Sometime around 2006, I thought Bloc Party represented our best hope for a British art rock band who could continue to challenge and delight listeners in equal measures. Of course Silent Alarm nodded knowingly to Gang of Four and Wire—but I counted on them having more original tricks up their sleeve. The edgy post-punk displayed on their debut album wasn’t pioneering, but it hinted at greater works ahead, shot through as it was with the textures of post-rock (the intricacies of “So Here We Are”, the moody brewing storm of “Compliments”). The inspired remix album that followed did little to dispel the notion that Bloc Party were forward-thinking and restless.
In the 1960s, a predilection for quadraphonic sound emerged in the progressive rock scene. Pink Floyd’s use of the Azimuth Co-ordinator was flashy, but a lack of readily-available consumer equipment prevented the technology from making a leap into the living room. There was a brief glimmer of hope in 1997, when The Flaming Lips released Zaireeka, an album designed for home-brew quadrophenia, but the music was too challenging to have mainstream appeal. A decade-and-a-bit later, “surround sound” is a fixture of the home cinema setup: we’ve finally found a way of making music in four discrete channels work. The question is this: do we actually want to hear that music? Continue reading Talking heads surround us→
Nothing divides opinion like prog. Some lap it up; others despise it; few just “tolerate” it. Field Music, which is a distinctly average name for the partnership of David and Peter Brewis, are often mistaken for prog, but this doesn’t quite hit the mark: prog is dogged, and riffs on the same theme for an extended period of time before veering into a new and sometimes unexciting direction. Field Music may explore a diverse range of instruments and textures and genres in their work but, by contrast, they are restless, skitting from sound to sound like schoolboys let loose in a sweetshop.
The Brewis brothers, who are Sunderland natives and wear their small-town heritage proudly on their sleeves, last released an LP in 2010: Field Music (Measure) was an expansive double album with a second half heavy on bucolic ambience which was sui generis compared with their previous work. The first half was at once more familiar, but also steeped in the shock of the new—more swagger in the guitars on “Each Time Is A New Time”, more seduction in the Princely funk of “Let’s Write A Book”. It was weird, didn’t really work in a live setting, and I loved it.
Seventy minutes versus thirty-five. That’s the first thing that hits you when you look at …Measure’s follow-up, the obtusely titled Plumb. This new release is half the size but bristles with energy, engaging with snippets of moods and scenes across its fifteen songs, which run the gamut between forty-second interludes to three-minute pocket epics. Field Music refuse to settle, as evidenced by their inter-album transformations, and also by the intra-album prevarication which typifies Plumb.
“I want a different idea of what / Better can be that / Doesn’t necessitate having more useless / Shit.”
Lyrically, they’re certainly on more well-worn terrain, exploring the minutiæ of drizzly, transport-laden, indecisive England. There are lyrical sighs on this album which could power entire episodes of Countdown, Antiques Roadshow or Look East. Love is always unrequited, and any anger (“My generation are opting out of choosing sides”, from “Choosing Sides”, is at once fed-up and wistful) quickly dissipates into a wave of deference.
But one mistakes this cosiness for inertia at one’s peril: thematically, there is definite progression from previous Field Music releases. For example, the questioning song-titles (“Who’ll Pay The Bills?”, “Is This The Picture?”, “How Many More Times?”) speak of generational dissatisfaction and a sadness at the age of austerity. It’s not a universal proclamation that “Modern life is rubbish”—in fact, the brothers’ view of society is far more nuanced, and tinged with pleasant anecdotes.
The social commentary may put Plumb in the realm of Gang of Four and XTC, but the scope of styles, tempos, time signatures and textures skated over evades comparison. Compositionally, the album is frequently dazzling and broad. To consider just one exotic pairing, the rousing and punkish final track, “(I Keep Thinking Abou) A New Thing” is preceded by three minutes of bruised krautrock, “Just Like Everyone Else”. Elsewhere, we find homemade found sounds competing against crisp and intricate beats (as in “A New Town”—see top of article) and, in general, there is a great deal more variety than the electric piano fallback of old. The sweetshop analogy rings true, with assiduous selections of stringed instruments, obscure keyboards, and the occasional mournful tuba.
There are also moments of supreme tenderness—as in “A Prelude to Pilgrim Street”, which could have soundtracked one of those awkward scenes in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the stately”So Long Then”—which is not an emotion associated with either post-punk or prog. But tenderness does lie at the heart of what Field Music are really about: sweet pop music, refracted into a thousand disparate pieces.
Duffers are harder to ignore in a thirty-five minute song-cycle, compared with the odyssey that was Field Music (Measure): “From Hide And Seek to Heartache” quickly wears on the listener, for one. But this remains an album of understated brilliance; seldom showy, there is always a treat of a three-part vocal harmony or an elegant string arrangement just around the corner. It might be an album that you initially admire, and eventually love. How long that journey takes is probably an English settlement.
Plumb by Field Music was released on 13th February 2012 by Memphis Industries.
When I saw Prinzhorn Dance School (officially designated the band least likely to be signed to a major record label) at a 10th anniversary party for DFA Records (whoosh, thump, namedrop) I was surprised by how much more, in the flesh, they reminded me of Gang of Four. There is of course a shared caustic sense of humour to both bands’ work, but seen on stage the music itself melds with my memories of the original post-punk poster-boys.
On their forthcoming second album, Clay Class, I think there’s to be a subtle shift from the brittleness of their debut, towards a more flowing style that’s occasionally interrupted by the shouty bits of old. If you will, it sounds a bit more informed by Gang of Four. No bad thing, if you found their old stuff a bit too primal.
The second song to be teased out from Clay Class is “Happy in Bits“, which lopes along quite a melodic little riff. The bass-line is as primitive as ever, which is how I like it, but it’s lower in the mix; lower than Tobin Prinz and Suzi Horn’s angry/coital vocals, at least.
Newsflash: I write too much about DFA Records. Geeky fact: my iPod is engraved with “The DFA” on its back. All context aside, however, it’s really great that the label set up by Messrs. Murphy and Goldsworthy in 2001 has hit such a milestone, and I helped ring in the years on Tuesday night when I attended a little party-cum-gig at the cosy 100 Club on London’s Oxford Street.
Given that the last gig I went to was Flying Lotus at the Roundhouse two weeks prior, this was a radically stripped-down affair. Three tight bands; no fluff, no guff; adoring fans standing not farther than five metres from the stage. First up were the comically stark Prinzhorn Dance School, back after something of an extended spell making their second album. Deadpan to the extreme, the lyrics about small-town gruesomeness were set against abrasive, Gang Of Four-style post punk. Martial drums from a ponytailed extra left plenty of air in the mix for Tobin Prinz’s caustic fretwork and Suzi Horn’s bottomless bass-lines. The new songs sounded slightly more heartfelt, rather like the closing track on their debut album, “Spaceman In Your Garden”, but there was something so primal in the yelping of older cuts like “Up! Up! Up!” and “Crackerjack Docker”.
Next came Y△CHT (ultra-stylized, as ever), with the core duo of Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans still expanded to take in the backing band who are, I think, still called The Straight Gaze. Evans was striking in a space-age ecru dress, writhing and gesticulating all across the stage and floor. Behind her, the feel-good white boy funk proved mildly intoxicating, recalling the Tom Tom Club. Plinky-plonk keys and socially awkward beats were very much the order of the day; moderately amusing PowerPoint graphics projected onto a rickety screen provided further entertainment. The band were good enough to stop for a Q&A halfway through (unrequited) but more of the crowd took them up on their offer after their set.
Lead billing was given to The Rapture, whose breakthrough album Echoes was literally the coolest thing I’d ever heard when I finally got round to buying it in 2007. Back when they were a foursome, they did for dance-friendly music what The Strokes did for rock ‘n’ roll. Now reduced to a trio, they’re still a raucous live act. Luke Jenner and Vito Roccoforte look a bit more padded round the edges nowadays, but they still whip up a sonic storm between the drumkit and the ubiquitous red Telecaster; meanwhile, multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Andruzzi looks like he hasn’t aged a day since 2003, and flits between keys, saxophone and cowbell. Opening with a salvo of newer songs, the band still felt relevant and history-making, but the real fun began when a pummelling 808 beat kicked in, marking the unmistakeable “Olio”, the Echoes opener which incredibly crossed the divide between punk and acid house. The crowd went nuts, and rightly so. From there, the set took a darkier, clubbier vibe, with standout new track “Come Back To Me” emerging from a foggy accordion sample into a wildly filtered beat, and the anthemic “House Of Jealous Lovers” transforming the floor into a joyous riot.
There was a short encore, embraced by the nostalgic crowd in spite of its lack of retrospection. Their comeback single, “How Deep Is Your Love” was given a triumphant airing, with its house piano chords tapping into the soul of the venue, before the band closed shop with “Sail Away”, another victory march.
What a brilliantly low-key way of celebrating the tenth anniversary of a record label who truly changed the way we think about music to dance to.
You can find some photographs which do justice to the sheer emotion of welcoming back The Rapture over at This Is Fake DIY.
I recently wrote of how the 2005 apogee of the post-punk revival was responsible for me getting into M83. This got me thinking about how disposable many of the scene’s bands were, and, in general, how true the conceit is that many people are capable of writing one solid album, but that this does not a fulfilling career make.
Alongside Bloc Party and Maxïmo Park, who definitely fitted this mould, were The Futureheads, who peaked even earlier. Their sparky eponymous debut was released in 2004; a stark and sombre second album had a lengthier gestation but was received mutedly. Two years after they had burst onto the scene, they were unceremoniously dumped by their record label: the band have since recorded two more albums, but the magic has gone.
All this takes away from the brutal energy of The Futureheads at their most powerful, on The Futureheads. Sometimes, they were charming enough to come across like a jagged Beatlesy tribute group, as on songs like “Robot” and “A to B”, which recall “Paperback Writer” and “Eight Days a Week”. At their stodgiest, however, they more resembled Black Flag and Fugazi, with coruscating sheets of dissonant guitar, stop-start rhythms and lyrics that spat venom at capitalist structures. In the verse of “Alms”, a simple descending vocal melody is made more foreboding by the growling and atonal pair of guitars in the background; both “He Knows” and “Trying Not To Think About Time” begin with ear-battering squalls of noise before comparative elegance is restored. Key to The Futureheads’ winning formula were the intricate multi-part vocal harmonies which were always easily at hand, to sweeten the deal when the riffage became too intense. They were so good at the vocals, they even recorded a nearly a cappella number, “Danger Of The Water”, which might just be the most chilling piece of barbershop ever written.
Right at the end of the first album is “Man Ray”, as near a distillation of their complete sound as you can find. Beaten-up guitars that propel the first verse give way to a pre-chorus powered by close harmony and handclaps. Near the end, a cacophony of shouted whispers gradually consumes the vocal prettiness which has characterised the previous thirty-five minutes, before the song implodes in deservedly dramatic fashion. It sounds like the band expended all their energy on “Man Ray”, given the three albums of play-it-safe that followed.
Good news? Later on this year The Futureheads will close the door on their first four albums with a special release called Rant, which will be all a cappella, and will feature new versions of old songs, new versions of other people’s songs, and will hopefully usher in an exciting new era for the band.
At the apogee of the post-punk revival, you’d have been sensible in assuming that Interpol could reasonably expect to win big. With two albums under their belt, each with one foot on critical acclaim and the other on a reasonable level of commercial success, the band penned a doubtless lucrative contract with Capitol/Parlophone and so began the logical next step in their career, on a major label.
Except, showboating their new riches, they then made an embarrassingly mediocre album – Our Love To Admire. This major-label debut boasted all kinds of studio gimmickry (the synthesised oboe solo in “Pioneer To The Falls” springs instantly to mind), complicated song structures (I don’t think they’ll be repeating the reverse-vocal passage in “Wrecking Ball” any time soon), and the sticky production fingers of Rich Costey, who had at the time triumphantly helmed the production of Muse’s Black Holes And Revelations. Two things that the album lacked, however, were the tunes, and the cool. Our Love To Admire wasn’t filled to the brim with genuinely bad songs (though I’ll gladly bestow that accolade on “Rest My Chemistry”); the problem derived more from the fact that too many of the songs were bland, cheesy, forgettable and… uncool.
There, I said it. Somewhere along the line, between touring in support of Antics and the tortured gestation of Our Love…, Interpol wound up losing their cool. Where previously Paul Banks traded in a kind of lovably abstract circumlocution, now his lyrics were just plain wince-inducing. Where before Daniel Kessler had woven intriguing guitar-based journeys between the chords of songs, he now beat a sledgehammer through songs with over-processed, over-compressed textures. In an act of brutal criminality, Interpol forgot that it was their rhythm section that had made the band, downplaying at their peril Carlos Dengler‘s elastic disco basslines and Sam Fogarino‘s tricksy stickwork.
The closing track on Antics was, as far as I can make out, about a father and son arguing on a boat, Talented Mr. Ripley-style, written from the point of view of a sea urchin.
Track two on Our Love To Admire was about wanting a threesome to rescue your relationship.
Lucky, then, that for album number four, sophisticated Paul has showed up for the lyrics workshop, dispelling the tired rockstar clichés that so plagued its predecessor. But does the music match the lyrical and thematic intrigue?
Well, not quite. For one thing, the band appear to have developed a taste for some pretty unfashionable techniques, possibly taken from an instruction manual for a previous version of Rich Costey. So we get heaps of multi-tracked vocals tackling every possible harmony; oddly jarring drum machines in place of Sam Fog’s natural talent; synthesised orchestral arrangements floating on scummy washes of guitar. So far, so uncool.
There are songs that try and serve up the band’s former breed of choppy post-punk, like “Success” and lead single “Barricade”. These would be fine, if a bit derivative, except that they manage to sound at the same time laboured and skew-whiff. This is Type 1 Uncool: Forgivably uncool.
Then there are songs that try and improve upon the atmospherics of the previous album, shoehorning in lounge piano and tepid string arrangements and god-knows-what-else. The finale, entitled “The Undoing”, sees Paul Banks pleading with a Spanish version of himself. Toy Story 3, this is not. Songs like this, and also “Try It On” are Type 2 Uncool: Look Away Now, Modestly, Before They Attempt Something Even More Foolish.
Though I haven’t given this album up for dead yet, there is a line of criticism about Interpol so spot on I feel further analysis is possibly redundant. In the words of Dan Nishimoto, writing for Prefix Magazine,
Where they used to sound like the crackling of a subway car rounding a bend or the seediest alleys of New York in the pre-dawn hours, here they sound like alt-rock renderings of what moody post-punk is supposed to sound like.
Bands usually self-title their albums to set out their position. If it’s a debut, this is the band’s pocket-sized introduction of what to expect from them in the coming years (or, in the modern age, the coming fortnight, while their hype-inflated worth is still riding high on Twitter). If it’s an album later in the band’s career, this suggests a definitive account with subtle reinvention, as if this is from where future listeners should draw a template. If this was Interpol’s ambition, then I am tempted to say Carlos Dengler was justified in walking away from the band as soon as the album was completed, so that he does not feature in such a template.
And this wasn’t even supposed to be a review of the album.
In Dan Weiss’s review of Interpol frontman Paul Bank’s forthcoming solo single, “The Fun That We Have”, the writer suggests that while “All the guys fall for the languid Turn On The Bright Lights … the girls I know tend to prefer the blockier Antics.” I may be the exception to the rule, in that I feel there’s a compelling case for suggesting that Antics is the superior album; indeed, that it may be one of those albums that I irrationally associate with ‘perfection’. Other such albums have included, over the years, Tortoise’s TNT, Amon Tobin’s Supermodified, and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. To this list, I believe we can add Antics, because it succeeds in continuing the importance of mood and atmosphere that Interpol established on their debut, while attaching greater importance on the quality of the songwriting.
Turn On The Bright Lights is an alarmingly accomplished debut: from the very off, its echoey, jangling guitar signal a kind of reflective anxiety and unease that never lets up. Through the elegiac swooning of NYC and the slightly malevolent swagger of PDA, the intricate interplay of guitars provides the ideal counterpoint to the locked-in tautness of the rhythm section. The emotional centre of the album, Hands Away, with its beautiful swells of orchestral slush, is book-ended by two tightly-wound pop songs in Say Hello To Angels and Obstacle 2. The second half of the album finds the band a little in the wilderness, meandering through Stella… and Roland seemingly on autopilot, relying on atmospherics to succeed any boredom. Finally, in the closing brace of The New and Leif Erikson, the band secure their foothold once more with a pair of gorgeous, engaging epics that take unexpected turns and dives. The album is a delicious journey, and I’ve probably done little so far to dispel this suggestion. But, crucially, for me, it provides too few highlights. Taken as a whole, it’s an extremely successful portrait of a city, a culture, a social class. Taken apart, it only really contains one standout track – The New – and the overriding impression of a band reaching out far beyond their limits (which is undoubtedly a good thing) is more than anything else a product of the album’s interstitial outros. Collectively, it’s epic. Singularly, it’s just really good.
Antics, by contrast, announces itself in a considerably more upbeat fashion, with the organ-led swell of Next Exit, and proceeds, over the course of 42 minutes, to never put a foot wrong on the individual level of the song, and indeed the overall texture of the album. It’s both an album of singles, and a single body of an album. The structure and pacing of Turn On The Bright Lights was a loose-limbed thing; Antics follows a much more interesting pattern: the first side consists mainly of snappy, bright pop songs, broken only by the wandering beauty of Take You On A Cruise; the second side, beginning with Not Even Jail, is far more adventurous, with a series of far-reaching performances brought momentarily back to earth by the brief C’mere. As on its predecessor, Antics closes with a stunning couple, with the maximal arrangement of Length Of Love leading beautifully into A Time To Be So Small, which appears to depict a father-and-son argument taking place in a boat, from the point of view of a sea urchin, watching the dispute from the ocean beneath said boat. This is fascinating, far-out stuff, and it’s extraordinary how we never feel a sense of ridicule at being stretched so much by what superficially appears to be a four-piece straight-up post-punk revival.
The reason I think Antics is the better album, then, is because when it sticks to the pop formula, it gets better returns than before, and, when the band take off their dancing shoes and put on their thinking caps, the album’s exploratory epics put just as much experimentation and texture into each song as Turn On The Bright Lights achieved on the whole album. That’s not a criticism of Turn On The Bright Lights, more a satisfying reflection on just how accomplished Antics is. Of particular importance are Take You On A Cruise and Public Pervert. On the former, mournful, bleating pails of guitar and feedback lead masterfully into a an almost mantra-like passage of whispered chanting; on the latter, a simple arpeggiated bassline combines with lilting, tremolo guitar work to set up a raging beast of a song that captures perfectly the feeling of the lyrical refrain “So swoon baby, starry night…” It’s a rare moment of emotional unity on an album otherwise populated by unsettling and macabre imagery, as in the closer’s chorus of “cadaverous mobs”.
Antics is very much the kind of album that, when it recedes into silence at the end, one wants nothing more than to conjure it into being again. It manages to assert a continuous instrumental virtuosity that never ceases to surprise, which, combined with the best collection of lyrics Paul Banks has committed to tape, breaks surprising ground given the band’s sparse set-up. More so than its predecessor, it succeeds not only in the big picture, but also in the minutiæ, and for this, it remains one of the most pristinely unhindered albums I own. I wouldn’t change a single thing.
Sorry for the duet of posts in rapid succession, but I felt it necessary to inform you that Maxïmo Park are releasing a taster of their third album, Quicken The Heart, in the form of a free downloadable single, entitled “Wraithlike”. On first impression, it’s certainly a fun, enjoyable and brief encounter, and it definitely doesn’t contain the MOR boredom found on their second album, but it does also lack the immediacy of their earlier singles.
Just a quick prelude before the meat of the matter a bit later on. I’ve literally just walked in from having gone to see Franz Ferdinand at the Hammersmith Apollo (now inexplicably re-christened the HMV Apollo). It were brilliant! The band were, unsurprisingly, very tight, and enjoyed a great rapport with the crowd. Songs new and old received a warm reception, the new ones in particular benefiting from the energy of the live environment. My goodness do they have a mighty rhythm section, capable of buoying those killer hooks for mass crowd singalongs.