Alternative music reviews

April 1, 2008

Obliterate the Past – Van Der Graaf Generator, RNCM Manchester, March 27th 2008

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So here we are at last; the time has gone so fast and so have my dreams. I’ve been listening to the music of Van der Graaf Generator for over 30 years, and they’ve been making it, in some shape or form, for over 40. To classify them lazily (and somewhat contemptuously) as ‘Prog’ doesn’t do justice to the breadth and depth of their work. Thursday’s performance at Manchester’s RNCM (as the first date of this years European jaunt) sees a return to an intimate venue with a decent sound, and with a new album (‘Trisector’) to promote, much is anticipated.

Unfortunately there is a big hole at the centre of everything with the absence of Dave Jackson (he couldn’t make the “leap of faith” that being in VDGG demands, according to a Hammill newsletter), which means that the renditions of old favorites such as ‘Scorched Earth’, ‘Lemmings’, ‘Black Room’ (a rare outing) and ‘Man-Erg’ don’t scale the peaks of old, and I found myself mentally adding the sax parts in compensation. Nonetheless, ‘Still Life’ remains (to my mind, at least) a masterpiece, and a typically manic encore of ‘Nutter Alert’ sends the majority home happy.

However, I made my way home somewhat uneasily, no longer sure of what I expected, or what I got from the evening. Hammill and co. are much more than a soulless ‘greatest hits’ retread, but the difficulties of selecting a representative two hours from their complete recorded works result in a show that falls uncomfortably between nostalgia and an attempt to show that their contemporary output is equally valid. VDGG live remain endearingly ramshackle (Hammill still gives no indication that he has in any way mastered the guitar, although as he quips whilst re-tuning “it took a hell of a beating”) and there is a warm interaction between band and audience. When (if) they come round again, I think I’ll stay at home in a darkened room listening to ‘Pawn Hearts’. On vinyl…

Review by Big Dave

March 24, 2008

My Lifelong Psychological Experiment by The Reverse

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This is the third EP on Line Out Records from London’s The Reverse. Each one has been beautifully packaged and, with limited runs of 500 copies, are prime candidates for future collectors’ items. The same sort of care with the sleeves has been taken with the music – it is lush in sound but contains a very sharp blade that cuts straight to the emotional heart.

Each EP has developed the character of The Reverse. It’s right that this should be a series of EPs rather than an album because such concentration could not be held over 40 minutes. I dislike making comparisons but I would have to make a connection to House Of Love They evoke same sort of surge I still feel when hearing Shine On or Christine – but the difference is that, for me, House Of Love only wrote a few great songs while The Reverse have already created more highlights in their short career.

My Lifelong Psychological Experiment firmly establishes The Reverse in the English tradition of the personal and melodic. Undoubtedly it is Pop but with the sort of intelligence and knowingness that The Kinks once applied to their music. Other Boys and Emily are simple songs but performed with such artistry and a sense of dynamics (bounce provided by drummer and bassist) that they are a joy to listen to.

In the end what makes it more than just a singer/songwriter exposing his soul is the battle he has with the guitarist to be heard (I knew there was a reason I mentioned House Of Love). If you love guitar then you will love this band. The song that makes this EP for me is To The Bridge and it is like Robbie Krieger has visited just to add some classic Doors guitar to the recipe. It’s a potent combination to have both music and lyrics like this working together.

The Reverse

March 20, 2008

Is/Are/Was by Khaya

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Is/Are/Was by KhayaKhaya were an Edinburgh band active between 1996 and 2001. Although they recorded two Peel sessions I don’t think I remember them – I must have been just dipping into the Peel show in that period. I am however very grateful that this retrospective album has been released because it allows me to catch up and enjoy their music. I can’t find the details that say when the CD is available but I assume it is soon.

The opening track is Summer/Winter Song which was their debut single and it’s easy to see why it made a big impact in Indie circles. It is a multi-layered jaunt with half-spoken lyrics over the top of a bouncing rhythm track with twanging guitar lines, effortlessly adding melody through backing vocals and an occasional distorted guitar to beef it up. The next track is Duet which features a young woman telling a story of a day out with her mates in the band and she can barely hold back the giggles. I certainly get the idea that beer and fun were a big part of the band’s raison d’etre.

When they step beyond whimsicality, things get even better. The Vampires allows some harrowing screamed vocals but some lightness through the use of violin and a particularly theatrical invitation of “Come on, vampires”. For a perfect combination of the two sides of Khaya you have Death 2 Numbers that combines a cheesy violin section with some thrashed guitar and a glorious chorus of “Just because there’s no second verse doesn’t mean there no song, Anna”.

Despite the fact that this is a compilation and so is by its nature is bitty, there are more than enough highlights to make it wonderful listening. It’s a suitable reminder that this was a talented and beautifully shambolic band.

The Vampires by Khaya

The Vampires by Khaya

Khaya on SL records

March 14, 2008

All Points North by The Manitou

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All Points North by The ManitouThe Manitou is from Detroit and has an album out celled All Points North. That’s as much information as I can glean about him. On the other hand that is enough because it helped me locate where all the points of reference are for the music. With track titles like Ice Cream At Soldiers And Sailors Monument and I Wrote Your Name On The Davison Overpass, you quickly realise that there is a theme here – the theme is Detroit. The music is ambient textures of layered synth-like sound. The effect is to induce a kind of dream-like waking atmosphere that is in a totally different timescale from music with beats. At times I started to imagine wide streets, blurred tall structure and vague tingling of my skin feeling wind or rain. I’m used to music having a physical effect but this was cerebral as well.

Initially I had thought this would not be my thing at all but I girded my loins and was rewarded. This album is magical. One extra affect is that is has changed my view of Detroit. I now imagine it as somewhere with wide space (maybe not green space but space nevertheless) rather than the crowded urban jungle I had assumed it was.

There’s a little more information on Slo.bor records and a load of short clips on the emusic page for this album here.

March 13, 2008

Warfrat Tales by Various Artists

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Warfrat TalesI always say that I am the world’s slowest reviewer in the world and as if to prove the point here are my thoughts on a 2005 release. I have recently been ripping my CDs to mp3 and something about this album made me put on a USB Flash drive for the car. I was surprised when the first track began playing because I didn’t recognise it. During the next few tracks I found myself really enjoying it. It was strangely familiar and yet unknown.

The album was originally released on vinyl in 1983 featuring a number of post-punk/alternative LA bands from the early 80’s. Avebury Records have collected a number of new tracks by those bands (and one by the only band I can remember – The Gun Club) and brought out an ‘Unabridged’ version. I think the idea of reviewing a Nostalgic release where I had no memory of any of the bands must have put me off, but I was wrong to ignore it. The songs are all recorded with minimal production values e.g. no excessive compression, played nearly live. All of the energy of those times is exposed – just as it was in the UK with the set of bands we had at the time such as The Blue Orchids and TV21.

The astonishing thing about the album is how consistent the overall effect is. It sometimes feels that this is one band with a change in singer and the occasional guest musician. There a gems everywhere you look and they change on every listen. On this latest listen through I am invigorated by the Point’s Pothead and The Question’s three tracks.

I have no idea how this album would sound to someone without a memory of the early 80s from an anti-mainstream point of view. But I do know that the sound of sprightly bass and urgent vocals will never lose its attraction for me.

Warfrat Tales

March 10, 2008

Nothing Is Lost by Things In Herds

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Nothing Is LostThis is the third album by Brighton’s Things In Herds that I have reviewed. Each album has been magnificent and I treasure them in the same way as some people treasure their Nick Drake records.

The instrumentation is sparse – a voice and a picked guitar with occasional additions of a female backing voice, drums, and/or harp. The spell is never broken. Each track is an exploration of the vagaries of human relationships that is obviously personal to Pete of Things In Herds but done with such tenderness and universality that I defy you not to relate directly to the lyrics, let alone the feelings expressed.

You Know is one of the finest quiet songs I have ever heard. I followed each preview version as it was put up on the MySpace player and it has reached close to perfection on the album with its delicacy and simplicity.

You Know by Things In Herds.

You Know (clip)

Even the only song that could be described as upbeat, due to its music, is nihilistic in its lyrical intent. Nihilistic in a way that leaves you feeling all warm and fuzzy and happier than before.

Nothing Means A Thingby Things In Herds.

Nothing Means A Thing (clip)

Like the earlier Everything Has To End Somewhere, it is an album best listened to at night and best listened to with someone you love. The overall effect is inspiring rather than depressing because you can take strength from the shared experience and find your quiet thoughts and emotions have been expressed and amplified in such an artful way.

If you believe the world can be both sad and beautiful then this is the record for you.

Things In Herds

February 4, 2008

Mach Schau

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Mach SchauThe first Mach Schau EP was Demonstration One in 2005. The opening track Feel This Way was pretty standard punkish fare. But it was followed by Shoot The Blues with it’s lilting rhythmic guitar riff and poppy chorus. On she Said you get to hear a more raucous Mach Schau as they hurtle along at breakneck speed but full of variation with stops, starts, shouts, and an all out assault with guitars.

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She Said (clip)

By the time of the second EP, things are really coming together: there is urgency and energy but also a melodic edge to the songs that sets them apart from many in the punk/alternative arena. The Score Draw has so many words it’s almost impossible to fit them into the song. Someone has something to say and there’s a hell of a guitar track to back it up. But there’s no chance to relax as Number 28 and Vicious Circles pound away at your consciousness, This is a band that was meant to be seen live, but you could still feel the energy on record.

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Vicious Circles (clip)

Musically, Mach Scau were relentless alt-guitar rock but more besides. There’s often an emphasis on the offbeat – using it not in a Reggae way but to give everything a bit of swing. The final CD was Make Your Excuses and the title track takes Mach Schau into a more relaxed mode. The vocals and guitar introduce a more pop feel than previous releases and it works. This was the sort of track that could take a band into the world of Indie contenders – but this was already posthumous.

It was all over. Johnny MacIsaac had died . A short career with just three self-released EPs. There was clear development over the EPs and they were already gearing up to challenge This Et Al for the “breathless alternative rock” crown. It was a helter-skelter ride with a painful ending – but worth every minute.

The complete recorded works of Mach Schau are available on a CD. Treat yourself.

Mach Schau

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