31 Oct 2013

Introducing Northern Sky

Photo by Marc Bessant
A few days back I was invited to like a facebook page for a new band called Northern Sky. Closer investigation revealed that Northern Sky is the new outlet for the hard to categorize but mostly folky music of Molly Tilston and her partner (guitarist from the Coral) Lee Southall.
So far there are only the briefest of snippets available to listen to online, but they suggest we could have a new favourite on the way.
I had a chat with Lee to find out what the story is.
"We've been working as a duo for two years now. We've been pretty prolific the whole time. As far as writing goes, we are currently in the writing process for album two." says Lee. "Our debut album is being produced by Ali Staton and Alex Pilkington in Real World studios. Everyone working on the project is in it for the music. All the songs that will be on the record represent every aspect of our lives at this moment."
Early promo has suggested Kate Bush meets Pentangle as a starting point for their sound "We're huge Pentangle fans, Bert Jansch is a hero of mine. We recently moved from Merseyside further up north to a town called Hebden Bridge. The scenes are stunning and dramatic up here. Our songs,words,name and overall project are all massively influenced by our surroundings".
While the name Northern Sky has obvious Nick Drake connotations, it actually came from elsewhere; "Northern Sky happens to be a lyric from one of our songs, although we are fond of Nick Drake."
And Lee admits that it's an entirely different process than working with the Coral "From my point of view it's very natural and more fulfilling as I am in complete control of the instrumental side of things. I write the tunes and Molly writes the words, it's the best way for both of us to work, and it works well. It's been great to learn new styles and really push myself, this project is acoustic and I'm playing folk guitar which is something I've always wanted to do."
Northern Sky have support slots for Martha Tilston and Turin Brakes lined up, and you'll be hearing a lot more from them after that "We're going to be performing as much as possible from now. The album is scheduled to be released early next year."

Follow Northern Sky on Facebook to hear new music as it surfaces and keep up with live dates.

Midlake "Antiphon" Review

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

When it was announced earlier on in the year that frontman Tim Smith had left Midlake well into the recording of their fourth album, things looked decidedly glum for fans. Over the last few years the music press had fixated on Smith's dominance of the band to the point that the idea of a Midlake album without him seemed impossible - imagine a Wilco album without Jeff Tweedy or a My Morning Jacket album without Jim James. Pretty hard to do, isn't it?
However it's not unheard of for bands to lose their driving wheel, regroup and hit back with a winner ala Pink Floyd, and "Antiphon" is no "Saucerful of Secrets" with a departing member's presence uncomfortably lingering while the other band members struggle to engage the gears. All traces of Smith are gone, even though this meant scrapping two years worth of recordings and starting over. And guitarist Eric Pulido who has stepped into the lead vocal role sounds like he's meant to be there.
One thing that plays into the remaining members of Midlake's collective hand is that they've already built a reputation for not making the same album (or even same type of album) twice.
This lack of expectation of a certain sound meant that for better or worse Midlake were pretty much given the freedom to do what they wanted, and left to their own devices they've come up with an album that sounds appropriately Midlake-ish without sounding like they're trying to retain fans of Smith at the expense of their own growth.
Admittedly, "Antiphon" doesn't have the singular and quite separate musical identities that it's two predecessors had, but it does sound exactly like it should. You wouldn't hear this playing in isolation and not immediately know who was playing - no mean task for a band with such a mercurial approach to music making, and a sure sign that the remaining band members were responsible for far more of the band's distinctiveness during Smith's reign than we may have previously thought.
Pulido's voice is an ideal replacement for Smith's, and the strong harmonies that we've come to expect from the band remain intact, but musically this is a much heavier prospect than previous outings.
A dense psychedelic fog of a record with huge, elaborate drums, and a thick production sound that reminds me favorably of an Americanized take on the first few Doves LPs.
"Provider" is the immediate standout with it's instantly hummable, rhythmic chorus, layers of mellotron-like keyboards and heavily processed psych guitars creating an anthem that largely sums up the sound of the album at it's best. Those vintage keyboard tones that you've come to love make numerous and varied appearances, the rhythm section are allowed greater prominence than ever before giving this a drive that previous Midlake albums lacked, and the guitar breaks are often subject to freakbeat levels of tremelo abuse. But the most impressive thing about "Antiphon" is how strong the songs are. There's not a weak track to be found here. It's not often that you come across an album like this with both substance and style, and given the circumstances surrounding it's creation this is much, much more than we had any right to expect.
Tim Smith's going to have to work very hard on his solo project to come up with something that will top this, and I for one can't wait to see what he comes up with.

"Antiphon" is available on CD here, and on vinyl here.

Happy Halloween - Our Writer's Picks For the Season

This year I pressured my writers into a particularly difficult task - to put together a playlist of just five of their favorite Halloween tunes each - I deliberately left this brief fairly open so that you'd see a number of different approaches and get to know our diverse little team a bit better.

Hope you enjoy what you hear.


As chief architect of the often creepy The Hare & The Moon, the mysterious Grey Malkin is better qualified than most to approach this task.

1. The Rattles - The Witch.
Chilling and completely bonkers.
2. Christopher Komeda -Rosemary's Baby
It's impossible to think of this movie without the vocal part of Komeda's soundtrack coming to mind. An unsettling classic.
3. Steeleye Span - Long Lankin.

He lives in the moss. He's out there. Lock your windows!
4. Sunn O))) and Nurse With Wound - Ash On The Trees.
A musical partnership forged in Hell, Stapleton and O' Malley create the perfect aural nightmare. Hiding under the bed is no escape.
5. Faun Fables - Eyes Of A Bird.

Both witchy and beautiful, Faun Fables are the ideal Samhain soundtrack. Light those lanterns!


"After coping with one too many student Halloween nights where the Ghostbusters theme tune gets played at least a dozen times, (it doesn’t matter how drunk I am, I know what you’re doing), I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing beats some delicious house-party Halloween debauchery. Budget decorations, homemade cocktails, but best of all - control over the music. Making playlists is fun at the best of times, but there’s something special about doing a Halloween one. At the risk of babbling on about the art of a good playlist, I’ll just say two things; one – it’s all about the atmosphere, and two – keeping this down to five tracks is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. Probably. Here’s my pick of what I would include. Stick these on while black and white episodes of the Twilight Zone play in the background and your make up begins to melt down your face.
Happy Halloween!"

1. The Attack – Strange House 
‘It was strange...in his house...’ Some killer 60’s UK psych to open it up. That bass.
2. Night Beats - A Night with Nefertiti 
Yes please. Some dark and dirty US garage to get things grooving.
3. White Noise -Love Without Sound 
Stumble to the punch bowl (was it always that colour?) and fill up a cup as lines about labyrinth eyes and perfumed electric gardens echo mysteriously out. The sound effects are already there (and you’re never too old for the convenience/surprise of a punch bowl).
4. Death in Vegas – Dirge 
Got to have some Death in Vegas on there. This one suits the evolving concept of my playlist pretty nicely – re-animated beings allowed to love again for one night...
5. Spider and the Flies – Autochrome 
I like my Halloween nights to be doused in B-movie vibes. Some Spider and the Flies (Tom Cowan and Rhys Webb from The Horrors) will do the trick. It’s all go from here...


"Halloween is a lot of things to me. It’s a day to dress up, invert the standard, be something you both are and aren’t. It’s a time when things aren’t as they seem, when streetlights look more sinister, when the wind may carry whispers, when that thing you thought you saw out the corner of your eye really was there. It’s eerie and autumnal in that way that makes it feel like it’s a time out of time, something suspended between. That’s the essence of what it is; the carnivalesque, the liminal. It’s also, like the Mexican Day of the Dead to which it bears a resemblance, a day to remember those you’ve lost. I usually favor songs that remind me of these things—the absurd, the spooky, the departed. I’ve tried to include something of each here in my list."

1. The Jim Carroll Band – People Who Died 
As the title says, this is a song in which Jim recounts people he’s known who have died—“They were all my friends, and they died”—reminding you of everyone you’ve lost but being up-tempo enough that you don’t feel completely oppressed by the though.
2. Stone Breath – Flowers on Your Grave
I know of no better song about a ghostly friend than this, and no one better to sing such a song than Timothy. It, and Stone Breath encapsulate the eeriness of the day, the inbetween-ness, like no one else could.
3. Bauhaus – Dark Entries 
It isn’t Halloween without a little Bauhaus, who perfectly evoke that slightly sinister feeling of walking home from your Halloween party at some ungodly hour, feeling like you’re alone, but not alone.
4. Neko Case – Furnace Room Lullaby
This particular song reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” – of being haunted by a strange and terrible thing, being consumed by an obsession, becoming something you didn’t think you were or could be.
5. Mark Kozelek – Green Hell 
Mark’s cover of the Misfits song makes it sound both more absurd and more depressing than the original and so it unsettles and disturbs in a way—he means it, he’ll shake apart, but this hell is like any other, just kinda green.


As well as writing for us Jason has his own blog, "Forestpunk" which is full of this sort of stuff. Investigate.

1. Zombie Zombie - Halloween Theme - ft. Alan Howarth. 
Famed Carpentcore bring John Carpenter's eerie minimalist to rockist life, in this case performing with Carpenter's musical companion Alan Howarth. Get it started.
2. The Gate - (dialog) - The Old Gods!
In the tradition of classic horror mixtapes, here's a bit of movie dialog from 1987's "The Gate". Remember, The Old Gods are out there, in the darkness, just waiting for their chance to take back creation. Great movie.
3. Children Of The Stones Theme
I thought your party could use a bit of dark ambiance, so picked out the theme from hauntological staple "Children Of The Stones", full of atonal choirs, whispering winds. Evokes the feeling of an ancient stone circle on the moors.
4. Mater Suspiria Vision feat. Scout Klas -The Labyrinths of Venice
Can't have TOO much dark ambiance, so here's some excellent witch house from the head of Phantasma Disques. The video is taken from "Don't Look Now", a classic psychotropic British ghost story that is worth seeking out. Nice and grainy. Nice and bloody.
5. Sergei Rachmaninov - Isle of the Dead, Op. 29
Found this specially for this playlist, it's become a staple in my daily listening habits. Its a symphonic poem, based upon the painting by Arnold Böcklin, it's surreal and impressionistic, using orchestral themes to give the feeling of the spray of water, the smell of charcoal, and the whispers of dread. We all could use more classical music in our lives. It inspires us, and reminds us how it could be done.


It wouldn't be fair for me to dodge the bullet myself after putting the rest of my writer's to the task so here's my own contribution to finish things off.

1. Daniela Casa - Occultismo
The most ominous track from perhaps the creepiest library LP of all time, Daniela Casa's "Societa Malata"
2. Mr Fox - Mendle
At the creepiest end of the original U.K folk-rock spectrum lies this drone laden anthem from the Peggs.
3. Pram - The Owl Service
Inspired by Alan Garner's classic young adult's novel, Pram launch into a surprisingly funky early hauntological precursor which has proven hugely influential.
4. H.P Lovecraft - At The Mountains of Madness
One of two adaptations of Lovecraft short stories by this excellent U.S psychedelic folk-rock outfit - a personal favorite.
5. John Carpenter - The Fog
No Halloween is complete without Mr Carpenter's input, and while his score for "Halloween" remains the pinnacle of modern horror cinema, his slightly more understated work on "The Fog"is deserving of more attention also.

30 Oct 2013

"Espectrostatic" Review

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

Alex Cuervo may be better known as guitarist /vocalist for Austin garage manglers the Hex Dispensers, but he's also been known to flex whatever muscles are required to play impressively creepy horror movie synths under the name of Espectrostatic.
It seems that Trouble in Mind Records were equally impressed with what they heard and decided to continue their diversification by releasing his debut full length, and good thing too - this is a record that deserves more attention and promotion than the average Bandcamp upload can offer.
It's a consistently creepy and evocative entry in the pseudo horror soundtrack vein of the likes of John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream with plenty of original touches to lift it above the myriad of copyists flooding the genre at the moment.
It's often reminiscent of the synth heavy work of Umberto, although where Umberto's beats tend to be a little more dance floor friendly, Cuervo's percussion has a slow, driving quality that comes closer to fusing early seventies Pink Floyd with Fabio Frizzi style prog, steadily building a sense of impending dread.
If you can listen to the throbbing synthesizer bursts on track like "Smokeface Appears" or "The Haunted Doll Factory" without picturing yourself being stalked around a deserted and poorly lit industrial precinct by something unseen, then you're far more in control of your faculties than I am of mine.
Cuervo is open to referencing other genres too, which is part of what keeps this sounding so fresh - yes, it sounds like a perfect alternate soundtrack to "Halloween 3", but it also touches upon prog rock, ambient, psychedelia, and on "Searching the Museum", a sort of Casiotone Henry Mancini, a playful (and welcome) diversion from an otherwise consistently ominous set, which let's face it - is EXACTLY what us horror hounds want.
Someone seriously needs to hire this man to score their next slasher. Ti West, are you reading this?

You can stream a few tracks from the album via the Bandcamp link below.

Available November 19th from Trouble in Mind Records on LP and CD.

29 Oct 2013

Twenty Unsung Horror Films For Halloween

This may not be the sort of thing that you're used to seeing on the Active Listener but truth be told, when I started blogging I very nearly went in the direction of cult / horror films rather than music.
You can go to a hundred sites to read lists of classic horror films (most of which you've seen before), so let's bypass the acknowledged classics and dig a little deeper.
Here (in alphabetical order) are twenty films ideal for Halloween that all deserve the attention and acclaim that their more well known brethren garner.
Hopefully there are a few new scares in store for you.
Click the title links to view DVD information, plot synopsis', reviews etc.

1. Blood & Black Lace (1966)
Mario Bava's groundbreaking and hugely innovative giallo / proto-slasher.

2. The Car (1977)
There's a killer car on the loose. 'Nuff said.

3. Crowhaven Farm (1971)
Atmospheric made for TV witchcraft spooker set on an isolated New England farm.

4. Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)
Extremely well made tale of supernatural revenge with a massive jolt at the end.

5. Dead And Buried (1981)
Moody early eighties twist on the 'things are not as they seem' theme. If you enjoyed the seventies version of Salem's Lot you'll love this.

6. The Dunwich Horror (1970)
Batshit crazy Lovecraft adaptation that disproves the long held belief that his stories are unfilmable (also see "The Whisperer in the Darkness" )

7. The Gorgon (1964)
Moody Hammer outing with Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Patrick Troughton. Can't go wrong with that cast.

8. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983)
The only Halloween film not to feature Michael Myers has received a bad rap over the years for that very reason. Truth be told it may be the best film in the series, bar the original.

9. A Hatchet For The Honeymoon (1969)
Deranged psychedelic giallo with wonderful sets, lighting, costuming and an inspired performance from leading man Stephen Forsyth.

10. The Hearse (1980)
Dreamlike, low budget drive in fare than transcends it's limited budget. A classy, claustrophobic classic that never goes for the cheap scare.

11. The Innkeepers (2012)
Extremely under-rated modern ghost story. Slow moving, but with exceptionally well rounded characters that (rare for a horror film) you actually care about. Which is unfortunate as lots of nasty stuff happens to them.

12. The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (1974)
Spanish made zombie masterpiece, made in tribute to "Night of the Living Dead" and filmed in the U.K.

13. Phantasm (1979)
Extremely quirky low budget horror that introduced Angus Scrimm's legendary Tall Man.

14. Plague Of The Zombies (1966)
Another excellent under-rated Hammer. Their only zombie film and it's a doozy with a killer performance from the always excellent John Carsen.

15. See No Evil (1971)
Extremely tense, edge of the seat thriller starring Mia Farrow. Recuperating in an old country house after being blinded in a riding accident, Farrow's character slowly comes to realize that there's a killer in the house with her.

16. The Skull (1965)
The Skull of the Marquis de Sade causes all manner of chaos in this hugely entertaining and slightly ridiculous romp starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

17. The Spiral Staircase (1945)
A very early influence on the slasher film, and certainly the scariest film to have been released at the time. Stands up extremely well still against it's more violent followers.

18. Tourist Trap (1979)
Quirky, unsettling slasher that the Paris Hilton "House of Wax" borrowed liberally from. Don't let that put you off though,  this is one of the best slashers that you will ever see.

19. The Ward (2011)
John Carpenter shows that he still has the goods on this excellent, and bafflingly under-rated ghost story.

20. The Woods (2006)
Excellent seventies style pagan horror with a supernatural flavour. Where Suspiria meets the Wicker Man.

"The Book of the Lost" Review

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

The creepy Halloween goings on begin here at Active Listener HQ with the arrival of this intriguing mini soundtrack from two artists that long term readers should be familiar with (they both featured on this - the "folk" side of the Active Listener's First Birthday limited edition tape from last year).
A shared love of English horror films of the sixties and seventies and a natural aptitude for disquieting folk music of acidic hue were the catalysts for the pooling of these talents, and the results are unlike anything else you'll hear this year.
I'll be straight up with you right now so as not to waste anyone's time - this is a niche project. If you didn't grow up alternating between Tigon horror films, seventies U.K telefantasy and tatty paperbacks of M.R James short stories then you should probably move on. This is not for you.
If however, you hold a special place in your heart for period horror and the ingenuity of low budget vintage British television shows that credited their often young audiences with more than the modicum of intelligence that it's modern counterparts do, then "The Book of the Lost" is exactly the sort of thing that you're looking for.
The opening and closing theme captures a totally authentic mid seventies telefantasy vibe, with the combination of vintage analogue synthesizer and natural acoustic instrumentation merging seamlessly in a fashion that few outside the BBC Radiophonic Workshop have mastered. I immediately thought of both "Children of the Stones" and "The Omega Factor", although the sweeping strings towards the end (which I'm assuming are coaxed from a synthesizer, despite what my ears are telling me) would have seen the BBC's accountants tightening the purse strings I'm sure.
Between these neat bookends lie murky tales of pastoral, pagan terror (think "Blood on Satan's Claw" meets "Witchfinder General") neatly told through a combination of extracts from the original soundtrack of these non-existent films and best of all, mystical songs with a supernatural folk lineage traceable back to "Tam Lin" and other Childe ballads. These songs form an emotional core that will see you reaching for this dusty tome often, with exceptionally well observed attention to detail and atmosphere that could only have come from artists who live and breathe the folklore of their area - the best of which,"A Necklace of Shells" casts Jones in a role of ethereal fragility akin to an elfin Shirley Collins.

Available from the Millersounds label store here.(Via the Rowan Amber Mill)

And from The Book of the Lost webstore here. (Via Emily Jones) 

The CD is available for a limited time in a Deluxe Edtion comprising a hand-numbered, die-cut slipcase which contains five full colour reproduction lobby cards along with the Standard Edition CD. The Standard Edition CD itself is housed in a four panel digipack, with included four page lyric sheet and proper pressed CD (i.e. not a CD-r).


The Book of the Lost on Facebook.

28 Oct 2013

"The Higher State" Review

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

There are a number of reasons that established bands release self titled albums well into their career - to acknowledge a fresh start, a creative rebirth, a change of direction or simply as a statement of purpose - to establish that this is the definitive article as far as they're concerned.
The Higher State's new album combines a number of these factors. It certainly doesn't aim to undermine what they've done before ( and it shouldn't - their back catalogue is stupendous), but it does foreshadow a fresh chapter in their story (their first album recorded with new bass player Paul Messis, who you'll no doubt be aware of from his own two killer solo LPs, as well as his Market Square label), and a new focus (specifically on L.A style folk rock circa 1965-66, rather than the San Francisco sound that previous albums also embraced). In short, if you're a fan of the Byrds first two albums (particularly "Turn, Turn, Turn") or to a lesser extent Love's debut, then you're going to love this.
Recorded as usual at Sandgate Sound Studios in Kent (that's right - these guys are English believe it or not), the Higher State here continue to obey the laws of analogue with such authenticity that your mind will boggle at the fact that this is a product of the here and now (physically, if not spiritually), with lush multi-part harmonies and huge amounts of vintage jangle.
And the songs may well be their best yet, whether it be the biting folk-punk of "Potentially (Everyone is Your Enemy)" with it's lacerating fuzz guitar, or even better, "You've Drifted Far" an absolutely stunning track full of keening melancholy that sounds like a missing page from the Gene Clark songbook that has finally found it's way home.
You could spend hundreds of dollars on E-Bay on second tier psychedelic folk-rock obscurities from 1965-66, or you can face facts and admit that most of them don't hold a candle to this gem.
Hugely recommended.

If you are interested in pre-ordering the new Higher State album, please send an e-mail message with "HIGHER STATE PRE-ORDER" in the subject header line and the form of payment you wish to use to pay for the album in your e-mail (paypal to 13oclockrecords@gmail.com, check, or money order). The sale price on the album is $13.00 plus shipping. See the shipping prices below for the correct shipping amount to your part of the world. Once your payment is received, you will be sent a confirmation e-mail stating that your pre-order has been confirmed. Limit one copy per customer please! Currently it is looking like pre-orders on the new album should be ready to ship on November 19th barring any delays from getting the records from the pressing plant on time.
Shipping price for one album:
U.S. media mail  - $4.00
U.S. prirority mail - $9.50
Canada - $11.75
Mexico - $16.00
UK/Europe/Asia/anywhere else in the world - $17.75

Brief sample here - hit reload if Soundcloud link isn't visible:

27 Oct 2013

Forest Swords "Engravings" Review

Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

Following the critical success of 2010’s ‘Dagger Path’ EP, Forest Swords debut long player ‘Engravings’ has been a long time coming. Matthew Barnes (the man behind the moniker) continues his disorientating mix of electronics and psychedelia, creating a sombre, enthralling and often hypnotic mood. Sounding sometimes not unlike a more tripped (or freaked) out Portishead, Forest Swords employ vintage drum machines and weave sparkling strings and atmospherics throughout to create an uneasy listening wash of sound.
Let’s be clear however; this is not ambient music. To begin with, the rhythms are too jarring and intrusive; opening track ‘Ljoss’ motoriks along on a haze of beeps and glistening melancholy whilst ‘Onward’ reminds this listener of Coil at times in its stuttering hesitancy and swelling end string section. Indeed ‘An Hour’, with its synthesised glockenspiel, is reminiscent of nothing other than Coil’s ‘Black Antlers’ period. This sums up Forest Swords modus operandi; there is a beautiful glaze to much of their work but this is backed by difficult, harsh beats thus ensuring that nothing gets too new age-y or blissful.
‘The Weight of Gold’ adds vocals to the mix, albeit highly distorted and used as much as a further instrument than anything that could be described as singing. Muted guitar echoes (everything on this album echoes) harpsichord-like throughout; the result not unlike lying in darkness watching lonely stars flicker overhead. This album in another life would have found its home on 4AD; its ethereal leanings and cold yet plaintive beauty evokes many of that label’s finest. The production too is flawless and clear, every piece of reverb can be heard in fine detail.
Further on, ‘Anneka’s Battle’ finds psychedelic guitars blending with chanted female vocals in a dubbed out spectral haze of glissandos; one would call this chill-out were it not so chilly. This is perfect soundtrack material; in fact any of these tracks could be accompanying some dystopian movie or travelogue, being both widescreen and at times reaching for a sense of the epic. Arguably, Barnes native Wirral coastline surroundings do find form on the sheer sense of panorama present here and there is sense of psychogeography at work in these songs. However, there is also a yearning, human feel to this most processed and electronic of music; the closing track ‘Friend, You Will Never Learn’ leaves the album on a synthetic wave of sadness and loneliness.
The scope of Forest Swords ambition is impressive; from seemingly cold, minimal, machine made landscapes they manage to convey something hugely evocative and engaging. A unique and personal vision from one of England’s finest.

Available on CD, vinyl, or digital formats.

26 Oct 2013

Jonathan Wilson "Fanfare" Review

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

Laurel Canyon wunderkind Jonathan Wilson made an album in 2011 that quietly captured a lot of hearts by being exactly what it set out to be; a sincere tribute to the Laurel Canyon scene of the early seventies without a single trace of pretension.
And while "Gentle Spirit" was (just as it's name implies) a mellow communal singer songwriter album with an unhurried grace that gradually wormed it's way into your subconscious where it was invariably welcomed to set up shop for as long as it saw fit, it's follow up "Fanfare" is aware that it's going to have to work a bit harder, which it does without a hint of it actually seeming like hard work to Wilson.
That's part of Wilson's easy going appeal. Music making seems like a natural state for him - he's partway between J.J Cale and Ryan Adams in the way that he seems to effortlessly reel off quality tunes, but the end result has the smooth polish and timeless ambiance of early Crosby, Stills & Nash.
"Fanfare" is a much more immediate album than "Gentle Spirit". While "Gentle Spirit" had occasional moments like "Desert Raven" that grabbed me from the get go, the majority of it's running time was filled with fuzzy pastels that only came into focus after a concerted and repeated effort on the listener's behalf.
"Fanfare" on the other hand is a much more diverse record with hooks that reveal themselves much earlier on, without the corresponding lack of depth that this can often entail.
Appropriating Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam" for the album sleeve seems to acknowledge two things. Firstly, that borrowing from the masters is something that Wilson is quite happy to own up to - no surprise there, a number of those masters - David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne appear on "Fanfare" in supporting roles. And secondly, that with "Fanfare" Wilson is making a grand gesture.
The opening, title track confirms this - an orchestrated multi part suite that sounds like Alan Parsons decamped to the Canyon briefly. While Laurel Canyon prog may sound like a distinctly unappealing proposition - the results are intriguingly effective, despite how rubbish they may sound on paper.
Things gravitate more towards the sorts of sounds we've come to expect from Wilson's output soon after, but there's a greater emphasis on hooks, and on a number of the more upbeat tracks ("Love to Love" etc.) he sounds like he's having a much better time than we've heard him having on record before.
"Dear Friend" shows that he hasn't lost his touch for moody rockers, with Wilson's lovely Jerry Garcia influenced guitar work shining brightly, but more often than not the highlights are provided by the moments where Wilson pulls a rabbit from his hat - the funky clavinet of "Future Vision" (again I'm hearing Alan Parsons...), the EXTREMELY Stephen Stills like "Cecil Taylor" (where Wilson is ably abetted by Crosby and Nash) and the slightlydelic jazz /funk fusion of "Fazon" which has the good sense to sound like an extremely upbeat Steely Dan.
And while I'm talking about soundalikes, "Illumination" appropriates the chord sequence and vocal melody of Neil Young's "Dangerbird", retaining it's gritty Crazy Horse lope, and pulling in all the best bits from Pink Floyd's "Meddle" for window-dressing.
In lesser hands this sort of revisionist revivalism can sound tired, but Wilson has a gift for distilling the very best elements from his record collection (often with the help of the original protagonists) and turning them into something fresh with just the right amount of comfortable familiarity that makes it feel like revisiting old friends who always have new things to say.

Available on CD, vinyl, and digital.

25 Oct 2013

The Steppes "Green Velvet Electric" Review

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

Cherry Red are to be congratulated for this long overdue and extremely well selected overview of one of the eighties most important psychedelic bands. Amazingly, aside from an extremely rare Bam Caruso compilation early on in their career (in 1988), this is the first time anyone has anthologized the Steppes impressive back catalogue, a task I don't envy of the compilers - what to leave off rather than what to put on being the dilemma when faced with such a solid body of work.
Sensibly enough the compilers have realized that they require at minimum a two disc set to do the band justice, and the 41 tracks selected within paint an impressive picture of a band who had everything that they should have needed to be huge. There's an emphasis on their groundbreaking early work (including ten tracks from the classic debut "Drop of the Creature"), and a nice range of tracks from their later albums, right up until their final album in 1997.
Based around the talents of the Irish-American Fallon brothers, the Steppes were a force to be reckoned with right out of the gates (as the three tracks from the debut E.P here rightly attest), but being lumped in with the nascent Paisley Underground scene didn't do them any favors, with their early outings influenced as much by the Jam as the Beatles and bearing little resemblance to the Byrds influenced folk rock being peddled by other L.A based Paisley Undergrounders. This U.K influenced sound struggled to find the audience it deserved with tracks like the predominantly acoustic "Somebody Waits" paying tribute to their Irish background, while moody rockers like "Holding Up Well" could have come straight from "The Man Who Sold The World" sessions.
Tim Gillman's fluid John Cippolina influenced guitar work helped to Americanize the sound a little, adding a healthy dash of West Coast psychedelia to their Celtic tinged psych pop, which became more pronounced on later albums which headed in a heavier psych direction with a heavy Jimi Hendrix influence.
There's too much material on this sprawling set for me to offer any sort of even near-complete analysis of what the Steppes accomplished but it's all here, everything that seemed possible in eighties and nineties psychedelia at it's very best, commercially hamstrung only by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Compilation of the year? Quite possibly, and at the very least a vital education for the psychedelic listener who wants to broaden their horizons into an era not traditionally recognized as rewarding for the aficionado.

Available as a bargain priced double CD here.

24 Oct 2013

Strawberry Alarm Clock "Incense & Peppermints" & "Wake Up .... It's Tomorrow" Review

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

To the wider public, the Strawberry Alarm Clock have an unfair reputation as a bit of a naff one hit wonder - a bit of a novelty act - an impression further backed up for my generation when the hit of which we speak, "Incense & Peppermints" was featured extensively on the Austin Powers soundtrack.
Those with less of a hive mentality who have taken the effort to investigate what lies beyond "Incense & Peppermints" have been surprised to discover a much more adventurous and diverse catalogue that may have failed to yield a follow up hit, but had plenty more going for it.
This new reissue from Esoteric couples their first two albums (which just so happen to be their best two) with sundry b-sides and bonus tracks that should go a long way towards dispelling the uninformed opinions that many have of this unfairly neglected act.
The extensive liner notes go into excruciating detail as to the convoluted back story of the comings and goings of band members (and a number of members of other bands in the SAC's orbit who appeared on the albums but weren't actual members) so we'll give that a miss here and concentrate on the music. The results in this case are much more important, and much more interesting than the difficult circumstances that created them.
The debut "Incense & Peppermints" shows signs of under-preparation lyrically (sample titles "Unwind with the Clock", "Pass Time With the SAC"), but even these seemingly off the cuff pieces are elaborately tailored musical numbers with ornate five part harmonies and lashings of searing acid fuzz guitar that bely their fluffy reputation. Opener "The World's on Fire" is perhaps the biggest surprise - a lengthy eastern fueled saga that wouldn't sound out of place on the Ultimate Spinach's "Behold and See", hastily rewritten in the studio from an earlier song when a departing band member took the rights to that song with him. This alone ought to silence any lingering doubters.
Follow-up "Wake Up...It's Tomorrow" is if anything, even better. A much darker edge is present on "Curse of the Witches" with tumbling xylophones which sound like the soundtrack to a psychedelic jazz-fueled descent into madness, "Nightmare of Percussion" and the three part "Black Butter" suite.
There's also plenty of lovely psych-pop to balance it out with "Tomorrow" and "Pretty Song From Psych-Out" (which the band had high hopes for as a potential hit) making the most impression on this side - impressive harmonies, great pop smarts and often trippy as all hell.
It's never too late for a re-education - enrol here.

Available on CD here.

Cave "Threace" Cross Posted Review

Reviewed by Jason Simpson (Forestpunk) and originally published on the excellent website: FREQ (http://freq.org.uk)

Listening to Cave is a motorik clockwork trance. Visions of huge gleaming chrome puzzle pieces in the sky twist and churn like some angelic Mecha.
Cave are clearly obsessed with minimalist German psychedelic music from the seventies, as "Threace" is chock full of pulsing krautgrooves, but this time the band expand their bag of tricks to include other underground sounds of the decade. "Threace" veers between straight-up Can worship, to deep-fried seventies rock, to stone-cold fusion. There’s jazzenflute and blatting Ethiopiques saxophone, smooth Fender Rhodes riding on the storm. It sometimes gives the sensation of listening to two records at the same time, stitched together like some unholy Homunculus, or a cyberpunk Chimera materialized out of thin air. Cave blends all of these retrofixations with a technical precision that is distinctly modern. When the band Battles came out with their minimalist E.Ps in 2006, it seems like it really upped the game for stripped-down, repetitive music, and who knows if Battles would’ve happened without a couple of decades of listening to raw, brutalist techno. Let’s face it: we’ve been listening to and playing along with drum machines for fifty years, and musicians have been getting progressively more badass, especially after the krautrock boom made it acceptable to make endless, repeating grooves.
Cave are clearly ensnared by this beat, this groove.
Once you strip music down to its barest components - rhythm, you can build whatever you like, and place it as precisely as a set jewel. Cave starts off with the traditional boom-boom-CHK-boom of the motorgroove, but quickly dismantles it, turning it inside out, into a mind-melting tapestry of rolling African polyrhythms. It reminds me of what William Bennett said about his Cut Hands afronoise project, that listening to a dozen rhythms is like trying to count snowflakes in a blizzard. The mind is shocked and awed into silence; peace through sensory overload. Cave are clearly ensnared by this beat, this groove. It’s easy to understand why, it must be like driving a monorail, at full tilt, across the Salt Flats. It must be incredibly addictive. Sometimes it seems like this generation of musicians are all working on the same problem, coming at it from every angle. We are seeking every possible combination, every permutation. We are like safe-crackers, computer hackers. The beauty of this is that it breaks down artificial walls between genres and lets the musician think critically and creatively. Cave clearly love and understand every genre they reference on "Threace", and could introduce a whole new generation to the underground grooves of the seventies.
Very highly recommended.

Available here on CD, and here on Vinyl.

23 Oct 2013

The Asteroid #4 Review

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

I'll be honest with you. I kind of gave up on the Asteroid #4 when they released their cosmic american album "Honeyspot". Don't get me wrong - it's a genre I'm fond of, and there are people out there that cite it as their favorite A4 album, but to me it just didn't seem like the best use of their abilities at the time, and more importantly it just didn't feel like an A4 album. It wasn't a conscious decision on my part to sever all ties with the band at this point, but whenever I thought of them from that point on I thought of "Honeyspot" rather than their numerous successes. The mind works in funny ways.
Anyway, all of that changed at the end of last year when I heard that they'd recorded "The Journey" with Kaleidoscope's Peter Daltrey (Daltrey interview here / album review here). I tracked down a copy and listened relentlessly - it's still one of my favorite albums of the last few years. Then came the "The Windmill of the Autumn Sky" E.P - a nice, low key E.P and perfect Sunday afternoon listening. By this point I had fully realigned myself to the Asteroid #4's mindset, so I greeted the arrival of a brand new self titled album earlier this month with much anticipation - the most I'd felt since the pre-release of "Honeyspot" in fact.
And "Asteroid #4" doesn't disappoint - while "The Journey" and "The Windmill of the Autumn Sky" weren't hugely psychedelic, showcasing a more mature, paisley tinged jangle than their earlier work, "The Asteroid #4" is a truly cosmic record, combining their new found maturity with the best elements of their early trippy psychedelia. It may well be the best album to bear their name to this point, and for a band who's been around since the mid nineties that's no mean feat.
Opener "The River" has more than a whiff of acoustic Led Zep about it with vocalist Scott Vitt handling the potentially intimidating Robert Plant comparisons with aplomb, while musically it sounds like Bron Yr-Aur is disappearing down the rabbit hole.
"Rukma Vimana" and "Revolution Prevail" are furious space-rockers, transmissions from a distant star that invoke Hawkwind's intergalactic chug with soaring, richly vocalized choruses keeping them out of the reach of Earth's gravity.
"The Windmill of the Autumn Sky" on the other hand is a most welcome revisitation from the earlier E.P, a much more grounded piece of melodic folk-rock with a hazy pastoral tinge that perfectly complements it's season.
Elsewhere there's vaguely krauty motorik mixed with airy, phased vocals (Ghosts of Dos Erres), deliberate, sitar laden mood fests (Mount Meru), acoustic melancholy (Ropeless Free Climber), and charming acoustic Floydisms ("Yuba").
An unpredictable, varied and 100% satisfying ride.
Oh and just in case you're wondering, I just listened to "Honeyspot" for the first time in ten years - not sounding half bad.

Available as a digital download through Bandcamp here:

22 Oct 2013

The Selfish Cales "Light Worms & Old Dancing Ladies" Review

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

The Selfish Cales (not actually that selfish - this album is a free Bandcamp download) are a prolific Italian cottage industry psychedelic band who wear their influences on their sleeve. Anyone uncertain of where their heart lies is directed to "Dandelion Seeds", a covers E.P that they released last year which may not actually contain the July track that provided it's title but does feature material originally performed by The Idle Race, The Zombies, Love and Tomorrow.
And their own material (which "Light Worms & Old Dancing Ladies" is full of) acknowledges these influences openly without getting stuck in the mire of out and out revivalism.
Brothers Gabriel & Andy Cale navigate these treacherous waters skillfully with a sound that finds a safe middle ground somewhere between the more soulful end of the brit-pop spectrum and the rich neo-psychedelia of the sadly missed Rainbow Quartz label, with a good balance between the two.
"Keep On" is probably the best of the former - a storming Oasis style anthem with extensive organ leaning and climactic guitar shredding but the following track, "State of Eternity" trumps it with it's bright neon neo-psychedelic sound - all Ringo drum fills, Small Faces organ and dominant sitar lines.
And they do get around to covering July on this outing, bypassing the more obvious "Dandelion Seeds" in favour of "My Clown" which is given a big organ filled arrangement that has a hint of the Chills about it during the chorus, and fits in seamlessly with their own material.

Follow the Selfish Cales on Facebook.

Free download or stream available here:

Elmer Gantry's Velvet Opera Review

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

As an avid investigator of sixties audio relics I've become used to encountering groups that should have been much more successful than they actually were. That's exactly what keeps collectors like myself  searching through dusty old crates of records when we should be doing far more productive things. Of all the bands I've been exposed to over the years, one of the first genuine rarities that I heard is perhaps the most bafflingly unsuccessful of the lot of them.
On the face of it Elmer Gantry's Velvet Opera appeared to have everything going for them.
In Dave "Elmer Gantry" Terry they had an authoritative vocalist and theatrical frontman who could handle the genre straddling nature of the Velvet Opera's material with ease. Guitarist Colin Forster was almost as versatile - enough for lauded psychedelicists Tintern Abbey to steal him shortly after. The rhythm section of John Ford and Richard Hudson would eventually find success in the Strawbs - as well as pursuing their own quality Beatlesques powerpop as Hudson Ford.
In "Flames" and "Mary Jane" they had quality singles - the former a rowdy piece of mod-soul that fledgling peers Led Zeppelin thought was tidy enough to cover in their very first live performance in 1968, and the latter a quality piece of whimsical psych-pop with hooks that belonged on the radio. And both songs did get a substantial amount of airplay in the UK, which coupled with their formidable and I'm told extremely popular live act should have meant that their self titled debut would sell the bucket loads that it deserved to sell. Except of course, we know that it didn't.
Far from the expected smattering of singles surrounded by covers and filler that one often encounters from this era, "Elmer Gantry's Velvet Opera" is a rather splendid album that masters a number of styles and preempts a few others that were about to surface. Where this approach often sinks a number of similar albums, there's never a sense that the Velvets (if I may be so familiar) are grasping at straws to formulate a sound - everything they try here is integrated seamlessly into their distinctive sound.
So along with the singles mentioned above, within the confines of this new expanded reissue from Cherry Red offshoot Grapefruit, you'll encounter the following delights; "Mother Writes" (Who-ish mod rock which showcases Ford's aggressive bass attack - second only to Entwistle at this point), "Walter Sly Meets Bill Bailey" (quality instrumental proto-prog which flits between the vaguely robotic and the distinctly tudor), "Air" (sitar led raga pop with a noticeably Harrison-esque tinge), "Lookin' For A Happy Life" (Idle Race style whimsical psych pop), "What's the Point of Leaving" (genuinely forward thinking and extremely quirky bedroom pop that sounds like the sort of thing McCartney was tinkering with on "McCartney II" - nothing else from 1968 sounds like this), "Dream Starts" (alarmingly disorientating psychedelia) and perhaps best of all "Reactions of a Young Man"(lovely pastoral proto-prog with mellotron to the fore, easily matching anything the Moody Blues or Barclay James Harvest were releasing at the time.)
The rest is great too - this edition contains eleven bonus tracks - demos, b-sides, contemporary singles and "Talk of the Devil" - an Eric Woolfson (of the Alan Parsons Project) penned theme tune for a 1967 short horror film which I'm about to scour the net and try and find.
Good job Cherry Red / Grapefruit - very decent of you to make this available again. Hopefully someone will buy it this time.

Available here on CD.

21 Oct 2013

The Grand Rapids "Great Shakes" Review

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

Australia must have more psychedelic bands per capita than any other country in the world at the moment (including countries like Italy and Greece where the psychedelic revival that began in the eighties never really stopped), which makes it even more disparaging that over here in neighbouring New Zealand we have pretty much none. But enough about my problems.
Melbourne four piece the Grand Rapids have just released their splendidly packaged debut "Great Shakes" through local psych imprint Psyche Ward and as introductions go, it's a pretty attention grabbing affair.
I hear a lot of bands who classify what they do as psychedelic rock, but few of them accentuate the rock implications of that sound as convincingly as these guys do. Recorded at Melbourne's iconic Sing Sing Studios, this is a HUGE sounding, visceral album with it's heaviness emphasized as much by the rhythm section as it is the droning wall of guitars.
Tracks like the opener "Dronemachine" and first single "Great Shakes" set the scene nicely - psychedelia which doesn't need to retrace it's lineage back any further than the early eighties, taking in elements that recall reverb merchants like the Black Rebel Motorcycle and the ever present tambourine of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Most surprising though is a nascent post-punk influence, which on the evidence of Sasha L. Smith's impressive Robert Smith meets Mark Seymour vocals fits very snuggly indeed in this psychedelic context. Smith is particularly impressive in asserting himself in a mix where he could quite easily have become buried had his delivery not been so confident.
While there is a fairly heavy amount of fuzz and guitar drone throughout (one track "Fake Blood" consists of little more than layered feedback and a beautiful, keening guitar squall), guitarists Daniel Hallpike and Smith also know when a bit more definition and delicacy of touch is called for - the simple, spartan lead work that sees off "Headless Riders" for example is the sort of uplifting, melodic detail that lifts this head and shoulders above it's numerous peers.
And while it's distinctive sound is likely to be the first ingredient that grabs your attention, it's the subtle but barbed hooks that will keep you coming back. "Julia Now..." may be the best example of this, lacing the atmospheric paranoia of the Cure's seminal "Pornography" with the sort of nagging earworms they experimented with on it's follow up "The Head on the Door".

Available from Psyche Ward. Enquire here.

Paul McCartney "New" Review

Reviewed by Thomas McConnell

Editor's note: Rather than cover it ourselves we asked Paul McCartney superfan Thomas McConnell (who's own, quality McCartney-esque tunes you can check out here) to review Sir Paul's latest release "New". Here's what he had to say:

I’ve had a mad few weeks where Paul McCartney is concerned. I covered his song “New” the day it came out (youtube link here) and it ended up being shared on Paul’s official web pages. Then, amazingly I got to ask the man himself a question at his recent and fantastic BBC Radio 6 gig/Q&A only for him to actually recognize me. So, when I was first asked by the Active Listener to review his new album my initial thoughts were… “due to recent events I don’t think there’s ever been an album release that’s more relevant and exciting for me”, “I’ve never written a review before” and “I’m a huge, huge, HUGE Paul fan so this will be the most biased review ever”, so I’d like to think of this as more of a musician/fan’s analysis of the album and “it goes a little something like this…” 

Last week Paul McCartney released his 16th solo album (his 50th including Beatles, Wings, Fireman, Electronic, and Classical LPs) simply titled, “New”. The album is the first album solely accredited to him since 2007’s “Memory Almost Full”. 
It opens up with a track called “Save Us” which is a typical, catchy, post-“Driving Rain” style, Paul rocker. It’s sort of in the vein of “Memory Almost Full”s, “Only Mama Knows” but it surprised me that it was more piano based after hearing a live version where it was more guitar orientated. The piano gives it a cool, manic, dance sort of quality which is all over this record. He’s clearly been listening to modern music a lot. A few songs have Coldplay style rising “Whoa oah oahs” and even though I can make comparisons to previous works like the “Pretty Little Head”-esque “Appreciate”, “Looking At Her” which could be from “London Town”, “I Can Bet”: “Let Me Roll It” part 2, “Queenie Eye” sounds like his take on “Hey Bulldog” - the fact that they’re all going through this modern, electronic filter makes something fresh for him and could signify he’s got a few MGMT, Gorillaz and other “trendy” records on his shelves. In a recent twitter Q&A when asked what album’s he’d bought recently his response was “The last albums I bought were by Kanye West, The National, The Civil Wars and Jay Z” and his choice of producers show that he’s still got his finger on the pulse (more than me, I’m only 20 and don’t own any of those albums…). 
The album was produced by Giles Martin, Paul Epworth, Ethan Johns and Mark Ronson and after watching Paul state in interviews that he was initially worried that it might sound too disparate, I’d like to say he’s got nothing to worry about. It all fits together snugly in the way that "Ram" does. Some of the producers’ characteristics show through just the right amount too. One thing I noticed is that the horns on the title track are very Ronson. Now even though many comparisons to The Beatles have been made with this song (I’d like to point out that the Beatles songs that it has been compared to are other songs Paul has written so I’d just say it was a typical Paul song instead of using a rather lazy comparison), horns on Beatles songs were usually quite round and open sounding e.g. on Strawberry Fields Forever, Penny Lane, Hey Jude whereas the horns on “New” are muted and jazzy and that makes me think that was definitely Mark Ronson’s suggestion considering his work with Amy Winehouse and his own records. 
A lot of the lyrical content is clearly inspired by his recent marriage to Nancy Shevell especially in the hidden song, “Scared” which is a haunting track where he admits his fear of saying “I love you”. I Imagine a statement like that may mean something very different to someone who’s been told “I love you” by millions of fans for 51 years. 
I love the lyrics to “Alligator” too which are based on a very simple idea but I really like it when instead of referring to his woes as “problems” he calls them “alligators” (gonna have to nick that one…). 
I think the lyrics to “On My Way To Work” are a bit "Lovely Rita"-esque - tongue-in-cheek too, especially the bit about the girl in the magazine from Chichester. 
His old group are also scrutinized on the track “Early Days” where he mentions stories of him and John walking around “dressed in black with two guitars across our backs” and he is uncharacteristically open about his insecurities of public perceptions of him “now everybody seems to have their own opinion, on who did this that and who did that. But as for me I don’t see how they can remember when they weren’t where it was at”. I think the fact that this is one of the only tracks on the album where his voice isn’t covered in effects helps drive the point home. He sounds like an older guy on this particular track whereas I don’t think he does on any of the others. I don’t think I can express how much this man’s music means to me in words and how much it’s inspired me and got me through certain “patches”, so it’s quite emotional to hear his voice like that when you compare it to, “Oh Darling!”, “The Night Before” and “Oh Woman, Oh Why” but it’s still great. He’s always had loads of different voices, the rocky one (“Helter Skelter”), the soft one (“I Will”), the subtle gritty one (“She’s A Woman”), the falsetto one (“So Bad”), the pure pop one (“Hello Goodbye”), the Little Richard one (“Long Tall Sally”) and the booming bass-y one (“Lady Madonna”). This is something no other singer has ever done and this track is just a new one for his vocal collection - it’s a comforting voice that I’m very glad is still here.

Available on vinyl here, CD here, and digitally here.

20 Oct 2013

Sand Snowman "Sleeper’s Hide & Seek" Review

Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

The artist known as Sand Snowman has been quietly and prolifically releasing slivers of beautiful, psychedelically tinged folk into a mostly unsuspecting world for almost a decade now. Highly collectable and treasured by the few, Sand’s music has been available on a number of limited press and self-released albums as well as on major underground labels such as Beta-Lactam Ring and Tonefloat. Although often hidden behind a variety of vocalists and something of an enigma, Sand’s reputation has been enough to attract the likes of Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree to work with him (review here) and on latest release "Sleeper’s Hide & Seek" he likewise assembles a strong cast of players, more of which later. The album, originally issued by Sand himself as a download in 2010, is his second in as many months on the splendid Reverb Worship label ("Autonal", a brand new recording and duet with partner Moonswift being the first). The album comes as a limited run CD and is housed in incredible artwork by Sand himself, featuring a cast of dreamers in a wood being serenaded by Pan. You will need to be quick (and lucky) to find a copy.
The album awakens gently with "Sleepwalker’s Seal", flutes and harmonies creating a magical atmosphere reminiscent of Luboš Fišer’s "Valerie And Her Week of Wonders" soundtrack. However there is nothing somnambulistic about the following tracks; instead, a range of percussion, tabula and voices converge to create a swirling, carnivalesque and wild eyed mood. Even acoustic moments like "Wide Awake" are tinged with discordant effects and unearthly voices whilst the drunken strings and off-key lurches of the Wicker Man-like "Fractal Fever" suggest that, if these are dreams, they are particularly uncanny, nightmarish and haunted ones. There is no peace in sleep here.
After these night terrors, the second half of the album shivers into a more ghostly, nostalgic landscape. The Syd Barret slide guitar of "Sound of Spirit" provides a moment of relative calm; however the tension and edge to the music remains. This is not easy listening folk. A sense of loss permeates "One More Spring", it's lonely piano refrain echoing whilst a frozen wind whistles around the notes, before this leads straight into "Me & The City" which itself could be from the soundtrack to a particularly melancholy 1960s European arthouse film. Undoubtedly there is a timeless sheen to Sand’s music; this album could have been made at any point in the last thirty years.
Overall, "Sleeper’s Hide & Seek" has a fuller sense of instrumentation than on recent outing "Autonal"; acoustic and electric guitars, bells, xylophone, organ and a range of effects and treated sounds create a different (though complimentary) addition to Sand’s previous work. However as is usual with his music, Sand also employs here a range of vocalists to accompany his lysergic lullabies. On this album regular collaborator Moonswift joins a number of contributors including folk luminaries Bobbie Watson (Comus) and Judy Dyble (Fairport Convention, Trader Horne). The result is spellbinding; although different in their approaches, these singers manage to weave a familiar and consistent thread throughout the album.
In a just world this recording would be widely acknowledged as a modern psychedelic masterpiece; however it will more than likely remain a best kept secret, an antidote for those in the know to the malaise of more mainstream and unfairly feted Mumford-style folk stars. Be in on the secret, you need this album. Wake up to Sand Snowman.

CD available from Reverb Worship.

Download available directly from Sand Snowman here.

17 Oct 2013

TARA KING TH. "Hirondelle et Beretta" Review

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

The old "soundtrack to an imaginary film" chestnut. It's been done. A lot. But before we write it off as a tired idea, let's look at one inescapable fact; there are some terrible, terrible films being made these days.
Don't get me wrong - I love films, but either I'm becoming old and jaded or the ratio of good to bad is slipping unfavorably in the favor of bad of late. Let's face it - the sole redeeming feature of many of these shockers is their musical scores, so if there are folks out there who have decided to bypass the whole movie side of it and focus on the music alone then more power to them, I say.
Which brings us to Tara King TH's new project "Hirondelle et Beretta", which does a far more eloquent job of evoking widescreen cinematic grandeur than a lot of major label studios with a budget that could feed Africa seem to manage.
These Parisian's have created their own narrative photographic series to accompany the "soundtrack", and while these tend to point towards a Tarantino-esque grindhouse action thriller with undertones of espionage, the music itself betrays more of it's Euro origins, combining lyrical giallo style themes with gorgeous baroque pop, ornate psychedelia and even a bossa nova that flirts with the melody of Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand".
It's all accomplished in a thoroughly convincing early to mid seventies style with marvelous attention to detail provided by harpsichords, mellotrons, wordless vocals, theremins, flutes and the like and only occasionally delves into slightly anachronistic sounds ( I'm thinking particularly of the gorgeous "Et puis merde" which brings to mind Fabio Frizzi's work on Lucio Fulci's early eighties zombie films cast through a BBC Radiophonic filter), which is integrated with such skill that the blend seems entirely natural.
In many ways, this sounds more like a Broadcast album than the "Berberian Sound Studio" soundtrack (which I also loved) did. I was checking the credits for the name "Cargill". Certainly if you're a fan of Trish and James, and fancy something that isn't gonna scare the pants off you the way that "Berberian Sound Studio" did then this is going to make your day.
Highly recommended - I just wish the full album was available on vinyl!

There's a 7" E.P featuring selected highlights, as well as a full cassette version and a digital download version available direct from the band here.

Or you can stream the whole album here:

Warm Digits "Interchange" Review

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

I'm not generally inclined to use more than a snippet from an artist's press release in a review, but this is an exception that I think benefits from being reprinted in full, rather than excerpted:

"Interchange" is Warm Digits' experimental film and album of music inspired by photography and illustrations drawn from the Tyne and Wear Archives, of the 1970s' biggest civil engineering project on Tyneside – the construction of Metro. Invited to investigate the archives to find inspiration to make some new music, Warm Digits found a selection photographs documenting the transitions between the crumbling, decommissioned British Rail stations of Tyneside and the new, futuristic Metro stations.
These 1970s photographs now carry a powerful aura of nostalgic hopefulness about publicly-funded civic development and connected communities. Visually, this has to do with the collision in the photographs of modernist architectural forms and advanced technology, with the dirt and grind of construction and the demolition and development of the older stations - what architecture critic Owen Hatherley calls the "outright weirdness" of the Metro system's designs, its "curious combination of antique and futuristic". In these photographs, tunnel shells bore unstoppably through the city's underbelly; boffinish, white-coated engineers are lifted by crane into half-finished shafts; modernist, abstract geometric shapes resolve into walkways and overpasses; while on the architects' plans, tiny huddles of theoretical passengers wait as shadows on platforms.
The songs on "Interchange", and the accompanying films which use the images as source material, take and hold on to some of the spirits conjured by these pictures: of hopefulness for a publicly-funded civic future, of the use of new technology for change, of the excitement and propulsion of travel.

Having not seen the accompanying film, I've only heard half of the story and am unable to comment on the relationship between the two, but the music these two produce seems like the perfect companion for the project, with lush vintage synthesizer tones and sprightly krautrock rhythms perfectly encompassing what I'm sure I would have thought the future was going to sound like if I had been knocking around the U.K in the early seventies.
The concept itself is VERY British, so it's surprising how successful and evocative this kosmische approach proves to be when you'd perhaps anticipate something a little more along the lines of the Ghost Box crowd to tick a few more boxes - but that's not where Warm Digits' interests lie, and they've done a thoroughly convincing job hijacking the strict motorik charms of Neu and appropriating them into something distinctively English - if this is the new Anglo-Saxon, I'll be having some of it thank you very much.
Add in some skronky guitar workouts and some dance floor friendly beats that show the influence of much more recent times and you've got one of the most diverse Krautrock albums of the year which only has the work of a Scottish duo masquerading as Germans (Kosmischer Läufer) that could threaten it's place as the best Krautrock release of the year.

Amazon UK have the best price for the CD/DVD package here.
The more lavish vinyl/ DVD package can be had direct from the label through the Bandcamp link below:

16 Oct 2013

Mazzy Star "Seasons Of Your Day" Review

Reviewed by Jason Simpson (Forestpunk).

Mazzy Star exist in a world of their own. It is a world of shadow & sunlight; precious stones and fireflies. Time stands still, here. It is peaceful. 
While time in Mazzy Star's village exists in suspended animation, much has changed in The Kingdom since their last record, 1996's "Among My Swan". Since then, their brand of slow-motion, reverb-laden rock has seeped into the collective unconscious, via trending young artists like Beach House, Widowspeak and Memoryhouse. Perhaps we are ready to listen closely and hear what they are REALLY whispering. 
While this new generation of indie babes has grown up listening to Mazzy Star, Hope Sandoval and David Roback have clearly grown up listening to classic records: soul, blues, country, rock 'n roll, and it has served them well. Pitchfork referred to Mazzy Star's music as "psych-tinged folk blues, Laurel Canyon glide, and Hope Sandoval's distinctive voice." Sonically, for all intents and purposes, "Seasons Of Your Day" is a straight up, folk-inflected blues rock record. Spartan guitar lines lock and weave; slide, acoustic and mildly overdriven tweed cabinet electric are accented with a slight touch of jazz-brushed percussion and walking country bass lines. It's so pure, and so close to the original, that it's like a moment suspended in amber, giving us the chance to separate the disparate elements and see them clearly, individually. 
The only thing that separates Mazzy Star from being a straight up Rockabilly tribute band is reverb and tempo. This must be the psych element, giving their music a stylized edge. It is interesting to place this next to the originals, and note the differences. The codeine crawl pace of their music gives it a nostalgic, romantic lamentation. Mazzy Star's psychedelia is dealing with time and memory. This is the sound of a lifetime loving records, hearing your parents play Gene Clark and Gram Parsons records through thin tenement walls as you drift off to sleep, listening to the sounds of their sedated party. Recording technology has only been around for about a hundred years and there have only been a couple of generations that have had a chance to grow up with records. They are ghosts caught on wax, portals to other times and places, escapes from your life in the doldrums. We are seeing the artistic and psychological implications of this new technology. 
In many ways, Mazzy Star's music is directly intertwined with recording technology; you simple would not hear it, otherwise. Sandoval and Roback are notoriously reticent to conduct interviews or play the industry game. Even their 17 year hiatus was not a planned career move or staged antic. There is no career to speak of. The pair played music frequently in that time, just didn't bother to put any of it out. 
That's how it is with musicians and creative types. They are always making things, hanging out and collaborating, and albums are an approximation, a simulacrum, of that real life. But it is not the real thing, which happens in living rooms and kitchens, huddled around hi-fis, or walking to the store to get smokes. Hope Sandoval sometimes doesn't even like her bandmates to be in the room with her when she is recording vocals. The condenser microphone, in this case, acts as magick wand and time capsule, giving you an intimate window into empty rooms and fading afternoons, that have faded into dust. 
Now that the world has gone slow-core, here's to hoping a whole new generation will find Mazzy Star's music, and discover the world of timeless sounds they revere. There are shades of Zeppelin in the rolling Kashmere chord progression of "California", and you can hear the echo of Son House's thunderous roar in the charging slide guitar of album closer "Lay Myself Down". 
"Seasons Of Your Day" has some auspicious guests grace it's eaves - dearly departed British folklorist Bert Jansch laid down some guitar on "Spoon", before his passing in 2011, and My Bloody Valentine drummer Colm O' Cloissog, whom Hope Sandoval has worked with in Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions, plays a number of instruments on a number of tracks. 
In a lot of ways, "Seasons Of Your Day" is superior to the classic slabs they imitate. Every track is beautifully recorded and mastered, smooth, warm and lush, never grating, never breaking the spell. It benefits from truly inspired and organic arrangements, that can come out of nowhere and blow your mind, like the sudden appearance of a string quartet on the title track, or the harpsichord on "Sparrow" (recorded on what sounds like a real harpsichord). Dale Everingham deserves a grammy for his engineering work on this one. 
"Seasons Of Your Day" is the best blues record you'll hear this year. And the best country record. And (one of the) best dream pop records. Massive kudos to the band, this has been dancing on the breeze in my living room for weeks, turning my home into a cryogenic roadhouse. I had forgotten how much I love this band, and it has reignited my love for their earlier records, as well as the classic recordings they represent. If you've not yet heard this band, climb on board - this is a fine way to find out. There are many lessons to learn, many miracles to witness.

Available on vinyl here, and CD here.