29 Nov 2016

The Hardy Tree - Through Passages Of Time

Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan

Winter is drawing ever closer up here in the northern hemisphere and, as I take in the last of the late autumn light and stare blankly out of my north London window, I am being gently drawn into a brave old/new world by the never less than great Clay Pipe Records. This latest release is a singular piece of work, as the deeply beguiling music and accompanying striking art work is the creative outpouring of label supremo and polymath, Frances Castle, operating once more under the moniker of The Hardy Tree.

The beautiful floating soundscapes/sonic friezes found here are dreamily delivered in gently flickering, devotional vignettes that envelop and involve the listener with a warmth of spirit rarely found in such keenly conceptualised work. Every note is drawn out to maximise its lingering pictorial impact as time is stretched and manipulated with sound. As a whole work, "Through Passages Of Time" creates a blurring almost disorientating intimacy that is almost impossible to disengage from. Even if you wanted to.

The opening and instructively titled "Looking Down on London" sets the tone with its simple, almost musical box like structures, creating a lovely minor-key ballad with very effective use of vibes and mellotron. "The Peerless Pool" lopes ever so gently along with vintage synth washes and a mood that wouldn't be out of place on the best of the Ghost Box catalogue. "St John Horsleydown" and "Newport Market" echo with ghostly voices, underpinned once more by the most delicate of musical figures whilst "Baltic Wharf" groans with the sound of straining timbers in the tidal Thames before settling into the stateliest shanty I think I have ever heard. The latter benefits hugely from some lovely mournful viola playing by Left Outsides crew member and Plinth collaborator, Alison Cotton. 'Sluice House Tavern' is a lovely sonic tapestry; a beam of autumnal afternoon light through a lead-glass window, generating a hugely resplendent ambience for the listener. 'Near Windmill Bridge' is all analogue synth twists and gently soaring keys with a whispering drum machine in the background. "Cut Throat Lane" brings matters to a soul soothing end, a series of spirit voices ascending ever skyward on an endless journey back into the afterlife and on to who knows where.

On an instant level, "Through Passages Of Time" works as a highly accomplished musical travelogue, using a historical overview of a London lost to the diggers and the tower cranes as its guiding star and central concept. However, the longer you let these meditations seep into your being and colour your minds eye, the more you realise that what you are experiencing has far more depth and complexity. This record is more like a carefully constructed requiem for London featuring a series of spectral lullabies. The recurring musical devices and themes that link these pieces to create a whole environment for the listener to inhabit and explore draw strong comparison to those collected in any church hymn book. This is all no doubt deliberate as the real 'Hardy Tree', from which the project takes its name, has a strong ecclesiastical linkage that I will leave to those sufficiently intrigued to enlighten themselves with. The sense that every note on this record has weight and has been received from another dimension by its creator is all pervading. In these grooves The Hardy Tree, acting as curator or medium, is telling you something vital about your past lives in the hope that your present one will become enriched, kinder and more connected as a result. And if that sounds profound and heavy its because it is.

"Through Passages of Time" belongs to another (green) world and congratulations should go to Frances Castle for divining this wonderfully touching collection and successfully capturing it on tape. It's musical psycho-geography par excellence and probably the most human record you will hear all year. Get it while you can as, like much of the city it commemorates, I am sure it will be gone before you know it.

Available on limited vinyl from the label direct or a number of small but perfectly formed independent retailers.

21 Nov 2016

Hawkwind - The RCA Active Years 1981-1982

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

Atomhenge continue their vanilla issue Hawkwind box set campaign and while this latest edition doesn't quite meet the consistent highs of the previous "Charisma Years", it still contains more than its fair share of riches.

Bypassing the band's brief dalliance with Bronze Records (the excellent studio album"Levitation" and the middling "Live '79") the RCA Active years collects three studio albums released within a whirlwind twelve month period.

First up is "Sonic Attack" which sees the band embracing the popular NWOBHM sound of the time. Most commentators seem to focus solely on this, ignoring the emerging emphasis on synthesisers and sequencers which would have such an impact on the two albums which followed - a pity as this creates an impression of a much more one-dimensional album than this actually is. Huw Lloyd Langston's fiery guitar leads fit perfectly in this context and clunky drumming aside (Ginger Baker's shoes are pretty hard to fill) the NWOBHM tracks here are pretty good, if not particularly memorable (although "Angels of Death" became a live favourite). Much more interesting are the tracks where Dave Brock and Harvey Bainbridge's synth tendencies began to take hold, with "Virgin of the World" being particularly effective and evocative.

"Church of Hawkwind" followed in quick succession. Beginning life as a solo Dave Brock synth project, other Hawkwind members were eventually roped in to contribute on what has become one of the band's most misunderstood and underappreciated albums. The album's original release came as a shock to fans willing to embrace the heavier approach of "Sonic Attack", while subsequent CD issues have muddied the waters by messing with the track sequencing and peppering unrelated bonus tracks seemingly at random throughout the album's original sequence.

Restored to its original running order and freed of bonus tracks, it proves to be a singular pleasure, albeit one that will take a bit of adjusting to for some fans. It works particularly well as an uninterrupted suite and while it may be a little less immediate than most Hawkwind albums, I'd argue that it's one of the band's most cohesive - certainly during the eighties.

Synth driven soundscapes make up a lot of the album's running time, but repeated plays reveal these to be full of imaginative melodic and rhythmic twists. And as for 'real' songs, why "Nuclear Drive" isn't rated among the band's best is totally beyond me.

"Choose Your Masques" completes this triptych and it's easy to see why it's considered the best of the three. Retaining the heavy synth emphasis of "Church of Hawkwind", "Masques" is a more song orientated affair with more vocals and more guitars making it much more palatable to long term fans. An unnecessary reworking of "Silver Machine" suggests a lack of confidence from Brock and co. but they really needn't have worried, this is one of their most consistent sets. "Arrival in Utopia" should have been a single, while "Void City" is an endearingly quirky vocoder driven ditty that sounds improbably like Brock channelling "McCartney II".

The balance between driving space-rockers and airy synthscapes is perfect here, making this the best studio representation of the band during this era.

Lovely sounding masters here from Atomhenge in a lovely, simple clamshell box. And while you're at it, pick up "Coded Languages", recorded on the "Choose Your Masques" tour and featuring a returning Nik Turner, it's every bit the equal of what you'll find here and ably demonstrates just how quickly these songs evolved in a live context.

The RCA Active Years 1981-1982 is available here (UK/EU) or here (US).

11 Nov 2016

Wolf People - Ruins

Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the woods, Wolf People have returned from Valhalla having sailed across the Black Fjord aboard the Hesperus, to reclaim their crown as the UK's premier acid folk rock band with their third long player proper, 'Ruins'. Which more than justifies this massive reputation - this is a heavy record in all possible ways. They look the same on the surface but these are changed men. The Wolf People have the thousand yard stare and are seeing beyond. Three years they have been away, three long years...then play on.

Opener 'Ninth Night' appears in a blur of over-amped vocals, whistling theremin, relentless drumming tattoos and a general mood of dread mixed with a relish/mania that only comes with preparing for battle. "Rhine Sagas" has that 1969/1970 High Tide type vibe completely nailed. Imagine 'Elemental Child' by Marc Bolan doused in petrol and set ablaze at midnight to the cries of a million harpies - all powered by a bulldozing bass and drums assault topped by some feral, snarling guitars. Welcome back.

Then, unbelievably, the ante is upped further and things get truly fucking terrifying with 'Night Witch'. This reveals Wolf People's greensleeves to be caked in other's blood and bone, their hands dirty, their eyes ablaze, an apparition in sound with a rocketing guitar solo scooping you up high into the black clouds that stretch out forever - a firestorm of feedback, reverb and dissonance. Take a bow Joe Hollick, you have just razed half of North London to the ground from my stereo.

"Kingfisher" provides a balm of sorts - its delicately twisting and recurring guitar tag-line and warm harmonised vocals replete with spectral flute (a la Mighty Baby) before breaking down and re-emerging on the wings of some hugely tasteful and beautifully chiming dual guitar riffage. It's magical motifs will reappear in brief intervals twice more during the record. It's a great idea and means that you are reminded of its insistence long after listening. Gorgeous.

But, as with everything on this record, you feel some kind of significant reckoning is never far away. The songs collected here feel like they have been wrenched from deep within their creators and are manifest almost against their will. The record's troubled birth documented by bad omens leads you to imagine that 'Ruins' has been some extreme form of therapy for those involved. It has a terrible beauty sitting within its heart of darkness and even at its lightest moments, Wolf People are the unhappiest men at the carnival. This of course, given their mastery of the art, makes for an absolutely riveting listening experience that draws you further in every time you listen. Onward.

"Thistles" is a personal favourite with a fuzzier than fuzzed guitar opening giving way to some beautifully weightless vocals that seem to float and flutter on the periphery of your vision whilst guitars once more swoop and dive counterpointed by a lovelier than lovely string driven figure before dissipating into clouds of feedback. God I love this tune. Pete Townshend would love this tune too. Can I play it again, right now?

"Crumbling Dais" attempts to catch you off balance by coming on like 'Graveyard' by early 1970s no hit folk wonders Forest before slipping the clutch and unfurling its standard in the breeze as a doomy rocker with all the right moves. Cool. A swift 'Jug of Love' type interpretation of the main 'Kingfisher' theme hoves into view momentarily before drifting back along the shore making way for the crunchy, funky rhythms of 'Not Me Sir'. Here again, the sense of shock and dread is prominent and a sense of urgency to get the message through at whatever cost from this field in England is strong as chambered guitar lines flicker like camp fires and Jack Sharps beautifully phrased vocals pull me, dazed and confused, towards the burning heat before the lights go out and I am pitched into blackness.

"Belong" smashes me awake again with its awesome take on the Pretty Things 'SF Sorrow' squeezed into 3 minutes and 49 seconds. To belong to something more indeed. What an abso-fucking-lutely bang on tune. And despite my references to the work of revered luminaries such as High Tide and the ever lurking Mighty Baby, perhaps the overall theme of "Ruins" - its dystopia, its dread, and its not too obscured references to war and its consequences line it up conceptually with the Pretties masterpiece in many ways. That's not to try and hang it from the pole with unreasonable expectation at all as 'Sorrow' is quite rightly considered a huge triumph of the first psychedelic age BUT this is a great record too. And I am going to say its probably the best record I have heard released by any British band this year. And frankly, I needed a new Wolf People record to come out, I needed the splendour of 'Salts Mill' with its beautifully woven tapestry of guitar and reeds to retain my faith in UK acid-rock-folk-prog's ability to make sounds like no other. Thank Christ (for the bomb) they turned up just in time to pull Excalibur from the rock and catch the lightning with it.

The parting 'Glass' is suitably cryptic and glowing, Wolf People take their leave before we have the chance to ask any further questions - leaving us to ponder these ruins we live amongst and decide how best to make a brave new world for now and forever.

So there you have it, the third full instalment of the Wolf People saga. They remain thirsty, they continue to see further than mere mortals and they arrive with the message just when you need them to. We salute them and wish them Godspeed for without their visitations this sceptre isle would be a more barren and unforgiving place. An essential release and a must for the 2016 'best of' shortlist.

Post script: As I complete this review (9th November 2016), I get word that Martin Stone, the immensely talented guitar player from amongst others The Action and Mighty Baby has passed on aged just 69. This gives 'Ruins' a further added poignancy to me as Martin's work has clearly helped scope out some of the vision of Wolf People. This review is very humbly dedicated to his memory.

Ruins is available on CD, Vinyl and digital formats here (UK/EU) or here (US).

10 Nov 2016

Stone Breath - Cryptids

Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

Timothy Renner’s legendary forest dwellers Stone Breath return equipped with both finesse and quiet power for ‘Cryptids’, an album which features a dozen songs concerning the band’s local Pennsylvanian folklore, cryptid creatures, ghosts and legends. This subject matter reveals itself to be ideal for a band that was one of the earliest instigators of what can now be described as the current ‘wyrd’ wave of psych folk, the glimpsed sasquatches, lycanthropes and mysterious bipeds from the woodland mythology find a suitable home amongst Renner’s spectral acoustic and banjo led laments. Aided by AE Hoskins on various instrumentation, Rod Goelz on bass and mandolin, Martyn Bates (of Eyeless In Gaza) on guest vocals and an appearance by long-time collaborator Prydwyn (of Green Crown), ‘Cryptids’ stands as both one of Stone Breath’s most accessible and most deeply chilling albums.

The album begins with the sound of footsteps crunching through piles of dead leaves before Renner’s familiar banjo enters for 'In the Red Witch House', a chilling tale of a lycanthropic child whose condition was said to have been caused by a coven of local witches. Indeed, the album pursues a musical telling of local tales and legends throughout, expertly put to song by Stone Breath's mossy and spectral, rural folk. This is followed by 'The Hidebehind' which adds recorder, xylophone and subtle percussion to a slow paced but stealthy sliver of acid folk. 'Trotterhead's descending mandolin melody and relentless, steady stalking pace generates an air of true menace and eeriness, conjuring a sense of being followed and discreetly watched by eyes that are not altogether human. Stone Breath are masters of their craft but here they seem even more focused and honed, there is an intensity in the brooding, malevolence that they bring to play in the telling of these folk beliefs. The English ballad 'Long Lankin' (previously and perhaps most famously heard interpreted by Steeleye Span) is given an unsettling undercurrent of droning organ as Renner's voice recounts one of the bloodiest and most supernatural of all the Child Ballads. These ballads travelled across the Atlantic as the Scots, Irish and English emigrated to the New World and many such songs and texts can be found as American variations of the originals, 'The Rolling Of The Stones' being a prime example. 'Long Lankin' fits perfectly in this collection of otherworldly, sad or predatory creatures and Stone Breath make this bogeyman tale their own.

'I Know His Name' is equally as disquieting, mandolin and drums calling time as a tale of an inhuman walker in the woods is recounted by Renner's deep baritone vocals, whilst 'The Singing Corpse' is a more reflective, melancholy piece which tells of a grave bound corpse which is said to be sighted singing hymns in an angelic, choral voice. Here the vocal duties are taken by Eyeless in Gaza's Martyn Bates who provides a heartfelt and genuinely beautiful coda to the song. 'Sticks' is classic Stone Breath, Renner's rhythmic banjo providing the structure for his intonations, as if uttering a chant to hell itself. Had The Incredible String Band been formed across the ocean in the dark, thick woods of New England rather than these shores this may well be what they would have sounded like. 'Far Away the Morning' is a mournful but gorgeous ballad whilst 'The Missing' is a skeletal folk ghost story that stays in the listener’s psyche long after the song has ended; it haunts you. The album closes musically with the majestic 'Apples for the Albawitch’, which tells of flute playing creatures who would lure unwary travellers away with their song, never to be seen again. One can imagine the hypnotic and bewitching appeal of Stone Breath doing exactly the same, taking spellbound listeners deep into the copse, never to return. There then follows several genuine recorded transmissions of locals recounting sightings in the woods of various terrifying and unexplained creatures, including police control room recordings. They are incredibly spine chilling and provide a hugely effective ending to what is surely a contender for the album of the year.

‘Cryptids’ is an album which stays with you long after the music has finished. Both the songs and the frightened voices from the vintage recordings haunt the hours that follow immersing yourself with this release and this is how it should be; this album is a forest filled with ghosts and creatures and is utterly entrancing. Leave the path, stray into the trees, feel the cold of the Stone Breath upon your neck.

Available now as a download and CD from the ever splendid Dark Holler Arts (Renner’s own label), the album comes replete with stunning artwork by Timothy. Do also check out the excellent accompanying book of Pennsylvanian folklore by the singer, ‘Beyond the Seventh Gate’ which can be found at the same sources.

6 Nov 2016

Tales of Justine - Petals From A Sunflower: Complete Recordings 1967-69

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

With a frontman distantly related to the Who's Roger Daltrey and management from future gazillionaires Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Tales of Justine is one of those bands that it's very easy to assume have a more interesting backstory than output.

Enter "Petals from a Sunflower", the first ever CD collection of their complete recorded works (an earlier vinyl-only collection on Tenth Planet included around two thirds of the content of this collection) which aims to dispel this illusion.

Signed by Rice (then an A&R man for EMI) and Lloyd-Webber in 1967 based primarily on the potential star quality of 15 year old singer / guitarist / songwriter David Daltrey, Tales of Justine's future looked bright. Rice's influence allowed access to the bright halls of Abbey Road studios, holy ground for a young singer enthralled by the sounds of the Syd Barrett led Pink Floyd.

An initial batch of politely freaky psych-pop demos recorded at Abbey Road (all included here) impressed the label big wigs enough to secure a single release, the Lloyd-Webber arranged "Albert" / "Monday Morning". Unfortunately the a-side was one of Daltrey's weaker numbers, and despite a number of favourable reviews, the single sank without a trace. Daltrey himself was reluctant to issue "Albert" as the a-side, and Rice is now of the opinion that had the single been flipped, things could have been very different for the band. "Monday Morning" certainly would have made a great single, with its anthemic chorus and psychedelic guitar / keyboard duel promising much. It's been widely comped since.

That wasn't the end for Tales of Justine (who had by now dropped the definitive article from their name) though. There was plenty more to come and their best work was still ahead of them. "Sitting on a Blunstone" is perhaps their masterwork, a mystical raga recorded on a two track in a tiny publishing studio as a publishing demo. The fact that Rice and Lloyd-Webber never saw fit to give it the proper Abbey Road treatment shows just how little they understood of Daltrey's vision, but their influence wasn't wholly negative.

Lloyd-Webber had spent some time observing the sessions for Mark Wirtz's "Teenage Opera" and when it came time again for Tales of Justine to enter Abbey Road, everything but the kitchen sink was utilised. The results were uniformly impressive, from the moody "Pathway" to the jaunty "Jupiter" to the absolutely glorious " Morpheus", which captures, and improves upon the orchestrated pop psych vibe of Aphrodite's Child's "Rain & Tears" absolutely perfectly.

EMI showed no interest in releasing it though, and Rice and Lloyd-Webber were more interested in their own "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat" (which Daltrey had a starring role in).

Several Daltrey solo sessions followed, the results of which are also here, but psychedelia was passing out of favour and management's attempts to reinvent Daltrey in a Scott Walker meets Lulu vein continued to leave the label unimpressed.

Aside from a few live dates, that spelled the end of Tales of Justine. Daltrey was eventually released from EMI's clutches, joining the band Carillion, who would eventually morph (without Daltrey) into the rather excellent wannabe Byrds band Starry Eyed and Laughing.

Everything that Tales of Justine recorded is here, and it sounds exactly like what it is:a promising young band being poked and prodded in directions that they're not necessarily comfortable with, but generally transcending the situation they found themselves in to deliver material that deserved more recognition. There are a handful of unknown classics here that are absolutely essential for UK psych aficionados, although the band's fluffier leanings make this more one for lovers of pop-psych than psych-pop.

Available here (UK/EU) or here (US).

1 Nov 2016

Ultimate Painting – Dusk

Reviewed By Todd Leiter-Weintraub (Hop On Pop)

When Ultimate Painting released last year’s "Green Lanes" it grabbed me on first listen. Their sunny pop, to me, felt like Chicago in the 1990s, the time and place where I came of age. So yeah, it evoked some nostalgia and that was certainly part of the appeal. But nostalgia only goes so far; ultimately, it's the songs that have to hold up. And they do.

Their follow-up, the appropriately titled "Dusk", is not nearly so sunshiny. If "Green Lanes" sounds like the summer days that I spent record shopping and eating at greasy spoon restaurants, "Dusk" is the nightime. It’s the hushed, peaceful drive home from the clubs, winding through urban neighborhoods. Listening to music with the windows rolled open on a crisp summer evening.

The album opens with the shimmering guitars and thin drum sound of “Bills” which sets the stage with its driving rhythm that is reminiscent of Stereolab. However, in lieu of chugging guitars, gentle guitar arpeggios skitter over the top of it all, with half-mumbled vocals on top of that. “Song For Brian Jones” follows with the same lazy, summertime cadence; but some additional percussion loosens up the groove just a little bit.

The album carries on with “Lead the Way.” It’s a somber march that pushes forward with the same sort of chiming guitars, and a single droning synth note that hovers in the background that both lulls and disquiets. “Monday Morning, Somewhere Central” uses little bits of electric piano to add some interesting, subtle counterpoint to the electric guitar. Some nice vocal harmonies strengthen the song’s hook to make this a song that could have been a college radio staple around 1996 or so.

On "Dusk", Ultimate Painting sets a mood and maintains it; it’s evocative as hell. The album casts a spell starting with the very first note, and simply won’t let you go until it’s run its course. It’s one of those records where, each time I drop the needle, I don’t want to pick it up, or even get up out of my chair until the whole thing has faded into the darkness, leaving only its beautiful ghost behind.

It’s another very highly recommended release from the Trouble In Mind label.

Available on CD and vinyl here (UK/EU) and here (US).

Streaming and downloads here: