Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Noisear "Turbulent Resurgence" (Willowtip): No Lay "Flowcaine" (Freshwave Entertainment): Forest People "Portal Grade" (Sick Weird Rough): Cortechs "The Last 13" (Steil): Kryptic Minds "The Divide" / "Rule Of Language" (Osiris Music)
 
It was inevitable that as soon as we praised the dry autumn weather, the tables would turn and the city would be deluged by full-force jets of skimming rain, (slam) dancing beneath a sea of rapidly-greying cloud. Thing is, though, we still don't mind, because we rather like *this* kind of weather, too: it just takes a bit more preparation on the clothing and accessories front. Plus, the new inclemency of climate has been soundtracked by the usual slew of somewhat terrific newies.
 
Noisear follow last year's whirlwind, "Subvert The Dominant Paradigm", with a new LP on Willowtip, "Turbulent Resurgence", and it's comforting to see that the New Mexico-born combo haven't lost their penchant for short, sharp blasts of grind-infused mayhem. However, there are changes at work. "Subvert..." was a many and varied beast, and while it boasted a generous 30 tracks it wasn't all a sprint: final 'tune' "Noiseruption" comprised twenty minutes of carefully orchestrated chaos (perhaps a companion piece to Brutal Truth's equally conspicuous experimental epic "Panic Room"). It seemed designed not so much to subvert any passing dominant paradigm as to drive it gleefully off the nearest steep precipice.

On "Turbulent Resurgence", though, there is a remarkable consistency of vision: over the course of 18 unrelenting minutes (yes, the whole LP is shorter than "Noiseruption" was) Noisear furnish twenty "proper" tracks plus instrumental intro, outro and mid-LP "intermission". The pure relish with which the foursome plough fearlessly through these songs, hackles up and heads down, is a little reminiscent of Wormrot, true, but in terms of the actual music, well: there are myriad flashes of Gridlink's high-tensile trebliness (if offset by fine, gargled, low-end cookie-monster vox); there are plenty of detuned riffs, where mathgrind-meets-death before both are swept away by the sheer pace of the thing; and on the shorter songs the embers of hardcore punk still burn bright ("There Is No God", for example, could be Noisear joining the mightily fine Scapegoat in their rather effective Crossed-Out worship). As each song buzzes merrily to a close, to be instantly replaced by another chunk of trilling 45-second grind, you never find yourself tempted towards the "skip" button. The lyrics and sentiment throughout are spot-on too. Particularly in the light of our somewhat lachrymose post in the summer about the relative disappointment of Phobia's "Remnants Of Filth", "Turbulent Resurgence" is tremendously welcome.

The sublimely talented No Lay you know, and "Flowcaine" is eight proper songs from the rightly Minaj-doubting Londoner, obtainable for an extremely competitive £4.49 via a certain well-branded online music store. While Ghetts - there's a blast from our reviewing past - turns up briefly as a star turn on the diverting "The Jungle", the killer cuts for us are the opening, Limelight-produced "Below Zero" and the head-turning old school bouncer "The War", which comes closest to the brilliance of her recent "Off With Ya Head" single.
 
It's a long time since a grime record has been so consistent over even this many tracks (consistency from any UK rhymer over full CD or mixtape length is, I think we've all accepted by now, just never going to happen): "Flowcaine" is *important*, next-level proof that No Lay has been quietly building up a fully bulletproof repertoire, rather than her typical contemporaries' modest palmfuls of ephemeral crossover hits.

Nowt to do with much-missed Bristol indie royalty Forest Giants, Forest People are (well, is) in fact one Dragan Lakic from Bosnia and Herzegovina, with his first outing for that label we go on so much about. Our favourite record of his to date, "Portal Grade" is a convivial serial beat-wobbler, a neatly-styled slice of engaging minimal techno that carves synth-addled vapour trails through a dark sky of cloudbusting percussion.

And the Rhine-Ruhr's empiricist sound-collager(s) Cortechs are *back*, with an EP on local label, Steil. Lead track "The Last 13" is maybe the best Cortechs single since hometown-ode "Cologne", which you'll recall was

"exceedingly fine, a pitter-patter of syncopated techno percussion underpinned by heart-monitor beep and cuddlesome synth dynamics"

not least as it's combined with a shapelyand areodynamic Niereich remix (mind you, the remix gets a bit disconcerting when the handclaps come in, because they don't sound entirely unlike the legendary intro to Rose Royce's "Car Wash". We'd like to listen to more of Niereich's stuff, but he releases so much of it that we genuinely aren't sure there are enough hours in the day for *anyone* to listen to every track and remix he puts out: perhaps, as a human race, we ought to put together some kind of rota so we can, at the very least, report back to each other on which tunes to buy). More robust and muscular than "Cologne" or "Slow Wave Sleep", "The Last 13" perfectly complements the streetlamp-lit clean lines of the maze of housing estates we navigate on the way home.

The steady stream of bangers from Kryptic Minds shows no sign of abating, either. While last single "Idiom" was
 
"a huge booming bass pulse, interwoven with quickfire synth burble for maximum dancefloor succour"

and its equally electric B-side "Breach" veritably ripe with brisk techno stylings, their powerful new 12" expores two more directions, with equal style. "The Divide" feels almost as grime as it is dubstep: a dungeon bass hybrid born from the same rippling promise as those Rephlex compilations a decade back, and pivoting on clinical shuffling rhythms that chart a journey through '00s south London with some panache. "Rule Of Language", on the other hand, sees the duo back to what they do best: a solid serving of darkly forbidding halfstep with a hint of menace and an aura of possibility. It's alternately thrilling and chilling. An edginess that fits the current weather like a glove, especially as the first wintry winds mass, ready for attack.

In fact, all the songs mentioned in this post are trinkets of joy that have grown on us as we've negotiated the vagaries of this jinking, austere, beautiful but increasingly rainy autumn. We surmise that many in the indie-pop game still prefer "super sunny summers" hands down. But the wonder of nature is all around us in autumn and winter too, you know. It's just.... how a coating of snow makes the evening bright, the roads aflame as the lamplights reflect the white. Hiding inside is no substitute, especially when technology lets you take the music with you.
 
So, just like the 'Brides, we *refuse* to be shut in.

Monday, November 19, 2012

General Surgery "Like An Ever-Flying Limb" EP (Relapse): The Garlands "The Garlands" (Shelflife)

It's definitely deep autumn now, as these fleeting November days skew between last flashes of sun and pre-emptive blasts of icy air. While some prefer the full-on haze of midsummer sunshine (amply evidenced by a virtually unbroken chain of summer-lovin' new wave and indie-pop classics, still epitomised by "Here Comes The Summer"), I can't help feeling the "lazy sunbathers" are missing a trick.

This - what we have now - is optimum weather for walking, for admiring the sights, for being out and about, for indulging the beauty of nature, for sinking on to a park bench and trying to catch up with highlights from the history of recorded music (again). And yet the place we grabbed our takeout coffee from this morning was full of young people sitting on their own, breathing in air-con and staring sullenly into laptop screens. What they need are these two blasts of *absolute* fresh air, borne on the north-easterly wind... yes, after our last post repped Germany, we now shift our focus to the ever-inviting shores of Sweden.
 
One of the reasons that so many of us Brits have such love for the Swedish nation en masse, aside from fuzzily generalised notions of Scandinavian liberalism, is the way it has taken concepts birthed on our island (you know: indie-pop... metal... um, detective fiction) and then produced the definitive versions of them. This post attests to the first two: we'll wait another day to bore you with our take on Laasgård vs Henriksson, etc.
 
* * * * *
 
Now the five fine gentlemen who make up Stockholm combo General Surgery rarely disappoint: their last outing "Corpus In Extremis - Analysing Necrocriticism" -

"15 tracks, you know, arrayed from the short-burst grindmath of "Necronomics" and "Adnexal Mass" through to the joyous five-min sludge of album pivot "Virulent Corpus Dispersement" yet perhaps peaking in sheer excitement with the fierce higher-tempo riffing of "Exotoxic Septicity" and "Restrained Remains""

- was one of our top five albums of 2009, and given that General Surgery are hardly prolific with new output, it's a happy surprise for them to deliver up a spanking five-track (orange vinyl!) 7" EP a mere three years later. And "Flying Limb" presents a neat contrast to "Corpus In Extremis": for whilst the finest song on that was an epic elegy to "Symphonies Of Sickness", this is a beezer EP notwithstanding that the whole thing lasts barely eleven minutes: the faster passages seem much more fevered, suggesting the band have consciously decided to up the blastbeats-per-minute and go for broke. Perhaps they took a listen to Napalm's "Utilitarian" and, having eventually picked up their jaws from the floor, decided to try and match its intensity.

Whatever the motivation for it, this new approach is particularly apparent from the breakneck opening of "Like An Ever-Flying Limb" itself, before the song eventually settles down into some more varied tempos. It's that title track ("no chance of reassembly!" gurns Erik Sahlstrom cheerfully) and the closing "Dark Cyanotic Hypostasis" which are the two true pearls from this selection, the ones on which General Surgery best indulge and interweave their favourite pursuits of (a) punishing, grind-imbued axe thrashing and (b) groovalicious, early Carcass-tastic riffery. Normally we're all for a full-on, hectic, hell-for-leather, neighbour-baiting racket, but this lot profit from mixing it up, twisting between the dark and light. And the guitar riff on "Hypostasis" is possibly the best we've heard on a record this year, as primeval as Wolfhounds' "Skullface", as frankly danceable as the hook to Coldworker's "Monochrome Existence".

Not that our plaudits for those two songs should be seen as a dis to the remaining melodies: "Rhythmic Epidermal Clamor" starts with one of those brief, rushing bass-led intros which we particularly adore ici at le palais d'in love with these times, in spite of these times before ploughing its way through a minute and a quarter of sizzling metallic din; the hurtling "Seizures" is one of their shortest songs (and titles!) but veritably thrills for all 40 of its Earth seconds; and the remaining longer tune, "Ejected Viscous Mucus", suffers really only by comparison to the majesty of the title song, which it follows.

The all-round production of the EP, like the LP, is satisfyingly strong (we know that abysmal production is oft-viewed in goregrind circles as merely an occupational hazard, something that just goes with the territory; but unlike black metal or some lo-fi indie subgenres where poor production rather adds to the charm, we've not sure that anybody benefits from groups who can actually play drowning in the sludgy quicksand of a cheap mix).

Of course, though, General Surgery aren't really goregrind (not least as goregrind is a bit rubbish, really): the lyrical themes remain medical, so are "gory" in the sense thatany NHS treatment table might make even the strong-of-stomach turn a touch queasy - albeit that the concept of the words and samples on this EP is about how *death* is essentially a medical condition, albeit a rather severe and irreversible one - but the music is a still-irresistible combination of Swedish death and British grind influences, as you might expect, with ye olde Steer / Walker / Owen-worship still at its core. A delightful little record.

* * * * *

And then there are the Garlands. The Garlands rule, rule hard. Remember their half of that Atomic Beat EP ?
 
"two absolute zingers, songs so storming that they could fell trees and boundary fences for miles around"

Not to mention that excellent single on Big Pink Cake last year, "You Never Notice Me". Nor their coquettishly sweet Cloudberry CD-r in 2008, which led off with the bite-sized but razor-sharp "Why Did I Trust You ?"
And now ? Shelflife, who are on fire at the moment, have released this first Garlands album. Just like "Ever Flying-Limb", it's a record born in Stockholm yet released via a US label: just like "Ever Flying-Limb", it kills, kills hard. It almost seems counter-intuitive for a band as instant, as made to make POP singles, as the Garlands to release a whole album (a whole Talulah Gosh album would never have worked, much as they were sort of the best band ever, while there's a reason that even Free Loan Investments' most sprawling work, released on Shelflife and praised on our pages a whole ten years ago, only scraped the ten-minute mark) but somehow, they've pulled it off. Indeed, in a touch of true genius, a further nod to their stellar singles pedigree, the vinyl version of this plays at 45 rpm. At 26 minutes, "The Garlands" is longer than any of the best five LPs of last year, but still probably around optimum length for an album (see also the last Math & Physics Club outing).

Over the course of a dozen scintillating tracks the newly fleshed-out five-piece Garlands, albeit still with Roger and Christin at the helm, unleash pure, merrymaking indie-pop carnage: there are melodies strewn absolutely everywhere, like rose petals. You'd expect nothing less, given Roger's track record with the unimpeachable :-) Nixon (whose new 45 on Cloudberry is pretty much perfection, btw) and those adorable Free Loan Investments, but even so this a heady and powerful brew, an elegant complement to the leaves that are tumbling down all around us this quite stunning autumn. There are versions here of both "Open Arms" and "Why Did I Trust You ?" as well as "Tell Me" from the Atomic Beat 7" and "David" from the Cloudberry 3", but there is no point in singling any particular songs out, because (alert the cliché police NOW) they would all stand comfortably as own-right singles. Um, especially "Chandeliers".

Since those earlier releases their sound is slightly slicker, as you might expect from a fully-fledged fivesome, but none of the excitement of the earlier singles has been sacrificed. Indeed, "Open Arms" is even faster out of the traps than it was before. Come to think of it, what we said about that M&PC album

"a sea of smart, shortish, melody-led numbers that show that you don't always need to slow proceedings down, or to drag them out, to extract occasionally gut-gnawing emotion"

could just as easily apply to this one, for the Garlands have risen above any temptation, à la Shop Assistants, to make every third track a glockenspiel-coated slowie. Apart from some very mild relaxation of pace on the final tune "Your Words", there's ne'er a hint of b*ll*dry, and quite right too. That's not to say that the lyrical sentiment shares the same unfailingly sunny disposition as the music: just like Free Loan Investments, there is plenty of emptiness and anger in the words, more of that "gut-gnawing emotion", if you like; indeed, we'd hazard that there's almost enough heartbreak, betrayal and desolation here to fuel a Harper Lee album. So we'd definitely cast this as an autumn record, not a summer one.

But ultimately, whatever the season and whatever's in season, "The Garlands" is still just a gurglingly brilliant album that chimes with the very best pop music from down the ages: a little gem as pristine as Christine, as gorgeous as George. Back in the '80s (and bringing it back to the brothers O'Neill) we had a phrase for this kind of thing: "manic pop thrill". It's a phrase that fits the Garlands to a tee.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Michael Schwarz "Neuronum vs Neuronorm" (Rooftop Audio): Sven Wittekind "Broken Mirrors (Remixes, Part One)" (Sick Weird Rough)
 
One of the perks of le château d'in love with these times, in spite of these times being only a few doors down from a live venue is that while going about our daily business we often have to weave through a snaking line of random punters, queueing eagerly to see the band of their choice. This can be quite pleasant, an opportunity to chat with fellow music-lovers: some crowds have been very nice (Ian Anderson gig-goers gave a generous round of applause to our touch-parking, as well as taking a quip about "living in the past" in the right humour; Devin Townsend fans were friendly too, if somewhat perturbed that a random passer-by seemed keener than they were on his Bent Sea side-project; just this evening, Opeth acolytes were lovely, which we strangely knew they would be). The obligatory question to ask the queuers (queuees ?) though is "who are you here for ?", even if you know the answer perfectly well, and then when they tell you, to say with mock-surprise "oh, and you're queuing to get *in* ?" Thankfully this, too, is usually taken in the spirit intended, although Keane fans are an exception. Very touchy, they get.
 
Ooh, and here's a quiz for you: see if you can guess the one act who was so, um, self-regarding that he (a clue there) insisted on having a purple carpet and gold railings draped across the pavement to the entrance doors, quite a pain for the wheelchair and buggy users who then had to step into the road to get around them...
 
Anyway, the other night none other than Brian May was playing the venue, so we struck up conversation with some Queen fans, sporting "We Will Rock You" t-shirts, who were waiting outside. They were quite receptive to our (genuine!) compliments on Brian's recent work for badgers, as well as his astronomy expertise, but then got all hot under the collar when we um, kind of steered the conversation to Sun City. There seemed to be this idea that it's not "done" to go on about such things, that it's just water under the bridge, that it's somehow below the belt after all this time to even refer to the way that Queen "inspired" Artists United Against Apartheid (same goes for the way Eric Clapton "inspired" Rock Against Racism, we suppose), yet surely people - especially those in the public eye or who make a play for public adulation - need to take responsibility for their actions, and if you let them off after some kind of arbitrary limitation period in relation to something so fundamental, especially when they've never seemed to express any real remorse or understanding, well... oh, maybe we're just getting old.
 
Or, perhaps we've missed some public act of contrition: we confess to not having seen "We Will Rock You" (not least after reading Stewart Lee's extremely entertaining description of it in his book, plus the fact that we've been concentrating instead on writing the libretto for our own, fifteen-minute rock opera, a tribute to the songs of Bubblegum Splash! entitled "Plastic Smile At Yeovil Junction"), so for all we know there may be a segment of "We Will" that Ben Elton has specially written about Queen playing Sun City, maybe even admitting the somewhat craven attempt to capitalise on Live Aid so soon afterwards. After all, Ben is a man of dignity and impeccable socialist credentials, and it would be hard to believe he would ever resort to hagiography for cash. But... the fact the episode seems to have been airbrushed from history just gnaws at us, that's all. It's probably just as well that we didn't get on to what we thought of Brian playing the roof of Buck House, or indeed what we think of Queen's music. But we wished the guys on the pavement well, of course, and we hope they had a great evening. Ours ? We spent it listening to these.
 
* * * * *
 
Yup. New music. "Neuronum vs Neuronorm" from Michael Schwarz is, oh yes, the latest offering to tickle us from the über-fecund German black techno scene... technically, it's a double A-side (of "Neuronum" and "Neuronorm", you'll be unsurprised to learn), but by the time you add in the weight of remixes from Marco Asoleda, M.I.T.A., Alejandro Trebor, Plankton and Niereich (x2), you've got something that keeps yr heart pumping (and your other half complaining) for well over an hour, so it's not your three-minute summer single smash or anything, but a fairly bona fide "extended play" (and Plankton's decoration of his / her / its / their remix with random barbs of ambient noise is really rather pretty, you know). Ummm.... look, I just LIKE this stuff, at once urgent *and* soothing, pounding away with a serene disregard for the conventions or fashions of the day... pock-marking the night horizon with a galaxy of aural fireworks. There's something timeless about it.
 
And then, over that horizon, gallops the first of a promised *series* (yaaay) of remixes of Sven Wittekind's "Broken Mirrors" and as you know "Broken Mirrors" was the don, a bright mix of the minimal and commercial (M.E.S. pointed out on "Cash n' Carry / Stop Mithering" that "the conventional is now experimental", and we're sure that works vice-versa). So now, as night follows day, it's time for the remixes to trickle out, also via the imperious Sick Weird Rough. We talked about the nature of the remix a little when we talked about Morbid Angel (ooh, so nearly a Robert Forster song title) but thankfully there's no Oakenfold-ish original-ruination going on here.
 
Remix single one is an all German-affair, as it pairs Klaudia Gawlas' version of "The Twirl" with Pierre Deutschmann taking on album opener "Rapture of Deep". As you'd expect from Gawlas, who delivered the exquisite "Szcz" last year on Abstract, her version is single-quality in itself, all effervescent sashaying caress, warming beats and and drivingly dark (yes, positively Schwarz-ish) chime. Deutschmann's track has presence, too, although it removes much of the careful layering of the original - the "rapture", if you like - and goes for something better calculated to drive the dancefloor, including a great central section with deep bass tones that sounds like Sven and Pierre have kidnapped the brothers Bronski and forced them to improvise their way out. Also, in contrast to the subaquatic longing of the original, the remix sounds airborne in places: the ambient hum that fuels it sounds like the track is taking off, rather than plumbing the deep blue.
 
And soon we're going to write about something that squares the circle, for after years of the two coyly dancing around each other's handbags (or something), the Schwarz has now released a single for the Wittekind, on the latter's fabled SWR, a fact which makes our heads implode in itself (it's called "Function", and the prospect of it is like, well, you know, one of your favourite bands signing to one of your favourite labels (feels good, doesn't it ?)) so we're bound to bring you more on that story. Later.
 
Mmmm... or, actually, perhaps NOW, because we can't sit on it until we next meet, especially as we have no idea as usual whether our next post is two hours or two years away... um... so... in the words of the Spook School (or, for older bods, Arab Strap), "here we go"...
 
Michael Schwarz "Function" (Sick Weird Rough)
 
Another double A-side (yup, "Function" and "Disfunction" - on paper, could there be two less promising songtitles ?) but one then supplemented by nothing less than a *Ryuji Takeuchi* remix of "Function" (yes, all of ilwtt,isott's Christmases have come at once). All of which provides another 25 minutes' worth of Mr Schwarz's redeeming rhythms to savour, to add to the sixty plus minutes of "Neuronum vs Neuronorm".
 
As the beats kick on and the slick, sleek pulses high-five you all the way down the street, we're reduced to reflecting again on the fact that we don't have the critical vocabulary to explain quite why these songs drill so deep into our hearts, and we're reminded of those conversations with people at work about art, where they start from a position that Rothko is "rubbish", or Twombly is "rubbish"- just as our friends did, 25 years ago, when excoriating the likes of Bubblegum Splash!, tho' they'll be eating their words when "Plastic Smile At Yeovil Junction" transfers to Broadway - and we struggle gamefully to find words to explain why that's not how we feel about those artists, only to end up resorting to platitudes that don't properly elucidate our thoughts at all, or asking said colleague to name an artist that they actually do like, all the while moving further and further from the *point* of it all... and they say "oh, but I could paint that", to which we want to say "no, you couldn't" and "even if you could, so what ?" but by then you're really only in the realm of playground namecalling, and that's to be resisted at all costs...
 
And the thing is, "Function" and "Disfunction" build the tension perfectly - the former in particular is the expected hulking mass of minimal brilliance - but it's the remix that kills us, a track so elegantly contrived, by the framer of the stonking "Upside Down", that we wish that it, too, could be hung on an art gallery wall for admirers and besmirchers alike to debate; that it could be used to generate heat and light, acrimony and fury about *art*; that it could help distract us all from the various mendacities and mundanities of modern life, just as the Tate Modern's Rothko and Twombly exhibitions did.
 
Oh, and we've come up with an addendum to our reasons for clasping techno to our hearts, one that goes beyond our past splurgings about it replicating the human heartbeat, or how it kyboshes those groundless assumptions about what music can and can't be truly rewarding.
 
It's this: the refreshing realisation that, for the most part, we simply have *no idea* what any of these artists look like, whether they're old or young, black or white, what clothes they wear; we have not the first *clue* as to their cliques or circles or affiliations. The fact that when it comes to these records,we're unencumbered by our usual baggage of how we grew up with x or doted on y or once bought a pint for z. Should Sven or Michael or Ryuji ever play live on our street, we won't be equipped to make any sarky remarks about their looks or their politics or their public image or their past: the only conversation we'll be able to strike up with their devotees will be all about the music. We're looking forward to it already.

Friday, November 09, 2012

September Girls "Wanting More" (Matinée Recordings): The Spook School "Here We Go" (Cloudberry Records)
 
All those artists that we've loved for the last 25 years or so are all very well, are really very well, but given that no less than *nine* of our last ten posts have laboured our collective century and a half of full-on amour for
the Wake, Andrew Jarrett, Julian Henry, Fletcher & Pursey, the Sugargliders and Public Enemy (well, Public Enemy bar Flavor Flav), perhaps it's time to rep the new school...
 
But we don't lump these two shiny new 7" singles together merely *because* they're nu-skool, nor because we think they sound particularly alike (they don't), nor because we have any desire to detract from their all-round standalone aceness. It's more that they both prod us toward that same giddy realisation, the one we got from the remarkable recent Hobbes Fanclub platter, that yes, there *are* new bands out there, right now, making the kind of music we feared people didn't want to make any more... and they remind us that as well as our old heroes, we should all crave and covet new heroes too, else life would becomes barely more than a procession of shuffling nostalgia, en route to the inevitable zimmer frame.
 
So. While there's a surfeit of spiky garage-pop doing the rounds at the mo, Dubliners September Girls pretty much slay all opposition with their three track 7", "Wanting More". It's a perfect rush-hour blur of motor city soul and modern pop noise, topped with swirling keyboards and draped louchely in the reverb that is so de rigeur right now: it just *tugs* at our heartstrings, the same heartstrings once plucked by kindred spirit supernovae like Slumber Party or the Aislers' Set. In a sense, the five-piece take their cue from the Jesus and Mary Chain's thrilling subversion of the language of pop: these are flames of romance soundtracked by a fuzzing throb, undercurrents of longing hiding beneath frissons of feedback.
 
The lead tune powers along so gloriously that it's easy not to notice those undercurrents of longing initially ('til it concludes with a pleading "take me back to where the / summer lasts forever"), but once you do they simply wash over you, cleansing your soul of all its workaday cynicism. Second song "Hells Bells" is possibly even better, as thudding drums compete for space in the mix over the screes of blissful noise, as if Black Tambourine were jamming selections from "Isn't Anything". By the time we get to instrumental closer "Man Chats", one of the most raucous things ever released on Matinée (imagine Girlschool covering Thrilled Skinny's "Slap A Ban!" whilst someone clawhammers an organ to bits in the background), we're sold completely. There's a certain pizazz to this EP which we don't personally get from the more fêted NYC bands who operate in similar territory, and we have a feeling that may be because September Girls are patently playing what they want to play, aren't "trying to be" anything, and *that's* what helps fill these tracks with such sheer joy.
 
Um, we haven't mentioned Cloudberry Records for waaaaay too long, so it's great to welcome the Spook School, from Edinburgh, to that munificent roster. And if you had to capture the Spookies' début single "Here We Go" in a single word, it would be this: *infectious*. This is raw and supercharged tastebud-tickling indie-pop, not too far from the bouncing jangle of their earlier standout tune "History", as if the early Wedding Present had TWOCked the first Beat Happening! LP and driven it around the streets of Bearsden with Stephen Pastel as a hostage. It's a rollicking rollerskate ride of a song - embellished by a nagging, insistent guitar line - that starts sweetly, continues sweetly and finishes sweetly YET towards the end decides to initiate a gradual and skilful amping-up of background feedback and noise which means that you end up with a rattling crescendo and a certain semi-drunken dizziness, as if you'd stayed on the park roundabout ten seconds too long. (For those of us with now-greying temples, there are shades of the way that BMX Bandits' "Sad?" ran itself excitedly into a racing finish, before collapsing exhaustedly across the line). Drawing a line 'twixt Spook School and "Glasgow School", there's also a lyrical reference to Orange Juice, which is mildly surprising given that the Spooks seem far too young to have heard of OJ: perhaps they've just been raiding their grandparents' record collections...
 
Anyway, so they sing "meet me at the station / at around 5 o'clock", and in a way that makes us really wish we could, just as we once *so* wanted to meet Davey Woodward "on Tuesday at 8 o'clock", long before the Spook School were even born. Oh, the Spook School's brand of "sheer joy" feels more callow, and might yet prove more ephemeral, than the September Girls' confident, miasmic barrage: but be in no doubt that it's just as vibrant and that - right here, in the flickering, raindrop-flecked, bottom-of-the-fourth Division NOW - it raises our flagging spirits just as much.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Wake "A Light Far Out" (LTM)
 
Ever since LTM performed the public service of reissuing the mighty Wake's back catalogue in 2001, we'd harboured a fantasy that the band might yet be working on a fifth album, the first since 1994's "Tidal Wave Of Hype". We were encouraged by flickers of activity from Caesar and Carolyn, like the emergence of the excellent and upbeat "Town Of 85 Lights" (which ended up on LTM's "Black Music" compilation), and the downplayed brace of albums from the Occasional Keepers (a Wake and Trembling Blue Stars-encompassing supergroup: come to think of it, "Town of 85 Lights" appeared on the second of those records, too). Aside from those outings, however, we heard nothing. Forlorn, we assumed our hopes would never come to fruition. Not for the first time, however, how wrong we were. Yes, a mere 18 years after that fourth long-player comes a new Wake album, "A Light Far Out". Dreams never end.

It's quickly apparent that the crowingly sardonic, post-modern cheekiness of much of their work for Sarah ("Provincial Disco", for example, or both sides of the "Major John" 7") has been jettisoned in favour of something that closer recalls the icier whirl of their younger, Factory days. But we don't see "A Light Far Out" as evidence of the Wake coming 'full circle', or returning wholly to their roots. For a start, there's plenty here to please the devotee of the '90s-era Wake. Instead, it feels more that the Wake are intent on cementing their reputation, on showing that they *can* still do thoughtful miserabilism from the oldschool, and do it so much better than anyone else.

Take the opening track, "Stockport". Just as third LP "Make It Loud"'s quirky anti-Tony Wilson anthem "Joke Shop" shadowed him back and forth from Factory's old offices in Palatine Road, Manchester, the new album opener pays passing homage to another highway from the Wake's early history: Waterloo Road, Stockport, once home to Strawberry Studios (where the Wake recorded "Harmony"). But that's where any resemblance ends: "Joke Shop", while a barbed and elegant broadside, was essentially a narrative piece. "Stockport" is anything but, a keyboard-laden pearl of metropolitan ennui ("towns all look the same / it's the same old rope... when you break it down, it's the same routine") tinged with pretty melodic swirls. It positively *glides*, with all due ceremony, over the debris of a distant past.

"Stockport" is followed by "If The Ravens Leave", a bona fide Wake classic devalued only, in this context, by the fact that it also appeared on that second Occasional Keepers' record, "True North". Nevertheless, from the first flickers of clicking electronica through to its deftly assembled sepia verses, "Ravens" is a reminder of just how good a band the Wake can be, a song to rival "English Rain", "Talk About The Past" or "Carbrain" in the gilded firmament of their back catalogue. On its heels, "Methodist"', with its early Wake-ish title, is an ornate stained-glass window piece of a song which tenderly explores the overlaps - and distinctions - between conviction and religion.

The one obvious connector to the Sarah years comes next. "The Back Of Beyond" originally appeared - albeit only as an instrumental - on "Tidal Wave Of Hype". Bizarrely but welcomely, it's now *back*, this time garnished with somewhat intriguing lyrics about some delicate protest singers who are getting flayed by an unsympathetic audience (lyrics that cradle a nice "Crush The Flowers" callback, too). The song makes infinitely more sense in its new form, and you even find yourself singing along to Caesar's dry "and the band went on and on, again and again" (not far off the chorus lyric from I Ludicrous' "We're The Support Band", strangely enough). It's thoroughly enjoyable, even if its comparative irreverence and effervescence jars slightly with the statelier pace and themes of the other tracks here.

The second half of the album treads a very different path from "Beyond", carefully exploring a stripped-down sound and demanding (but rewarding) a little more perseverance. "Starry Day" is the one track on which Carolyn Allen's vocals lead, and it's so brittle and beautiful that it almost feels like a song Bobby could have written for Annemari, back in the day (not least with Ian Catt at the controls, as he is on a number of the tracks here). The glacial, brushing "Faintness", in contrast, has no vocals at all (perhaps a version with vocals will appear on any sixth LP, circa 2030 ?) but with its rainsoaked pathos, lightly-sketched electronics and brittle guitar it could almost be a sister to "If The Ravens Leave".
 
Then we come to the epic, atmospheric title track, some nine minutes arranged broadly in three movements (Clare and Matt wouldn't have stood for that, we're sure). The first movement builds up the back story, "the searching" as the Orchids might have had it: "is there any sign of a storyline... is there a glimmer somewhere ?" The second, ushered in by sampled seaside sounds, is a layered, mannered, delicate instrumental, providing time for reflection. And the third, the most effective of all, is where the band unfurl a plaintive conclusion, try to achieve resolution: "there *is* a light far out, over there", sings Caesar, "and that's enough for me, that's all there has to be". It's aching, optimistic, really quite affecting. This is the point on the album at which the Wake are most obviously showing off their maturity and confidence. It's then time to end proceedings with "The Sands", which continues the coastal theme. Unassuming (more simply strummed guitars) yet immaculate and austere, its awestruck lyrics trace and stretch a gentle sadness almost to breaking point: and then "A Light Far Out" is over.

At various points on listening to the album we appalled ourselves by almost being ready to chastise it for sounding profoundly like Trembling Blue Stars or Harper Lee, and then having to remind ourselves of the fact that the Wake were carving this niche - with no little decorative splendour - *years* before those bands even existed; that in their younger days both Bobby Wratten and Keris Howard seemingly paid exacting attention to the Wake, particularly in the fecund period from "Here Comes Everybody" to "Gruesome Castle". To the extent the Wake are "stealing" anything from other bands' sounds, they're only stealing it back. (Keeping it Factory, Peter Hook said something similar when New Order's "All The Way" was accused of appropriating the Cure. He no doubt had in mind some of Robert Smith's nods to Joy Division, as well as the fairly naked inspiration that "The Walk" derived from "Blue Monday").

That's all by the by, though. The reality is that "A Light Far Out", as a whole, couldn't have been made by anyone else, and perhaps that's all we wanted from it (even if, as you can tell from our excitable overwordiness, we got far more). Our love for the Wake is well documented: "A Light Far Out" ensures that it is a love which remains undimmed.