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.