Archive | June, 2019

Black Midi ‘Schlagenheim’ – Review

29 Jun

Earlier this week I saw Black Midi perform in Nottingham. Lead singer and guitarist, the perfectly named Geordie Greer, instantly made a mark. He came out donning various items of fashion antiquity – a cowboy hat, trench coat, cropped trousers and brogue boots – with the stone cold stare of a man who had absolutely no idea where he was or what he was about to do. At no point did he engage the crowd in conversation. At no point did he even seem to notice we were there. From the very first note onwards he was possessed by the music; as strangely enigmatic as any frontman in recent memory. His voice – somewhere between Su Tissue, Yoko Ono, a cockney Mark E Smith and a deeply distressed Jack Russel dog – didn’t sound tethered to a source; it lunged, screeched and bellowed of its own alien volition. Alongside him, his band mates were equally engrossed in the music, and each other. It was a mesmerising performance of complicated indie-rock, shaved of any kind of melodic or structural accessibility.

Little of that live energy and inscrutability has been bottled on the album, ‘Schlagenheim’, which is a far more calculated and slowly rewarding entity. It’s been produced by Dan Carey (Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Mystery Jets) and I really mean produced. It’s unique In the same way that listening to ‘Unknown Pleasures’ was a different experience to seeing Joy Division live, in person. You get the strong impression that every sound, every guitar pedal effect and synthesised after-thought has been slaved over and meticulously mixed just so. 

‘Schlagenheim’ bristles with a restlessness, never settling on a groove or melody for very long. The unpredictability and unknowingness extends to all aspects of the band’s aesthetic, from the album title (which is untranslatable) to the album design (it comes packaged in an old slimline CD single case with the lyric booklet glued on to the outter case. Cassette tapes are available). In official press photos the band appear as computer generated avatars dressed in matching racing overalls, like playable characters from Gran Turesmo on the original PlayStation. They avoid social media and until recently wouldn’t grant interview to the music press. This isn’t a ploy as such – they just prefer to let the music speak for itself. 

The most striking thing about the group is undoubtedly Morgan Simpson, the finest drummer of his generation, with the awards to prove it. You won’t find flashy Travis Barker-esque tomfoolery from him though. His drumming is a highlight but it’s rarely the focus point. His dramatic fills on new single ‘Talking Heads’ are notable but that song didn’t even make it to the album’s final cut. That it’s their catchiest song (indeed it’s about the only thing they’ve recorded without an actual chorus) doesn’t seem to have been an issue. Black Midi, despite the enormous amount of individual talent on display, operate and behave as a band. No one member shines above another on this album. And it is very much an album rather than a disparate collection of songs. It starts bracingly with ‘953’, a dramatic post-hardcore number which stops, starts and turns on a dime, and slowly unfolds, climaxing with melodic epics like ‘Western’, which features some impressive banjo playing, and ‘Ducter’, the album’s untroubled standout. It encompasses Math-Rock, Post-Rock, Ambience, Indie and even Nu-Metal, and somehow meshes it altogether in to a unifying whole.

In a sense the band are a throwback to when people took rock music seriously. There is a steadfast pretension that is rare in 2019. The most successful (and currently best) band in the country, The 1975, squeeze irony out of every inch of their music. Not so with Black Midi. But despite being very-modern in a musical sense, Black Midi present as a traditionally set up guitar band and play every note as if their lives depended on it, as if ‘Schlagenheim’ could save the world or change your life. If there is humour in here (and a band that include lyrics about caterpillars with anorexic children and lovers with porcupine hands are not totally devoid of the stuff) then it’s buried quite deep. And it’s that true sincerity, more than anything actually contained in the music or lyrics, that dead stared intensity, that makes Black Midi so inspirational and appealing.

8.5/10

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Review Roundup

23 Jun

Wyes Blood ‘Titanic Rising’

Pointing out the cinematic quality of an album with a song called ‘Movies’ may be a little predictable but it’s not just in this obvious sense that Wyes Blood invites the metaphor. There is something in the soaring ambition, the evocative imagery and the timeless romanticism that recalls a bygone era of Hollywood. YouTube is already bursting with fanmade videos, setting these songs to classic scenes from the likes of Lolita and Twin Peaks. one of the impressive things about ‘Titanic Rising’ is how Wyes Blood marries this widescreen scope with a very personal, imaginative perspective. Throughout the album she explores the depths of her imagination, never settling on an easy image or melody, always seeking out the mysterious ambiguities. Harmonies swell, melodies burst open, every sound is delicately arranged by the best young producer in the business, Jonathan Rado (with some help from The Lemon Twigs). ‘Titanic Rising’ is unquestionably one of the most beautiful albums of 2019

8.5/10

Honeyblood ‘In Plain Sight’

Honeyblood lean towards their softer, melodic instincts on new album ‘In Plain Sight’, an assured return to form after the disappointingly clunky ‘Babes Never Die’. Album opener ‘She’s a Nightmare’ is an early indication of this, with its orchestral flourishes and carefully layered production complimenting a sweet melody masquerading as something sinister. Lead single ‘Third Degree’ is the catchiest thing Honeyblood have written since their run of early singles like ‘Bud’ and ‘Killer Bangs’, pairing a Phil Spector beat with punk rock guitars. This is certainly nothing new but when it sounds this good few will complain.

7.5/10

We Are Scientists ‘Megaplex’

If you announce an anniversary tour for your debut a matter of weeks after releasing your latest album then you know something has gone pretty wrong – which is exactly the position We Are Scientists have landed in. This move is detrememntal on a couple of levels. Not only does it move focus away from ‘Megaplex’, the band’s slick new synth pop album, but it also highlights this record’s inadequacies by reminding people what was so charming about 2005’s ‘With Love and Squalor’. That record bristled with a nervous energy that offset clean, sharp guitar hooks with disco groves. In contrast, ‘Megaplex’ is calm, settled and almost totally lacking in any kind of musical or lyrical tension. It also lacks in WAS’s most notable trait: humour. It exists but We Are Scientists have already forgotten about it and soon so will you.

5/10

Slowthai ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ – Review

16 Jun

On ‘Nothing Great about Britain’, the heavily hyped debut from Northamptonshire rapper Slowthai, the country’s alleged demise is not just symbolised in the imagery (drinking outside palace gates, sat glued to the sofa watching Eastenders, ASBOS, skunk, the EDL) but embodied by a rapper bereft of both imagination and answers. Slowthai shows an inherent awareness of Society’s ills but his disillusioned, apathetic tone and cynicism speaks louder than his descriptions ever could. If he is trying to sell us on how pathetic we’ve become then he does a pretty good job of exemplifying it.

‘Doorman’s hook of ‘nicotine, can’t quit it’ asserts a hopelessness that is almost certainly justified. As he tries to get in to a club, buy a drink on his zero-hours wage, eye down his rivals, sniff glue and leave without getting battered, you’re left feeling a sense of despondency that would be crushing if you cared more for the protagonist. His descriptions mirror those of a young Alex Turner or Mike Skinner more than any contemporary rapper but his writing lacks the romanticism or wit of their work. Feeling your way around the geography of these songs is rarely anything other than a miserable, deflating experience.

The comparisons to Dizzee Rascal that have been floated about are risible; on a technical level, Slowthai is decent but he’s no world beater. His standard flow is lumpy and slurred, matched by a grating, siren-drill voice. Dizzee embued his rhymes with an energy and vibrance that seems beyond Slowthai’s restricted imagination. Both were ‘in da corner’ (a reference Slowthai makes within a few minutes) but only Dizzee was interested in getting out. Slowthai also lacks the charm of Dizzee; he loves someone like ‘a crackhead loves crack’ and In the same song he compares himself to serial killer Ted Blundy. ‘The plot gets thicker like your shape do’ is one particularly clanging metaphor that would be more forgivable if he didn’t instantly the compare the lucky lady to a grapefruit.

Occasionally Slowthai and his producers compel you with their whiplash intensity or sheer conviction. The electro-punk energy of ‘Doorman’ can’t help but rattle the door of your cynicism. On ‘Missing’, with the help of Slaves, he drills the hook in to your head through bloody minded repetition and anger. In brief spurts this energy is enough to glue the record together, even if it can’t hide the contempt and resentment that ultimately curdles your empathy.

The album ends with ‘Northampton’s Child’, an autobiographical account of Slowthai’s upbringing that, however truthful, doesn’t skew far from predictability and cliche. The ultimate message, that ‘dreams come true’, isn’t original or convincing enough to counter the track’s miserable mood. In a way the song is a half-baked apology to his mum but it’s short on true vulnerability or openess. He doesn’t unknott the social ills or anxieties that have clearly blighted his youth, they are merely seen as stepping stones on a hollow path to fame. That destination isn’t made to feel rewarding or meaningful, nor is the journey there particularly interesting.

The specificity that makes Slowthai’s writing feel authentic is no substitute for true substance and style. This album may be an accurate temperature reading of society’s underclass but appreciation of hip hop shouldn’t be reduced to how ‘realistic’ or ‘authentic’ the described experience might be. A real artist would transcend their background – as the aforementioned Alex Turner, Dizzee Rascal and Mike Skinner did – not merely dwell on it unproductively. Great grime albums are so much more than simply ‘socially relevant.’ They do more than just describe and reflect. They have a perspective and an original voice. They have a purpose and an ingenuity. They innovate lyrically, structurally, sonically, musically. If this lowering of the standards suggests that ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ is the new passmark, then where do we go from here?

4/10

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Tyler the Creator ‘Igor’ – Review

8 Jun

10 years on from his incendiary debut album, Tyler the Creator continues to surprise fans. ‘Igor’, a meandering summer soul-scape, playfully deconstructs his mischievous persona in a development of ‘Flower Boy’s’ personal and musical indulgence. ‘Igor’ Feels more of a cohesive whole than its occasionally fragmented predecessor, essentially tracking a relationship from beginning to end. Various guests lend their voice to this mushy, expressive album on the concept of heartbreak, longing and unrequited love.

The album details a relationship that is sweet but failing. If ice cream melting on to a hot pavement had a sonic equivalent this might be it. Musically it’s a plush mix of sweet, soulful chords and a playful pilfering of The Neptune’s signature sampling style. More important is Tyler’s own, long established, disregard for convention and good taste. Songs start, end and develop in unexpected ways. Voices get bent and distorted out of recognition, hooks are buried – even a Jack White guitar solo appears so low in the mix it took me a few go-arounds to even realise it was there. ‘Igor’ is less obviously naughty than his early material but Tyler still subverts our expectations in surprising ways.

It opens with two of the weirdest songs on here. Largely instrumental, and musically sharper than what follows, these songs fizz and poke where everything else seems to melt and drip. ‘Earfquake’ was allegedly turned down by Beiber and Rihanna – their loss is Tyler’s gain as it turns in to the most unusually hooky song on here. The album closes with the two other stand outs ‘I Don’t Love You Any More’ and ‘Are we Still Friends’.

One of the most striking things about ‘Igor’, considering Tyler’s reputation, is how totally he embraces a romantic ideal of love – and one that is steeped in homo-eroticism. ‘Man I wish you would call me by your name’ he pleads on the soppy ‘I Think’, in reference to Andre Aciman’s iconic coming of age novel. Elsewhere he refers to his lover as his ‘favourite garçon’. Other outbursts of spontaneous joy and heartbreak are so childlike, so gushing, that you can’t help but be moved. What he lacks in sophistication he more than makes up for with unguarded sincerity and an empathy that is almost shocking considering just how guarded and lacking he once appeared to be. If it’s not ‘you make my earth quake’ then it’s ‘you spin my head around’. On the cover he’s presented as a love struck puppy bursting out of a hot pink backdrop. The songs are the perfect extension of that.

Also featured prominently on the cover is the statement ‘All songs written, produced and arranged by Tyler Okonma’. This is clearly a point of pride, as it should be. It’s telling that on an album featuring so many famous collaborators nobody steals the limelight from Tyler. In fact, if you hadn’t read the credits you probably wouldn’t even recognise Jack White, La Roux, Frank Ocean, Pharell or Kanye West, their appearances being so uncharacteristically subtle. He chooses these guests carefully – other auteurs with distinctive, and frequently controversial styles. He seems to be making a pointed statement about where he belongs. He doesn’t need to do much convincing; along with his Odd Future stable-mates, Tyler has cemented his position as one of the most original and influential rap producers of his generation.

8/10

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