Sunday, 19 July 2015

The Fierce And The Dead - Magnet EP

The armour-plated muscle-ripped superhero NoisyProgBastard crashes though the door of the sleazy North London music venue, and announces its collective presence. "I'm a cult, gotta get out of it, out of it" the riff seems to be hammering into our skulls as the bulging beast transforms before us into a tightly wound rock quartet of serious intent. Thrashing his guitar around like a mountain bear on cheap speed, Matt Stevens, whom it is rumoured comes from a place where they practice the Olde Religion, is a man possessed, and his musical cohorts are right there in the melee with him.

Opening track Magnet In Your Face is just that; any closer and you'd be swapping eyeballs and iron filings. At only one minute and forty one seconds long, it has the effect of a rabbit punch to the solar plexus. Based on a fantastically taut riff in the manner of Five Horse Johnson, Matt and fellow plank destroyer Steve Cleaton push their instruments to the limits of endurance in a fashion that will rock your socks off, oh yes! Yep, they got my attention...

“I think this EP represents a different sound for us, it’s important to keep moving forward. It is more joyous and intense with bigger riffs and more of an electronic feel" says Matt in the PR blurb, who is described therein as a "Dead guitarist". On this evidence I'd describe this genial giant of a man as more of a Fierce guitarist.

The EP features the band's first new material in two years, and after that riotous opener it hints at a more measured and electronic sound than was found on their last album, Spooky Action . You could say this is a progression if you like playing around with the preconceptions that that contentious word in all its forms and abbreviations carries before it. However, "prog" this most definitely ain't, for The Fierce And The Dead are an important cog in the current burgeoning British alt-rock scene, along with the likes of Guapo, Schnauser, and Knifeworld and others. All those bands are different but they share an electric current of restless energy that leaves behind any notion that "prog rock" has to be in any way associated with or in thrall to its glorious past.

Produced as ever by bassist and mixing desk wiz Kevin Feazey, the sound is wonderfully clear and crisp, every nuance of this fearsome racket is laid before one's shell-likes in all its splendid sonic malevolence. The second new number Palm Trees sways in the breeze and soothes after that cataclysmic opener, but the slow math-rock melody is intermittently cajoled by blocks of post-rock chording that remind you that this band don't let the intensity slider fall for long. And so it is that the two guitars charge for the climax of this song on a tsunami of MBV noise that will leave your ears ringing. Bloody marvellous!

Flint is a re-recording of a tune from the band's first album, and Kevin's production has opened up the spaces in this song and added some electronic effects for good measure. The drum pattern by Stuart Marshall makes the tune skip along with joy in its heart. This is a nice exercise in "less is more", and not something you'd expect from these otherwise full-on chaps.

The enigmatically titled Part 6 (The 8th Circuit) commences with some sci-fi keyboards and motorik rhythms as the mothership lands in a fog of smoke. NoisyProgBastard has reformed and feeling sated and fully justified, having demolished the cavernous sleazepit it leaves behind, ascends the ramp, which closes behind it as the spaceship disappears in a cloud of dust.

The EP ends with two old songs recorded live in rehearsal, giving you a taste of what to expect from the live assault this band are said to deliver. Yes, I've yet to experience that, but I know it will happen at some point soon!

This EP is out on 14th August, and you can preorder it via the links below. The band are appearing at the Arctangent Festival a week later with, amongst others, Deerhoof, 65daysofstatic and the superbly monikered Dillinger Escape Plan.

Pre-order the EP HERE

...or here...Bandcamp

1. Magnet In Your Face (1:41)
2. Palm Trees (4:00)
3. Flint (4:24)
4. Part 6 (The 8th Circuit) (3:59)
5. Let's Start A Cult (rehearsal recording) (3:19)
6. Spooky Action (rehearsal recording) (3:12)

Total running time - 18:53

Line up:
Kevin Feazey - Bass, keyboards
Matt Stevens - Guitars, loops, keyboards
Steve Cleaton - Guitars, effects
Stuart Marshall – Drums

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Van der Graaf Generator – After The Flood - At The BBC 1968-1977

There is one album that encapsulates the original era of what came to be known as progressive rock better than any other, and that album is Close to The Edge by Yes. The record is a flawless masterpiece, and transcends its genre to stand as one of the best albums of “popular” music made by anyone, ever. However, when it comes to true progression and a fearless desire to consistently push the envelope, there are really only two contenders from the top table of that golden age. One is King Crimson, and the other is Van der Graaf Generator, the latter here delighting us all with a definitive collection of sessions originally recorded for the BBC.

Mark Powell’s comprehensive essay in the sumptuous 24-page booklet tells you all you need to know about this unique band, right from their chaotically naïve beginnings, later becoming the reason for the formation of Charisma Records, as amazingly manager Tony Stratton-Smith couldn’t get any other label interested! The essay follows the group through various triumphs, trials and tribulations, splits and reformations, and ends right up to date. This double CD, as the title indicates, concentrates on the classic era, ending with the string-driven late 70s incarnation of this wilfully singular group.

Passing through the early years on CD1 I am struck by the youthful purity of Peter Hammill’s voice, a device that developed into an instrument in its own right by the time of the band’s early magnum opus Pawn Hearts in 1971. As the years passed, ravaged by years of a forty-plus-a-day cigarette habit, the pure tones of Afterwards became the enthralling declamatory beast that marauds through Scorched Earth, Still Life, La Rossa, and beyond. As far as I am aware there was no Faustian pact involved, unless Old Nick was the major stakeholder in British American Tobacco.

Hammill contends, quite rightly, that Van der Graaf Generator only properly got underway with their second album, 1970’s The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other. Prior to that there was no David Jackson, aka Jaxon, who was a vital cog in the VdGG machine, a cog that to my mind is missed greatly in the current incarnation of the band. The pre-Jaxon VdGG is represented by the first three tracks: People You Were Going To, a jaunty off-kilter psych-pop single, an angelic version of Afterwards, and the menacing future-indicator Necromancer, all recorded for John Peel’s Top Gear show in 1968. Peely, an early champion of the band, as ever knew a good thing when he found it.

After a brief split, the band reformed, now with David Jackson on board. The compositional leap forward to The Least We Can Do… is practically tangible, as the band’s second Top Gear session, recorded in 1970 attests. Hammill’s deeply intoxicating lyricism is now developing apace, and Jaxon spurs Hugh Banton along into ever more dark corners of home-made Hammond distortions and swells. The version of After The Flood included here will have your neck hairs standing to attention – marvellous stuff!

The first of five previously unreleased tracks on this set is Vision from a 1971 Sounds Of The Seventies session. This is a plaintive piano and vocal song from Hammill’s first solo album Fool’s Mate, hence its non-appearance on the now superseded Maida Vale single CD album of BBC sessions. That same session also includes the first of two versions of ManErg, a live staple almost from the day it was written right up to the present. That it is one of only two songs included here twice is rather fitting. Magnificent and otherworldly, this beast of a song captures VdGG at their two extremes, veering from deep introspective romanticism to musical and lyrical paranoid declamation - “Am I really me, am I someone else?” The Thin Man screams over Jaxon and Banton’s taut stridency, all held together by Guy Evans’ powerhouse economic rhythms.  Another triumph, and proof to me, if any were needed that choosing a favourite VdGG song is an impossible task.

The other song included twice is Darkness, the second version of which, again from the Sounds Of The Seventies session includes some incendiary blowing from Jaxon, highlighting why he was such an important constituent of VdGG’s sonic template. By this time, the band had no bass player, Banton playing the bass parts with foot pedals, which added a different, more sonorous timbre to VdGG’s by now instantly recognisable sound.

CD1 ends with one of VdGG’s more accessible songs, and the version of Killer, the final of three from a BBC radio concert from 1971 lurches along in theatrically menacing fashion, Hammill getting well into the mindset of the solitary predator.

CD2 commences with a fitting song to end the second era of the band, Refugees being a melancholic paen to time and people moving on. Burned out by the relentless cycle of gigging, writing, recording, and touring again, the band stopped for around two years sometime during the late summer of 1972 after a particularly crazy tour of Italy where they were bona fide counter-culture stars. During his time away from VdGG, Hammill threw himself into his solo career, and was often joined in the studio by his erstwhile bandmates. Perhaps inevitably the four eventually regrouped and the astonishing result was 1975’s Godbluff, the first of three albums in quick succession that saw the band reach a plateau of perfection where the rollercoaster thrilling visceral excitement of before is channelled into controlled bursts of intense energy fuelling life-soaked matured lyrical and musical romanticism.

Just as the first CD witnessed a giant leap forward with the first version of Darkness, so the process is repeated with the seismic shift from Refugees, taken from a December 1971 Peel session to second track Scorched Earth, recorded just over three and half years later, again for Peel. The Godbluff tune shines with a new confidence in both arrangement and execution. This is a band that knows what it wants and how to get it. By now, Van der Graaf Generator have invented their own musical language, where incorporating the cha-cha-cha into a song’s structure as if it was the most natural thing to do makes Sleepwalkers yet another timeless classic. Incidentally, you are probably well aware of John Lydon’s love of VdGG, but one look at the stark black/white/red cover of The Fall’s Fall Heads Roll album and its similarity to Godbluff will tell you that Mark E. Smith is a fan, too.

Arguably, Still Life was even better than Godbluff, the band now reaching a peak of savage beauty unlike anything else extant at a time when the music scene was stagnating all around them. If there was a reason prog had to die, it certainly wasn’t Van der Graaf Generator. By April 1976 VdGG were out on their own in the world of mainstream eclectic rock music, as King Crimson had come to a halt well over a year previously, and the sonic and social upheavals of punk were still some nine months away. This was cutting edge rock music in spring 1976, and were it not for John Peel I would have had little idea it existed, such was VdGG’s low profile. A truly great version of La Rossa shows a band at the top of their game. A mere six more months passed before the final album from this incarnation of VdGG saw the light of day. World Record is sometimes overlooked when classic VdGG albums are discussed, but it continued to mine the same rich vein of inspiration, and the consummate versions of When She Comes and Masks bear this out.

Hammill says that VdGG’s music has stood the test of time because they never paid any heed to what was commercially popular at the time, much to their continual impoverishment, and he’s right. Also, his lyrics spoke of real human concerns, you will not find any cod-philosophising or songs about faeries on VdGG albums, making the songs as relevant now as they ever were. For these same reasons the group withstood the fury of punk, Hammill having foreseen its coming with his character Ricky Nadir back in February 1975. The late 70s version of Van der Graaf , with its prescient punchier name was a furious proposition live, with Graham Smith’s violin and Hammill’s spikily primitive guitar replacing the now departed Banton and Jackson’s contributions, and because of this they fitted in with the zeitgeist rather well. 

This stellar compilation ends with a couple of tracks from that band’s only album, 1977’s  The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome, including the marvellously punky Cat’s Eye/Yellow Fever. While still recognisably Van der Graaf (Generator), it was somewhat atypical in sound, and oddly it was also the first VdGG album I bought, making my later learning curve a somewhat weird experience! Perhaps it was a case of “I prophecy disaster, and then I count the cost” – speaking of which the strings-driven excerpt from A Plague… closing the second CD is far better than it had any right to be.

As you can see, I came to Van der Graaf Generator relatively late in the day, and it took me many years to get beneath the thick skin of their wilfully dense music, but once inside the belly of the beast there is no escape, and actually, I’m quite happy here, thanks all the same. Perhaps more than any of the other original progressive rock bands, Van der Graaf Generator were and indeed are something of a “Marmite” group. As Hammill says of the band’s early days “…in our live show we usually alienated fifty percent of the audience who used to walk out. The fifty percent who stayed would always come back to the next gig and became very loyal.” All I can say is, the fifty percent who walked out never to return and their modern equivalent who run screaming for the hills whenever VdGG is mentioned really did and do not know what they are missing – oh well, it was and is their loss. The rest of you need to buy this, if you haven’t already!

  1. People You Were Going To (3:29)
  2. Afterwards (4:41)
  3. Necromancer (4:08)
  4. Darkness (6:49)
  5. After The Flood (10:56)
  6. ManErg (11:08)
  7. Theme One (2:56)
  8. Vision (3:13)
  9. Darkness (7:15)
  10. ManErg (10:37)
  11. W (5:08)
  12. Killer (8:09)

Total running time – 78:58

  1. Refugees (6:17)
  2. Scorched Earth (9:40)
  3. Sleepwalkers (9:59)
  4. Still Life (7:19)
  5. La Rossa (9:56)
  6. When She Comes (8:09)
  7. Masks (7:23)
  8. Cat’s Eye/Yellow Fever (4:44)
  9. The Sphinx In The Face (5:32)
  10. (Fragments Of) A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers/Sleepwalkers (9:28)

Total running time – 78:51

Line up:
Peter Hammill – Vocals, Acoustic guitar, Guitar, Piano, Electric piano
Hugh Banton – Organ, Piano, Bass Pedals, Bass guitar
Guy Evans – Drums
Keith Ellis – Bass guitar
David Jackson – Saxophones, Flute
Nic Potter – Bass guitar
Graham Smith – Violin
Charles Dickie - Cello


Sunday, 5 July 2015

Light Coorporation - Chapter IV - Before The Murmur Of Silence

Polish band Light Coorporation (pronounced "corporation") formed in 2011 to experiment with progressive jazz-rock. Unsurprisingly given the title, this is the band's fourth album, released in 2014.

Recorded live in the studio, these eight instrumental compositions were all written by guitarist Mariusz Sobański. The focus is often on the trumpet and saxophone that between them often sound like a full brass and reeds section, which serves to give the feel of an avant big band a la Centipede. Opener New States Of Mind (Repetitive) introduces itself in typically strident fashion, and is soon underpinned by a low rumbling bass line marking the rhythm with serious intent, another feature of the record. The tune is a tight jam with an open and spacious atmosphere in the manner of a very heavy take on 80s Miles Davis.

An intriguing feature is that the rather tasteful cover booklet, designed by Tom Lietzau includes lyric poems for each of the eight tracks on the record, all unsung! There is some nice prose here, too, and it is a shame none of it is used.

An obvious but effective trope is following a rousing number with something more laid back, as is often the case here, and the beginning of In A Tangle follows that tried and tested formula. Almost ambient, this is a quiet exploration of inner space that slowly rises from slumber accompanied by acoustic dub bass, muted trumpets and quiet sax, and the occasional spidery guitar interjections.

If the brass and reeds are the collective star on Chapter IV, never far behind are the dual bass talents of Piotr Oses and Krzysztof Waśkiewicz, who mark the rhythms with a thunderous purpose, often leaving drummer Milos Krauz to skitter around the edges in an effective manner.

With A Chance Of Cloudy commences as an atramentous thunderstorm, but clears to reveal a sunny day, but the threat is never far away. Three Headed Monster Sight Unseen was never going to be a sonic balm, and a very strange walking bass line, perhaps for someone with one leg shorter than the other deconstructs to one repeated arhythmic note and squalling guitar. The guitar often lends a psychedelic edge to proceedings when it appears, and that is certainly the case on the title track Before The Murmur Of Silence, where Mariusz gets to play at his most ferocious, albeit all too briefly. The unsung lyrics to this one cleverly illustrates the feeling of the protagonist's isolation within a crowd,  I would like to hear writer Mariusz Sobański turn these poems into proper songs.

The album ends with the seventeen minute Space Travel in an Old Painting, which takes a different tack to what has gone before. Neatly illustrating the "space" of the title, both literal and metaphorical, the piece is a long open road of eerie jazz ambience with the low-key trumpet lending inevitable comparisons to Miles. However, it is what is going on, or indeed not going on around the brass instrument that takes the tune somewhere else. Symphonic in construct, Space... takes its time to make a stately progress through the ether with a deftness of touch highlighted by the caresses of the ebow (?) guitar, as the bass begins to plot a path through the mist. Rhythms are are established only to disappear into entropy, The quietest of percussion is almost the only sound in a short sequence some ten minutes in, and the piece has become a supreme exercise of control. Eventually, silence...there is nothing out there. After around two minutes we are rudely awakened from drifting by the sudden entry of an atonal ensemble arrangement that brings us back into orbit.

This has not been the easiest of albums to get into, but it rewards perseverance, and fits neatly into the small but growing number of jazz-rock big band albums that seem to be around this year. I leave you with this extract from Mariusz's criminally unheard poetry... 

In a moment like this
even fear itself retreats
marking the stones 
with its blood

1. New States of Mind (Repetitive) (9:44)
2. In a Tangle (7:34)
3. With a Chance of Cloudy (7:15)
4. Three Headed Monster Sight Unseen (6:39)
5. Basements of Heaven (4:47)
6. Sealing Wind into Bottles (6:21)
7. Before the Murmur of Silence (Based on a True Story) (5:25)
8. Space Travel in an Old Painting (17:21)

Total running time - 65:12

Line up:
Mariusz Sobański - guitars, baritone cello
Paweł Rogoża - tenor saxophone
Kuba Jankowiak - trumpet
Witold Oleszak - acoustic grand piano
Piotr Oses - double bass
Krzysztof Waśkiewicz - bass
Miłosz Krauz - drums, percussion

Band website

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