Friday, July 26, 2013

The Steinbecks "At Arkaroo Rock" (Matinée Recordings)
When the Sugargliders' "A Nest With A View" primer came out last year, we got so excited that we listened to it over and over again, forgot about everything else in our lives, stayed up through the early hours writing a somewhat over-earnest review and then fell asleep on the sofa.
You'll be relieved to hear we have no intention of doing the same this time: our only goal (a Longmire goal, natch) is to try and convey how overjoyed we are that this new single from the brothers Meadows exists, and to meekly apologise for how the mighteous Steinbecks featured only as a footnote in that previous review, with us sleepily mumbling that we hoped they would one day get their due before we clicked on "publish" and turned in for the night (although for those of us a certain age you must forgive us fleeting imaginings, on listening to this 3-track 7", of how it might have looked as a Sugargliders EP for Sarah, perhaps with a label showing Baltic Wharf, or the bus from Temple Meads...)
But back to the present, and "Arkaroo Rock" taps at the window, smiles, flutters in and nestles happily in the pulsing folds of your heart, just as you'd expect from artists whose music has been delighting us for a quarter of a century. Moth-delicate, with gently cascading vocal lines and a glistening spun web of guitars, it's a song about how we all stand so small when we set ourselves against the long passage of time, and it operates at a dizzying level of exquisiteness, somewhere on the plane of the Butterflies of Love, or the Steinbecks' Australian cousins the Lucksmiths at their brittlest.
Indeed, to the extent that we suspect that the single's slaloming gorgeousness is not going to be properly recognised by an ungrateful world, it reminds us of the latter's underpraised and equally pretty "Get-to-bed Birds" 7" swansong on the same label. (The optimist in us insists, though, that these records' brilliance *will* one day be unearthed and treasured by future generations, just like the cave paintings at Arkaroo).
Ahem. Middle track "All Desires Known" picks up where "Yr Jacket" left off (the Steinbecks, like the Sugargliders, somehow sound more brutal when they strip slow songs down to bare bones) before the excellent "Cabin Fever", the feistiest song of the three, injects harsher guitar tones and some increasingly anguished falsetto.
* * * * *
Our review of the Steinbecks' "Recorded Music Salon" set, a frightening number of years ago now (you can p'raps get a sense of just how long ago by the fact that we took the opportunity to slag off our then-bête noires the Verve, Starsailor and the rightly long-forgotten Alfie) opined that it proved:
 
"not only is there life after the sugargliders, but that life is rich, rosy and - despite occasional flaws - full of possibilities"
 
We'd hazard that, for once, we were right. "At Arkaroo Rock" emerges unblinking and proud from that wonderful, foggy swirl of possibilities, making us feel like the richest people in town.

In this ghastly summer of royalist sycophancy, this torrid spell of unflinching and unnuanced heat, this is a single that comes as fresh and thrilling rain. And so we fall in love with them, all over again.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

14 Iced Bears "Hold On Inside" (Cherry Red)
It's reissue central at Cherry Red right now, what with the "Are You Scared To Get Happy?" mega-box set (it has Bubblegum Splash! on it = buy it), as well as the Brilliant Corners and Mighty Mighty recently having had the double-CD 'greatest hits treatment', but this release particularly excites us because it's from 14 Iced Bears, one of the bands whose corner we most distinctly remember fighting at school, alone and ranged against the shoegaze-worshipping hordes: in doing so, we were invariably outnumbered and laughed at, because of the band's name and the Sarah associations and the wimpiness of some our most treasured 14IB songs and, in one case, because Andy R. took umbrage at the singer's "receding hairline", but we didn't care then and we still love them now.
We shan't be too meticulous in our review, mind, because the lion's share of the tracks here appeared on the "In The Beginning" and "Let The Breeze Open Our Hearts" compilations, and we reviewed those in eye-wateringly copious detail many moons ago, and you'll have read those essays at the time (if you didn't, you'll just have to trust us when we tell you how essential and incisive they were :-)
In brief, though, "Hold On Inside" is a reverse-chronological retrospective of Brighton's finest ("1991-1986", as the sleeve has it), and works alarmingly well: you get drawn into their web by the didgeridoo-featuring second album "Wonder", starting with the bold, brilliant, *ignored* single "Hold On" but also featuring gems like "Smooth In The Sun", which achieves the oxymoronic distinction of being 'baggy', yet good; you get the Bears' (definitive) version of "Summer Nights", originally culled from one of those Imaginary compilations, I think; and then comes perhaps our favourite 14 Iced Bears number of all, the "World I Love" 45: fiery yet dreamy, a perfect combination of caustic, feral indie-pop and chaotic, agonised lysergic comedown, yet as *intensely*, heart-on-sleeve romantic as their songs that had slayed us in previous years.
And those songs soon follow on the second disc, which takes us back further; to the eponymous first LP as it switches gorgeously from etched psychedelic twirl to twee ballad and back; to their one A-side "fail" (a little leadenly produced, "Mother Sleep"'s ambition is alas unmatched by its execution); to their excitable, full-of-spring-joys Sarah Records 7"; and to their earliest EPs of all, a run of singles first collected long ago on the "Precision" LP (a record replete with somewhat whimsical sleevenotes: "look upon this record as a golden opportunity for eternal happiness") and featuring such timeless pearls of indie popcraft as "Like A Dolphin", "Inside" and the peerless "Cut". These songs all take me back to a time when I *felt* the emotions so vividly and helplessly, but still have so much residual beauty that I swear they would slay me today, even had I never felt a single teenage sensation.
At this distance of years, it occurs to us that 14 Iced Bears' greatness flows not only from the fact that (unlike many of their contemporaries) they produced both fine singles and fine albums, but also from the fact that as their sound evolved, the quality only rarely faltered. Whether or not there was a hint of bandwagon-jumping as their anorak pop turned into expansive and swirlsome, acid-tinged indie-rock, the Bears were a band who took you with them (well, took a few of us with them: no-one else cared in the common room). But the existence of "Hold On Inside" is hopefully a demonstration that people care now, at least, and proof in our eyes, biased as we may be, that the chansons of 14 Iced Bears still hit the mark today.
Um, we'll repeat just one anecdote. Watching the Bears play Camden, 1991-ish, a powered-up set of newies anchored by "Hold On" et al. A wag in front of us shouts for "Cut". "What did you call me?" responds Rob. Smiles all round. Maybe you had to be there. No, hang on: this was 14 Iced Bears, live and in their prime. You definitely should have been there.
in love with these times, in spite of these times' 14 Iced Bears top ten: Sure To See. Cut. World I Love. Hold On. Inside. Eyes. Hay Fever. Like A Dolphin. Summer Nights. Lie To Choose.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Math and Physics Club "Long Drag" (Matinée Recordings)
Crumpled pages and scrawled notes from the archive drip inky snippets of past prose that we've been inspired to pen by Seattle's wonderful Math & Physics Club, much of which made it into this fanzine: so, spinning back in time we find "the not inconsiderable potential" of the "Weekends Away" EP, which was fulfilled (and then some) by "Movie Ending Romance", all
"sprightly, poppy passages and wonderful, sadder, reveries"
ooh, and I see we got in some digs at the Beach Boys (we were braver then...)
and up next of the EPs, it was "Baby I'm Yours", pithily:
"math and physics are BACK and they haven't lost it either"
and then there was the first, self-titled album some seven years back, one of "rare consistency", with special props to "sumptuous opener" "Darling, Please Come Home", and the "pure pop" (what else?) of "April Showers", but of course the passing years unveiled a second LP too, "I Shouldn't Look As Good As I Do", which inevitably unfurled itself, in its "strollingly charming" manner and with "newfound studio confidence", as
"refining even further their modestly understated masterclass in the genteel art of compact songwriting..."
"well-honed and ripplingly toned..."
with special shout-outs to
"the light-as-featherdown sweetness of "We Make A Pair", the bristling, bustling jangle of "Love Or Loneliness", the debonair, boy-laid-bare "I'll Tell You Anything", the heavenly sturm-und-twang of the marvellous "Trying To Say I Love You""
and of course that album in turn yielded - on 7" single, which greatly enthused us, as you'll remember - "Jimmy Had A Polaroid":
"indie-pop righteousness... delectably jangling guitar elides with skidding, bouncing rhythms which both then collide head-on with slipsliding, lump-in-throat lyrical nostalgia".
In 2013 we''re too lazy to write much any more, too old and too cold as Darkthrone would have it, and sorely tempted just to repeat what we said before, indeed could say *every* time M&PC deign to extend their leisurely release schedule, namely
"math and physics are BACK and they haven't lost it either"
but we had to add, wanted to add, that even given M&PC's past brilliance, "Long Drag" doesn't disappoint: it's *so* piquant, so - this word again - compact, with not a single crotchet wasted, that it ensnares you completely. (The package oozes real cool too, what with being recorded at Dub Narcotic, and elegantly dressed by Tae Won Yu). Very different from the vibrant bass-grounded pound of their last 45, "Long Drag" begins instead with shuffling handclaps and rhythmic pulses, as a kind of bubblegum Violent Femmes, but soon opens up to reveal its true majesty and perfect pop lineage. And the themes are universal: it's a song about devotion, and it's a song (just like last night's crush, "Short Stories For Long Nights"!) about being saved by a song. Frankly, it's a song we'd cross oceans to savour.
Look. M&PC would be fully entitled by now to get away with the odd duff record, if they wanted to - it would take more than that to dissuade us from our decision, many years back, to pledge our troth to them approx. forever and a day - but "Long Drag", happily, is far from that, being yet another expectation-raiser, yet another proof of the fulfilment of that early-days promise, yet another ode to the patient and gently nourishing approach that Matinée take to their artists. Both band and label remain the gift that keeps giving.
Plus, lest we forget:
"math and physics are BACK and they haven't lost it either".

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Short Stories "Send My Love To Everyone" (Breaking Down Recordings)

We had thought that Bristol's Short Stories had gone the way of all undervalued bands, and that their legacy had begun to trickle unheralded into the all-too porous rocks of history, but not only have they regrouped and returned: they've come back with a terrific, supremely confident fourth album. (On a tangent, and before we forget, you may - if born before punk happened - recall the label here, Breaking Down Recordings: yes, tis' the very same recording empire that brought us the rather ace "Airspace" compilations, as well as a brace of Five Year Plan singles, back in those halycon 80s).
For the purposes of "Send My Love", the Short Stories are a five-piece; core duo Steve Miles and Tim Rippington joined by full band, as well as a number of guest appearances and guest instruments along the way. And, seamlessly mixing torch songs with pop songs, short songs with long, happy with sad, they've really nailed it this time. The influences are classic enough, veering from Go-Betweens to Galaxie and, when the keyboards come in, maybe even Felt, and there's a sense of momentum all the way through to the LP's glorious and frantic closing four minutes of frazzled strum and soaring brass.
The song "Short Stories For Long Nights" (yes, they've left it 'til LP no. 4 to finally deliver the title track for their first one) is especially powerful, a statement of faith that a song can save your life: I haven't been as moved by lyrics since "Want What's Yours". And its title captures the flavour of the more drawn-out numbers on the LP (three hover close to the ten-minute mark), which each provide evening-to-early hours solace, a friend and a fireside chat, the promise of escape. Accordingly, this album feels *brighter* than previous outings: when sizing up album number two, "This Night Is On Fire", we worried a little bit about the sadness on show, but although "Send My Love" certainly has its downbeat moments (and tracks like "Angry Young Man", a lament on ageing, evince a sense of weary resignation), the overall timbre is of a band who have navigated the troughs of life but want this album to be a tableau of the whole human experience, not just of our sloughs of despond.

And on that note, there's one truly scintillating song, "Are You Listening Now?" which is next-level fine. Lyrically reflective yet upbeat, it takes everything about our favourite Forest Giants songs ("Postcards", "Beards", "Closure") and imbues the brew with irresistible poppiness, too. Even better, we have it on good authority that a version of it is going to be a single. Which may be the best news we've heard all week, and certainly eclipses all this royal baby nonsense.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Mumakil "Flies Will Starve" (Relapse): P.L.F. "Devious Persecution and Wholesale Slaughter" (Six Weeks): Blockheads "This World Is Dead" (Relapse): Rotten Sound "Species At War" (Relapse): Nails "Abandon All Life" (Southern Lord)
Back in the day, before the Borders chain was asset-stripped by the dead hand of private equity, we used to tumble on down to the branch in our local shopping centre and pick up an array of fanzines and magazines: our regular purchases were Hip-Hop Connection, Smoke: A London Peculiar, LDN graf primer Very Nearly Almost and the august 'extreme music' organ, Terrorizer.
The thing to remember about Terrorizer is that despite the downsides (embarrassing, childish covers; very strange definition of 'extreme' that includes e.g. formulaic Cradle of Filth knock-offs, dishwater-dull folk metal, overhyped middle of the road nonsense like Ghost BC), around 1% of the bands it covers - basically, the better grindcore and crust ones - are very good indeed (that may not sound a *great* strike-rate, but it's 1% more than the NME's, for example, which may be one of the many reasons why Terrorizer's circulation really isn't that far short of the NME's these days).
Reading reviews in a magazine like Terrorizer, however, can quickly get wearing. Partly because they've now gone for that capsule review thing where each album only gets about 50 words, meaning that once the writer has come up with a witty pun or joke about whatever rock 'backwater' the band hail from, they run out of verbiage to describe what the thing sounds like. But also because the few adjectives they do deploy are so overused as to be meaningless: whether death metal, black metal, punk, deathcore, grindcore or hardcore, it's always an "assault" of "brutality", it's always "crushing", the similes all involve weapons or heavy objects penetrating your skull or cranium. It gets to the point where you half-expect that if you actually put any of the records on, all you would hear is the hippy-dippy sound of Colon from the Fast Show. (Still one of the all-time top tier Britpop bands, in my estimation).
Dear reader, you can't sift through one hundred reviews every month that tell you how a record by some black-clad, tattooed, hard-looking blokes with beards will garott you, flay you alive or strangle your cat. You want to focus on the dozen or so noise albums every year that might actually thrill and entertain you. Hence the five records here, a discography stretching out over the first half of 2013. And, in our Veltins-addled minds right now, these discs set forth the promise of a night of musical entertainment. A summer promenade at the Royal Albert Hall, perhaps.
First on stage are the combative Swiss quartet Mumakil, rifling through 26 merry melodies in around 40 minutes. The songs are punchy, and the drumming almost superhuman (many of the tracks sound like they are being backed by a drum machine played at 250bpm) but we could have done with a few more riffs, and a lot more variety. A fistful of song titles encapsulate the lyrical content nicely: "Shit Reminders", "Piss Off" and, most memorably, "Fucktards Parade". A polite ripple of applause echoes through the Hall.
French elder statesmen grinders Blockheads (sample titles: "Bastards", "Born Among Bastards") and redoubtable Texan power merchants P.L.F. (sample titles: "Klaxon Of Puzzlement", "Trinitrotoluene Negation") are up next and are both much more like it, pounding well-trodden paths into submission with straight down the line, smartly executed core de grind. The latter include one Bryan Fajardo on drums, as do the best grind bands across 48 states (Gridlink, Noisear, Kill The Client, Phobia, et cetera, et cetera). Each combo elicit heartfelt and well-deserved acclamationfrom our imaginary punters.
Next come flying Finns Rotten Sound, on a high following the drama of their "Cursed" album, who deliver a new six-track EP about war and religion's role in war which picks up where they left off in marrying urgent, energetic, bass-grounded noise with subtle, high speed melodies which need several replays to pick up before your ears fully attune, but when they do it's a truly serendipitous thing. We also get more of those one-word, "big picture" song titles: "Salvation", "War", the not-very-peaceful "Peace". Our made-up audience, senses finely tested, give our heroes a rapturous reception. What a concert this is proving to be.
And then on stroll California's Nails, with the follow-up to their exceptional first LP, "Unsilent Death". Yes, it is more of the same: ten tracks in around seventeen chaos-fuelled minutes, with two or three stretched-out tunes to combat the raging half-dozen that fail to reach the sixty-second mark. But that does not do this record justice. Nails are much more than the sum of their parts, more vital than any of their members' other projects. There are hints, maybe, of Trap Them, or Napalm, or Dillinger Escape Plan, or Converge, but even those names don't convey the bigger picture. The songs are shorter, faster, less forgiving, noodle-free. Nails are neither grindcore nor crust, but they seek to distil and share those genres' urgency, their love of piling *rhythms* arrayed beneath the feral amplifier howl. The instrumentation is furious, but the playing is taut, machine-like, disciplined. Like Rotten Sound, Nails are fashioning something which is not only overpowering on first listen, but which benefits from repeated spins.
"Abandon All Life" weaves the path of the tornado, the storm, the whirlpool, the maelstrom. There is something ferociously *natural* about the sullen noise on offer, something that belies the economical nihilism of the lyrics. When the songs slow down, at first it's a relief; but when they settle into a groove, just as gritty and determined as before, it becomes just as chastening as the earlier blastbeats had been. We promise you that if you buy this record, you will listen to it over and over (chasing it every time, wondering where the tracks that whizzed by have gone). And if you're angry, tense, or emotional you'll find it a surprisingly sympathetic soundtrack.
So *this* is when we really despair that all the usual adjectives have been so casually flung at lesser bands, less thrilling bands, less full-on, hair-standing-on-the-nape-of-your-neck bands. Because Nails *are* brutal, militant, exciting. They really are. As the Royal Albert Hall in our minds empties out into a greyscale Kensington night, we want to stand on our seats and just *CHEER*.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Milky Wimpshake "Heart And Soul In The Milky Way" (Fortuna Pop!): Tullycraft "Lost In Light Rotation" (Fortuna Pop!): Mark Morris "Complicated Connection" (Ketra Recordings): Sven Wittekind "Voodoo" (Sick Weird Rough): Ross Alexander "Rhapsody of Discontent" (Forte Techno)
Mmmm. Even tighter for time tonight. Five albums, five minutes.
We heart Milky Wimpshake to the very fullest (see here for evidence), but we're getting diminishing returns from their records now, much as "Letraset Angle" or "Without You" still feature heavily on our summer playlists. Tullycraft, on the other hand, have possibly never been quite as consistent: "Lost In Light Rotation" really might be their best album yet (at least half the tracks would have served with distinction as singles) and they remain 24-carat adorable, much as we yearn to one day discover their dark heart.
Ketra label boss Mark Morris has taken the er, *bold* step of making his first LP a 33-track affair that lasts three-and-a-half hours. (That's not an album; that's an afternoon). It's a journey worth embarking on if you get the time - not least for the variety on show, ranging from the riveting "Methodist" to should-be chillout classic "Because I Love U", which deserves to be shoulder-charging Guetta et al out of the charts - but we would have been quite content, especially after recent Sick Weird Rough single "Manipulose", for him to have distilled "Complicated Connection" into a somewhat more digestible form.
In this company, SWR honcho Sven Wittekind's "Voodoo" set seems a mere trifle, a trinket, spreading its 14 tracks over 'only' 100 minutes: again, we could have done with three or four of the tunes being excised, but there's no doubt (despite the "high concept" apparently behind the LP, and the terrible sleeve art) that he remains serenely on top of his game, with closing nugget "To Be Continued" hinting at exciting things to come, perhaps acknowledging that he's now perfected his hypnotic minimal techno barrage, and presaging a change of direction.
Finally, if perhaps you're yearning for more subtlety, then we'd counsel giving Ross Alexander's début album a listen: calling it "Rhapsody Of Discontent" might sound like it's a paean to disillusionment, a fevered "state of the nation" pitch, but this record doesn't lack for positive energy or atmosphere at all, the Scotsman steering an assured path between reflective song fragments and invigorating dancefloor-huggers.A little like a techno equivalent of Kryptic Minds' "One Of Us", this is as cerebral as visceral, an album that tugs emotions and thought-lines far more than some think instrumental electronic music has any right to.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Cappo and Sam Zircon "Un:programmable Raw" EP (Boot): Cappo / Nappa "Red Hot" (King Underground): Ramson Badbonez "Warlords and Immortals" (Boot): Newham Generals "5 Star General" EP (Dirtee Stank): Stigmata "Blackbeard" (Sick Weird Rough): Mintech "Black Mamba" (Sick Weird Rough): Hellbastard "Sons Of Bitches" (PATAC): Weekend Nachos "Watch You Suffer" / "That Life Of Yours" (A389): The Atrocity Exhibit "What Time The Hidden Death?" (Grindcore Karaoke): The Declining Winter "Fragment#5" EP (Monopsone)
 
Welcome back to in love with these times, in spite of these times, the fanzine that prefers The Ex to the xx, Alex Taylor to Alex Turner and Quando Quango to Django Django. May we first, with tears of joy in our eyes, inform you that we were voted OFFICIALLY the joint fifth-best indiepop blog of 2012, according to the ever-discerning readers of TweeNet. We're getting the merchandise printed up now.
 
Er, we have ten singles. We have about ten minutes.
 
For the avoidance of any doubt, pop-pickers, Cappo remains the don. His hook-up with London producer Sam Zircon, and Caps' first outing - we think - for Boot, sees them perfect a Taskforce-style slow-burner over fractured but combative beats: more "Genghis" than "The Fallout", if you see what we mean.
 
Slightly more in-face is the Condor's welcome 12" collaboration with Life's producer, Nappa: "Red Hot" is the lairy, no-nonsense summer smash, "Originate" its more durable (and - for him - unusually coarse) flip. Oh, but to skip back to Boot's out-tray for a sec, Ramson Badbonez delivers perhaps his strongest 45 to date with "Warlords and Immortals", thanks in no small measure to the production technics of Boot and Diversion Tactics mainstays Jazz-T and Zygote: there's plenty to admire on the mic side though, especially when Jehst (trading as Billy Brimstone) picks up the flow.
 
Out east, Newham Generals are still doing their bit to give Dizzee's Dirtee Stank continued credibility: ebullient lead track "Darren and Dan" stands out as best combining club playlist potential with uncompromising grime style. If you want something with purer clubland credentials, then Stigmata's "Blackbeard" and Mintech's "Black Mamba" EPs should make a dent or two on the dancefloor: the title track of the latter is as close as Sick Weird Rough have come to something that could cross over to a wider audience. (Maybe you could then put on Tex-Rec's "Black Capital", to complete the theme).
 
Should you be inclined to indulge yr musical appetites with something more raucous, then veterans Hellbastard are on hand, still spitting with venom and rage, the title track of "Sons Of Bitches" being its growling high point: mind you, the dubplate roots shenanigans of "Throw The Petrol Bomb" prove unexpectedly enthralling too. As an alternative, there's the latest 7" from Weekend Nachos, who are, depending on your point of view, either settling into a certain predictability, or further fine-tuning their niftily desolate hardcore / sludgecore / powerviolence mix. "Watch You Suffer" is another torment-fuelled elixir of pounding noise and nihilism, with almost a touch of Albini's infamous "Budd" at play, but it's the slightly more spirited "That Life Of Yours" that we prefer. And fastest of all, there is the latest compact collection of whirling-dervish, grind-infused crust from the Atrocity Exhibit, seven tracks in around 12 minutes that are pleasingly available gratis courtesy of the ever-dependable Grindcore Karaoke. You can't sniff at titles like "Faustian Crisis Loan", and our old Terrorizer cover-mount favourite, "Assassination Template" makes a very welcome re-appearance too.
 
In stark contrast, however, we must conclude by commending to you - not for the first time - the Declining Winter, whose latest EP won't disappoint with its familiar, beguiling mesh of slyly gorgeous, chiming acoustics and plaintive, windswept rhythmic strums. Mostly instrumental, we have especial love for "The Declining Winter and The Narrow World", a modern pastoral if ever we heard one. We're still waiting for our physical copy to arrive, mind...