Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Extradition Order – American Prometheus

A history lesson about J Robert Oppenheimer couched in angular post-punk grooves.

For the rest of the country Warrington's main claim to fame is rugby league. Musically however it tends to be overlooked by its bigger neighbours Liverpool and Manchester. As is often the case if you did a little deeper our smaller towns have much to offer culturally and Warrington is no exception. One group with roots in the woolyback heartlands is Extradition Order. Their latest album is being co-released by no less than five record labels. Those labels are Gare Du Nord, Blang, Jezus, Helen Llewellyn Product 19, and I Blame The Parents Records. That in itself is an interesting scenario – let's hope they split the costs and don't argue about who did or didn't order a starter.

Anyway back to the record. A concept album based on the life of physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, taking in US politics and the creation of the A-bomb. If that all sounds a little highbrow and decidedly “non sexy”, fear not. The band are adept at laying down tough and angular post rock grooves, laced with slashing guitars and punchy brass, with lyrics that bring the subject matter to life. While it's educational, fun is still firmly on the agenda. Imagine if the Manic Street Preachers had grown up listening to Television, B52s, The Pop Group, Gang of Four and PIL, as opposed to hair metal bands. That's the mix of history lesson and passionate musical shapes we have here. The band describe American Prometheus as “a Northern Soul album about the atomic bomb”. That may be a stretch but it's a good chat-up line. There's a lack of finger-snapping Motown-beats but that's more than compensated by the record's cliché free romp, ragged sonic landscapes, thought-provoking lyrics and passionately delivered vocals.

So what do we learn of Oppenheimer? If like me you wished you'd paid more attention to history lessons at school, you'll welcome the insights gained via American Prometheus. Oppenheimer was instrumental in the Manhattan Project, a research and development project which resulted in the world's first nuclear bombs, later to be dropped on Hiroshima. Oppenheimer was also nominated for a Nobel Prize three times but was never awarded one, most likely down to his later public opposition against the bomb. There was also his complicated love life and left-wing politics. These aspects of his life are also touched upon, making for an album that's as much about the man's complicated inner life as it is about his legacy.

American Prometheus is dedicated to founder member and bass player Nick Boardman who sadly passed away in 2018. He leaves behind some fine musical contributions on this uniquely informative and highly enjoyable album.

Click here for Extradition Order's website.
Click here for Extradition Order on Twitter.
Click here for Extradition Order on Facebook.
Clickhere for Gare Du Nord Records.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Silent Fires - Forests

Norwegian/Italian quartet explore yearning and spirituality on their debut album.

In today's world there's much that makes one despair – climate change, the rise of racism, and the depressing state of politics in Britain and America in particular. For all that it is possible to hold onto some long-term optimism. One thing that gives me hope for the future is young creative people, their global outlook, desire for change, and their wealth of talent and ability to empathise.

Forests is manifestation of all of this. It's the debut album by Silent Fires, a quartet of talented musicians from the European improvised music scene. The album is a deep exploration of spirituality, quietly passionate and ripe with complicated emotions. Subtle piano chords, a hint of ancient folk melodies and pure-voiced vocals conjure up a soundscape that encourage the listener to delve into empathy and introspection.

The words of Maya Angelou, René Guénon, William Butler Yeats, and band leader Alessandro Sgobbio are set to music, as are extracts from the Bible and the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians. These are given voice by vocalist Karoline Wallace. Her bell-like tones lending the words a heavenly reverence, sometimes singing, sometimes spoken and occasionally whispered. While the music has for the most part a calm, glacial stillness, it sometimes swells into small storms, spurred by subtle notes and pushes from all three musicians.

For their live appearances Silent Fires are joined by contemporary dancer Synne Garvik. The band held some release shows for Forests in Norway and France around the album's release, late last year. There are dates to follow later this month on Norway, Germany, Portugal, and Italy. More details below.

Silent Fires are -
Karoline Wallace – vocals
Hilde Marie Holsen – trumpet, effects
Håkon Aase – violin, percussion
Alessandro Sgobbio - piano

Forests Release Shows
12th February – Nasjonal Jazzscene, Oslo, Norway
20th February – B-Flat Jazz Club, Berlin, Germany
22nd February – Pora-Jazz, Porto, Portugal
23rd February - Casa Da Paes, Milan, Italy
1st March – Langhus, Kirke, Langhus, Norway

Click here for Silent Fires' website.
Click here for Silent Fires on Twitter.
Click here for Silent Fires on Facebook.
Click here for Silent Fires on Instagram.
Click here for AMP Music & Records.

Matthew Sweet - Blue Sky On Mars / In Reverse

(This review first appeared in issue #88 of Shindig! magazine.)

Two albums of guitar-driven powerpop brought together as a double CD set. 1997's Blue Sky On Mars and 1999's In Reverse both have a sound and production that stands up well today. Sweet was one of the musicians in the '90s who studied Big Star, Brum-beat and Brit-invasion as core texts, making it his mission to re-present melody and melancholia to an audience raised on grunge. That said the contemporaneous influence of Nirvana pushes through on 'Where You Get Love' and 'Hollow'.

The use of synths gives Blue Sky On Mars a lightly futuristic edge and In Reverse is fleshed out with some nice touches – the trumpet peels on 'Millennium Blues' for one. Sweet's ability to write earworm tunes is in evidence throughout as is his sensitivity with the themes of fractured friendship and love's ever-elusive nature. The lack of filler and tracks to cash ratio here makes this a particularly sweet deal.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Telekinesis - Effluxion

(This review first appeared in issue #88 of Shindig! magazine.)

An album title to increase your knowledge, (Latin for flow, in case you were wondering), Effluxion is the fifth full-length offering from Seattle-based musician Michael Benjamin Lerner, fresh from a stint as touring keyboard player with Teenage Fanclub. The album was self-produced over two years in the basement of his home, with Lerner taking on all instrumental duties. He's songwriter who knows how to knock out a decent hook-laden tune or ten. Be it the quiet/loud dynamics of 'Set A Course', the piano-led pop of 'How Do I Get Rid Of Sunlight?', or the playfully dancing bassline on 'Cut The Quick' the attention is focused on songcraft with properly pleasing choruses and twist-laden mid-eights throughout.

Containing only ten taut tracks Effluxion may be a short listen, but after spending 32 minutes in its company the world will seem a brighter, more hopeful place. As Teenage Fanclub would say – ain't that enough?

Monday, 3 February 2020

Monks Road Social - Down The Willows

(This review first appeared in issue #88 of Shindig! magazine.)

This genre-shifting epic takes in downbeat soul, folk, jazz, dub and blues over its 18 tracks. It's the first full-length offering from this ever-evolving collective, is curated by chief Blow Monkey Dr. Robert, and shows a remarkable cohesion aided by Ben Trigg's string arrangements and a core band featuring Matt Deighton and Mick Talbot along with members of Galliano.

Its most sublime moments include 'Lost In Rasa' which echoes the troubled soul of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, and 'Still Got A Lot To Learn' where guest vocalist Nev Cottee employs his baritone voice in a spot of self-reflection. Also of note is a lushly arranged re-recording of Dr. Robert's 1994 track 'The Coming Of Grace'. Added to this is the wealth of new vocal talent with Pat Dam Smyth standing out with 'So Long Soho', a Kinks-style homage to a disappearing London, along with Samantha Whates' dub-folk track 'Three Miles Left'.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Le SuperHomard - MeadowLanePark

(This review first appeared in issue #88 of Shindig! magazine.)

There's a strain of cinematic French music that feeds head and heart, and is fixed on the central tenets of style and sophistication. You can join the dots from Jean Claude Vannier to Air through to its latest progenitors - Le SuperHomard, an Avignon-based quintet led by Christophe Vaillant.

MeadowLanePark is the group's first full-length LP following 2015's mini-album The Maple Key and recent release The Pomegranate EP. Recorded during closed hours in the music shop where Vaillant works, the results are a joy, ebbing through sunshine pop, breezy electro, and gently playful psychedelia. The group make good use of the instruments to hand with vintage synths, harpsichords and strings making up the sonic palette. The band's key influences (Stereolab, Saint Etienne, Broadcast) can be heard but their sense of self wins out. Whether it's the evocative instrumental 'In The Park' or the electronic textures of 'SDVB', MeadowLanePark is one of this years early gems.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Emmeluth's Amoeba - Chimaera

Second album of adventurous free-jazz from Scandinavian quartet!

Without wishing to patronise our Scandinavian friends it's true to say most music fans in the UK would be hard-pushed to name any currently active Danish musicians. Sadly, that's more a reflection of Britain's blinkered outlook than it is on Denmark's musical reputation. What they probably don't know is that Scandinavia has an increasing reputation for producing world-class improvised jazz. Recent releases on label's such as Hubro being just the tip of this particular iceberg.

Signe Emmeluth is an example of a Danish musician breaking new ground at the coal-face of modern jazz. The young alto saxophonist, now based in Oslo, leads a quartet, collectively known as Emmeluth's Amoeba whose debut album, Polyp, was released in 2018. They've recently released a follow up Chimaera, which takes their music into new, ever more adventurous territory. Let's be clear, this is not music for the faint-hearted, but if you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll no doubt relish the journey this album will take you on.

Opening track 'Squid Circles' begins with Signe's lone saxophone making short sharp runs and closely clustered notes, gradually becoming more melodic and languid before the rest of the band begin to join in, adding discordant piano chords and scattering drums. The result may be disorientating but is equally hypnotic and intriguing once you allow yourself to be drawn in.

'AB' allows Emmeluth to push the saxophone to its limits with high pitched squeals designed to disorientate. The track evolves into a cartoonish romp that owes as much to Scott Bradley as it does to exponents of free-jazz. At the six-minute mark piano, guitar and saxophone conspire to conjure the image of a claustrophobic city soundscape - traffic rumbles, sirens wail and people rush about their business. It's quickly shifting mutations such as these that characterise Chimaera. At times cerebral, other times calm and soothing, occasionally humorous, but only ever a few notes away from being primal, even brutal and violent.

'Velvet' sees the quartet move into more impressionistic areas, mixing Debussy-eque textures with tinkling cocktail jazz piano. For all its calm, soothing feel there still lurks an ominous darkness just under the surface. These tensions and dynamics are further explored as the album branches out into more audacious and chaotic forms, free of cliché and full of honest, raw expressive emotion. It all makes for a brave and challenging record from a refreshingly uncompromising artist.

Emmeluth's Amoeba are -

Signe Emmeluth – alto saxophone and compositions
Christian Balvig – piano
Karl Bjorå – guitar
Ole Mofjell – drums

Click here for Øra Fonogram Records.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

The Routes – Tune Out, Switch Off, Drop In

Still where it's at! Japan-based psych-garage trio hit the spot!

I still remember the epiphany of catching the garage-rock bug as a teenager. While the majority of my fellow sixth-formers were content to have Dire Straights' Brothers In Arms on constant repeat on the common room cassette deck, (or worse - Pink Floyd's The Wall), I was introduced by my pals Chris and Sean to the Nuggets and Pebbles compilations along with a raft of reissues on Bam Caruso Records. Here was music that was punky, soulful, and psychedelic. A rich seam to explore. It was colourful and fun, which went against the grain of being a goth, seemingly the only other rebellious strain available to to us sheltered young pups in our small market town. I was smitten, and remain so to this day.

The Routes' latest album, their seventh, which came out just before Christmas, is a reminder of just how valuable that epiphany has been in forming my musical tastes and outlook, and also highlights that while the basic sonic template of psychedelic garage-rock may not have shifted much over the years, if you have something to say it will serve you well. And if you're a savvy enough musician you can add touches of other genres – R&B, surf-rock, folk-rock, Krautrock, shoegaze, even house or techno. It's no surprise that shape-shifting bands such as Primal Scream started out as a bowl-haircutted garage band with a pointy shoes, paisley shirts and a tambourine player.

The Routes are a trio led by Chris Jack – a Scottish born musician now resident In Hita City, Japan. While they too have a fondness for paisley shirts, skinny jeans, and teardrop-shaped guitars played through vintage fuzz pedals, there is more going on in their music than the retro bubble letters of their band logo would suggest. Within these grooves are experimental sonic threads – be it the tremolo and drone of album opener 'The Ricochet', 'Up and Down' with its shimmering layered guitars, or the title track's chromatic chord progression in the chorus recalling the works of Syd Barrett.

The album's more traditional garage-rock tracks such as 'The King Of Loose Ends' and 'You Cried Wolf' are equally thrilling, full of riffs, hooks, snarly vocals and ear-splitting trebly guitar solos. Dick Dale gets channelled on surfy number 'Split Personality', and there's plenty punkish attitude throughout with nods to artists such as Loop, The Jesus And Mary Chain, Spaceman 3, The Seeds and 13th Floor elevators. Tune Out, Switch Off, Drop In is no pure retro trip though, it lyrically addresses current global concerns, pointing out that as a species we are without doubt regressing rather than progressing. The CD version comes with an extra four taken from the Driving Round In Circles EP, which originally came out on Ghost Highway Recordings in 2018. Whether your musical first love is '60s garage-rock, '90s indie, or simply great guitar bands from any era, this is an album worthy of your attention. Switch on and tune in!

Click here for The Routes on Twitter.
Click here for The Routes on Facebook.
Click here for The Routes on Instagram.
Click here for Groovie Records.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Stick In The Wheel - Against The Loathsome Beyond

Ancient and modern forces meet for a richly elegiac take on English folk.

As usual over winter I've ended up with a backlog of music to write about. Christmas, the usual bouts of family illness, work commitments and the shorter hours of daylight and resulting tiredness always seem to conspire against me. The result is less time and energy to devote to writing. So first an apology to the amazing musicians and labels that have sent me music recently. I have however had lots of great albums to listen to and absorb, this release by Stick In The Wheel being one brilliant example.

It's the band's second mixtape release, following on from 2018's This and The Memory of This. These mixtape releases are an opportunity for the core duo of Nicola Kearey and Ian Carter (EAN) to collaborate with guest players, either using their own material as a starting point, or remixing and adding to music created by the guest musicians. The duo also have two studio albums to their name – From Here (2018), and Follow Them True (2018). I confess to being unfamiliar with their previous work so this record marks my first encounter with Stick In The Wheel.

Their music is rooted in the melodies of traditional English folk music, but this is no backward yearning for car-less yesterday. Each track has a seam of of modern electronic music. Drones, strange beat-less pulses push each track into strange new territories. A strong melancholy permeates the album, which features appearances and collaborations with artists such as experimental folk guitarist C Joynes, Jack Sharp (Wolf People), and folk-punk outfit Cinder Well. Using mostly traditional material as their staring point the album contains versions 'Nine Herbs Charm', a 10th century spell translated from Old English, the 14th century alliterative poem 'Swarte Smiths, Smateryd With Smoke', and an improvised take on Child ballad 'Georgie'. Also highly recommended are the two bookending versions of 'Down In Yon Forest', which set the medieval pagan theme that permeates the whole album.

One thing about music is that it can compliment other things going on in your life, and chime perfectly with landscape, seasons, weather, and even the moods accompanied by your current reading habits. While enjoying the album over mid-winter I was simultaneously reading Laurie Lee's As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, his account of leaving his Gloucestershire village in the 1930s, working as a labourer in London, then walking through Spain, earning a living playing violin as he goes, at the outset of the Spanish Civil War. While the traditional music of Spain and Old England may not have too much in common there are parallels to be drawn and highlighted here. Ditto the respective mood of the nations. The sense of foreboding in Lee's book chimes with the timeless melancholy found throughout Against The Loathsome Beyond. Spain in the 1930s, along with contemporary Britain found themselves divided and with dark forces emboldened. Both countries possess a proud and stirring musical heritage, each infused with a passion that's celebratory yet full of warning. Against The Loathsome Beyond has been a strangely fitting accompaniment to Lee's book and one I highly recommend to readers of this humble blog.

Click here for Stick In The Wheel's website.
Click here for Stick In The Wheel on Twitter.
Click here for Stick In The Wheel on Facebook.
Click here for Stick In The Wheel on Instagram.
Click here for From Here Records.