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Monday, 24 October 2011

Sandro Perri - Impossible Spaces album review


Throughout the myriad works of Toronto-based musician Sandro Perri, the exploration of melodics have been a constant. This new album, Impossible Spaces, picks up on the minimalism of his solo debut- but frequently has more in common with Perri's 2005 release, the 28 minute electro cover of Arthur Russell's 'Kiss Me Again'. And while initial listens may find you put off by some melodic imprecision, multiple spins reveal Impossible Spaces to be an album rich with composition and nuance, one that draws from Perri's dance-past as much as his avant-folk leanings. The result is a smashed palette of an album, one that zips and collects as it does so.


After a four year composition and recording process, Impossible Spaces is by far Sandro Perri's most technically accomplished work. Whereas previous albums under the Glissandro70 or Polmo Polpo monickers have been interesting, rounded wholes- their aesthetics (the reinvention of disco and a meditation on drawn-out melody respectively) seem smaller than the statements laid out here. This is an album that is musically and thematically broad, contradictory, abundant with varying voices and styles that over the records seven tracks find a unifying sense of itself. The album title hints at something conflicted and a call/response structure to many of the song duos and transitions between play off the sense of dichotomy very well. Album opener 'Changes' exemplifies this dualistic structure, its first half comprising ambling song, the second relenting to dance-prog noodlings that build and build. The album is sequenced wonderfully, as demonstrated by the pained and awkward musings of 'How Will I?' - the kind of track that Flaming Lips might have used to end an album, here used to round off the first epoch before moving into the beautiful simplicity of 'Futuractive Kid Part 1'.


That's a phrase I keep coming back to, for while the composition is rich with detail- the instrumentation and recording is just sublime in its simplicity. A limited scope of three or four base instruments are accentuated by the subtlest and most precise of studio effects. Impossible Spaces sounds low-fi and high-tech all at once, and beneath the albums semantics there are some stunning pieces of musicianship here. There's a lot to take in, a broad scope for styles across the record's 38 minutes- fans of Hot Chip and Nick Drake's Bryter Layter may find a lot to enjoy distinctly here, but those are but approximations. Impossible Spaces is the sound of an artist making his most crucial statement yet. For those who have followed Perri from his days inaugering Constellation, this album feels like the artist stepping beyond his own back catalogue. For newcomers, this marks an ideal point of entry, but there's a wealth of recordings that have led the artist to this very accomplished moment.


8/10

First published in the405

Esmerine (live at Electrowerkz) live review

Esmerine would play their first London gig at Electrowerkz, an idiosyncratic venue renowned for its goth nights and clubbing. Given their hiatus, it was perhaps a wonder that the band were here at all- but Esmerine enjoyed the breath of new life in 2011 when expanding from a duo to a five piece. Here, perhaps suitably, the material found an appropriate embellishment in the fuller ensemble. The tour came on the back of a new record, the excellent and indeed surprising La Lechuza- an album which became a personal favourite this year. Drawing from chamber music as much as ballad and folk, the record moved Esmerine's sound beyond the 'post rock lite' and into a more rounded whole. Lyric and vocal contributions (including a performance from the late Lhasa De Sela, for whom the record is dedicated) tinged La Lechuza with bittersweet, knowing memories, a sense of time and place and loss. If the record is sad, then it is also profoundly beautiful.

We'd gathered in the dark second chamber and were sat cross legged on the floor before Esmerine walked through us from the venue's rear and took their instruments. There was no 'backstage' area to speak of, and it was lovely to meet the group before the gig, hustled by the merch stall. I've long been of the belief that a band should never employ roadies, that in doing so you kiss goodbye to any punk rock sense of authenticity, and there was a similarly unpretentious atmosphere here. Between songs, cellist Beckie Foon (also of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, formerly of A Silver Mt Zion) would speak to us without a microphone, and in truth the stage setting seemed more of a formality than a theatrical necessity.

Esmerine played for just under an hour, a set comprised of numbers taken mostly from La Lechuza but the group pleasingly paid dues to their strong back catalogue too. Indeed, their debut album If Only A Sweet Surrender To The Nights To Come Be True was represented well, the stunning drawn out beauty of 'There Were No Footprints In The Dust Behind Them' given an early recital in the billing. But it was the material from La Lechuza that resonated strongest, in particular the absolutely joyous 'Trampolin'. A jangly ditty; centred around harmonised marimba and harp notes and underpinned by rising, trembling cello chords- 'Trampolin' is by far the most uplifting moment on La Lechuza and it lost none of its power in the live setting. Elsewhere, harpist Sarah Page gave an excellent sung performance on the Lhasa De Sela cover 'Fish On Land'.

Throughout the concert, Esmerine seemed perfectly enthused to be here touring, and delighted with the warm responses their performances would elicit from the crowd. Smiles abounded, and although the stage was small and the band hustled in between each other- there remained a closeness between the musicians that was evident in the reflected expressions between them onstage. For such meditative music, Esmerine made for a charming spectacle as a band. This visual impact was accentuated by the work of visual artist Clea Minaker, who resided side stage broadcasting live graphics and images on the rear stage canopy. These deserve a special mention, as they were performed live and with good grace. An overhead projector made for a canvas as Minaker blew leaves and feathers across the light, or patchwork translucents- all making for a beautiful real-time animation that would adorn the music. A live reaction to it, then- painted in colour and mood, occasionally awkward but endearing throughout and a lovely element to accompany the band on tour.

Esmerine left once, but quickly returned- an unending torrent of applause humbling the band into performing two encore pieces. A sense of humour and eccentricity pervaded their stories throughout, Sarah and Beckie frequently introducing the lengthy chamber pieces as 'pop songs'- but it was the concert closer that perhaps played the biggest double-bluff of the night. Entitled 'Glock Rock', it was perhaps exactly that- an otherwise out-of-character foray into high-tempo glockenspiel action, ramped to eleven and accompanied by some frenetic drumming. If you've never heard glockenspiels used as rock instruments before then you're missing out. This was Esmerine's first UK tour, and for many in the crowd it marked an opportunity to see a beloved band- this much was clear from the response and by the number of people who hung around afterward to converse with the group, who were clearly taken aback by the warmth in the crowd.

First published in the405

Esmerine / Beckie Foon interview


Esmerine played their first European tour recently, performing material from their acclaimed third album La Lechuza. The 405 was afforded the opportunity to speak with founding member Beckie Foon and we jumped at the chance. As a member of Godspeed You Black Emperor, Set Fire To Flames and A Silver Mt Zion- Beckie Foon has been at the centre of some of my favourite music and has consistently upheld a recording and publication ethic that puts localism and creativity above profit making and careerism. It was a real pleasure to sit with her and have this conversation before Esmerine played at the Electrowerkz venue in London.

Amir Adhamy/the 405: Evening Beckie. It's lovely to meet with you.

Beckie Foon: You too. Hope you enjoy the show tonight!

405: I'm looking forward to it a great deal. Esmerine has gone from being a duo to now incorporating many members. How has that evolution been?

BF: Bruce and I were very interested in exploring the world of melodic percussion and cello when we started, especially based with our groups, our punk rock groups and also because we were in loud bands. And so it was nice to think about stripping it down and really thinking collaboratively about using these wooden beautiful instruments that we might not have got to fully explore their potential in our loud rock bands, so initially it was borne out of that- we wanted to try something different. And so that's kind of how Esmerine was born. For this album, well- we were never actually planning on recording a third record. Not that we 'weren't planning' a third record, we just hadn't thought through it, or were too busy with everything else going on in our lives- even though we'd always stayed vaguely active, doing performances in Montreal.

405: And jamming yourselves, as well?

BF: Yeah. But we would actually do a lot of shows in Montreal, we just never took Esmerine on tour before. It was all Silver Mt Zion or Godspeed, the other commitments. So what happened was that we'd started playing live with Lhasa De Sela, she'd asked us to open up for her as a duo in Montreal. So we did that show, and we met her band and we all really connected. And from there, Bruce and I became more and more interested in the some of the instrumentation that she had in her band, drums and harp for example. We all got on, so we just started playing together. We played a show and Lhasa sang with us- it became this very natural evolution. It's a little difficult for Bruce, I mean- we still play duo shows- because for us, it's kindof this whole new world to have harp and drums and these extra musicians, because certainly on record, Bruce has always overdubbed the marimba and drums, playing them both. So now we can have all of those parts live.

405: It's interesting to hear that you still play duo shows. When I think of how A Silver Mt Zion has grown and grown over the years, I wonder if it would be nice to take that back to a three-piece, and play some shows as the first album had been recorded.

BF: Yeah, I totally agree.

405: I guess you have that with different incarnations of bands though, right. And Mt Zion isn't your thing anymore! Have the extra members here influenced or changed the way you write songs?

BF: Yeah, it's definitely more of a band thing now, we're more collaborative. It can be a bit more complicated at times writing music with more people, or easier when things evolve naturally. There's different people, more minds, more energy and opinion to deal with.

405: How did this album come about then? You mentioned that it wasn't planned, but not not planned either.

BF: There were some Esmerime songs that we'd reworked together, after a show in Montreal we played as a four piece. And as we reworked the songs, Sarah and Andrew also had some ideas, sketches of songs, that they brought to us, and we incorporated those into the set. And then when Lhasa passed away, we wanted to write a special lullaby for her as she'd brought us all together- so the entire composition really came about very organically.

405: You really breathed new life into the band with the album.

BF: Yeah, and it's fun to do that, shake it up and grow as musicians and people.

405: So your first two records, put out on Resonant and Madrona respectively...

BF: Yeah, Madrona was the label Bruce and I started.

405: I think I bought the Aurora vinyl direct from the Madrona mail order. How did working again with Constellation come about?

BF: I guess we have a long term history with Constellation. We gave them the record and they were amazed by it. Bruce and I had retired Madrona! We were very happy to work with Constellation.

405: It's led to collaborations with label artists like Colin Stetson (http://vimeo.com/29119122)

BF: Yeah, that was from our opening show in Montreal. And Clea Minaker, who did the projections, will be with us tonight.

405: How does this LP compare to the first two?

BF: This record has a completely different meaning behind it, due to where we are with our lives and the history we have together, and so there's a different element in it. There's a lot of symbolism in it for us, and musically where we are now is so different to where we were five or ten years ago. We're older, we have kids. We've grown as artists and as human beings. The first two Esmerine records are still very close to my heart though.

405: It's nice when you get to a stage and think, well they could only have made this record with a certain level of experience and maturity, at a certain point in their career.

BF: Yeah, I agree- it's a very strange thing, but also quite a beautiful feeling.

405: How does it feel to be part of such a now-noted and successful community of musicians?

BF: I learn a lot from the musicians around me and am very happy to be a part of this community. I've had the pleasure of playing music around the world, and that's something I can never take for granted.

405: What does the future hold for you as a group, or indeed as an individual?

BF: For Esmerine, this is our first European tour and we were excited about trying this out. I also don't play in Silver Mt Zion anymore and I'm excited to see where this goes, and I'm also working on a solo record built from looped cello and singing. I've just finished that record. It's totally different to everything I've done so far, it has electronic percussion! That maybe should be out, hopefully in the Spring, but we'll see.

405: I have to ask, will we ever see another Set Fire To Flames record?

BF: (laughs) Who knows, man. We worked on a soundtrack for a short animation film, and that was the last thing we did. I would love to, but there's 13 people in that group!

405: And I imagine you all have to be in a similar, very particular mindset while recording.

BF: Exactly! But thats how Bruce and I met, and how Esmerine came about initially.

405: Thankyou so much for your time, Beckie.

Evangelista - In Animal Tongue album review


Some people live and breathe their music, as if they could be recast against any environment, any colouring particulars- the only constant their necessity for compelling music's making. Carla Bozulich is one such artist, her career having spanned 3 decades now and reincarnated in upwards of seven bands. Whilst her back catalogue is as diverse as it is long (dig out some Ethyl Meatplow if you can find it), it was pleasing to see her picked up by Montreal-based label Constellation in 2005. After flirting with success after covering Willie Nelson's Red Header Stranger in it's entirely, Bozulich largely fell off the radar until, quite out of the blue, she announced her new project on an entirely new label. Better known for it's work with the city's then-blossoming avant-garde scene, 2005 saw Constellation move beyond both its city wall and the genres it had pioneered. Carla, from Los Angeles, represented a canny move: In Animal Tongue is her fifth album for the label, her fourth under the Evangelista banner that has allowed yet another artistic and critical reinvention, as well as offering Bozulich a creative renewal.

The Evangelista band, comprising bassist Tara Barnes (formerly of the excellent thrash-nihilist Duchesses) and sound-artist Dominic Cramp, was itself borne of the road. Having released her debut for the label, also titled Evangelista, a touring band was formed. Herein, Barnes and Bozulich set upon a creative unity that would last to today and bear its increasing influence on the music. Gone are the dream-set, ominous samples that would mark her Constellation debut with an unruly tension- throughout this band's existence, their has almost been an insistence on it resonating exactly as such: a band. People in a room, playing instruments through amplifiers.

On album opener 'Artificial Lamb', you can hear the crackle of guitar leads and electricity. Clean recordings and few (if any) overdubs- the track's timid instrumentation gently imposes itself whilst Bozulich moans with desperation- it's final lines delivered with a cracked, aching high pitch. Its a telling introduction to what is a very restrained and at times sombre album. 'Black Jesus' barely awakens, the vocal delivery passes off like a spoken word against which the music, the repeated riff, picked from a sea of reverb. On the title track, as the track reaches a climactic moment with chorus and thumped drums, repeated calls of “she sung in animal tongue” are delivered at once with pride and sadness.

This is not an album for mornings or shining July days, and it is appropriate that Constellation has chosen to release the album in the midst of Autumn. Everything here sounds live, and is cast against the kind of very loud silence that is only present in the very late hours at night. Frequently performative, sung seemingly ad-lib- there's a creeping feeling that pervades In Animal Tongue, only increasing as the record reaches the nostalgia-psychosis of 'Tunnel to the Stars' and the schizophrenia of closing number 'Hatching'. There's an inexplicable beauty to the maddening frequencies and drumming that abounds here, and this is how I feel about the entire record. It is deeply focused, recorded and performed with care- but it sounds like it was recorded in the wood cabin from Lars Von Trier's Antichrist. This album is certainly not for everyone, but unlike that film- In Animal Tongue is, you get the impression, entirely for real, serious and committed to the notion of extraordinary listening spaces. That's enough, for me. Whilst it might not have the strike out value of Hello Voyager (which was, let's face it, largely a pop album)- In Animal Tongue is a profoundly interesting album that I'll treasure in my collection. It's weirded me out frequently and significantly enough to merit the 7 stars I'm giving it, though newcomers to Carla Bozulich might want to start elsewhere.

First published in the405

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Hysterical album review

It's hard to know where to begin with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's third album. The conventional narrative up until now reads that the band sprung out of internet fame, a DIY aesthetic almost synonymous with their debut- and seemingly everyone was an overnight fan. The jangly, retro-infused, charming and defiant songs of their eponymous start united the entire indie scene in appraisal, much in the same way a Tumblr-borne artist like The Weeknd aims for now. But in 2005, weren't we all that bit more naïve? The band seemingly second-guessed the audience backlash with their follow up record, the 'difficult second album' monicker being more appropriate of an audience expectation than the band's composition. Some Loud Thunder was to some, unlistenable- but this reviewer found it to be a rewarding album of hidden depths and studio trickery. Yeah, that bass was consistently fuzzing, the drums were awkwardly panned and as far as I can tell, the vinyl and CD have different versions of the title track- but can't some mistakes be deliberate? That it came wrapped in so many interviews, vocalist Alex Ounsworth telling half-believable yarns that he never listened to music produced after 1980, that vinyl was his mantra- the album might have made you work for it, infinitely more than their debut (a record which dared you not to like it)- but it was overwhelmingly composed, its confusing studio mix clearly deliberate.

If Some Loud Thunder led some of their fanbase up the garden path, then Hysterical could be considered an even more disturbing WTF moment. From the moment it starts spinning, you are made aware of something different here. Namely, it sounds fantastic. Not in a compelling, interesting, sucks you in and can't get it out of your head way, but rather in studio sound. Everything is well mixed, well recorded- this is the sound of the professional recording industry, of money and 'maximising' technique behind each note- it could be a Kings of Leon record for chrissakes. This is all down to the hiring of St Vincent producer John Congleton- but frankly it comes across in an instant like a disavowal of everything the band have stood for. So their first record was marked by whimsey and charm, and the second was criticised for being too esoteric and bloody minded- but to my mind, the manner in which to respond to such criticisms is not by becoming the most arena-rock sounding, mainstream version of yourselves that you can be. It's like they're negating all that made them unique in the first place, and in doing so- you're left wondering whether you only ever liked them for their quirkiness, or whether the songs held true.

Fortunately, I firmly believe in the latter. I only have to remember old numbers like 'Tidal Wave of Young Blood' and 'Yankee Go Home' and I'm smiling giddily. Even the stronger moments from this record, like 'Ketamine and Ecstasy' or 'The Witness' Dull Surprise' find themselves drowned out in a sea of mediocrity. It's as if the album's sonic mastery undoes the possibility of anything truly becoming memorable here. It all bleeds together, and the band sound as if they're going through the motions. And I realise that it's unfair to review an album by comparing it to previous works, that an album should be reviewed on its own strengths and weaknesses- but Hysterical sounds so 'post' its preceding works, so conscious of the (unfair) criticisms that followed Some Loud Thunder, that it rarely has opportunity to exist in its own space.

For me, the biggest question is why we ended up here. Clap Your Hands took a five year hiatus, a soul-searching mission, and this album was preceded with the inevitable PR that the band had discovered themselves, found their sound, etc. But if this is the sound of the band being true to themselves, then the album makes it abundantly clear what a dull and disappointing prospect that is.

4/10

First published in the405

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Standon Calling: review

FRIDAY

2011 marked Standon Calling's seventh year of public operation and the three day event promised much by way of bands and festive silliness. Friday morning: after we took one of the festival's easily-arranged taxis from our London flat, a trip that lasted no more than an hour, we arrived in blistering heat around lunchtime and began in good spirits: expedient tent-circle establishment and the drinking of an inaugural ale. Line ups consulted, fancy dress at the ready, the 405 had arrived in style and in this fashion intended to continue.

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Friday's line up began mid-way through the afternoon- I have a soft spot for the half-day bills that coax you into the spirit of the weekend. And it began for us in the Twisted Licks tent, Standon's smaller tented venue, with Dananananaykroyd's mid afternoon billing. The impetuous Glasgow six-piece were tearing through an energetic set when we happened upon them, a large crowd bouncing enthusiastically in sync with the band's over the top performance style. Power pop at it's finest, this reviewer will admit to not being the group's most ardent devotee- but still, despite even my inherent cynicism, it was hard not to be convinced. Firstly, Dananananaykroyd have such a good time on stage. If they don't, then they're fantastic actors. It all looks like a dream come true for them, but if youthful innocence is their calling card- then ignore their musicianship at your peril. Whilst Calum Gunn and John Baillie Jr marauded the stage, leaping from amplifiers, stage diving, and scissor-kicking as if educated at Richard Linklater's School of Rock- the band on stage carved out a tight as you like punk-rock. Ended each performance with a congratulatory, ironic chorus of “We did it! We did it all together! Yessssssssssssssssssss!” (the way we all did when we were kids, the glee at 'whatever' being accomplished)- the band were enjoyable, ridiculous, professional, and absolutely hilarious.

Errors performed on the Main Stage, and their electronic post-rock grooves found a home in that field. An encore was denied, which seemed a shame as the gig improved exponentially as it went on. A slow start picked up pace as the crowd caught wind of what Errors were about, and danced in approval. Glitchy synth stabs and a cutting bass gave emphasis to the exemplary work that drummer James Hamilton was doing underneath; a frenetic, beaming, dervish of energy throughout, I've rarely seem drummers hit drums with such vigour. Simon Ward's intersong banter is a particular memory: dry awkwardness came with each reminder of “We're Errors”- not only getting funnier each time- but goodness that man could read a shopping list with that accent and I would listen intently.

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London's Chrome Hoof next, the large avant-garde ensemble having descended on Standon Calling with tweets earlier that week warning of a space monster in the festival vicinity. Musically, the band no know limits- an eclectic mix of funk, space rock, doom, hip-hop- all conveyed with trademark complexity. But that's somewhat misleading, for like Mr Bungle at their best, all Chrome Hoof's disparate elements add up to a compelling, easily enjoyable sound. Clad in metallic robes head to toe, the band's members would come and go throughout the set as their revolving line up accommodated different songs and styles. A heady futuristic performance in the vein of Janelle Monae or perhaps more fittingly, Grace Jones- the gig was in need of a centrepiece moment, an event of theatricality to mirror their cosmic songwriting- and this came midway through, as the prophecised space monster invaded the stage, threatened everyone and was decapitated by a backing singer. We caught the (rather soggy) brain after it had been ripped from the monster's head and flung to the crowd.

A brief sojourn back to the 2nd stage, where hipster band du jour Washed Out were serenading a packed out tent. Really, the vibe was tangible and the smoke heavy in the air as the band performed a short set plucked from their debut LP- but this reviewer was unconvinced by the elitist attitude of the crowd, and the gig fell a little flat for me. The band never really broke out of a mindset of playing 'at' the crowd, and I can't blame them: half the audience was chattering, smoking, having a banter- or seemingly 'there' just to be seen there. If gigs are a marriage of mindsets between band and audience, then here both parties here failed to turn up. Washed Out played well, but without great enthusiasm for the moment.

Similar disappointments became of Friday's headliner, Battles. I'd been looking forward to this gig especially, given that it was my first opportunity of seeing the group perform as a three piece. They are like a new band, I had heard- and I was open minded, being a lover of their second album Gloss Drop. Opening with the chaotic pop of Sweetie & Shag, the band were clearly enjoying themselves on stage, if the overall effect was a little lost on Standon's gathered masses. One of the difficulties of releasing an album featuring guest vocalists is in the live re-performance: here, Battles enlisted a dual video screen with a custom-filmed projection of each singer performing their lines. This was synced up with the studio-mixed vocal, which was played as an overdub over the live music. Except, it wasn't always in time. Firstly, Sweetie & Shag's precision was lost under a hive of choral synths- there seemed a chasm-sized aural distance between the live music being played and the vocal overhead. Second, at times (as in Gary Numan's post-lyrical My Machines) the vocal overdub just wasn't in sync with the video. I appreciate it's hard.

The 'Will they? Won't they?' over the potential performance of Atlas was answered quickly enough- Tyundai Braxton's iconic vocal lines here re-sung (fittingly) by children. Closing their set with Gloss Drop highlight Futura, it became ever obvious just how compromised the band are by playing as a three piece. And this is no reflection on their ability to make compelling music, but rather in how it was being performed. I have always thought of Battles as a cyborg band- a perfect union between man, instrument and computer. Modulated effects, looped segments- it's hard to tell at moments what is being played live, and what is being manipulated. But whilst this has always been the case, Battles have arguably made the spectacle more interesting in the past. Here, it was obvious that riffs were being pre-recorded well in advance, only to be tapped into being played when needed. Very little, besides the synth stabs that perforated the band's riffs, and the compelling spectacle that is drummer John Stanier, was live. And this is no criticism, I have no gripe with this methodology (nor overdubbing guest vocalists)- but rather it's an acknowledgement of how much harder Battles have to work during a gig as a three piece.

I enjoyed their hour-long main set. It was difficult to follow in places but frequently inspiring- both musically and as a performance. Atlas won the undecideds over, Futura had done it for me. But when Battles returned for an encore, I'm not sure anyone could quite have predicted just how spectacularly it would fail. A ten minute build up comprised of looped and modulated guitar notes, dub synths passing left to right- eventually, cohesion coming out of this- Gloss Drop closer Sundome (by this point, half the crowd had left in search of pastures more enriching). It was an underwhelming outro, better suited perhaps for a crowd of ardent fans than a festival audience.

SATURDAY

Saturday morning at Standon Calling brought firstly a swim in the wonderful on-site pool. The sun was relentless, beautifully so, and a quick dip clearly seemed everyone's activity of choice- the pool was full but well rationed. It became a quite beautiful introduction to the day's events; the invigorating waters casting away any cramp or discomfort from the last night's adventuring.

Then came an unexpected delight whilst moseying back, an enormous guitar cacophony erupting from within the Twisted Licks tent- north London's Teeth Of The Sea inside. I only caught the last 20 minutes of what seemed a momentous performance; the band not letting their early billing get in the way of a towering, deafening rock sound. Strung out, violent and consumed by their noise-making, the band carved an impressive slot that pulled in those queuing for coffees, lulling about their mornings.

I had some coffee myself, and made my way down toward the festival's quieter end- its elysian fields. Here, the lovely vibe out bars one finds tucked away, the kind to serve you a warm chai and goad the night's frenzy with some soft folk, antiquated and proverbial, endlessly sweet, acoustically performed. There now was the draw of sock-wrestling, which I had happened upon the previous year quite by chance. The rules were simple, contestants drawn from the gathered crowd and wearing of two socks- must wrestle each other until a sock is removed, therein the remover being crowned champion over the bout's two sock-oriented legs. Rollicking good fun then, made all the more so by the troupe of enthusiastically dressed participants. For Saturday was Standon Calling's dress-up day, and festival-goers had clearly given in to inspiration for the weekend's Gods and Monsters theme. My comrades in arms that weekend, lovely folk from the London based 'music friendship' charity The Note Well, had indulged it a detached cool- dressed between them as characters from the Kanye West 'Monster' video. I had come robed in Panda God costume (What? Pandas make legitimate deities. Google it already) and was attempting to stay in character where possible, responding only with the grunts and roars I presumed Panda Bears to have.

A walk back up to the festival site proper, and a beautiful wail drew me into the Main Stage fields. There, quite unexpectedly, the festival's largest crowd thus far, bouncing and beaming to the Raghu Dixit Project. A large and ever-changing troupe led by group's namesake, the band had the crowd in their palms of their hands. The sun was bright and warm, flags danced in the crowd- a euphoric state took over. Ostensibly a collective endeavour, Raghu Dixit produced the group's debut album as a means of collating musicians into a cohesive platform for shared expression. Electric guitar thrashed in a manner that recalled Kula Shaker at their best, whilst Dixit's voice was a breathtaking thing. The control uttered over sky-arcing melodies seemed impossible, but Raghu was caught in effortless, joyful release. The gig was a pleasure, and certainly the festival's high point thus far.

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Later that evening and after The 405 had enjoyed a sit-down chat with him, Saul Williams would take to the main stage. Clearly excitement was peaking and a few devotees in the crowd were anticipating the rare opportunity to catch Williams entertain a festival audience. His four piece band in place, he bounded onstage and stood at his mic in silence before launching into a venomous a'capella performance of old-school rhyme Coded Language. Vivid, clear and impassioned Williams catapulted this existentialist rap high into the fields. Its central motif a cry “to lift up the consciousness of the entire fucking world”, sent shivers arcing down my spine. Applause followed, and the band had launched into List Of Demands, its punk rock shimmy provoking mass breakout amongst the crowds. From here, the hour long set came thick and fast- some meandering in the middle borne of the artist's melodically oriented material. But it was relentless throughout, and Saul was a man born to recite from a stage. Second To Think was anguished, overall it was a lively, often awe-inspiring set from an artist with a back catalogue of riches.

By this point in the evening, the crowd looked just ridiculous. A comedy dragon built of many participants, the cast of Monsters Inc, sea creatures, beasties, Michael Jackson, John Terry- at one point Saul took note of the theatrics and taking into account the recent rioting across the country, noted how despite all this, creativity and human imagination has flourished.

I have often thought that Lamb, who headlined the Main Stage on the Saturday, are best suited to a festival audience. This was my third such Lamb gig, the first having been their quite genuinely tear-jerking farewell gig at Glastonbury in 2003 and the latter being a reunion gig at the Leveller's annual Beautiful Days festival in Devon. Here, the band were in a similarly splendid setting. A large crowd had amassed, and I think this is testament to the band's continued following. People seem to have a large amount of affection for their music, borne of the same era and location that saw Massive Attack and Portishead become internationally renowned. Lamb performed tracks from their early, pre-hiatus, albums- and kept newer material to a minimum, humbly introducing each new song as such. Lamb have a new album out, though the group were keen to appease the festival audience with well-known numbers like Gabriel, which seemed to stop even the air. An acoustic performance of a new song was touching, if for it's impromptu recital: the electronics board and Macbooks had given up the ghost temporarily, and so Standon Calling was treated to a perfectly cohesive, entirely unplanned bass and live drums rendition. As headliners, Lamb did not disappoint.

SUNDAY

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Sunday firstly saw the much-anticipated Rockaoke, this year in the Twisted Licks tent. A four piece band, tight as you like, with a songlist as long as your arm and the invitation for onlookers and passers by to rock the mic with a live-ass band behind. It was all good fun, a bombastic version of pub-karaoke favourite Mustang Sally inciting a crowd singalong in the chorus, a good humoured and out of key rendition of Amy Winehouse's Valerie cover, and this reviewer couldn't let the opportunity pass by without hopping onstage for an outing of Rage Against The Machine's Killing In The Name. A theatrical song, frequently co-opted by anyone with a vaguely dissenting voice, too often used as a 'fuck you Mum and Dad' anthem- it's original meaning borne of the LA riots lost under the weight of dumb audience expectation. Frankly, I can understand why Zach De La Rocha left Rage. Anyway, I dedicated it to “all the muppets who woke up with a new flatscreen TV or pair of Nikes last week”, and enjoyed myself thoroughly. Apparently there is video evidence, which I am reluctant to embed anywhere near this article.

Next up was the afternoon billing for the inspired rap of Katie Tempest, fronting her Sound Of Rum three piece. A warm and affectionate reception was given, and in truth Tempest was a force. An unstoppable flow of wry social observations and delicately phrased rhetorical questioning, her rap skills are breathtaking- perhaps demonstrated best on the number where she decries an old 'open mic' freestyler for wearing all the bling and having no bars to back it up. “It's all about the content, it's not about your image” she barks, knowingly, self-depreciatingly. There's such little bravado about her, so few pretensions. She speaks between songs at once humbly and with confidence, there was little distance between the crowd and the stage. An a'capella poem recited in lieu of the recent social problems across the country, Katie offered a profound and touching perspective that through rap and rhyme became impossible to ignore. Her verses were staggeringly good, her mind dextrose and nimble in a way you wouldn't think possible for someone so young- she's only 24 and Scroobius Pip has called her “annoyingly good”. It's apt, but not annoying- you get the impression that hip-hop, and especially UK hip-hop needs voices like this at the moment- if only to offset the celebratarian faux-bling aspirations of the pop/grime scene- where content has been forgotten and image rules all (if anyone can tell me what Tinie Tempah is rapping 'about', in any one of his songs- I will bestow a worthy prize). Musically, the three piece shirked around electronic patterns and slight guitar riffing, drummer Ferry Lawrenson afforded an impressive solo at the gig's climax. An altogether accomplished unit, Sound of Rum ended the set with a spot of crowd participation. Katie couldn't help herself, “This is so much fun for me” she observed, as half the crowd chanted “Sound of” to the other's “Rum”, and she was spitting verses overhead using the crowd's voice as percussion. Sound of Rum's performance absolutely marked the high point of the festival, without a doubt. The band left to huge applause, and had seemingly made friends of everyone in that field.

And there, sadly- our Standon Calling came to an end. It was a splendid weekend in the sun, one that delivered favourite bands amidst newfound treats. A few of our favourite (and more random) memories then, to round up:

The horse-drawn carriage stage (which much to my surprise, boasted my old friend Lewis from The House Of Trouser on drumming duties). This toured the site all weekend, a troupe of guys and girls doing their finest horse impressions.

The space hopper tent. We indulged this many times over the weekend, going for space hopper races, space hopper wrestling, space hopper hopping competitions.

Great to see so much quality food onsite, add to that the delicious 'back of the van' coffee.

Spying other Pandas, and quickly becoming Panda friends.

The amount of bands that would play their gig and then be seen chilling around the festival, putting up their tents for the weekend. I can think of no greater testament to Standon Calling's loveliness than the willingness of artists to hang out with their fans afterward and not just 'do one' down the M25 to the next gig.

On Sunday, we caught up with friends of Alex Trenchard (the landowner whose birthday party inspired Standon Calling, who is now incarcerated in a well documented case of 'Robin Hood'), who were touring the site inviting everyone to write postcards to the missing birthday boy. This was a lovely gesture. I remember seeing Alex painting onstage last year during Buena Vista Social Club and I think that everyone at the festival holds him in warm regard. Also of note: seeing his parents travel around the site and meet people. Wonderful.

See you next year, Standon Calling!

First published in the405

Saul Williams interview



Of all the artists to play this year's Standon Calling, I was perhaps looking forward to seeing Saul Willliams the most. The enigmatic rapper/poet/actor had toured his fourth album, Volcanic Sunlight, earlier in the year and despite best arrangements, I had lived to regret missing it. Here then was a rare chance to see Saul entertain a festival audience, and it was a pleasure to meet with him earlier that afternoon. Saul Williams has been an outspoken figure, demonstrating a political self-awareness throughout his work across music, poetry and film. Given the context of what had been a tumultuous week in British politics/civic order, to say the very least, this seemed the perfect opportunity to converse at length.



405: Good afternoon Saul. How are you?

SW: I'm good, thank you. Woke up in Paris this morning, now I'm here in this beautiful field.

Glad to hear it. First up, could you talk us through your latest record. Is there a concept to the record, an overarching message?

The goal of the album was to create a record that sounded exactly like the title, Volcanic Sunlight. Besides that, I can't say that there's a common themality except for in my approach to it. And that approach was simple: I didn't feel like writing any songs borne out of anger. And anyone who is familiar with my previous albums will know that, well, anger and I have been pretty tight!

I think of your early work, which was almost driven by that very directed, pointed form of anger.

Yeah, we've had an intimate relationship in the past, a healthy one. But this time, I wanted to do something different.

I wanted to talk about this anger briefly, in reference to previous releases like the Not In My Name EP, or songs like Act 3 Scene 2. This politically motivated anger often found inspiration, if I can call it that, in the policies of the Bush presidency. How do you feel about Obama, and is this record a reflection of your changed attitudes?

How I feel about Obama is how I now feel about politics in general. I'm a bit further down the road now, and I see that for what they are politics, politicians, governments play their part. They do as much as they can do. I don't believe in the idea of martyrs or individuals having more power than the people themselves, I believe politicians are there inherently to reflect us. Obama, symbolically, holds his ground well. Nonetheless, I understand the dissatisfaction from, for example, the left- who often seem like they'd prefer him to be a dictator for the left, for socialist egalitarian policies- in the same way perhaps as some might interpret Bush's actions as him being a dictator for the right. I do think the more sage response would be less of a dictator and more of a balance between the two, but that would be and is very upsetting to the left. And not satisfying to the right either.

Is it a question of whether the end, in this case policy, justifies the means, i.e. totalitarianism?

Partly. It's also a question of time, how much time does it take to pull out of Iraq, for example? Policy takes time. All these bullshit equations we wake up and find ourselves in, no different than you or I born into a family that has a religion, or that has a socio-political background. Man, we're born into that and we're raised to believe it until we come of age and question “Do I have to perpetuate the ideals of my father and mother?” In the same way, I think a president is born into a situation and has to navigate their own growth. Thus, I think the more interesting Obama would be in his second term.

Regardless of policy, I think a lot of people are hoping Sarah Palin runs against him- if only for the broadcast television debates and subsequent YouTube-worthy moments.

Haha, yeah. On the whole, there are so many issues in American politics which sadden me, that surprise me, that stop me and make me take notice. Are we still dealing with that? There's an actual frontrunner in the Republican ticket whose husband thinks you can teach gay people how not to be gay. You know? This is the 21st century, the world over, and we're still just there? It's a fucking shame. And it's for those reasons I say “politics plays its part” because people and ideas are evolving at a quicker rate than politicians can possibly keep up with.


The discourse catches up with itself eventually, as an idea gains in popularity. Perhaps it's ironic then that our so-called leaders do little at a time like this but 'respond'. That's a good link to my next question actually, on the recent UK news. I wanted to ask if you'd seen much of the country's rioting and the Government's subsequent response.

Yes, of course. To me, it's not even a matter of opinion. The facts are there. It's obvious to all that there is this unspoken tension in the younger generations and it's come out like, yeah, what the fuck. Otherwise, if it wasn't there, that wouldn't be the response.

There seems to be a willingness in this country not to acknowledge our shared responsibility towards that underclass, to not understand but rather to now punish and condemn. Many people have been reminded of the Martin Luther King quotes about the riots being the voice of the unheard.

And it is, essentially that. And it remains that. Anyone who says there isn't a class system in England would be foolish. It's evident through history. We all just celebrated a wedding, a national wedding of royal blood.

And we all paid for it, too.

Yeah, exactly. And of course, so there's going to be people who just look at that and think, “Ok, so now what about us? What about these streets?” So yes, voices have to be heard. And if people are slow in moving, slow in responding then more voices will need to be heard, and they will go about it in ways we can't control, using whatever means they have available to them. And sometimes it might seem easier to burn the first car you see in front of you than to get on the phone with your local congressman. Do you guys have congressmen?

MPs. We have MPs. And I think you can email them.

Yeah, right. Email them. Of course you can.

I wanted to ask you about beat poetry and hip-hop in general. How do you see those two disciplines interconnecting, or rather, where does one end and the other begin?

Well, to tell you the truth, I started out as an MC in New York. My relationship to poetry came through rapping primarily, and then through studying theatre. When you're reading a play closely, you dissect the language and of course when you listen to hip-hop, you use a similar form of deconstruction. So many playwrights were rhythmic, in their metre and stanza, line for line. And so, I grew like this: hip-hop and classical theatre. I wrote songs before I wrote poems, but I became known in the public eye through poetry. That gave me the opportunity to make music, which was my first love. Of course my first first love, before all that, was acting, was theatre. In all of these cases I feel like someone who happened upon something, I didn't grow up saying I wanted to be a poet or an actor, I just grew up reading poetry. I quit rapping when I was 16 because I wanted to be the youngest rapper alive- when I got to 16, I was all “Fuck it, it didn't happen”.

When you perform onstage to a crowd, is that an extension of theatrical performance?

Of course.

And how do you, if at all, separate the notions of art and entertainment?

I'm an entertainer. But it's like, I believe, I was entertained when I was growing up, I was heavily entertained by Public Enemy, I was entertained by playwrights like Amiri Baraka, I was entertained by South African playwrights like Athol Fugart. These were things that had serious political weight, but the end-point of Public Enemy was to make you dance. As they say, “Make you jump along, make you dance along to your education”. I never thought I had to be false or commit to a stupid idea to enjoy myself at a party. So when you close your eyes and you dance, and you hear 'Poker Face' or whatever, you could just as easily contextualise that as something profound, something driven and serious, like Rage Against The Machine you know- which is just as entertaining.

That post-structuralist Death Of The Author idea, then.

Yeah, I can totally accept that. Hahah.

Great. Thanks for spending time with us today Saul. Looking forward to your gig later.

Me too. Catch you then.


First published in the405

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Standon Calling: Literary line up announced (news)

Let it not be said that next month's Standon Calling does not cater for the academically minded festival punter. Besides one of the most eclectic and widely-informed line ups to be seen gracing a (probably muddy) field this summer, the festival has just announced the full billing for its Under Cover Literary Lounge.

It's a diverse smorgasbord of raw literary talent, creatively minded thesps and noteworthy personalities: poet and editor Tim Wells, known for his own iambic work as well as collaborations with East London reggae soundsystem Tighten Up- will be performing a spoken word set. Meta-critic James Bridle, who describes himself modestly as a “writer, publisher, editor, coder, designer, consultant, producer and cook” will take his audience on a journey down the recesses of internet fiction, a talk which will touch on Star Trek, Harry Potter and (catering for all tastes) Top Gear. Though probably not how any of us are imagining it.

Acclaimed novelist and comedienne Lana Citron (who infamously undertook her hour-long slot on Antony Gormley's 'One and Other' project by blowing kisses to passers-by from atop the fourth plinth) will surely offer up an entertaining, intellectual and engaging debate around notions of 'kissing'. But perhaps the biggest draw, certainly the act with the biggest star-power, is reformed drug-dealer turned professional talker Howard Marks. Anyone who has read Mr Nice or seen Howard in conversation before will know what to expect, a rollicking anecdotal rediscovering of what now seems a wholly alien past-life (at his peak, Marks was said to be controlling 10% of the world's hashish trade). Audience members will enjoy the chance to engage with Marks on the festival's chosen Gods and Monsters theme, and on the inherent ridiculousness of using a career as a wanted drugs smuggler as a springboard to becoming a public speaker. Alternatively, questions about pressing cannabis resin or rolling L's will also be welcome. Saturday night sees the world-renowned Literary Death Match descend upon Standon's Under Cover tent- a wild and frenetic fight to the very end using only the raw, undeniable power of semiotics. Sunday afternoon will see an irreverent interpretation of Shakespeare's Measure For Measure- performed by Roar Theatre. Festival goers are also promised a cavalcade of board games, giant twister (wink wink) and to close each night, a carnival sound system. Quite plush escapism, I hope you will agree.

Published on the405

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Esmerine - La Lachuza: review


As I write this review, a sudden downpour has begun it's onslaught outside and the sky has turned grey. Esmerine's record has become, effortlessly, one of my favourite albums of recent memory- and the weather seems appropriate. The album is tinged with nostalgia, filled with gentle, sombre moments of reflection that sit well with gazing longingly from one's window. In this moment, the rain makes for a touching accompaniment.
Comprising another fine project from Montreal's avant-garde community, loosely composed around the Godspeed arc of the last decade- La Lachuza represents Esmerine's first record in six years, after a strong debut release on Alien8 and a self-released follow-up. This is the group's first album for Constellation and there's an element of homecoming about this body of work. Dedicated to the memory of renowned Montreal singer Lhasa de Sela, a dear friend of the band, La Lachuza is by turns emotive and powerful, delicately wrought and stunningly beautiful.
Previous Esmerine albums have been wholly instrumental works, focused around the lyrical cello lines of Becky Foon and Bruce Cawdron's marimba and glockenspiel. This is still largely the case, with fine interplay between drawn-out strings and staccato percussion- but La Lachuza has given opportunity for Esmerine to expand to a four-piece outfit, incorporating harp and additional percussion. These elements round Esmerine's sound into a more inviting dynamic, and allow a complexity of rhythm and melody as evidenced on the majestic 'Trampolin', a flurry of hyperactive notes that recalls Sigur Ros' experimental work. Elsewhere, 'Sprouts' employs restrained instrumentation to it's credit- a slow build giving way to frenetic choral moments, rich with colour.
Marking a departure from previous work, Esmerine here involve vocal duties on a few of the album tracks. This seemingly bold move had me worried- their instrumental sound has been evocative enough, and there's always an implication with vocal lines that they lead the song, detracting from the instrumentation beneath. Not so here, as 'Last Waltz'- the first of the album's vocal tracks, demonstrates. Calling on the services of Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre member Sarah Page, the track is arced around the ominous refrain “words are waiting to be said”- but the music is balanced throughout. In the spaces between verses, Neufield sings in chords, utelising her voice as another instrument to build sound with. Bathed in reverb, and set against the cello, harp and marimba- the effect is one of simple, longing beauty.
As with so many wonderful records, I have trouble pinning down exactly what this album is. La Lecuza has sounded different and perfectly appropriate in so many moments- at 4am sharp and angular, on a sunlit morning it is revelatory and awakening, and now- as the rain comes down in torrents, it seems nostalgic and affective. In so far as their own canon is concerned, this record must stand as a towering achievement, perhaps their most accomplished album to date. The recording standard is outstanding, the mix complementing the nature of the instruments and allowing space in between them- apparently much of the album was recorded live. I can't recommend this album highly enough- as someone who has followed the group from album one, it has pleased me greatly to hear such a wonderful record, one that exceeded my (already high) expectations so vastly. It is a rare pleasure, from start to finish.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Disappears / The Oscillation - Live at The Borderline, 31/05/11

I'd discovered Chicago's Disappears fairly recently, and as with any recent acquisition to my list of 'new favourite bands', my excitement at seeing the group live was at a peak. On a night when Thurston Moore was entertaining another of my housemates at one of the city's larger venues, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley was lined up to regale a gathered few with his new outfit in the small, utterly charming enclave that is Soho's Borderline club.

We arrived early on and with enough time to witness the opening band, The Oscillation. Hailing from Walthamstow, the four piece shimmied through a humble set of post-punk numbers, tight and restrained as they were. All told, the group held a tight groove and boasted a warm sound. Held together by keyboard drones and a shirking bass, their songs clearly held a power and this seemed to come to a crescendo as their brief set closed up. Indeed, their bandcamp page has provided much in the way of good listens a day after.

And then, to a small but eager crowd, Disappears gathered their equipment and launched headfirst into opening number 'Magics', from their debut LP 'Lux'. Released on the continually brilliant label Kranky, Disappears debut is an unashamedly raw 30 minutes of rock music, the kind you could jam to at 4 am with friends. Here, detail is insignificant- drowned out almost by a wave of chainsaw-esq guitars and pounded drums. On vocals, Brian Case barked in calls and yelps, unrepeatable expressions and croon­s- his voice beautifully obscured with echo and reverb. The overall effect is one of driven imprecision, intoxicated and seductive. Disappears beseech you not to enjoy it. To those friends who I have played their album in recent weeks and who remarked that the band 'aren't doing anything new'- this motion misses the point entirely. If Disappears's music is an indulgence, then so be it- some things can be unpretentious and still artful. And few bands these days seem capable of merely playing for joy, I recall seeing Fang Island some months ago and remarking what a rare opportunity for crowd high fiving it was. Similarly, and perhaps more appropriately, New York's Oneida seem inflicted with the sheer thrill of making sound, loud, rhythmic, crass and punk rock.

In the course of the 40 minutes the band spent on stage with us, Disappears tore through numbers from their two albums with pace and vigour - the songs taking on a real power in the room, as the reverb and feedback from the end of one piece became the beginning of the next track. The band were tight and controlled, allowing the strength of their songs to drive the concert's momentum. And whilst I could reflect on how the band could easily have performed in a larger venue, to more people - it is a treat to witness a group like this playing to a crowd there deliberately. If and when they do revisit these shores, it will be to a larger audience- and they'll probably play in exactly the same manner. Bold, assured, meditative and engrossed in their own music making. It seems completely marvelous to me.

First published in the405.


Akira The Don - The Life Equation: review

Children of the 80's and 90's, how fondly will you look back on those formative years? Mid-90's, I could be found perched by the radio deck every Sunday evening as the charts wound down the full gamut of that week's pop offerings. That era marked the birth of 'the wholly manufactured' pop act, and the top tens reflected the saccharine tones of these groups mashing it alongside the blooming and yet-to-be Blairised Britpop scene. Indie has always prided itself on authenticity- but even the pop might have seemed more sincere. Were songs less cynical then? If so, could it be a time-specific triumph of now-retro production and an industry still figuring out just how profitable it could be? 2011, and naivety of that era has truly passed. Songs of innocence then, and of experience now.

It's not that I had intended to start the review like this, but some records genuinely throw you. I wasn't expecting this. Akira The Don's second album proper- The Life Equation is a lovingly composed pastiche of such moments, circumnavigating nostalgia for its own sake in lieu of an almost forgotten songwriting form, cast off, disassembled, and herein restored.

Coming off the back of a series of increasingly spectacular rap mixtapes (now up to 25 and all available gratis via his website), lovers of raw loop work and rhythm play may feel underwhelmed by this LP- but whilst it couldn't be described as conventional hip-hop, Akira's rap dexterity is tested thoroughly across this record's 10 tracks. This is a pop album foremost, an record of songs and meaning communicated. The heartbreakingly sincere 'We Won't Be Broke Forever, Baby' orates reassurances to a lover, promises of solace from dark days. Elsewhere, the first song proper 'Video Highway' comes across as the kind of song Blur might have penned if they'd done speed and not coke. It's frenetic- and reminded me of the anime films I used to watch in the 90s when I had days off from school with the flu. High speed chase scenes, bright colours and newsreaders, swirling text, impossible energy without limit- all chaotically transfused within the prism of my fevers. As an album opener, it's relentless - a real slap upside the head.

The sun-clasped 'shake n bake' of 'All The Right Things' follows, the lulled jangle in it's verses taking me right back to Jurassic 5's good moments. The chorus is all horns and jump-ups, Akira calling the world as he sees it: his inimitable worldview a fusion of heady optimism, infectious enthusiasm and all-encompassing bricolage.

The Life Equation can be seen as a fervent call to arms, an existential cold shower- it's introduction calling for greater unity, less emphasis on the individual- and similarly, the spoken word samples that pop up in the epic album version of 'The Life Equation' itself, seek to reaffirm this message. If the album can seem lovingly devoted to notions of quintessentially 80's and 90's British music, then it is also a forward-thinking record of positivity and realised potential. Akira is a noted home-producer, and his series of mixtapes and 'Doncasts' testify that the bedroom recording aesthetic of constant production and meta-creativity is one that seems especially pertinent here. Co-produced by Stephen Hague, famed for his work on Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Peter Gabriel and, somewhat adorably, Mel C- the album bears tints of bygone pop, but the instrumentation choice and use of the studio suggest this is a record that could only have been made 'now'. The Life Equation's Sonic choices could be conceptual, a reading of the text which I'm transplanting through association- at its core, this is an album of some very strong material and a worthy addition to Akira's ever expending musical repertoire.

First published on the405.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Standon Calling 2011: Festival Preview

Besides one of the most exciting line-ups a UK festival can boast this year, Standon Calling is set to unleash all manner of nightmarish visions and epic mythologies upon festivalgoers this summer.

This little gem of a festival, tucked away in Hertfordshire, is one of a growing number of independently run 'boutique' festivals which promise a more authentic, responsible and engaging weekend experience than the corporate festival behemoths which have come to dominate the UK summer circuit- and has fast become one of our favourite occasions on the calendar.

What started inauspiciously with a birthday barbecue between friends some nine years ago quickly became defined by the organisers' desire to hold the best party they could, or so the story goes. A stage appeared, but even when bands of some considerable repute began making the journey to play at the gathering, it hadn’t occurred to organisers that they were putting together anything more significant than a cracking house party. But since 2001, a seismic shift has polarised festival goers between those happy to pay over the odds and engage in the ‘theme park experience’ of the mainstream festivals and that more discerning crowd: people desiring something more engaging and authentic- and Standon Calling has found it's audience and blossomed in the years since.

At no point is the festival spirit compromised by a necessity to advertise, do things by half-measures or pander to corporate demands. As such, a lucid and immersing space is maintained, a place for imagination to run riot and creativity to flourish. And more than catering for a superficially ad-free experience, the ethos runs into the Standon Calling's approach towards the on-site food and bars, which offer a diverse range of quality nourishment sold by people you can have conversations with, through the festival's décor and visual aesthetics, and through each festival's unique fictionalised sub-story and dress-up theme.

Like Bestival and Secret Garden Party, this 5,000 capacity festival- staged entirely in the grounds of a 16th Century manor house (with it's own swimming pool) incorporates all the whimsy of dressing up with an annual theme- and a carnival atmosphere prevails across the weekend. But more than merely requesting it’s willing punters to don a bit of vintage or home-spun costume, Standon Calling’s fantasy world is immersive and fully realised.

We visited the festival last year and were taken aback by it's unique and welcoming atmosphere. This is a site where attention to detail has been paid, where care for your experience has been considered and where anything is likely to happen. Taking the dress-up theme fantastically further than any other festival troupe would, Standon Calling enlists the services of The Heritage Arts Company in entwining a themed narrative throughout the weekend experience. Last year this involved an art theft and murder mystery- a real 'whodunnit' that was elucidated over the weekend with flyers, newspapers and actors immersed in their surroundings. At one point, a 'police officer' enlisted us to join a search party, to report clues back to the local constabulary: a pop-up 1930s police store centred in the festival's faux-vintage high street. This year the chosen theme is Gods and Monsters, a title which invites classicism and fantasy in equal measure. However it unfurls, it seems implausible that a festival manifest such an aesthetic in any less than 'epic' circumstance. And so it seems, from the Garden of Healing to a Zombie Marketplace- Standon Calling is embracing it's theme with vigour: rumours of black magick midnight rituals abound.

And this is without mentioning the extraordinary music that Standon has quickly becoming associated with. An eclecticism pervades the line-up choices, and you're likely to see many bands here that just don't play at other UK festivals. Last year saw Fucked Up, Liars and Pantha Du Prince play one after another, comprising possibly the finest 3 hours of music I experienced in 2010. This season, a similarly impressive collection of high quality independent artists dominates the scheduling. Friday's main stage headline slot goes to art-rock impresarios Battles, who will be touring second album 'Gloss Drop'- whilst the Saturday headline slot belongs to UK festival favourite Spiritualised, in what promises to be a memorable performance. The festival is closed by a headline slot from house-maestros Hercules and Love Affair, whose uplifting, super-hip house stylings will guarantee a warm, enthused end to the festival. Elsewhere, a rare UK date for invigorating NY rap-poet Saul Williams catches the eye and will surely be a highlight. Hackney swing-favourites The Correspondents make an appearance- and are at their best when regaling a festival audience, never failing to win the hearts of their crowds with their jangly remixing of vintage swing numbers, broken and transfused to dubstep and house beats.

It's a line up which surprises as much as it does excite- we came away last year having made many discoveries, plenty of 'new favourite band' moments amidst actually seeing our existing favourite bands. There's a philosophy which carries through all the line-up choices, an aesthetic which binds them. Further, the festival is known for having 'an eye' to catching emerging artists before they break: Florence and the Machine and Mumford & Sons are both remembered for having played breakthrough gigs in this festival's intimate and inspired environment.

And though we enjoyed so many musical moments at Standon Calling, it is the attention to detail in every other aspect of the festival that won us over and captured our hearts- whether it be the quality of the food (organic throughout, fair trade where possible) or the beautiful and well-thought out décor that adorned the space. We spent the weekend collecting moments: from the immerse art-stalls and narrative that unfolded across the weekend, to the impromptu sock-wrestling that saw priests fight ninjas, pirates fight strong-men. The delightful ladies from The Note Well who provided us with “guerilla” cake, the festival's on-site live-band karaoke, the Australian dude who'd carted his biodegradable toilets around the world, the decadence and noir of the 4am cinema, all the beautiful, happy, smiling, drunk, staggered, interesting, interested, psychic and special people we met along the way and the friends we made of them, oh- the unimaginable luxury of having a swimming pool on site! Standon Calling is a unique and special place, one we are very fond of.

Standon Calling runs from 11th to the 14th of August. Full weekend tickets cost £120.

Full details can be found at: www.standon-calling.com or you can follow the festival's (highly amusing) tweets here: www.twitter.com/standoncallin

First published in The405

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Anni Rossi - Heavy Meadow: review

I first heard Anni Rossi back in 2005. The Chicago based violist was with Carla Bozulich's then band as it toured Evangelista across Europe, and I caught an impromptu gig at Barden's Boudoir only a night after Bozulich had supported A Silver Mt Zion at Koko. The night afforded a twenty minute set to Rossi, who captivated the early birds with a rousing solo performance of shirking, playful vocals, fierce string manoeuvring and her impassioned tap and foot-stomping. Anni Rossi was a force, her talent and passion belying a tender age. In the years since this modest introduction, it has been pleasing to see her signed to forward-thinking indie label 4AD. Though previous homemade EP releases had been made through her “I'll play anywhere” attitude to global touring, Rossi enjoyed the privilege of recording her debut album proper, 2009's Rockwell with Albini, famously recording all the tracks and their arrangements in a day.

That record was a progression from her earlier, more stripped down sound. Here, viola and vocals called in drumkit and occasionally, synth chords. Whilst Rossi's solo live shows can be enchanting in their performative nature, here was an album that recognised the potential that a studio recording can offer. Arrangements were used modestly, only to complement her unique viola style; chords stabbed at and strung-out, her instrument assaulted and embraced. Inevitable comparisons with nu-folk's other 'weird string instrument' wunderkind, Joanna Newsom, inevitably followed- but Rossi's voice was unmistakably her own. Whilst Newsom may be content to reside upon an austere folk seriousness, a promise of authenticity- Rossi's work is more playful, less self-aware.

On Heavy Meadow- Rossi takes these studio elements further, expanding her songwriting repertoire with collection of highly focused songs. Whilst we are unlikely to see Rossi perform with 8 piece bands and such, these songs explore a range of instrumentation with simplicity. Flashes of guitar used as utterances in verses, 80s pastiche synths in the choruses of Crushing Limbs- a modesty pervades these recordings, but a maturity too in their arrangements. These are post-punk lullabies, highly professional sweetheart songs- stories that move far beyond the endearing nu-folk that marked her early releases. The album can move from twee to heavy in instants, there's a control in the record's mood throughout. A reverb heavy clean guitar slides a draining chord progression in the left channel of Hatchet's chorus, and the songs mood shifts in degrees.

Lyrically too, the album sees Anni Rossi moving beyond conventions of her past into a more lucid, compelling storytelling. Biography and retelling gives way to wholly formed narratives The Fight and pained stabs at resolution in Frame Me Right, a song which reveals an honesty and vulnerability not seen before. If this song is open, torn, at wit's end- then The Fight is the mood formed of conviction. It's irresistible beat is almost neu-disco, the driven shimmy and mirroring synths lending her vocals a defiant, aggressive quality. Elsewhere, Candyland is a toying call and answer verse that leads to nostalgia-tearing chorus. “Play it cool”, she recalls- before the reassurance only learnt in retrospect- “love is the only rule”.

The album closes with a song I first heard back at that gig in '05. Safety of Objects is a majestic and upbeat pop-number, it's strings picked as if her viola were standing in for a 90's grunge band. The song was first recorded for one of those 'hand out at gigs' cds, an acoustic viola performance rich with glee. This version loses none of that original's curiosity or verve, a chirpy drumpad sequence and oceanic synth here complementing lyrics which affirm the physical nature of things. The album's final song might well be it's most revealing, symbolic as it is of the record's whole process. Though her songwriting aesthetic might have matured and grown in confidence, her voice is still remarkably, and pleasingly, her own.

First published on the405

Monday, 18 April 2011

Kode9 and Spaceape - Black Sun: review

Whether through the exercising of a Western totalitarianism’s might in North Africa, the ongoing witch hunt America is indulging over Wikileaks or the continuing nuclear crisis in Japan- apocalypse haunts us daily, and governments profit just as regularly from exploiting these fears. That science-fiction can offer us more uncomfortable truths about our existence than realist prose is well-documented and largely down to it’s creative license and our willingness to suspend disbelief. The latter example holds special pertinence; Japan has processed it’s own nuclear apocalypse through metaphor and storytelling ever since the bombs were dropped, and there’s a crushing familiarity to the scenes being played out on 24 hour rolling news, of fact and fiction overlapping with a painful deja-vu. If this proves anything, it may be that our world is becoming tragically unmistakable from the paranoid, visionary fantasies of Ballard and the like: that the dystopic futures predicted in science fiction are seeming increasingly like self-fulfilling prophecies.

‘Black Sun’, the new LP from Hyperdub founder Kode9 and longtime collaborator Spaceape resonates along these lines, expanding the mythos of dystopia into a lucid whole comprising both a cohesive narrative and an appropriately unnerving aural palette. Lush cover art inspired by Japanese woodblock prints and an expansive graphic strip included in the liner notes elucidate detail onthe record’s concept. Standout track ‘The Cure’ draws on Spaceape’s own experiences with illness, manipulating it into a vague but compelling exposition of fear and post-humanism. There is a surrealism and unreality which pervades these themes, and perhaps fear is only natural- insofar as anything in cyborg consciousness can be. Many artists employ populist narrative themes to enhance their work, or imbue it with a borrowed relevance, and sci-fi holds a special appeal- Nine Inch Nail’s simplistic Year Zero comes to mind, as does Janelle Monae’s engaging Archandroid and Method Man’s Bobby Digital alter-ego. But ‘Black Sun’ adeptly negotiates the pitfalls of co-opting a sci-fi aesthetic- never painting it’s imagined future with a preaching morality or a deliverance of answers- this is music content with it’s curiosity of overlapping realities.


And if it sounds dystopian, a product of the broken future- then this is most probably the case- ‘Black Sun’ is carved from frequencies and tones designed with the record’s semantic content in mind. A lecturer in philosophy, Kode9’s recently published thesis ‘Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear’ describes the idea that sound can evoke effect, be transportative- and explores the way that sound is used to reposition the listening subject. Famously, guests enjoying the facilities at Guantanamo Bay have been treated to prolonged exposure to the Barney theme tune as part of their psychological conditioning- and generally speaking, its a philosophy which finds much in common with the pervasiveness of sound in Ballard’s writing. If sound has an important role to play in the construction or repositioning of subjectivity then ‘Black Sun’ uses these taut, alternating frequencies to strengthen and reaffirm it’s imagined nightmares and to project them with sonic certainty.

The album title is evocative in multiplicities; of contorted celestial bodies, sin and complicity, society’s death, manifest corruption, the occult- suitable themes for dystopia then- and the album turns on it’s title track, itself a retelling of an earlier story. ‘Black Sun’ was first released a single in 2009 and that version’s angular beat-work is here replaced with subtlety and a slow-build, it’s jarring synths softened, nuanced frequency work set around the shifting chords. Indeed much of this record has been collated over years- tracks undergoing frequent edits, lyrics transmuted between songs. This hypertext approach to composition is itself the product of cyborg mentality, and the artists use tropes of post-humanism throughout the lyrics- utilising their central narrative as means of tying these disparate recordings together with a thematic commonality. This is a world of nuclear fallout and transient identity, where taking the prescribed cure for Earth’s radiation will inevitably mutate you. This jarring predicament calls into question notions of identity and home, their inexorable connectivity.

‘Black Sun’ is a compelling record- that rare kind of concept album that offers an experience both sonically and aesthetically engaging. Perfectly suited to the late night headphone experience and urban navigation, I found myself repositioned through having this on- human interactions became software requests, at every turn I was interfacing with an external reality suddenly taking on qualities inherent to unreality. Perhaps that is the key element of a successful science fiction: that it forces re-perception upon you- brutal truths, abject nightmares and all.

First published in Notion.

We Love Japan, Akira the Don and Adam Ant: review

The bill for Saturday’s We Love Japan benefit at the (cough) “Relentless” Garage had been put together hurredly but with vigour, as is usually the case for such rapidly-announced charity gigs. All credit to the organisers of the night, who not only secured a plethora of bourgeois swag for the evening’s inevitable raffle but who had also coaxed out a rare solo gig out of, and I hasten to repeat the words, 70′s glam legend Adam Ant. I wouldn’t want to be glib, or offer too ready an embrace of kitsch- but gods! I’d come to check out Akira the Don, who had initially been booked to headline- but now I’m seeing an Adam Ant gig! Potential for rock star anecdotes to tell my dad just went through the roof!

Anyway, we’d not come to see the Ant- or that guy from E4 cast as the night’s awkward compere (how do you strike the right tone between recognition of utter tragedy and the desire to have a good night out?)- tonight promised only the opportunity of a rare live outing for the Hackney-based rap-tastic Akira The Don.

This gig, albeit a benefit slot, came at a good time for The Don- shortly after the release of the 25th free mixtape via his website, and before the release of his second proper album, The Life Equation. That mixtape, ATD25- is a phenomenally enjoyable thing- a unstoppable barrage of rapid verses, stupidly good sampling (their remix of Marina and The Diamonds ‘I am not a robot’ is a work of breathtaking alchemy), complementary guest verses and taut production smacking of professionalism and potential. Such sonic results demonstrate well why Akira was initially booked for the night’s main slot. That being said, and making do- a half hour set was more than enough for this enigmatic hip-hop artist to bring his particular ruckus to an audience left tender by the ear-shattering heavy metal band that had preceded (note: that’s not a criticism per se: I think ‘ear-shattering’ is firmly in the mandate for heavy metal bands- central to their raison d’etre, if you will).

Donned in an authentically ‘back in the day’ Wu Tang jumper (from the Iron Flag tour, OG auditers- but besides, what’s with everyone hating on Iron Flag anyway? Ok, it’s not traditional Wu- but it’s got some solid tunes! Akira knows…) and with the help of DJ friend Jack Nimble (who was given his props, no doubt) Akira tore through a set that reflected much of his back catalogue at it’s finest. Old school number “Living in the Future’ was performed with it’s trademark innocence remixed and Akira bouncing around the stage with a glee that was infectious. The beautifully summer ready ‘Oh! What a glorious day!’ gave opportunity for some bona fide sentimentalism, a sing-along in the chorus bracketing odes to cycling down the Kingsland Road in the sun. Pausing between numbers to orate in his uniquely enthused manner (after climbing up a side-stage ladder, noting to himself with excitement ‘Ok, wow- that’s a good climbing ladder..’)- there’s something that’s plain irresistible about the kind of hip-hop Akira the Don is making and all his swagger is ultimately endearing. Calling onstage a troupe of “hip-hop superfriends” (Pixel, Littles, Big Narstie, Marvin the Martian) for the closing number ‘Big Iron’, a standout track from ATD25- the song had the feel of a special moment. The track bounces and jangles like something the RZA might have produced on an upbeat day- and along the finest teachings of the Wu, each verse is magnificent, each rapper’s tone and flow complementing as well as drawing distinction from those around it. And that was that- the support slot feeling all too brief, all too enjoyable.

An intermission, E4 guy doing his level best, and the crowd’s dynamic manifestly altered: the front rows of hipster boys and lolita-inspired harajuku girls replaced by a row of 80s rockers who had taken to reliving their youth in dusted-off leather jackets, and their wives. I was under no illusion what to expect; this was a solo gig from Adam Ant, whatever that meant, and the signs around me were telling their own story. I was open minded enough, and thought I was prepared for this gig to speak for itself. But then, how do you prepare for a performance so underwhelming it merely confuses? Adam Ant bounded onstage dressed up like November 5th had come early. His guitar fed back throughout. He dedicated a song to Elizabeth Taylor (at a Japan benefit, I’d like to remind dear readers). He covered Wild Thing, stripping it of all it’s sex, and seemingly left in a small tissy after failing to rouse the crowd into a singalong with his broken voice. Seriously, some of those high notes? Were meant to be higher. Look, many people applauded him throughout- and he did well playing solo and keeping the crowd engaged enough- staring down audience members and offering perfectly contorted facial expressions on demand and in cue with the showmanship on the fretwork- but I didn’t get it and I’m confused about it to this day.

First published in Notion

Thursday, 31 March 2011

King Creosote and Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine: review

Both Kenny Anderson and the Fife-based collective he represents and manages under the Fence Records label have enjoyed popularity in the folk community, regularly contributing line-ups to the old Green Man bill- but of late it’s seemed that many journalists and commentators in the mainstream have taken note of this rather special community, and in particular it’s flagship artist. I can remember going to Green Man 2003 and seeing Fife based artist after artist, collaborations between so many musicians. Kenny Anderson, better known as King Creosote, must have played upwards of 20 gigs that weekend, including a rare show with his brother Gordon’s Lone Pigeon live band.

Kenny’s spun an inspiring career, founded on DIY ethics and communal spirit. His first two albums proper were home-recorded and are lovely affairs. These were surrounded by numerous CD releases, collections of demos- loose, frequently beautiful. Here was an artist who was baring all, remaining humble, in embrace of music’s creation and its release to an audience. The entire Fife scene had a romanticism about it- and in the years since I first discovered of it, King Creosote has gone on to record proper studio albums, to mixed success. I’d fallen in love with the home recorded sound, the imperfections, tape hiss and lovingly recorded dictaphone sounds. Whilst I respected the notion of this homemade artist recording in ‘proper’ studios and garnering the adoration of the mainstream press, I’ve increasingly found myself alienated in these tightened recordings. How lovely then that I find this collaborative record between King Creosote and electronic guru Jon Hopkins, seemingly low-fi, delicately, comfortably.

Diamond Mine comprises 7 tracks of simply rendered folk songs. Acoustic fingerpicking set against some very subtle electronic arrangements and foundsound. I say ‘subtle’, for the synth work here has the modesty of Kieran Hebden’s collaborations with Steve Reid- never assuming or overbearing, but providing the slightest complement to the song at hand. This is foremostly a King Creosote record, and the songs here wouldn’t seem out of place in the artist’s early work. That may seem dismissive, but I found this record just so unpretentiously lovely. And that comfort with itself is far more prevalent on records like ‘Kenny and Beths’ Musakal Boatrides’ than the Domino-released ‘Flick the Vs’. Indeed, an old song ‘Bubbles’, is here reimagined- casting off acoustic guitars for Autechre-esq microbeats. Again, modesty pervades and songwriting is only ever supported by the electronic work underneath.

Elsewhere, the bittersweet ‘Running on Fumes’ offers King Creosote’s lulled guitar work at its best. Kenny’s accordion enjoys an obligatory blast on the rising ‘John Taylor’s Month Away’, but the album saves its finest moment for last. ‘First Watch’ is a delicate piano-led coda, whilst sourced recordings mutter overhead. People speak, things are arranged- the world goes by its business, as chords fall. ‘Diamond Mine’ is a strange record, but perhaps just what it’s title suggests- early acoustic numbers are roughened gems, raw from discovery- but later tracks like ‘Bats in the Attic’ are more composed and polished. It’s a mixed bag sonically, but is frequently beautiful and performed with a gentility and ease that has been missing in King Creosote’s recent work. Diamond Mine is a record which sets the past against the present, and goes some way to finding a common ground between King Creosote’s earlier, looser recordings and the more recent pop-inflicted sounds he’s embraced. As such, it sits firmly at ease in his catalogue, and represents my favourite record of his in many years.

First published on The405.