Thursday, November 19, 2015

Strawberry Whiplash “Stuck In The Never Ending Now” (Matinée Recordings): The Hermit Crabs “In My Flat” (Matinée Recordings)

Here in the UK, that sweep of once-quiet days from late October through early November has turned into a confused, even hectic, time of year. When I were a lad, Halloween was barely a “thing”, Guy Fawkes’ night was just that - starting and stopping on 5th November – and, a few days later, Remembrance Day felt dignified, elegant and meaningful, wrapped largely around a solemn Sunday parade.

But now, as soon as the first late-year chills start to hang in the air we’re launched into an unforgiving month-long mélange of: drawn-out Halloween celebrations; random bonfires and firework-fests; an increasingly prickly and politicised poppy season; an admittedly welcome sprinkling of Diwali colour; and the first stirrings of our rapidly commercialised and wantonly over-extended Christmas season.

All this means that for days on end you find yourself entertaining trick or treating neighbourhood kids and sporting poppies of one colour or another at the same time as the TV schedules take on a festive flavour and the local youths launch fireworks outside your front door. You don’t know whether to smile or scowl or mourn or yawn.

But then suddenly the rockets stop landing in the garden, the minute’s silence passes for another year, the bonfires are extinguished, and left-over pumpkins are plonked into the food waste bins. You find, inamidst all that chaos, that autumn had secretly stolen into winter, and there’s now nothing to do but wait as we count down to Christmas Day, trapped in the haze of Mammon’s headlights, if looking forward to the blessed relief of a few days off work. It’s right then - right now - that we find ourselves most in need of new distractions, and in 2015 it’s Matinée Recordings who have answered our prayers with a brace of top-notch pop-Scotch albums from the very heights of their roster.

Strawberry Whiplash’s “Stuck In The Never Ending Now” is more mannered, less urgent and fuzzy than earlier outings (whilst only two songs on their excellent first LP made the three minute mark, this second full-length only has two below three minutes). Its grooves tread a knowing line between the (more tuneful) outings of the 80s anorak bands and the sincere sonic flower grooves of the 60s revivalists, all the time keeping listening hearts aflutter courtesy of Sandra’s knowing purr.

Our own pick of the songs here, the drivingly dapper Shop Assistants homage “Halcyon Morning”, is perhaps unrepresentative in that it sits towards the shambling, rather than the Byrdsy, end of that particular continuum, but there are plenty more perky treats on offer: other pearls well-worth diving for include “Never Ending Now” with its jauntily chugging guitars and excitable drum machine, or the confident, almost gilded opener, “Every Day The Sun Shines Brighter”.

One of the joys of the record throughout is the fact that although there are no long guitar solos or over-indulgent instrumental sections (let’s face it: if there were, this review might not be happening), virtually every track is embossed instead with a few bars of attractive little guitar lines, weaving in easy melody: your man Laz on the guitar there is a deft historian of nimble hooks, a skilled curator of cunning little riffs.

This, alongside Sandra’s stories of the ebb and flow of the years as they buffet us and pass us by (a “Now And Then” theme, as much-missed former Matinée darlings the Windmills would have had it) helps give this second LP continuity even as the ‘Lash flirt with a range of subtle variations (from the BMX Bandits-bossa nova of “Ride The Waves To The Shore” and the Cineramatic trills of “Too Close To Call” to the Pastels-y charms of “Fly Me Over The Rooftops” and the glock-bedecked “All I Ask For Is Everything”).

That said, there is nothing here that caused us to fall off our bar-stools with surprise (unlike their first album, which a tad unexpectedly delivered both the dizzy shoegaze of “Sleepy Head” & the assured dreampop of “Now I Know It’s You”).

There is more than enough consolation, however, in the record’s gorgeous denouement as “This Is All We Have”, picking up on the theme of sister act Bubblegum Lemonade’s “Have You Seen Faith?” single, reminds us that yes this is all there is, and there isn’t anyone looking out for us from the heavens, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing: our higher purpose is to be ourselves, and to live life to the fullest.

It feels hard to credit that it was all the way back in the summer of 2006 when the duo first crossed our path with “The Boy In The Bubble Car”, and we tumbled out our usual stuff about John Peel and the spirit of “cracking, fizzing flexis” and compared them to their compatriots the Fizzbombs and Baby Lemonade and yes, the Shoppies – lazy as that may sound, it was certainly high praise - so it’s doubly exciting to see them still going strong, on one of our favourite labels, close to a decade on. Cheers, and here’s to the next ten years of never-ending now.

The Hermit Crabs also explored matters temporal on their last release, “Time Relentless”, part of a discography which has also been building for around a decade, even if we only really started to warm to them, thanks in part to a tip-off from our old friend Sam, around the time of their “Correspondence Course” EP. The band therefore made their bow in these pages a mere six and a half years ago, though you mightn’t have spotted it given that it was in the middle of a novella-long reverie inspired by filthy-mouthed lost Bristol punk legends Chaotic Dischord. It happens.

Now, we find that the Hermit Crabs impress us more with each new release, just like the Would-be-Goods did: but just like the WBGs, we can't quite nail whether they are really ever-improving, growing subtly better with every record, or whether they’ve always been this brilliant and it’s us who are belatedly getting used to them, finally learning to appreciate them properly.

“In My Flat” was mostly recorded not in anyone’s flat, as far as we can tell, but in Boise, Idaho, which lends it an exotic flavour straight off, though we should emphasise that there’s nothing here that fans of the previous EPs shouldn’t lap up. This time around, there are also members of the Very Most in tow, but don’t let that put you off, because the instrumentation makes a telling contribution to the purpose and flow of this record, a record that feels sprightlier at times than “Stuck In The Never Ending Now” (reeling off a petite eight tracks in a mere 20 or so minutes), though it has its own fluctuations of tempo and timbre.

Difficult to know where to start, but with a dim memory of a sometime trip to Charles Saatchi's floating around, we’ll go for “Tracey Emin’s Bed”, a song of hit single quality if ever we’ve heard one. It captures songwriter and singer Melanie Whittle’s gift for combining a certain humour and whimsy with hints of real sadness: the uptempo jollity of the piano and guitars determinedly grates against the protagonist’s depression and loneliness (the latter theme also examined in the musically more contemplative “I’m A Fool”).

Otherwise, we’ve developed a special fondness for “Should I Drop You Off?” a tearjearking tour de force that benefits hugely from a mournful country twang and steel pedal vibe, but if that doesn’t sound like your staple diet please don’t fear, because the tumbling melodic cascades of “Stuart Murray” show how they have the whole pop-perfect thing all wrapped up (that Sauciehall Street ‘feel good factor’ hasn’t dissipated just yet), as do the jinglingly fresh opening and closing tunes “Bravado and Rhetoric” (lovely guitars, cooing backing vocals, P.U.N.K. girl theme) and “Did I Tell You That…?” (lovely everything).

So. Seems we’re not waiting for the winter any more. The days are short. The nights are cold (they’ll be even colder where these two bands hail from). Xmas is coming, like a big benevolent juggernaut, but a juggernaut still some roads away. In the meantime, in need of a soundtrack, we long for winter warmth where we can find it, and these two modern Matinée classics might just tide us over until we get to rip open the first door on that Advent calendar.

Monday, October 12, 2015

“Why Weren’t You Special?” Songs that should have made A-sides

Welcome back to in love with these times in spite of these times, the only indie-pop fanzine that’s owned by the system, and that was controlled by Babylon, but is now controlled by satanic power.

We know how things are: it’s hard to release ‘real’ singles now, especially vinyl ones. It costs a lot of money, and the pressing plants of the world now ‘boast’ turnaround times which mean that you’ll be lucky if your slated January single comes out by Christmas. Also, there’s no Top Of The Pops any more, so one of the key reasons for releasing a single – the childhood dream of that unlikely crossover hit launching you to a teatime TV audience of millions - has surely fallen by the wayside. But here in our ivory tower at in love with these times, in spite of these times HQ we’re forever wedded to the format, and we won’t necessarily insist on it being physical. In which case, as Wiley recently proved, there’s little limit to what you can do.

So we’ve put together a little cassette - a fresh C60 for y’all - of tracks from 2015 which weren’t A-sides, but really are good enough to be singles, and that you might – just – otherwise have missed. These are the songs that really ought to be on Now That’s What I Call Music 2015 this Xmas. But won’t be, unless some really mad s#!t happens. 

Side A

The Fireworks “Back To You”

A shot of deadly sherbet to the jugular. Had we the means, we would get about 50,000 copies of this pressed (on 7”, obviously), parachute them into record stores and then, if necessary, buy them all back - Louis Walsh-style - until we had several car boots’ full of them and the Fireworks were riding high in the charts. This wonderful, young Razorcuts-y gem is a torpedo in the eye of those who decry the state of present-day indie-pop and, were it not for the fact that Napalm Death’s “Cesspits” exists, it would likely be the best song of the year so far.

Kano “New Banger”

In honesty, we were not expecting a 2015 Kano B-side to be a likely candidate for one of the year’s more splendid tunes. The A-side, the Coki-produced “Hail” is not bad at all, if sadly unrelated to Bunny Nightlight’s charming cd-EP of yesteryear. However, “New Banger” totally blazes, with Kano at his most engaging as he breathlessly recounts growing up tales and street stories with conviction, wit and style. Hell, this may be the best thing he’s done since “Ice Rink” on white, or “P’s & Q’s”. 

Lunchbox “Paws of Destiny”

Oh me, oh my. As we remarked of their comeback album on Jigsaw Records last year, Lunchbox really have a way with tunes. Melodies simply abound: little ones, big ones, huge ones, snaking in and out everywhere. And on their ace six-track “Smash Hits” EP, also on Jigsaw, they’ve upped their game by going all kind of scuzzy-90s lo-fi, and speeding things up a notch. Yet all those melodies are still there, and they ring out through the gorgeous fuzz as clear and proud as the bells of every East End church put together.

Convict “213”

Convict are from the north-west (of the US rather than the UK) and, sneaking out on the always-worth monitoring Painkiller, this is from their demo tape, now ‘officially’ released as a six-track cassette called “Barred Life”. The bludgeoningly reductive minute or so of this, its opening ditty, reminds us of early Doom. Which is surely all that needs to be said in its favour. 

The Declining Winter “Around The Winding Roads And Hills”

We’re not the only ones who think this standout from the Declining Winter’s “Home For Lost Souls” should, in a less imperfect world, have been a single: Richard Adams, the man who wrote it, seems to think so too. “Roads And Hills” is probably the most muscular track on that LP, but that doesn’t stop it for a second from being romantic, misty, and full of longing for ever-distant horizons. We were genuinely upset when we discovered that a rare London gig from the Winter (just up the road in Dalston, too) clashed with us being out of the country for the first time in years.

While expressing our general love for the Declining Winter, we should also flag up: (a) their bloody lovely cover of “Reany Geia” on the Emotional Response Crabstick tribute EP; and (b) on a DW spin-off tip, the fact that the excellent "Wildness" EP, from the band that were nearly called Big Declining Electric, has now got a (v prettily-packaged) CD-r release, via Sound In Silence.

The Fall “Venice With The Girls”

That's right, them. This feels like an obvious single, and it kicked off their “Sub Lingual Tablet” album (their 31st, I believe) in bruisingly fresh style, but they sadly didn’t see fit to put out any 45s from the LP this time. “Venice With The Girls” is a catchy, swirly and almost poppy guitar stomp, with Smith’s vocals nowhere near as sluggishly drunken as they often get on Fall LPs these days. BTW, there are plenty of other decent songs on the album, albeit that many are rather longer and more repetitive: the main exception to that, and the other ‘should have been a single’, is the riotously and righteously Luddite album closer, “Quit I-Phone”.

SSS “For Your Own Good”

Technically this one came out last year (November, to be precise). But we missed it, just like we missed the Lightning In A Twilight Hour single around the same time. Why didn’t you tell us?

Anyway, after three albums on Earache which saw them transition from youthful thrashery to amazingly exciting skatecore to more grown-up but still punkish hardcore-meets-fast metal, it turns out that Liverpool’s ever-overlooked SSS decamped to Prosthetic Records (home of Trap Them) for a spiky fourth LP of fairly aggressive metallic thrashiness called “Limp. Gasp. Collapse” which - at its best - suggested that despite having seemingly lost a member, and acquired a few too many guitar solos, they’ve otherwise lost little of their fire or vitality. This is from that.

Violent Reaction “Leave Me Out”
Hard Left “Red Flag”

I don’t know how I feel about street-punk, really. I mean, I like it, obviously, but I wasn’t really expecting to confront it in 2015. Mind, in these straitened times, and in the wake of that dismal election result, it feels like there are so many barricades that wrongly remain unstormed. Who are we to say that a dab of strategically-targeted new wave of Oi, or a tongue in cheek but expertly-executed homage to “We Are The Firm”, “We Are The League” and “Angels With Dirty Faces” can’t help move this thing forwards?

Straightedge anthem “Leave Me Out” is from Violent Reaction’s “Marching On” LP on Revelation, which has grown on us mightily as its rattling express trains of tunes tangle Oi! influences with everyone from Violent Arrest to Negative Approach. Tunes like “Disorder” or the seriously anthemic title number are now very cosily ensconced in our heads, pogoing around those untended inner cranial cavities like toddlers on a bouncy castle. Musically there’s an obvious debt to the rabble rousers of earlier waves of UK punk, and there are severe lyrical beatings for gentrifiers, hipsters, crust-fund punkers and druggies as well as the celebrations of positive identity like “Street Dogs” or “Marching On” itself. 

Hard Left are comprised of some of the genii who have helped bring us incredible records over the years, like those two Whorl singles, like “Indecision”, like “He Gets Me So Hard”, like “Summer’s Over”, like “Throw Aggi Off The Bridge”. That’s some roll call of 45s right there. Although “We Are Hard Left”, the LP from which this comes, doesn’t really sound like any of them, of course. Instead, this is apparently Oakland street punk.

I’m not qualified to judge its ‘real-ness’ (any more than I can tell how authentically Violent Reaction pad the Merseyside mean streets), but I can judge whether it makes me want to FIGHT. And laugh. And occasionally laugh and fight and smile (and pummel pummel pummel David Cameron’s face as he prays the Magna Carta in aid of repealing the Human Rights Act: I know Jimmy Pursey would be with me). And songs like "Red Flag" do all those things. Set against the pavement-chewing anger of “Marching On”, the more knowing “We Are Hard Left” almost feels like a pop album – or the ghost of early SLF, as fronted by Wolfie Smith - but it's the real deal, nonetheless. 

Bishop “Infinite Confinement”

Straight from the US, we got a fabulous LP from Bishop this year, “Everything In Vein”, exhibiting a kind of powerviolence/hardcore blend that recalls everyone from Kill The Client to Looking For An Answer. This is one of half a dozen true Exocets of high-falutin riffage that are compressed within its somewhat indispensable grooves.

Side B

Milky Wimpshake featuring Sophie Evans “You Don’t Look Twice”

Over the decades now, Christine and Pete’s unstoppable pop machine have been, without exaggeration and on whatever basis you analyse it, one of the best bands in world history. And this year, they’ve dealt us a bright and rather poppy new album about love and class war, “Encore, Un Effort!” (on Fortuna Pop! of course), serving up several upbeat treats and some well-chosen cover versions, although there is sadly no 7” pressing of this mighty opening track from it.

The introduction of Sophie may be the best thing since Jazzie B co-opted Caron Wheeler, and on this song the ‘Shake go for a “dual vocal” instead of the neatly feisty duets that make up much of the rest of the LP (NB the album, as well as being a bit of a “return to form”, features (a) Milky Wimpshake’s first football song; (b) a tune written and sung entirely in French; and (c) a certain Close Lobsters classic that then spins out into what sounds like the clanging chords at the end of “My Favourite Dress”).

Raghunath "Krishna Jinka Naama Hai"

What the...? Well, Raghunath Das was once known as Ray Cappo, and in days of yore the New Yorker fronted straightedge kings Youth Of Today with industrial-sized dollops of charisma and ebullience. Now, as committed as ever to 'conscious' art, he's ventured into his first 'traditional' record of kirtan (a kind of Indian devotional music) and as homely as this track sounds - a saccharin chorus line, peppered with naif handclaps and some seriously fired-up bongo playing - this song wins you over utterly, not least because it boasts a (seriously catchy) peach of a tune. It's on the LP "Krishna Kirtan: Music As Meditation" on Equal Vision Records.

Hard Left “Red Flag” (Downpour remix)

The aforesaid Hard Left LP release was accompanied by a bandcamp EP on which Echo Wanderer and Downpour set about on the remix tip with glee: the former’s take on “Imagination” will have you scuttling back to your Clash and Ruts dubs, albeit that EW updates those for the 21st century. However, we have to stick with Downpour, of course, who can do no wrong with their unyielding 1990s D&B-ravaged ‘electrwrongica’, and they proceed to do no wrong with aplomb on this jitteringly danceable re-work of “Red Flag”. “Version!

True Vision “Foolproof”

Another cassette (actually, just the tip of a cassette iceberg, because they seem to be damn-near everywhere this year), this time a self-titled 5-tracker from Leeds’ True Vision, as they add to the legacy of that city’s greats (you know, Manhattan Love Suicides, Lorimer, TWP, Gang of Four, Edsel Auctioneer... Actually, weren’t Gentle Despite from Leeds, too? And Esmeralda’s Kite?)

This frenetic, minute-long pneumatic drill of a punk anthem from a band that features members of both Violent Reaction and the Flex is possibly better than anything on the latter’s recent 7”EP, if not quite up to the standards of most of the former’s album. Like a lot of stuff these days, it’s somewhere between London 1978 and New York 1994 (but without being, erm, the middle of the Atlantic 1986).

Terrorizer “Collapse”

No, this is not actually a ‘new’ tune – the last thing that the surviving members of Terrorizer chalked on the board is still 2012’s “Hordes Of Zombies”. That said, this outtake from the “World Downfall” sessions hasn’t been released before and only surfaces now on a somewhat ‘for fans only’ (that’s us, then) double-CD comp of early Terrorizer rarities & obscurities, “Before The Downfall”, on F.O.A.D. It’s great to hear something fresh with original singer Oscar Garcia’s vocals on (before he became Brighton and Watford manager, obviously). 

Hatebeak “Seven Perches”

I suspect it was just one of those “Eureka!” moments when the musicians of Hatebeak realised that what grindcore needed was a parrot on vocals, and how that made perfect, perfect sense, so long as you got the right parrot on board. Luckily, Waldo is just that, a charismatic front-parrot who adds plenty to Hatebeak’s clanging riffage, and whose talents put a few human vocalists to shame.

This is a great track from an LP on Reptilian Records this year that combines some old EP tracks (one was on a split single with a band whose lead vocalists were two dogs) with all-new parrot grind. We’d have loved to see Seven Perches on seven inches.

Lightning In A Twilight Hour “Starfields”

After raving about “Slow Changes”, we never got around to any verbiage on LIATW’s full-length follow-up record, “Fragments Of A Former Moon”. We’re fixing that now, because there are some tender wonders on there, not least single teaser “The Memory Museum” and the desperately pretty “Unanswered” (in which Bobby gives you lucky listeners his hotel room number). But right up with those are the slender instrumental joys of songs like “Taking The Figure Out Of The Landscape” and this one, “Starfields”, which closes the album (and this tape) with a pristine glaze of sound, wrung out from lonely guitar chords. Undeniably exquisite, and quite, quite beautiful.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Cappo & Nappa “Rebel Base” (King Underground)

Notts’ hot. A mere, erm, two years after the taster 12”, “Red Hot”, we now at last have Cappo and Nappa’s full-length “Rebel Base” collaboration on King Underground, spread out as is traditional over four sides of gratifyingly black vinyl.

Like the single that long preceded it, the album is a fecund combination of DJ Nappa’s funk-drenched retro samples and Cappo’s raw, combative wordplay, closer to the feel of the latter’s LP with Styly Cee than his more cerebral/experimental “Genghis” set (although there are moments, like the tingling “Still Me”, in which the MC’s more contemplative side shines through). Welcome signs that it’s “business as usual” for Caps include metaphors that invoke a typically disparate roll call of names, from Charles Dickens to Chris Morris via Basquiat and Manny Pacquiao; and song titles that reflect the sentiment and seriousness of his rhyme philosophy: “Originate”, “Commitment Statement”, “Honour Code”, “The Discipline”… as you know, in our humble op he is up with the all-time greats.

As well as the distinctly rejuvenating DJ Premier-inspired licks of “Red Hot” (which has rather grown on us in the LP’s two-year gestation period!) highlights for us include the “Loyalty”-like piano-backed “Originate”, the brash brass of opener “Commitment Statement”, the darkly minimal no-prisoner “The Gift”, the slick & slinky MGUN-ish IDM of "Elite Marine", the disco-prowling prowess of "Kaos" and its hungry bassline, and the sound of Luton Town turning East Coast as Nappa nimbly helms the Bomb Squad-style "Get Live". And there’s the statutory sampled nod to P.E. too (“Rebel BASS!” intones Chuck, inevitably, on side two). Indeed, there's a more than liberal sprinkling of classic old-skool samples across the LP.

With sixteen ‘proper’ tunes on show, the only real dilution of quality comes during the occasional guest spots: much as it’s terrific to hear the likes of Midnyte (of “No Pills, No Thrills” ‘fame’) and Konny Kon (whose CV boasts “Capkon Entertaiment” and “Stay Ex-Static”) again, it’s hard for the invited MCs here to quite keep up with Cappo’s confident stride, the only exception being “The Man”, in which both the mighty Life MC (once, like Nappa, of Phi Life Cypher) and the legendary MCM bring real gravitas to the table.

Unfortunately the vinyl of this is ludicrously limited - we managed to garner one of just 250 – and, as goes hand in hand with that, almost ruinously expensive, but we don’t think any sensible punter will regret spending the £7.99 you can get the full soundfiles for over at bandcamp. Taken alongside Scor-Zay-Zee’s prodigious “Peace To The Puzzle” back in the spring, “Rebel Base” is another example of how Nottingham’s finer flows (and we’re not talking about the Trent) still swirl sublimely around the very pinnacle of UK hip-hop.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Niereich “Ventricular (Remixes)” (Nachtstrom Schallplatten): Ryuji Takeuchi “Invisible Armor EP” (Local Sound Network): Loop “Array #1” (ATP Recordings)

Greetings, comrades. Fuck the Tory party conference (obviously). Instead, why don’t we sit down and listen to three singles that, between them, last an hour and a half…?

First off are four blokes we’ve never heard of, remixing a solid but fairly nondescript track from an affable but unremarkable album. On the face of it, then, this “Ventricular” remix EP, re-harvesting a tune from Niereich’s “Ghosts & Flowers” long-player last year, does not provide the recipe for essential listening. But sometimes we relish such challenges, and Niereich is an artist good enough to go the extra mile for. Also, this 12” on Nachtstrom Schallplatten is on clear red vinyl, so plenty decorative. Our little heads can be turned by such things.

So if “Ventricular” once felt like a story without an ending, it now has four: Joachim Spieth’s subtler re-fashioning of the song provides the right jump-off, Kessell transforms it into a chiming, discombobulated repeto-fest, Flug decides to pilot it into the outer reaches of the galaxy before crashlanding on a planet festooned with craters fair frothing with spacey synth loops, and Dave Tarrida then returns it live and direct to the dancefloor, drawing on the original’s punishing, rattling rhythms.

“Remixes” can’t match the calibre of 2014’s “Das Testament” 12” on Overdrive, which contained four mixes (including the original) of that doozy: nor does any one of these re-interpretations hit the somewhat dizzying heights of Mike Humphries’ Testament remix, which threatened at times to redefine the word “addictive”. But, with at least three of these redux Ventriculars overhauling the original, the whole package is definitely worth the extra effort.

Now. Like last year's tour de force "No Way Out", Ryuji Takeuchi’s new EP (English translation: “Invisible Armour”) pairs claustrophobic RT originals with guest remixes. Unlike "No Way Out", however, each side of the 12" kicks off with the remix, so you get to hear the variation before you've heard the theme, if you catch our drift. Here, the would-be Rachmaninovs are Glaswegian producerbloke Deepbass, and Canada's Obscene Mannequin: the former smooths out the untamed barbs of the bracing "Silhouette" (imagine “Vital”’s factory haze, punctured by what sound like at least different two car alarms going off) into a shimmering white sea of easy-bubbling synth patter, yet still maxes out the original's somewhat brooding atmosphere.

On the other side of the record, on which the Takeuchi version of “Veil” splices a shimmering and insistent synth line with a distinctly un-shimmering industrial percussive sledgehammer (take that, Paganini), Obscene Mannequin’s 'pre-mix' manages to shred both synth and the sledgehammer, opting instead for a mannered 4/4, yet if anything its sinister, frothing grooves up the intensity still further.

Speaking of intensity, here come Loop with their comeback single, “Array”. Yes, single, whatever ATP say. It’s got 4 tracks; it’s a single. It has A and B sides, not “one” and “two”; it’s a single. It may play at 33rpm (as do the two records above), but that’s because it’s a very long single, their first since (approx) the invention of the internal combustion engine.

The opening “Precession”, the token newie previewed at their Garage show last year, may not be able to dislodge “Collision”, “Black Sun” or “Got To Get It Over” in our all-time affections, but its churning iridescence just-as-sweetly announces that Loop are right back in the zone: then, after the crawling heart of another fairly classic Loop tune, “Aphelion”, comes the *major* “Coma”, which is a beautiful, minimalist and beatless seven-minute drone, just as compelling as Lull, or last year’s A New Line (Related) 7”. And “Coma” in turn lays a pathway for the epic “Radial”, on the B-side, a piece in three movements which splices another riff-led guitar loop inbetween piquant slabs of cooled white noise over sixteen not unsumptuous minutes.

Many have tried to emulate Loop over the decades, but the truth is this: in other hands, this kind of music often feels self-indulgent. Few have Robert Hampson’s continuing talent for making the repetitive seem so accessible, and the epic sound so fresh.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Wiley “Chasing The Art” (Island): Wiley “Wickedest MC Alive” (Chasing The Art): Wiley “25 MCs” (Chasing The Art): Wiley featuring JME “Gotta Be Strong” (Chasing The Art): Wiley featuring Cadell “Shredded Wheat” (Chasing The Art): Wiley “Lost Property” (Chasing The Art): Wiley “Send Me The Riddim” (Chasing The Art): Wiley featuring Flowdan and Scratchy “Cypress Hill” (Chasing The Art): Wiley “Outchea” (Chasing The Art): Cadell x Wiley “Fair And Square” (Hotline Distributions): Wiley “#8” (Chasing The Art)

I remember when it was all fields round here. Nothing standing for miles around, save us, Tangents, Stolen Kisses and Kitten Painting. But even then, Wiley seemed to release about 30 albums and mixtapes a month.

Some of you will remember how he dominated these pages around 2003-2005, especially. The thing is, we *never* fell out of love with the Grand-duke of Eski’s manic energy, positive attitude and extreme work ethic: we just never had the time to keep up with his relentless release schedule, churning out dozens of tracks at a time. Then, this summer, in order to launch his new “Chasing The Art” sub-label, Wiley announced, in a reasonable contender for the most welcome tweet ever: “For the next 8 weeks I am releasing 1 single a week.”

Like you, we were slightly surprised he hadn’t already done that, but it still knocks even David Gedge’s 1992 single a month conceit into the proverbial cocked hat. And we loved it, because it was simple and instant, and only required three minutes a week to investigate, and then if you liked the singles, there was plenty of time to put them on loop.

Obviously, Wiley being Wiley, he couldn’t quite limit himself to just the 8 singles, so as a prelude he issued another one, “Chasing The Art” (a Heavytrackerz joint) on the parent label, on which he tells us about the concept behind the sub-label (remember, this is how Wiley communicates with his public: issuing whole songs as broadcasts, when others might think that a press release or a solitary tweet sufficed). And even in the midst of the eight-week run proper, he managed to team up with Cadell – this time on the latter’s own imprint - for yet another single, “Fair And Square”, which was billed as Cadell x Wiley, but quite blatantly most of it is Wiley, so it should really have been Wiley x Cadell (yes, one incontrovertible truth highlighted by many of this year’s most rewarding singles is that “x” is the new “vs.”) *And* he also apparently changed his mind about which eight singles to release even after he’d started releasing them, because a couple of the tunes listed on the original flyer never appeared, no doubt overtaken by his sheer fondness for the thrill of the new, their replacements cooked up from scratch in precious minutes of studio downtime.

Anyway. Apparently our long-winded style is no longer welcome in this social media-shackled age. So we’ll keep this bit short(ish). “Wickedest MC” (unusually, one of only two self-produced singles from the eight) and “Send Me The Riddim”, a Teeza production which pays reasonable hommage to Wiley’s beatmaking style, are the tunes you need to hear first: both fair crackle with his breathless, ferocious non-stop rhymes expounding E3 philosophy, with the former containing a feisty a cappella drop out which makes us realise how much we could do with more raw, pure vocal freestyles full stop. The effervescent, Teeza-helmed “Lost Property” is not far behind; nor is Swifta Beater’s “25 MCs”, which takes things a little more slowly (though remember, this is relative) and sees Wiley memorably rhyme ‘Skepta’ with “clapped-out Vectra”. The final single, “Outchea” - a "Gertcha" for the 2010s, surely - even features one Maniac at the controls (long time no hear, though with very good reason).

The handful of guest MC spots vary in success: Flowdan and Scratchy both provide killer stanzas on Wiley’s other production job, “Cypress Hill”, but the single with (and produced by) JME, "Gotta Be Strong", is the one that most seems to lack a sense of purpose (almost as if they thought having Jamie A and Wiley on the track was enough in itself, although to be fair it usually is). And “Shredded Wheat” and “Fair And Square”, which came out within days if not hours of each other, are certainly good companions, as JB Priestley might have had it, but Cadell can’t quite match his exhilarating bars on the new Merky Ace EP.

Overall, though, the quality of this summer blitz of singles from this great survivor, the Bobby Wratten of grime, is better than we could sensibly have hoped for. It’s not just about the delivery, either, as the lyrical themes remain as “can-do” constructive as ever: a bit like Ice-T (albeit in days of yore, and an ocean away), you just know that if only the kids would all listen to him, the kids would be all right. And if you’re more of a “one click” merchant, rather than download all the CTA singles separately you can, as of this week, find them all (the whole Bow-pourri, ha) on “#8”, Wiley’s equivalent of the Wedding Present’s “Hit Parade” volumes.

It seems strange, in a way, that even now new releases from Wiley provide us with a bridge between today and those halcyon years of early Fortuna Pop! 7”s through the letterbox, an active Shinkansen roster, and our fledgling website, but we’re ever-grateful for such sentimental baggage, as well as for the mighty beats.

But if we return (with becoming reluctance) to the present, maybe the most exciting thing of all is this. As good – even great - as some of these singles are, none of them are as dandy as a few other artists' grime singles from 2015 so far. My goodness, there have been some bangers, many gracing 12” vinyl. But we won’t bore you further, don’t worry. Those - for now - are for us to know about and enjoy, and for you to discover for yourselves.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Come Rain Or Shine: The Popguns “Still Waiting For The Winter” EP (Matinée Recordings)

Welcome back to in love with these times, in spite of these times, the indie-pop fanzine that’s owned by the system and controlled by Babylon.

The reasons are legion, I suspect, why we never came to be as accepted as we’d once hoped within the international brotherhood and sisterhood of indie-pop blogs. There are the known reliability and punctuality issues, although our high-tech phalanx of robot engineers are working tirelessly behind the scenes to try and fix these. And there is the alleged tendency to start reviews, when they do eventually emerge, by wandering off at an inconsequential tangent, when any readers who might be left after 16 years of this are probably hoping their perseverance be rewarded by at least an attempt to describe the record in the blog post title, instead of having to scroll through a roundabout, laboured and in all likelihood irrelevant point by way of “introduction”. Anecdotally, we understand that the digressions about digressions are the most enervating of all.

But maybe there’s a more fundamental tenet of indie-pop philosophy on which we fall short; a deeper reason why we find ourselves locked out of the love-in. And it strikes us, as we narrowly dodge a lorry whilst sprinting across the A1 just to secrete ourselves on the shady side of the street, that perhaps it’s this: the fact that we’ve never, truth be told, been particularly fond of the summer, that super sunny summer season of sunny sundae smiles that all our favourite indiepop tunes are apparently meant to endlessly soundtrack. Here at our indefatigably miserabilist capital city HQ, we’ll take sodden autumn or glistening snowscape over T-shirt weather and ‘son of Intertoto’ nonsense every day, and the fourth Undertones single is probably the one we love the least (I know, new heresies daily. It could be the “Please Rain Fall” vs. "Solace" controversy all over again).

Don’t get us wrong, summer is peachy – well, apart from the hay fever, the sunburn, the sweating, the traffic fumes hanging in the air, the hothouse of the Underground, and that curse of "British people in hot weather" (© M.E. Smith) as pavements froth with blotchy red-faced blokes who can't hold their ale and the parks teem with loudly yapping fairweathers in their hipster finery, oh, and “midges hover in the heather" (er, M.E.S. again) - it’s just that sometimes, just to escape the scene’s fetishisation of the sporadic heatwaves of midsummer, we’d rather be reminded of where our natural affinities lie, of the incomparable beauty of those months of shorter days and longer nights: how a coating of snow makes the evening bright, the roads aflame as the lamplights reflect the white. Or something. Thus we spend July and August waiting for the winter… hoping for the rain… that sort of thing (yes, we’re getting there at last. It’s a bit like listening to Thought for the Day, isn’t it, when you have to wait patiently for the “bridge” at which they segue the topic they started with into the actual bit about God).

So where we find *our* heaven at this time of year is in a summer single with a distinctly hivernal flavour. *Especially* when it comes from a First Division outfit like Brighton’s own Popguns, following their formidable assault on anno domini 2014 via the dual media of live entertainment and recorded sound.

The title tune of this EP, plucked from their comeback - and for what it’s worth, their best - long-player, “Pop Fiction”, is of course a sequel of sorts to their second single, the blistering “Waiting For The Winter” (which would become 1/9th of “Eugenie”, one of those compact discs which was never in its case because it basically lived in our CD player back then). When a band, all grown-up, knowingly references its back catalogue (rather than just endlessly recycling it) the results can be very affecting: think of the Mary Chain’s delicate and touching “Never Understood”, for example. It can also produce surprisingly powerful results when the band play the two songs in quick succession, as the Popguns did at the Borderline last year.

”Still Waiting” positively revels in the chance to prove that it’s a humdinger of a single in its own right: it lightly deploys some of the chord sequences and lyrics from the original 45, but feels more measured and reflective, with a narrative that from the start - as Wendy paints a picture of a wedding disco ringing in the distance - juxtaposes the aspiration of youth and the wisdom of experience, before finally combining the two in a dual-vocal final flourish. If you then go back and listen to the original (1989!) single again, it strikes you how frantic that is by comparison, despite all the hooks and melodies: a whipped-up storm of guitars underpinning passionate lyrics about changing, becoming bitter, angrier and more confused. You really feel you need a sit down.

Handily, then, the rest of the new EP is mellow and more downtempo, but despite its calming wiles the songwriting and settings make it as dramatic – and as pretty! – as the impressive suite of songs that made up the album. “BN3” (Hove, Actually) rings with the fresh, lilting guitar chimes of those Morrissey/Marr ballads, via the unlikely first-verse setting of a cricket ground, before giving way to Kate’s superb “Why You Fell In Love With Me”, a knowing meditation on love and loss that sets the seafront-sur-Cuckmere against the Mississippi, and that we can half-imagine the great Crystal Gayle turning her tonsils to. The fourth and final treat, “Diane’s Song”, fits swimmingly with the wintry timbre of the whole record, as Wendy sings movingly of break-up and death (both can be brutal, but the memories are worth treasuring, even at the cost of teardrops dripped on the back seat of a taxi). The arrangement is stark and absolutely compelling. And then, with the sun sinking back down behind the cityscape for the very last time, Diane’s lament softly concludes: “alone in the dark, synapses spark / dreams of the melodies / that flow to my heart”. Then silence.

All this makes “Still Waiting For The Winter” an extended play that provides a sparkling oasis of respite from the industrial doses of techno, grime, and Napalm Death that have otherwise been bossing the turntable here. And in doing so it amply makes its point. Records like this are why – however disengaged or disentangled we get from our indie-pop roots at times – we know we’ll always find ourselves hankering for more. Whatever the weather.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bristol Rovers v Grimsby Town, Conference Play-off Final, 17 May 2015

As always, the people that get paid oodles of sponduliks to brand things got it wrong.

They packaged the Vanarama (ugh) Conference final – the match to decide which of two teams gets to return to the promised land of the Football League – as the “Big Day Out”, as if the teams playing it were plucky village part-timers, and their fans were provincial oiks who would be simply thrilled, honey, whatever the result, by the mere opportunity of a trip to glamorous London and the chance to picnic in the concrete environs of the “National” Stadium at Wembley. But whilst this may be the fifth division, it’s still chocker with professional teams, many of whom pull in several thousand punters every other Saturday. Some even have brighter pasts: only a generation ago Bristol Rovers and Grimsby Town were playing each other in what is now the Championship (I was there, else I’d hardly believe it myself). Even now, between them, these two teams have persuaded more than 47,000 people to attend a non-league football match.

Trouble is, for many of us, this really really wasn’t a “day out”, and the fact it was at Wembley was pretty much meaningless (apart from that being one of the few grounds that could accommodate the demand for tickets; and being, by virtue of a few Jubilee line stops short of Barnet FC, the closest Rovers game this season to in love with these times in spite of these times HQ). No, this was merely the 49th league game of a gruellingly long season, and one in which – for the very first time – Bristol Rovers had our destiny in our own hands. If we could win – by any means necessary, he said, channelling KRS-One – then that and that alone would justify the trip. If we couldn’t, we’d have been better off having our ‘big day out’ at the seaside instead. That sounds terrible, I know, but we were desperate.

And don’t get us wrong – we’ve enjoyed trips to showpiece finals before with BRFC. The old Wembley in 1995, the Millennium Stadium in 2007, the new Wembley in 2007. We even won the last of those. And in each one of them, there was a real excitement and passion in the stands, and a perfect reaction on the pitch. Players from both teams raising their games, rising to the occasion. 

Not today. Not from the Rovers XI or supporters, anyway. Grimsby’s fans – who should surely have been at their wits’ end too, after four seasons shackled “below deck” in the Conference – seemed to cope much better with the tension. Even before the game, they were singing and shouting and *supporting*. We weren’t, and I feel bad that I wasn’t, but it just felt like business, business that needed to be done, and that we needed to get on with and get over with, as we tried to find a silver lining and tried to forget about the General Election and the policies already announced by a new Government, and tried to forget surely the worst-ever automatic promotion combination from League One.

And so kick-off came. At last, it was time for the big match. The Pirates against the Mariners. West against East. Tramway against Pete Green. Norman Mailer and Cary Grant against a layer of chips. Niereich vs. Hackler & Kuch. You get the picture.

Now. I’ve developed something of an obsession about not conceding early goals. This century, I rarely expect my beloved Rovers to win, draw or even score. All I ask is that they try and last five minutes in a match without going behind. That seems a sensible, eminently achievable approach. You would have thought it wasn’t too much to ask: a few hoofs upfield, waste time at a throw-in, pass it around the back, or mess around near the corner flag. And yet I still get flashbacks…

Millennium Stadium, 2007: Forget the World Cup or the FA Cup, it’s the Johnstone Paints Trophy final. Rovers keep Doncaster to 0-0 for… three minutes. (They’re 2-0 up after five). 

Wembley Stadium, 2007: League Two play-off final (that’s The Fourth Division, in old money). Learning from their terrible start a couple of months earlier, Rovers hold Shrewsbury at bay for… oh. Two and a half minutes. Luckily, we recover to eventually win… but why make it so hard for yourselves?

So. Wembley 2015. Can we at least do better than 2007? Twice bitten, once shy?

No. Of course we can’t. Grimsby take the lead on 1 minute 40 precisely. The reaction from the Grimsby massive is a deafening wall of white noise, a morsel of Metal Machine Music. From that point on, the Rovers team were jittery, us fans subdued. It was a collective “here we go again”, it was 20,000+ people thinking, “Rovers, why do you always do this to us?” and it would herald 120 minutes spent shuffling uncomfortably in my seat, tearing my greying hair out, staring blankly towards the pitch, leaning back and taking deep breaths.

After the opening half hour - in which Rovers were frankly a shambles and Grimsby could and should have extended their deserved lead – Ellis Harrison struck an equaliser, which nobody saw coming, and which we greeted with relief and surprise more than elation. On the pitch, at least, Grimsby then slowly but surely sank to our level, and the remaining hour of normal time and half an hour of extra time passed with defences on top, the ball permanently in the air, and no passes being strung together whatsoever. Up in the stands, England manager Roy Hodgson was being subjected to all this too: it must have been the worst game he’d seen since England-Costa Rica in the World Cup.

Off the pitch, their fans continued to put us to shame and (occasional Goodnight Irenes aside) completely drowned us out. Once Ellis departed with cramp on 77, it seemed pretty clear to this mug punter that there were no goals left in the game. The only thing that cheered me was the boldness of Rovers doing a van Gaal on 120 minutes and putting on our substitute ‘keeper for the inevitable penalty shoot-out decider. It was a smart move from the gaffer, something that likely made no difference to the outcome but that at least suggested boldness, that gave us fans a buzz, a spark, a level of intrigue to toy with.

But if the penalty shoot-out was inevitable, what happened in it was more surprising. It surprised me, anyway. Because the Rovers players, with their leaden legs and generally underperforming bodies, suddenly turned into invincible Adonises as we put away 5 out of 5 penalties with alarming skill and composure, even at the end of the pitch surrounded by the fantastic and noisy Grimsby fans. I think I knew we’d made it when Angelo Balanta, not a man who has exactly set the Conference on fire, planted a perfect penalty, as if he was Le Tissier or Franny Lee or something. GTFC, for their part, skied just the one over the bar and that was all it took for the die to be cast.

This is a dream I thought would never see the light of day” (I turn to Catapult at moments like this, and indeed many other moments).

So now we’re back where we were a year ago. The Fourth Division. It seems mad to celebrate that so much, when until 2000 we’d never been as low as… The Fourth Division. But coming straight back up from the notoriously hard-to-escape Conference - just ask Grimsby - is quite an achievement, as is 1 defeat in 32 games (at any level). Please, please, please though, let us never go there again. For their part Grimsby, we think, must be near-favourites to come up next year.

Especially given the averageness of this BRFC performance, I’ll be more than happy if we can just get back to finishing 12th every year, like we did under Ian Atkins. And perhaps – just for once – with a manager who won us promotion – Rovers fans could try not to call for his sacking when we don’t win our first couple of games…?

Until then, let’s enjoy the summer. Altogether now:

I knew a girl who wore a blue ribbon in her hair / She wore that ribbon in the merry month of May…”

Friday, May 08, 2015

Niereich "Democratic System Fail" (Moreforecs): Cindy "Cindy Is Joining The Liberal Democrats" (Vent Germany): The Charlie Tipper Experiment “You Made Me Homeless” (Breaking Down Recordings)

An election special. A General Election-themed singles round-up special, in fact.

If you were feeling bloody-minded enough, dear reader, you could argue that "Democratic System Fail" isn't technically a single, but we've got it on vinyl (albeit a sampler 12”, on which it sits, coquettishly preening itself, alongside three other tracks from Moreforecs' "Especial Aniversario" comp), and that makes it single enough in our book.

After overrunning our best of 2014 list, and fresh from his confident and trance-ish "7 Skies" crossover collab with Krischmann & Klingenberg earlier this year, Graz's Niereich unfurls an assured, minimalist combination of locomotive percussion and glacial synth which sounds not unlike Moevalith covering “Everything’s Gone Green” in a blizzard. And, after all, general elections are like blizzards. Blizzards of shit. Although I’m not convinced that the democratic system has really failed us: it’s just as arguable that we have failed it, what with voting a mendacious cabal of callous sociopaths back into office.

Next on the turntable is the ever-mysterious Cindy. She (he, it, they?) follows up last year’s frantic fantasy "In A Perfect World She Kills Marine Le Pen And Nigel Farage" with a new four-track 12" on Vent, “Cindy & Her Fuckin' Liberal Ideas For Track Names”, on which she cooks up a full-on sprinkling of the freshest European techno, liberally dosed with hints of acid (opener "Cindy + MSLWTE = Pure Love", which boasts a positively chastening acid line, is surely her finest moment yet). “Joining The Liberal Democrats”, the last song on the EP, is combative, muscular and frankly a bit repetitive, but derives added spice from the slivers of extra percussion which zig-zag frenziedly around the mix, like Chris Huhne trying to avoid a speed camera.

And we know that Cindy’s song titles are tongue-in-cheek (though the humour at play provides some cheer after a night of vintage, 1992-style election depression), but if she actually did join the LDs they might have a chance of winning some votes again one day, not least because she would surely kick out any remaining Orange Bookers before suppertime.

Best of these three, though, is the Charlie Tipper Experiment’s bespoke election single, “You Made Me Homeless”, clad in modest CD-r sleeve. There’s something a touch early McCarthy-ish about its brittle swirl of guitars, but whereas McCarthy would have written words of withering sarcasm, probably in the guise of a first-person narrative from an presumably unrepentant Iain Duncan Smith, “You Made Me Homeless” takes a different lyrical route, being a j’accuse from someone at the sharp end of Coalition policy, who contrasts his own travails with the warm parlours and living rooms of those who instigated them. Fittingly, any profits from the single go to Shelter.

The lyrical message may not be particularly original, but it does need saying (seemingly again and again). How many decades – actually, as evidenced by the William Morris tracts that Darren Hayman sets to music so movingly on his “Chants For Socialists” album, how many centuries - of the much-vaunted “trickle-down effect” *plainly* not working do we need to endure before those in power might admit it exacerbates inequality, and solves nothing?

The song builds to a plateau in which the protagonist’s plea – that the deeds of those who rule will come back to haunt them – echoes around the mix, accompanied by suitably haunting cornet trills. The fact that is all a victim of the relentless "austerity drive" can seemingly do – wish some kind of karmic comeback on an otherwise untouchable Establishment – only adds to the pathos of it all. That, and the deadening realisation that we now have at least five more years of this in store.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Mariners and Pirates Ahoy

Attention, fans of non-league football and indie-pop blogs: in love with these times, in spite of these times and the inestimable a layer of chips are - finally - doing battle at Wembley Stadium on 17th May. ALAC will be represented by the hallowed black and white stripes of Grimsby Town FC, while this fanzine’s proxies on the pitch, Bristol Rovers FC, will be donning their BMW-ish blue and white quarters (as modelled above). A surprising percentage of the players will sport trendy beards.

May the best team win (unless it’s them).

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Scor-Zay-Zee “Aeon: Peace To The Puzzle” (GangstaMusic)

Older readers may dimly recollect our longtime love for Notts’ own Scor-zay-zee. Having belatedly discovered his early work with that city’s prized-by-Westwood OutDaVille crew, we lapped up the 1 Xtra-rotated P Brothers collaboration “Great Britain” (“full of undisputable truths… a description of a godless country living on credit, reinventing conscious rap”), his guest stint on Cappo LP track “Speak”, his righteous and touching “Want What’s Yours” 7” with Styly Cee and… well, not much else, because there wasn’t much else.

Indeed, in the eleven long years since we described “Want What’s Yours” in our year-ends as “truly tender observation of the (a)cutest kind… a foil to the righteous anger of Scor's landmark Daily Telegraph-baiting P Brothers banger "Great Britain"” the only further outputs we managed to trace from the MC were two (admittedly blinding) tracks in 2008: a myspace leak called “Why I’m Here” and a star turn (“Voyage”) on the Elementz’ “Crushmode” LP. (Things he’s been doing instead of making new records, as it turns out, include: wrestling with mental health issues; converting to Islam; getting married and having kids; and starring in a movie alongside Olivia Colman and Paddy Considine).

So, after a total of about five songs this century, we’d have been deliriously happy with a new Scor-zay-zee EP. We certainly didn’t see this coming, even in our wildest dreams: after a mere 20 years on the mic, Scorz has dropped his debut album, a tour de force which yields 28 tracks over two discs and clocks in not too far short of two hours. Talk about feast following famine. 28 proper tracks, too (no skits or insts), and you’ll get a feel for the general calibre from the production credits (Nick Stez, DJ Fever, Juga-Naut, Mecca:83, P Brothers, the Elementz) and some of the guest MCs (Chester P, Cappo, Tragedy Khadafi, Ali Vegas). But let’s try to break it down a little.

“Double Dragon”, the joint with Chester (and the Elementz) is, obviously, *mint*, a shop window for two master rhymers in their absolute prime. Juga-Naut production “Live Free” nimbly showcases Scorz’s mellow truth-telling par excellence: politicised, but never agit-prop. DJ Fever anchors quite a few of the highlights, like sumptuously cascading opener “Intium” - pure bars, no gimmicks - and perhaps the album’s thematic cornerstone, the breezy “Love ‘Em All”. There are thrills (n’skills) as Juga, Caps and Vandal Savage join our genial host for the album’s posse cut, “R.A.F.” There’s a formidable stash of reminiscence raps, including “1995” (a tip of the hat to musical inspirations which settles into a brilliant “Outta Here”-type narrative groove), “Saturday”, “Remember” and the obligatory playground memories of “Old School”. There are club-friendly floor-destroyers of the sort Nottingham hasn’t seen since Styly Cee and Cappo loosed the H Bomb on us: “Equestrianism” (another DJ Fever production) and “I’m Not Bragging” (which reunites S with old comrades the P Bros, rocking the house in the spirit of the Brothers’ Mr 45 riddim, “Showstopper”). There’s Dom P’s “Flow Sicker” right at the end, a party vibe track offering up another free-flowing, freestyle Scorzilla treat. And, this being a tribute to the true essence of hip-hop, we shouldn’t forget the top-drawer cuts and scratches throughout, particularly from Jabba The Kut and from Fever.

Lyrically, all the themes we identified when we fell for “Why I’m Here” – “self-discovery, self-restraint, poverty, inspiration and coming good” - are still central, but that shouldn’t be taken as meaning this record is in any way preachy or po-faced. In fact, it’s always welcoming and inclusive. Scor-zay-zee’s renowned sense of humour shines through on songs like fast food-themed fantasy “Gangsta Wraps” (which also feeds into “1995”’s celebration of the nascent gangsta rap scene, seen through rapt teenage eyes). And the wordsmith supreme’s somewhat sparkling similes cover every conceivable reference point, from Captain Mainwaring to Johnny Metgod.

Other standout moments on these discs include “Ungodly Reason” (a welcome encore for the chipmunk-sampling vogue that proliferated a decade ago), the symphonic, string-drenched “Brain Tour”, the fizzing “Bone Stash”… actually, we risk mentioning everything on the album, don’t we? And we haven’t even got on to the more dramatic, introspective compositions yet: the patently cathartic “The Heart”; the coolly spiritual “Street Angel”; and perhaps boldest of all, “Heroes Never Die”, a fragile, subtly jazz-tinged ballad built in collaboration with singer/songwriter Daudi Matsiko. However, we do remain sufficiently in hock to the old school that we could live without the sung choruses that start to intrude more regularly over the second CD. As you know, sung choruses in hip-hop are the Devil’s work: a surefire way to turn gold to base metal, to transform searing soliloquy into plasticky pop fodder.

We’ve spun “Peace To The Puzzle” a fair few times now, and - sung hooks aside! - find ourselves pretty much blown away not just by the standard of the rhymes, but by the quality of the productions. That strength-in-depth means that right now, this has to be a contender for album of the year, and hopefully not just in the fantasy countdowns of blogs like this. Scor-zay-zee has found his voice again: maybe UK rap can, finally, do the same.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Catenary Wires “Intravenous” (Elefant): Maruta “Stride Endlessly Through Scorched Earth” (Relapse): Agnostic Front “Police Violence” (Nuclear Blast)

Virtual 45 “Intravenous” is the newie from a certain dynamic duo – Fletch & Purse, as my working title for a new wife/husband indiepop-buddy cop TV series pilot casts them - who now trade under the Catenary Wires name. It’s a kind of Young Marble Softies play Pipas, with the slightly worn-sounding male vocal (presumably Rob) working ever so well alongside Dame Amelia’s more familiar trill as the song eases gently into the enviable tradition of those legendary Sarah duets (well, legendary to us) like the slacker call-and-response of “Leaving”, or the desperately sad dual-vocal lament of “When Morning Comes To Town”.

The single catalogues the mixed emotions of being in a thrillingly intense relationship, yet realising that if things go wrong – when morning does come to town, if you like – it may not be pretty. Love is the drug, and all that comes with that. It’s riveting, not least the particularly powerful moment towards the end, when Amelia’s vocal - suddenly - sounds as tender and vulnerable as it ever has.

We sometimes harbour a nagging fear that Elefant may end up something of a rest home for ex-Sarah artists, but the quality of “Slow Changes” and this suggest that we need not be too concerned yet that said artists are resting on their laurels. Quality-wise, this would have sat very well on a Sarah 7”, you know. In fact, we’d venture that “Intravenous” is sufficiently strong that a place should be found for it even on the packed tracklist of Rob and Amelia’s greatest hits, once K-Tel eventually get round to delivering it.

Less tender and vulnerable is Maruta’s taster for their new “Remain Dystopian” LP, but it’s their best tune yet: the triumphant “Stride Endlessly Through Scorched Earth” manages to be entertaining and chaotic as well as gruff and metallic, bringing Beefheartian influences to the fore and ending up sounding like a mad scientist’s cross between the new wave of deathgrind / techgrind and all those Ron Johnson Records bands who made our lives so much better in the 1980s. This is all the more impressive given that Maruta are from Miami, a place whose musical icons are not generally known for following scenes that evolved from Stafford Polytechnic, or had representatives on C86. The boys (plus the marvellous Tomas Lindberg, who seems to have got involved too), sound like they’re having a riot: yes, this is ‘metal’, but really not as we know it.

Should you want a little more… focus, then it’s probably best to step to the ever-dependable Agnostic Front, and the first track to be released from their 2015 LP on Nuclear Blast (it still seems incredible to think that the Front, or indeed Carcass, are labelmates with the likes of world-conquering modern folk troupe Nightwish, but we’ve always loved diverse rosters).

Less than a minute long, “Police Violence” is lean and fittingly angry and topical and basically ace. With the hell-for-leather charge of the verses briefly subsiding in order to allow a classic breakdown towards the end, this is in the same musical ballpark as Haymaker’s fiery “Let Them Rot” 7” last year. In its own way, it’s just as honest and open as “Intravenous”, but then we would expect nothing less from the guys that once gave us Sunday Matinee anthem, erm, “Anthem”.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lightning In A Twilight Hour “Slow Changes” (Elefant)

He’s back.

My entire teenage and adult life has been soundtracked by the songs of Bobby Wratten, and by and large I’m grateful for the privilege, even though it’s meant being reduced to tears on a few occasions. As we noted back in 2010, this penchant for lachrymosity was reignited on hearing Trembling Blue Stars' album swansong "Fast Trains and Telegraph Wires": “Their final postcard, which we will always treasure: in this household, tears were shed…”

Mind, it subsequently turned out that it wasn’t quite their final postcard, as that particular “Correspondence” turned out to be a fine, final EP in ’11, helmed by a twelve-minute remix of “The Light Outside” from Robert ‘of Loop fame’ Hampson which – as well as making us think back with a smile to the Field Mice’s live “Burning World” cover on a now-wizened Waaah! flexidisc – ranks up there with the general greatness of either Robert’s rather formidable back catalogues.

That, it seemed for four long years, was that. But then, as both rain and leaves cascaded late last year, a taster mp3 single from Bobby’s latest outfit, Lightning In A Twilight Hour, emerged from beyond the Pyrenees courtesy of our old friends at Elefant. “The Memory Museum” was a somewhat meta affair, being a rumination on treading old ground that sounded remarkably like the sound of treading old ground, albeit completely redeemed by its “Dark Eyes”-ish beauty and by the wonderful, instantly recognisable roaming basslines of ex-Field Mouse Michael Hiscock.

But it’s “Slow Changes” that sees Lightning In A Twilight Hour transition to a full vinyl release. “Everyone Talks About The Weather”, the first track on this 10” EP, seems to pick up a little where “Memory Museum” left off: graced again by Beth Arzy’s vocals, it’s pristine and glistening, if unremarkable by Bobby’s own high standards. Yet after that, “Slow Changes” bucks up immensely.

The welcome echoes of the Field Mice don't end with Michael’s familiar roving basslines: those who recall the somewhat direct but spot-on social observation of "This Love Is Not Wrong" or "Song Six", and *really* missed it when Bobby was maxing out, post-“Her Handwriting”, on lilting lovelorn laments instead, will welcome both "The Death Of Silence" - a typically spot-on tirade pleading, essentially, for people to just shut the fuck up - and "Ancient Fiction", a positively incandescent rumination on the privilege awarded to organised religion in everyday discourse, which is just as sincere as (and a sort of politely post-indiepop companion to) Anti-Cimex's "Game Of The Arseholes". As Bobby coos “we are born unbelievers / then led astray” there’s a real underlying fire and venom, even amongst the neat, geometric lines of the Wake-ish guitar mesh that surrounds it (fellow children of the 80s: it’s as least as much a Factory record as a Sarah one, if you like). And that’s side one of the EP.

Even better is that LIATH, as absolutely nobody is calling them, throw you off the scent completely on side two, going for a kind of “slow wave sleep”, as Cortechs once had it. In place of the earlier joys of Bobby channeling his righteous anger, we get Bobby indulging his experimental side as the fractured samples of "Interference" take great delight in being Not What The Punters Want: but that’s fine by us, not least as we so cherished the ambient & field-recorded elements of the last LP, especially "Grey Silk Storm" and "Radioactive Decay". The set then tapers off elegantly and gradually with a series of variations on a (strictly tonal) theme. Which aligns with our current obsession with Surgeon’s recent Basictonal-remake re-release, and the Mick Harris remix in particular, but that’s a different story.

Returning to the current story, the best tidings of all may be that this is only the start of it: as most of you already know, it appears that a proper long-player from the Twilighters is imminent. It would be fair to say that, after corralling this EP, we’re really rather looking forward to it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Declining Winter “Home For Lost Souls” (Home Assembly Music)

It’s amazing how much we’re destined always to defer to our younger selves. If the teenage me hadn’t borrowed Hood’s “Sirens” 7” from a housemate in 1992, then in all likelihood we would never have been looking out for this record one hundred years (approx) later. Chance is a fine, but very fickle thing.

Right now, frankly we are the dispossessed of EC4; tired, ill, and disenchanted. So we draw positively *medicinal* succour from the rare beauty and sadness of the latest instalment of the Declining Winter’s delicately looped and layered pastorals, a record which revisits the gorgeous, pantheistic trail they and their musical forbears have already carved out in the wilds of Yorkshire: that familiar, breathy landscape of fading hills, forlorn valleys and disused post-mills, decorated by tales of rustic houses and cold houses and their haunted upper hallways. And home is – still - where it hurts: “the house that brings me down” as they trill on the desolate, perfectly-crafted title track.

As you might expect by now, “Home For Lost Souls” mixes dextrous, swirling post-rock instrumentals and samples with more fully-formed, if still wistful, percussion-driven ballads, whilst comfortingly familiar lyrical themes abound: Richard Adams sings of hillsides, leaves and fog formations nearly as often as Pete Astor once sang odes to precipitation. There are echoes throughout the album of the simple prettiness of last year’s Memory Drawings set, but darker, more sombre forces are also at play: instead of the Drawings’ elegant travelogue, these songs summon up doubt and hesitation in a swirl of autumnal hues.

And so it is that we’d happily traverse the coldest of moors for the secret behind compositions like magisterial opener “This Sadness Lacks”, the full-on jangle-folk of “The Sweet Sound of North” or the more muscular but equally adroit crowd-pleaser “Around The Winding Roads And Hills”. But the piece that this LP absolutely hangs on is the piano-driven “The Right True End”, its penultimate track and possibly the best song we’ve heard this year, which gradually unfurls itself over eight gorgeous minutes from stately near-stillness to a subtle crescendo of forward motion. The instant when the bassline eventually appears gives us the same magical shivers as some of our favourite Hood moments: this could almost be a refugee from “Outside Closer”.

There’s a bonus EP for good measure, a splendrous thing called “The Waning Mill Chronicles” which we believe to be available separately via the wonders of the modern internet. In addition to the cheery “The World Wide Ruin” and erstwhile bandcamp belter “The Year Of Forty”, it contains a couple of tracks which should for our money have found their way onto the LP proper - a longer, superior version of shimmering nr-instrumental “Summer Circuit”, and the easy cling of “On Station Rise”.

All of which may help to explain why - and despite all the other baggage he’s saddled me with over the years - sometimes I still want to high-five the teenage me. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Violent Arrest “Life Inside The Western Bloc” (Boss Tuneage)

The latest instalment of Violent Arrest’s glorious, spirit of punk-infused war on indigence sees them regroup with a new singer, but retaining the same aggression and purpose that has been a hallmark of their output since they somewhat exploded onto our record decks seven or eight years ago.

On new LP “Life Inside The Western Bloc”, VA hit their thrilling best when they up the tempo and mine the hardcore seam: witness the Ripcord-like sparks that fly with the musically bolshier, shorter tracks like “The Game Is Rigged”, “Deposit No Return” or the ripping title track, which spins out ferociously from an old-school anti-MNC sample and the obligatory shot of feedback. Shout outs to “Our Dearly Deported” too, not least for the pun skills. There’s perhaps a little more discipline on display than has always been apparent, as the band inch back from the high-water mark / nadir (depending on your POV) of 2011’s somewhat unsubtle “Fuck Off”. Martin Nichols (yep, of “Laurel” fame) is again at the controls, and there’s no question he’s mastered this genre now.

However, when the band drop the pace and draw things out too much, their wares can start to seem more generic: despite more promising title wordplay, the comparatively aimless “Mission: Creep” feels like the sort of thing Ripcord would have thrown to the wolves, rather than put on an album. The proof of our theory – that less is more from VA – may be that the late reprise of “Cold Front”, one quarter of the main song’s length, is far fresher and about 1,000x better.

That said, most of the tunes here are greatly enjoyable. In particular, the dependably old-school and extremely catchy “Grind You Down” cheers me up every time I listen to it on the way home from the office, cursing the boss under my breath but really, secretly wanting to HOLLER the (moderately sweary) chorus all the way up the main drag. And, as is abundantly clear from the lyrics on the album, Violent Arrest’s big, big heart remains resolutely in the right place. We would, I fear, be a little lost without them.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Charlie Tipper Experiment “Mellow On” (Breaking Down Recordings)

Tim, from new-on-block Bristol five-piece the Charlie Tipper Experiment, has form. A rapsheet as long as your arm. Long ago, when General Galtieri had designs on the Falklands (and Mrs Thatcher on her second term), Tim was hatching his own Five Year Plan with Rob Pursey, amongst others. As the 1980s wore on, he then contributed those shimmering, noisy guitars to the later Flatmates singles. Since then, he’s done time in the line-up of perhaps Brizzle’s greatest post-shambling survivors, the Beatnik Filmstars, in the process playing on any number of ‘beezer’ albums and, of course, on 2007’s finest 45. He also helped to pilot both the Short Stories (whose honours include the best single of 2013) and Forest Giants (best single of 2003, best album of 2006, best compilation of 2014…)

And as if all that wasn’t enough, it seems that every time I scan the sleeve of one of my most treasured records (most recently, the Tramway album and “Pure Hatred 96”) it turns out that Tim had a hand in recording or producing it.

Anyway. Back to this century, and the newest chapter in this story, an album recorded in sunny Bedminster (home of both Bottelino’s and Vince & Son, if you’re looking for ilwttisott-sanctioned Italian restaurant or barber recommendations in BS3). The Charlie Tipper Experiment first brushed the radar last year with their swirling, coyly G500-ish “Ride Out” single, but “Mellow On” marks the first time we get to hear the suite of songs making up the bulk of their live set, and it reveals the band to be blossoming into thoughtful purveyors of mid-paced pop songs – with occasional hints of Mr Wareham, it’s true - but not without exploring darker lyrical undercurrents of regret.

As with the Short Stories, there is plenty here that’s loosely autobiographical, that pivots on knowing look-backs to being young, and to being in bands: perhaps, when you’ve been writing and playing songs all your life, it’s about how you can’t let go, even if you want to. In addition to the stone-solid foundation of Tim’s erstwhile collaborators Simon and Geoff on drums and bass respectively, the Experiment feature ex-Filmstar Jon Kent (whose deceptively simple, gently meowing guitar lines recall his time with the BFs in places) as well as Harry Furniss on cornet and Vox Jaguar (though not at the same time). The latter’s interventions, in particular, give a few songs an extra kick, rounding out their emotional resonance.

The YouTubed taster track “Something Worth Fighting For” opens, a character-based melodrama that presses all the right buttons with its Short Stories-ish narrative, pristine verses and brass-flecked hook, but there are other moods on display. The chorus to “I’ll Take You With Me” is a moment of pure indie-pop, almost a nod to those times when Subway surfed, Revolver and Replay ruled the roost, and it seemed you couldn’t shake a leg in Bristol without the whole city jangling. But possibly our favourite track on side one (for yes, this is out on vinyl!) is the dreamwashed “Shine Like A Star”, as it effortlessly traverses the clear night sky, drawing each pinprick of light into a warm beam that sets these dismal streets beneath aglow.

There’s a strong case to be made, though, that the highest peaks of all come on side two. The pleading “Wherever You Go I Go” wrings every last drop of familial devotion from the damp air before “Hypnotised” launches a compelling bid to be the record’s real centerpiece: it’s a serene, almost spiritual number that’s aided not only by cooingly sympathetic brass and a nifty chorus but also some neatly dovetailed backing vocals from Linda Gorton. Penultimate tune “Come On Down”, with its lugubrious alt-Americana meld, leaves a positive impression too, although it truly won us over when, one night not so long ago, we took the slow train to Hoxton, and the even slower bus to Bethnal Green, to watch the CTE ‘play the hits’ in the Sebright Arms, and saw them light up a basement room in a dark pub, planting a steely two fingers to the cold outside.

But let’s sign off by mentioning a couple of classic three-minute pop songs that (nearly) bookend the LP. “The Boys From Frampton Cotterell” - track two - is a wistful but fond reminiscence of the bedroom jam sessions that spawned the Inane and then the 5YP manifesto, whilst closing cut “Rock & Roll Dreaming” is a tale of a boy growing up with only music on his mind which had, I think, been slated as a second single. Although they share a theme the latter, which closes the album, introduces a renewed turn of lyrical sadness: yet it still sounds celebratory, with the cornet part proudly recalling the trumpet-led pomp of Bristol’s own Brilliant Corners. It’s a clever, and moving, way to finish an absorbing record.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Lucid Fairytale: The Fourth, Defiant Decade Of Napalm Death

“Napalm Death were a formative influence on my adolescence, a rebellious left-turn in mine and many others’ lives. Forced upon us by John Peel, they and their ilk – but they more than anyone – were met with initial incredulity and mirth, before the inherent logic of what they were doing and how they were doing it became utterly irresistible. At the point when all any self-respecting teenager wants is righteous noise to call their own, they were the answer to my prayers. They were my Sex Pistols, my Public Enemy. They defined what music could be, should be; they defined what it could and should say” - Ian Grant

* * * * *

As pink clouds bled rain into the Farringdon dusk, D’Alma and I huddled in consultation in the Hope, a pub so “old man” that even when you’re in there it feels like it’s been boarded up and dormant for years. As I teased out the embers of an early evening Carlsberg, and D’Alma kept it real with straightedge lime and soda, we found ourselves discussing Jools Holland for some reason.

JH couldn’t be all bad, I posited. Squeeze had some beezer tunes once, “The Tube” was usually good value, and he’d guested on (great) records by both Chas and Dave *and* Alternative TV. D’Alma countered, a little aggressively I thought for someone on softs, saying that why, in that case, had there never been a good band on “Later with Jools Holland”? I managed to muster that that Ice-T appeared on it once (in 1996, a subsequent Google search confirmed), as did the Fall (in 2005, apparently) so to be fair to Jools his show was averaging a worthwhile artist once every decade or so, not a bad hit-rate for a mainstream music programme these days. But D'Alma's point stood.

So, after the traditional diversion of my brother in arms trying and failing to pay for the next round on a card, conversation veered inevitably on to the groups who should be gracing “Later…” in 2015, with me generally trying to steer it to a certain Singaporean trio, or to the Fireworks, but the thought had already pricked my mind that the most striking omission from the list of bands who’d graced Jools’ show was in fact the combo who are probably (really) the greatest British group of the period it’s been running, a band who should, by rights, be lighting up TV channels pretty much on the permanent. And that we hadn’t even got round to ‘reviewing’ their new LP, which seemed a little discourteous given that I’d been listening to it virtually non-stop for three weeks. So when D’Alma headed into the sunset for the Clapham train, I dug out some old receipts and a torn-in-half betting slip (damn you, Torquay United) and began to scribble.

* * * * *

Back in 1988, I strolled down to Parrot Records from school and parted with the princely sum of £5.49 for a copy of second Napalm LP “From Enslavement… To Obliteration”, on the back of a positive Sounds review and my intrigue with their Peel Session output. At that time, the band had garnered a certain notoriety, but were still being routinely dismissed either as a joke, a Situationist prank, or at best as four youngsters from the Midlands who were gamely making the most of their 15 minutes of infamy. However, that record had a disconcertingly powerful impact on me and, I would wager, on hundreds of others.

I eagerly devoured these breakneck, utterly impassioned songs about countering racist ideology (“Unchallenged Hate”), subverting rock music cliché (“Cock-Rock Alienation”), saving the environment (“Make Way!”), being hopelessly lost and awkward in social situations (“Retreat To Nowhere”, “Social Sterility”), relationship dysfunction (“Emotional Suffocation”) and challenging everyday sexism (“It’s a M.A.N’s World”, “Inconceivable?”, “Evolved As One”… the first stirrings of the gender politics which the group continue to examine to the present day). In our record collection at the time, only the Field Mice visited that subject so sincerely and self-consciously.

But Napalm (est. 1982) were not – as many others were – merely preaching to an already-converted audience about how contemptible the various “isms” were. Lee Dorrian’s words often put himself under the microscope: with songs like “Inconceivable?” he was interested in how each of us might unthinkingly absorb or internalise sexist or racist attitudes. On top of this, he was mastering the extreme narrative discipline required by a lyric-writer who might only have 30 or so seconds to make his point (how those ringtone-length tunes always felt like elaborate little haikus to us).

Not that we should ignore the music that accompanied those words: it took time to attune to it, to work out where on Earth the riffs were coming from, and where the hell they were heading in such a hurry, but there was never any doubt that these boys could play. As then-guitarist Bill Steer once told the BBC, the big beasts of Van Halen et al wouldn’t have been able to go into a studio and play Napalm riffs straight off. Months of practice in rehearsal rooms and on chaotic stages were needed to hone this extraordinary sound. The recording quality on the album was a bit tinny – looking at the action photos of the band on the sleeve in some dank basement, banging this stuff out as if their lives depended on it, I was not surprised – but the ambition was MASSIVE. A statement had been made, and I was won over.

* * * * *

Ian mentioned Public Enemy back there, another unconstrained force of nature whose tracks burst from the John Peel show listings not too long before Napalm Death’s little vignettes did the same. And, just like the P.E., Napalm have transitioned from being “angry young men” to “angry elder statesmen”: still touring, still releasing new records, still sounding frankly livid most of the time. But it must be remembered that this longevity is – in itself – quite a surprise.

When I first cradled that LP in my hands way back in the ‘80s, it’s fair to say I would not have been expecting still to be buying new albums by Napalm Death over 25 years later. Even then, at an age where virtually everything was ephemeral and all life lived in the moment, I was all-too aware that Napalm were in particular danger of being flotsam and jetsam caught up by the zeitgeist, thrust into the spotlight and then discarded into critical oblivion when the next big thing came along.

Indeed, after a fashion, that’s what happened - they lost their shock value, overhauled their line-up for the zillionth time (with Steer and Dorrian decamping to concentrate on Carcass and Cathedral respectively), and went to the States and indulged their death metal side for a while; and much of the fan base moved on. Though even when they were in Florida, recording Floridian death metal, they kept the lyrical emphasis on social consciousness, rather than the blood and guts of their American contemporaries who they were, to be fair, otherwise largely aping. Indeed, the DM incarnation would revisit a number of the band’s earlier tunes, including “Unchallenged Hate” and “Social Sterility”. And the band’s live sets never stopped including favourites from their ever-startling debut album, “Scum”.

But although we did move on, we didn’t forget completely. We discerned that, after a couple of death metal-ish albums, Napalm had entered what is now known by some as their “experimental” phase, although that seems a bit too grand a label, because from this distance it seems that they were mainly experimenting with commerciality (the next three LPs wrestled, unconvincingly at times, with incorporating nu-metal stylings, at the time that their label, Earache, was flirting - just as clumsily - with Columbia Records, as documented in Albert Mudrian’s excellent book). They were accomplished records, and if Napalm were doing nu-metal they were doing it 100x better than anybody else, but despite a couple of blistering singles (the not dissimilar “Greed Killing” and “Breed To Breathe”), no touchpaper was being lit any more.

Eventually, around the turn of the century, it would take a parting of the waves with Earache, and a conscious decision to change the game, for Napalm to turn themselves around. So for 2000’s “Enemy Of The Music Business”, the flashier branding and clean production were sacrificed. The band readopted their classic original logo, the song titles were punched out on the sleeve by typewriter, and the lyrics got more bitter and caustic than ever before. But, most noticeably of all, the music became fast, ferocious and frightening again, as this fabulous band rediscovered their edge. (And, by and large, ‘new model Napalm’ has flourished ever since, aided by something else you could never have predicted in 1988: a pretty stable core line-up which has starred Shane Embury (bass), Barney Greenway (machine-gun growl), Danny Herrera (drums) and Mitch Harris (guitar) for well over 20 consecutive years now, if you ignore the strange and short-lived vocalist “swap deal” with Extreme Noise Terror in the mid-90s).

By this point, after experimenting with university, work, drugs, relationships – or whatever it is grown-ups were meant to do – we clocked that these heroes from our adolescence were positively BURNING with the same passion and principle they once had, and that now they were no longer under such intense scrutiny / ridicule, we could embrace them on their own terms again.

* * * * *

And with every year that’s passed, and with every new long-player, we’d notice little clues and hints that Napalm Death weren’t *just* churning out great records, but had made a mark of sorts on the wider cultural milieu, had achieved a status that certainly wasn’t limited to The Grindcore Few. The fact that ex-members of the band had gone on to invent industrial dubstep, or perfect “found sound” collage and installation art. The collaborations, from Gunshot to John Zorn to Jello Biafra. A guest appearance on Skins; being the muse for artists like Mark Titchener; literally taking on a Keith Harrison sculpture in Bexhill (as Ian recounts in the article we quote above), after the V&A had baulked at the prospect; being used as preview music on Match of the Day (crisp magnate Lineker looked *very* bemused after listening to ace “Scum” cut “Common Enemy”).

For basically, once our generation hit our 30s and 40s, we found that some of that generation were in the media and had got busy resetting its narrative. Suddenly, you could always find a nod to Napalm if you looked for one. There are parallels with Talulah Gosh, once maligned beyond belief but who ended up getting OBEs and winning Turner Prizes. Napalm haven’t yet achieved either, but in a just world (and given their somewhat unshakeable commitment to humanitarian issues, animal welfare and endless benefit gigs) I wouldn’t put either beyond them. Indeed, as I type this up, I read that Barney has penned an open letter to the president of Indonesia about pardoning a Death Row prisoner, on the totally logical basis that the president of Indonesia happens to be a self-professed longtime fan of Napalm Death (although, a bit like Dave Cameron with the Smiths, one feels he can’t have been concentrating too hard on their lyrics).

There is also a solid kernel for a lively pub discussion as to whether Napalm, at least ‘til the mid to late 90s, were actually a cracking *singles* band: “Mentally Murdered” (obviously – the 12” is up there with “Splashdown!” or “Shopping Parade” as one of the best EPs ever), “Mass Appeal Madness”, “Suffer The Children”, “The World Keeps Turning”, “Breed To Breathe”, even the emotional rollercoaster of “Hung”… sadly, in the 21st century the flow of singles dried up rather, with the “Analysis Paralysis” 7” being the only new one to kiss our turntable.

All of which means that the answer to the question, “what was the last great British rock album?” is, normally, the last Napalm Death album. So until recently, it was “Utilitarian”. Or, before that, “Time Waits For No Slave”. Or, before that, “Smear Campaign”. Or, before that, “The Code Is Red… Long Live The Code”. But, right now, it’s “Apex Predator – Easy Meat”. Studio album fifteen.

* * * * *

Even by Napalm’s somewhat exacting standards the title track, which begins the LP, is extremely unsettling. Part-chant, part “Evolved As One”-style blunderbuss, part Mark Stewart-like rant, part extended drum-solo, it is not what you would expect from one of Britain’s more energetic outfits. And then, it pulls up… and the next few tracks unleash a veritable torrent of hi-tensile fury. The ‘transition’ from the title tune into the eighty-five brutally unsubtle seconds of “Smash A Single Digit” is a bit like someone switching the Dansette from 33pm to 3,000 rpm and possibly the most dramatic change of pace ever encountered between album tracks, as if John Beck had just usurped Helenio Herrera in a pitchside coup and switched Inter from catenaccio to a frantic long-ball 2-3-5. That track, and “Metaphorically Screw You” which follows it, whip up the pace and lay solid foundations for what’s to come.

After five tracks of non-stop speed, which also include a riff from Mitch on “Timeless Flogging” as gnarled and gnawing as Nobby Stiles ‘putting it about’ in the middle third, we get another enthralling diversion. I’m not normally one for calling on all members of Parliament and the Royal Family to be kidnapped until they agree to change the national anthem of this sceptr’d isle, but in the case of the wirier, mid-paced, Swans-ish dirge “Your Slum Landlord…” (the best ever song about slum landlords that isn’t by the Wolfhounds) we believe that such drastic measures would be fully justified. Hell, that’s an anthem we might even stand up to listen to.

And it’s followed by a serious candidate for the strongest tune here. “Cesspits” is another example of why ND are worth their weight in the gold stuff (er, gold). There are easily enough hooks, riffs and musical passages on this track to fill three different songs, but the band aren’t satisfied by merely repeating the deeply satisfying opening mosh, the slower, more angular “verse” and then a passage of pure speed that follows: they insist on shoehorning in every possible segment of sonic scree that they can. Indeed, the best is saved for last as a completely virgin breakdown riff appears with 40 seconds to go and drives the song to a satisfyingly brutal conclusion. “Bloodless Coup” has a hard act to follow, but with its nods to hardcore punk and the nostalgic world of “Leaders Not Followers” it, too, flies by like a dream. Along with the incredibly venomous “Stunt Your Growth” (the climactic final bars of which feature the boys shouting “G-M-O!” like an eco-conscious Oi! band), it’s one of the punchiest things here.

So what are the ‘takeaways’ from “Apex Predator”? The sheer ferocity of Barney’s vocals, for one. But also the lyrical theme of the album, which contrasts multinationals’ corporate marketing in the West with their treatment of workers in the East. The theme is driven to near-destruction in the dangerously smouldering “Stubborn Stains”, in which Barney homes in on systems of industrialised slave labour (the album is dedicated, amongst others, to the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh) and ponders the real cost of cheap T-shirts over a relentless backdrop of guitars. Rage at the trade practices of multi-nationals, and their seeming immunity from meaningful sanction, is a theme that goes back to the band’s very earliest days - check out the “Scum” cover art, or “Multi-National Corporations” the song – but was eloquently revisited more recently by the Union Carbide-savaging “No Impediment To Triumph (Bhopal)”. There are no playful Cardiacs cover versions here.

But there are legion other highlights. Shane’s “How The Years Condemn” is an exception to the overt politics, a song about putting family and friends first that opens in seeming confusion, with feedback and practice-noise knocking about at the back of the mix, but once it gets into gear it’s straightforward and honest, a raging storm of experience, a song which the younger band wouldn’t have been able to write, which musically would have fitted perfectly on their 14th set, “Utilitarian”.

The thunderous “Hierarchies”, another standout Embury composition, combines one of the most addictive riffs on the record (a little reminiscent of those on the last Carcass set) with a strangely successful chorus which consists of what the metal fraternity call “clean vocals” but the man in the street would tend to identify as “actual singing”. It also has the only guitar solo on the LP (the sleeve notes are almost apologetic about this, at pains to point out that it’s only a “token” guitar solo, but to be fair, it’s easily missed – for it seems that Bloke Out Of Corrupt Moral Altar made his way down to the studio to provide a solo that lasts just under eight seconds).

And then comes the icing on the cake. Leading into the last tune – a typically obscure cover version, of a long-forgotten Swedish crust-punk outfit called G-ANX - there’s a beautiful, lilting piano instrumental. We weren’t quite sure what it was doing there at first, especially when it inevitably gave way to the usual both-barrels barrage of grind. But then we realised. It had to be an olive branch for Jools, Napalm’s way of saying “if you put us on your show, this is the bit you can join in with”. We can only dream that he will finally take the hint.

* * * * *

And with that, this fanzine shuffled up from its seat, stowed its empty glass on the bar and sidled out into the night.

It’s true, as the JBs reminded us back in those halcyon days, that there are eight million stories. But the rise and rise of Napalm Death remains perhaps our favourite fairytale of all.