Tag Archives: art rock

Kraftwerk’s crystal balls

The seminal German outfit had arguably been following their own advice for much of their career: “I programme my home computer, Beam myself into the future”. On two rather prescient albums, they considered what effect technology and innovation would have on society, with conclusions that are relevant today.

Continue reading Kraftwerk’s crystal balls

The Commontime gents

It’s no secret that I love Field Music, through their fits and starts and hiatuses and occasional missteps (2012’s Plumb being a bit morose, in this author’s opinion, though it won the Brewis brothers an overdue Mercury Prize nomination). The four-song stint stretching from “Effortlessly” through to “All You’d Ever Need To Say” on Field Music (Measure) is one of the great art rock suites of our age—though on vinyl it is inexplicably torn between two sides—and I told the band as much when I met them in Canonbury’s Myddleton Arms, over several G&Ts, back in March. Continue reading The Commontime gents

Sow seeds, reap harvest

The narrative seems straightforward enough. Band releases low-key follow-up to a strident, populist career-best. One of the band passes, tragically, nine days after the album’s launch. Three years later, the band regroups with a contemplative effort dedicated to their lost friend. Continue reading Sow seeds, reap harvest

Spoon don’t need your soul

…because they’ve got plenty of their own.

Four years ago, people found Transference off-putting: long, melancholy songs riding on seemingly-endless grooves before cutting out mid-phrase; sparse demos peppering a nocturnal landscape of blank-eyed art rock. They were mistaken, of course, but let bygones be bygones. Continue reading Spoon don’t need your soul

Bat For Lashes — The Haunted Man

“I could probably fill this entire space just writing about ‘Glass’, the album’s aggressively propulsive opener, and about how its strange mix of elements (chamber pop, prog metal, new age—what?) magically coalesced into some entirely new genre that I wish existed and yet still can’t quite wrap my brain around.” So wrote Mark Pytlik, reviewing Bat For Lashes’ 2009 sophomore, Two Suns.

Well, notch up another victory, Miss Khan, because the opening song on its follow-up is no less deserving of column inches. True, she’s reined in the melting-pot of genres, a little, on “Lilies”, the listener’s gateway drug into the intoxicating world of The Haunted Man. But that just leaves this reviewer wanting to spend more time writing about all the other layers of this strange and beautiful song. There’s the buzzing, gut-churning bass synth which anchors the choruses. There’s Khan’s voice, fragile and expressive and almost cracking under the strain. There’s the gloriously lilting orchestral arrangement, whose efflorescence is all-too brief. And the lyrics, which showcase the greater maturity she has located in describing—away from a fantasy playroom and a grimy future-city—the natural world and her place therein. Continue reading Bat For Lashes — The Haunted Man

Deerhunter — Cryptograms

In 2007, as an angst-ridden teenager, I would lie in bed on Saturday mornings and put on the title-track of Deerhunter‘s second album, Cryptograms.

This was the era when Bradford Cox’s pop sensibility could still only be described as nascent. The song would hit me like a migraine or a nervous breakdown; Cox’s distorted bark emerging through a tapestry of pulsing one-note bass, coruscating electric guitar, and all manner of weird tape loops. It’s a primal, urgent and terrifying song that’s lost none of its potency even as the gentleman behind it has matured into a compelling ‘popular’ songwriter.

Foals — Inhaler

The pretty little Japanese garden guitar motif marking Foals’s re-entry to planet Earth is a total red herring. Because “Inhaler” crunches hard—and frontman Yannis Philippakis’s anger, brewing and fomenting during the first verse, soon surfaces as an uncontrolled wave of rage in the sweltering, breath-taking pre-chorus ramp-up. Continue reading Foals — Inhaler

Okraschoten und kraut

Can have recently delved into their studio archives to assemble The Lost Tapes. It’s not been received as an unqualified success; however, the mere existence of reviews of it in the broadsheets will hopefully serve to remind people of just how great, and important, Can at their prime were. I’ve written previously about Tago Mago, their first album with the deranged vocalist Damo Suzuki; now comes the turn of its follow-up Ege Bamyasi, released in 1972 and also a handy favourite of Nick Kent‘s. Continue reading Okraschoten und kraut

Another by-product of my reading Nick Kent’s 1970s memoir, Apathy For The Devil, was my being nudged into digging out Roxy Music‘s Country Life album, which Kent really digs. Bryan Ferry was, in Kent’s eyes, a bit of a hero of social mobility (whereas Kent was pretty much its anti-hero). More importantly, Country Life is—I now realise—a truly influential album in the progression of British art rock and glam. You can here those music-hall and oompah flourishes weaving their way into Parklife-era Blur; similarly, Ferry’s voice must have been a major reference point for Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos.

Country Life opens with “The Thrill Of It All”, an unexpectedly rousing, gutsy song from the ordinarily-louche band. There are car-chase strings, double-kicks on the bass drum, and nimble-fingered bass-work from John Gustafson. In a nod to the football-terrace anthems of the future, there’s also a good deal of wordless chanting. If only Bryan Ferry knew his handiwork would someday inspire this.

Fifty words for breathtaking

There’s a wonderful moment on “Lake Tahoe” (see above), from Kate Bush‘s 2011 album 50 Words For Snow, when she lifts her fingers from the piano for a moment, sighs exquisitely, then carries on with the plaintive chords that flesh out the song. Forget the tumbling, rumbling timpani, the fragments of lilting flute, the occasional orchestral draws—that’s the moment you realise this album was constructed in a real studio, in real time, with real and unmistakeable instruments.

Through the 1980s, Bush pioneered the use of the Fairlight CMI, an early digital sampling synthesizer which fleshed out the experimental compositions on albums like 1985’s Hounds Of Love. For some artists, the studio becomes their instrument; for Bush, it was the Fairlight. But at the same time, she never let go of her most powerful two tools: her piano, and her voice. Those were the tools that underpinned “The Ninth Wave”, the powerful and career-defining suite that forms the second side of Hounds Of Love.

On her ‘comeback’ album, Aerial, released in 2005 after a twelve-year hiatus, Bush hid her piano pretty well, even as she penned songs that were alternately wittier or more mature than before. That might have been the album’s undoing: the music behind these lengthy ruminations was sophisticated, but drifted towards the forgettable. Tastefully dry crunches of electric guitar; smoothed-out drums; a pace that never rises beyond the incidental. The industry forgave her; she had evolved into a sacred cow.

If Aerial stripped back the artifice of her supposed mythology to reveal the joy she took from mundanity (raising her son Bertie, doing the laundry, worshipping Elvis in the supermarket aisle), then 50 Words For Snow is the album which strips back musically. Never has Bush sounded so naked. That’s not to say the music isn’t complex, however. The way the piano weaves and wends its way around the two voices—those of Kate and Bertie)—in the opener “Snowflake” is rich in subtext. Between the cracks seep organic wafts of electronic resonance; the elder Bush sets the scene; the younger takes on the role of the titular snowflake, on its patient and meandering descent to earth. The next two tracks complete a trio of piano-led numbers thirty-five minutes in length; at its pinnacle is “Misty”, an adult-oriented retelling of Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman. The narrator falls for a snowman; she invites him back in; he melts at her touch. The morning after, soaking sheets are the only trace of their tryst. It’s a haunting tale, and it’s told in such a way that any obvious innuendo is avoided.

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Hounds Of Love had a second side consisting of a piano-centred suite; 50 Words For Snow front-loads its wintry equivalent. Its back half is musically more varied: “Wild Man” takes an Irish folk jig on an expedition in the Himalayas, on the hunt for the Yeti, while “Snowed In At Wheeler Street”, a duet with Elton John (!), unfolds over eerily filtered synthesizer pulses. The title track, meanwhile, is lyrically witty but sonically evokes the 1990s paranoia of Massive Attack, with brushed drumming and penetrating, lurking bass-work. The closer, “Among Angels”, is a barely-there performance for piano and ethereal strings. As the song peters out delicately, Bush sings, “There’s someone who’s loved you forever but you don’t know it / You might feel it and just now show it”, beautifully summarising the translucent, watchful and protecting gaze heavenly bodies seem to hold over this album.

It would be tempting to think of 50 Words For Snow as a seasonal gimmick—she has form, after all, having released a Christmas single in 1980, “December Will Be Magic Again“—but to do so having actually listened to this work would be criminal. The timing might have been fitting, but the songs themselves, and the way they fit together into an uneasy, creeping mood, is timeless. If this is the start of an Indian summer for Bush, I don’t care that it started in the depths of winter.


50 Words For Snow by Kate Bush was released in November 2011, on Fish People.