Gwenno – Y Dydd Olaf: Round 98 – Steve’s choice

cover_lp_gwennoBack from the land of prog I felt confident given the subject of ‘something new’ I could bring that something….that something being the Welsh/Cornish language synth-pop of one Gwenno of course. The album was released in 2015. Gwenno was the former front of the 60s revivalist girl pop band The Pipettes.

I was drawn some months after seeing her support Gruff Rhys (of Super Furry Animals) to buy this album, although it was not an immediate purchase. I have an in-built defence mechanism against buying albums based on live performances. Too many times I’ve been left wondering why I parted with my money, or why caught up in the occasion I thought the band would be able to translate my drunken euphoria onto hard media. In my experience buying from the stand at the gig itself is a terrible mistake. So rarely does the artist live up to the occasion. In general I prefer to hear the record before the live performance. Even seeing Pulp support St Etienne live some years ago didn’t immediately convince me to part with money for any of their records. Slowly I was enticed in to ‘His ‘n Her’s’, and the rest is history. So, here I stood, entranced by the lights and sounds of Gwenno. Only her and a computer to make the most bewitching, subtle ethereal sounds I have heard in a long time….12 months later I’ve overcome my own defence mechanism….

Y Dyadd Olaf is supposedly about “importance of preserving cultural identity in order to resist corporate death” (thankyou Pitchfork). To be honest this is one of those albums where I don’t really need to know what the songs mean. Much like the Cocteau Twins, the sounds are able release feelings within me that speak louder than words. They go deeper than any so-called meaningful message or sentiment. The title of the album is named after Owain Owain’s Welsh sci-fi novel about robots turning humans into clones. Again, this information is not necessary for me to enjoy this album. Maybe it is important for others. But surely with so few Welsh speakers, and even fewer purveyors of the Cornish tongue (the last track ‘Amser’ is in Cornish), you have to ask whether access to Gwenno’s recording requires that understanding anyway.

Much of it has an 80s synth-pop feel to it, which is readily accessible and recognisable. ‘Y Dydd Olaf’, the title track, has this in spades around the middle half to the end of the song. But the tone is hushed throughout, reminscent in places of Stereolab. The vocals are flat and indifferent. Almost heavenly tones sound like music beamed between the stars themselves, particularly effective on the panting and space like ‘Golau Arail’. ‘Patriarchaeth’ has a sound that recalls Broadcast. There’s almost the feel of Japrock (perhaps Shonen Knife?) on ‘Stwff’ where the Welsh could well be just about any exotic language. It seems perfectly in place with the rhythm and timing of the slightly off-kilter keyboards, adding to the ethereal feel. At the end of ‘Stwff’ there are sounds reminiscent of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who famously borrowed his music from the far-east. But all of it is very subtle. You have to listen hard here, and the joy only comes after closer inspection. Definitely a grower.

So, I would say that this album has in fact exceeded my initial impressions of Gwenno at that gig down in the Pheonix last year. The live experience was more immediate. The recording however is subtle, requiring patience. If you don’t have that virtue it will pass you by, having turned your back, like a shooting star in the night….

Tom listened: As anyone who knows me will attest, I’m a sucker for Welsh women. However, the one I married differs from Gwenno in that she wouldn’t have a clue about the meaning of any of the songs on Y Dyadd Olaf. Musically I find myself pulled in the direction of our celtic neighbours, especially when they decide to sing in their native tongue; there’s something romantic and beguiling and vaguely exotic about all those throaty, rasped consonants…and long words completely devoid of vowels. I hate vowels. They are definitely my five least favourite letters, and therefore, Welsh is about the best language there is! So Y Dyadd Olaf hit my sweet spot and sounded to me like a more polished and considered bedfellow of Cate Le Bon’s recent output. A good choice Steve…and definitely not prog enough to cause any problems.

Nick listened: Nice synths.

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Godspeed You Black Emperor! – ‘F# A# ∞’: Round 97 – Rob’s choice

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First things first. I drew 1998 from Tom’s lucky bag of wonder and, after more deliberation that I normally afford these choices, landed happily on Godspeed’s first widely distributed record, my only hesitation over which had been to do with possible dispute over the release date (I am a stickler for them rules). The Montreal ensemble released ‘F# A# ∞’ twice. The first incarnation, in 1997, ran to only 500 handmade copies and featured just two long tracks, although the tracks are built around the same sounds and templates as the more widely known version, released the following year. I own both versions and whilst the 1997 release contains my favourite ever album insert – an envelope containing a penny that has been run over by a train – it’s safe to say that the 1998 version is the one that everyone knows.

So, that’s 1998 sorted. How about 2016?

It just so happened that we were meeting on Tuesday 8 November, as the USA went to the polls. In this context, it was amusing to stare into the middle distance and imagine that the opening stanza of ‘Dead Flag Blues’ was a description of a world destroyed by a fascist megalomaniac President. We knew that by the next day, that possibility would have faded away, leaving a trace memory, like a game we had shared and then walked away from.

It didn’t turn out that way.

It doesn’t seem so amusing now.

Yet, for all that it seems ripe for self-parody, the none-more-black first movement of the first of the three extended pieces on this album is still one of the most spine-tingling things you’ll ever hear. If you don’t know it, switch off the lights, crank up the volume, and listen to it now.

What follows is no less remarkable, no less powerful. To some, Godspeed have seemed a near parody of themselves at times over the last twenty years, but that’s highly uncharitable. With ‘F# A# ∞’ they created a crushing breakthrough, a breach between styles, that no-one else was able to follow to any significant extent, leaving them exposed, alone, doing that Godspeed thing.

Nevertheless, the record has lost none of its impact over the years. Slipping between bleak poetry, blood-drenched chamber music, field recordings, chugging slab rock and delicate folk-whimsy, it never loses its grip. I’m shying away from trying to describe it here, not because I think I might be dissecting a frog, this music is irreducible, but because it just sounds so improbable. Sticking with ‘Dead Flag Blues’, you get dying orchestras, an extended passage of train noises, slide guitars, a post-rock shuffle then a twinkly music box waltz to close the whole thing down, before street preachers and bagpipes kick off the next track. It makes no sense, but it makes perfect sense.

I had a bunch of things to say about it, one of which was to try to describe how this stately yet wild music by this steadfastly exploratory ensemble, still seems amongst the best soundtracks for our spiraling times. Unfortunately, since I played it for record club, things have got a little worse, the record sounds a little more prescient, and I just don’t want to go into it.

“We woke up one morning and fell a little further down…”

Tom listened: Rob lent me a Godspeed album once, it might have been this one…I’m not sure I played it, I certainly couldn’t say for sure that I did. Whatever, I recall not feeling overly inclined to play it as I imagined it would require too much patience, the shifts in movements would come around too slowly (a la Ladradford) or it would be a bit dull (Tortoise) or the structures would be too predictable (Do Say Make Think). And there’s always been something inhuman and mechanistic about post-rock that puts me off, repels me even.

However, on the basis of this album at least, it seems as though Godspeed manage to walk the post-rock tightrope expertly, the tracks evolving more naturally than I was expecting and tended to not have the quiet, quieter, LOUD thing mapped out from the off in the way lesser similar bands in this genre tend to. That said, I still found this a cold listen – impressive certainly, but still a bit too impenetrable for my liking.

Nick listened: Moody. Not good for having sex to.

Van Morrison – Veedon Fleece: Round 97 – Tom’s Selection

r-1560420-1446653929-4158-jpegAt the bum end of the 1980s barely a week went by in the music press without some mention being made of Astral Weeks. It was often cited as the wellspring for much of the music that I was particularly excited by at that time; the etherealists: Spacemen 3, AR Kane, The Cocteau Twins were all claimed to have emanated from Morrison’s first solo album. Hell, the journalists even managed to convince me that the noisemakers: Loop, Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth were supposedly connected in some way.

So I was feverishly intrigued to hear Astral Weeks for the first time and I recall sitting in disbelief as the pastoral strings and gentle bass runs of the title track began to writhe around the, frankly overblown (and very high in the mix) vocals. What followed was, if anything, even more discombobulating; the free jazz ramblings of Beside You, the folk-pop ditty Sweet Thing, The Way Young Lovers Do with its brisk pace and brisk brass and the extended, Dylanesque, streams of consciousness trilogy of Cypress Avenue, Madame George and Ballerina. By the time Slim Slow Slider’s clarinet(!) was fading out to nothing I was at the point of writing to NME and MM to ask for my money back.

…but a strange thing happened. I listened to it again. And then again! And again. And then I copied it onto a C45 (with Kitchens Of Distinction’s Love Is Hell on the other side) and listened to it pretty much non-stop throughout the entire summer of 1989. And for a while, at least, if anyone had been bothered to ask me, I would have proclaimed it the best album ever made, even if it didn’t really sound like any of the music that people who knew about such things had been likening it to.

Not long after, I checked out Moondance, Morrison’s follow up to Astral Weeks and…couldn’t stand it. So I listened, and listened again, and one more time…and still couldn’t stand it! It seemed as though it had been made by an entirely different artist and its hideously smooth, easy listening landscapes felt completely at odds with Astral Weeks’ edginess and unpredictability. So I parked Van Morrison as one of those weird artists that release a single, one off, masterpiece followed by a huge pile of cack and left him alone for a while.

But a few years on a friend of mine was giving away her vinyl and asked me if I wanted to take any. In amongst the Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Tim Hardin albums were Hard Nose The Highway and Veedon Fleece, two of Morrison’s mid 70s offerings. Well, to say I had low expectations was an understatement and, sure enough, the former was terrible…in fact I passed it on to a charity shop not long afterwards. But Veedon Fleece was different and, whilst it has never made its way into my regular rotation, I have always enjoyed its pastoral tones and Irish hues. But it’s not a consistent record and, unlike Astral Weeks, it doesn’t feel as though every song is an essential part of a jigsaw – a few pieces of Veedon Fleece could be happily lost down the back of the sofa as far as I am concerned being somewhat beige and uninspiring – folk rock by numbers, if you will (opener Fair Play and side two’s Cul De Sac and Comfort You are Morrison snooze fests of the worst variety).

However, when it’s good, Veedon Fleece is spectacular. The trio of great songs that properly launch side 1 (once Fair Play has been negotiated), Linden Arden Stole The Highlights, Who Was That Masked Man and Streets of Arklow are all of the highest calibre, equal to almost anything on Astral Weeks and, to my mind, offering an Arcadian warmth that Astral Weeks misses, focusing, as it does on the scruffy urban vistas of Dublin rather than the lush green countryside of rural Eire.

But pride of place has to be the frankly awe inspiring 9 minute long meditation of You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River. I have no idea what he’s on about, I’m not even sure of what he’s doing musically, but I do know that it vies with Astral Weeks as the best song I’ve heard by Mr Morrison and I can’t think there are many tracks out there, by Van, or anyone else for that matter, that have the ability to elevate the listener as effectively.

Rob listened: I know little of Van Morrison, beyond owning ‘Astral Weeks’ and having had brief periods where I wanted to listen to the title track on repeat for hours. I felt very well disposed to ‘Veedon Fleece’ which seemed to me another burbling brook of an album. I love the idea that Van Morrison is like a 24 hour radio station, and each album just an hour spent tuning in to whatever is playing at that given moment. I certainly like him most when he’s at his most stream-of-semi-consciousness. Lots of nice stuff here and some stuff that did sound awfully twee, at least until Steve opened up his record bag…

Nick listened: Irish.

Genesis – ‘Trespass’: Round 97 – Steve’s choice

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Oh help…what have I done but unleash the prog-monster? Having been drawn the year 1970 I was on dan gerous ground as far as my collection is concerned. My immediate thoughts were to this album, and not Nick Drake (‘Bryter Later’) which would have been a safer bet.

Without sounding like Patrick Bateman (‘American Psycho’) I have a little penchant for Phil Collins. I think he gets too much bad press. In fact I would say that his mid-70s stint in Genesis is by far my favourite period of this band – releasing ‘Wind and Wuthering’ and ‘Trick of the Tail’, which for me are majestic. This album however does not feature Mr Collins since he joined shortly after this recording, which was their second album. Having released their first long-player – ‘From Genesis to Revelations’ – when the band was really an experiment under the spell of the svengali Jonathan King, they were sent off with creative freedom to the studio, and came up with this. So, here we have the band finding their sound.

Ok, so there’s a theme to the album (prog strike one). There’s lyrics about mystical lands (prog strike two). There’s only 6 songs on it (prog strike three). It’s prog….3 strikes…. but of a gentler kind, and it’s certainly not ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’or ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ by the Wake-off. It’s Gabriel, coming out of his shell, finding his voice, and even some loud shouting on ‘The Knife’ which was a live favourite at the time. I won’t dwell on the aesthetics of this album, suffice to say I still quite like ‘Visions of Angels’. When I bought it (when I was 15 or 16) I was heavily into them. I also have ‘Foxtrot’ and ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’. The latter I still quite like, but unfortunately ‘Foxtrot’ grates a little with pompous keyboard from Tony Banks. On Trespass the sound is a little more creative, and feels its way into the light. Less in your face prog, more in the English folk tradition. Even Rob said he liked bits of it (praise indeed). The guitar is subtle and the fingerpicking is quite accomplished….and no Collins on drums….

But, in defence of Phil Collins….

When I watched a recent documentary ‘Together and Apart’ the only two people who came across as reasonable people were Gabriel and Collins. When the ‘Lamb’ tour went into their last gig with Gabriel, Collins said he just rolled a big joint and played what was the best gig of his life, lost in a trance, knowing but resigned to the fact that Pete was off. The creative forces at the centre of the band did not claw for attention in the documentary, more the other peripheral members. Gabriel had no animosity for the other band members. Collins neither, although you could argue that’s easy with his bank balance! But let us not forget Collins was once cool (ok that’s a bit Bateman-esque). He played on Eno’s ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’. He played on John Martyn’s ‘Grace and Danger’. So, attack him if you want, but remember he took risks on seminal albums. He took on a fractured and bitter set of band members, galvanised them and provided the creative force that took them to global superstardom. For that he should be credited. For Buster, You Can’t Hurry Love and Sussudio he should be damned forever….

Tom listened: Half way through Trespass, it dawned on me that the ghost of Mr Pollock was in the room, smiling down malevolently on our prog rock sufferings, whilst Genesis flitted at will from one key change to another, throwing in half a dozen shifts in time signature and some bizarrely grandiose lyrics for good measure.

It is strangely fascinating how isolated in time and place prog rock is – two bars of Trespass was enough to place it within two weeks and thirty miles of its source. What was it about the ears and minds of young people (men?) at the time that made them so predisposed to this type of music? I can think of no other genre that has led down such a well defined cul-de-sac as prog rock – modern day succedents (Dungen?, Midlake?, The Besnard Lakes?) only giving the slightest whiff of the prog of old.

As a teenage owner of Invisible Touch (although I am slightly embarrased to admit it – it was the Spitting Image videos that sold me on the idea…honest), and an adult owner and great admirer of Grace and Danger and Here Come The Warm Jets, I didn’t go into Trespass with my mind already made up…and there were little sections that sounded alright…but, as with most prog I have listened to over the years (mainly as a result of Graham being in record club), the whole sounded to me like much less than the sum of its parts!

Rob listened: It felt like we’d been waiting a lifetime for this band to make an appearance, and yet it still seemed too soon. To be fair, which is not a requirement, we spent a lot of the album’s running time talking about how much we disliked the idea of Genesis when none of us, apart from Steve, clearly an eloquent defender, knew the first thing about them. I disdain them based on the dismal reflections I picked up from the generations of musicians who followed on, attempting and failing to wipe the slate clean of this stuff. This evening was a chance to correct that and at lea

Nick listened: Proggy.