Archive | September, 2017

The Horrors ‘V’ – Review

25 Sep

The Horrors have talked a lot recently about the perceived failures of their last album ‘Luminous’, a meticulously crafted and expansive sounding record that was absolutely hollow in the middle. ‘V’ is here to atone for its sins. They haven’t made the same mistakes, they promise. Where that album was slaved over, ‘V’ was largely the result of spontaneity. Where that album saw the band bend to people’s whims, ‘V’ is resolutely uncompromising. Where half baked ideas were given too much credence on ‘Luminous’, on ‘V’ only the very best will do. They’ve talked of it being a new chapter, whilst also loosely comparing its feeling to early singles like ‘Sheena is a Parisite’, promising that those neglected ‘Strange House’ era songs will find a new home on upcoming set lists, alongside new material.

Regrettably, at first flush, none of the above is actually borne out by the music. A couple of minutes in to the plodding opener ‘Hologram’ you start to get an overpowering sense of deja-vu. You see, the main problem with ‘Luminous’ wasn’t any of the things identified by the band – it was the lack of danger. ‘Strange Houses’ and ‘Primary Colours’ (and to a lesser extent ‘Skying’) were packed with violent guitar attacks, savage melodies and an unstoppable forward momentum. Faris was always on the verge of a full blown meltdown and you never quite felt sure which direction he would wade in next. The lush and layered ‘Luminous’ was simply too safe.

‘V’ is marginally better but not because it addresses that fundamental flaw. The melodies are generally that bit sharper, and in lead single ‘Something to Remember Me By’ it contains one genuinely great song (which is one more than ‘Luminous’ had). And the sound of the album is superficially more unpredictable, at least. Each song is crammed full of malfunctioning electronics and collapsing surfaces, giving the whole album a discomforting, dystopian vibe. But perhaps because of this, it’s pretty difficult to feel a connection with anything Faris is singing. Key tracks on ‘Primary a Colours’, not to mention his beautiful contributions to Cats Eyes records, proved that he has a sensitive side and is capable of indulging it; but nothing on ‘V’ leaves any significant emotional dent. He continues to embrace his inner Choir boy with his considered vocals, but fails to connect with the material. Like the music, his singing is superficially stunning, but almost totally heartless.

With a lack of danger compounded by an absence of emotion, you might be left questioning if ‘V’ is worth figuring with at all. But on a purely sonic level, it’s full of rewarding experimentation. The aforementioned ‘Something to Remember Me By’ glistens under a mild techno production and is packed with endearing nods to New Order. The heavy, industrial tone of ‘Machine’ and ‘World Below’ feels genuinely new for the band, undercutting the polished, shimmering surfaces found elsewhere on the record. The opening track, ‘Hologram’, lethargic as it may be, is proper fuzzy bass, stadium synth territory; somewhere between Depeche Mode and, dare I say, Muse. Producer Paul Epworth, now largely known for his work with pop acts like Adele but once the man behind the boards for Maximo Park, The Futureheads and Babyshambles, executes the band’s vision pretty perfectly. It’s polished and poppy but with a weird, somewhat grotty underbelly.

One thankful improvement on their last record is that guitarist Josh Hayward, neutered on the slick ‘Lumious’, is featured more prominently. His recognisably ugly shredding style, that makes hard work of even most simple notes, adds dark grit to the likes of lurching highlight ‘Machine’ and ‘Press Enter to Exit’. His style is certainly preferable to the sexless, stodgy work of the rhythm section who, for all its vinyl collection credentials, never seem to have discovered the funk section of a record store.

While ‘V’ doesn’t match up to The Horrors first three albums, or herald a brave new direction, it does to some extent get right what ‘Lumious’ failed to achieve – it’s bright, dense and synthetic but with something closer to the unpredictability that The Horrors are known for. Thus, hopefully, it should close this chapter of the band’s history, leaving them free to get back to the business of ferociously and wholeheartedly clawing their way through unexplored genres.

6.5/10

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Review Round Up

21 Sep

Rostam ‘Half Light’

Vampire weekend’s chief architect Rostam has been busy of late, rebranding himself as a post-pop auteur, shaping deep cuts by Carley Rae Jenson, Solange, Haim and Frank Ocean. On his proper debut album ‘Half Light’ he collects some solo songs that have been knocking around for years and puts them together with some new material. ‘Half Light’ effectively conveys Rostam’s imagination, enthusiasm and the diversity of his interests; but what it has in ambition, it loses in coherence. Fifteen tracks is probably a handful too many.

On opener ‘Sumer’ he unwinds a complicated melody, while orchestral flourishes adorn the background. It gives the impression that ‘Half Light’ may take us in the direction of ‘Person Pitch’, and to that end he sounds not dissimilar to Panda Bear. Elsewhere his voice, always on the verge of breaking in to tears or laughter (I can’t quite tell which) recalls Devandra Banhaet, Anohni or, fittingly, a more whimsical Ezra Koenig – without ever quite carving out its own identity. Similarly, he confidently unrolls tracks influenced by Ska, pop, trap, r&b and indie rock without ever hitting upon a sound that is truly his own. Still, ‘Half Light’ is further proof of Rostam’s prodigal talent for understanding, and breaking down, genre.

7/10

Foo Fighters ‘Concrete and Gold’

Foo Fighters albums come along reliably every three or four years, and ‘Concrete and Gold’ is just that – another Foo Fighters album. Certainly nothing more, but perhaps a little less. It certainly doesn’t compare to their career best ‘The Colour and The Shape’ or their recent stand out ‘Wasting Light’. In fact it contains less hooks, less surprises and less reasons to listen than even 2015’s disappointing ‘Sonic Highways.’ Admittedly Foo Fighters have always been a singles band but the singles on ‘Concrete and Gold’ are more auto-pilot than ‘Learning to Fly’, more over-long than ‘everlong’. Only the magnified harmonies used through the album add colour to what is otherwise a fairly middle of the road rock album. Bloated and dull, but always reliably proficient, ‘Concrete and Gold’ is the sound of a great band running out of new ideas and losing touch with old ones.

4/10

Prophets of Rage ‘Prophets of Rage’

A lot of people have already theorised about why Prophets of Rage (who include members of legendary bands Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cyprus Hill) sound so off-point despite sticking to a formula they’ve all successfully used in the past. For my money it’s the absence of the four letter word that links the band to their main forefather. RAGE. Prophets of Rage’s music is recognisably propulsive thanks to the same rhythm section, the same legendary guitarist using the exact same instrument and shredding better than ever. But one vital ingredient is missing. Zack De La Rocha. I never realised just how necessary his incendiary lyrics, uncensored anger and room shaking vocals actually were to the success of the band. In his place are Chuck D and B Real, two rappers who at best sound like tame approximations of not only De La Roche but also of their past selves. There is seldom any bile or originality in their uncomplicated rhymes either, which are delivered with little of the passion that their platform demands. There will always be a place for energetic, well intentioned political punk rock, and ‘Prophets of Rage’ is an enjoyable record – it just never motivates, agitates or inspires like you feel it should do.

5.5/10

 

The National ‘Sleep Well Beast’ – Review

17 Sep

I feel like every review of a new National album starts from the assumption that it is going to be boring. When I return to them, I think I start from that assumption as well. I suppose their sad, slow songs are so good that we collectively forget there are both shaggier and sharper sides and edges to this band. Songs that shout, scratch and shriek. Songs that pop like balloons. All sides of the band are represented on their seventh (seventh!) album, ‘Sleep Well Beast’, whose biggest achievement is how it manages to readjust the temperature controls ever so slightly whilst essentially keeping the listener feeling comfortable and relaxed. This is still a National album, and it sounds like it. But things are just ever so slightly grouchier, darker and more agitated.

The big picture is that this is Matt Beringer’s divorce album – the twist being that the writing process actually saved the marriage. It encompasses all the rage, contemplativeness, grief, depression, optimism and renewal that that process implies. Nice idea, but, well, both Beyoncé and Jaz Z stamped their names on that idea on their most recent albums, and besides, every National album has covered themes of grown up, marital disharmony before. So what’s really new?

Mostly it’s the music. At times the sounds are more fragmented than they’ve ever been before, which makes it feel like the band members are working against an ideal of unity; rubbing up and pulling at the edges of each other. On lead single ‘The System only Dreams in Total Darkness’, a Woody Woodpecker guitar squeals and splutters in fits and spurts while brooding percussion builds tension and drama. On ‘Empire Line’, a tightly wound beat rattles against thudding synths. Peculiar vocal snatches, and a flickering high hat, disrupt Beringer’s bassey croon on ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’. The songs themselves aren’t anything particularly groundbreaking for the band, and a couple are completely forgettable, but it’s consistently fascinating on a sonic level. Throughout there are guitars shredding against crystallised beats or bass lines circling in spite of chaos and noise. This creates for a tension that makes ‘Sleep Well Beast’ decidedly not an easy listening record, in spite of the grand pianos and stately melodies that ground almost every song.

You sense it wouldn’t be quite like this if it were left to Matt Berigner. By quite some distance this is his sleepiest contribution to a National record. His singing is lazy – even on the frantic, oddly positioned rocker, ‘Turtleneck’, he sounds like he’s on downers, fighting against a head cold. Thankfully then, his lyrical contribution is as singular as ever. He shines a light on the dusty corners of a marriage; with a novelist’s eye for odd detail and a Soap writer’s awareness of pure emotive power. As I said before, marital disharmony is hardly new ground for The National – arguably nothing here hits as hard as ‘Slipping Husband’, a frantic song on the subject from the band’s second album – but they’ve never gone in at the angle quite so doggedly before. In the past middle age was a scary prospect, creeping around the corner, here it’s a living and breathing reality.

To compensate for the necessary dullness of what is being described – essentially a slow, mundane collapse of a relationship – Beringer’s language becomes typically colourful and unusual. His style is to mix stone cold realism with ambiguous surrealism, to leave the reader swimming in the contrasts. And so, for example, we get intriguing head scratchers like ‘for years I used to put my head in the speakers in the hallway’ and ‘no other faith is light enough for this place’, splashed in with the brutal, simple honesty of ‘I don’t need you, besides I barely even see you anymore.’ The overall effect is both disorientating and captivating – it’s what makes Matt Beringer such a unique lyricist.

He knows when and how to dial it back as well. The National have always been capable of delivering gut punchingly simple sentiments (‘About Today’, ‘Lucky You’, ‘Slow Show’, ‘I Need My Girl’), and here they do it with the album’s best song ‘Dark Side of the Gym’, a pretty tune with a refrain of ‘I’m going to keep you in love with me’. It’s a song about how quickly time passes – one minute you’re struggling to talk to the girl you like, the next minute you’re on the brink of separation. The ultimate message though is about perseverance and commitment, and The National remain the greatest embodiment of, and ambassadors for this idea. The small miracle is that after all these years, The National Still sound like The National. Altered a little perhaps but recognisable as the same band. Like the longest lasting marriages, they’re complicated, slightly unstable and built on a foundation of deep lasting love.

7.5/10

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The War on Drugs ‘A Deeper Understanding’ – Review

10 Sep

2014’s ‘Lost in the Dream’ was a nuanced, successful evocation of what Adam Granduciel had been hearing in his head, and trying less successfully to articulate with music, for nearly a decade. It’s predecessors ‘Wagon wheel Blues’ and ‘Slave Ambient’ were best described as promising, and ‘Lost in the Dream’ realised that promise in the most unexpected ways. That makes a follow up a tricky proposition, particularly when Granduciel clearly has such a precise idea of what he wants to achieve. He has no desire to divert from the formula that made that record such a success – moody melodies, crunching guitar solos, hypnotic synth drones under steady beats and extensive running lengths. So on ‘A Deeper Understanding’ he gains exactly that; a deeper understanding of what interests him musically and emotionally.

Or to put it another way, he’s still painting the same picture only this time the canvas is bigger, the brush strokes are broader and bolder and the colours, while largely the same, are brighter shades. This results in an album that is similar to ‘Lost in the Dream’ but equally successful.

Essentially, Granduciel is concerned with the intersections of feelings. The space where the past meets the present or love becomes loss. Or, as he puts it on ‘Strangest Thing’, ‘the space between beauty and pain and the real thing.’ Therefore this music is necessarily mysterious and unsettling. You never quite know where you stand or what exactly you’re being asked to feel. All that you know is that the feelings are strong nonetheless. Extended guitar solos convey exactly that mystery; they aren’t, like most solos, flashy exercises in technical wizardry, they’re direct and powerful personifications of uncertainty that nudge, dive, halt and grind in unexpected ways. In contrast, the reliability of the krautrock rhythms gives Granduciel something to kick against. The wash of synth arpeggios and reverb soaked backing vocals aren’t nostalgic indulgences, they’re ghosts – signifiers of a past trying to make itself heard and reconciled.

It remains difficult to express what is so moving about War on Drugs music. It consciously builds like fog rolling across a river and in its own way is just as hard to describe. One thing for certain is that it requires a degree of patience. You have to wait for the moments you love. The tension builds and builds across wide open spaces until it becomes almost uncomfortable. The release is astonishing. ‘In Chains’ is perhaps the best distillation of this. At nearly eight minutes long the song is certainly epic, but for large periods little actually progresses. This is what makes the moments of magic so compelling; the bright burst of synths three minutes in, the synthetic chimes at four minutes, The introduction of harmonies at five minutes, then the sudden ‘Be My Baby’ drum break at the ultimate climax before a harmonica wails at us from the distance. As the song fades it sounds like a Cure song, at other points it bounces off Tom Petty, The Boss, and Roy Orbison. But it never really feels like anyone but The War on Drugs.

Of course, they remain a divisive band to a large extent and if you don’t get it by now, ‘A Deeper Understanding’ isn’t going to change your mind. Their songs are still somewhat indulgent (the longest track is eleven minutes) and broadly sound quite similar. And if you were to participate in a drinking game where you took a shot every time they sang about darkness, rivers, trains, the road, lights, the sea, dreams or memories, then you would get very drunk very quickly (there’s one line in the final song where he mentions four of these things in a single line!). But even cynics are surely able to get on board with the shimmering pop of ‘Holding on’, the dramatic swells of ‘Strangest Thing’ and the sheer, jaw dropping, emotive ambition of ‘Thinking of a Place’? At some level, even in its darkest moments, ‘A Deeper Understanding’ is their most accessible record to date. It confirms to a wide audience what fans already knew – The War on Drugs are the biggest sounding, and one day hopefully the biggest, rock band on the planet.

9/10

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LCD Soundsystem ‘American Dream’ – Review

7 Sep

It’s fair to say that James Murphy gets a mixed reception in Lizzie Goldman’s recent tome on New York’s indie rock revival of the early oughties, ‘Meet Me in the Bathroom’. At different points he’s described as aggressive, naive, an underdog, a genius, a sociopath and a dictator. It’s probably nothing he hasn’t heard, or tossed around in his head, a million times before. Self awareness is the weight around his neck. But where he’s used it as a tool in the past (most brilliantly on the still relevant ‘Loosing my Edge’), it now drags him down to the floor. ‘American Dream’, his first album since 2011’s ‘This is Happening’, is a weighty, anxious, self conscious record that drags so much more than anything he’s released in the past but hits hardest when it trades in the irony for sincerity.

Of course it’s the album fans had no reason to expect. When Murphey called time on LCD Soundsystem after their triumphant Madison Square Garden shows six years ago, he’d done more than most musicians can dream of: and why not kill your band when its young, and leave a beautiful corpse? The trilogy of albums he’d put out at that point were an almost untouchable, impossible collection of dance rock hybrids that made good on two decades worth of singles, remixes, engineering, production work and general rock geek fandom promise. You could understand why he wanted to stick rather than twist.

But Murphey is nothing if not a rock Historian, and as such he will have known that very few farewell tours are ever actually that. Just as The Band eventually returned after ‘The Last Waltz’ and The Eagles reappeared with their ‘hell freezes over’ tour, so too, he must have anticipated, the day would come when he’d want to get his own band back together. If that leaves a general bad taste in some fans mouths (particularly after revelations that those Madison Square Garden ‘farewell’ shows were partly labelled as such for financial reasons) then that’s nothing that another classic album wouldn’t remedy.

In some respects it feels like no time has passed at all. ‘American Dream’ sounds like a logical extension of ‘This is Happening’s’ post punk and art pop leanings. Fans will recognise the skinny beats and stodgy run times, the array of vintage synthesisers and the cowbells. But there is a darkness that has crept in to the picture as well, belied by the tacky sunshine and blue skies artwork that adorns the front cover. It’s a darkness that isn’t particularly pleasant. On ‘Someone Great’ and ‘All My Friends’, songs with similarly heavy themes, you felt like you were dancing in to oblivion but on ‘American Dream’ there is no such imperative. Instead, you feel like you’re sinking slowly, or drowning, in to the depths. A change in tone and style was likely, necessary even, but the execution is too often cumbersome and laboured.

And yet Murphy remains a singular visionary. When he dares to venture down new avenues, the results are as enticing as ever. Opening track ‘Oh Baby’ is old and new at the same time. It begins with a trickling snare, before familiar synth arpeggios burst in, with James Murphey giving us his best croon to date. The song drips with a sweet sentiment that was previously only inferred from subtext. At first glance, LCD Soundsystem have aged into pretty romantics – an interesting twist. The subtle innovations continue on track two, the limber ‘Other Voices’, which feels like everything you loved about LCD Soundsystem with infinitely more mature funk.

In fact, much of the first half of ‘American Dream’ is impressive. ‘I Used to’ is slow to wake up, with a beat that drags itself out of bed, but eventually settles in to a groovy pop song. There are Post punk guitars thrashing about on the dense ‘Change Yr Mind’, that sound like absolutely delicious approximations of Robert Fripp’s work on David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ album. Amidst the dawdling rhythms and patient swells of ‘How Do You Sleep’ Murphey hits upon the albums most transcendent moments. The song is a none too subtle dig at former DFA co-owner, and best friend, Tim Goldsworthy, that looks back on a lost friendship with a mixture of sadness, resentment, jealousy, anger and repressed fondness. The rising drama is reason enough to justify the ten minute running time.

The tone sours considerably after ‘How Do You Sleep’ and the ideas feel less original and exploratory. ‘Tonite’ is a cheap rehash of any given New Order song that theories about getting old and becoming out of touch. Yep, you may have heard Murphy on that subject before – and actually he sells it most convincingly here, because he’s never sounded this old and out of touch before. He’s still tugging at the same anxieties: losing track of reality, and you friends. He’s still name checking obscure bands and still subtly shooting side glances to his knowing audience. He’s still struggling to get out of bed (literally). He’s still contemplating what comes next. If he sounded anxious and defeated before then that was never borne out by the music or melodies. On American Dream’s second half, he sounds positively defeated.

The most tiresome song on the record is also the one on which you feel Murphy stakes the most. The pretentious ‘Black Screen’ is a missed opportunity. It nabs the strong melody from Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Sometimes, Always’ and reflects on the passing of friend and mentor David Bowie. The song cuts through the irony and winks with clear headed reflection and undiluted sensitivity. Ultimately though it meanders in to nothingness – a repeated motif of ‘you could be anywhere on the black screen’, dirge synths going absolutely nowhere for about five minutes longer than necessary, and ultimately a pulsating bass note, repeating into the distance. It’s a good summary of the album. It’s full of good ideas that are snuffed out by pomposity, pretension and repetition. ‘American Dream’ is not an abject failure by any stretch but it’s certainly not an equal of what came before.

2005’s ‘LCD Soundsystem’ started a conversation between the futurist pop of Britney Spears, the underground Bass music of the UK, and classic indie rock. It sounded important, relevant, in of itself and the world it existed in. ‘American Dream’ is far more insular, existing in a James Murphy vacuum. It does not attempt to engage with contemporary pop, dance or indie, instead it feeds off its own past, and the further past of the 1980s. For the length of time it takes you to consider this, ‘American Dream’ is a mammoth disappointment. Then you can kind of take it for what it is; an exquisitely produced, hit and miss, single minded, defiantly middle age statement on one man by one man. American Dream might be a stretch – but it’s certainly a James Murphey dream.

6.5/10

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Review Roundup

2 Sep

Sheer Mag ‘Need to Feel Your Love’

Sheer Mag make ecstatic rock that pokes and prods in righteous directions. ‘Tina Halliday’s explosive vocals burst from micro, lo-if anthems that conceal their subtlety and ingenuity under layers of grime and fuzz. In spite of the variable sound quality, the hooks pop and the dynamic arrangements punch out. The band explore various strains of classic rock; from guitar duelling anthems that recall Thin Lizzy to heavier, sludgier takes on hard rock and pop-metal. They address police brutality on ‘Meet Me In the Streets’ and vote rigging on ‘Expect the Bayonet’ but perhaps hit hardest with the frivolous and vacuous love song ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, the catchiest rock song released in 2017.

8.5/10

Brand New ‘Science Fiction’

There were always people willing to argue that Brand New wrote some of the most thoughtful rock music this side of the millennium, and that lyricist Jesse Lacey was every bit the equal of lauded indie scribes like Alex Turner and and Ezra Koenig, but those views weren’t given much of an airing – until now. Various factors have collided at the right time to make Brand New’s first album in eight years a headline grabbing, number one album. A whole host of young bands crediting Brand New have emerged in recent years, and it seems to me that emo and pop punk get more of a fair shake from critics these days. Not that Brand New are strictly emo or pop punk any more – ‘Science Fiction’ fits more snugly in to the lineage of great alternative rock albums of the 90s. Moody, minor key missives on basically being a bit of a sad sack. It isn’t particularly groundbreaking but it is very assured in what it’s trying to do, and largely achieves its aim in appealing to fans of Smashing Pumpkins, Nine inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction. In a year of great comebacks, Brand New are up there with the best of them.

8/10

Ratboy ‘Scum’

Ratboy, aka Jordan Carey, is a veritable, Essex born and bred, Jack of all trades. When he emerged a couple of years ago rapping over a bratty, homemade hip hop beats and fizzy samples, he came off as a pretty straight down the line Jamie T knock off. But ‘Scum’ reveals that to be only one of his many varied get ups. This is a long album, broken up with GTA style radio skits, that spans many genres and features a few famous faces. Damon Albarn turns up on ‘Round Here m8’, the forgettable ska tinted opener, and his influences is overwhelmingly obvious on the record’s Britpop ballad ‘I’ll be waiting’. Damon’s mate Graham Cohen lends guitar to the appropriately named ‘Laidback, while ‘Knock Knock Knock’ will be familiar to fans of ‘Damn’ – Kendrick Lamar sampled the track earlier in the year on his acclaimed album. You don’t become this close to this many legends without having a bit of something about you, and Ratboy certainly has a riotous personality that oozes and exudes across these 25(!) songs. Asking for something more coherent and considered would perhaps make for a better album but it would also somewhat miss the point. By his nature, Ratboy is totally ADHD, and for as long as he can channel this youthful enthusiasm and energy in to music, he will find an audience willing to listen.

6.5/10