12 Jan 2017

The Steppes - Drop of the Creature

Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan

Wow! Someone finally remastered and reissued this monster on vinyl...

It was 30 years ago today…well it was about 30 years ago today that I first heard the then new debut full length LP by The Steppes, “Drop of the Creature” released on Greg Shaw's legendary Voxx Records. In 1986 this record stood pretty much alone as a perfect example of modern psych-rock-folk. Whilst many of the groups of the decade who had hinted at taking the magic swirling ship downed tools, signed to majors and retreated into distinctly un-psychedelic AOR rock land, The Steppes were heading outwards into the purple mist.

The band didn't so much buck the general trend as obliterate it, unleashing one of the great psychedelic rock records of all time (in my humble opinion) with the masterful ‘Drop of the Creature’. This is a record loaded with wonderfully constructed songs supplied by California residing, Irish-American brothers John and David Fallon. It is psychedelic for sure, it is also folky and prog and rock and beat and avant garde - all at once. This was musical. It displays myriad influences - from the 60's and 70's, from Europe, from America and time has shown it was clearly years ahead of its time. This was musical alchemy par excellence and nearly all selections contained therein are underpinned by a mysterious, almost religious, celtic flavour that often adds an epic drama and romance to their strangely strange but oddly accessible sound.

“A Play on Wordsworth” opens proceedings, appearing on the horizon with a slightly ominous and unsettling barrage of slashing power chords and impressionistic utterings counterpointed by several cluster bombs of wah-wah driven guitar breaks. It’s quiet-loud changing up through the (Disraeli) gears and use of light and shade immediately marking this out as a very different beast from their ‘Paisley Underground’ contemporaries. What we have here is no overly stylised slavish retro-trip; this is a musical tour de force, dripping and pulsing with invention and ambition - as an opening gambit you know you are in heavy territory.

‘Somebody Waits’ is a sublimely beautiful acid-folk ballad that could melt the hardest of hearts, a postcard from home to a distant and ancient traveller who is searching for something that is already there. Its plaintive closing advice of "don’t you dare drown in the spring", remains as profoundly affecting to me now as it did on first listen all that time ago. ‘Holding Up Well’ is muscular and driven by a powerful 70’s prog arrangement and wonderfully dramatic vocal performance. 'Make Us Bleed' is daringly deft - all scrolling guitar runs and alternately biting and lyrical vocals that seem to simultaneously invoke the spirit of Phil Lynott and John Lennon - go figure. ‘Cut in Two’ is detached with an almost diffident delivery, replete with slide guitar buried in the mix of a soft shoe shuffle. It’s jolting endgame is impressive and sounds nothing less than an asylum door being slammed firmly shut. 'The Sky is Falling’ manages to combine that celtic lilt with some truly heavy psych moves and appropriate use of slide as a way of knocking the listener off balance. “See You Around” is as close as The Steppes got to their immediate peers, a slab of straight ahead sunshine pop that seems to fluctuate between The Byrds of ‘I See You’ and The Beatles of ‘Drive My Car’. It’s a beauty and should have been the song that launched them out of the underground and into the daylight. 'Lazy Ol' Son' is a bar room argument between Syd Barrett and Rory Gallagher with no clear winner emerging from the ensuing spat. 'Bigger Than Life' is a total trip. All see-sawing echoed bass stabs, ultra-compressed "Lucy in the Sky..." vocalising, amazing squalling shards of backwards guitar and watery drums. Its a bit like "The Man Who Sold the World" era Bowie and its utterly magnificent.

'Black Forest Friday' is a short piece of sonic grand guignol, its queasy keys, snaking guitars, end of the hallway flutes and mechanical sounds making it one and a half minutes of totally spooked out baroque madness. ‘More Than This’ closes out the album proper with a lingering sigh and some suitably wise words that still resonate as one expects they will forever, “there is no chosen holy land...I wish today was like tomorrow, I’d pack up my bags and all my sorrow..” – all set inside some lovely guitar phrasing and a closing Page-esque guitar solo that arcs upwards towards the sun before fading in its golden light. Add in the beautifully kaleidoscopic 'History Hates No Man' as one of the bonus tracks with its fabulous melange of floating guitars, chimes and mantra-like voices singing hosannas from the highest hilltops and you really are being spoiled here. This is fabulous stuff.

Thirty years later, time remains hugely kind to the ambition, vision and uniqueness of this record. It's ability to startle, unsettle and beguile the active listener with its magick remains undiminished, its stock continues to appreciate. 'Drop of the Creature' is simply a fabulous achievement. Believe.

So, is this the reissue of the year? Yes. Should you buy it? Yes. Should you buy it for your friends? Yes. More than this I cannot say. Amen.

Available from limited stockists and the label direct below.

Also: The Checks "Green Velvet Electric" Review

3 Jan 2017

The Green Pajamas - To The End of The Sea / V/A - Gathered Leaves

Reviews by Nathan Ford

I'm getting too old to keep up with all of Sugarbush Records' wonderful output, but here are a couple of highlights from their last few months of releases,  lovingly pressed in small quantities on vinyl (350 and 200 copies respectively).

A new Green Pajamas album is always cause for celebration, and "To The End Of The Sea" may well be their best for a decade. CD and digital releases happened earlier on in the year, but Sugarbush have done us all a favour by putting it out on lovely blue vinyl (their third Green Pajamas vinyl release).

While recent albums have tried different things and had much to recommend them, "To The End Of The Sea" returns to the tried and true 'classic' Pajamas sound of the late nineties / early noughties with Jeff Kelly's best set of songs for a long time, albeit with a more knowingly psychedelic presentation, which is just fine with me.

"When Juliet Smiles" is another in a string of perfect, wistful psych-pop gems. This and "Ten Million Light Years Away" are the sorts of songs that have GP fans tearing out their hair and shaking their fists at the cruel hand of fate, and it's hard not to agree that this music should be heard by so many more than it is.

And while it's easy to cherrypick specific tracks for praise, for highlights are many, it's as a complete suite that this works best.

Get the vinyl here (digital and CD from the link below).

Also new, and fabulous, is "Gathering Leaves", a carefully curated compilation of material originally featured on Ptolemaic Terrascope's free CDs from the nineties and early noughties.

For those unfamiliar, Ptolemaic Terrascope was a long running psychedelic fanzine founded in the eighties by Phil McMullen and Bevis Frond's Nick Saloman, the approach of which was very similar to ours here at the Active Listener, but on a much more ambitious scale.

"Gathering Leaves" does a great job of illustrating just how diverse a genre psychedelia can be, embracing everything from folk (Sharron Kraus), psychedelic pop (The Dipsomaniacs & The Green Pajamas again), to more experimental fare like Saint Joan who's lengthy epic "December" is something of a highlight here - particularly as I'd never heard of her before.

And let's not forget that at the time, this was pure outsider music. Psychedelia was yet to be homogenised and reintroduced to the masses by the likes of Tame Impala. This acknowledgement that even in the (musically speaking) darkest times, adventurous and exciting music is being made, if you're willing to look hard enough for it, resonates deeply with me.

I'm amazed that there are copies of this left still - but apparently there are. You can get them here (all prices include international shipping). Get in quick!

2 Jan 2017

Delphine Dora - Le Fruits De Mes Songes / Krotz Struder - 15 Dickinson Songs

Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

Two essential releases related to the beautiful and consistently impressive Wild Silence label, one from label owner Delphine Dora who offers an exquisite tableaux of dreamlike chamber folk (and which can be found on the similarily wonderful Bezirk label) and the other from Krotz Struder, the one man project of Julien Grandjean who musically interprets fifteen of the poet Emily Dickinson's works in a melancholic, understated and truly gorgeous manner.

Dora's 'Le Fruits De Mes Songes' begins with the delicate but intense piano of 'Dans La Brume Chuchotante', which is quickly enveloped by the buzz of collected and whispered voices to create a disorientated, dreamlike air. Indeed, some of the text used was taken from books in Dora's own library which she describes as like using'passages of prose used as samples...I like using different random sources in the same song, different fragments to have a disparate meaning, something that is mysterious to the consciousness, something that can question the listening experience. I tried to use my voice as a whisper, or many voices to induce a subliminal effect to the consciousness of the listener." This album certainly evokes just that; it is experiential in nature in that it demands our full attention and takes the listener to the dust filled and haunted corners of our thoughts and memories where the odd creatures of our past reside. 'Oraculum’ is one such piece, on a myriad of harp notes Dora's layered vocals take us to a world of wakened dreams and half remembered pasts. 'Harp-psi-chord' is a baroque, regency styled piece with Dora's vocals flowing and ebbing over the shimmering harpsichord notes whilst 'Alpha Centuri' is a chamber folk gem; gossamer cascades of piano, music box notes and icy slabs of organ come together to conjure a truly otherworldly experience and sound, a cobwebbed fairy tale of a song. This must be the sound that dreams make when they sing...'Hush Lullaby' is a more conventional but no less lovely piano piece that sounds both timeless and haunted, as if being heard through a crack in the present that has allowed the ghosts of sounds from the past to enter. At once both earthy and traditional as well as experimental and unique, Dora's music continually fascinates, evokes and resonates. This is a stunningly fine album, should you wish music to be challenging, beautiful and emotive then do not miss out on this singularly lovely recording.

Moving on to the second of the releases, Krotz Struder approaches Emily Dickinson's words by cloaking them in a shimmering and delicate web of finger picked and chiming guitar, skeletal piano and his own unique style of chanson. Having previously interpreted the works of Blake and Bernhard, Grandjean is clearly at home with such material and his versions are unspeakably lovely; 'The Foreigner' and 'The One, The Other' would not be out of place on This Mortal Coil's classic 'It'll End In Tears', such is the reverberated, sacred mood evoked here. This is not in any sense however a one note performance, indeed Grandjean adds interesting, curious and left field shadows and corners throughout with squalls of ebow sitting alongside icy shimmers of guitar and the songs themselves web and weave in some unforeseen directions, pleasingly quite unlike anything else you may have heard. Grandjean takes Dickinson's romantically morbid visions and creates something entirely new and bewitching with them, adding his own bohemian and poetic ingredients. This is an album of highlights however 'The Thought Before', a Leonard Cohen-esque treasure, and 'Cap Of Lead', in which Grandjean’s guitar sparkles like sequins on a sky of ink, are two noteworthy moments. Seek this album out, it would be a crime for something so accomplished and downright beautiful to not be heard.

Both albums are available on physical and download formats, Delphine's being available on cassette and Krotz Struder on CD. As always with the Wild Silence the packaging and sleeve design of '15 Dickinson Songs' is a work of art in itself.

1 Jan 2017

The Luck of Eden Hall – The Acceleration of Time

Reviewed by Timothy Ferguson

I’ve been a long time in putting this review together, as "The Acceleration of Time" was released by The Luck of Eden Hall way back in April. Perhaps it is apropos that a record so obsessed with time should be reviewed only after the reviewer has given this collection of songs the time it so richly deserves.

There should be no need to introduce you to The Luck of Eden Hall. After all, they’ve been around for a long, long time (time again), diligently producing album after album of premium grade psychedelic pop. Popping up again and again on those juicy Fruits de Mer compilations, now appearing on soundtracks and in Record Collector magazines. Always solid, always producing much more than mere perfect songs, but solid and well-crafted works of art. If there’s a dud in the cannon, this reviewer sure hasn’t heard it, and I’ve had my eye (and ear) on these cats since Pumpkins were mere sprouts and the Chicago scene was the last unspoiled hunting ground for a music industry that never had a clue.

However, if this IS your first foray into the work of The Luck of Eden Hall, you’ve certainly joined the party at a high point. On "The Acceleration of Time", the band goes from strength to strength, serving up their unique brand of psychedelia that features flashes of power pop adrenaline, prog virtuosity and plenty of :Lucy in the Sky..." flower power imagery. The instrumentation is confident and pristine, with not a note out of place. Best of all, LoEH write SONGS. This is no echo drone phoned-in formula psych. Instead you get verses, choruses, hooks, clever turns of phrase and actual sonic stories. This is purpose over Prozac; psychedelia for the thinking man.

"The Acceleration of Time" is an ambitious 15 song double album, and it may be the crown jewel in The Luck of Eden Hall's already accomplished recording career. Time is obviously a concern, and a growing one for The Luck of Eden Hall, as the songs on this impressive collection are haunted by the pursuit of the second hand. Throughout the work, clocks tick, bells chime, reminding us again and again that we are being pursued by our own mortality. How many songs do we have left in us? How much time is left on the scoreboard?

Kicking off with "Slow and Blown to Kingdom Come", fans will recognize the touchstone elements that make The Luck of Eden Hall sound so unique. Greg Curvey’s multi-headed hydra of guitars that crunch and bite or soar and attack like a psychedelic cobra, drumming by Carlos Mendoza that could hold it’s own against an artillery barrage, Mark Lofgren’s melodic yet precise bass guitar lines that add rhythmic sinew and bone and that amazing melotron washing color onto everything it touches, courtesy of Jim Licka.

"A Procession of Marshmallow Soldiers Across the Clockwork Pudding" has to win some sort of award for best song title of the year. This instrumental is the first of several, and serves as a beautiful counterpoint to the clockwork precision of the poppy openers. Although Curvey carries the lion’s share of songwriting credits on this release, Lofgren’s title track "The Acceleration of Time" is a gem, and could be a lost Eno track from "Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy". His other contributions to this masterwork are equally spectacular, my favorite probably being "Only Robots Can Search the Deep Ocean Floor".

One of the best things about this record is how well it works as a front to back concept record. It also works as a collection of greatest hits (if one can do that on a single collection of songs from the same record). Fans of the Shuffle feature will revel at "The Acceleration of Time", as there is no way to mix this up in a way that doesn’t work. Time may move in a linear direction, but the Luck of Eden Hall have fashioned a 77-minute wormhole of a record. Rockers are paced by haunting lullabies, pop gems give way to lush instrumentals and the whole thing is well paced, hypnotic and dreamlike.

Sometimes a reviewer gets a record that is love at first sight. And like love that is more passion-based, those glowing Spring feelings may wane with the passing of time. I’m glad that I gave this record such a long gestation period before penning this review. Time itself has served as a proving ground for the intelligence, wit and depth of this sterling effort. Some loves are meant to withstand the test of Time.

Best record of 2016.