Sunday, 24 July 2011

Amy Winehouse R.I.P.

Regardless of your music preferences, it would be remiss of any music blogger to let Amy's death pass without comment. Probably the best female singer/songwriter for a generation will be much missed. You would have to have cloth ears not to appreciate her bluesy soulful and distinctive voice. As is often the case with real talent from the heart it seems her muse was driven by personal tragedy.

She'll be sharing lead vocals with Jim Morrison & Janis Joplin now, and may she rest in peace.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Grinderman - Grinderman 2

Born standing up and talkin' back, daddy was a green-eyed mountain jack, and in 2007 he was the absent father at the birth of the primordial hairy beast that is Grinderman, a Bad Seeds with even more attitude and even less manners.

Songs about longing, songs about lust, songs about evil, songs about rape, songs about envy, they're all here, slavered over by bottom of the pond slime filled swamp blues nasty psychedelic guitar abuse from Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, who both stomp all over this mutha, and Kitchenette, a lewd tale of envy and lust, has probably the best piece of Nick Cave prose since Grinderman's debut album's No Pussy Blues...

"What's this husband of yours ever given to you
Oprah Winfrey on a plasma screen
And a brood of jug-eared buck-toothed imbeciles
The ugliest fuckin' kids I've ever seen"

Can't imagine Coldplay coming up with that can you!? And, Palaces Of Montezuma is actually an almost nice song...well it seems like it in comparison to what has gone before anyway.

This album will hunt you down and invite you to shake your mojo, but only if you let go of your inhibitions baby! Like the wolf on the cover implies, it ain't for stroking, and may well bite your arm off without warning. Grinderman make dirty uncouth nasty rock'n'roll, and there are food particles in their beards. They will frighten your granny and drool over your daughters. Oh...just go buy it, it's bonza!

4 out of 5

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

French TV - I Forgive You All My Unhappiness/Live at ProgDay 2009

"There is a grim dimension, beyond that which is known to most men. It is a dimension as small as dust and as timeless as a sequined bell-bottom. It is the middle ground between artifice and talent, between Doctor Who and Tolkien. I'm Mac Beaulieu, and you've just entered the Progrock Zone"

So declaims the mission statement on this, the reissued tenth French TV offering, originally issued last year, now coming at you with a tasty bonus disc recorded live at ProgDay 2009, and who am I to argue with such a concise nailed on statement of fact?!

Inhabiting a strange dimension somewhere between Zappa at his jazziest and on the outskirts of Canterbury while flirting with RIO and possibly mental trauma, the band have been going since 1983(!), and push out some fine complex ensemble playing. Quirkiness permeates their music, as you can guess from the track titles, along with Hawking-defying impossible time signatures and strange musical scales that make one's feet subconsciously tap asymmetrically. If cats could dance methinks they would cut a rug to this groove.

Playful and wilful in equal measure, leader Mike Sary anchors things on his trusty bass guitar, as far as that is possible, with some unobtrusive yet no doubt difficult playing. The rest of the band are no mugs either, and with talent like this burrowing down so far underground even a Chilean mining rescue team would have problems locating them, it makes me despair of mainstream tastes. Or maybe I'm just weird?

Anyway on to the album. Seven Rusty Nails starts by plumbing a funky groove before shifting gear with swelling organ (no snickering at the back) and sax playing, setting the tone for the brainiac French TV experience. Just a casual glance at the track titles gives big clues as to what butters these guys' bread. National Health or Frank Zappa would be proud to have come up with titles like "Conversational Paradigms" or "With Grim Determination, Terrell Dons the Bow Tie", such is the licence given to the makers of instrumental music. Listed as contributing vocals to the latter track, "young" Andrew Katsikas' appearance is awaited with anticipation while we soft shoe shuffle through a minefield of dazzling complexity, including snatches of the Batman TV theme put through a wringer..ah, there it is I think...some subsequently synthesised toddler gurgling at around five minutes in? I could be completely wrong of course!

The live album, recorded in what looks like the idyllic setting of ProgDay 2009 in front of a crowd of tens, is the French TV live experience where things get stretched, tweaked and, nay flogged to death. How they remember all this weirdness when playing live is beyond me, or perhaps some of it is scored? Featuring tracks from this album and earlier smash hits, it makes me want to fly to Louisville, Kentucky now, as I can't see how I'm ever going to see them in the UK*, but we live in hope. Keep up the good works, fellas!

Not for the faint hearted or for lovers of regressive musics (boy, I like that term, first coined on this site I do believe), but definitely for those of us who like something shall we say, a bit musically perverse. Floss your brain and get your noggin dancin' along to this little beaut, it won't be disappointed!

Go to the band's Myspace or site for streaming and more..and buy the thing here!

*Mike has asked me if I could put him in touch with any UK promoters who would pay "more than beer money". If you are that person, or you know who they are, drop me a line in the Comments section, and I'll forward any forthcoming helpfulness to Mike.

Track listing:
CD1 - I Forgive You All My Unhappiness
1. Seven Rusty Nails (7:00)
2. Conversational Paradigms (7:33)
3. March of the Cookie Cutters (8:52)
4. You Got To Run It Out, Dawson! (9:15)
5. With Grim Determination, Terrell Dons the Bow Tie (6:41)
6. Mosquito Massacre (5:55)

CD2 - Live at ProgDay 2009
1. Scaface (8:39)
2. Seven Rusty Nails (7:02)
3. Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously (10:58)
4. Paranoiac (6:31)
5. March Of The Cookie Cutters (8:37)
6. You Got To Run It Out, Dawson! (9:40)
7. Hartford's Coffin (8:03)
8. Conversational Paradigms (7:43)
9. Secret Life Of Walter Riddle (9:11)

Line up (CD1):
- Mike Sary / basses
- Jeff Gard / drums
- Steve Katsikas / keyboards (1-5), final sax solo (1)
- Shawn Persinger / guitars (1-3)
- Adam Huffer / sax (1, 2, 5)
- Warren Dale / sax, clarinet, melodica (3, 6)
- Hans Bodin / guitar synth (2)
- Roy Strattman / guitars (4)
- Joe Conroy / guitar (4)
- Chris Smith / guitar (6)
- Paolo Botta / keyboards (6)
- "Young" Andrew Katsikas / vocal (5)

Line up (CD2)
- Mike Sary / bass
- Jeff Gard / drums
- Steve Katsikas / keyboards, sax
- Shawn Persinger / guitars
- Warren Dale / keyboards, sax, clarinet, flute, melodica 

4 out of 5

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Nordagust - In The Mist Of Morning

Nordic folk music meets dark atmospheric symphonic prog on this the first official album from Norway's Nordagust ("Spirit of the North Wind"), released last year. Dominated by swathes of mellotron and liquid guitar, sonically placed in the environs of Scandinavian prog of the best kind, in places an early Genesis influence is in there somewhere, particularly in the guitar sound, but pastoral this is not. Some may find it bombastic, but maybe that is the point. If Mike Scott's Waterboys had been Norwegian they may well have sounded something like this, for there is a similar epic feel to Nordagust's songs, they both dwell in a pagan place.

Introductions over, come on a journey into the dark woods of the vast hinterland of Norway, venturing through strange eerie lands and visiting the dark corners of the soul. There is a myth being created here and this album will transport you to a place that is compelling and scary at the same time. This is not background music.

Starting with the title track and on through the following two pieces there is a sense of forboding conveyed by the music, with some gorgeous instrumentation. The fourth track In The Woods allows a brief respite, the sound of a babbling brook in the background, then it is back on the trail, mellotrons painting dark skies to the fore. Sixth track Forcing has a Nordic classical vibe and some great guitar, leading to album highlight for me, Frozen which crashes through the moss covered ancient woodland on a mission, climaxing with some fine guitar mangling. Throughout the album Daniel's strong vocals add just the right amount of emotion, teetering just the right side of strained.

The sound is full, clean and well produced, and there is so much going on here that it will take a few spins to fully appreciate the intricacies of this fine recording. According to the biog, the instruments on this waxing, apart from the usual guitar, bass, drums, are mellotrons (to the fore!), kantele, dulcimer, mandolin, sallowflute, mouth harp, conch, accordion, and bells, and effects contributed using saws, grindstone, kettle, barrels, axe, and hammers! So perhaps you can see why this album cannot be taken in on one listen.

The band's stated aim is to merge the epic storytelling of Norwegian folk music with heavy sounds, and they have achieved that with some style on this fine album.

Track list:
1. In The Mist Of Morning
2. Expectations
3. Mysterious Ways
4. In The Woods
5. Elegy
6. Forcing
7. Frozen
8. The Tide
9. Make Me Believe
10. Elegy Epilogue

Daniel "Solur" Solheim - Vocal, Guitar, Keyboard, Samples, Kantele, Dulcimer, Mandolin, Sallowflute, Mouthharp, Conch, Axe and Hammer.

Ketil Armand "Bergur" Berg - Drums, Percussion, Kantele, Saw, Accordion, Hammer, Bells, Voices, Grindstone, Kettles and Barrels.

Knud Jarle "Strandur" Strand - Bass and Business.

Jostein Aksel Skjønberg - Keyboard, Voice, Flute

Guro Elvik Strand - Guitar, Keyboards

Also in the band at the time the album was recorded was Sissel Os on Keyboards, Samples and Choir, and guest vocals were contributed by Agnethe Kirkevaag of Madder Mortem.

Buy it from Karisma Records

3 out of 5

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

An Interview with Amplifier

Following my Amplifier reviews, I am privileged to be joined by bassist Neil Mahony and occasionally by guitarist and vocalist Sel Balamir for this chat.

Roger Thanks for giving us your time to this e-natter. First up, can I just say what a great gig the band played at XOYO in London last month. You all looked like you enjoyed yourselves, I know we did. It was great to see Bruce and the others from Pineapple Thief taking in the last part of your set stood next to us in the audience. How was the after gig party?!

Neil Hi Roger, cheers for that! Yeah we had a great time. On the way home after a tour you can’t beat a couple of nice homecoming gigs! We had had 3 weeks of partying before that show so we just took it nice and easy in London. Manchester was another story though....

Roger How did the band meet and how long ago? Have any of you been in bands before Amplifier?

Neil The guys had been in Manchester at college and I was working in a music store around the corner so they were regulars – Sel was this cool guy who I used to chat to when he came in and Matt used to bother me every week trying to get Zildjian 3A drumsticks!

They had a project and when I heard it I became a bass player – because that is what they needed!

Roger The massive sprawling splendid beast of a thing that is The Octopus was created from start to finish without the support of a label. That must have been bloody hard work! Give us an idea of what was involved. Would you advise other bands to go the same route after your experiences, particularly in regards to having to cope with the more boring admin side of things?

Neil It is an unbelievable amount of work but in the end it is the most rewarding way to do it. To be honest I’m not sure that people really know just how much time and effort it does take – it’s very easy to advise a young band to go it alone but if you’ve got a bunch of guys who are giving it a go for the first time – well there are a lot of sacrifices to make. You can’t do it and go out with your mates every night. You can’t hold down a regular job and have enough time to write, record, rehearse etc as much as you need to to keep up with the competition. In my opinion you either do it or you don’t – there are no half measures. Sure it can be a fun and rewarding hobby but that is not really what we’re talking about.

Roger Still on The Octopus, were the songs written before going to the studio, or did they lurch blinking into the daylight from jamming sessions?

Neil With the exception of The Runner and Utopian Daydream they we’re all written before going in. However the majority of the rest were borne of jamming and recording and re-jamming and re-recording – over and over until it is right. This is a constant ongoing process. Some of nucleus ideas actually came from jams we had when recording the previous album.

Roger Sel - Were the lyrics written beforehand or fitted round the music? Also, I've heard that you're not a comics fan, so what informs the sci-fi influence in your lyrics?

Sel Who said I don't like comics? Comics are the purest form of self realised speculative imagination. It's true though - I don't like those magazines that housewives read...

Roger Fair enough!

Roger There's also a definite social/environmental consciousness running through your lyrics. Personally, having grown up with and had my mind opened by The Clash, do you think music still has a role to play in the modern info-overload world in forming a fan's viewpoint on politics, social, environmental or personal?

Neil I think it is the duty of every single person on this planet to develop a social consciousness and it is completely normal for anyone to have their work, whatever it may be, informed by their views on these matters. Music is no different. I’m pretty certain that the majority will know that their views and opinions are influenced by a whole host of external and indeed internal forces – it doesn’t just come from newspapers. It’s not so much the art-form as it is the artist.

Roger The Octopus came with a set of stickers for promoting the cause. What's the strangest place you've seen one, or been told about?

Neil There is one on a UN boat on the Nile and also one in the inner sanctum of the US Congress. I kid you not! We can’t say how it got there though...

Roger What's next for the concept of The Octopus, or would that be giving too much away?

Neil Well it’s not really for us to say – we just created the monster. As Dr. Frankenstein realised way too late: there is a reason why man and god need to be kept separate.

Roger What musical influences do you all share, and what sets you apart that results in Amplifier's distinctive sound? What bands float your boats at the moment?

Neil We all grew up with similar influences – all the usual stuff really. To be honest the sound of the three of us in a room is the biggest influence on what we do. When we are together in our studio, things happen. Things that happen based on who we are and what tools we have to hand at the time. A new distortion pedal is as likely to contribute as is a shared love of John Carpenter movies.

Roger You used Charlie Barnes' keyboards on the album. Do you forsee a time when a full time keyboard player might be introduced to give the sound a new dimension?

Neil Nah. We have enough geeks in this band already!

Roger Ha ha! I see what you did there...:)

Roger As someone who's never got past mastering two and a half chords on the old geetar it always amazes me how a guitarist copes with the numerous effects pedals at his or her feet, and looking at yours and Sel's effects boards after the XOYO show got me thinking, do you ever hit the wrong one by mistake, and does anyone outside of the band actually notice?!

Neil Ha ha! I’ve actually done a whole show without any of them and our press officer at the time said it was the best he had ever seen us! I think some people really get off on that side of it (we see them taking photos of our boards every night!) and others don’t care. I guess it is natural to want to know the magician’s secret but deep down most of us don’t want the illusion to be compromised. We make mistakes all the time – sometimes it’s painfully obvious and others it just sounds like we are experimenting!

Roger It's refreshing, to these ears at least, to find a metal-flavoured band that has a singer who sings, rather than inflicting the almost obligatory barbed wire gargling on its audience, something I have always struggled with to the point of turning the cd off when listening to Prog-Metal bands. Long may it continue as it sets you apart from the rest!

Neil When I first listened to Amplifier just before I joined, I was listening to Motorhead (the Amplifier song, not the band!) and thinking to myself, ‘I hope the singing doesn’t come in and ruin this great groove’. Thankfully it didn’t. I find Sel’s vocals to be almost folky in melody.

Roger My sentiments exactly!

Roger I'm listening to the marvellous Trading Dark Matter On The Stock Exchange while I'm typing this, and to these well musically travelled ears it is definitely "Prog", which can cover a multitude of sins! Where do you see Amplifier fitting into the music scene in general?

Neil Whatever people want to call it is fine. We gave up long ago trying to see where we fit – it just doesn’t matter anymore does it? Somebody described us years ago as Heavy Wood (!) and I don’t think that has been bettered. I do however find some musical labels helpful – if something is described as Brainfuck Noisecore then I am usually pretty sure what to expect.

Roger Along with Amplifier, another three piece who are given a Sci-Fi/ Metal/Prog tag, fairly or not, are Muse. No doubt you wouldn't mind (and more than deserve in my opinion) some of their success, but I somehow doubt Muse would dare offer you a support slot! Has The Octopus given you the chance to progress up the ladder? Where do you see Amplifier going in the future in terms of gaining more exposure?

Neil We’ve got some things happening that could potentially move us up a little but major exposure is so difficult to orchestrate. The Octopus has definitely opened us up to being noticed by a new group of fans but we need so much more if we are to be able to continue. Right now it is not sustainable. Yeah and if I was Matt Bellamy there is no way in a million years I would let Amplifier anywhere near my stage.

Roger Well, I reckon the band will get some of the bigger exposure you deserve, as you have recently announced that Amplifier will be supporting Dream Theater in Austria & Poland later this month. How did that come about? You must be thrilled, and maybe a bit nervous?

Sel Well, that came about by me hustling the right people. That's what it's all about in the end. We're thrilled to play on big stages - we always are. We don't get nervous about stuff like that, anymore than we get nervous about going home...

Roger What else is coming up work wise, or do you deserve a holiday?!

Neil No time for a holiday! We’re looking at releasing a live DVD and accompanying album. We’re also determined to get back to recording as soon as possible but there are things in the way at the moment. We’ve got some more shows and some nice festivals to do and hopefully a tour in autumn if it is viable. We need to know that we can sell enough tickets so we don’t come back with a loss – we simply cannot afford that.

Roger Thank you both for giving us your time, and as I'm off for my dinner, could you tell us all what your favourite cuisines are? :)

Neil Steak frites and an Orange Whip all round...

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Toys In The Attic

In the world of pop and rock music it is probably safe to use the cliche that there is nothing new under the sun, everything has been done. Even in the mad world of RIO although there are bands who make some extremely interesting noises, they all wear their Faust/Magma/Henry Cow or whatever influences on their sleeves. Norwegian band Wobbler with their new album Rites At Dawn get round this irksome problem by throwing in the towel completely to create a parallel universe Yes album that could easily have been recorded between Fragile and Close To The Edge.

Reviewed with an admirable objective panache I rarely have the patience for by the much followed Raffaella Berry the album is a labour of love and also a slavish copy of the sound Yes created in the early seventies, right down to the self imposed restrictions of using ancient analogue equipment. The band make no qualms about their aims on their Myspace page, stating "a burning desire to create or perhaps recreate some of the musical expressions of the early seventies". Not exactly progressive then, eh?

Previous albums reference fellow Scandinavians Änglagård and Anekdoten, giving their sound an at least justifiable influence, and maybe some new direction, but the new album is something else entirely, musically relocated to England circa 1973, the singer even sounds like Jon Anderson, and his lyrics deal with the same concerns as the diminutive Lancastrian. I wonder if they had cardboard cows in the studio, or if the keyboard player has a predilection for takeaway curries, simply to authenticate the experience of course! As Raffaella says, it's not a bad album per se, but to my ears it sounds more like a musical archaeological dig than an exercise in making modern music.

In prog circles, particularly in the USA it seems, there is a big market for this kind of through a glass darkly sonic worship, but, like the Picture of Dorian Gray, I cannot see any good coming of it, either for the band or their audience, or the scene they doubtless feel part of but are actually helping to stifle. Two big prog festivals in the USA have had to be cancelled recently, at least partly I'm sure because these retro-fans would not support the newer bands playing their own new music, musics for the most part that truly are progressive (look the word up in the dictionary), not just a slavish recreation of something that was laid down forty years ago.

I'm a big fan of Porcupine Tree and all things Steven Wilson, and although PT are not the most original band in the world, at least they have carved out their own strongly identifiable sound, and are the sum and result of their influences, unlike Wobbler who just seem to be an auditory mirror. I do not negate Wobbler their right to make whatever music they so desire, but to me music is about being challenged by the new as much as it is replaying old classics. Maybe I'm lucky in that I'm old enough to recall prog the first time round (but unfortunatley just a few years too young to have seen those bands in their prime), so I have no need to listen to bands recreating something I heard first hand. While writing this I am listening to David Torn's Tripping Over God, released in 1995, and more "new" than anything Wobbler have come up with on their latest waxing. I know which album will last longest on the shelves chez moi, for sure.

In the pop world there was once a band formed with the intention of recreating the early Beatles sound, but being British, were possessed of enough of a sense of irony to realise it would only work if used as a comedy vehicle. Featuring Neil Innes of Bonzos fame, check out any videos you can find on YouTube of The Rutles, marvellously wacky pastiches that are genuinely toe-tapping. Unfortunately one cannot imagine how any band in the oh-so-serious prog scene could ever approach copying mid 70s Yes (or any other of the originals) with a sense of humour, God forbid!

This has been a missive from The Grumpy Old Git from the UK. Thank you and goodnight!

2019, the insanity grows...

Odd title for an annual music review, but them's the times. With these words I aim to provide you with an escape from the creeping madne...