Future Islands – ‘Singles’: Round 66 – Rob’s choice

futureislandsThese days I rarely consider the role of performance in music. Circumstances have dwindled my opportunities to see live bands effectively down to zero. I hardly ever watch music on TV, maybe hitting two or three heritage docs on BBC Four in the space of an average year. I never seek out music videos, even when they are recommended.

I realise I’m missing out on part of the experience. I used to be thrilled by live shows by bands I loved and, sometimes, bands I didn’t know. As someone who spent a reasonable chunk of his adolescence looking like a bargain bucket Morrissey, then a half-arsed Happy Monday, then an unremarkable former member of the Jesus and Mary Chain, I’m hardly unaware of the extra dimension that the look and feel of the band brings to the noise they are making, to the fans ability to identify with and inhabit their music. I’m aware that even if these things seem to have become unimportant to me, the bands I follow are still putting in just as much effort to perfect them, to add layers to their musical core. I’m just not paying attention.

Truth be told, I could’t even tell you what the majority of the artists I like these days actually look like. [Hang on, i’ll test that theory. Bear with me while I look at my records of the year post from 2013

Well, I reckon I could pick 5 of the 11 out of a line-up. I’m surprised by that, although note that those include Nick Cave, Sam Beam and Bradford Cox, all of whom cut fairly distinctive figures].

This is not a stance or an extension of some philosophical or aesthetic approach – I don’t really do that stuff – it just seems to have happened. I just listen to the music. Nowadays I don’t even really care who’s in the band, or what they’re doing. I’ve never been big on appreciation of the craft of music. I love sounds, but rarely connect the appreciation of those sounds to an appreciation of the skill or virtuosity that may have been necessary to produce them. Come to think of it, not only don’t I know what most of the new artists I like at the moment look like, if they’re in a band I don’t even know what the individuals are called. Even worse, by and large I don’t even bother with song titles either.

Sounds stupid, huh? Maybe it is.

Anyhow. I started talking about performance…

A month or so ago, Baltimore synth-pop outfit Future Islands managed to blindside me and break through all this dead-eyed detachment and, in the space of 3 minutes, force the most focussed U-turn I can remember making in my 30 years as a music lover.

A few years ago Tom lent me a copy of ‘In Evening Air’, their debut album. He thought I might like it. I did not. I hated it. It’s rare that I take badly against a record, but I really couldn’t stand this one. I hung on for half the tracks and then had to finish my walk in silence. It was the voice, swinging wildly from David Bowie to Ella Fitzgerald, sometimes in adjacent syllables, both delivered as if in pastiche by a particularly hammy Lon Chaney. I found it utterly unbearable. I’m not one to shy away from an unusual vocalist. I would choose Mark E Smith, Captain Beefheart, Joanna Newsom and Tom Waits among my very favourites, but something about the shameless artifice of Samuel T Herring’s singing had me clawing for my headphones. It seemed so desperate, so attention seeking. I felt physical repulsed by it. They’ve been filed under ‘not for me thanks’ ever since.

And then. And then. Having picked up (somehow) on some minor internet buzz, I checked out their recent performance of ‘Seasons’ on the David Letterman show. Within about 90 seconds, it all made sense. Within 3 minutes i’d shifted my opinion 180 degrees. I understood immediately that the focal point of these wild growling pleas and distressed torch singer yelps was a frontman who was not the flamboyant dandy I had assumed and feared, but a regular Joe Shmoe battling with his burning desire to express himself through song. It’s a totally compelling performance. Passionate, unabashed, somehow discovering the embarrasing geek that we all fear we might be if given a microphone and an audience and parlaying this into something true and vulnerable and somehow quite magnificent. The hopelessly extreme dad-dancing, the moments when his eyes get the thousand yard stare and it seems he might just crumple right there in the middle of the stage, the futile half-punch crescendoes, the desperately assertive chest-beating. Even the last-ditch death-metal dredging. It all makes sense.

Here it is:


(I made the mistake afterwards of checking out ILX to see if others had been similarly affected by the thing. No, they hadn’t. Plenty of people speak up for the band and most cite Herring’s frontmanship as one of the key reasons they’ve always been fans. Others enjoyed once again being able to blankly slap down some enthusiasm, unable to understand why anyone would get excited about “another average synth pop band”. Here’s a tip for a happy life, as a minor aside: avoid internet forums if you want to retain any unfettered joy for something you think may be loveable. Unless your opinions are bulletproof then you’ll come away feeling your affection has been shot to pieces. And if they do happen to be bulletproof to the point of being immutable, what’s the point of trading them with others online?)

Nonetheless, I’ve hammered ‘Singles’ over the last four weeks or so. In many ways Future Islands are just another synth pop band, reaching back to grasp some of the faded glitterball glamour, retrofuturist electronic buzz and sparse despair of the mid 1980s and, essentially, doing a pretty good job of it.

Actually, come on. That’s selling them way short. They do a pitch perfect job, building their sound from an exquisite palette and creating deliciously economical soul pop.


It’s Samuel T Herring’s voice that lifts the record out of the ordinary but, somehow, he takes the rest of the band with him, and reflected in his flailing, wheeling performance – for a performance it is every time he opens his mouth to sing – their sound gains lustre and a spring in its step. Ultimately these are 10 fine songs, short and sharply constructed, by a band who sound every bit the Joe Shmoes giving it everything they have in an attempt to force their way out into some new territory, to create a breakthrough. We suspect they’ll never make it,  and perhaps they know too, but that tension, of the ordinary trying to become extraordinary, is what makes Future Islands such a strangely intoxicating affair.

Nick listened: Otis Redding. Samuel T Herring is clearly (as far as I’m concerned) a massive, massive Otis Redding fan. And he’s lucky enough that his vocal cords are capable of showing that inspiration in a pretty impressive way. After years of cool detachment from synth bands, this emotive, performative juxtaposition is a little surprising (although not quite as surprising as when he went full-on ‘Cookie Monster’).

The album as a whole left me a little nonplussed, but that Letterman performance was off the scale good; people used to perform like that all the time. I love a bit of artifice.

Tom listened: I can see the headlines now:

‘Mitchell In “Changes His Mind” Shocker. You Turn if You Want To…He Has!’

I told you they were good all along, didn’t I?

Now that I’ve picked my jaw up from the floor (I had resigned myself to always having my enjoyment of In Evening Air tempered by the fact that Mr Mitchell and myself were on different pages of the hymn sheet), I will add that whilst it lacked the immediacy of Future Islands’ second album I sensed, on the basis of one play, that Singles has great depth and possibly greater staying power than In Evening Air. The listen left me very tempted but, fortunately for me, I am very tempted by a lot of records at the moment! It is, however, firmly on the list.


Efterklang – Piramida: Round 65, Nick’s choice

Efterklang-PiramidaSome records take time to reveal their charms, even if they give you the impression from the outset that they’ll be right up your street. Those slow-burn records can be faintly foolish choices for record club; as we’ve discussed many times, some types of record really lend themselves to this type of communal, concentrated, critical listening (with much babbling and consumption of curry atop the actual music), while others really don’t.

Efterklang are Danish (their name comes from the Danish for ‘remembrance’ or ‘reverberation’, according to Wikipedia), and I bought Piramida, their fourth album, at the tail end of 2012, the year it was released, after it received glowing reviews and various end-of-year-list plaudits. It’s taken me until this spring to feel like I ‘get’ it, although straight away I could tell it was really beautifully crafted, which is why I was intrigued to see how it would fare at record club. Unusually for me I followed the typical approach pattern of the other guys, and played Piramida several times in the run-up to our meeting.

Ostensibly an indie band, Efterklang are clearly au fait with various strains of ambient and electronic music. For this record they travelled to Piramida, a deserted Russian town inside the arctic circle (gorgeous pictures of the abandoned buildings decorate the sleeve) and recorded a host of ambient sounds of nothing happening in a place where nobody lives, which they then interpolated into the gentle, slow-paced, elegiac songs that comprise the album.

Decorated with intriguing percussion and beautiful touches of brass, as well as guitar, drums, keyboards, and various other bits and bobs including xylophone, synths, and choirs, the band concoct a beautiful, beatific, and faintly melancholic bedrock over which the vocals are delivered with a similar kind of linguistic remove to The Notwist; a sort of pseudo-medicated calm, the lyrics all words that I recognize but put together in phrases that, though they have a quiet emotional impact, don’t make any kind of cogent ‘sense’ to me. But that doesn’t matter, because, as Paul Draper once sang, the lyrics are just a vehicle for a lovely voice.

I’ll not make any great claims for this record – it’s not a life-changer – but it is a beautiful, affecting record, with the kind of low-key atmosphere and emotion that will prompt multiple plays and probably not see you tire of it any time soon. A slow-burner, in other words.

Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci – Barafundle: Round 65 – Tom’s Selection

barafundleAlthough it seems on the face of it that Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci have very little in common with the Kitchens of Distinction, dig a little deeper and you’ll see some similarities. Here is my case:

a) Fantastic pop songs that sound timeless and current at the same time? Check.

Evidence – Patio Song & Drive That Fast, Diamond Dew & Gorgeous Love, Spanish Dance Troupe & The Third Time We Opened The Capsule.

b) Complexity coupled with accessibility? Check.

Evidence – pretty much all of Barafundle, most of Strange Free World and Love is Hell.

c) Bloody stupid names that completely scupper any chance of widespread commercial success? Check.

Evidence – Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci!?!?! I mean…come on! Kitchens of Distinction!?!? You must be joking, right?

Which is such a shame in both cases as, in my opinion, both bands deserve to be held in much higher esteem these days than they seem to be. As if to underline their status as the nearly men (and woman) of British pop, Gorky’s hold the record for the most top 100 singles not to crack the top 40, a feat they achieved 8 times, their best three efforts making 41, 42 and 43!

Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci formed in the late 80s in Carmarthen and their early records sound as though they were made by a band that had little to no expectation that anyone else would be hearing them. So I suppose the band’s choice of moniker makes sense in that respect. But even in the mind-boggling weirdness that is their first album (Tatay) little pop gems reside, seemingly tossed off and somewhat adrift in a sea of in jokes and wilful awkwardness. However, by the time Gorky’s came to record Barafundle they had begun to learn how to construct an album – much of the playfulness remains intact but it’s now measured and used sparingly, never coming across as glib or gratuitous. And, for my money, it’s all the better for it.

I first heard Gorky’s music when I caught Patio Song being played on the radio at the time of its release in 1996. It was a revelation. I had been aware of the group for some time – it’s hard not to notice the name after all – but I had dismissed them as being something far too silly, a novelty group along the lines of Sultans of Ping or Carter TUSM. Yet here was a song sent from the gods, a beautiful, picked arpeggio, a wondrous melody, a couple of Slint like minor chord guitar runs tempering the sweetness and a blinding extended coda sung entirely in Welsh. Patio Song would still rank as one of my favourite singles from the 90s and at the time I found it irresistible. I bought Barafundle very soon afterwards, probably encouraged by the fact that the album was named after one of those breathkingly beautiful Pembrokeshire beaches I have visited so many times over the years. And I’ve never looked back.

Over the course of the last few weeks I have been listening to Barafundle pretty much non-stop and whilst doing so, I have struggled to find a way to adequately describe the music contained within. I’ll have a go but you’ll probably be none the wiser having read this!

You see, about two thirds of Barafundle is prog-punk psychedelia with generous lashings of folk. And, on paper, that sounds horrendous. Yet Gorky’s pull it off magnificently on Barafundle…most of the time. Whilst there are many examples of this style of music on the album, favourites Starmoonsun, Pen Gwag Glas and Meirion Wyllt all manage to traverse the same sort of musical breadth Joanna Newsom was attempting to negotiate on Ys, yet Gorky’s manage it in less than four minutes whilst never forgetting that they are ostensibly writing pop songs. Hence the more avant-garde material on Barafundle never outstays its welcome and, whilst the odd medieval interlude may jar on first acquaintance, the next melodic gem is only just around the corner (often in the same song).

The rest of the album hints towards the more straightforward music that Gorky’s would go on to make in greater abundance on their later albums. Often stunning (Patio Song, Sometimes The Father Is The Son, Diamond Dew) there are also a couple of missteps – I have always found Heywood Lane a bit too twee and Dark Night veers from exquisite to ponderous over the course of its five minutes. But, as a whole, Barafundle sounds as charmingly unpretentious today as on its release twenty years ago when it had the honour of showing all those Brit Pop wannabies that it is usually the outsider that has the best tunes.

Rob listened: A pleasure to hear again. I own ‘Barafundle’, or should I say ‘we’ do. It’s one of a relatively small set of records i’ve wanted myself but have been able to buy for my wife knowing that there was a reasonable chance she’d like it. And lo, under the cover of generosity, another album finds its way onto our shelves.

I like it a lot, but my go-to Gorky’s has always been ‘Spanish Dance Troupe’ which is a near perfect pastoral pop album. It’s 12 minutes shorter and, perhaps for that reason alone, always seemed more to-the-point, well-formed. It’s an extremely easy album to reach for and I did and do so often.

‘Barafundle’ sounds to me like the scrapbook that Gorky’s used to work out many of the ideas they had generated on ‘Bwyd Time’ would distill fully on ‘Dance Troupe’. It’s full of care and beauty and surprise and fun and gentle darkness. I can’t help but wonder whether if their musical venn diagram had included a techno circle, as did that for their compatriots Super Furry Animals, then perhaps they would have had the same critical plaudits showered upon them. Gorky’s really were one of the great lost bands. That’s not to suggest that they went unappreciated, far from it, but that there is another world not that far from our own in which they were having hit singles, rather than loitering outside the top 40, lacing daisies into each other’s hair.

Nick listened: This was lovely and melodic and sweet, but, as Rob suggests, perhaps a little long and rambling – it lost me a little in the second half and onwards, which felt like a shame. I’d not heard it before, though I’ve been aware of Gorky’s for 20-odd years now…

Donato Dozzy – ‘Plays Bee Mask’: Round 65 – Rob’s choice

Donato Dozzy Plays Bee MaskInterpretation is one of the cornerstones of modern pop. In the 50s and 60s singers who would never have dreamed of writing their own songs would take songs from writers who would never have dreamed of singing them, and interpret them. Sinatra was renowned for decades as the finest ‘interpreter’ of modern songs, taking material and turning it into his own, finding the core of a piece and revealing it to us all.

Then in the 1960s, the role of interpretation in the development of pop music took a few different and often more problematic turns. Countless of the big hits of the decade which we still know 50 years on are second or third generation copies. Songs passed from group to group until one version achieved some sort of memetic superiority. This was not always a chummy passing of the baton (“I say, this ditty didn’t work out for me. Why don’t you have a go at it old fruit?”). Genres, sometimes whole cultures, were plundered for songs which could be parlayed into rock’n’roll success.

Since then, the role of interpretation in rock and pop seems to have dwindled to the dread cover version in which some band either pays tribute to or attempts to ride the coat tails of some other band, usually to the benefit of no-one except the original publishers. Performers are sampled, mimicked, sometimes pastiched, but rarely will an artist embark upon a serious reinterpretation of another artist’s work. Even when they do (Flaming Lips cover ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, Steven Malkmus covers ‘Ege Bamyasi’) there’s a sense that these are fun excursions, tributes, a laugh.

Meanwhile in other forms, notably literature and theatre, reinterpretations of stories, works, themes and pieces are a critical part of the discourse.

Where rock and roll moved away, dance music has taken on the full power of reinterpretation. Here the remix is so all-pervasive that radical re-imaginings of tracks routinely eclipse the originals, often becoming the core reference point for a piece of work. Undeniably it’s a fertilising, energising process, producing a seemingly endless sea of imaginative music.

Somewhere between the world of the radical remix and the Warhol wing of the modern art gallery sits Italian producer Donato Dozzy’s 2013 album ‘Plays Bee Mask’. The seven tracks, numbered ‘Vaporware 01’ through to ‘Vaporware 07’, take as their source the 2012 track ‘Vaporware’ by the Philadelphia-based electronic ambient artist Bee Mask aka Chris Madak. The original is a 13-minute soundscape which does its title proud, steadily forming ideas which disperse before they can resolve. It’s a beautiful piece, constantly changing, buzzing with life yet always shifting and uncertain. It’s a pure pleasure to listen to.

Dozzy took on the task of remixing the track and, presumably, realised quickly that to attempt alternative versions of the whole piece would be folly. the original ‘Vaporware’ shifts through many abstract phases with little through-line other than it’s drifting mood. Hammering these down to a rhythm or adding yet more sounds as ballast would have crushed them. Instead he took individual elements from the original work and isolated them, creating space in which to allow them to stretch and breathe and to allow him to examine them fully.

Each track seems to take a single motif from the original, mount it among other sounds, and set it slowly twisting and rotating so we can hear it from all angles. The care and attention is impressive. The sounds are enveloping, beguiling and beautiful. The record starts with rainfall and warmly chiming bells, progresses through steady, fizzing drones, pulsating voice shards, arpeggiated squelches which fall like tropical rain on bouncy leaves and head-nodding chord progressions with just a hint of rhythm before coming back down to where it started, with dripping bell chimes.

It’s perfectly possible to fall in love with ‘Plays Bee Mask’ without ever having heard the original ‘Vaporware’. I did. However, once you’ve grown accustomed to both, they begin to resonate, each highlighting and amplifying individual details of the other. The two works begin a fascinating dialogue. It’s quite some trick. It’s clear that Dozzy found the constraint of working with the raw material of someone else’s work immensely inspiring, and the results are a jewelled wonder. ‘Plays Bee Mask’  works as a puzzle, as a tribute, as individual tracks, as an album-length suite and as a pure experience in sound.

Tom listened: We chatted on the evening about Rob’s use of Spotify. If it has meant that he is more likely to find such wonderful music as this, then maybe we should all be doing it. I thought Plays Bee Mask was stunning, much prefered the album to the original and although it peaked in the middle, I enjoyed it all the way through. Dare I say it, I would be more tempted to pick this up on CD as the LP seems to have annoyingly short sides but as far as electronic music goes, this chimed with me as much as anything else I have heard.

Nick listened: I much preferred the ‘remixes’ to the original (which seemed to struggle to find direction), and enjoyed the remixes very much, but I can’t be as effusive as Tom; bits were blissful and beautiful, but others seemed a little too perfunctory – I thought about saying ‘formulaic’ but a lot of the point of electronic music is exploring formulae, so that didn’t quite make sense. I think I mean that some of it, for me, lacked a little emotion. But a fascinating, Borges-esque concept, really intriguingly executed.

Dropkick Murphys – The Warriors Code – Round 64 – Graham’s Choice

I suppose some explanation is due download (1)
as to why I turned up this week with a Celtic punk album from a US band not really known that much out of Boston.  Partly lack of inspiration for Round 63, led me to some unusually adventurous/flippant CD purchases in an effort to explore new genres.

For this choice, movies and football hold the key, and Boston’s intense connection with its Irish heritage. The Red Sox are owned by FSG Group, who also own the ‘might reds’, so that explains a loose affinity to a band who are the local heroes and provided the team with ‘Tessie’ (live version on this album) as a stadium soundtrack.

My first exposure to the band was the inclusion of ‘I’m Shipping up to Boston’ in the Departed soundtrack (it also features here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDKrkmkUHsk, in the similarly acclaimed ‘The DeBarted’ . One of their best known songs and nearest thing to a hit record they have ever had. A riotous Celtic punk noise which I sought out, to be surprised to discover it’s a  Woody Guthrie cover about a one legged sailor, who knew?

Their  5th albumfrom 2005, it doesn’t really warrant too in depth a study of the ‘Dropkicks’ musical style, as they are probably the ‘Ronseal’ of Celtic US punk, by delivering exactly what it says on the CD cover. They borrow riffs and guitar styles left right and centre. Part of the enjoyment of the album is the familiarity with some of the echoes of the Clash, Skids, Big Country (plus a bit of Stiff Little Fingers) that fall out along the way.

To lighten the mood further, I manage to squeeze in ‘I hate every bone in your body except mine’, as a track from the gloriously named Buck Satan and the 666 Shooters. http://www.last.fm/music/Buck+Satan+and+the+666+Shooters/_/I+Hate+Every+Bone+in+Your+Body+Except+Mine I still haven’t fully completed my exploration of the world of country metal crossovers, but Buck and his gang are a start.

Rob listened: … sorry, got distracted there reading members of a white power forum debating whether Dropkick Murphys are racist or not, bemoaning their conclusion that they are not, and wishing they could have some of their songs for their ‘side’.

Funnily enough I’ve been wondering whether I can sacrifice a Record Club choice to bring some Big Country along. They were one of my first musical loves and, partly for that reason, their blend of post-punk-becoming-straight-rock and traditional Scottish melodies and sounds still has some frisson for me. I hear that in the first track or two of ‘The Warrior’s Code’ but it soon sinks beneath the surface of their tendon straining rock-punk which ultimately bludgeons flat any and all subtlety.

They do seem occasionally to take their feet off their collective pedals. ‘The Burden’ could easily be a Grant Hart Husker Du track, but in this context it sounds equally like the sensitive kid who’s going to get the crap kicked out of him repeatedly in this particularly uninviting school yard.

Tom listened: A new one on me, I am not sure I have even heard (or taken in at least) the name. Some of it sounded like The Clash, some of it like The Pogues, but in both cases I’d prefer to listen to the originals and am not sure The Dropkicks brought much of their own slant on proceedings. They can obviously play, they obviously have plenty of energy and I am sure they would be good in a live setting but, as an album, this left me cold I’m afraid.

Nick listened: Not really my bag, I’m afraid, but I didn’t dislike it. Reminded me of a more rambunctious Hold Steady, in many ways.

Wild Beasts – Present Tense: round 64, Nick’s choice

Wild_Beasts_Present_TenseSelf-perception is a curious phenomenon. Everyone hears things differently (as three years of this club have proven!), so what musicians are trying to achieve isn’t necessarily what their audience hears their music as containing. This is part of the reason why ‘influence’ is a crazy concept; people usually use it as a synonym for ‘sounds like’ rather than ‘informed/inspired by’, anyway, but influence can also manifest in ways that simply aren’t sonically identifiable. Things that may seem like obvious inspirations to an audience may never have been intended by the artist, and may be the result of pure, blind happenstance, or else some kind of subliminal, subconscious appropriation, rather than anything deliberate.

Which is a really long-winded way of saying that, like many bands, I’m not sure that Wild Beasts know exactly what they sound like, or appreciate entirely what they’re good at – or, at least, what this singular member of their fanbase thinks they’re good at.

There’s been lots of talk about Present Tense being brave and a change and a statement from various people – most notably Wild Beasts themselves – and suggestion that they didn’t just want to produce Smother all over again (not that there’d be much wrong with that, as Smother is an excellent, moreish record that I adore). Which is fair enough; change is a good thing, and the best bands, in my mind, constantly evolve.

Except that, to my ears, off a dozen plays or more, Present Tense sounds like, if not a repeat, than a very logical progression and next step from Smother, rather than any radical break or revolution. Which is also fine. It may upset the band given their stated intentions, but Present Tense is almost just Smother with synths, if you will. The lyrical sauciness is slightly more domesticated, perhaps, and the sound a little fuller and richer as spidery guitars are replaced by warmly enveloping synthesizers, but they sit together very well as a pair. They’ve also expressed a fear that people might be put off by them ‘going electronic’, but to me, at least, Wild Beasts’ most defining characteristics are their fascinatingly eccentric pair of vocalists, and the subtle interplay of their collective musicianship, rather than ‘guitars’ as a primary aesthetic, so moving to synths, especially after “End Come Too Soon”, seems entirely appropriate.

The other thing that Wild Beasts have talked about repeatedly with regards to this album is their intention to write ‘pop’ songs. Now I’m not saying that they’re operating in the realm of Ornette Coleman or Swans or Keiji Heino here – structurally there are verses and choruses and melodies and hooks, which are the tools you’d expect of ‘pop’ – but, like Smother, Present Tense is a subdued, subtle, sensual record, far more about slowly shifting mood than thrills and spills. It’s resolutely atmospheric rather than anthemic (not that all pop is about anthems, obviously), and as such feels like something slightly other than pop.

Which is fine, because it’s another beautiful and compelling record, and Wild Beasts are a wonderful band of outstanding musicians (their drummer plays like a beautiful drum machine, rather than a real human percussionist). If I have a complaint, it’s that there’s maybe not enough of the whooping, sensual cacophony they used to produce; not enough drama, not enough noise. I’d prefer it if, for instance, after Tom (the deep, throaty vocalist) sings the phrase “the destroyer of worlds” at the centre “Daughters”, in the middle of the album, the synths actually did rend apart and destroy the song, with a dramatic dynamic leap into sonic chaos, rather than just oscillate beautifully once again.

I have absolute confidence that Present Tense will continue to unfurl layer upon layer of sound and tune and interpretation over the next 12 months and beyond, and that it will prove to be absolutely as good as its predecessors. I’d just prefer it if they’d injected some roiling chaos into their sound as well as all this glorious subtlety; they’ve lost a little of what it was that made them wild.

Tom listened: Curiously, I always think of Wild Beasts as a great band but, on deeper reflection, I have only really clicked with the Two Dancers album and, even on that album, about half of the songs leave me cold. However, All The Kings Men is so, so great and much of what Wild Beasts do is a cut above standard modern indie fodder, that I can’t help thinking they have got an absolute no-holds barred classic album in them yet. Unfortunately, on the basis of a first listen, this isn’t it!

I’ve been listening to Smother a fair bit since Nick played us Present Tense in part because Nick and Rob both revere it and I have always felt I have needed to spend more time with it to truly appreciate its qualities. So I listened to it another three or four times over the course of the last week and, whilst I appreciate the skill and restraint Wild Beasts demonstrate, it’s just too languid for me. As Nick has hinted in his review, Present Tense takes the sound of Smother and smothers (I can think of no better word) it still further. I have no doubt that this was Wild Beasts’ intention, that they have full artistic control over their output and I am sure they have pulled it off magnificently…it’s just that they have taken their music in a direction that does little for me. Give me the yelps, energy and restrained wildness of the best of Two Dancers any day. To my mind, the band need to go back to that album…and remember their name…when they come to make their next record.

Rob listened: I like Wild Beasts a lot and I like ‘Present Tense’ a lot too. I disagree with Tom when he yearns for more of the verve and abandon of ‘Two Dancers’ and perhaps even ‘Limbo Panto’. One of the things I cherish about where they have gone since then is their apparently deliberate progression towards the essence of what they have, their sound, their vision.

I’d love to hear another song as deliciously dangerous and whoopingly wild as ‘All The King’s Men’, and the joy of that track has hardly diminished with the years, but there are lots of bands trying to squeeze out the next earworm melody, the next 6 Music conquering hook. Wild Beasts are treading a different path. They seem to me to be hanging on to some sort of genome they are trying to crack, to perfect. Just as artists took the motorik beat in the 70’s and attempted to get to the root of it by driving it on and on, exploring its context, putting it next to contrasting elements in attempts to reveal or capture its pure essence, so it seems to me that Wild Beasts are driving towards their own purest form without knowing quite what that is. (As an aside, check out the Wikipedia page for Motorik. Some very dodgy references if you ask me…).

I’m also reminded of Jeff Buckley and the excitement I felt thinking about what he would go on to do in the years and decades which followed ‘Grace’. When ‘Sketches’ was posthumously released it brought home to me just what a powerful artist he could have gone on to be, precisely because he was heading off to explore what he could do with what he had, rather than trying to write a bigger, more crowd-pleasing version of ‘Last Goodbye’.

I’ve enjoyed listening to ‘Present Tense’ for many of the reasons Nick gives above. I don’t think it’s as complete a record as ‘Smother’. It seems to be a partial step towards something else, something similar but different, and that’s more than enough for me in this case.

 Graham listened: I’ve enjoyed all the Wildbeasts I’ve heard at DRC and beyond. But never quite enough to think about going out and buying in to it in the days and weeks afterwards. Something about not being quite enough it in for me and my insensitivity to their subtlety.

The Birthday Party – Junkyard: Round 64 – Tom’s Selection

1340222282_the_birthday_party_-_1982_junkyardWhereas most decisions as to what to take along to play to my friends at our evenings have been made in good enough time to ensure that the preceding days, if not weeks, have been spent immersed in the forthcoming offering, somewhat appropriately, Junkyard received its first airing in many years when I placed it on Rob’s turntable last Tuesday. You see, there’s only so much of Junkyard I can take. I think it’s a brilliant record, of course, but, for me, it’s such an uncompromising and exhausting listen that once every so often is enough. It made for quite a refreshing change as I was genuinely intrigued to hear The Birthday Party’s sophomore release again, wondering whether it would be as bludgeoning, scabrous and downright irreverent as I recall or if time and age had gone on to lessen its impact. I am pleased to say that, as far as I am concerned, Junkyard remains in exquisitely rude health, still sounding like a descent into a particularly troubled version of hell.

For those of you not in the know, The Birthday Party were (along with The Saints) the progenitors of Aussie punk but where as The Saints made a relatively straightforward, Stooges-a-like mess of a maelstrom, Nick Cave and his mates gravitated towards a much more angular and dysfunctional sonic space, cacophanous…sure… but, just like their lead singer, spiky, lean and menacing. In other words – post-punk as opposed to punk.

Junkyard has such a thin sound that at times it almost sounds like the feedback screech on Psychocandy…except there isn’t a whiff of feedback on this record just a lot of bottom, a gigantic helping of top and very little in between. What makes Junkyard so interesting is also what makes it so hard for me to listen to. It’s all about extremes – not only do The Birthday Party push the sound to the limit, Cave’s ‘singing’ veers from holler to deathly grumble and back again; always unhinged, often apoplectic, you hope for Cave’s sanity most of these vocal performances were single takes! Lyrically Junkyard pulls no punches. Right from the off it’s obvious Junkyard is going to cover some pretty radical and original territory. Who knows what came first, lyrics or music, but rarely have they complemented each other so perfectly. Take the funeareal eeriness of first track, She’s Hit, which sets the album’s stall out with the classic opening lines of: ‘There is woman pie in here. Mr Evangelist says she’s hit’. It is clear that even at this early stage of his career, Cave was travelling parts of the thesaurus other song-writers had yet to traverse. As opposed to more recent offerings from Cave, there’s no tenderness or melancholy here – Junkyard goes for the jugular with a length of barbed-wire and doesn’t let up until those barbs are well and truly embedded.

Although Junkyard turned out to be The Birthday Party’s swansong, it is surprising how much of a team effort Junkyard is. All members of the band are credited as song-writers yet there are no obvious cracks in Junkyard’s assault. So whilst Dead Joe, Big Jesus Trash Can, Kiss Me Black and Hamlet (Pow, Pow Pow) pummel their point home, 6″ Gold Blade, Seven Sins and Dim Locator aim for the same effect but get there in a more insidious and unnerving manner, their wiry guitars enhanced by some fantastic low slung bass runs from the unhinged hips of Tracey Pew. Final ‘song’ the eponymous Junkyard, is an incredible beast. To me, the song is the sound of a swinging guillotine heading towards the unsuspecting listener, the sound of The Birthday Party coming to finish off what they began those 40 long minutes ago. Is it any surprise I don’t listen to Junkyard all that often?

Rob listened: There’s probably some way to work out which artist you are most committed to. Number of albums owned is too crude. Percentage is simplistic and flawed (I own 100% of the albums released by Crunt, but only 25% of the albums Bob Dylan has managed so far). There must be some way to balance how long and how deeply you’ve stuck with an artist. If only we have a mathematician in the group.

Anyway, statistically speaking Nick Cave would probably sit atop the heap for me. I own all his records with the Bad Seeds and, so far, he’s given me no reason not to rush out and get whatever he releases next. Much of Tom’s description of Junkyard is like a dog whistle to me, scabrous swamp punk with a hollering madman beating his face into and through it. Give me more. However, like Tom, I rarely reach back for ‘Junkyard’ or, indeed, most of the first two or three of Cave’s records with the Bad Seeds, all of which still exhibited the pull of the Birthday party’s undertow. It’s not that I dislike them, far from it. The sound and the fury of these records are things I look for in new discoveries still, but I still find it hard to approach them in someone who is, as we have mathematically proven, one of my favourite artists. I’m going to conclude that this is down to nothing more than the sheer breadth of Cave’s body of work giving so much territory to spend time in that I just happened to have settled in the latter half. I genuinely believe him to be an artist who has got better and better, more and more relevant and impressive as the years have gone on, and so I feel fine sticking around West of ‘Tender Prey’. I love those oldies them when I hear them though, and I loved hearing ‘Junkyard’ once more this evening.

Graham listened: Didn’t feel quite so old this week when Tom sprung this one on us all. 32 years later it is still the sonic assault I remembered, a dangerous currency shared only between those of my generation willing to experiment with such stuff. The bass lines are fantastic and the guitar sounds unworldly. Glad to be refreshed with it again, but not sure I need it again for good long time!

Nick listened: I’d never heard this before, and it did pretty much what I was expecting. Enjoyably chaotic and discordant.

Deafheaven – ‘Sunbather’: Round 64 – Rob’s choice

Deafheaven - SunbatherWe’ve talked about black metal before, haven’t we? Let’s recap. I’m attracted to the sound like a moth to a cold flame. I’m repelled by the cod-Lovecraft imagery and look-at-me-being-icky-and-dicky lyrics and artwork. Not, let us be clear, because they strike a chilling blow to the very heart of what it is to be human in an inhospitable universe, but because they are very silly.

But there’s another way. There are a number of bands out there making interesting, creative black metal as open and exploratory as the best post-rock, as bracing as a hydrofluoric acid power shower and, crucially, laying off the schoolboy horror flick schtick. We say ‘hello’ to An Autumn For Crippled Children, Alcest, Botanist, Locrian and Have A Nice Life. Most prominently over the last 12 months, we have San Francisco’s Deafheaven.

This is a band who sound exactly like what they say they are: a black metal outfit who grew up loving Slowdive. Half their songs could be mistaken for a severely beefed up Cocteau Twins, albeit one where Liz Fraser has a really, really bad case of tonsillitis. In a hurricane.

‘Sunbather’ is their second album, and easily the most prominent cross-over metal record of last year. I’ll be honest, I don’t know a great deal about the ins and outs of the BM scene, but it does seem to have a totally schizophrenic relationship with its artists, one which touches on subcultural xenophobia whenever any of them threaten to escape from the crypt and out into the sunlight or, even worse, to bring outsiders back into the darkness with them. Deafheaven did both last year and, like Liturgy before them, have had to put up with constant examination of their ‘metal’ status as a result. Black Metal: the scene which loves to scream about total physical and spiritual annihilation, but won’t countenance you if you have a pink album cover.

’Sunbather’ is a great rock record. Essentially four long tracks with three, often beautiful, counterpoint  interludes, it has searing guitars, pummelling double-kick drums and yes, a guy screaming his lungs sore, although in this mix the vocals are essentially just another caustic sound to throw into the mix. But within the noise there is light and shade, colour and contrast, motion and intense emotion. Deafheaven aren’t afraid to pause, to gaze at their shoes and take their effects pedals for a couple of laps around the stratosphere. It’s a thrilling and, after a while, an apparently entirely natural combination of influences and they pull it off to epic effect. The album is mesmerising and convulsive whilst remaining reverential and even warm in tone for long stretches. The longer you live with it, the more it starts to become a soaring chamber-noise record, a la Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It’s dynamics are pure Slowdive, its details full of warmth and touch rather than dread.

If Deafheaven are sneered at by the corpsepaint gloom brigade as being ‘hipster metal’ then fine. If that means people will find them and their ilk via Pitchfork and The Quietus then great, because I read those websites and I want to find new, bold music which takes accepted forms and twists them into new shapes. And which rocks. So, I guess I’d nail my flag to the hipster metal mast. That’s because I like a lot of the music that idiots choose to nail that label to and also largely because a fair proportion of the DNA of the rest of black metal is completely stupid.

Nick listened: I strongly suspect that I am absolutely the kind of bearded, glasses-wearing, cycling, real-ale-drinking, boardgame-playing hipster douchebag that fans of ‘real’ ‘metal’ get upset about for liking this record. But I’ve kind of avoided it, partly for that reason, and partly because, despite the embrace of it by said hipster douchebags, there are still a couple of key sonic ingredients to this record (from the tiny snippets I’d heard before last night) that I absolutely cannot stand – firstly, the screaming vocals, and secondly, the ridiculous, relentless, contourless drumming, both of which seem to be absolutely essential to whatever-it-is that defines ‘metal’ (of the modern variety?) from ‘rock’, or whatever. So I’d picked up Sunbather and thought about buying it on numerous occasions, but never gone the whole way to the counter with it, despite the fact that I adore the graphic design (that font; that colouring – it’s meant to be the colour you see when you face the sun with your eyes closed, Rob tells us) and love the look of the physical object that is this album (obviously the CD is better looking than the LP). But I know it’s going to be full of screaming and ridiculous drumming. The question is ‘how much’?

By the end I was quite enjoying Sunbather, despite, rather than regardless or because of, my misgivings. The screaming and drumming still faintly nauseates me, but the vocals are mixed so that they’re not all that prominent, and the drumming isn’t quite constant. The lighter, airier passages that follow the cacophonies felt like beautiful contrasts – somewhere between shoegaze, postrock, and miserable acousticana – because that’s what they were, and the juxtaposition made them shine. I also suspect it made them seem far more phenomenologically beautiful than they actually are; so ugly are some of the other parts that by comparison almost anything else would feel warm and beatific, even if they’re actually just bog-standard postrock reveries and shoegaze plateaus. But that’s the politics of intimate genre familiarity.

I’d definitely like to listen to this a couple more times and ascertain further what I think and feel about it, because I’m totally not sure thus far. But I’m delighted that Rob blasted it at us.

Tom listened: Hmmm…once again Rob has opened the floodgates of debate, both in the real, and virtual, world…simply by bringing an album that straddles some of those genre boundaries we are so keen to erect. I suppose the boundary surrounding metal is a pretty robust one and it has, to my (admittedly scant) knowledge, rarely been breached. So Sunbather got us all talking and, I for one, find the conversation fascinating.

And it got me thinking more about my relationship to the genre than about the music itself. Why can’t I stand metal? And what binds ‘metal’ as a genre. What does this have in common with Def Leppard and what does that have in common with Anthrax and what does that have in common with Sunn o)))? Because they all have something that produces the same response from me and that’s to run away. In his lengthy response to Rob’s post, Chris states that metal has a strict sonic template…well, can you describe it because, whilst I am sure it exists, I can’t put my finger on what it is? That’s why Deafheaven is so interesting – remove the vocals and (to a lesser extent) the drumming and what’s left would be something that I would enjoy hugely. Listening again since Record Club, even the noisier bits remind me of Red House Painters and I could listen to them until the cows come home. So is it really just a screaming vocal that is putting me off or is there something more subtle at work that I haven’t managed to identify? For now I’ll ponder the answer and wait for that nice Mr Kozalek to do his Deafheaven covers album.

Graham listened: Doubt a numpty like me can add anything to the debate that this has inspired. I’m tempted to explore some more ‘metal’ crossover points, just to see where Tom’s fear and loathing begins and ends though. Back to this for a moment. I began enjoying it, then the drumming got on my nerve endings. I didn’t mind the vocals and started enjoying until yet again until the bloody drumming got my back up. I’ve streamed it a few times since DRC and still feel much the same way. I probably want them to explore the guitar sound further and leave the percussion and vocals behind. They surely won’t, so it will remain troubling. ps I’m no ‘hipster’!

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