contains an orchestra, or the powerful digital keyboard administered through a tiny screen illustrate how another appeal of analogue instruments is their physical, tacticle controls: the importance of having knobs on, as Oscar Wilde might have said.

“A lot of professional musicians want the interaction of pushing the buttons and twiddling the knobs. It’s part of the process, part of the creative aspect of making music,” Kent enthuses. “Changing the sound in real-time, having tactile controls available to you is going to change your mindset – you’re going to think differently if the interface is a black up/down button on a black front panel on a poorly lit stage. If you have immediate controls in front of you, you can explore that different feeling of playing live rather than in the studio, the excitement, the interaction with the audience.”

A look at the market reveals a huge range of punch buttons, scratch pads, joysticks and other physical MIDI inferface controllers, Korg’s Kaos Pad range, and Yamaha’s Tenori-On synth-sequencer-controller. Korg even released an imitation MS-20 USB MIDI controller complete with keyboard, knobs and patch bay to provide an authentic means to manipulate its Legacy Collection sample set of classic Korg sounds from the MS-20, Polysix, Wavestation and M1. That was almost 10 years ago; now they’ve released the new but 100 per cent analogue Korg MS20 Mini, and the other big names are on the case too – the revitalised Moog Music company’s Moog Voyager and Little Phatty, former Sequential Circuits designer Dave Smith’s Prophet ’08 and ’12 and Evolver, Tom Oberheim’s new SEM modules and Son of Four Voice synth, and Arturia’s MiniBrute.

And so analogue returns to the mainstream, adding new DNA to the genepool. As Kent points out, there’s more people building analogue gear now than ever before, each a nod to the sounds and tactile control of the past with the programmability and flexibility of the present. It’s also a sign of how far technology in how well today’s digital and analogue circuitry work side by side.

“Take the Voyager,” Kent says. “It doesn’t sound exactly like a Minimoog, but that doesn’t matter. The interesting thing is that they’ve managed to capture that Moog sound and then computer control it, giving you facilities that an original Moog could never give you.

“That’s good. That’s progress.”

 

Keeping ’em running

Vintage synthesisers now entering their fifth or sixth decade in use are inevitably going to hit problems, but they needn’t be show-stoppers with these tips.

Battery leaks – any keyboard with patch memory will have a battery which, over decades, runs the risk of leaking corrossive acid and causing potentially serious damage. Korg Polysix, later Polys, SH-101 and Rhodes Chromas are just some of those susceptible. NiCad and alkaline batteries are more likely to leak and should be replaced with lithium batteries if possible – it’s worth checking if you never have.

Capacitor leaks – capacitor electrolyte is not likely to cause damage directly, but dead capacitors aren’t regulating current as they’re supposed to. This exposes delicate components to power spikes, and alters the voltage and therefore the effects of oscillators and filters. Check for bulging or blown caps, and listen for rattling or clicking sounds which are frequently signs of power supply capacitor failures.

Scratchy pots and sliders – with gravity working as it does, dust is bound to work its way into the workings of sliders and knobs, causing a build up of debris and static that becomes an audible irritant. A dust cover is a simple way to reduce it, and a smoke-free environment helps too.

Dead keys – keys stop responding when the carbon contact underneath wears off so that the circuit is not completed. Graphite spray or replacement carbon contact ‘pills’ will solve the problem – but this will require require going under the hood.

Stuck keys – another common keyboard problem caused by the rubber bushings which push depressed keys back up into place become brittle and crumble, leaving keys stuck down. They can be bought online cheaply, but you have to get the right type for the keyboard – and again, it means opening the synth.

Misfiring CMOS chips – the comparitively primitive CMOS ICs from 20 or 30 years ago don’t last forever, and logic and timing errors caused by failing chips are difficult to diagnose. At least some chips (like the 4000 series) are replacable using modern equivalents, although there may be hundreds of them in a synth.

Keep it cool – a synth that lives in direct sunlight is more likely to overheat and develop dry solder joints than one that is kept cool and in the shade. It will fade the case too, especially those wood-effect panels.

Use it – get used to turning it off when not in use, as this will extend the lifespan of some components. But equally don’t let a vintage synth lie around unused – fire it up periodically, let it warm up, and give it a work out to ensure capacitors don’t dry up. Buy a proper flight case for storing it long term, throw in some packets of silica gel and store it flat.

 

[Originally published in Sound on Sound magazine, June 2013]

Chilly Gonzales @ Cadogan Hall

Chilly Gonzales live at Cadogan Hall.

Auteur pianist, rapper, surrealist piano teacher, comedian and vaudeville entertainer, Chilly Gonzales is a fairly unusual proposition. Born Jason Beck, the Canada-raised, Europe-residing musician has collaborated with the likes of Peaches and Feist, and has recorded a dozen albums under numerous pseudonyms in various styles. While mainstream success has eluded him, two albums stand out: ‘Solo Piano’ from 2004 was exactly that, a record that demonstrated his exceptional skills as player and composer, while last year’s follow up ‘Solo Piano II‘ built on that reputation to greater acclaim.

In the grand surroundings of Chelsea’s Cadogan Hall, Gonzales strides on stage dressed like an outré Noel Coward in monogrammed dressing gown and slippers, looking out from under slicked hair curled in ringlets. Mockingly soaking up the applause, he arranges himself at the sleek black Steinway standing alone on the stage’s bare boards and opens with the gentle caress of ‘Rideaux Lunaire’, moving in quick succession to ‘Othello’ and ‘Kenaston‘, three of the finest and most delicate pieces from ‘Solo Piano II’. Looming large above the stage is a screen upon which a camera projects the piano’s keyboard from above, allowing the audience to see in monochrome Gonzales’ gnarled hands flying over the keys. Sometimes the speed of his fingers gets ahead of the camera, producing a choppyness that seen alongside the piano accompaniment gives the impression of watching Metropolis.

If the audience thought this was to be a straightforward classical recital, they must be unfamilar with Gonzales’ work. Between peices Gonzales entertains with impromptu music theory lessons, asides, and anecdotes from how the music was written. Introducing ‘White Keys‘ – played with a venom not heard on the album, the left hand notes growling louder, ringing out under the beat of his feet on the floor – he explains: “When composing I sometimes have a problem I want to solve, or a solution I want to avoid” – in this case using only the white keys, as a challenge. An explanation of major and minor keys before ‘Major vs Minor‘ sees him giving renditions of relentlessly upbeat pieces like ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Frère Jacques’ in the style of funereal fugues. He recalls the day he realised that minor chords were the tones of the underdog: “Minor is Warsaw 1942; only kings and fascists use major chords.”

The stand-up comic in him dies hard – a lengthly aside on how arpeggios are a lazy man’s musical harmony turns into digs at Sebastian Tellier, Jools Holland (“no one wants to listen to boogie woogie”), Daft Punk, and that if you don’t like rap “…that’s fine. You can just not like rap, and be racist.”

On rapping, no Chilly Gonzales gig is complete without it (“I took my inner Larry David and exaggerated it”), and he delivers ‘Supervillain Music’ and ‘Beans’ from 2011’s ‘Unspeakable’ album in which he riffs in a chamber-rap fashion on the classic hip-hop themes of repping his skills and making mo’ money. Breaking out of the fouth wall, a woman from the audience accompanies him on ‘Bongo Monologue’, with hilarious results.

Gonzales’ mix of classical talent, sharp observation, Jewish chutzpah and a sense of the absurd provides a compelling two hours of music and sillyness. It’s not something you’d necessarily think to take your Chopin-loving grandma to, but judging by the rapturous applause, standing ovation and not one but two encores, she’d probably enjoy herself if you did.

 

Words and pictures first published in Clash Magazine issue 87, June 2013.

Adam Ant @ The Roundhouse

Adam Ant live at the Roundhouse, London, May 2013. Photo: Rachel Lipsitz
Adam Ant live at the Roundhouse, London, May 2013. Photo: Rachel Lipsitz

Adam and the Ant’s huge hits in the early 1980s – at one point he had eight records in the charts simultaneously – are indelibly burnt into anyone who remembers them. Children remember the flamboyant costumes, over the top videos, catchy choruses. Those old enough remember the hard-edged post-punk sound finessed with a touch of the new wave, the overtones of deviancy and sexual experimentation, the arch lyrics and the extremely fine cheekbones of the handsome Mr Ant (born Stuart Goddard).

What Antmania can be resurrected 30 years later? He slipped from among the most creative new wave popstars into irrelevance, battled mental health problems later diagnosed as bi-polar disorder that saw him arrested and sectioned for his own health, and disappeared. After 17 years away Ant returns with the sprawling 17-track album ‘The BlueBlack Hussar Marries The Gunner’s Daughter’, a bizarre, unruly, and sometimes inspired beast.

Playing the Roundhouse for the first time since supporting X-Ray Spex in 1978, tonight Ant sports the full regalia expected of him; gold-braided hussar’s jacket, feathered bicorn and various dangly adornments. Older now, with thick black-rimmed specs and a more weighty appearance than in his whip-thin youth, he could almost be a history teacher at a fancy dress party.

But he still has the spirit for it; leaping on stage he launches into the bluesy ‘Marrying The Gunner’s Daughter‘, before stepping straight into ‘Dog Eat Dog‘ – and back to 1980. The band bring a more ‘eavy metal sound to the music, while still delivering the characteristic tribal-style drumming, with two kit drummers just as he used to. He doesn’t hit every note, but in moments such as yodelling the chorus to ‘Beat My Guest‘ he sounds as vigorous as ever.

Over two hours with scarcely a break to talk Ant powers through new numbers like the ‘Hardmentoughblokes‘, a bewildering attack on faux film hardmen, the electronic-tinged and clearly personal ‘Shrink‘ which seethes with a sub-Nine Inch Nails intensity, and the smokey BMRC-esque ‘Cool Zombie‘. And there are the classics: ‘Stand and Deliver‘ sets the mood early on in the set, the crowd’s roar clearly audible. ‘Whip In My Valise‘ is still delicious, the spacey, flanged ‘Zerox‘ is searing. “I’m asked if I’m going to play my classics,” he deadpans. “’Course not, you want dubstep remixes don’t you?”, before tearing into the call to arms of ‘Antmusic‘.

But tonight is all about the crowd. Three heavily-set balding punks pass around a bottle of poppers, each eye adorned by a mascara cross; not one is under 50 years old. Another sports the kind of flour-and-water spikes last seen on grainy BBC footage from the 70s. In every direction are serried ranks of middle age, trussed in Napoleonic shirts and tunics, ribbons and hats. They know the words, they know the dance moves, they leap about and sing as lustily as any Regency highwayman. To be among such fans, all so far beyond the all-important 18-35 market segment, dressed to the nines bellowing “RIDICULE IS NOTHING TO BE SCARED OF” is to be humbled, and cheered.

Psychemagik, The Juan Maclean, Medlar @ The Nest

Psychemagik
Psychemagik.

Descending into The Nest there is only darkness, and disco. Red lasers and lights barely cut the gloom, bodies whisper to each other in the club’s seated alcoves, or writhe under the barely-clad ladies of 1970s sexploitation film posters on the walls.

All it needs is Blondie doing rails off the bar and trannies offering handjobs in the loo and it could be a time-warp to Studio 54.

Right on cue, ‘Ring My Bell‘ puts smiles on faces, because disco is the order of the day; dubby disco and deep house from three acts who have that sound nailed.

Psychemagik’s producer/DJ pair of Danny McLewin and Tom Coveney are perhaps most known for their epic remix of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Everywhere‘, which has been the hands-in-the-air record for right-thinking DJs for years. But aside from their remix and re-edit work, their psychedelic disco sound suffuses their original tracks and the records they play.

The Juan MacLean, noise rocker turned house DJ, scored a couple of hits with ‘Give Me Every Little Thing’ and ‘Happy House’ in the ’00s and is a well-known stalwart on James Murphy’s DFA Records.

The new kid on the block is Medlar of Wolf Music Records, a label for whom 2012 was a vintage year filled with disco-dipped deep house releases with just the right amount of jack to keep the floor rolling.

Medlar builds up the tension with progressively tougher cuts from the Wolf stable, from the slice of summer that is ‘The Sun‘ to the garage snares and hi-hats of ‘Can’t Stop‘, bolted onto a great wedge of organ that shuffles and grooves.

Medlar’s sound blends the early ’90s organ and wobbly basslines that Glenn Underground would approve of, with the crisp swing and swagger of a very up-to-date, UK rhythm where vocal snatches are ruthlessly cut up and played back as stabs.

Playing back to back, Psychemagik bring with them a few of the re-edits they’re known for, a rich vein of ’70s flavour featuring a touch of James Brown, although Fleetwood Mac doesn’t get an outing tonight.

Suddenly the place fills up – boys in shirts and jackets, girls with dreads and noserings, Friday-nighters, all-dayers – everyone’s suddenly down the front.

Fortunately the world’s most uptight bouncer is here to ensure that nobody leans on the rail, puts their coat or bag down, or attempts to dance on what could generously be called the “stage”. That doesn’t stop anyone from trying, however, which leads to a stand-off during which no one can hear what the other is saying anyway.

For the last half hour, Tom Coveney roughens up the beats, building up from deep, dubby disco with layers of chattering snares and highhats. They’re a fine double-act.

Lean, rangy, cropped-haired, you could imagine that The Juan MacLean would be pretty convincing wielding a guitar. But once installed behind the decks he switches up to heavy New York-inflected house, sweeping between tracks loaded with piano and sax, woven with acid lines and fidgety beats.

Who can guess what demands Hackney’s licensing department make or what fear they put into venues that laying your bag at your feet is considered unacceptable, but as long as there’s house music like tonight to move to it’ll take more than that to ruffle the feathers at this Nest.

 

[Words and pictures originally published at Clashmusic.com]

Chvrches @ Village Underground

chvrches
Chvrches

In six months more people have demonstrated an interest in CHVRCHES than the C of E (or indeed, the Kirk) could ever hope for in this godless, heathen age.

Last weekend they played Alexandra Palace with Everything Everything and Two Door Cinema Club (reviewed), but tonight they face the challenge of a room full of hipsters in this brick Shoreditch temple.

The rites begin with the kickdrums of ‘Lies‘, foreboding bass tones that recall early Gary Numan, spiky harmonic stabs driving the track forward while Lauren Mayberry dons her dominatrix hat to instruct us: “You got to show me / Both knees, skin and bone / Clothe me, throw me, move me”.

There is delicious ambiguity in her lyrics. She radiates fragility, but is bold in her demands: “I can feed your dirty mind / Like I know, like I know what you want.”

CHVRCHES do more than aggressive beats and sexual undertones, however. ‘We Sink’ drops the bombast and places keyboard player/Maschine wrangler Martin Doherty on the mic, revealing an intimate voice from beneath the baseball cap on an almost plaintive pop song that rises from clattering synths. ‘Now Is Not The Time‘ wouldn’t sound out of place in a John Hughes film, all synthetic bells, lush strings and minor key cooing.

Doherty and keyboards/guitarist Iain Cook are fairly grizzled music industry veterans old enough to remember the ’80s, while Mayberry comes to the decade’s endlessly popular tones via the route of revivalism. Her stage nerves have slowly thawed, and as the Tron-esque grid of red lasers carves up the stage she stabs at them with her hands, joking that all those red dots would be a “nightmare for cats”.

They also laugh off their most unlikely recent internet hype – a cover of the Game Of Thrones theme. “You think you’re just taking the piss, and then next minute the internet melts down,” she says.

Not every track is a hit. CHVRCHES work best when the synths are distressed, dirty, with Mayberry’s voice an angelic foil. Nowhere better is this demonstrated than ‘Recover‘, which when it appears finally moves the crowd.

A spectacular slice of winning electro-pop that could inspire religious fervour in the hardest heart, its icy charm plays off against a throbbing bassline and Mayberry’s Glaswegian vowels, where she pleads “I’ll give you woan more chance / Say you can change our heart / Where you can teak what you need / And you doan’ need me”.

Closing with ‘The Mother We Share‘, the band returns for an encore – all smiles, no electro-posing here – for Lauren to deliver, as promised, her karaoke version of Lil’ Kim’s ‘Lady Marmalade’ rap, and Prince’s ‘I Would Die 4 U’, which in the moment could have been written for her.

Channelling the Purple One’s amorousness, the darkness and noise of Depeche Mode and Tubeway Army and the Nordic loneliness that suffuses Robyn’s finest tracks, CHVRCHES weave quality influences into fine songs.

And, in the elfin, wide-eyed Mayberry, they have law graduate, award-winning journalist, intriguing lyricist, compelling singer and (inevitably) future infatuation of millions wrapped into one tiny package – at whose tiny feet the pop world will surely soon lie.

 

[Words and pictures originally published at Clashmusic.com]

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club @ Brixton Academy

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club at Brixton Academy, April 2013
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club at Brixton Academy, April 2013. Photo: Rosie Wadey

The opening drumbeats of ‘Let The Day Begin‘ are joined by growling chords that emerge thick and juicy like steak. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have made this cover of a 1989 track by The Call their own, charring the optimistic, bouncing, organ-enriched rocker into a bleaker number, plaintive notes hanging in a cloud of reverb.

For the opening date of their tour it also strikes a tone for the rest of the set, in turn salutatory and melancholy. Their seventh album, ‘Specter At The Feast’ harks back to the blues country folk maudlin of 2005’s superb ‘Howl’, overshadowed as it is by the titular spectre of Michael Been – frontman of The Call, father to BRMC singer/bassist Robert Been, and BRMC sound engineer/fourth band member – who died of a heart attack backstage at a gig three years ago. The resulting sense of loss hangs obviously over this album, though not necessarily to any detriment – if anything it forms a welcome break from a run of uninspired rock-by-numbers albums.

Through the barely lit darkness on stage Been and singer/guitarist Peter Hayes are cowled underneath hoodies, the only colour from amber spots on latest drummer, ex-Raveonette Leah Shapiro. The crowd is a mix of young and not-so-young wafts of blonde in leopard-print (so 2001), jowly silver foxes and callow youths, which if anything shows the cross-generation appeal of BRMCs fuzz-rock (as anyone who’d heard scuzzy shoegaze forebears like Spiritualized, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Spacemen 3 thirty years ago knows).

The pitch-bend and chopped riffs of ‘Red Eyes And Tears‘ are greeted by a cheer from the head nodding crowd at the back and the body nodding crowd at the front, followed by ‘Hate The Taste‘ from the new album and ‘Beat The Devil’s Tattoo’ from the last. But it takes older material to set the gig alight – ‘Whatever Happened To My Rock ‘N’ Roll‘ is greeted by sallies of flying pint glasses as arms and legs go up and over down the front, and the harmonica-drenched blues stomp of ‘Ain’t No Easy Way‘ still sounds fantastic.

But then the set takes an introspective turn, with alternate solo performances from both frontmen on piano, organ and guitar. In contrast to the band’s sunglasses-at-night, leather-clad rock reputation many of their finest pieces of songcraft are their calmer numbers – we hear gentle, regretful ‘Devil’s Waitin’‘, organ-led ‘Howl‘, and a slew of new tracks. The delayed refrain and overdriven guitars of ‘Love Burns‘, their opening salvo from 2001, still sparkle now, even through tonight’s uncharacteristically quiet sound system. So while each outing of early material is greeted by wild cheers and leaping, with raucous renditions of ‘Six Barrel Shotgun’ and ‘Spread Your Love‘, a second batch of downtempo numbers threatens to try the crowd’s patience.

BRMC’s first album landed at a time when overproduced nu-metal and shiny tween pop-punk ruled the charts. It was visceral, soulful, and songs like ‘Salvation‘ felt like exactly that. It was timely, paved the way for a catalogue of great (and not-so-great) garage rockers over the coming decade, and rightfully remains a classic. But ten years later, against the short attention span of the internet where new genres blossom and fade in weeks and new music is everywhere, the band plough a furrow that seems increasingly dated. And while the new material is a welcome change of tone, it’s not always easy listening for fans.

[Originally published at Clashmusic.com, April 2013]

Viv Albertine @ Nambucca

VivAlbertine
 

Achieving some degree of fame or notoriety while barely out of their teens, guitarist Viv Albertine, singer Ari Up, bassist Tessa Pollitt and drummer Palmolive forged in The Slits an uncompromising, all-girl punk sound. Refusing to blindly follow punk’s musical memes, debut album ‘Cut’ was infused with Ari’s love of reggae and portrayed the women on the cover as wild, naked and covered in mud – naked defiance towards society and the male-ego-dominated music business. After six years and two albums The Slits split in 1982. Albertine trained in film, made a career for herself as a director, got married, and had a daughter. You know, life stuff.

And then life stuff happened. In interviews Albertine has been fairly candid about how the disintegration of her marriage and re-evaluation of life as a fifty-something fuelled the creative process that produced 2010’s Flesh EP and last year’s debut album The Vermillion Border. “I buried Viv Albertine from The Slits, I absolutely squashed her,” she said last month of her 18-year marriage. But some things cannot be kept down.

Stepping on to great cheers, Albertine is resplendent in a short, sparkly black dress and knee high boots. “Do you like my boots? They’re Biba,” she says. “Can you see them at the back? No of course you can’t, don’t be silly,” she scolds the affirmations from the darkness, to laughs.

Re-learning her skills after twenty-five years, Albertine’s songs are disarming, deeply personal, often brutal and frequently funny. She is utterly without pretention and seems quite at ease on stage, despite decades of absence. Her guitarwork is jangly and ringing, atonal chords played right up at the neck. While she admits that she’s not the best guitarist or singer, her songs bare a compelling honesty.

On ‘Don’t Believe‘, written after the death of her estranged father, she contrasts the indubitable existence of the physical world with the vague promises of love and healing we repeat emptily to ourselves through tired, linguistic clichés: “Time does not heal, time’s not on my side/Time will tell you nothing, and time cannot fly/I believe in glass, I believe in heat/I believe in rust, in aluminium sheets/…but I don’t believe in love.” The rallying cry ‘I Want More’ speaks of both women finding fulfilment away from expectations placed upon them, but also as a gasp of realisation from someone waking up to middle age to find the ground has shifted underneath them. Even when she restarts ‘Life’s Too Short To Be Shy’ twice (because “I can tune my guitar but I can’t tune my voice”) the audience egg her on. “It’s OK, I don’t really care,” she says. “I’m definitely not shy any more.”

She ends on the wonderfully titled ‘Confessions Of A Milf’, a lyrically acid take on marriage (“A man needs a maid, a maid of his own/A maid needs a muse, and a room of her own”) that winds itself up into a mantra of frustration: “Cleaning, shopping, faking, cleaning, shaking, baking, fucking, faking…”

Quavering voice, music and lyrics that are not always easy listening, Viv Albertine 2.0 will not be to everyone’s tastes. But here she is, now 57, responding to life as she knows how, because she wants to, and without giving a fuck what anyone else thinks. Just as she did 35 years ago. And it doesn’t get much more punk that.

[Words and pictures originally published at Clashmusic.com]

FIDLAR @ The Garage, Highbury

FIDLAR
 

FIDLAR are recent cousins in a family of West Coast hardcore bands that stretches back through Black Flag and the Circle Jerks to The Germs. Unlike the social commentary, paranoid conspiracies, anti-establishmant rants or nihilism espoused by their musical forefathers however, FIDLAR are more like angrily riffing Beach Boys – a slice of the former’s surf-bum devil-may-care-while-it’s-sunny attitude dunked into the power-pop-punk of their nearer Californian contemporaries Green Day and Blink 182 (they cover ‘Dammit‘).

Their tracks are propulsive, catchy rackets drenched in cheap power-chord riffs and calls to drink beer, smoke weed, grab a skate board and flick everyone the bird. “Fuck school, fuck going to work, fuck all that,” says singer Zac Carper helpfully. “Start a band. I mean, if we can do it…”

So while FIDLAR (from a skater acronym, Fuck It Dog Life’s A Risk) aren’t going to bring about the Decline of Western Civilisation anytime soon, nor leave the government quaking in their boots, they still kick out a mighty roar that has the teenage element here at The Garage leaping about like they’re hepped up on E102.

“This song’s about rehab, rehab is shit because you can’t drink,” he tells the breathless audience – who nod, barely comprehending the horror of it all – as they launch into the upbeat ‘No Waves‘.

It’s mayhem down the front as fan after fan pour over the barrier, security barely able to keep up with the assault of flailing legs and arms at first, and later completely succumbing to stage incursions and adventurous dives into the crowd across a six foot gap. Not everyone makes it. One tiny girl, five foot nothing in shorts and a gingham shirt, is deposited from on high into the arms of waiting bouncers who waft her down to earth whereupon she scampers back to repeat her airborne journey again and again, grinning ear to ear. Minimal band T-shirts just read “FIDLAR CHEAP BEER”, while behind the front few rows the mosh pit is full-on, without actually inspiring violence, and rank with the smell of hot, beer-drenched sweaty bodies who roar along to the shout-tastic chorus of ‘Cheap Beer‘: “I. Drink. Cheap. Beer. So. What. Fuck. You.”

Ironically, for all their hardcore sounds, with a short singer sporting a Union Jack shirt, a tall bassist with too-short trousers and a beanie, a drummer with a big mop of hair, and their generally good-natured vibe, they’re almost like the Monkees of punk.

FIDLAR serve up the in-your-face, three-chords-is-enough attitude of punk in a vessel carved from the sounds of Californian hardcore rather than the British bands of 1977, and it’s great fun for all that. Heading away from the stage, the army of ardent, silky-skinned fans at the front are replaced with the beards, jowls and wrinkles of an older crowd, where frenetic mosh-pit plunging makes way for the more restrained “aggressive head nod” style of dancing, but the wide grins on faces throughout show that what FIDLAR do appeals to anyone with a taste for balls-out music with an attitude to match. They’ll probably conquer the world, by accident.

 

[Words and pictures originally published at Clashmusic.com]

Gallops +Portasound @ The Lexington

gallops
 

It’s a bad day to be a drum – wrong place, wrong time.

If you’re a drum today, you are going to get your head kicked in, because it’s all about the drummers – a succession of progressively more meaty, more bristling, more intense human beat machines battering out complex rhythms to the point that even from the back of the stage the drummers upstaged everyone else. Gentlemen, take a bow.

Prog is back. When math-rock behemoths Battles dropped debut album ‘Mirrored’ in 2007 they must have opened the a rift in the fabric of space-time through which poured generation-old ideas of lyric-less extended instrument breakdowns, extreme time changes, key-shifts and general proggery.

All of which live on in The Physics House Band, right down to the tight paisley shirts, array of vintage synths including a Moog, Fender Rhodes and Hammond, jazz bass played at approximately neck level, and esoteric track names like ‘Teratology’, ‘ObeliskMonolith’ and ‘Abraxical Solapse’. Three lads from Brighton, they play an incredibly tight set of cleverly arranged, heavy-jazz-prog-rock tracks from their debut Horizons/Rapture EP, from which the stand-out is ‘Titan‘, an arpeggiated piano-driven monster propelled by the stickwork of Dave Morgan, the first of this evening’s incredible drummers.

Portasound have been described as electro-pop, but considering that term also describes Little Boots and Madonna it’s fair to say it comes up short. With gleaming keyboards stacked on top of each other like iced cakes on a cake stand, they bring more electronics than either of their Blood and Biscuits labelmates playing tonight, blasting out acid-tinged basslines, wonky square wave stabs and bubbling synths underneath layers of guitar, held together and by the pounding precision brutality of drummer Graham Gaffney. Taking their name from the cheap Yamaha keyboard, Portasound’s best has a cinematic quality, like themes from never made sci-fi films. The crystalline breakdowns in ‘Polaris‘ sparkle (like C-beams near Tannhauser Gate, perhaps?), and the band is not afraid to let notes ring out into silence. The metallic, doom-laden entrance of ‘Procession‘ conjures images of some off-world prison colony, and the gradual, almost beatless build of ‘Ascension‘ is pure Vangelis. On the other hand the obvious, uninspired riffs from tracks like ‘Time Lost‘ and ‘Furore’ stray too close to Pendulum territory.

If The Physics House Band are jazz-prog and Portasound are electro-prog, then Gallops are the prog-funk of tonight’s triple bill. But not in a ’70s flared-trousered way. This is cybernetic syncopation funk, each layer of jangly guitar forced through the world’s biggest effects peddle rack, each keyboard drone and synth stab filtered and twisted and punched into the mix perfectly in time with the hulking, terrifying drum machine that is Dave Morait (fitting, for a band named after a drum pattern). New album ‘Yours Sincerely, Dr Hardcore’ is clever, subtle, almost prissy with finesse, but performed live the tracks become three-dimensional – faster, heavier, more raw, working the curious syncopated rhythms of tracks like crowd pleaser ‘Miami Spider‘, Morait drumming as if possessed, smashing stick after stick without breaking stride.

Avant-rock? Post-rock? Experimental? Whatever. Hawkwind this ain’t, but prog is back, and it’s never sounded so good.
 

[Words and pictures originally published at Clashmusic.com]

Moulettes @ The Roundhouse

 

Bassoon – you don’t get many of those in bands these days. Moulettes are nothing if not the exception to this and many other rules – swashbuckling genre raiders armed with cello, double bass, violin, autoharp, harmonium, glockenspiel and more besides.

Riding the same alt-folk wave that has brought many other contemporary acoustic artists to the fore over the last half of the 2000s, Moulettes however stubbornly refuse to fit into even the most vaguely defined classification – perhaps the closest might be one of the choices of genre available to those with that venerable relic, the MySpace page: “melodramatic popular song”.

Multi-instrumentalists and singers Hannah Miller and Ruth Skipper front the band, alongside violinist Georgina Leach (absent tonight), Oliver Austin on various forms of percussion, guitar and voice, and Jim Mortimore’s double bass. As might be guessed from such a diverse set of instruments, this ain’t no three-piece garage rock band. Their sound is thick with three, four and five-part vocal harmonies, layers of played and plucked strings, guitars and that oleaginous, glissando bassoon. Songwriter Miller draws upon a wealth of influences: the folky prog-rock of the likes of Pentangle, the tones and intervals of Medieval early music, gypsy, klezmer, and the story-telling and dark humour of the folk tradition – even if musically they fall well outside what folk traditionalists could stomach.

And my god, can they play. At some point, classically trained players of orchestral instruments must ask themselves where they might direct their talents outside the classical realm. The quality of musicianship here is tremendous (most of the band have been borrowed by the likes of Seasick Steve, Mumford and Sons, The Unthanks, The Holloways), with the tightest timing and clever composition weaving together ideas and rhythms, reinforced by the leading ladies’ powerful voices and, especially in Skipper’s case, theatrical tendencies.

Handclapping, finger-snapping and Skipper’s formidable beetle-crusher boots are all used as precision instruments, particularly on ‘Unlock The Doors‘, and ‘Sing Unto Me‘. ‘Requiem’ showcases a more proggy style with clever rhythm changes, but without ever becoming disjointed. ‘Bloodshed In The Woodshed‘ and ‘Cannibal Song‘ see them at their most darkly humorous, the former listing all the potential means of reckoning a jilted lover intends to deliver upon her man (“Trip wire/small fire/bathing with a hair dryer”), the latter a pre-dinner discussion with the narrator’s unfortunate soon-to-be ex-lover (“Oh, oh my lover/No longer will you love another”).

Hugely talented, imaginative composers and wildly enthusiastic performers, even during the slower numbers or when the occasional prog excess causes longer songs to drag, Moulettes are a real treat to watch and hear, and it would be a hard heart indeed that wouldn’t be moved to smiles and a bit of a jig. With a piratical swagger they carry off centuries-worth of musical booty and, like the sailboat that traverses their eponymous debut album’s cover, sail off into the rarely-traversed but delightful seas of Baroque-prog-folk-chamber-pop.

 

[Words and pictures originally published at clashmusic.com]

Laetitia Sadier @ The Water Rats

Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab playing at The Water Rats
Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab playing at The Water Rats

What would be the collective noun for shoegazers? A drone? A wash? A ride? All suggestions applicable to Freak Scene, this roving, regular night of shoegaze and noise-pop whose name harks back to the longhair experimental bohemian undercurrent of the 1960s and 70s at least as much as the unrestrained fuzz-blast of the eponymous Dinosaur Jr track.

Originally from Poland, first act The Enters tear through some especially Ride-esque smears of tremolo-powered overdriven guitar threaded through with propulsive drums and extremely danceable basslines, leaving heads nodding excitably. Lionface are hard to pin down – a singer who sounds like Mariah Carey, perhaps thinks she’s Arethra Franklin, but who resembles Lucia Holm.

But it’s the Francophone double-hander that the people have come to see. Like a sort of Gallic The Kills, Deux Furieuses are two girls blasting out a minimal but certainly effective, jagged sound on drums and guitar. By comparison, when she comes onstage alone, Stereolab frontwoman Laetitia Sadier remarks that her set will be a lot less after all that noise. “But that’s ok, we’ve had a lot of music tonight already,” she says.

It’s strange to see Sadier stripped of all her accoutrements: not just the protective shield of Moogs and organs used to such great effect in creating Stereolab’s indefinable Krautrock-lounge-pop, but even the post-Stereolab trio she has put together for her two solo albums, ‘The Trip’ from 2010 and last year’s ‘Silencio’. She might even feel a little naked onstage, clutching a Fender Mustang which she plays left-handed. Reduced to just voice and guitar, her songs are spare and still, filled out only by Sadier’s instantly recognisable voice. Even when assaulted from all directions by the hum and drone of Stereolab, her lush, melancholy tones and penchant for minor intervals always scored through – even more so here.

‘The Trip’ was a small and beautiful thing which while tinged with sadness (channelling the emotional impact of her sister Noelle’s suicide) was never maudlin despite its personal themes. The cover of Les Rita Mitsuoko’s ‘Un Soir, Un Chien’ is played as bubbling French disco on the album, but here stripped back to its smallest core the lyrical double meanings appear: “Quand tu l’as décidé, tu m’as laissée/Et je suis resté attachée/Et moi je resterai/Quand même.”

Sadier’s songs on ‘Silencio’ return to the more strident political themes for which she is known. How little has changed in the 20 years since her scathing criticism of power in the likes of Stereolab’s ‘Ping Pong‘, ‘Outer Accelerator‘ and ‘Nihilist Assault Group‘ – something she acknowledges as she allows herself a little bitter laugh introducing ‘Rule of the Game‘: “This is about how we have let the financial markets rule our lives – remember that one?”

It’s a quick set but memorable, holding this audience rapt and silent, mesmerised by the Shah’s voice, her intriguing Frenchness, her strident philosophy, and perhaps the sound of mellotrons and Moogs playing only in their heads.

[Words and pictures published at Clashmusic.com, February 2013.]

The Joy Formidable @ Rough Trade East

The Joy Formidable. Photo: Brian Whar
The Joy Formidable. Photo: Brian Whar

Their debut album ‘The Big Roar‘ was aptly named: a formidable wall of searing, layered guitars, drums and front-woman Ritzy Bryan’s voice pitching between a shriek and a whisper. The three-piece from Mold in North Wales have been touring hard over the last few years in support of the likes of Muse and White Lies, writing on the road and only taking time out to record their follow-up, ‘Wolf’s Law‘, in the appropriately wild state of Maine in the Northeastern US.

To the sound of a wolf’s howl, the band stride on stage and launch into ‘Cholla’, the second new album track to get a release. Named after a sticky cactus, the searing riff at its heart is just as catchy, but the noise hurricane that characterised much of their first album has been tamed somewhat.

“Hello! Are you alright?” says Ritzy when she comes up for air. “Yes? No?” The typically uncommunicative London audience are, well, uncommunicative. “Well, nevermind. We’ll try and cheer you up.”

Indeed, why so serious? The tell-tale opening bass line of ‘Austere‘ drags a cheer from the crowd, despite the quality of the sound system – in what is, admittedly, a shop – more closely resembling your mates’ band playing in the front room through your home stereo. “Puppets and gowns/We’ll ransack this town,” she sings softly, dropping down to a single string of fuzzy guitar, beckoning the crowd forward before overwhelming them with a wall of noise. As the song’s rhythm decays into aggressive hacking at guitar, bass and drums, onstage the band are having a whale of a time. Drummer Matt Thomas batters his skins as if equipped with more arms than is usual, bassist Rhydian Dafydd has a quick jab at the cymbals for good measure, and the tiny lady with a fringe as razor sharp as her riffs leaps about irrepressibly, her huge blue eyes opening wide enough to be visible from the back of the room. In fact her whole face is a semaphore for each song, cycling through expressions from serene to pained to a rock ‘n’ roll bass face and back again.

Ritzy Bryant. Photo: Brian Whar
Ritzy Bryant. Photo: Brian Whar

It’s textured, layered, pummelling noise. They’ve been called shoegaze, apparently because they use loops and pedals, but really their sound conjures up the wail of Dinosaur Jr. or the Pixies more than floppy haired folk from Oxford. But, especially in such a small gig, what’s apparent as they tear through closing numbers ‘The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade‘ and a tumultuous rendition of ‘Whirring‘ is how much fun they are having. How unselfconsciously they banter with each other and the audience, Ritzy offering her guitar to be struck by the front row during a feedback wig-out, Rhydian good-naturedly shoving her into the crowd as she leans too far off the stage, both accuse Matt of “not hitting the drums hard enough,” which could scarcely be less true.

“It’s so nice to see so many faces we recognise,” Ritzy adds. That people come back for more doesn’t surprise us at all. Their star is rising; it’s not if, but when.

 

[Originally published at Clashmusic.com]

Palma Violets @ The Boston Arms

Palma Violets
Palma Violets

This energetic South London four-piece’s reputation saw them on tour supporting Savages, 2012’s most hyped Joy Division impersonators, then get signed to Rough Trade without so much as a demo. Tonight, tickets marked for Steve Lamacq are among a pile of industry passes at the door; the venue is sold out. What have the Palma Violets got to explain the hype?

It’s garage rock – cacophonous drums, insistent bass, reverb-a-plenty and shrieked two-part vocals. Pete Mayhew’s organ offers respite and aspires to a broader sound some would call psychedelic, but too often here it’s lost in the mix. On stage Sam Fryer (vocals/guitar) and snarling, floppy-fringed Chilli Jessen (bass/shouting) bounce off each other, launching a blitz of guitar and strobe through a thick pall of smoke and reverb. It’s gleefully reckless; they don’t hit all the notes, they chuck themselves about. Fayer’s voice resembles Ian McCulloch in tone but without the Bunnyman’s finesse; every song arrives laced with whoops, yelps and screams.

Single ‘Best of Friends‘ has a winning chorus, Will Doyle’s catchy drum clatter of ‘Tom The Drum‘ stop-starts to raucous effect, while ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’ could be The Modern Lovers, whose more boisterous organ and bass-driven moments the Palmas sometimes echo.

The gig descends into entertaining chaos: articles of teenage clothing are hurled at the band, a shirtless girl clambers onstage and barely retains her bra, full scale stage incursions ensue, and Jessen indulges in some reverse stage diving by walking into the crowd to be raised aloft and thrown back onstage.

Nothing different then, just a classic recipe executed well with the infectious energy and unshakable faith of the young. These four are living the dream right now. Let them.

In the works: Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr at Abbey Road Studios by Mark Kean
Photo: Johnny Marr by at Abbey Road Studios by Mark Kean

ALBUM TITLE: The Messenger
RELEASE DATE: February 2013
RECORDED: Berlin and Marr’s own studio in Manchester
SONGS INCLUDE: ‘The Right Thing Right’, ‘European Me’, ‘The Messenger’, ‘Upstarts’, ‘Sun And Moon’, ‘New Town Velocity’
FACT: In 1988 The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde told Johnny that if he didn’t sing he was “a chicken” – better late than never, it turns out.

A thirty-year career that began as a teenager with The Smiths has seen Johnny Marr develop as a six-string for hire with – among many others – Talking Heads, Electronic, The The, Oasis, Modest Mouse and The Cribs. But his new album ‘The Messenger’, previewed for Clash at Abbey Road studios, will be the first to bear his name alone.

“I hadn’t really decided on a fixed line-up until near the end. I didn’t want to put it out as if it had a band vibe, because it’s more personal than that. It’s just me really,” says Marr.

His last solo effort in 2003 was ‘Boomslang’, as Johnny Marr And The Healers, which received a mixed response. “I didn’t really know what I was doing then, but I was speaking collectively for the others. On this record I’m speaking entirely for myself. It feels totally different, like the start of a few solo records,” the softly-spoken Mancunian adds.

Mixed by Frank Arkwright, with whom Marr remastered The Smiths discography for re-release last year, the tracks seem steeped in influences from the bands that Marr has worked and written with. ‘European Me’ is threaded with Smiths-esque fingerpicked guitar, the opening chords of the tender ‘New Town Velocity’ recall Electronic’s ‘Get The Message’ (one of Marr’s favourites), while ‘Sun And Moon’ rocks the lo-fi attack and snarl of The Cribs, sounding like a strong single.

johnnymarr-clashmag-full-shrunk

But they’re also very much pieces of Marr, as songwriter and singer. Lyrically the album swings between political and social comment and tales of youth and devotion: “If anything the narrative through the record is about growing up in this country. I think ultimately it’s quite hopeful because I’m that kind of person.”

But while bandmates Zak Starkey and Edgar Summertyme (with a little help from Ms. Hynde) may have managed to strong-arm Marr into taking vocal duties, he’s not going emo: “I’m absolutely not interested in being the frontman in a band that bares my soul or feelings in song. Siouxsie Sioux, or Ray Davies, or Howard Devoto don’t sing from some weird, schlocky, sentimental place. What’s wrong with singing from the brain?”

[Originally published in Clash Magazine issue 81, December 2012.

Soulwaxmas @ Brixton Academy

Soulwaxmas. Photo credit: Matt Wash
Soulwaxmas. Photo credit: Matt Wash

Soulwaxmas – the name hints at the calling-card humour of Stephen and David Dewaele, the globetrotting Belgian brothers behind electro-rock live act Soulwax and mashup artists 2ManyDJs.

It’s been 14 years since Soulwax’s breakthrough electro-tinged rock album ‘Much Against Everyone’s Advice‘, and 10 years since 2ManyDJs pretty much invented mashup with their genre-blending album ‘As Heard On Radio Soulwax Part 2‘, in which they went to extraordinary lengths to clear more than 40 tracks with copyright holders, creating an album-length mix of snatches of records cut up and stitched back together.

Now in its sixth year, their annual Soulwaxmas festive European tour sees the boys dispense a heady Belgian brew of techno, electro, and full-on party madness from both their guises, with support from fellow traveller James Murphy of DFA Records, Erol Alkan, and Hellmix among others.

Dressed in their signature immaculate suits for the occasion, as Soulwax the brothers are joined by Stefaan Van Leuven on bass and drummer Bent Van Looy to bang out an hour of percussian-heavy, bass- and keyboard-driven electro rock.

The electro-madness of the naughties seems a century ago now, when biting saw waves seemed to be present on practically every record, and Soulwax fall into the group that includes Death From Above 1979 that mix the rockist with the danceable. Maybe there’s a sense that this wave has passed as the fifth jagged electro build-up in a row ripples out across the crowd who leap about illuminated in the searchlights and lasers, hands in the air as the beat returns. But the band constantly reinvent and bring new twists to their tracks, as they did on their dance-erized ‘Nite Versions’ remix album, and big hitters like ‘Another Excuse‘ have the crowd gladly admitting: “It’s a mistake that we’re making/that we’re making”.

Erol Alkan keeps things lubricated between sets, but it’s when they return as 2ManyDjs that Brixton Academy really takes off.

Armed only with their consoles, a considerable back-catalogue of extremely intoxicating dance remixes, and a video projection backdrop that announces the record using cartoonish animated versions of record sleeves, 2ManyDJs step forth to drink the festive crowd under the table. The opening cocktail of acid house classics ‘Humanoid‘ and ‘Mentasm‘ (complete with vast, grinning aceeed face above the stage) leads through Mr Oizo’s techno hand-puppet Flat Eric wearing a fez, Bowie’s ‘Rebel Rebel’ accompanied by undulating naked cartoon Bowies, The Rapture, walking Eiffel Towers, and the inevitable and roof-raising Soulwax Remix of MGMT’s ‘Kids’.

Dashes of one record are dropped into another, setting up the best flavours of both and mixing up memorable stabs and hits to create something new that is neither one nor the other. It’s a great trick, and it keeps on working.

With a final salvo of Run DMC’s ‘It’s Tricky‘ the brothers bid us a happy Christmas, and an explosion of glitter, confetti and broad smiles burst out across the auditorium. As the first night after the predicted apocalypse predictably failed to materialise, Soulwaxmas still shows us how to party like there’s no tomorrow, even when there is.

 

[Originally published at Clashmusic.com]

Band of Skulls @ Brixton Academy

Photo: Richard Gray

Undoubtedly Band of Skulls look the part. Pointy cowboy boots, check. Tight trousers, check. Leather jackets, beards, long hair. Then there’s the sound: pleasingly fuzzy, overdriven guitar; choppy, cut-up riffs; a twanging, bluesy air, and Russell Marsden and Emma Richardson’s dual vocals.

Opening with the slow, half-time riffing of the title track from this year’s album ‘Sweet Sour‘, the sound is dense, the stop-start guitars growing more growly with each verse until Russell takes his guitar off to rub up against the amp for a feedback-filled wig out, before leaping straight into the more considered but equally slow ‘Bruises’. The crowd are a sea of assertively nodding heads caught in the sweep of the stage lights during ‘Patterns’ from 2008’s debut album ‘Baby Darling Doll Face Honey‘, the vocalists calling out to each other and Marsden leading the crowd into singing the final verse: “A pattern, there’s a pattern/there’s a pattern there to follow” they sing. And they’re not wrong, as for track after track Band of Skulls’ set list rolls but never seems to rock. The three, muscular minutes of ‘Bomb’ and Matt Hayward’s clever, insistent drumming on ‘Wanderluster’ bring some needed bombast to a set that threatens to fall flat, but even that track interrupts itself to wallow in 32 bars of soft-spokenness, and is immediately followed by the long and directionless ‘Navigate’. The Skulls’ apparent requirement that each track have a breakdown (or two) creates drag that prevents things ever really taking off. It’s like the warm-up opening number that never gets beyond warm.

After 45 minutes it falls to ‘Hollywood Bowl‘ – the only track from their days as Fleeing New York still in rotation – to cause a stir. From here on they pick up the pace, from the clever rhythmic wordplay on ‘I Know What I Am‘ (“Flick flack/No slack/I got the wit that my enemies lack”) to the rock-out riffing of ‘You’re Not Pretty But You Got It Goin’ On’ and ‘Death By Diamonds And Pearls’.

Such Americana-influenced blues-rock is a well trodden path, in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Dead Weather, Queens of the Stone Age or The Kings of Leon to name but a few. It is admirable that not every track on their albums sounds the same, but at the same time they sound too much like everyone else.

“We’re Band of Skulls from Southampton,” deadpans Marsden, to cheers from the band’s fervent front row fans who have long followed them around the country. These days they play big venues, the Reading Festival’s main stage, win over the SXSW crowd or embark on US tours, but there is still a humility that recognises how speedy their ‘Twilight’ and ‘Gossip Girl’ soundtrack-powered ascent has been from club circuit toil to being heralded as the latest saviour of rock and roll. The trio have worked hard for ten years to get here, but now they have, do they know what to do with it?

East Not East: with Throwing Snow, WIFE, Hyetal, Guy Andrews, Young Logic

 

The dark and gloomy backroom of the Shacklewell Arms is possibly kept that way because, were there any more light, revelers would be able to see the garishly blue and yellow walls, pink painted clouds on the ceiling, and murals of Jamaican trumpeters urging you to “live it up”.

Into this charmingly unreconstructed Dalston corner steps tonight’s instalment of East Not East, a soundclash of Bristol-based acts including audio collective Young Echo, home of Vessel, Left_Blank records boss Throwing Snow – for whom tonight is something of a label showcase – and Hyetal, purveyor of fine, spacy, melodic weirdness. Topping off the bill is part-time black metaller James Kelly aka WIFE, and the globe-trotting house sounds of new arrival DJ and producer Guy Andrews. ]

Up first, Young Echo confuse and amuse in equal measures by opening with a extended beatless bass earquake that leaves bowels trembling and features what sounds like the crystal notes of glass rims being played. Out of this aural landscape emerges splintered breakbeats, but it’s left to the live set from WIFE to move the crowd. Playing his first UK performance, Kelley leaves the sample-rich black metal of his band Altar of Plagues to WIFE’s emo-bass: tracks like ‘Trials‘ and ‘Bodies‘ blend dark, uncharacteristically human sounds including his own voice sung live through filters and effects with syncopated beats and aggressive cymbal patterns. Reminiscent of early Burial, while not up-for-it beats in an obvious Skrillex way there is an urgency to WIFE’s set that is compelling.

Throwing Snow steps up for the night’s second live set, blending breakbeats, bass thick enough to coat the walls like paint, and delicious chunks of melodic techno with more than a whiff of ’90s stalwarts – think Harthouse, Force Inc and Tresor – but with the 4-4 beat chewed up and spat out as something altogether more interesting.

Hyetal slows down the pace a touch, mixing some of his crystalline productions such as ‘Beach Scene‘ and single ‘Phoenix‘ – chip-tune saw-waves, bedroom Casio sounds and breathy vocals over precision percussion – into a DJ set whose sound seems to channel Boards of Canada via Jan Hammer. Always atmospheric, always interesting.

Rounding off the night on a different note is Guy Andrews, lifting the tone with some chunky house music vibes that stray into percussive techno and breakbeat, but always upbeat, for the mind and feet. With recent releases on Hemlock and Hotflush and plaudits from old heads like Soma mainstay Funk D Void, taste-maker Mary Anne Hobbs and up and comers Benji B and Scuba, Brighton-based Andrews is one to watch.

Bloke behind a desk, two dim red lights in a dark room: I wouldn’t hire their interior decorator, but the ears have it even if the eyes don’t.

[Originally published in Clash magazine.]

M83 @ Brixton Academy

Photo credit: Matt Wash

Being in a band requires a little more than just standing around playing your instruments. Beyond talent, skill and enthusiasm it demands a little showmanship.

French electro-shoegazers M83 are aware of this. The show at a packed-out Academy opens with singer-keyboardist Morgan Kibby plucked from the darkness by a spotlight wearing billowing robes, furry claws and the freaky animal/insect mask last seen gracing the cover of the ‘Midnight City’ single. Like a snorkel-nosed Wolverine she then fires green lasers from her claws into the crowd, which – as the rest of the band launch into the deafening drums and bass of appropriately named ‘Intro’ – goes batshit crazy.

Jordan Lawlor, the fresh-faced, mop-haired newcomer who won a YouTube competition to join the band, gets stuck in to overt acts of musical expression by occasionally battering two synth pads opposite Kibby at the front of the stage while kicking his legs back behind him, giving the impression of a man caught on a drum-powered treadmill.

Singer, songwriter and chief creative force Anthony Gonzalez and his brother Yann take things comparatively easy, while above them the Academy’s vast backdrop breaks out into a sea of starlight – as befitting a band named after a distant galaxy.

In fact with lasers and lights and an incredible, leg-shakingly heavy sound – ten rows from the front we can feel the air forced out of the bass bins – it’s an assault on the senses.

Gonzalez’s vision is a wide open interplanetary soundscape of reverb-washed guitar, and rocket-fuelled-beats that build and burst behind competing tides of synthesis. Tracks like the lo-fi fuzz choir of ‘Teen Angst’ or the thrashy shoegaze of ‘The Bright Flash’ come sandwiched between trilling dance-pop anthems like ‘Midnight City’ and ‘Reunion’. And anthemic they are, to the point that it’s hard to tell if you’re familiar with the track or if it’s just that you’ve heard those synth lines for years from the likes of MSTRKRFT or MGMT or even ‘Disintegration’-era Cure.

With all the leaping about, the fancy dress, the flowing locks, and the nine-minute track prog self-belief, M83 could be a 21st century Hawkwind. At their most noodly, they could be an electro-Coldplay. But whacked out at 150dB there’s a five-thousand-strong crowd here that dances along heedless.

It strikes us this is music for teenage-hood, for teenagers love-struck-dumb by first time sensations for which they have no words. Gonzalez’s videos are filled with wonder, escape, visitations from the sky, aliens, magical powers. And oh how glorious it is to feel so special, so unique. But – is it so cynical to say so? – in time the youth, like this music, will age. Now it’s a soundtrack for wide-eyes and trembling lips, emotional stuff at its best. But given time and whiskers, will they with older eyes still look back as fondly on M83’s ultimately formulaic musical charms?

Originally published at Clashmusic.com.

A guide to New Orleans, the crescent city

Mardi Gras Indian, New Orleans

 

My guide to New Orleans for Guidepal has just been published, available online and through their app (Android | iPhone) now.

I spent a month in the Crescent City in February and March this year, neatly straddling Mardi Gras and St Patrick’s Day, two of biggest events in the festival calendar. It is a fabulous city. Historically and culturally fascinating, something is always going on and there are always people around to go do it with. Frenchmen Street is constantly buzzing with music, drinkers and dancers, while the French Quarter’s endless charms can be found just wandering around and soaking it all up. I stood slack-jawed at the world-class collection (and appropriately priced) photographs on display at A Gallery, and enjoyed a fabulous goodbye dinner at Bayona.

New Orleans is not really like other places in America. It’s not really like anywhere else at all. I can’t wait to go back.