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Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Converge - Axe To Fall 2009

What is it?
This is the seventh album from the prolific Converge. Supposedly this is their most accessible album to date. I think I might have to have a dip in the more inaccessible regions of Converge soon.
Why should you listen?
You’ll know from hearing 10 seconds of this whether you’ll like it, or not. You’re hard pushed to hear any of the words through the gravelly shouting. That’s perfect for me. If you  like any metalcore then you’ll probably like this.
What’s it like?
I tend to listen to this album when I’m working. When I need to concentrate. It could be classed as easy listening for people who like this type of thing. There are no real standout tracks, except one, so it just washes over you in a pleasant excessive way. There’s nothing there to pull you out of the zone.
What’s the best track?
The final track does give you a break from boring work though. ‘Wretched World’ is slow. If there was a full album of this type of stuff, you’d get seriously sick of the gentle pace. But, and I can’t stress this enough, play this really loud and it’s a revelation. The track is pretty much four repetitions of a section of music that gradually increases in intensity for every repetition. By the end the overdriven guitar is so powerful that it sends a shiver down your spine. Great stuff. It’s worth listening to this one track, even if you don’t like the sound of the rest of the album.
Who does it sound like?
Every Time I Die, Coalesce, Hail of Bullets

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Into the Valley at the Leeds Festival 2011

As mentioned previously I had agreed to chaperone Daughter of  DocCortex and one of her buddies to the Saturday of the 2011 Leeds Festival. Thankfully I have survived the day and can now present a survival guide to all those with a similar 'Into the Valley...' mindset who have to attend this, or any festival in the future.

1. Wear Wellies
You've got to wear wellies for any festival. I went for the hiking boot option, but with hindsight I'd now purchase a pair of those fishing waders, as the Leeds Festival basically involved hiking for mile after mile through mud. Not just any mud either, the festival organisers had helpfully scattered straw and bark chippings onto the existing mud and by the end of another rainy day this got well and truly mashed into the mud to produce something of the consistency of medieval wattle and daub. Imagine walking through treacle, porridge oats and PVA glue and you're half way there.

2. Do some cardio training
You're going to have to train for a festival as if you were running a half marathon. My last festival experience was the 1987 Reading festival which was like attending Barter Town in Mad Max 3, but with music from The Mission. However things have moved on significantly in the world of Festivals. The Leeds festival was like some grim, vast, sprawling refugee camp that is best described as a cross between the camps featured in Children of Men and District 9, but inhabited entirely by students. It was the size of Milton Keynes, and this brings us back to the training regime. The shear size of the complex means lots and lots of traipsing through shanty towns on lanes made of wattle and daub (see above). If you are not fit enough to run a half marathon don't bother because once you fall in the mud you're as good as dead. You'll be trampled, suffocated and then dragged off and eaten by the students.

3. Go Veggie
By the side of the muddy lanes are various vendors offering all manner of delicious goodies. These are direct descendants of the Barter Town shop keepers and I'm sure they are salt of the earth, but with so much fresh meat lying around in the wattle and daub, who can blame them for a bit a recycling? I went for a tofu burger which was essentially tasteless but wholesome and hot. As Ray Mears always says keep your spirits up with warm food and a regular brew.

4. Take your Walkman
You would expect that after all this effort that the music on offer would be half decent, but nothing could be further from the truth. Special mention has to go to the Architects who were spectacularly bad, Bring me the Horizon who were a complete shambles and 30 Seconds to Mars who were the worst of a bad bunch. I actually had to put my earphones in and listen to Kate Bush half way through their set just to keep my sanity. There were scant positives from an 'Into the Valley...' perspective. Rise Against at least tried hard, 'My Chem' had lovely lights, but surprisingly The Offspring stole the day with some middle aged pop punk stormers that at least packed the arena and got the crowd going a bit. Bizarrely they played Gogol Bordello on the tannoy at one point as well.

5. Do not use Public Transport
When you attend an event like this everyone and their aunt is keen to tell you not to drive as the queues will be massive, your car will be broken into, it will cost a fortune etc. They will attempt to make an already tortuous day worse by making you take some public transport option. Don't listen to them. Take your car, drive straight into the well managed free car park with no queuing, then drive straight out again with no hassle at all. It's a tough enough experience as it is without getting on a bus.

I hope that helps. On the whole a mentally and physically exhausting day but survivable. The event was extremely well managed, everyone was really friendly with no anti-social behaviour on show and the girls enjoyed it big time. There were lots of other grumpy, slightly embarrassed parents hanging about at the back as well which was reassuring, but if you're over thirty and haven't got teenage kids I'd avoid it like the plague. 

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Panic at the Disco - Pretty Odd LP 2008

Rarely do I dip my toe into any music attached to an affected genre or subculture such as Emo, however 2005's 'A Fever You Can't Sweat Out' was such a stonker of an album that I just had to go with the flow. The first album showcased a talent above and beyond any genre loyalties and it was in some ways unfortunate that the Panic boys got tarred with the 'emo' label in the first place as this undoubtedly prejudiced a large section of their potentional listeners.

So it was with great delight that I read the outraged reviews of the Panic fans at the release of 'Pretty Odd', describing the new sound as a 'tragedy', 'quirky', 'a cross between the Beatles and country music' and 'pretty bad.' It seems the band's only crime was to do something a bit different, producing a more melodic and folk driven selection of songs, but of at least equal in quality to 'A Fever...'

It's hard to say what their influences were in the writing 'Pretty Odd' but I picked up a certain sixties feel to the cocktail, incorporating the Beatles and the Beach Boys, mix in a splash of Elvis Costello, a slurp or Squeeze, some chunks of slide guitar and a sprinkling of 'Hup' by the Wonderstuff. Shake it together in the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland's hat and decorate with copious amounts of jazz hands. Delicious! It also sounds nothing like Fall Out Boy which can only be a good thing.

In short this is pure quality, with every single track a honed little bundle of pop perfection. My personal favourite is 'That Green Gentleman' but there's nothing in it really. It's different, quirky and great fun, and even Daughter of Doccortex loves it!

You've got to hand it to Panic; they turn their backs on 5 million emo-kids, shun global superstardom and guaranteed riches beyond their wildest dreams. But no, they make 'Pretty Odd' and end up sitting shoulder to shoulder with Olivia Tremor Control and Circle takes the Square on 'Into the Valley of the Obscure.'  Panic at the Disco we salute you!

The new album is out now and up for review early in the new year. Keep your fingers crossed for more of the same. 

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Azam Ali - Portals of Grace LP 2002

What is it?
Iranian born and Indian raised Azam Ali proves herself one of the most versatile singers in world music with a collection of numbers from medieval Europe.

Why should you listen?
It's not something you're going to hear everyday. Azam's voice is a unique experience especially when applied to this collection of ancient, western compositions. It is the voice that takes centre stage in a faithful recreation of the these medieval pieces, but the atmosphere this album creates is just as stunning. Pop this on the CD player and you're transported to a different world; somewhere spiritual, calm and timeless.

What's it like?
The clue is in the title. It's like a portal to another place and time.

What's the best song?
"A Chantar M'Er" but they're all great.

Who does it sound like?
It sounds like no-one else.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Top 10 Lo-Fi Bands

Is Lo-Fi a genre or a state of mind? Well it has it's own section on Amazon, so clearly it must be a genre, but it's so much more than a style of music. Lo-Fi artists have limited similarities in their style of music other than it's indie-ness, but all record on old or purposely sub-standard equipment to gain that sense of chin stroking authenticity so often missing on modern pop songs. It's more of an attitude and a throwback to the days when independent music was truly independent and not owned by Simon Cowell. The following chart lists my current top 10 Lo-Fi artists; go dig them out and enjoy...

10. Iron and Wine

Folky, camp acoustic complexity characterise the work of Samuel Beam (aka Iron and Wine). I have to say I'm not completely convinced by his offerings and I have to be in the right mood, but a big bushy beard is always a great thing to have in the Lo-Fi scene. 'Our Endless Numbered Days' is an excellent starting point.

9. The Olivia Tremor Control

One of the original members of the Elephant 6 collective, Olivia Tremor Control provide off the wall, Lo-Fi indie to the masses. Although Jeff Mangum was a member, the band favoured the more experimental approach of Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart in producing the semi-classic album 'Dusk at Cubist Castle.' You've really got to be in the right kind of mood to enjoy this, but interesting and different nonetheless. Or rubbish, depending on your perspective.

8. Modest Mouse

There's a touch of the Talking Heads about Modest Mouse and they're definitely an acquired taste, but well worth the effort. Fronted by Isaac Brock, the band recently collaborated with former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr but it's their 2004 album 'Good News for People Who Love Bad News' that really does the business. It's funky, spikey, folky, and has a great album cover.

7. Sebadoh

Eric Gaffney and the bass player from Dinosaur Jnr Lou Barlow combined to form seminal Lo-Fi pioneers Sebadoh as long ago as 1996. Their particular brand of mellow vocal indie rock sounds as fresh today as it did in the last century. For Festive Fifty fans check out the video for 'Rebound' which reached number 14 in 1994.

 6. Pavement

Indie stalwarts Pavement stayed true to their Lo-Fi values by staying with independent labels throughout their career. The sound is quirky american indie with a touch of alt-country thrown in now and again. Slanted and Enchanted was a more grungy offering but I always favour 1994's excellent 'Crooked Rain Crooked Rain' LP which is polished and confident but retains the spirit of Lo-Fi.

5. Guided by Voices

The prolific Robert Pollard is the man behind Lo-Fi behemoths Guided by Voices. Masters of the two minute, four track pop song GBV operate across a range of genres, but always with that independent edge. At present I'm accumulating their LP's but my favourite so far was their final offering 'Half Smiles of the Decomposed'; a folk rock journey with 'camp' acoustic tendencies.

4. Okkervil River

Great lyrics, folky overtones and a dark, dark atmosphere characterise the work of Okkervil River. Again it's an acquired taste but the bleak passion soon wins you over and the songs are stuck in your brain. 'Black Sheep Boy' is an absolute classic and is up for review on Into the Valley... in the near future.

3. Beck

Where would the world be without Beck Hansen? It all seemed liked one hit wonder territory when 'Loser' was released, but the album 'Odelay' launched him into the stratosphere of Lo-Fi artists. Undoubtedly a talented and important artist, Beck can just once in a while produce a song that is pure genius. I have to say I prefer 2005's 'Guero' for some reason.

2. The Shins

It's hard to say what the Shins sound like. It's a unique mix of indie, folk, rock and idiosyncratic lyrics and vocal delivery. On first listen the sound can be a little under-whelming but it gnaws away at your subconscious with layers of complexity and soon you're hooked. 'Chutes Too Narrow' is jam packed with quality numbers and is the best entry level LP.

1. Neutral Milk Hotel

'In The Aeroplane over the Sea' is my favourite album in this and possibly any other genre. Jeff Mangum's voice is near un-listenable on the first few plays of the album and has a certain finger in the ear, folky tinge to it, but allow time to absorb the melodies and lyrics and you'll be convinced. Apparently a concept album based on the life of Anne Frank the lyrics are dark, powerful and most of the time incomprehensible, but are balanced by a varied and eclectic range of instrumentation. It's sold enough copies now to be anything but obscure, however it's an album everyone should own; admittedly 95% of them will hate it, but they need to hear it anyway. Warning; remove all fine crystal glass from your house when listening to this as when Magnum goes for the high notes it could turn nasty. Enjoy!

Sunday, 14 August 2011

50 Foot Wave - 50 Foot Wave LP 2004

Ever wondered what happened to gravel voiced indie legend Kristin Hersh after the collapse of Throwing Muses? Well here she is in 50 Foot Wave the combo she formed in the mid 2000's and still performs with today.

This is an odd little six track album with a curious but not altogether unlikeable 'flat' underproduced sound. Hersh's vocals remain essentially similar to those of her previous band but the overall feel is more rock oriented and shouty, but the whole thing has the unfortunate feel of a 'hobby band'. Despite this it's definitely worth a listen and it fills fifteen minutes of your life with a punchy, energetic soundtrack.

There's no real standout track to get your teeth into but 'Bug', 'Clara Bow' and 'Lavender' are all worth an extended listen. It's not Throwing Muses, but it's a tasty titbit if you like that kind of thing.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Eels - End Times 2010

Every Eels album is a little treasure and something to be looked forward to with great relish in our house. The atmosphere and style of each LP are always slightly different with E tinkering about with variables such as rockiness, graveliness, geekiness and level of melancholy. Having said this, 2009's 'Hombre Lobo' was not exactly a premium offering, more a stopgap to tide us over until the next classic album materialised. So it was with some trepidation that I listened to 'End Times'. Would it be more of the same? Was 'Blinking Lights' the zenith of E's career? Could it be a cracker?

I shouldn't have worried. 'End Time' sits somewhere between 'Blinking Lights' and 'Electro Shock Blues' in terms of style and content, and is surprisingly rounded and satisfying instalment in the life story of Mark Oliver Everett. Apparently based on the themes of loss and broken love it doesn't sound that uplifting, but once the melodies and the gravely vocals kick in you know it's a winner.

There are some classic tracks on the LP which will probably make the 'Best Of' collection which says it all about the quality on offer. 'End Times' is philosophical and romantic, 'Unhinged' is a catchy take on lost love, and 'Gone Man' is E's warped impression of the Beatles. Weirdly, I'd have to go for the lullaby qualities of 'I Need a Mother' as my favourite track, it's been stuck in my head for weeks and refuses to go away.

This is the second part of a trilogy of LP's that began with 'Hombre Lobo' and ends with 'Tomorrow Morning'. Here's hoping that the third chapter continues the upward trend and builds on the success of this great album. I'm saving 'Tomorrow Morning' for a rainy day; you can get too much of a good thing.


Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Circle Takes The Square - As The Roots Undo (2004)

What is it?
Top screamo action with a mister and a lady singing. A quality Strepsils advert if ever there was one.
Why should you listen?
Let’s face facts. If you haven’t been put off by the screamo reference earlier you’ll probably quite like this. Screamo benefits from variety and the contrasting screamy voices give it some slight differences in tone: man on his own, lady on her own and (don’t get giddy now) man and lady together.
What’s it like?
Imagine someone battering a drum at about a hundred miles an hour, add some squigly guitars and a couple of people shouting and you kind of get the picture. There are some gentler sections to give a contrast to all the screaming. It's a little bit rough around the edges but surely that's better than being over-produced.
What’s the best track?
I actually always listen to two tracks together as my favourite; they seem to go together so well. We have ‘Interview At The Ruins’ that starts with someone rummaging about in a box of lego. Possibly. There’s not that much harshness in this one. The ending could almost be described as catchy with multiple voices singing/talking. Then go straight into “Non Objective Portrait of Karma’. Starts off quietly and peacefully, but you know what’s coming. Four minutes into it and it all kicks off with some Premier League screaming. It also contains a section where the main fella sounds like he’s having a breakdown and a false ending. Good value for money.
Who does it sound like?
Joyce McKinney Experience, Dan, The Ghost of a Thousand