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July 2013

Live Report - The Unit Ama Album Launch

Friday, 19 July 2013 Category : , , , , , , , 0

 
A brief note before we get down to the main business: in many ways, it's encouraging that Newcastle and the north-east takes its cultural heritage seriously, and wants to keep it alive for future generations to access. When this results in a horde of morris dancers blocking off the entrance to The Cumberland Arms on a blazing summer night however, I have to protest in the strongest of terms. The old adage that you should "try everything once, except incest and morris dancing" springs to mind - in my mind's eye, morris dancing sits on the list of truly evil works and deeds somewhere above shoplifting, the infamous mauling of The Magnificent Andersons and Katie Hopkins, and just below war, the legacy of Thatcher and Jimmy Saville. In other words, morris dancers, kindly just fuck the fuck off. I don't want nor need the sacrifical screams of Edward Woodward reverberating across the Ouseburn when I'm just trying to get to the bar.
 
That aside then, the real reason for this article. To celebrate the release of The Unit Ama's new record The Mason's Mallet, a live recording of their performance at TUSK Festival 2012, they took to the stage of The Cumberland Arms to dazzle the more adventerous minds of the region once again. Having been amazed by my first exposure to their unique spin on avant-rock at last year's Split Festival in Sunderland, it became imperative for this scribe to brave the sweat-box of The Cumberland's events room and exchange a note for entrance and a Unit Ama LP and set myself up for a night of left-of-centre delights.
 
 
Thankfully, before The Unit Ama's performance was a righteous support billing. Having never heard them before (having foolishly missed their opening performance for Mike Watt at The Cluny earlier this year), openers Fret! made an instant impact as another tight power trio on the bill, with brutish and incessant bass lines propelling the pieces through as the drums submit to flailing fury and the guitar splinters off into (post?) post-punk shards. With their short, largely instrumental tracks, it was a confident and empowering display of force - certainly a name I'll be looking out for on line-up's in the future. For some calm before the storm, the night then turned to the talents of a certain Richard Dawson, en route to a performance at the Latitude Festival. Covers of standards popularised Mike Watterson and Shirley Collins mingle with Dawson's own work, including Black Dog In The Sky and The Cumberland Rag from The Magic Bridge an an intriguing new guitar piece that operated at the more frenzied, explosive end of his work, taking off perhaps from where the instrumental interludes on The Glass Trunk left off. Throw in some pinapple-centric chat, and you've got a fine balm for the increasingly crowded and humid room.
 
When it came to The Unit Ama's turn though, it began without warning. The trio, on stage clad in their stage suits - which, on a night like this really takes some aesthetic dedication, so nice one gentlemen - work their way in without any notice, toying with their instruments and slowly bringing the sound up until the crowd notices that, hey, shit, this is actually the set you know. Over the next forty-odd minutes, they set out their stall brilliantly, with relatively composed sets of math-rock fury coming in and out of free-form chaos, with song and improvisation taking equal importance. One of the joys of The Unit Ama is how surprisingly difficult it is to tell what's pre-prepared and what's improvisation - the more obviously 'song' segments boast far too many odd shifts and turns to feel entirely pre-written, while even in their more abrasive and atonal instrumental patches, there remains a great sense of direction. Also key to the band is the wry humour they display, an all-too-rare acknowledgement that this kind of music can be fun and silly as well as intense and challenging. When their non-stop wall of sound finally fades into nothing, the roar of approval from the audience is unmistakeable, compelling the band into a brief encore of an older, shorter rock piece. On a night like this, the gauntlet they lay down to other rock trio's is simple and unmistakeable: we can get away with this and take the audience down some unexpected avenues and have them love it, so why they hell aren't you putting even a tenth of the thought and effort into what you do that we put in? Their public appearances may be rare, but good christ the wait between Unit Ama gigs is made more than worthwhile.

Live Report - NARC Fest '13

Monday, 8 July 2013 Category : , , , , , , , , , , , 1


Inevitably, with an event like NARC Fest - a free for all, free entry occurrence with eight venues running simultaneously - there's no dominant narrative or easy guidelines on what to experience and how. Even more so that usual for this site then, this is a purely individual account of what I saw during NARC Fest '13, concerning the acts I saw, the impressions I received and the confirmation that even in this age of corporate sponsorship and synergy, live music at a local level remains an anarchic and uncontrollable force.
 
For me, the festival starts at half six, as I emerge past Byker Metro into the kind of glorious British sunshine unmistakeably at odds with what one has come to expect from the British summer. As such, the whole of the Ouseburn is even more crowded that would normally be expected on either a) a Saturday evening or b) a gig. In fact, the only remotely quiet spot is in front of the trailer parked up by the Quayside for the Airsteam Sessions, where Agerskow is running through a brief unamplified set for recording. Given the hushed, intimate nature of her work, hearing without any amplification can be a bit of a struggle, and even for self-un-facilitating media nodes like myself (ha), the emphasis placed on recording the set for later over the enjoyment of those watching live - at an event designed to promote live music in the region no less - is surreal. Nevertheless, a concluding run through of her single This Train Terminates is a richly melodic treat for those who made the effort.
 
After this, it was time to head into the festival line-up proper, starting of at The Tyne Bar to take in the recently revived punk fun of The Second Prize. Leaping about the stage at seven in the evening, they're a suitable shot of adrenalin for the evening ahead, and it's all done with an emphasis on great big sweaty, angry, daft fun. It's not the music that made the gig so memorable though as the actions of one of the crowd members, as a portly middle-aged man takes the opportunity to strip bare (aside from his socks - makes you proud to British, doesn't it?) and start his own one man mosh-pit...while everyone else around burst out in shocked laughter as this large bellied, small dicked madman, henceforth known as Radgy McSmallnob proceeded to take over the gig. So much for 'family friendly festival' then. The band take it in their stride as a not-exactly-welcome addition to their set, with frontman Jack getting the world's most discomforting piggyback ride from him at the set's finale. Be warned reader: this was not to be the only appearance of Radgy McSmallnob either.
 
Escpaing from unwelcome public nudity, we take refuge in the Cycle Hub by the quayside (and yes, dear reader, this is just a bicycle shop they've taken over the night). Performance poetry organisation Apples & Snakes curated a welcoming, low-key line-up of spoken word and acoustic music here for the evening filled with some of the region's best poets, and we arrive in time to catch one of the final sets before settling down to the warm sounds of Nev Clay. Interrupting himself constantly to comment on the songs, the occasion and even break down his songwriting formula ("right, you've had the instrumental bit...the next two verses are quite fun, but the last one's the kicker, isn't it?"), it's impossible not to warm to his kind-hearted songwriting and generous manner. The Bard of Benton, he's done it again.
 
 
The Free Trade Inn. Drink booze here.
 
Scaling the steps to the rustic delights of The Free Trade Inn - unquestionably one of the finest of Newcastle's numerous boozing establishments, and the finest view in the city - your fearless, thirsty correspondant is forced to squeeze his way through the horder queueing at the bar to get himself a good spot for Our Imaginary Friends. As an indie fan who spends most of his time these days getting frustrated with the complacency and smugness of many indie bands and fans, I'm happy to report than Our Imaginary Friends's powerful and punchy songs more than make the grade. Having spent the time waiting for the completion of their debut album working on new material, they're evolving into an increasingly strident and confident live act. More recent tracks suggest a lean to a fuzzy, blown-out take on Britpop with moments like Graham Coxon at his most tired and emotional, while older material such as The Chaos is now sped up and delivered with a fresh urgency. The five-piece (completed tonight with Marc Bird, frontman of the rather fantastic Yellow Creatures, on bass duties) have still retained their talent for sweet melodies and arrangements, but live they're definetely hitting new form.
 
For the main event though, it's back to the Tyne Bar for their stage headliner, local doom juggernaut Khuunt (to be pronounced as you would expect), premiering new material with the assistance of new collaborator Richard Dawson. Taking their template of grinding bass riffs and shrieked vocals but expanding it and pushing it further into the avant-garde with alternate swarks of ferocious, trebly guitar noise, the relentless thirty-five minute free-metal monolith they unveil demonstrates Khuunt's remarkable potency and stands far away from Richard Dawson's own recent work). The loyal crowd is loving the chaos of this loud pummeling, only guess who's come back to join the fray again? Why, it's only the dance craze of the season that absolutely none of the kids want to ever have within a hundred miles of them, let alone join in with, the one and only Radgy McSmallnob! Again, in fairness, his deranged antics do lend an extra level of filth to the grimy proceedings, but it's still an unwelcome repeat, even if the Tyne staff do shout him into putting his jeans back on (although he does still wander around with his underwear on his head, mind). That aside though: it's an exceptional performance that left me ecstatic and dazed: just what you want mind?
 
Even with that ringing in my ears though, I brave the Free Trade once more to experience the soothing harmonies of The Cornshed Sisters. A mixture of the truly packed crowd gathered to soak in their performance (although the noise of the bar did still render them hard to hear) and the extreme musical whiplash experienced in jmping from Khuunt to this polar opposite did result in me taking my leave before the end of the set, but from the songs I stuck around from, let me assure you: their harmonies remain as pristine and delightful as ever, and Tell Tales highlight Dance At My Wedding remains utterly heart-melting - as well as the only use of a ukelele that Endless Window is prepared to allow.
 
While there were a few options left available, a combination of chasing friends, band fatigue and the need to catch the Metro left my night curtailed after this point. But in my experience of NARC Fest '13, what was proven is that despite the increasing hurdles in putting on such events and the continuing dumbing-down of the usual gig circuit, there's still space for exciting-despite-themselves occasions and wild, unexpected performances. All it takes are the acts worth hearing, the promotors willing to take a chance and for the world to turn its head and listen for a change.

Back to the Middle: Album Roundup, April-June '13

Thursday, 4 July 2013 Category : , 0

We may only be at the half-way point, but 2013's already been an astonishing year of releases. There's been a plethora of surprise comebacks, stealth releases and established acts stepping up to the mark and delivering some of their finest work to date. There's been so much great music to listen to, that following my previous quarterly round-up I've had to dobule the selection to twenty albums this time round, and even that's forced me to leave out some more than worthy records by the likes of Cathedral, Wire and Zomby - hell, even Yeezus himself couldn't get himself guestlist to this exclusive club. So read on to find out which twenty slabs of wax/transmissions into the digital void that are well worth your time...

Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest

Boards of Canada's <i>Tomorrow's Harvest</i> to be played in full at record stores around the UK and Ireland

Following the triumphant returns of My Bloody Valentine and David Bowie earlier in the year, Boards of Canada were the latest missing in action act to finally emerge from the fog. Unsurprisingly, Tomorrow's Harvest doesn't represent any huge shift from their established template of layered, psychedelic downtempo electronica. After the shift to more pastoral realms on the guitar-driven The Campfire Headphase however, Tomorrow's Harvest represents a 180-degree shift into a post-apocalyptic landscape, with the presence of John Carpenter and Wendy Carlos looming large. Dark and anxious, it's a deep and rewarding records with plenty of puzzles to keep the fans engages until the next transmission.

Key Track: New Seeds

British Sea Power - Machineries of Joy


Reliable is always a fairly damning piece of praise for a band, a fairly meaningless 'well, at least they turned up' badge for the merely mediocre. British Sea Power are reliable in a different sense: their eccentric, askew world-view remains a delight a decade after they promised The Decline of British Sea Power, and although they may be a decidedly cult concern these days Machineries of Joy finds them on taut and playful form. From the euphoric title track to the glam stomp of Loving Animals and the epic What You Need The Most to the breezy joy of Radio Goddard, this is beautiful and consoling work made for a difficult time.

Key Track: Loving Animals

The Child of Lov - The Child of Lov



For that hideous cover art alone, this one almost didn't make it in. But as much as The Child of Lov's eponymous debut acts as a summation of everything wrong with hipster aethetics and its appropriation of R&B forms, the music contained within in of an althogther distinction. Sometimes lo-fi in timbre but meticulously arranged, the deep grooves this Amsterdam resident minds speak to the head as well as the heart. I was impressed when I reviewed the album for KYEO, and I remain so now.

Key Track: Fly

Deafheaven - Sunbather



Deafheaven's bold second album was a thuderbolt from the blue: plenty of acts have been exploring the intersection between black metal and shoegaze over the last few years, but it's hard to think of any that have done so with such fluidity and success. Balancing anger and introspection, the lenghty tracks on this album never outstay their welcome. I've written on here previously about this seriously successful album, but the point's worth stating again: don't let any genre stereotypes or personal prejudices keep you away from one of the most affecting and powerful records of the year.

Key Track: Sunbather

Deerhunter - Monomania




Bradford Cox might have kept an unusually quiet 2012 release-wise, but on their new album Monomania he and his band Deerhunter remain a distinct presence within the indie rock sphere. The album's tilt into raw garage rock tropes might result in a record lacking in some of the gorgeous ambiance of Cryptograms or Halycon Digest, but as stated here on Endless Window before, he's still "following his own peculiar, obsessive muse" in pursuit of rock and roll nirvana.

Key Track: Monomania

The Fall - Re-Mit



John Peel's favourite band, ooh they do change line-up a lot don't they, and that Mark E. Smith does like a drink, doesn't he? Cliche's duly dispensed with, the important stuff remains: over thirty-five years on, they remain the most essential rock band on the face of the Earth, and while some may have doubted after 2011's better-than-you-think but slight Ersatz G.B., Re-Mit is another confirmation of the group's unyielding brilliance. The current line-up remains a joy, and on tracks like Sir William Wray, Jetplane and closing number Loadstones, Mark E. Smith and company sound like they're having more fun than ever. Hail to the real king.

Key Track: Loadstones

Ghostpoet - Some Say I So I Say Light


How do you capitalise on a Mercury Prize nominated debut without going the way of Speech Debelle? Easy, if you're Ghostpoet: just get your head down and keep pushing with your sound. Some Say I So I Say Light may not have been revolution, but it certainly took everything that was great about first album Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam and ran with it, to produce a touchstone for British hip-hop and electronic music that manages to defly blend downtempo beat wizardy and an intriguingly surreal take on Britishness lyrically. 

Key Track: Meltdown

The Haxan Cloak - Excavation



The cover might suggest heavy metal parody, but you'll find something far more fearsome if you dig yourself into the haunted subterranean visions conjured up by Bobby Krlic on his second album as The Haxan Cloak. Excavation follows a loose narrative of a journey beyond death and through the afterlife, but never has a voyage over the River Styx been so heavy in endless bass and churning electronics. Eschewing the modulated avant-folk of his debut, this formidable second set is a journey through the darkest recesses of modern bass music and drone whose pristine blackness is only pierced in the haunted, mesmerising closer The Drop.

Key Track: The Drop

James Blake - Overgrown



After a series of increasingly impressive and hermetic post-dubstep EPs, James Blake's eponymous 2010 debut marked the arrival of a bold new songwriting voice that married cutting-edge production with the kind of muso chops only an upbringing in jazz and classical tradition can grant. On Overgrown, James Blake expands the palette of his debuts and blends in some new colours in the form of Brian Eno and RZA collaborations. If not as assured or dazzling as his debut, Overgrown's evolutionary ambition is still one Endless Window found hugely rewarding.

Key Track: Digital Lion

Jon Hopkins - Immunity

Keyboard and production whizz Jon Hopkins had previously been more of a side-man, far better known for work with King Creosote or Brian Eno than his efforts under his own name. Immunity is the album to change that though, a heady and immersive record that balances IDM ingenuity and ambient langour to create a complex but inviting ecosystem of its own, nodding to past and present club trends but setting off unmistakeably on its own path.

Key Track: Collider

Melt Yourself Down - Melt Yourself Down





Any band featuring alumni of Zun Zun Egui, The Heliocentrics and the much-missed Acoustic Ladyland is going to have a lot of live up to. It's a testament to the sparkling chemistry of this new seven-piece formation then that Melt Yourself Down's eclectic, energetic debut stands as some of the finest work all involved have ever done, touching on the kind of jazz, psychedelia and Afrobeat touchstones one might expect but blending them together into an individualistic sound that  might just be the year's best party album. Outstanding, unmissable stuff.

Key Track: Release!

The National - Trouble Will Find Me



The music industry might be a limbless syphilitic tramp lying in the gutter these days, but it turns out mope-rock remains a good meal ticket. Yes, The National have now found themselves as unexpected arena headliners, yet on Trouble Will Find Me they're celebrating their success with one of their most nuanced and entrancing efforts to date. The early signs were promising, and in my NARC write-up I noted that even if as a collection it may be slightly over-long, from song to song it finds the band on imperious form.

Key Track: Humiliation

The Pastels - Slow Summits



Coming away with the Silver in the International Piss Taking, Musician Class at the 2012 Olympics (our mate Kevin Shields getting the Gold, natch), Stephen Pastel and friends have finally awoken from their slumber to provide us with their most sumptous effort yet. Slow Summits is a gentle stroll through the city landscape, guiding us through the seasons in Glasgow with a gentle guiding hand. It may have been some wait, but thankfully The Pastels have produced an intelligent album befitting their status as indie-pop godparents.

Key Track: Slowly Taking Place

Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels





2012 was a triumphant year for Killer Mike and El-P, with their respective records R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure marking an astonishing one-two punch. Teaming up as Run The Jewels, their eponymous debut is an equally inspired victory lap, trading some of R.A.P. Music's political vitriol and Cancer 4 Cure's paranoia for some hilarious raging takedowns and bizarro party rap, all fuelled by El-P's adrenalin rush. Run The Jewels makes it a hat-trick from a duo that abolsutely know they're smarter and harder than anyone else around - and hell, they even made it free to download.

Key Track: Sea Legs

Savages - Silence Yourself





Can any of you remember a time when a hype band was actually good? From Gay Dad to Viva Brother, it's normally a sign for any listener with the slightest bit of discernment to turn away and wait for the air to clear. Yet in the case of the much-hyped Savages...well, they actually do live up to it. Some complaints have been made of them being yet another bunch of post-punk revivalists, and in fairness not without a degree of truth, but what Savages a special case is that they're one of the few who actually have the attitude, the poise and the intelligence to back it all up. As such, Silence Yourself is a fully-formed statement of intent that sounds vital and urgent, whatever the touchstones may be.

Key Track: She Will

Scout Niblett - It's Up to Emma



Scout Niblett has always balanced the unnerving and the raw with the open and cinematic in her career, but never have they made such a synthesis as on It's Up to Emma. As I observed in my review for KYEO, the intensity of her blues-informed guitar playing is matched by the occasional bloom of strings, resulting in a spell-binding listen. The end result is something in keeping with the Scout Niblett persona, but also open and emotionally honest without resorting to singer-songwriter cliche. Again, she remains one of these isles most curiously undiscovered stars.

Key Track: Gun

Sigur Ros - Kveikur



If the ambient Valtari was a necessary pallete-cleanser after years of increasing bombast and Jonsi's emerging solo career, Kveikur is the sound of a new, re-modelled Sigur Ros, fighting against their own history to emerge with something new over a decade after they first emerged from Iceland. Stormy and bullish where previous albums were gentle and enveloping, the band (now trimmed to a core trio, with studio and live accompaniment) still totes much of the orchestral, flowing beauty that made their name, but this time around it's matched by an interest in electronic noise, distorted guitars and a far more dominant rhythm section that before. On Kveikur, Sigur Ros sound like a band revitalised.

Key Track: Brennisteinn

These New Puritans - Field of Reeds



In a British music scene increasingly, dispiritingly, driven by conservatism and false nostalgia, the independent minded These New Puritans (as with their one-time label mates Wild Beasts) are a much needed corrective. After the post-punk/dance fusion of Beat Pyramid and the dark percussive majesty of Hidden, Field of Reeds marks their most surprising, experimental and heartfelt expression to date. It's an album that just grows in stature with every listen: as made clear in my previous review, it's the wonderful sound of an auteural vision reaching full maturity. A truly essential listen.

Key Track: Organ Eternal (but seriously, just listen to the whole damn thing, okay?)

Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City



Vampire Weekend had previously been slightly frustrating: clearly far more intelligent and self-aware than many of their detractors would suggest, but always slightly light-weight and unambitious - on Contra, songs as well-crafted as Horchata and Diplomat's Son sat alongside the lazy Cousins or Holiday. Come Modern Vampires of the City though, they've not just made the record we hoped they might be capable of: they've completely exceeded any expectations placed on them. An insightful, creative record that touches on ecenomic inequality, the loss of faith and the fear of death, it's one of the year's most welcome surprises.

Key Track: Ya Hey

Various Artists - After Dark 2



Chalk it up to the Gosling effect or whatever else you like, but right now the Italians Do It Better stable have never been more in-demand. The long-delayed After Dark 2 therefore is a much welcome distilliation of their Italo disco/synth-pop aesthetic, bringing together their most notable acts - Chromatics, Glass Candy, Desire and others - for an ideal noctural mixtape of brand-new material that suggests Johnny Jewel's songwriting is only just hitting its peak. Endless Window has raved about it before, and what's more it's now available to stream and download from Johnny Jewel's Soundcloud for free.

Key Track: Glass Candy - The Possessed

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