Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Ex factor


Another day, another night spent underground in the company of men with scant regard for my long-term hearing...

And there was me assuming I wouldn't be the only person who decided the opening band on the bill had earned my attention on the strength of their name alone. As it is, Bedford's Ice, Sea, Dead People play to a sparse crowd, and in the yawning silences between songs, their patter not being up to much (the odd awkward muttering about "phallic endings" aside) during the excessive tuning-up time, you can the proverbial pin drop.

Those silences are only magnified by their juxtaposition with slashing, lacerating bursts of art-school post-punk, for which guitars are banged with fists and snapped strings stripped off with relish. This is music that Future Of The Left bassist Kelson Matthias has said makes him cry "just like the big black guy in the end of Prince's video for 'Purple Rain'". I think that's a compliment, and while I would suggest the mop-haired drummer could work on his timing, the likes of 'Justin Klein' mean I'm inclined to be broadly complimentary too.

The same can't be said for the more garrulous Load. Click. Shoot., fresh from performing at The Great Escape in Brighton. It would be nice to be able to agree with The Fly's assessment that they're "arguably the most exciting group to spring out of Devon in recent years", but everything about them - from the forgettable punk-funk splurge of songs like 'Le Disco Avec Moi', through the dance moves and yelping gang vocals, down to the deliberate punctuation of their name - screams "We're so now!" that it actually makes them seem strangely out-of-date, too late to the party. And not fashionably late, either. How could they be, boasting that they've just recorded 'The Boy Who' (amongst other tracks) with ex-Test Icicles guitarist Rory Attwell?

We're in a city whose ass currently belongs to Foals, and so it's not surprising that local label Vacuous Pop have taken enough of an interest to release their debut EP - but, for me, their set-closer 'Young Pretenders' says it all.

When I moved from Abingdon to Oxford itself in early November, and was at last able to get back into the gigging groove, I set about investigating what the city had to offer - and soon stumbled across a burgeoning noise scene. If I had to pick one song of those I came across that got me most excited, it was 'Sonny Liston' by Swans, Suicide and no wave afficionados Elapse-O, an out-there and deliciously ear-damaging cocktail of submarine bleeps, militaristic drumbeats, echoey vocals and dense feedback. 'Golden Ships' isn't too shoddy either.

Sure enough, 'Sonny Liston' is the song with which their set comes to a conclusion - but in the live environment the shifting tones and movements are sadly less easy to discern, the bleeps, drumbeats and vocals submerged not so much just beneath the surface as twenty thousand leagues under the sea. It's also fair to say, I think, that there are more gripping spectacles than two men swaying and occasionally hopping onstage with a laptop in the background. Perhaps, though, they're best enjoyed with your eyes shut and your ears more accustomed to picking things out of the depths? If that means seeing them again some time soon, then that's fine with me.

This is their first UK tour for two years, but Brooklynites Ex Models - like everyone else on tonight's bill - seem to be the victims of a Punt hangover which has meant a disappointing turnout. Not everything goes smoothly from a technical point of view either, with Zach Lehrhoff complaining with a smile that his amp is "humming in G", adding: "Do you have a different kind of power over here?" But these niggles set aside, they're quite a band to behold.

Not being at all familiar with their back catalogue - in fact, having never even heard them before tonight - I have no idea how much of the set is drawn from forthcoming album White Psychosis / White Dementia and how much from its three predecessors, but the majority of the material accords with their own description of themselves as a "fundustrial noise" outfit: fast, raw, clattering punk songs beaten, fractured and stretched out on the rack by gleeful math-rock and no wave loving torturers.

The most remarkable thing is the performance of Kid Millions, on long-term loan from psych freakos Oneida. Having cut a bookish figure at the bar when cashing in his beer tokens earlier, when showtime arrives he removes his glasses, places them on top of an amp and then proceeds to give a drumming masterclass. It really is like watching Clark Kent morph into Superman. Each seven minute long song Lehrhoff and guitarist Shahin Motia start up seems designed purely to try and break Millions, who appears to be under strict instructions never to play anything remotely approximating a regular beat, instead crashing his way from roll to fill to roll until trying to make a distinction between the two becomes impossible. It's exhausting just watching him at work, and by the time the trio retire I'm more than ready for bed. It's just a question of whether tinnitus will keep me awake...

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Punt and menace


Glastonbury may be suffering from some well-publicised problems in terms of appeal (largely thanks to the actions of cretins deterred by the mere thought of one act out of hundreds over the course of the weekend), but micro-festivals continue to spring up everywhere, each one instantly seeming to find sufficient sustenance to survive. They don't come much more micro than the Oxford Punt, a kind of miniature Dot To Dot taking place across five of city's most central venues and with a very local focus. In truth, though, the shindig, organised by local listings mag Nightshift (for which some of this 'ere review was written), is no Johnny-come-lately, having taken place annually for the past decade.

Foiled in my attempts to get down to Borders (yes, the bookshop was one of the five venues) in time to grab a pass - oh ye authors and copy-editors, why do you mock me thus? - I have to settle for a ticket for the venue whose bill started latest. Turns out rather well, as it happens - though not really thanks to Eduard Soundingblock, whose impression of Cardiacs gone death metal is a taste too acquired for my palate.

One sprawling opus which may be called 'You're Going Home In A Fucking Ambulance' is roughly ten songs badly sellotaped together, complete with occasional epic sections that I guess may be a nod to System Of A Down but that actually sound more preposterous than the manic majority. (That said, it's each to their own, and my companion is far more enthusiastic, mentioning Mr Bungle approvingly.)

David K Frampton bears an uncanny resemblance to one of my former housemates. More relevantly, though, he makes dance music, albeit dance music for people who like their ears put in a blender and then fed to them through a straw. Fuck Buttons fucking dubstep with an angle grinder, basically.

Frampton's decision to begin 2008 by releasing three albums in three months on his own Eyeless imprint - A Gravitation Towards The Head, The Orange Room and Red Out - might have you questioning his quality control, but the way he barrels aggressively about the stage tonight is enough to put any thoughts of questioning anything he does (certainly to his face, at least) right out of your head. Clutching three mics in his hands at once like a fat kid returning from an ice cream van with his bounty, he screams into one "We’re gonna rock ‘n’ roll tonight!" It’s not an empty promise.

Barely thirty seconds into their set it’s evident that 50ft Panda worship at the altar of The Riff. In fact, they probably pray five times a day, genuflecting in the direction of Tommy Iommi’s house.

In the sense that they’re an instrumental duo, there’s a hint of the leftfield about them (they themselves cite Lightning Bolt as an influence, as well as more conventional riffmasters like Melvins and Kyuss), but all the same there’s no sense of there being any greater objective than to bludgeon us into rapture, something they achieve with ease – tonight they’re preaching to the converted. If there's any puzzlement on our faces, it's because we're wondering how exactly two people can make so much noise.

I’ve been to a lot of gigs, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen an audience member insert their little finger deep into a performer’s belly button mid-song – until tonight. The witching hour is upon us by the time Clanky Robo Gob Jobs takes to the stage, and there’s no doubt that his gabba spazz-electro, going off like a nailbomb in a Nintendo factory, has an equally strange effect on people. Try as I might, I can't think of a better description of what I'm witnessing than that penned by Nightshift's own Dale Kattack: "a one-man mash-up of Napalm Death, Atari Teenage Riot and Harry Enfield's Kevin the teenager"...

Stood sweating in a blue hooded top with yellow plates in a crest down the back, the zip broken and his ample gut consequently protruding forth unrestrained, he complains about looking less like a stegosaurus (the intended effect) and more like "a fucking Mexican wrestler" before informing us: "I have some merchandise for sale: my ass, and what comes out of it". Nice - much like the closer, "a nice song about my penis". But is there a message in all this madness, a thought for us to take home and cherish? Why yes there is: "Fuck you lolcats, fuck you"...

Monday, May 26, 2008

Check mates


"We will drink the night away", sings Lewis Gordon on 'Held Hands', but even if he had photo ID you'd be hard-pressed to believe he is actually 18. Which makes the music he and his equally youthful band Gossamer Albatross play all the more remarkable - though the origins of their name does give a clue to the scale of their ambitions.

From the opener, a dark tale of stalking and paranoia, to the romantic and big-hearted 'Whispered Thoughts', their songs - complex compositions wrought of guitar, double bass and duelling violins - are a quiet revelation. Gordon comes across like Conor Oberst (were he even more fresh-faced than he already is) wedging a rocket up the backside of twee English folk.

The ignorant gobshites who seem to comprise the majority of the crowd aren't interested, but Jonquil's Hugo Manuel is - it's on his invitation that Gossamer Albatross have travelled over from Hereford. If the fruits of their recording sessions together turn out well, then they could really be in business - as it is, someone should get 'em signed up for a slot in the bandstand tent at this year's Green Man pronto.

(Incidentally, it was no surprise to discover that in enthusing about them, Simon's already beaten me to the punch on Sweeping The Nation.)

Chances are that if you’re in Oxford and come across a solo songwriter who goes by the name of Theo, he’s going to be a simply spiffing scarf-wearing chap, yah, who’s hit upon the novel idea of strumming a guitar sensitively as a way of attracting the fillies. Not Sam Knight, though. If I didn’t know that Worcester had a one-man math-rock answer to Ill Ease (and let’s face it, I didn’t – and neither did you), then I certainly do now.

But while Theo’s half-hour-long set passes without pause or break, it’s not all as good as the likes of ‘Invested In Defence’. The sense of wonderment and awe at the self-sampling technology and the uses to which he puts it gradually dissipates when you realise that every song consists of the same essential components: a guitar line by way of foundation, a more tricksy guitar line laid on top, and then a thrash about on the drums, his guitar slung around his back. Formulaic is the last thing you expect this type of music to be, but that’s what it comes to seem like.

The acid test is closing your eyes and asking yourself if it’s anywhere near as impressive – and the answer is, unfortunately, not really.

Opening my eyes, it’s at this point that I realise that Knight, like the male three-quarters of Gossamer Albatross, is wearing a check shirt - as are all three core members of next band to take to the stage, his current tourmates Hreda. Have I unwittingly stumbled upon some kind of bizarre kind of rock branch of the Freemasons where secret handshakes are replaced by a strict dress code, and am I about to get lynched as an outsider? Well, hopefully not - at least their part-time cellist Thom has opted for a sober grey jumper.

This is the second night of the tour, and after the disappointment of the previous evening's gig at The Windmill in Brixton - where they claim to have played to just three people - a hometown gig in front of a partisan crowd is exactly what Hreda need. In truth, it's far from perfect - too much imprecision (certainly in comparison with when I first sighted them) and too many shoulders shrugged in sheepish apology - but I can't help being a sucker for anyone who takes Explosions In The Sky as a blueprint. 'KHTC' again stands out, but this time 'New Pastures' is a close rival, drifting disarmingly along before pulverising and obliterating us with distortion at the end.

For a band whose founder member Hugo Manuel was previously in a post-rock outfit called The Modern, highly regarded local headliners Jonquil are slightly surprising in that they're neither post-rock nor modern. What isn't surprising is that several of them, including Manuel, are wearing check shirts...

The vast majority of the crowd might be here for them, but when Hugo decides to open with a quiet song they're shown exactly the same courtesy as Gossamer Albatross before them i.e. none whatsoever. It's only when stirring shout-along shanty 'Lions', the title track of their second album, starts up that all attention is suddenly drawn stagewards.

With their curious combination of experimental folk and feel-good bucolic anthemry, and their weight of numbers on stage, Jonquil exist at the place where Beirut, My Latest Novel and Broken Social Scene meet. (And what with various members moonlighting away from their day jobs in other bands, the latter comparison is particularly apt.) Factor in the facts that three of them run electronica / hip-hop label Crossword and that they effectively rewrite songs in learning how to play them, and you've got a pretty intriguing prospect.

Tonight the mix doesn't do them too many favours - though in the sound man's defence, there's so much going on that it must be a fiendishly hard job to keep track of it all - but even still the likes of the re-recorded 'Whistle Low' make it glaringly obvious why some people are tipping them to be the next band to graduate from Oxford onto the national stage. If they do, they'll be following in the footsteps of Foals, whose seal of approval was recently bestowed upon them in the pages of NME - and, as a second even more rousing rendition of 'Lions' is barked at the ceiling by nearly everyone in the venue to bring the evening to a close, you wouldn't bet against it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

In like Flynn

Johnny Flynn/Slow Club/The Black Report, Leicester Sumo, 4th May 2008

Unless the cameraman taking millions of flash photos from all conceivable angles at the front of the stage who doesn't reappear for any of the other acts is some sort of additional performance art aspect, The Black Report is one man, Callum Price, more commonly found fronting local Drowned In Sound and Annie Mac-approved, Shellac-inspired angular types Herra Hidro. Curious, then, that his own songs bear more resemblance to the sort of thing a skinny jeaned corporate indie band would turn out if their singer was required to perform a solo acoustic version of one of their songs, unenthralling melodic structures and lyrics that eventually blend into one inessential mess, cover of Richard Hawley's Just Like The Rain included. Still, he's brought plenty to see him, and consequently most of them bugger off to the bank holiday party happening upstairs straight away.

Which means they miss the unusual sight of a three-piece drum kit being set up centre front of stage. Slow Club are a duo on equal terms in which Charles (college yearbook hair) bashfully takes up often furiously strummed guitar and vocals while Rebecca (frilly pink skirt) hammers the kit standing up and harmonises or responds to the former's calls. The effect falls somewhere close to a northern English answer to the Moldy Peaches' minimalist New York minuets, or perhaps closer to a scaled down Tilly And The Wall. Like that band's tap dancer they're not afraid of finding new methods of percussion, Rebecca using the back of a wooden chair as percussion throughout recent single Me And You. There's also noticeable harks back to rockabilly and skiffle, with that basic rattle, and a little Everly Brothers in the harmony construction. There's a darker undercurrent to many of the lyrical themes, but isn't there always, and there's as much outright sugar-sweetness about such themes as youthful allegiance and adolescence, and whatever it's barely noticeable as the pair share jokes mid-song and clearly enjoy the privilege of being on stage. It's infectious too, as within two songs they've tempted most away from talking at the bar at a volume which suggests they see that thing in the corner as competition, and by the end they've managed to formulate a dance-off among the front row. Some would call it twee or nu-folk, anti-folk might be closer, but whatever it is it's party music for the indie kids who think that little bit bigger.

Cherubic he may look, but Johnny Flynn very much is nu-folk, this specious genre recently coined by the music press to envelope the likes of Laura Marling, Noah & The Whale, Emmy The Great, Florence And The Machine and basically anyone else young with a strong voice and acoustic guitar, except on a wider scale where it's generally the Fence Collective artists, Devendra Banhart, Adem and basically anyone else of advancing age and experience with a strong voice and acoustic guitar. Where Flynn has a better claim to most is that his style links the two disprite groups, pointing towards Richard Thompson and Bert Jansch as much as Iron & Wine and anti-folk pioneer Diane Cluck, as well as the American folk traditions and a healthy nod towards blues and country. His band the Sussex Wit are no musical slouches, pulling out and switching instruments at a decent rate. Flynn himself has a go on guitar, banjo, mandolin, violin and trumpet, while for one song the cellist makes for the drum seat, replacing the keyboard-bound usual incumbent. What this makes for is a varied set of trad folk brought up to date through a countrified prism, topped by Flynn's warmly efficient, if occasionally strained, vocal. Lyrically it speaks of a storytelling air, setting songs among the downtrodden and those blighted by life with a fine sense of wordplay and a sting, surely influenced by his other career as a Shakespearian touring actor. It finds its niche in the likes of Hong Kong Cemetery, a queasily emotional lament with trumpet fanfare, and recent single Eyeless In Holloway, which has evolved into a bluegrass hoedown. While the set flirts with sameness, there's an attachment and a pure folk-rock stomp to Flynn's songs that sets him aside from more tastemaker-friendly fare towards something more singularly interesting.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

...and the word is...

Shoreditch Old Blue Last. 27apr08.

There’s a man goin’ round taking names. Carla Bozulich has offered hers, and her bands, as Evangelista. This is not a superficial conceit, but the most appropriate encapsulation of what Carla and her shape-shifting team of art-rock troubadours actually achieve together.

The 2006 album for Constellation Records was titled Evangelista and, as the tour progressed, this became the umbrella term for the project, taking away the focus on one particular personality within the group. However there is no escaping the force of Carla’s voice, and her will, even though she is now surrounded by more musicians; guitarist Jeremy Drake in particular is ‘conducted’ by Carla through the pace of Steal Away like he’s being coaxed down from a sugar rush.

Last year, as reviewed here, the band was just a three piece, now there are six on stage but while there is increased muscle in pieces from this year’s follow-up LP Hello, Voyager, such as Truth Is Dark Like Outer Space these don’t resonate half as much as the desolate, minimal pieces, and this was perhaps better captured with a smaller set-up.

That said, a good half of tonight’s set is taken from that defining 2006 LP, the highlight again being the grinding creak and karmic majesty of Evangelista I, but the closing song of the night, Hello, Voyager itself, runs it close. The secret of Evangelista as a unit, and Carla as the only front-woman who could do justice to the name, is contained in these songs. It’s where the voice comes up from the gut, and as it catches on a glottis whittled by the melancholic openness of country music, unleashes a gospel fury, a haunted scream-und-drone that, atmospherically, teeters close to rapturous spasm.

“When there’s no hope left, there is only one word, one word, one word, that hasn’t dried on your parched lips. Can you say it with me? Can you say it with me? Can you say it with me? The word is love. LOVE!”, with the latter word screamed like its been set alight on its way up from the diaphragm, gives an indication as to the apocalyptic character of this body of work, whilst also revealing the vulnerability at its core.

Carla Bozulich website
Evangelista MySpace