Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Mars Volta - Octahedron

If you read my review of their previous effort The Bedlam In Goliath, you'll know that I must have scratched the scab again - but I'm glad I did. Last year's Octahedron, their latest and 5th studio album is by far their most accessible to date. There's still enough of a smattering of weirdness around to keep original fans happy, but not enough to put off the more mainstream inclined nu-prog fan.

If you're new to this band a word of warning - Cedric Bixler-Zavala's voice is an acquired taste. He sings in a high pitched nasal fashion, and although that description sounds awful, I actually find it fits with the weird angles this band throw at you. Imagine a more agressive Geddy Lee but without the nails down a blackboard effect and you about halfway there!

Like all their albums this one reveals hidden layers after repeated listens, but unlike their later more experimental (emphasis on the mental) works also has an immediacy previously lacking. Maiman Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has been quoted as saying this is the band's "acoustic" album, and it is, not so much in instrumentation, but in the stripped down production and very tight ensemble playing

The album opens with a simple but rather fine ballad Since We've Been Wrong (see what they've done there?) well crafted by the band and a good vocal from Sr. BZ. Ballads like this are a definite development for MV and there are other examples on the cd, notably Copernicus and With Twilight As My Guide. The album ends with the barking mad Luciforms, just to show they've not lost the keys to the lunatic asylum.

I reckon this is their best album since their debut De-Loused In The Comatorium (I kid you not), and by far their most "pop".

4.5 out of 5 

Friday, 23 April 2010

The Mars Volta - The Bedlam In Goliath

This band, on the evidence of their amazing first album released in 2003, De-Loused In The Comatorium, should have gone on to be the most creative force in modern prog. I gave up on them after the 3rd album Amputechture, as they seemed to be suffering badly from the law of diminishing returns. This sense of disappointment was compounded by seeing them live in a sweaty pit somewhere in England. Never in my 36 years of gig going had I seen such a bunch of self-absorbed pretentiousness at work, disappearing up their own fretboards. Not once in 2 hours did any band member acknowledge the audience.

However, rather like a scab, I can't leave them alone, so we turn to the 4th album, 2008's The Bedlam In Goliath. If you're in the mood to be battered by relentless noise, this album ain't bad at all, although I can't imagine I'll play it as much as the brilliant first album.

Analysing each track is pointless, as they meld into one noisy beast complete with semi-screeched impenetrable lyrics, but for some unfathomable reason I quite like it. The horns seem more to the fore than before, which is no bad thing. "Agadez" stands out because I can actually tell what he's singing about, and it's played at 150 mph intead of 200!

The only constant annoyance on the album is the over fussy drummer, who could do with a few "less is more" lessons.

Overall, almost a return to form. I won't be seeing them live again though!
3 out of 5

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Five Horse Johnson - The Mystery Spot

I knew nothing about this band until by chance I stumbled across their YouTube videos, then I just had to get this album! An apt description maybe - Stray Cats get mugged by Led Zeppelin in a dark alley and emerge as a mutant psychobilly metal monster, with choons ya can dance to. This band know how to ROCK and they know how to ROLL. PLAY LOUD!

4 out of 5

Paul Cusick - Focal Point

Came across Paul Cusick via a rather clever link on Facebook along the lines of "If you like Porcupine Tree, try this". Now I always pride myself on not falling for ads, however well made they might be, but this intrigued me. On visiting Cusick's website I found to my surprise he was offering a download of the album for free.

Having downloaded and listened to the album a couple of times I took the plunge and bought the much higher quality cd. Those of you old enough will remember things called hi-fis and the appreciable increase in quality on one of those compared to the download is immeasurable.

The music is indeed for those who like Porcupine Tree, later Floyd, even Radiohead. A good variety of music is contained in the album and the songs are well structured. The whole thing flows together seamlessly. It won't win any awards for originality, and if it's edgy prog you're after, this ain't it, but for a debut produced on a no doubt tight budget it's well worth a listen.


3 out of 5

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Jerry Dammers' Spatial A.K.A. Orchestra - Northampton Derngate, 9th April 2010

Last night a mate & I trouped off to the somewhat antiseptic albeit convenient setting of Northampton's Derngate theatre to see Jerry Dammers' Spatial A.K.A. Orchestra. I had deliberately avoided watching anything on YouTube or anywhere else, so I did not know what to expect, and in fact had no expectations at all. I liked some of the Specials' music, but wasn't a fan in any sense of the word.
First surprise - the stage is set for an actual orchestra, with Dammers' bank of largely analogue keyboards and synths front of stage right. The stage is flanked by shop dummies attired in space gear, and "playing" guitars and shoulder strung keyboards. There is also a 1970s black three wheeler suspended from the ceiling lit from the inside with an eerire green glow. It's the one that was shaped like a door wedge, for those of you old enough to remember these things.
The lights dim, and Mr Dammers' wanders on to the stage wearing a cape and an Egyptian headdress. He starts proceedings by waving two sticks through a theramin styled device that sets off swathes of synth noise. After a while he turns to his keyboards and produces all manner of bleeps, squiggles and swooshes - could've been an intro for Hawkwind circa 1973! I'm going to like this, methinks.
We were sat eight rows from the front in the stalls by the aisle stage left. After a few minutes of said squiggles, we hear percussive noises from behind us, and the entire band, all 19 (!) of them file down our aisle and onto the stage. They are all attired like extra's from a 1950s sci-fi movie, lots of capes, glitter, sequins, more Egyptian and other headgear. They take their places and a rhythmic swell has built to be accompanied by a never ending chant of "It's after the end of the world". The band consisted of an electric piano, 5 saxophones, a trombone, a trumpet, a flute, classical percussion, African percussion, vibes, electric double bass, bass guitar, 2 electric guitars, and drums, 2 singers! A joyous noise was made. The back screen is showing slides of planets, moons, suns, Egyptian symbols, and shots of a strange man, again with the ubiquitous cape and Egyptian headdgear with his similarly attired jazz band. This would turn out to be Sun Ra & His Arkestra.
At the end of the gig JD thanked numerous people as this was the last gig of a short 11 date tour. One of the people he thanked then, and played numerous tunes by during the night, was Sun Ra. He said that if it wasn't for this somewhat eccentric American who thought he was from Venus - my words not his, he (JD) would never have returned to live performing. That first song and the entire set up of the orchestra was all Sun Ra, who was heavily into sci-fi and Egyptian mythology. Now, I knew nothing about Sun Ra before tonight, but if his concerts were anything like as joyous and uplifting as this then I may well be investigating his huge discography - however I have been warned that some of it is sprawling free jazz and can be a painful experience!
The gig continued with songs by Eric Satie, Alice Coltrane, sundry Jamaican ska and jazz people I had never heard of, and JD himself (International Jet Set, here renamed Intergalactical Jet Set to tie in with the theme, Man At C&A, here spliced with an anti nukes song by Sun Ra that worked a treat, the inevitable Ghost Town, now Ghost Planet with new and fitting lyrics, and a new tune over which two rappers did their thang). There was also a tune introduced as "some exotica" - now I've heard of this genre but never heard it. It turned out to be a long funky jazz groove over which the exceptionally well tonsilled girl singer did various jungle animal impressions, later being joined in this by one of the male band members. Written down that sounds terrible, but it was actually so wacky it worked. you were laughing with the band not at them.
After nearly two and a half hours without a break that whizzed by the gig ended with a song called Space Is The Place, which was the title of a 1974 sci-fi film by Sun Ra the plot of which is too weird to go into here - see Wikipedia! This song ended in the same rhythmic chant and sax squawking fashion as the first song had started, and the band danced back up our aisle, JD did some more Hawkwind impressions and disappeared backstage. Everybody gets up to leave, but wait, what's that we hear as we file out into the foyer? Some of the band, minus JD, are still playing in the space in front of the bar, dancing around and having a ball. The audience join in - mobile phone video cameras come out all over the place, mine included.

After seeing this band, obviously a labour of love for JD, it's no wonder he did not want to join the reformed Specials for their pension plan tour. Why would he when he has this much musical ambition?
A great gig, and why this band has yet to record a live album is a mystery. Somebody sign them up now!

Friday, 2 April 2010

Love And Rockets - Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven

Love And Rockets were formed after Northampton goth pioneers Bauhaus split up in the early mid 80s. In fact they are Bauhaus without the stylised freak that was singer Peter Murphy. Bauhaus released some great singles, and were an entertaining live act, but one got the impression that they were Murphy's band, and were somewhat hampered by his overbearing pretentiousness. I always found their albums hard work as the band seemed to have ambitions far in excess of their talent. When Love And Rockets formed they disappeared under my radar, as they did with most of their potential UK audience. In fact until they came up in conversation down the pub last night and Seventh Dream... was borrowed  I had never heard anything by them! So I can review this without nostalgia clouded opinions, which makes a change.

Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven is their first album from 1985, and although there are unavoidable similarities to the Bauhaus sound, in particular Kevin Haskins' crashing glam style rhythms, the overall feel is lighter and more psych-poppy than their previous incarnation. Much as I disliked Pete Murphy's pretentions, you had to admit he had a good voice, something Danny Ash and David J sorely lack. If anything lets this album down it's the weedy vocals.
Obviously big fans of Barrett era Pink Floyd, a track like The Game could easily have been an early Floyd track. The title track sounds more in the vein of their former selves and is frankly a bit dull - very much of its era. The longest track is Haunted When The Minutes Drag which is a decent song but it lives up to it's tiltle - should have been half the length. Standout track is the instrumental Saudade with a really atmospheric feel and a lovely guitar intro from Danny Ash, and, lo, are they mellotrons I hear?! The version of the album I got includes a cover of The Temptations' 1970 single Ball Of Confusion, which might sound like an odd choice until you remember that The Temptations at the time were going through their psychedelic anti Vietnam phase so it fits in perfectly.
For a debut it shows promise, but solely on the strength of this album I don't think I'll be investigating further.

2.5 out of 5

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