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June 2013

The Temptations of Yeezus: Kanye West's 'Yeezus' Considered

Friday, 28 June 2013 Category : , , , 0


Give the guy some credit: he has put out the best Daft Punk album this year.

These New Puritans - Field of Reeds

Sunday, 16 June 2013 Category : , , , 0

FADE IN

A ROOM.

A small room in a block of flats, located within an unidentified European city. Light and spacious to the point where it is almost blank space.

                    (V.O.) JAZZ SINGER

                    You see this guy? This guy's in love with you
                    Yes I'm in love - who looks at you the way I do?
                    When you smile, I can tell we know each other very well.
                    How can I show you I'm glad I got to know you, 'cause...

The song continues in the background, muffled as if heard through the walls from a room along the corridor.

The sound of PIANO CHORDS and AN ORCHESTRA TUNING can be heard alongside the singing, again coming from a location just outside the P.O.V.

It's true that describing music as cinematic has become a cliched, knee-jerk response to any pop sound that places a premium on mood and atmosphere above any more direct message, to suggest that just because a song does not immediately reveal all its secrets to us, it can only be part of a puzzle as with a film soundtrack (the inference perhaps being that, on some level, this music has failed to fulfill all our narrative expectations on its own and requires a greater leap of imagination on the part of the listener than is desired).

When confronted with the epic scope and sound of These New Puritans' third album Field of Reeds however, it's almost impossible to avoid such metaphors, just so as to provide a starting point to describe the ambiguity and heft of the product that has now been stamped onto plastic and wax. It's an album that operates without any concern or acknowledgement for current trends or fashions, nor for generic convention or audience expectation. It's an album also whose success in expanding once more the scope and possibilities of These New Puritans as a project marks them out as one of the most astonishing and brilliant prospects in British music today.

The faux-script excerpt provided above is a description of the sound and feeling of album opener This Guy's In Love With You. Drawing on the Hal David and Burt Bacharach standard, These New Puritans provide a vision very different from the casual sophistication of Herb Alpert's famous rendition. Using the original more as a starting point than as a definitive road map, the vocal is delivered by Portugese jazz vocalist Elisa Rodrigues (who appears throughout the album as a warmer foil to Jack Barnett's more limited range), but caught only in blurred snatches while the piano and strings tentatively feel their way into the album's world. It's obscure and kept away from the listener, yet the feeling is far more open and welcoming than anything bearing the These New Puritans name prior.


When they first came to attention with 2008 debut album Beat Pyramid, their mixture of caustic post-punk and dance beats saw them lumped in with the abysmal new-rave movement the NME were foisting on the public at the time. But even then, the intelligence of the arrangements and the apocalyptic mood running throughout the album (as a sample lyric, consider "China, India, my own future / Scatter, scatter, scatter" from Infinity ytinifnI: bit more than Shitdisco were offering at any rate) set them far above the pack. Come follow-up album Hidden, and the decisive jump had been made, the focus now on setting booming live percussion and haunting woodwind refrains against an even darker worldview and a considerably more bold set of compositions. Even after this prodigious leap though, Field of Reeds marks an unexpected and enthralling new chapter for the group - while Hidden's Kate Bush-esque moment of respite Hologram might have hinted at a move towards a softer sound, quite how this shift has turned out is thrillingly unexpected.

Divided into three suites of three tracks each, the neo-classical ambition of the album pushes These New Puritans out of the world of the rock band entirely and into the rarified corridors inhabited by experimental post-rock pioneers Bark Psychosis (whose Graham Sutton co-produced the album) and, as pointed out by many observers, late-era Talk Talk. The latter certainly makes sense as a starting point: they were both bands who started out being lumped in as also-rans into a flavour-of-the-month scene, who divorced themselves further and further from the mainstream with each release until eventually morphing into a brand name for a wide pallete of sessionists and musicians curated and led by one auteurial mastermind - Mark Hollis in the case of Talk Talk, and Jack Barnett in the case of These New Puritans. The use of jazz and classical inspiration over traditional rock structure unites the two also, as does the beautiful and pristine studio sound overseen by both, where different elements of the mix float in and out with scrupulous attention to dynamics: just compare the stunning job done here to many recent releases, like Suede's horrifically brickwalled Bloodsports, and weep for the death of proper mastering.

The significant difference between the two artists though is that where Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock by Talk Talk were the result of months of improvisation and jamming around loose structures being edited and compiled into their final forms, Field of Reeds is a fully composed work, whose beauty and oddity derives from the preparations of Jack Barnett. As such, what emerges here is an ornate work which falls somewhere between the Radiohead of Pyramid Song and the Robert Wyatt of Rock Bottom, tapping into a whole legion of outside influences and sources but ultimately resolving itself into a uniquely hopeful and British melancholy. Certainly, the way Jack Barnett is using his voice falls into this category, using its slightly thin nature to an advantage and making audacious melodic choices on centerpiece track V (Island Song) which bring a younger Wyatt to mind. There's also tracks like the stunning Organ Eternal to consider, where a spiralling progression (with more than a hint of Tubular Bells to it) builds into jazzy cymbal splashes and finally a rising vocal part that takes it into the realm of gothic pastoral.

Despite the clear influences and artistic debts that can be traced throughout Field of Reeds though, what ultimately emerges is a hugely singular work whose carefully constructed abstraction operates unlike any other record you will hear this year. By the time of the third, percussion-less suite, These New Puritans and their studio collaborators have broken through into a space where every note seems to hang suspended in mid-air, a quiet burst of thunder admist total blankness. The title track itself drifts by on a cavernous wall of vocal drone (supplied by Adrian Peacock, supposedly the man with the lowest known singing voice in Britain), Jack Barnett murmuring "You asked if the islands would float away / I said, yes". There's a dark, inexplicable undercurrent to it, yet ultimately the album drifts off into the same peace it began with. Field of Reeds feels as much a kind of hallucination or dream as the highly considered construct that it is, and it's the way it combines this sense of the other-wordly alongside the translucent architecture of Barnett's musical framing that makes it such a remarkable listen. As an album, it sits outside anything else occuring in 2013 - as with late Scott Walker, at times it resembles a radio play (or, yes, a film soundtrack) as much as an album. It's a strange, genre-straddling exercise that finds them a million miles away from the rock quartet they started out as, but here, These New Puritans have found a new, dizzying terrain that will outlast any trends or hype bubbles around it.

Live Report - Neil Young & Crazy Horse

Wednesday, 12 June 2013 Category : , , , , , , 0


A fact: arena gigs are one of the least preferable ways to enjoy live music. When it's the Newcastle Metro Arena, doubly so. When you leave the evening sunshine to walk into that giant aircraft hanger, the sight is assaulted by adverts upon adverts, endless loud banners and bars and food outlets with shocking levels of price-gouging - even by the inglorious standards of the corporate enorma-dome, the Metro Arena's combination of desultory architecture, cramped hallways and messy appearance is a shocker. If you come here looking for art, you've really come to wrong place.
 
Tonight though, you've got thousands of people who would never normally risk such a venture braving the barricades of late capitalism, all for a man and his backing band who, last time they visited these shores, insisting on boring the audience stiff with a recently released conceptual dud before moving onto anything approaching a hit. But this is Neil Young, a man whose eccentric brilliance and baffling contrariness are tightly interwoven, and to celebrate his recent gargantuan double album Psychedelic Pill, he's brought back his steamrolling on-off backing band Crazy Horse for the ride too.
 
Any punters mistakenly attending in expectation of the hits - Heart of Gold, After The Gold Rush, Harvest Moon, that side of Neil - get due warning before the set proper, as labcoat-wearing roadies swarm across the stage to engineer the unveiling of Crazy Horse's trademark oversized amp props (complete tonight with outsized microphone too) to the sound of A Day in the Life, before the band join them onstage as a giant Union Jack unfurls to the sound of God Save The Queen. It's hilarious, unexpected, slightly too long and in all likelihood far more sincere than would seem right - sounds like Crazy Horse, right?

 
 Launching right into Ragged Glory track Love and Only Love, the band are in fine form, providing the messy but powerful force while Neil Young launches into one of the many, many expressive and unique solos of the night. Even if the actual sound isn't as deafening as Live Rust or Weld might suggest, they remain a formidable beast, blasting it out loud and proud. With the beautiful Crazy Horse anthem Powderfinger coming up straight behind it, the discomfort of the arena experience is swiftly forgotten - this is rock music at its most elemental and undeniable. There's also the unexpected pleasure of a brief acoustic interlude, which includes the beautiful Comes A Time, a cover of Blowin' In The Wind in front of a backdrop of a giant Woodstock flag (which, by all accounts, is a far better version than anything that Dylan could muster live these days) and a great piano-driven new track called Singer Without a Song, which boasts a roadie walking around with a guitar case during its duration, keeping up the gonzo theatricality of the gig .
 
This being Neil Young though, there's plenty of curveballs thrown in the way as well though. As well as the sprightly title track, two of the more mammoth workouts on Psychedelic Pill gets airings. Walk Like a Giant is already sounding like a Crazy Horse classic, boasting some prime riffing and great opportunities for Neil guitar workouts (not to mention some lovely, ominous whistling too) and marks a set highlight, but Ramada Inn, while boasting a pleasant enough melody, doesn't quite have the depth to justify its extended length. There's also the small matter of a ten-minute feedback jam (one for the Arc fans there), and the unexpected revival of the goofy Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze from Re-ac-tor. While most in the audience thankfully understood this as part of Neil's ever-wayward modus operandi, somewhat inevitably there were a fair few confused onlookers at points too.

As the quartet head towards the home run though, there's plenty of time for a few of the big guns to get an airing. Cinnamon Girl has never sounded this heavy or stomping, Fuckin' Up gets a lengthy call-and-response coda, and even old Buffalo Springfield number Mr. Soul sounds box-fresh. Rounding of the show is a stupendously heavy run through the iconic Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black), where that riff sounds as huge as ever before an encore of Rockin' In The Free World, the song that sealed Neil Young's legendary status on Freedom after a notoriously patchy and oddball run of albums in the 1980's. While much has been made of this potentially being the final Crazy Horse tour - although nothing is set in stone, and there's certainly no sign of Neil signing out for good just yet - what's more impressive is how they manage to stay true to their legacy of hard rock played with maximum looseness whilst still sounding totally urgent and vital. Walking back through the lobby after the lights come up, even the ghastly surroundings of the Metro Arena can't dampen the spirit of rock and roll liberation that Neil Young & Crazy Horse still represent so effortlessly.

Deafheaven - Sunbather

Thursday, 6 June 2013 Category : , , , 0


It's easy sometimes to start feeling jaded or burned out about music. For a lot of us music fans, there's always the rush to find the next hit, the next new or unknown artist (or at least, previously unknown to them) that shakes up mundane listening habits and forces you to re-evaluate how you engage with this art form that you love before you start to tire yourself out with an over-familiar and stale record collection. In the current era, there's also the opposite problem whereby technological and cultural changes have results in a constant stream of new music that only proves increasingly hard to navigate, but also ends up in cynical listening - there's only so many bland suburban indie bands or dubstep try-hards you can wade through before wanting to just give up on the whole thing and retreat to Mojo island, moaning about how it just wasn't like this in the good old days.
 
The reason why we put in this effort - and if you're on a blog like this, then chances are you're a fanatic too - is because occasionally we hear something unexpected and remarkable that tweaks our expectations, and gives us what we needed rather than what we wanted. Although I'd argue that 2013 has been a truly formidable year for albums already, it's not been until now there's been a true left-field musical shock (as wonderful and amazing having new My Bloody Valentine and David Bowie material is, they're still known quantities that ended up delivering what you'd hope) for me. So while there might have been a few ever so slightly better records so far in 2013, and certainly some bound to rack up more listening hours, I can certainly say that there hasn't been a record that's surprised and confounded me in the way Deafheaven's new release Sunbather has.

Of the different shifts and movements that have gone on in the black metal underground, be it the environmental concerns introduced by Wolves in the Throne Room, the emergence of acts like The Botanist that challenge the norms of metal instrumentation or the 'Transcendental Black Metal' of Liturgy, the common ground found between black metal and shoegaze has perhaps been one of the most fertile. While both genres might start from different philosophical and aesthetic origins, they share a fascination with the power of distortion and with the possibilities of using the guitar and the recording process to submerge and twist the music into new shapes. Acts such as Alcest and Dopamine have led the way in the unfortunately-dubbed blackgaze movement, engendering fascination and delights from the more open-ended members of the black metal and shoegaze communities alike (and, perhaps inevitably, scorn and derision from the kult lot).

It's to this blackgaze movement that Deafheaven most neatly fit, mixing up George Clarke's sandblasted wail and furious double-bass drumming with glorious waves of distorted guitar that reach up past the clouds. What becomes evident on Sunbather though isn't just that they've left the rest of their journo-invented scene behind, but that they've used their place between genres to craft an ambitious and deeply human statement whose essence defies easy categorisation or labelling, and pushes for a range of emotional responses that - in this instance - render distinctions between indie rock and metal music largely irrelevant.



In a recent interview on the Steel for Brains blog, George Clarke explained the lyrical themes of the record, noting the interest in isolation, relationships, wealth and phsyical and mental decay that powers through the album. The ebb and flow of Clarke's words - the need  for human connection versus the fear of the reality, the desire for peace and luxury juxtaposed with a harder reality - matches the pacing of the record, the four main lengthy tracks interspersed with shorter, quieter moments of reflection like the uneasy spoken monologue in Please Remember or the blissful instrumental Irresistible, the perfect outro to the swarming sound of album opener Dream.House. The four main tracks of the album repeat this within themselves, fading in and out of lucidity as they go - the clear-eyed post-rock intro of Vertigo plunges down into a queasy shoegaze drone, before finally erupting into metal harmonics and kick drumming at the point where consciousness lets go and the subconscious takes over.

It's in the blurring between the pummelling (and often major-key) chord and note runs and the moments of respite then that the real power of Sunbather lies. Shoegaze and black metal have both relied on notions of dream and fantasy visions and on existential poses to create their own separate worlds so as to allow themselves to see the real world more clearly, and it's this that Sunbather does to excellence. The title track, as well as boasting ten minutes of utterly exhilarating riffs that deliver an almighty hammer of an endorphin rush, jumps from the image of sunbathing in a well-off suburb to the aftermath of a sordid one-night stand, but in doing so recognises them both as equally significant aspects of life. Between the pull of want and the drag of the real is the stuff that life is made of: only by recognising and reconciling ourselves to both of these can any self-progress be made.

The only other great comment to be made about the record then is, simply, the exceptional beauty of what lays inside. Black metal can be many things - violent, nihilistic, fantastical, grand, and yes transcendental also - but there's rarely the kind of genuine compositional beauty as that which lies inside Sunbather. Shoegaze too, for all of its luscious swells and imaginings, rarely boasts the solidity and might of the pieces here. For some readers, the fast drums and screamed vocals may be a barrier too far for their enjoyment of the record, and likewise, some may find the significant departure from black metal norms distracting and unfulfilling. But as I can only write for myself, I will say this: putting aside any notions of genre and categorisation aside, this is an unusually affecting and beautiful album to me. It's savage, it's soothing, it's epic in scope and human and real in detail. It's the kind of record you don't expect or predict, but find after a few listens that you can't imagine your collection before it. Whatever your usual tastes or predilections, I ask only that you listen to this without prejudice. Forget your preconceptions, close your eyes, and let the music take you on a journey inside yourself.

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