Sunday, January 27, 2008

Empty Vessels make the most noise


My first gig of 2008, and my first visit to The Cellar too. Just off Oxford's main shopping thoroughfare Cornmarket in Frewin Court, it's (as the name might suggest) a dingy, insalubrious underground dive - in other words, just the sort of venue I like, and a great antidote to the clinical, corporate unpleasantness of the Academy, which, incidentally, I heard referred to today as "the Cardiac" (you work it out...). OK, so the beer's by no means great, but at £1.50 a pint it's like being a student all over again, even if Real Life and the world of work await tomorrow morning. Easy does it, then...

Musically speaking, the proceedings don't get off to a very promising start. As a relative newcomer to the city, I don't want - metaphorically speaking - to throw open the saloon doors and pick fights with the locals, so let's be diplomatic and just say that Von Braun aren't very good. 'Mare Frigoris' is typical - drab, ponderous and not a little pretentious, referencing grunge, classic rock and Bends-era Radiohead all at once without doing any of them justice - and when at one point in the set the girl in front of me exclaims "They've played a new song!", I get the impression it's occasioned less by a sense of delight than by one of sarcasm-laden surprise.

For a small, quaint, genteel city that's historically been (and in many ways still is) at the heart of the British establishment, Oxford seems to have a refreshing affinity with severe aural abuse. Not only are there two experimental / noise promoters - Permanent Vacation and Poor Girl Noise - but there are also enough local bands for them to put on (Traktors, Euhedral and Elapse-O, to name but three) that Drowned In Sound has carried an article largely focused on the city's scene.

Named after an obscure Anglo-Saxon goddess and pronounced "Hretha", Hreda are the first of the scene's underground heroes that I've seen - and they're more than enough to whet my appetite for more. Like Von Braun, they're comprised of two guitarists and a drummer (tonight, at least - sometimes they're accompanied by a cellist), but the difference couldn't be much more pronounced.

On 'KHTC' in particular, the trio, clad in what seems to be a uniform of plaid shirts, demonstrate that they've got the gorgeous shimmering weightiness of a certain mob of Glaswegians down to a tee, before cutting loose with a fast and furious passage towards the end that represents a reaching-out beyond math-rock to post-hardcore and gestures towards the intricate guitar interplay of some of their other songs. It's tremendous stuff, and easily convinces me we'll be seeing each other again - just don't know where, and don't know when...

In truth, though, tonight's out-of-town headliners are even better.

Just back from recording their debut LP in Minnesota (they're open to suggestions as to what it might be called) and featured on the cover of the latest issue of Artrocker, multi-instrumentalist Leeds quintet Vessels are pretty much jacks of all trades when it comes to post-rock. Swoon as they do Mogwai's brooding piano-led electronica ('Yuki')! Marvel as they manage to combine Explosions In The Sky's ethereal reverb, Do Make Say Think's fluidity and Fridge's rhythm and top it all off with a fuckload of eardrum-bothering distortion, all in the same song ('Two Words And A Gesture')!

If all that sounds a bit like karaoke, then that's partly because it is. Still too in thrall to their influences and in need of their own voice they may be at the moment, and there's also a bit of work to be done in weaving the more electronic material more fully into the fabric of the set, but Vessels nevertheless have that unmistakeable air of being on the brink of something very special indeed. The question is: can they take that undeniable potential and go further? One thing's for sure: I'll be following their progress with keen interest.

Turns out that the gig was part of Big Hair, a club night which appears to take place every other Thursday. The bands busy packing up, the temptress of a DJ persuades us to stay for an ill-advised extra pint by kicking her set off with My Bloody Valentine's 'Only Shallow', The Jesus & Mary Chain's 'The Living End' and Death In Vegas's 'Aisha'. 'Touch Me I'm Sick', 'Sliver' and 'Freakin' Out' follow soon afterwards. Something tells me I need to take a Friday off work one week to be able to enjoy it properly...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Chuckle brothers (and sisters)

(Not music-related, but what the heck - I'm sure you can forgive me...)

The Laughter Track is a new collaborative blog along the same lines as The Art Of Noise but dedicated to celebrating and promoting stand-up comedy.

It's been set up by Alan - any regular readers of Random Burblings will already be familiar with his extensive coverage of the Edinburgh Festival - and I'll be contributing live reviews, DVD reviews, features and maybe the odd interview too. Joining us will be Caroline, Clair and regular-round-these-'ere-parts Skif, but it's very much a case of the more the merrier - so if you'd like to get involved leave us a comment on the site or drop me an email.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Talking 'Heads

The Futureheads/Grammatics/Penfold Gate, Loughborough University, 19th January 2008

Leicester's problem with the live scene for a while has been that while there's a few good small venues, for the most part in recent years there's been nothing in size between the Charlotte (capacity 390) and De Montfort Hall (2200). However, following a change of venue management Leicester and Loughborough universities, with capacities round about the 800 range, are now starting to get their acts together in terms of booking bands all year round to gain a foothold in the touring fraternity, which for a city often overlooked in favour of Northampton or Nottingham can only be a good thing. Attracting bands of this calibre out to the east Midlands' foremost part-sporting development centre of excellence's student union is part of the result. (Or at least that's by and large what the promoter told me when he buttonholed me.)

Quite aside from having a singer who looks like a scaled-down version of Cedric Bixler-Zavala of At The Drive-In/The Mars Volta, locals Penfold Gate are no slouches, having appeared on some sort of Channel 4 Music unsigned band competition thing (no, not that one). If at moments they resemble the kind of wide-eyed band whom an unscrupulous major label might mold into a Hoosiers-type image, they seem far too smart to fall for the easy route to the charts - there's more than a little of the just down the road Young Knives in their wide-eyed indiepop as it used to be with smart, witty lyrics. They've brought quite a few friends along by the looks of it too, and make a lot more by throwing a good number of CDs out into the throng mid-set. Also of note: the guitarist ends the set seemingly playing guitar with his left hand and keyboard with his right like Battles' Ian Williams, although his set-up is probably more advanced than a mini-Korg.

Leeds' Grammatics are nowhere near such an easy proposition. The sort of sound that omnipresent Myspace descriptive tag of 'Melodramatic Popular Song' was made for, for the most part they tend towards interlocked post-rock portentious complexity, not quite as heavy on pedals as most, although there's a lot of delay used, and with a cellist, apparently in her second gig, creating soaring vapour trails across the sound, but it's definitely in the ballpark of what gets called the Sonic Cathedral in some quarters, along the lines of the long lost Hope Of The States or much touted Leicester outfit Kyte. Sometimes, as with recent single Shadow Committee, the controlled noise resolves itself into giddy jerkiness not far from Les Savy Fav at their most awkward. They're not quite at their cathartic peak here and a lot of people clearly don't follow what's going on, but there's quite a lot here to suggest their quoted influence from Cursive could take them along similar cult lines.

You have to feel some pangs of sympathy for the Futureheads. Dropped by 679 Recordings when they followed up their number 11 album with number 12 follow-up News And Tributes, they've had to watch the whole post-punk revival world flatten out and take advantage of the sound they brought into play back in 2003, not least the Killers, Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party, the bands they went on the 2005 NME tour with (Manchester Evening News: "If you were to put a bet on any of these NME tour bands to go the distance, then The Futureheads rise head and shoulders above the crowd") And yet that debut might well end up being anointed as the very best to come out of this mid-00s revivalist scene, still standing up today as it did three and a half years ago as an unsettled, unsettling wonder. It's no wonder they play eight tracks from it here, opening with Meantime; it is interesting, though, that they only do one, single Skip To The End, from News And Tributes. It barely matters, actually, as this audience is up for it, Barry Hyde, tonight sporting the curious sartorial choice of a leather waistcoat with nothing beneath but topped off with a bow tie (which eventually comes loose and has to be literally wrung out with sweat), moved to comment on the energy levels and that "you're better than Warwick". In fact, they contravene the usual method by starting the pit from halfway back during the second song, superior recent free giveaway Broke Up The Time.

Oh yeah, the third album, scheduled for their own Nul Records in March. Six new songs are played, and while not all work those that do - The Girl With The Radio Heart, tentative title track This Is Not The World, proper single The Beginning Of The Twist - prove adversity has not dulled their way with a fractured melody, guitar interplay or harmonic call and response vocal, meaty riffs placing them largely somewhere between Meantime and News And Tributes' Cope. Some of the old songs are teased out a bit in places, but on Hounds Of Love Hyde doesn't need to deploy his old routine of dividing the room in half, everyone not just singing along with Ross Millard on the intro but adding Jaff's counter-vocal before he can. They're confident enough to ignore First Day and end with old B-side Piece Of Crap, which helps reinforce that it's like they've never been away.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I love the Eighties

The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster/The Dirty Backbeats/Wander Phantom, Leicester Charlotte, 30th December 2007

What sort of band books a national tour between Christmas and new year, then? Probably the sort that don't look like they have stable family units to go home to, thinking about it.

Wander Phantom, from just over the Nottinghamshire border, are 80s Matchbox's current regular touring partners and come from a similar area of the rock swamp. Two bass players don't so much slither around as anchor the sound to the floor while Callum Thompson makes like a goth David Thomas of Pere Ubu. It's efficient stoner rock not dissimilar to desert sludge rockers Kyuss (former employers of Josh Homme) but there's little in their five minute-plus songs to really mark them out.

Unlike the Dirty Backbeats. The last time I reviewed them for TAoN it got reprinted on their Myspace with, for some reason, a credit to Metro, and while this set isn't as fire and brimstone compelling as either that Summer Sundae warm-up party set or their livewire storming of the Musician stage at the festival itself a day later, it does nothing to dim the view that they might well be the finest Leicester currently has to offer, and going on the attempts at dancing to it all the city's cognescenti are very willing to give it back to them. At the risk of repeating myself descriptively, the electrified psychedelic blues suggests Captain Beefheart but with an amping up, once a malfunctioning bass has been sorted out, into Nuggets territory, the band sharp as a needle with the breakdowns and freakouts while Grant still prowls the stage like we might owe him money. A cover of Johnny Kidd & the Pirates's early rock'n'roll number one Shaking All Over dissolves into pure mania, while the Mark Lamarr Radio 2 show hit The Bop remains the showstopper. They seem from their Myspace bulletins to be playing a lot more gigs in London of late, so something could well be afoot for them in 2008. Let's hope so.

Someone's brought a toy chainsaw with them and is waving it above their head for all they're worth as The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster take the stage. Hard to think TEMBLD's psychotic punk-rockabilly gave them five top 40 singles, much less that permanently spinny-eyed Guy McKnight was once let onto Never Mind The Buzzcocks. They may have been dropped by Island after two albums, losing a member and disappearing for a couple of years but the formula is still there and still works - tribal voodoo drumming, bludgeon electrified blues-punk riffola and McKnight using either his lugubrious baritone or his impressive lung-shredding scream, as if Nick Cave had never given up on the Birthday Party. Nobody else dares to sound like them now, or at least when they try to they get it wrong (evening, the Horrors), which on tonight's evidence is both a blessing and a curse, the new songs pretty much working to the same formula as the old ones, so while the place evidently goes mad to Mister Mental and Celebrate Your Mother it all becomes one-paced - a wildly fast pace, admittedly - over time. McKnight's vocals and the guitars suffer from the Charlotte's renowned muffled sound, and when McKnight eventually has one of his usual wanders into the crowd it's to be curtailed when his mike breaks and he has to use that of his guitarist. While after eight years the fight has by no means gone out of them and 2008's third album should uphold their uberraucous tradition, tonight it doesn't seem to have completely clicked.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Keep on Truckin'


Green Man may have been "my third and final festival of the summer" - but, as things turned out, it wasn't my final festival of the year.

The organisers of local shindig (boutique festival if you must) Truck, flush with the success of this year's event - rearranged for September after the site was flooded under several feet of water on the weekend in July it was scheduled to take place - decided to put together two other indoor mini-festivals to brighten up the late autumn. The second, headlined by Youthmovie Soundtrack Strategies and ex-Delgado Emma Pollock, took place in High Wycombe earlier this month, but I made it to the first, back at the tail end of November, in a venue which makes (*spit*) the Academy look good...

* * * * *

Exhausted after the brisk walk up Headington Hill and trying to find my bearings, I end up strolling in through what turns out to be the Students Union's back entrance without being questioned. Presumably my flushed appearance makes me pass for an out-of-breath roadie busy lugging heavy equipment to and from the vans. I've already bought a ticket, but less scrupulous punters may well have taken advantage of the laxness and deprived the organisers of the extra revenue.

My arrival coincides with the very end of Stornoway's set. Far too much conversation (well, rambling) and not enough action for my liking, but the fact that Truck like them enough to put out their new EP On The Rocks early in 2008 and that their idea of a politically engaged song is one about the conservation of fish stocks ('The Good Fish Guide') suggests something interesting may be afoot.

The action switches to the main stage (we'll be shuttling from one side of the room to the other all night), and The People's Revolutionary Choir. Clearly not short of self-belief (frontman Lal Townsend in particular), the sextet are a bit like Verve before they added the The, when they were more a storm in heaven than a storm in a teacup. Personally speaking, most of the right boxes are ticked - heavy Spiritualized influence (one song is called 'Painkiller Blues', while another seems to filch the chorus from 'I Think I'm In Love'), early demos produced by The Jesus & Mary Chain's Jim Reid and Ben Lurie, recent support slot on tour with The Brian Jonestown Massacre - but unfortunately there's precious little going on that could be described as "revolutionary", and too often the songs are laborious or clodhopping Definitely Maybe cast-offs (see singles 'The Breeze That Blows' and 'Do You Feel Like I Do' respectively).

Witches, by contrast, certainly couldn't be accused of being derivative. Tipped by locals as the best band waiting to break out of Oxford, on first exposure they're a baffling proposition (and a long, long way from the black metal band you might expect from the name) - an odd combination of thin vocals, slightly overwhelming power chords and drumming, and Calexico-style marachi trumpet fronted by Dave Griffiths, who looks like a young Holly Johnson and may just be the poshest man in rock. Towards the end, though, it starts to make a little more sense, and I'm inclined to look out for them again.

No such lukewarm response to Blood Red Shoes. Arguably the hardest working band in Britain, Laura-Mary Carter and Steven Ansell are very much the finely honed machine with a formidable arsenal of spiky and direct singles that sound like Nirvana songs reinterpreted by the fem-punk outfits beloved by Kurt Cobain - 'It's Getting Boring By The Sea' and 'You Bring Me Down' (to be re-released in February) kick us off, with 'I Wish I Was Someone Better' putting in an appearance mid-set.

It may not be quite as electric a show as at the Barfly in Cardiff at the beginning of the year - probably partly because the venue's too capacious, the duo are too far apart on stage and Carter's suffering from flu, accidentally pouring a drink into her eye at one point - but the way the inordinately affable Ansell manages to perform his vocal duties while thrashing seven shades of shite out of his drumkit is in itself a remarkable thing to witness. The album's now due in April, and it can't come soon enough.

Time for more local heroes. As residents of Steventon, the village in which the Truck festival proper takes place each year, Goldrush are only too happy to be on tonight's bill. But despite the room being at its fullest for a set heavy on material from latest LP The Heart Is The Place, it's not quite the triumph that might have been hoped for. Their epic countrified indie is competent enough, but songs like 'Goodbye Cruel World' are let down by the vocals, and the feeling remains that Americans like Wilco, Grandaddy and My Morning Jacket do this kind of thing much better.

Which leaves headliners The Warlocks. They're tourmates of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and devotees of The Velvet Underground and Spacemen 3. They take us back to the same place as The People's Revolutionary Choir with familiar singles 'Hurricane' and 'Shake The Dope Out', though some of the material from latest album Heavy Deavy Skull Lover suggests a stoned drift in the direction of Dead Meadow's territory. And they have two drummers. All right up my street - on paper.

And yet somehow Bobby Hecksher's crew contrive to make what could potentially be thrilling, transcendental and atmospheric sound flat, listless and jaded. Once you've appreciated the spectacle and admired the impressive timing, even the pair of drummers is dull because they play exactly the same lines for every song, never once doing anything independently and creatively (unlike, say, The Melvins). By the time they finish, it's long gone midnight and there are only a handful of people left. One, who looks like Dec, is utterly mashed, gurning and swaying around in a world of his own, having a whale of a time - and therein lies the problem. Unlike almost all of their influences and contemporary allies, The Warlocks are a druggy band who are only interesting if you're in a chemically altered state of mind; if you're not, they're soporifically dull.