Alternative music reviews

October 31, 2005

Circus Normal by Circus Normal

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Welsh rock – there’s so many Welsh rock bands plying their trade and many decent ones around, Manic Street Preachers obviously, Stereophonics, Super Furry Animals and Feeder. Straight outta Cardiff Bay are Circus Normal, gigging regulars of the bluesy rock kind. There’s nothing flashy about this lot, the music is straight-forward classic rock with earnest vocals and the same grit that served the Stereophonics so well. There are even hints of The Verve on this single release, ‘Ride’ being a prime case in point – acoustic strumming and pensive singing. The opener ‘Only Time Will Tell’, however, is a seventies inspired funky rocker with memorable guitar wah-wah forming the main melodic hook.

Not at all shabby, this is enjoyable rock, the type that goes down well with festival crowds which Circus Normal are no strangers to. ‘Scream’ lacks the groundswell of positively that ‘Only Time Will Tell’ gained by being pedestrian and having an obvious chorus done by countless of similar bands, but flows neatly. There’s even a “hidden” song called ‘When Will I Be Free’ at the end of the disc, which maintains the quality control, the lead guitar being the high-point. The song is not too far removed from later day Pearl Jam, rough around the edges aspiring to the classic rock hey-day. The single serves as a good sampler of the band’s repertoire with plenty to chew over.

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Review by Nick Collings

October 25, 2005

Aqualung Live by Jethro Tull

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This live limited edition of Jethro Tull’s 1971 big seller ‘Aqualung’ was recorded in front of an invited audience for US radio station XM with royalties being donated to homeless charities. With the album’s premise over, let’s discuss the new re-workings of songs approaching 35 years old. The first side is the story of a homeless vagrant called Aqualung and the second side is an attack on organised religion. Band leader Ian Anderson introduces his songs politely; the band plays faithfully and professionally, each song pretty much what you’d expect from a band playing these songs for several years. The downside is Anderson’s weak vocals, not much variation and lacking the bite of his youth. The trademark flute does get annoying after a while especially on the extended flute solo on ‘My God’, maybe it’s because I’m not a “flute” fan, thus missing out a large component of Jethro Tull’s appeal. The hunger is missing on this re-recording which is understandable as the flourishes of youth are long gone. And let’s get one fact straight, this is Ian Anderson’s band with an ever rotating list of musicians, so all you need to know is that Ian Anderson plays along with only other original guitarist Martin Barre – the rest are some other blokes who actually do a sterling job; the guitars are fairly complex and the rhythm section does a fine job in holding the record together. The performances are restrained through, as if the band are holding back, preferring to play the notes in the correct order rather than letting rip.

The undoubted highlights – ‘Aqualung’, ‘Crosseyed Mary’ and ‘Locomotive Breath’ are classics in the progressive rock field, but there are a few clunkers in the form of ‘Wondering Aloud’ a Moody Blues pandering pop piece which comes off as trite and ‘My God’ is a dark song obviously against organised religion which starts off interesting but just goes on and on with that blimin’ flute solo, killing any velocity gained. The acoustic intervals define the word “prettiness” but are really insubstantial fluff, resulting in a maddening inconsistent album with moments of sublime greatness. Of course, Tull-fanatics will not care one bit about the flaws and kinks, because this is a better recorded version that the original 1971 version. The limited edition disc also contains short interview snippets which cover themes such as how ‘Aqualung’ is NOT a concept album (okay, you got that!) but a “bunch of songs” and discussing how riffs are really simple using the same permutation of notes. This is all very insightful for fans and non-fans alike to understand the thinking behind the record.

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Review by Nick Collings

October 24, 2005

Progress On Paper by Stick Finlays

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Stick Finlays are a young Scottish three-piece that plays Mudhoney styled “grunge” rock, with moments that could pass for early Placebo era. I use the word grunge loosely as the eight songs on ‘Progress On Paper’ has little in common with Alice in Chains or Soundgarden. More contemporary acts spring to the forefront of my mind, At The Drive-In and My Vitriol, retaining their hunger for snarling vocals and crackling surges of distortion – this is an exciting band to listen to. The small town atmosphere of hometown Jedburgh on the Scottish borders is apparent in the determination within the songs. When a band goes through struggles it makes the music feel more honest – so many bands lack passion which cannot be directed at the Stick Finlays.

The stand-out track is ‘Return To Zero’ which intentionally or not nabs The Smashing Pumpkin’s chorus to ‘Quiet’ and turns it into a revitalized rock song. Maybe the nod to the Pumpkin’s track ‘Zero’ in ‘Return To Zero’ is the blatant clue. Even ‘Cultural Vandal’ reminds me of The Pumpkin’s ‘Bodies’ carried by its descending riff and full throttle guitars. Difficult to separate the band’s influences at an early stage in their career, I’m sure the Stick Finlays will find their own identity in the near future, as this band show so much promise. Vocalist Tommy Hunter has a voice that suits this type of music – gritty post-grunge that doesn’t show his accent, you could mistake them for an American band. The production is also well-handled, Funeral For A Friend producer Joe Gibb managing to record a raw sound without unnecessary gloss which taints so many modern rock records. The combination of an aggressive rhythm section, uneasy guitar tones and anxiety-ridden lyrics makes this a welcome shot in the arm for Scottish rock music.

Review by Nick Collings

October 22, 2005

Pearls Before Swine by Crashed Out

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Old-skool rabble-rousing punk rockers Crashed Out are a fine example of how to pull this fairly limited genre off with aplomb. Influenced by all those late seventies punk bands, Crashed Out don’t forget to include really strong choruses and remarkably catchy hooks to their Rancid/Clash inspired long player ‘Pearls Before Swine’. Formed 10 years ago when the band were just 15 and 16 year old school kids, Crashed Out have constantly toured the gig circuit supporting the likes of UK Subs in the process. The songs are either mid or fast paced, with gritty, sing-a-long vocals that don’t differ much from each song but does create a single-minded attempt to bludgeon the listener into pogo-bouncing goons. It’s hard to pick favourite songs as they are all of high standard – take ‘Freakshow’ which sings the praises of all the freaks from the band’s hometown in South Shields. For sheer novelty value ‘Fat Punks Don’t Pogo’ is a play on how fat punks – yes, you guessed it – don’t pogo anymore. The guitarist uses all kinds of finger licking trickery on his fret board throughout the album’s duration, making these songs sound like a cross between AC/DC and English Oi Punk. The guitar playing is by far the most interesting instrument musically, always finding ways to make the riffs as melodic as possible. The threatening ‘Sink The Ink’ could even be a nod to AC/DC’s similarly titled ‘Sink The Pink’.

It helps that the songwriting is good too, lots of woo-whoah backing vocals and chugging rhythms contributing to the overall sum. Possibly the best song on the album is ‘I’m The Outcast’ which dabbles with Reggae chords in the verses before unleashing a feel-good chorus of not fitting in but not caring. The other highpoint ‘The Jarrow Song’ is another tasty track with first person perspective of a Georgie with more threats in the lyrics; “And if they don’t give us half a chance, Don’t even give us a second glance, Then Geordie with my blessings burn them down”. To finish with yet another AC/DC reference, these songs do not differentiate from a well-worn formula; there are no soppy ballads, no electronic layers, no wussy sensitivity – this is street punk attitude with king-size balls.

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Review by Nick Collings

October 17, 2005

Electric Knives by Jynxt

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Please don’t let the band’s gimmick – that the band includes children of Fleetwood Mac founder Jeremy Spencer – or the photo of Jynxt posing with the credibility void that was Crazy Town on their website throw you off the scent, this is distinctively attitude-chick driven rock. The band comprises of shortened named Tally (vocals), Nat (drums), Ben (guitar) and Jez (DJ), with their sound described as electronic music in the style of Evanescence. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead of gothic whining, Jynxt are more New-Wave punk with modern sounding electronic trickery and hotch-potch of Eighties and Nineties influences from Garbage to Roxette. The single ‘Electric Knives’ combines fuzzy guitars with strained female vocals and simplistic guitar notes. The B-Side ‘Lucky Day’ continues in a similar vein, but less propulsive and energetic, the main hook being an out-of-place Spanish guitar motif. There’s no passion, conviction or musical ideas spanning more than a chugging guitar and unnecessary electric garnish. It’s a shame as with the band’s musical heritage something less generic and idea-free would have been expected.

[A few weeks later …]

Since my original review of ‘Electric Knives’, I felt I was too harsh on Jynxt – still they do have a crappy band name. A few weeks later I was sent a second copy of the single, but this time with a different B-Side (‘Perverted Mind’ replacing ‘Lucky Day’). And to further tempt fate, ‘Electric Knives’ was given a very positive review in rock bible Kerrang! – which raised my eyebrows. So let’s re-appraise, the chorus to ‘Electric Knives’ has eventually grown on me after giving the song some breathing space. Maybe it’s my imagination but the song sounds like it has been remixed, the production fuller than the tinnier version on my original copy. I still think the band is trying too hard with style over substance. B-Side ‘Perverted Mind’ is a decent stab at Shirley Manson sultriness with a very commercial feel – again nothing approaching brilliant but surprisingly good and much better than the sub-standard ‘Lucky Day’. After a second chance, Jynxt leave a better impression.

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Review by Nick Collings

The Eighteenth Day Of May

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Formed – funnily enough – during the month of May, this modern folk group are pleasant to the extreme, this is wistful music to chill out to and an autumn day. With a background of performing traditional English folk songs, The Eighteenth Day Of May blend West Coast pop (think of timeless groups like The Byrds) with psychedelic loveliness. Comprising of six members and playing a diverse range of instruments (everything from flute, harmonica, mandolin to the autoharp) you cannot accuse The Eighteenth Day Of May of being limited in the instrument department. The songs though are fairly limited, not much variation is offered throughout their self titled album, sometimes it gets slower paced with Allison Brice singing engaging trad-folk with twangy guitars as on ‘Lady Margaret’. Other times, a song like ‘Sir Casey Jones’ is steeped in good old fashioned values – the sort of song Cameron Crowe would use to soundtrack his movies.

Over its 47 minute duration I’m getting languid – just let the songs soak in and don’t expect too much. If you dig relaxing and undemanding folk, then The Eighteenth Day Of May are very good in their chosen field. I just cannot get into the album; there are no strong melodies to grab onto, the closest being ‘The Highest Tree’ which at least has some liveliness. This album will be a matter of taste – some people will find plenty to adore, but the music just doesn’t click with me.

Review by Nick Collings

October 13, 2005

Storms Over Still Water by Mostly Autumn

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Ah, the Seventies. An era of adventurous classic rock bands, warm sounding guitars, well-placed synthesisers and a time when Deep Purple and Pink Floyd were the soundtrack to every teen’s life. York-based seven-piece Mostly Autumn want to re-capture that time, an era when songs were enriched with Hammond Organs, symphonic strings, female backing vocals and weeping guitar solos. In existence since 1999, Mostly Autumn have picked up a solid fan base, selling out 2000+ capacity venues and selling over 15,000 copies of their previous ‘Passengers’ album – pretty impressive stats for a relatively unheard band.

Polished and crammed with multi-layer instrumentation, songs like the Heather Findlay sang ‘Heart Life’ ooze sophistication. When the solo lead enters towards the end, the spirit of Gilmour is apparent. The same soaring notes and are played with conviction and would not be out of place on a classic Pink Floyd record. The catchy ‘Broken Glass’ has an Eighties style multi-tracked guitar hook, whilst dated is still foot-tappingly pleasurable.

The album is sequenced to include the shorter, poppier songs at the beginning with a few slow epics towards the end. Flutes, sombre piano and heavier emphasis of atmosphere dominate ‘Carpe Diem’ and the title track – ‘Storms Over Still Water’. Both songs show a band flexing their creativity, with ‘Carpe Diem’ about the devastating 2004 tsunami walking off with top honours, the striking vocal section from Heather merges nicely into Bryan Josh’s signature soaring guitar solo, which he pulls out the bag quite often throughout the album. Another extended song is ‘Candle To The Sky’, evocative of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, perhaps too much; the obvious influence is as distracting as it is unoriginal.

It’s hard not to think of Pink Floyd when listening to ‘Storms Over Still Water’, as the similarities are striking and unashamed. Fair play to the band, as Mostly Autumn has released a highly dependable and well-rounded album which has already gained plenty of acclaim from existing fans.

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Review by Nick Collings

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