The Third Ear

Music, words, imagination

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Album review: Conrad Clipper – Heron’s Book of Dreams

Contemporary piano music, particularly that which sits somewhere on the spectrum between ambient and neoclassical, tends to derive much of its appeal from the charged poles of liminality and melancholy. The eerie beauty of Philip Glass and the sad prettiness of Erik Satie are common touchstones. Conrad Clipper adds a third ingredient to the mix: anonymity. Beyond the fact that Clipper is apparently a man based Germany, we don’t really know anything about him. This unknowable quality is honed on Heron’s Book of Dreams, his second album, and seems designed to augment both the liminal and melancholic aspects of his sound.

To explain further: the album was written, according to a very precise backstory, during Clipper’s five-day stay in Arcosanti (an experimental settlement in the Arizona desert), at the edge of a very exclusive music festival to which he wasn’t invited. The resulting music is clearly shaped by the strange, slightly sad, utopian dream of the town, which looks like something Giorgio de Chirico might have painted if he had been a futurologist with an eye on ecology. The resulting tracks were taken back to be worked on in Berlin, before being mixed and mastered by John Dieterich of Deerhoof fame.

Clipper’s manipulation of the piano is remarkable, and his skill is evident from the start. He uses the ‘prepared piano’ technique made famous by John Cage (essentially changing the nature of the instrument’s sound by applying physical constraints or alterations to its internal mechanisms) and is also adept at capturing extra-musical sounds: human contact with studio and instrument, the hiss and buzz of equipment, sometimes the sounds of the outside world. The opening track – the short prelude Arcosanti – begins with the nostalgic sound of technological decay before a sleepy, unadorned melody kicks in (though to say anything ‘kicks in’ here is misleading – everything has the pale, malleable softness of a lucid dream).

This album is slightly more there than the 2016 debut Cycle of Liminal Rites. Where the soft, drawn-out ambience of that record drew you slowly into its shimmering world, Heron’s Book of Dreams is more like a series of linked but very different vignettes. Or perhaps neighbouring villages on a plateau, each one proudly independent within the confines of its overarching geography. It is a more episodic affair, if only marginally, but paradoxically it also manages to be more coherent. That its emotional aspects are almost tangible compared to the abstract strokes of its predecessor only serves to make it more mysterious.

The textural qualities of Clipper’s music become increasingly apparent as the album progresses. The first three tracks are there and gone, pleasant zephyrs, full of warmth and invitation. ‘The Coven’, the first longer piece, combines the drones and fragmentary noises into a beautiful whole, shifting like a sand dune. Triple Dance is a journey from tremulous ripples of sound, via a glassy shimmer to a precise, definitive and sad piano melody.

‘No Peaches for the Foolish’ begins with a percussive clangour that seems quasi-religious and soon wades into a world of strange birdsong and piano lines that have a discomfiting, quiet euphoria about them. The title track’s oh-so-simple melody seems to be the structure on which the tape hiss and string-saturated drone rests, rather than the other way round: the track’s tension comes from the way the drone supersedes the bucolic drip-drip of the keys. The effect is heightened by its continuation into the final track, ‘Forces Out of Your Control’, in which the piano drops out altogether, leaving the sonic underbelly exposed to the final lulling motion of the synths. It all adds up to a beautiful and continuous whole, an album that plays out like a suite of Italo Calvino stories or a Miyazaki film in which the main characters are imaginary buildings and the elements that shape them. A wonderful, reflective and at times disconcerting creation.

Heron’s Book of Dreams is out 30th April on Luau

Album review: Richard von der Schulenburg – Moods and Dances 2021

In grim times musicians could be forgiven for making grim albums, but in much of  2020’s best music the key themes were positive: hope, quiet reflection, transcendence. There was a certain amount of necessary belligerence too – the brilliant and vital clipping. album is a good example – but even that was done with an eye on a brighter future. Overall, it was a really good year for spiritual jazz, ambient, dream-pop. Genres that play with fluidity and ambiguity, that hint at nostalgia or imagine distinct and better worlds.

It’s possible – though perhaps unfair – to accuse certain musicians of avoiding the issue, burying their heads in the sand. But despite its dreamlike qualities, that is not a charge that can be levelled against Richard von der Schulenburg’s Moods and Dances 2021. Using the year in the album’s title implies that this is an exercise utopianism rather than in escapism, and while the difference between the two may seem subtle, it is important. It foregrounds a preoccupation with what is present, visceral and real. It might seem an odd thing to say about an album that takes its cues from library music, and early electronica, but the Moods of the title are entirely contemporary. 

The majority of the tracks contain the name of a synthesiser in their titles, and it’s somehow fitting that the album unfolds like a catalogue of impossible futures, a world in which man and (musical) machine are reconciled. Opener Mrs Yamaha’s Summer Tune has echoes of Ryuchi Sakamoto’s ambience, but set to a brisker pace and with a more lucid melodic thrust – it’s calming music, but you can hear the influence of the dancefloor in there too. 

Von der Schulenburg has a multifaceted musical background. On one hand, he was a long-term member of Hamburg indie favourites Die Sterne, while most notable recent work has come as a DJ, producer and writer of scores for theatrical productions. You can hear the strands coming together in unexpected ways across Moods and Dances. Caravan of the Pentamatics is lithe and sinewy, African in feel, but minimal in execution, displaying a DJ’s sense of timing allied with the brevity and melodic sensibility of pop. Flowers for the Farfisa Sphinx is a highlight, with haunted, wobbly synths and a windblown backdrop, like Kraftwerk lost in a fever dream of the Sahara.

These pieces are experiments in place as well as time, and the worlds they create are small but complete. Roland’s Night Walk uses a repetitive melody a the human anchor in a world of exterior noise, a world where the chirrups of frogs and crickets are analogous to the sounds of human technology. The sad, twinkling, mechanised waltz of DX7’s Broken Hearts and the exploratory Dance of the Space Pentax sound like robotic minds working out their own rituals, while Wersimatic Space Bar is languid and jazzy, a sci-fi B-movie in miniature.

The album’s final two tracks are amongst its best: Planet Dragon’s chanted backing vocals sound like they were swept off the floor of a 1970s Hong Kong film studio and pieced back together, while the melody has a slightly crazed, improvisational flavour. The library music credentials of Moods and Dances are fully realised in its closing track, the bittersweet slow-burner The End, which reclines in a pillow of wordless vocals and samples of birdsong.

Moods and Dances 2021 is characterised by a lightness of touch, and while its themes are often otherworldly, they are never inconsequential. Von der Schulenburg has created an album which is both a fascinating snapshot of his own musical processes in what for many musicians are unique and trying circumstances, and a small but positive vision of a brighter, or at least more interesting, future. 

Moods and Dances 2021 is released on 29th January on Bureau B

2020 Bonus Content

EPs, mini-albums, micro-albums, anti-albums, live albums, singles, Pringles.


Jockstrap – Wicked City




Patricia Brennan – Sonnet




Sarah Hughes – I Love This City and Its Outlying Lands



Julia Holter – So Humble the Afternoon




Tierra Whack – Dora

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCCxLpT9ymc&ab_channel=TierraWhack


Green-House – Six Songs for Invisible Gardens and Chysis






100 gecs – -1000 gecs (a chopped and screwed edit of 1000 gecs)




Richard Dawson – Republic of Geordieland




Angel Bat Dawid – Transition East




Wished Bone and Spencer Radcliffe – A Bug Crawled In the Piano




Joseph Futak – Pigeon Songs




Ed Askew – 2020 and After April






Lambchop – Trip




Darren Hayman – The Doll’s House Room




Delphine Dora – Lost In My Dreams, A Nightmare Maybe




Mary Lattimore – A Unicorn Catches a Falling Star in Heaven




clipping. – Chapter 319




Garden Centre – Pipe




Bamako Love Song – Live in Cape Town




Sex Jazz – Really Joyous




Son Rompe Pera – Pajaro Cenzontle




Dry Cleaning – Scratchcard Lanyard




Martha Skye Murphy – Yours Truly




Yard Act – Fixer Upper/The Trapper’s Pelts




Hannah’s Little Sister – EP.mp3




Petite Meller – Dying Out Of Love

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8bAeSiNZ6I&ab_channel=PETITEOFFICIAL


Bill Callahan/Bonnie “Prince” Billy/Bill MacKay – Deacon Blues

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jjctv-HQtM&ab_channel=BillCallahan-Topic











2020 Albums of the Year

  1. Wendy Eisenberg – Dehiscence (2020) and Auto

    Couldn’t choose between the two Eisenberg albums, so I went with both





  2. Mary Lattimore – Silver Ladders



  3. Shabason, Krgovich and Harris – Philadelphia



  4. Delphine Dora – L’inattingible



  5. Bill Callahan – Gold Record



  6. Microphones – Microphones in 2020



  7. Hen Ogledd – Free Humans



  8. Sun Ra Arkestra – Swirling



  9. Ana Roxanne – Because of a Flower



  10. Morita Vargas – 8



  11. clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned



  12. Horse Lords – The Common Task



  13. DEAP – Musik i en tid



  14. Suzanne Ciani – A Sonic Web: Live Buchla Performance at Lapsus



  15. Sarah Louise – Floating Rhododendrons



  16. Gigi Masin – Calypso



  17. Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song



  18. Shirley Collins – Heart’s Ease



  19. Rob Mazurek/Exploding Star Orchestra – Dimensional Stardust



  20. Lewsberg – In This House



  21. Beatrice Dillon – Workaround



  22. Naeem – Startisha



  23. Felicity Mangan – Creepy Crawly



  24. OMMA – DOMA



  25. anrimeal – Could Divine



  26. Burd Ellen – Says the Never Beyond



  27. Donny Benet – Mr Experience



  28. TENGGER – Nomad



  29. Nap Eyes – Snapshot of a Beginner



  30. Yumi Iwaki & Ryan J. Raffa – Living Distances



  31. Kate NV – Room for the Moon



  32. Tara Clerkin Trio – What?



  33. Dan Deacon – Mystic Familiar



  34. Marker Starling – High January



  35. Waclaw Zimpel – Ebbing in the Tide



  36. The Silver Field – Sing High! Sing Low!



  37. Gia Margaret – Mia Gargaret



  38. Jeff Parker – Suite for Max Brown



  39. There Are No Thieves In This Town – All the Luck in the World



  40. Winston C.W. – Good Guess



  41. Sea Oleena – Weaving a Basket



  42. Ajate – Alo



  43. Emmalee Hunnicut – Wooden Hollow



  44. Stick in the Wheel – Hold Fast



  45. Little Kid – Transfiguration Highway



  46. Jono Heyes – Monsieur Rayon’s Gramophone



  47. Lomelda – Hannah



  48. Susan Alcorn Quintet – Pedernal



  49. Billow – III



  50. Lee Evans – Aphasic Forest



  51. Aldous RH – Respect 4 Devotion



  52. Matt Kivel – That Day on the Beach



  53. Hania Rani – Home



  54. Darren Hayman – Home Time



  55. Moodyman – Taken Away



  56. Andrew Tuttle – Alexandra



  57. Slum of Legs – Slum of Legs



  58. Kishi Bashi – Omoiyari



  59. Laraaji – Sun Piano/Moon Piano



  60. Aksak Maboul – Figures





Album review: anrimeal – Could Divine

There is a decent case for chopping music up into easily digestible chunks. Genre, sub-genre, micro-genre. The world, by which I mean the internet, doesn’t just benefit from this kind of compartmentalisation, it needs it to survive. It is part of the symbiotic online relationship between creator, listener and the nebulous and often non-human forces that lie at the heart of our favourite websites, helping us to find new music or lodging us contentedly into the rut of what we think we like. 

Go onto Bandcamp (by far the best of the music streaming services, by the way) and search by genre for ‘mallsoft’ or ‘lowercase’ or ‘deathdream’. You may find that these apparently ultra-limited genres are liberating rather than restrictive. As you follow ever more exclusive links to increasingly weird musical subcultures you begin to notice two things: firstly, that there is a community to suit every possible taste (a real community made up of real people), and secondly, that everything is linked. You can play a kind of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon by seeing how long it takes, clicking on the genre tags that appear at the bottom of nearly every album on Bandcamp, to get from gabber to devotional to witch house. 

What this means is that genre, if it exists, is both infinitely fluid and infinitesimally divisible. This is how the internet’s democratisation of music works, and it can be annoying and it can be great. Where the listener is concerned, this kind of freedom comes, as they say, at a price. We have a duty – to ourselves and to the artist – not to get bogged down in the underhand and flaccid kind of tribalism that results in pigeonholing musicians. All kinds of music, even the most brash, can contain subtleties, and at risk of straying into the politics of listening, I think we should try as much as possible to be attuned to those subtleties.  

One of the most subtle and fluid new releases I have heard this year is Could Divine, the new album by anrimeal, a London-based artist originally from Porto whose real name is Ana Alves. Alves created all of these pieces in lockdown, with minimal outside influence. One track, I Am Not, has electric guitar and drums performed by Huw Roberts and Miguel Crespo, but aside from that it is all her own work. And it shows: Could Divine is one of the most personal and individual musical statements to emerge from a year where making music in your bedroom has been, well, just about the only option.

On hearing the first few seconds of opening track Marching Parades you could be forgiven for thinking that you were hearing some simple but lovely dialogue between ambient and folk music, something weird and pastoral that dips in and out of Virginia Astley territory while remaining constantly informed by the trippier side of the Incredible String Band. Something that a few years ago might have nestled into the freak folk category, but wouldn’t have been too offended if you’d called it folktronica. There are a number of signifiers to support this – it starts with a field recording of birdsong, there are strings aplenty, both plucked and bowed, and the song’s vocal part is as soft, dreamy and detached as you could hope for. But there is something else at work here, even if it takes you a couple of listens to catch it. The first clue is in the whispered vocal snippets that precede the main sung section, and their accompanying blips and percussive scratches. Then the birdsong is augmented by another sound, a haunted, repetitive hoot somewhere between natural and artificial, between a dark wood and a city street.

Marching Parades’ first discernible lyrics – ‘Scratching the surface of what I can and cannot do’ – provide another clue towards interpreting Alves’ practice. She is a denizen of the edgelands of music, the place where perceived boundaries begin to dissolve, and the deeper you go into Could Divine the more her experimental instincts come to the fore and the hazier those boundaries become. On Encaustic Witches there is a droning intro and strummed chords, an almost stereotypical soundtrack to an occult rite. But again there is a subtle but powerful undertow – shards of broken glass, a fervent prayer or anti-prayer, a wonderfully incongruous bassy boom that sounds like a slowed down, synthesised human voice. This is folk music from the depths of the uncanny valley. 

Alves plays with repetition and its lulling or discomfiting properties. The minimal, warped electric guitar that winds through the first half of I Am Not suddenly grows cacophonous, backed with clattering percussion. It then settles back into its previous form, only now it is joined by doomy bass notes and the song feels changed beyond repair. A song in possession of a phantom limb, a song to which a dark cloud has attached itself. Alves has a frankly incredible ear for this kind of tidal shift within a song. It results in fleeting and unexpected narrative structures growing out of otherwise minimal pieces.

On Elegy for an Empty Coffin the bulk of the work is done by her voice, multi-tracked and treated until it seems she is being shadowed by a spectral double, and spookiness is ramped up even further by the gently increasing, unidentifiable crackle of percussive effects and the introduction of a sombre piano. The piano reappears, hesitant and childlike, in the first half of Headrest, before reinventing itself in the song’s sweeping, quietly sophisticated coda, which submits the same five words to various treatments that take in warped electro-pop, a Julia Holter-esque fusion of soul and neoclassical, and even post-rock. 

But it isn’t until the title track, which comes six songs into the album, that we feel the full force of Alves’ experimentalism. Cut-up sections that include call-backs to previous songs, collages of electronically produced sounds that are by turns squelchy, choppy or clangorous. And then, thrillingly and frighteningly, she disgorges us into our own flawed world, ‘this world of unfamiliar diseases.’ And it is with this kind of current, vital detail that genre boundaries really become fluid. 

She follows this up with Vertical, a deconstructed folk song with a chatter of handclaps, and then a silent – or almost silent – section that prepares you for the closing track, Death, a visceral, semi-spoken exploration of the human body and the rituals – sexual and supernatural – we surround it with. The birdsong that ends the album, and that began it, is part of the ritual too. Alves wishes herself into the body of a bird and in doing so completes a kind of circle, a primeval space created to worship the other, to bathe in the uncanny properties of displacement. 

There are many words for this kind of music; those Bandcamp descriptors include compu-folk, ambient and drone, amongst others. But really all of those words, and perhaps all of the words in this review, are redundant. Could Divine is the kind of album that could only have been made now, in this weird space that the world inhabits, and it is the kind of music that makes us realise that our relationship with that world is more nebulous and more beautiful than we thought.

Could Divine is out now

Album review: Burd Ellen – Says the Never Beyond


Great joy to the new. It’s a familiar concept – Midwinter, as the symbolic end of the year, is also the time for renewal, for fresh ideas and exciting beginnings. In folk music the notion of ringing in the new helps to remind us that tradition is not the same as conservatism, that in fact they are polar opposites. Music of any kind, folk or otherwise, can’t thrive without difference and growth. Stagnation is the enemy of the creative process. Artistic collaboration and cultural cross-pollination are the alchemical ingredients that combine to create the most rewarding artefacts.

Burd Ellen understand this. The duo (singer Debbie Armour and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Gayle Brogan) have recorded a collection of winter folk songs and carols that carry their historical and ritual weight lightly. That is not to say they lack reverence – the pair obviously have a great love and deep knowledge of their source material – but the settings of the songs on Says the Never Beyond are often playful, and always experimental.

That most telling of lines – ‘great joy to the new’ – comes at the end of the opening track Please To See the King. The king in question is the wren, and the song is a celebration of the St Stephen’s Day tradition of hunting and sacrificing wrens in order to appease an anthropomorphised spirit of winter. The heady and weird mixture of Christian and pagan ritual that characterises this and many other winter folk songs is kept intact. In fact it is strengthened by the combination of harsh, John Cale-esque violin scrapes, synthetic drones and throbs and bowed cymbal, the latter provided by studio maestro Jer Reid, who also plays electric guitar on a number of the album’s songs.

The same theme is revisited later on The Cutty Wren, a traditional favourite enlivened by crunches of guitar. Rachel Newton, fresh from releasing a stunning solo album, makes an appearance, adding a lacework of harp that is cold, delicate and utterly mesmerising.

A mood of wintry spookiness is pervasive: the well-known Coventry Carol is transformed into an eerie murder ballad, the duo’s vocal harmonies backed up by an icy drone. That drone, or variations on it, soon becomes the album’s signature sound, a creaking, creeping backdrop that at times is clear and flat as a field of snow and at others threatens to crackle and splinter like hoar frost. Its absense on the a cappella Wexford Carol and the Cornish hymn Sans Day Carol ushers in moments of calm that are both beautiful and unnerving.

Brogan and Armour are equally adept at conjuring wide-open spaces and claustrophobic inner worlds, sometimes, paradoxically, within the same song. Hela’r Dryw Bach, the third song on the theme of hunting the wren, is a case in point, creating an uncanny landscape of isolation. Here the music and vocals seem to fold in on themselves, becoming dark and dimensionless. The album was recorded remotely due to lockdown, and there was a time when its existence was in jeopardy. But it is quite possible that the darkness and strangeness of these times has resulted in a record that is both more interesting and more visceral.

Corpus Christi Carol certainly benefits from its visceral setting. The Middle English words – drenched in enigmatic symbolism that seems to draw on both paganism and the Easter sepulchre, and maybe also Arthurian myth – are deliciously juxtaposed with a squall of electric guitar that makes gives a fiercely contemporary slant to the old Benjamin Britten arrangement.

Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is the final song, the Gaelic carol Tàladh Chrìosda. It progresses from a doomy intro that any decent sludge-metal band would be proud of, through an array of musical styles, all the while keeping the drone and the song’s lulling melody at its heart. It encapsulates Burd Ellen’s ambition and tops off a really stunning album, one which takes delight in the darkness of winter and shows just what can be achieved in spite of the constraints of isolation and physical distance. Says the Never Beyond is one of the outstanding folk albums of the year.

Says the Never Beyond is released on 27th November

Album Review: Bill Callahan – Gold Record

Bill Callahan understands the link between music and humour. Specifically the link between a certain, very American, type of dry, self-deprecatingly maudlin humour and country & western music. Other non-country artists knew it too. Leonard Cohen did, and so too did Callahan’s old friend David Berman. They successfully recorded songs in the country idiom, using its hangdog vernacular and injecting it with a modern, poetic wit of their own. And, perhaps crucially, they understood the importance of timing, the pregnant pause and the sudden flip from dumb to erudite or from broken to hopeful.

Callahan introduces ‘Pigeons’, which is the first song on Gold Record, with the words ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’, and finishes the track off with ‘Sincerely, L. Cohen’ (pinched from the end of Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’). Is he positioning himself in the lineage of greats? Is it a kind of ironic humblebrag?

In the five-and-a-bit minutes between those two references we get a tale in the voice of a limo driver, imparting his homespun wisdom on a pair of newlyweds. It’s a monologue by equal turns poignant and uplifting, and from the start it’s funny as hell. ‘Well the pigeons ate the wedding rice and exploded/Somewhere over San Anton…[pause]…io’ is an opening worthy of Berman, the king of great openings, and that pause in itself is a thing of beauty. And it only gets cleverer and more interesting as it progresses. The conversation between the driver and the young couple becomes a conversation between two sides of Callahan’s own character: the experienced, ever-so-slightly jaundiced folk singer (becoming wiser, kinder, more avuncular as he ages) and the man settling down to domesticity, and wondering where it will take him (Callahan’s last album, 2019’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, explored the new feelings that came with starting a new chapter as a family man).  

By the end of ‘Pigeons’ – as the muted brass and plashing drums ripple together – you get the feeling that the name-dropping is all done in the spirit of generous homage, genuine and perhaps a little self-effacing, and that the humour is employed in the service of some big and soul-searching (and perhaps career-defining) ideas.

And the same can be said for the album’s title. Of course, it’s funny: Callahan, the indie lifer, is playing with the idea of popularity. Maybe he’s disdainful of the idea of making records just to sell them. But then again, he’s a family man now, and he needs popularity to survive and to provide. And then there are the other connotations of the word ‘gold’ – the link with the gold of a wedding ring (cemented in that first song), or the idea of gold as a signifier of nostalgia, of the good times. Golden oldies.

The rest of the album explores similar themes: ‘We’ll start working for love not pay/when work ain’t been working all day,’ Callahan sings in ‘Another Song’, which blurs the borders between the personal creativity of a music career and the shared creativity of a loving relationship. ‘Let’s Move to the Country’ employs frankness and simplicity as tools for creating a kind of Arcadia (it’s a blissful counterpoint to the darker original version of the song, which Callahan released in his Smog days). On ’35’ he notices his changing relationship with literature, while ‘Protest Song’ (ironically titled – it’s mostly spoken) nimbly creates a kind of satirical Russian doll: it’s a protest song about a protest singer who is protesting about another protest singer. It is also a pertinent comment on generational difference.

The age gap is explored from the other side on ‘The Mackenzies’, essentially a short story written with the precision of Hemingway and the disquieting ambiguity of Ambrose Bierce. You are never quite sure whether it’s an ultimately uplifting Hollywood weepy or a creepy psychological horror, and that makes it the perfect slice of Americana. It’s one of Callahan’s most remarkable pieces of writing.

‘Cowboy’, with its whistled intro and outro and its quiet, wild horns, lovingly sends up the romantic notion of the Old West while touting its importance to the American cinematic imagination. ‘Ry Cooder’ is a pithy biog of the great guitarist with a metafictional twist, and closing track ‘As I Wander’ acts as a kind of skewed mirror to the record’s first song: here the narrator is a conductor on a train, and instead of focusing on the humour that is such a big part of country music, he relaxes back into the American landscape that permeates that country’s culture.

Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest was the album that saw Bill Callahan find some peace with himself and the world, and it was one of last year’s best albums. On Gold Record he finds himself examining that peace from different perspectives. As a result, each individual song has a greater focus and a more striking autonomy, and the whole is wider-ranging but just as cohesive. Gold Record is, without irony, an absolute treasure.

 

 

Album review: Eight Rounds Rapid – Love Your Work

EightRoundsRapid1589444789702373In that little corner of England where the capital city pukes its guts into the sea, where urbane posturing ends and a stranger and more liminal way of life begins, there is an arts scene that has always had to shout to make itself heard. The area to the south of the Thames – particularly Kent’s Medway towns – was the cradle of the Young British Artists and the garage rock of Billy Childish and Holly Golightly. Further east, Margate beach had long been a site of pilgrimage for amphetamine-spooked mods. To the north, in the seaside towns of Essex, the pub rock scene of the 1970s found a natural home. This was music for dancing and fighting, made by and for young people who didn’t fit in with the region’s prevailing cultural and political conservatism.

At the centre of the pub rock universe were Canvey Island’s Dr Feelgood, a band who drew a line between hard-edged R&B and the nascent punk scene, and who seemed to soundtrack that point in any night out when the fun threatens to spill over into violence. Dr Feelgood didn’t peddle escapism. They confronted reality head-on, but they did so with groove and grit and wit, and to this day they sound great, especially when you’re pissed.

We could do with more bands like that now. And luckily enough we have Eight Rounds Rapid. The quartet are heirs to Dr Feelgood in the most literal of ways – guitarist Simon Johnson is the son of the great Wilko – and they build the same kind of angry energy in those very same Canvey Island boozers. But they aren’t interested in pedigree. In fact, one of Love Your Work‘s defining themes is the need for society to get away from its obsession with nostalgia, an obsession that poisons the music world with shit tribute bands and cash-ins masquerading as heritage acts. Eight Rounds Rapid are a more modern, more thrilling proposition than most of the music you’re likely to here in a pub these days, in Essex or anywhere else.

In terms of influence, they cast their net further than the pub rock scene. This, their third album, begins with the brief and visceral ‘You Wait’, which packs the minimalism of an estuary Buzzcocks, Ian Dury’s spirited vernacular and the pithy ire of The Fall into less than two minutes.

It’s a bracing beginning, but they manage to keep it going. ‘Passive Aggressive’ has a Wire-y post-punk feel to it. Singer David Alexander moves easily from a bratty whine to a vaguely threatening spoken monologue (‘you slimy little prick’) which bears comparison to Leeds tearaways Yard Act or Fleabag-punks Dry Cleaning. ‘Love Don’t’ packs a surprising groove, thanks to a rhythm section of Jules Cooper (bass) and Lee Watkins (drums), while Johnson’s clipped, speedy solos propel everything towards a clattering conclusion. Johnson brings a grainy distortion to ‘Future Estates’, while Alexander deftly itemises suburban ennui.

There are some well-positioned changes of pace too, which show off the band’s knack for a tune: the mid-tempo ‘Letter’ is like a snarly version of Chas and Dave, and ‘Mirror’ almost has an eighties pop shimmer to it, the opening guitar parts going to some distinctly Johnny Marr places. Muscular single ‘Eating’ tackles mindless consumption, while ‘Onesie’ is similarly scathing about selfie culture. Album closer ‘Ageing Athlete’ is an edgy wonder, full of disturbingly distorted applause, adulation morphing into a kind of mental breakdown.

Eight Rounds Rapid are hard to pin down. They’re sharp as fuck, and there is something arty about them – at times they sound like a kind of prolapsed Blur – and yet they are well aware that this kind of music puts energy and anger before intellectual posture. Lyrically, they seem to be sending up everything from Essex car-boy culture to cool kids in band t-shirts to wannabe Guy Ritchie gangsters, but you’re never quite sure whether it is really a send-up or a fond portrait. They’re not a straight-up punk or post-punk band – they’re way too contemporary for that – but neither do they fit into the IDLES/Sleaford Mods bracket. It is a unique combination of highly contemporary lyrical concerns and old-school pub-rocking methods. Love Your Work is spiky and brash, a brilliant example of how original and essential guitar music can be.

 

Love Your Work is released on 21st August on Tapete Records

Album review: Lavinia Blackwall – Muggington Lane End

From what we already know about Lavinia Blackwall, its tempting to make certain assumptions regarding the content of her debut solo album. As a vocalist in folk-rock favourites Trembling Bells she was a vital part of their unique sound and their often thrilling live presence, a classically trained soprano turned purveyor of pastoral psychedelia. With that in mind, and given Muggington Lane End’s evocative title and artwork, we might want to make a few guesses about its songs: there’ll be a big dollop of Sandy Denny in there, and maybe some bucolic Village Green-era Kinks, a dash of Donovan.

 

And for the most part, we wouldn’t be far off the mark. Opening track Nothing Is Wasted, for example, has all the hallmarks of classic Sandy Denny, right down to the winning combination of melancholic piano and folk-rock backing band. And even when it gets weird and wonderful – lyrics about mindfulness, a chorus that evokes faded fairground Edwardiana, an unexpected crunch of electric guitar – the obvious influences are all still there. But to dismiss it as an exercise in nostalgia is missing the point, because the way Blackwall has put all those elements together is highly original and highly accomplished.

There are surprises at every turn. There is a bounce to Troublemakers that recalls the Beatles and nineties Britpop, with the added bonus of some Sarah Records style guitar jangle, while the songcraft is worthy Oranges and Lemons-era XTC. The infectious country pop of Ivy Ladder conceals a tale of spooked oneiric nostalgia.

That wonderful voice gets plenty of exposure too, particularly on the classic folk rock balladry of songs like The Way That She Laughed, All Seems Better and the lovely, loping Keep Warm, which is where the Sandy Denny comparisons ring truest. There is a hint of darkness running through the record as well: the elegiac beauty and simplicity of Hold On To Your Love is tempered by its refrain of ‘death always comes to soon.’

But for the most part this an album of welcome air and sunlight, condensed in the delicious bubblegum of Waiting For Tomorrow (which sounds like the Monkees fronted by Maddy Prior) and John’s Gone, with its pleasing Mr Blue Sky vibe. There is a freedom to these songs, but also a tight instrumental cohesion, which makes the fact that they were recorded live – and mostly in a single take – all the more impressive.

As a member of Trembling Bells, Blackwall was adept at mixing a generous amount of experimentalism with all the retro sounds, and while it may seem like Muggington Lane End is rooted firmly in a bygone musical age, multiple listens unearth moments of strangeness and genuine inventiveness that are the hallmarks of a truly gifted songwriter. The brooding piano breakdown that comes halfway through closing track When Will All Come To Light (and precedes the album’s most startling and stunning moments) hints at the possibility of weirder and wilder things to come, but for now Muggington Lane End is perfect as it is: a much-needed, brilliantly sung and expertly crafted collection of summery folk-pop.

 

Album review: Waterless Hills – The Great Mountain

Waterless Hills is less a band and more a perfect storm of musicians. Drummer Andrew Cheetham (of Richard Dawson and Irma Vep fame) assembled a crack team of experimentally-minded musicians: fellow Manchester luminaries dbh (violin) and Gavin Clarke (bass) are joined by guitarist C Joynes (whose solo album The Borametz Tree was one of last year’s highlights), and the quartet recorded an album of semi-improvised instrumentals in a single day.

 

The Great Mountain is an involved and involving listen. Even without the traditional prop of lyrics, these pieces hint at multiple disparate references, from Brit folk-rock and desert blues to early cinema and modernist literature. The album is presented as a soundtrack to an imaginary film. It is inspired by cinema of the 1930s but shares something too with the Popol Vuh-scored 1970s work of Werner Herzog, in spirit if not in sound. There is a layer of sandy dust over the whole thing, pricked regularly by bursts of light in the form of Joynes’ rippling or ravaged guitar parts and dbh’s shrills of violin that fall like sheet rain.

Each of the eight pieces creates a distinct musical topography, but equally each scene is part of a wider panorama: the effect is a little like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities or Peter Greenaway’s beautiful short film, A Walk Through H. The musicians – and by association the listener – are explorers in illusory or imaginary landscapes, created seemingly on the fly. An Untidy Country Of Glaring Limestone is wide, wild and filmic, its percussive flourishes strewn like boulders across its dry, bright plain. The quartet’s improvisational skill is evident throughout; their ability to react to each other – and more impressively, to the musical world of their instantaneous collective vision – is remarkable.

While the music itself is not devotional, its seems inspired by acts of devotion, perhaps of an occult variety. They Squatted By The Tank In The Light Of A Lantern, which builds from a bedrock of free drumming and sinewy guitar to a hoary post-rock mid-part and a mournful violin fade-out, could be describing a simple act of concealment or something altogether more mysterious. And if post-rock and avant-folk are the main touchstones, there is much more variation than you might imagine. The lengthy Horns Lit By The Rising Sun is a flighty bit of free improv that knocks on the door of spiritual jazz, and closer The Eastern Side Of Walantar gallops in on a country groove and never lets up, attracting fragments of other genres – kraut rock, 60s psych – to it as it progresses.

There is never a dull moment on The Great Mountain, and not an ounce of flab. Every rise and fall, every shift in cadence and demented flourish and prolonged hush serve a greater purpose, and taken together it is thrilling.

 

The Great Mountain is released on 29th February 2020