12 Jan 2017
Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan
Wow! Someone finally remastered and reissued this monster on vinyl...
It was 30 years ago today…well it was about 30 years ago today that I first heard the then new debut full length LP by The Steppes, “Drop of the Creature” released on Greg Shaw's legendary Voxx Records. In 1986 this record stood pretty much alone as a perfect example of modern psych-rock-folk. Whilst many of the groups of the decade who had hinted at taking the magic swirling ship downed tools, signed to majors and retreated into distinctly un-psychedelic AOR rock land, The Steppes were heading outwards into the purple mist.
The band didn't so much buck the general trend as obliterate it, unleashing one of the great psychedelic rock records of all time (in my humble opinion) with the masterful ‘Drop of the Creature’. This is a record loaded with wonderfully constructed songs supplied by California residing, Irish-American brothers John and David Fallon. It is psychedelic for sure, it is also folky and prog and rock and beat and avant garde - all at once. This was musical. It displays myriad influences - from the 60's and 70's, from Europe, from America and time has shown it was clearly years ahead of its time. This was musical alchemy par excellence and nearly all selections contained therein are underpinned by a mysterious, almost religious, celtic flavour that often adds an epic drama and romance to their strangely strange but oddly accessible sound.
“A Play on Wordsworth” opens proceedings, appearing on the horizon with a slightly ominous and unsettling barrage of slashing power chords and impressionistic utterings counterpointed by several cluster bombs of wah-wah driven guitar breaks. It’s quiet-loud changing up through the (Disraeli) gears and use of light and shade immediately marking this out as a very different beast from their ‘Paisley Underground’ contemporaries. What we have here is no overly stylised slavish retro-trip; this is a musical tour de force, dripping and pulsing with invention and ambition - as an opening gambit you know you are in heavy territory.
‘Somebody Waits’ is a sublimely beautiful acid-folk ballad that could melt the hardest of hearts, a postcard from home to a distant and ancient traveller who is searching for something that is already there. Its plaintive closing advice of "don’t you dare drown in the spring", remains as profoundly affecting to me now as it did on first listen all that time ago. ‘Holding Up Well’ is muscular and driven by a powerful 70’s prog arrangement and wonderfully dramatic vocal performance. 'Make Us Bleed' is daringly deft - all scrolling guitar runs and alternately biting and lyrical vocals that seem to simultaneously invoke the spirit of Phil Lynott and John Lennon - go figure. ‘Cut in Two’ is detached with an almost diffident delivery, replete with slide guitar buried in the mix of a soft shoe shuffle. It’s jolting endgame is impressive and sounds nothing less than an asylum door being slammed firmly shut. 'The Sky is Falling’ manages to combine that celtic lilt with some truly heavy psych moves and appropriate use of slide as a way of knocking the listener off balance. “See You Around” is as close as The Steppes got to their immediate peers, a slab of straight ahead sunshine pop that seems to fluctuate between The Byrds of ‘I See You’ and The Beatles of ‘Drive My Car’. It’s a beauty and should have been the song that launched them out of the underground and into the daylight. 'Lazy Ol' Son' is a bar room argument between Syd Barrett and Rory Gallagher with no clear winner emerging from the ensuing spat. 'Bigger Than Life' is a total trip. All see-sawing echoed bass stabs, ultra-compressed "Lucy in the Sky..." vocalising, amazing squalling shards of backwards guitar and watery drums. Its a bit like "The Man Who Sold the World" era Bowie and its utterly magnificent.
'Black Forest Friday' is a short piece of sonic grand guignol, its queasy keys, snaking guitars, end of the hallway flutes and mechanical sounds making it one and a half minutes of totally spooked out baroque madness. ‘More Than This’ closes out the album proper with a lingering sigh and some suitably wise words that still resonate as one expects they will forever, “there is no chosen holy land...I wish today was like tomorrow, I’d pack up my bags and all my sorrow..” – all set inside some lovely guitar phrasing and a closing Page-esque guitar solo that arcs upwards towards the sun before fading in its golden light. Add in the beautifully kaleidoscopic 'History Hates No Man' as one of the bonus tracks with its fabulous melange of floating guitars, chimes and mantra-like voices singing hosannas from the highest hilltops and you really are being spoiled here. This is fabulous stuff.
Thirty years later, time remains hugely kind to the ambition, vision and uniqueness of this record. It's ability to startle, unsettle and beguile the active listener with its magick remains undiminished, its stock continues to appreciate. 'Drop of the Creature' is simply a fabulous achievement. Believe.
So, is this the reissue of the year? Yes. Should you buy it? Yes. Should you buy it for your friends? Yes. More than this I cannot say. Amen.
Available from limited stockists and the label direct below.
Also: The Checks "Green Velvet Electric" Review
3 Jan 2017
Reviews by Nathan Ford
I'm getting too old to keep up with all of Sugarbush Records' wonderful output, but here are a couple of highlights from their last few months of releases, lovingly pressed in small quantities on vinyl (350 and 200 copies respectively).
A new Green Pajamas album is always cause for celebration, and "To The End Of The Sea" may well be their best for a decade. CD and digital releases happened earlier on in the year, but Sugarbush have done us all a favour by putting it out on lovely blue vinyl (their third Green Pajamas vinyl release).
While recent albums have tried different things and had much to recommend them, "To The End Of The Sea" returns to the tried and true 'classic' Pajamas sound of the late nineties / early noughties with Jeff Kelly's best set of songs for a long time, albeit with a more knowingly psychedelic presentation, which is just fine with me.
"When Juliet Smiles" is another in a string of perfect, wistful psych-pop gems. This and "Ten Million Light Years Away" are the sorts of songs that have GP fans tearing out their hair and shaking their fists at the cruel hand of fate, and it's hard not to agree that this music should be heard by so many more than it is.
And while it's easy to cherrypick specific tracks for praise, for highlights are many, it's as a complete suite that this works best.
Get the vinyl here (digital and CD from the link below).
Also new, and fabulous, is "Gathering Leaves", a carefully curated compilation of material originally featured on Ptolemaic Terrascope's free CDs from the nineties and early noughties.
For those unfamiliar, Ptolemaic Terrascope was a long running psychedelic fanzine founded in the eighties by Phil McMullen and Bevis Frond's Nick Saloman, the approach of which was very similar to ours here at the Active Listener, but on a much more ambitious scale.
"Gathering Leaves" does a great job of illustrating just how diverse a genre psychedelia can be, embracing everything from folk (Sharron Kraus), psychedelic pop (The Dipsomaniacs & The Green Pajamas again), to more experimental fare like Saint Joan who's lengthy epic "December" is something of a highlight here - particularly as I'd never heard of her before.
And let's not forget that at the time, this was pure outsider music. Psychedelia was yet to be homogenised and reintroduced to the masses by the likes of Tame Impala. This acknowledgement that even in the (musically speaking) darkest times, adventurous and exciting music is being made, if you're willing to look hard enough for it, resonates deeply with me.
I'm amazed that there are copies of this left still - but apparently there are. You can get them here (all prices include international shipping). Get in quick!
2 Jan 2017
Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)
Two essential releases related to the beautiful and consistently impressive Wild Silence label, one from label owner Delphine Dora who offers an exquisite tableaux of dreamlike chamber folk (and which can be found on the similarily wonderful Bezirk label) and the other from Krotz Struder, the one man project of Julien Grandjean who musically interprets fifteen of the poet Emily Dickinson's works in a melancholic, understated and truly gorgeous manner.
Dora's 'Le Fruits De Mes Songes' begins with the delicate but intense piano of 'Dans La Brume Chuchotante', which is quickly enveloped by the buzz of collected and whispered voices to create a disorientated, dreamlike air. Indeed, some of the text used was taken from books in Dora's own library which she describes as like using'passages of prose used as samples...I like using different random sources in the same song, different fragments to have a disparate meaning, something that is mysterious to the consciousness, something that can question the listening experience. I tried to use my voice as a whisper, or many voices to induce a subliminal effect to the consciousness of the listener." This album certainly evokes just that; it is experiential in nature in that it demands our full attention and takes the listener to the dust filled and haunted corners of our thoughts and memories where the odd creatures of our past reside. 'Oraculum’ is one such piece, on a myriad of harp notes Dora's layered vocals take us to a world of wakened dreams and half remembered pasts. 'Harp-psi-chord' is a baroque, regency styled piece with Dora's vocals flowing and ebbing over the shimmering harpsichord notes whilst 'Alpha Centuri' is a chamber folk gem; gossamer cascades of piano, music box notes and icy slabs of organ come together to conjure a truly otherworldly experience and sound, a cobwebbed fairy tale of a song. This must be the sound that dreams make when they sing...'Hush Lullaby' is a more conventional but no less lovely piano piece that sounds both timeless and haunted, as if being heard through a crack in the present that has allowed the ghosts of sounds from the past to enter. At once both earthy and traditional as well as experimental and unique, Dora's music continually fascinates, evokes and resonates. This is a stunningly fine album, should you wish music to be challenging, beautiful and emotive then do not miss out on this singularly lovely recording.
Moving on to the second of the releases, Krotz Struder approaches Emily Dickinson's words by cloaking them in a shimmering and delicate web of finger picked and chiming guitar, skeletal piano and his own unique style of chanson. Having previously interpreted the works of Blake and Bernhard, Grandjean is clearly at home with such material and his versions are unspeakably lovely; 'The Foreigner' and 'The One, The Other' would not be out of place on This Mortal Coil's classic 'It'll End In Tears', such is the reverberated, sacred mood evoked here. This is not in any sense however a one note performance, indeed Grandjean adds interesting, curious and left field shadows and corners throughout with squalls of ebow sitting alongside icy shimmers of guitar and the songs themselves web and weave in some unforeseen directions, pleasingly quite unlike anything else you may have heard. Grandjean takes Dickinson's romantically morbid visions and creates something entirely new and bewitching with them, adding his own bohemian and poetic ingredients. This is an album of highlights however 'The Thought Before', a Leonard Cohen-esque treasure, and 'Cap Of Lead', in which Grandjean’s guitar sparkles like sequins on a sky of ink, are two noteworthy moments. Seek this album out, it would be a crime for something so accomplished and downright beautiful to not be heard.
Both albums are available on physical and download formats, Delphine's being available on cassette and Krotz Struder on CD. As always with the Wild Silence the packaging and sleeve design of '15 Dickinson Songs' is a work of art in itself.
1 Jan 2017
Reviewed by Timothy Ferguson
I’ve been a long time in putting this review together, as "The Acceleration of Time" was released by The Luck of Eden Hall way back in April. Perhaps it is apropos that a record so obsessed with time should be reviewed only after the reviewer has given this collection of songs the time it so richly deserves.
There should be no need to introduce you to The Luck of Eden Hall. After all, they’ve been around for a long, long time (time again), diligently producing album after album of premium grade psychedelic pop. Popping up again and again on those juicy Fruits de Mer compilations, now appearing on soundtracks and in Record Collector magazines. Always solid, always producing much more than mere perfect songs, but solid and well-crafted works of art. If there’s a dud in the cannon, this reviewer sure hasn’t heard it, and I’ve had my eye (and ear) on these cats since Pumpkins were mere sprouts and the Chicago scene was the last unspoiled hunting ground for a music industry that never had a clue.
However, if this IS your first foray into the work of The Luck of Eden Hall, you’ve certainly joined the party at a high point. On "The Acceleration of Time", the band goes from strength to strength, serving up their unique brand of psychedelia that features flashes of power pop adrenaline, prog virtuosity and plenty of :Lucy in the Sky..." flower power imagery. The instrumentation is confident and pristine, with not a note out of place. Best of all, LoEH write SONGS. This is no echo drone phoned-in formula psych. Instead you get verses, choruses, hooks, clever turns of phrase and actual sonic stories. This is purpose over Prozac; psychedelia for the thinking man.
"The Acceleration of Time" is an ambitious 15 song double album, and it may be the crown jewel in The Luck of Eden Hall's already accomplished recording career. Time is obviously a concern, and a growing one for The Luck of Eden Hall, as the songs on this impressive collection are haunted by the pursuit of the second hand. Throughout the work, clocks tick, bells chime, reminding us again and again that we are being pursued by our own mortality. How many songs do we have left in us? How much time is left on the scoreboard?
Kicking off with "Slow and Blown to Kingdom Come", fans will recognize the touchstone elements that make The Luck of Eden Hall sound so unique. Greg Curvey’s multi-headed hydra of guitars that crunch and bite or soar and attack like a psychedelic cobra, drumming by Carlos Mendoza that could hold it’s own against an artillery barrage, Mark Lofgren’s melodic yet precise bass guitar lines that add rhythmic sinew and bone and that amazing melotron washing color onto everything it touches, courtesy of Jim Licka.
"A Procession of Marshmallow Soldiers Across the Clockwork Pudding" has to win some sort of award for best song title of the year. This instrumental is the first of several, and serves as a beautiful counterpoint to the clockwork precision of the poppy openers. Although Curvey carries the lion’s share of songwriting credits on this release, Lofgren’s title track "The Acceleration of Time" is a gem, and could be a lost Eno track from "Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy". His other contributions to this masterwork are equally spectacular, my favorite probably being "Only Robots Can Search the Deep Ocean Floor".
One of the best things about this record is how well it works as a front to back concept record. It also works as a collection of greatest hits (if one can do that on a single collection of songs from the same record). Fans of the Shuffle feature will revel at "The Acceleration of Time", as there is no way to mix this up in a way that doesn’t work. Time may move in a linear direction, but the Luck of Eden Hall have fashioned a 77-minute wormhole of a record. Rockers are paced by haunting lullabies, pop gems give way to lush instrumentals and the whole thing is well paced, hypnotic and dreamlike.
Sometimes a reviewer gets a record that is love at first sight. And like love that is more passion-based, those glowing Spring feelings may wane with the passing of time. I’m glad that I gave this record such a long gestation period before penning this review. Time itself has served as a proving ground for the intelligence, wit and depth of this sterling effort. Some loves are meant to withstand the test of Time.
Best record of 2016.
28 Dec 2016
Reviewed By Todd Leiter-Weintraub (Hop On Pop) and Joseph Murphy
After teasing us with a 4-track EP earlier this year, Boston’s Magic Shoppe has unleashed its newest full-length, and it’s a corker. Blending together the modern psych sounds of bands like The Brian Jonestown Massacre with the full-on sonic assault of The Warlocks, it’s one of those albums that reveals more and more of itself with each listen.
The album opens with the nasty fuzztone and wah-wah riffing of “Stars Explode”—pure heavy psych a la The Warlocks. But when the arrangement shifts just a little, all sorts of nifty harmonic constructions reveal themselves, reflecting the influence of nothing so much as "Daydream Nation"era Sonic Youth. “Head On the Floor” follows, with the same kind of SY riffing, but here it’s the bassline that drives the song forward. Yeah, the guitars are front-and- center, of course. But when I find myself bobbing my head, it’s to the rhythm of the bass guitar. “Kill” explodes out of the speakers next. It’s a 12-bar blues-based vamp with super-saturated reverb-heavy vocals over a tremolo guitar—Rock, with a capital “R.” The beautifully arranged guitars are stacked on top of one another like the layers of a delicious cake made of fuzztone and rhythm. It’s easy to get lost in this one.
It’s also easy to get lost in the vocal harmonies of “Hearing Voices.” Those vocals, while intriguing, are buried in the mix, so as to beckon the listener closer. As you do get closer, the song sucks you in to its sonic landscape and wraps you up in warm, fuzzy layers of guitars and reverb. Full immersion.
“Blowup” gives a bit of a respite from the fuzz. Some great staccato riffing, punctuated by tambourine reminds me a little but of what The Limiñanas have been doing on their recent albums. “Sister Burden” has some quieter moments, but those moments are more like floating in the sea of sound, before the song kicks back in and, again, you’re swirling in the whirlpool.
I’m supposing you get it, dear reader, that the operative words here are “fuzz”, “layers”, “guitars”, and “reverb.” Magic Shoppe has concocted a glorious wash of sound that envelops the listener; pulling you in, and bringing you into the band’s world. But then, less than 30 minutes later, when the album ends and you’re thrown back to reality, all you want to do is dive back in again. It’s a nifty trick, indeed. And it’s a really, really good record. (TL-W)
Boston’s Magic Shoppe has been around for a while. All that time, they have quietly released subtle, layered – and often noisy – rock albums. Yet this year’s releases – “Interstellar Car Crash EP” (reviewed here) and most recently “Wonderland” – feel like a breakthrough for the experienced group.
Since their first EP, “Reverb,” released way back in 2010, Magic Shoppe has made significant tailoring to their repertoire of sounds. While “Reverb” sampled their many branches of influences and possibilities, their most recent releases are a testament to their honing of their skillsets, which inevitably developed into what has become their singular trademark: tone-perfect rock. But, of course, some things remain the same, seeds of things apparent even on “Reverb”: on “Wonderland,” guitar still reigns, and all guitar sounds are put through a gauntlet of effects, amounting to a sprawling reverb that cavernously shimmers but grinds when necessary too.
Opener, “Stars Explode,” jumpstarts the record, pounding hypnotic rock grounded by tambourine and light-handed vocals. It paves the way for equally propulsive songs such as “Kill,” while still setting up for a few of swaying, spaced-out pop songs that really make the record great.
Standouts “Blow Up” and “Sister Burden” channel West Coast shoegazers such as Brian Jonestown Massacre or Medicine equally. Melodic, upbeat, “Blow Up” plays with standard structure – and our expectations – both in vocal delivery and a searing, dense passage of guitar between verses. While “Sister Burden” saunters across similar ground, it leans toward chilly washes of guitar sound over the warmth of its predecessor. It experiments further with structure and layered landscapes as a means of exploring mood and content; and it works quite well here.
All in all, “Wonderland” is a joy for close listeners, pitch-perfect and finely tuned. This one’s a necessity for those headphone clutchers. (JM)
“Wonderland” is available digitally or on red vinyl.
23 Dec 2016
As we limp towards our retirement here at the Active Listener we have one final sampler for you (for now - who knows what the future holds?) - this one has a $1 download charge (to try and cover our bandcamp costs), but as always you're very welcome to stream for free.
I've loved putting these together over the years, and it's gratifying to know that these are enjoyed by so many.
Time is pressing so I'll just say thanks to Paul Thomas for the splendid sleeve art and all of the featured artists (and all involved with previous samplers).
We've still got a few reviews up our sleeves but after that things will go quiet for a wee while.
In the meantime live well, be kind and curious, and have a fabulous Christmas and New Year from the Active Listener xx
21 Dec 2016
Reviewed by Nathan Ford
These pages often feature reissues from Cherry Red Records' Esoteric Recordings imprint, but I don't think I've ever specifically given them a pat on the back. This simply will not do, as the label are providing an amazing service to collectors of lesser known progressive rock, and to the artists that created these albums originally.
They've been systematically rescuing gem after gem from shady quasi-bootleg reissue labels, remastering from the original master tapes whenever possible, and ensuring that the artists and copyright holders are paid royalties for their troubles - something that a lot of fairly well known genre reissue labels that you'd assume were legitimate have chosen not to do in the past.
Their latest batch of releases are a typically intriguing bunch:
First off the blocks (and following on from last month's "Second Birth") is Gravy Train's fourth and final LP, "Staircase to the Day". "Staircase" is probably the band's least progressive outting but in terms of songcraft it's still got some chops. "Starlight Starbright" is a big, bombastic opener, while the earnest "Bring My Life On Back To Me" sounds like it could have become an FM staple if it had been attached to a more widely recognised name (or a label with a greater promotional budget than Dawn Records could muster).
The female backing vocalists (including PP Arnold) give much of what's on offer here a proto glam twist which is very much of its time, something that they'd investigate at even greater length on their final single (appended here as a bonus track) which sounds a little like Cockney Rebel.
The flute and fuzz guitars are mostly toned back a little more than I'd like but there's no arguing that the title track is one of their best tunes - almost as if Metallica's "Call of Cthulhu" had been written by the Alan Parsons Project.
Quiet World's debut "The Road" is one for all of the Genesis fans out there, featuring the guitar work of Steve Hackett although those expecting the complexities of his work with Genesis may be surprised by how direct he is here (his first time in a studio).
"The Road" is a heavily orchestrated proggy concept album spearheaded by brothers John, Lea and Neil Heather. The Moody Blues' "Days of Future Passed" seems to be a major influence, but this is much less gentile sounding.
The religious slant of the concept is likely to get on the tits of some, but there are some effective songs contained within this suite.
Last in this batch, and pick of the bunch in my humble opinion is the sole self-titled album from the puzzlingly monikered 9.30 Fly. Chiefly a vehicle for husband / wife duo Michael and Barbara Wainwright, this is usually referred to as a progressive folk album, but it's folky tendencies seem minimal to me, the only real qualifier being the extensive use of acoustic guitars and Barbara's vocal phrasing.
It's got that great UK early seventies vibe that makes me think of musty books and rain in a similar way to Ginhouse's excellent sole LP, and a surprisingly progressive vibe given its reputation. This isn't any of that busy Yes style prog though, think slow, majestic builds with effective instrumental passages that make the most of clever arrangements to cover up a minimal recording budget.
Both Wainwrights sing, with Barbara stealing the show more often than not. Her simplistic keys offer some effective shading here and there too, with extensive mellotron usage on "Brooklyn Thoughts".
Highlights though come in the shape of "Unhinged", a brooding menace with lovely lyrical guitar leads ala David Gilmour shrouded in Barbara's wraithlike harmony vocals. Very striking. And the much more upbeat "Summer Days" isn't too far off the pace, especially when it stretches out into its luxurious instrumental passages.
This one was a bit of a surprise and a real grower - I find myself subconsciously reaching for it which has to be a good sign.
What will Esoteric have in store for us next I wonder?
13 Dec 2016
Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan
On their third full-length outing, The Seed Coat have come from the land of the longships and the rune stones to steal your mind and alter your consciousness. That isn't a threat, it's a promise as once again Swedish psych takes centre stage in Active Listener's London HQ.
'Read My Mind' kicks things off in a suitably promising fashion taking aim at rewriting 'Spirit in the Sky' from the perspective of someone trapped in a K-Hole after three or four days of solid chemical abuse with only a bottle of water and a Spacemen 3 record for company. Its stealthy and nauseatingly hypnotic to the point of being a hugely impressive sonic event. Things change up a gear with the second track, "Reflections of Your Mind" - its rippling paisley underground vibes wrapping up your frontal lobes in a beautiful haze of guitar, keyboard and breathy vocals. This is the sort of song that should be blaring from radios across the world and in every discotheque from Katrineholm to Kathmandu. Awesome!
The mysterious depths of 'The Ripples in the Kara Sea' submerges the listener into a watery submarine world of 80's indie-psych where sonar guitar lines probe your ears and cautionary verse keep you from venturing too close to the palace of Neptune. 'Wonderland' is all scratchy frequency searching diodes and slack-jawed spliffed-out-in-waltz-time wondering. Its a sky in search of a cloud. Sweet.
Things get really trippy when we dance around the 'Obstacle Tree' which has a distinct Broadcast feel to it (as does quite a bit of this record), with much fuzzy warbling, stun distort-guitar riffing and unexpected keyboard led breakdowns which are just drop dead gorgeous. I also get the feeling that the 'Obstacle Tree' concept has something to do with the front cover of this record which to my sonically battered and addled psyche is the product of a sick mind that wants to scare me and control my thoughts.
"Are You Dreaming Alone" jolts the active listener back into the flow of beatific almost devotional musing and Balearic beat which one could easily float away on into the blue. 'Travelling in a Capsule' starts off with some seriously synapse-rippling sound manipulation before settling into an almost menacing vibrato and keyboard wash twilight world of whispered vocals and time stretching snare beats with fabulous delayed recorder led (!) fade out - it's another real high(point). In fact at one stage during listening to this track I felt like I had begun to levitate whilst simultaneously my third eye opened and was astrally projecting me over the rolling forests of southern England. It was that kind of trip, frankly. And I didn't want to come down.
'How You've Been' fundamentally is all Bo Diddley on Valium and magic mushrooms as played by a bunch of recently released psychiatric hospital inmates (with some chops) and features an outrageously simple but stunningly effective guitar break, the likes of which I would like to be looped for about 5 hours and fed to me every night whilst I was asleep to keep my dreams sunny side up. It's so far out it's almost in.
Matters are brought to a suitably deranged and baffling end by the enigmatic 'Wonderland: Reprise' which exists in sound form just long enough to disturb your alpha rhythms before evaporating in front of your very scrambled senses.
So there you have it, not content in 2016 with already unleashing the startlingly excellent Lejonslaktet record (still available folks, track it down) Fonomonik Records now present the equally psychedelic sounds of The Seed Coat. Get down with the 'Gentle Mindspeed' on limited vinyl and other less beautiful but equally effective formats.
Full stream or download here:
7 Dec 2016
Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)
Look To The North, a long distance collaboration between Ireland's David Colohan (United Bible Studies, Raising Holy Sparks and Agitated Radio Pilot) and America's Zachery Corsa (Lost Trail), have previously impressed with their debut '5000 Blackbirds Fall Out Of The Sky', a beautifully detailed slice of psych folk ambiance. It is a significant degree of expectation then that greets 'You're A Séance Old North', which is repaid handsomely and repeatedly throughout what is a unique and truly special recording. This is an album that lives in the hinterland, the twilit liminal space between seasons and seems purpose made for the chill autumn sunsets and approaching winter darkness.
Essentially an album of two instrumental extended pieces, albeit with many subtle changes and junctures ebbing and flowing throughout, this is a deeply immersive album in which the listener can crawl into and inhabit for the space of its duration. And you will want to do so time and again; the opening track, the excellently titled 'Where You Vanished Off The Edges Of A Cul-de-sac, Like Falling Off A Map' feels like entering a hazy, blurred and slightly off kilter dream or memory. Choral drones drift and retreat amongst bird and cricket song, but this is no gentle or new age ambience, instead there is a pleasingly unsettling ‘Twin Peaks’ air to this landscape. Colohan's autoharp picks out a fragile, ghostlike melody as the drones recede into the sound of radio static and muffled, long forgotten voices from the past. Corsa’s piano then haunts the emptiness that remains until an angelic mellotron choir descends; this is a haunted house of an album, a subconscious filled with the sounds, tears and hopes of yesteryear, both sepia tinted and dust covered. Electronic pulses conjure a solar, electric wind upon which a solitary harmonium wheezes and weeps, a chance meeting of several possible timelines at once. Washes of old radio chatter and utterly lovely chiming drones and peals roll in like waves, not unlike a heavily slowed down Cocteau Twins, the music's quiet power utterly beguiling and bewitching.
An elderly man's voice enters and reflects biblically on the fate of the world before the second piece 'Harriet Was Here, Less So Now' begins with a whirring, looping vocal sample to be joined by piano, guitar and a growing torrent of static and feedback. Where the opening track was spacious and sacred, its sister piece is disturbed and storm wracked. All storms must break however and this soon quietens into delicately picked autoharp and further sampled religious dialogue which adds an unnerving post apocalyptic tinge. Wind and rainfall rise to the foreground, the sound of the woods and the creatures within reverberating, merging with spectral conversations and melodies that seem plucked from beyond the veil, as if the curtain between the worlds is thinner here, where this album inhabits. Footsteps on leaves are closely followed by an unearthly breathing, of something not human until the welcome static returns and the autoharp notes cascade like tears over disembodied recollections from voices from the distant past. Again, eerie and unnerving sounds weave through the woodlands, a wraithlike choir not far behind as dark, impenetrable waves of guitar and echoed howls grow to obscure all else. A lone voice emerges through the shortwave crackle to exclaim 'It's still here' and the transmission suddenly ends. Both unnerving and curiously beautiful this is an album that is also an immersive experience; the silence after it has finished feels loud and tangible, as if emerging from a hypnogogic or a wakened dream.
Both Colohan and Corsa are experienced and renowned composers and this album is rich with nuance, detail and gentle, emotive resonance. For those who admire the work of Richard Skelton, Richard Moult and Michael Begg's Human Greed, this is an essential acquisition. Special mention must go the exquisite packaging from AOsmosis Records; a limited edition stitched 16 page booklet replete with transparent and paper prints along with the accompanying poetry of Zach Corsa. Handmade and a genuine thing of beauty, Aosmosis have done themselves proud and a serious enquiry into their other releases is recommended.
Available now as a download or limited CD.
29 Nov 2016
Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan
Winter is drawing ever closer up here in the northern hemisphere and, as I take in the last of the late autumn light and stare blankly out of my north London window, I am being gently drawn into a brave old/new world by the never less than great Clay Pipe Records. This latest release is a singular piece of work, as the deeply beguiling music and accompanying striking art work is the creative outpouring of label supremo and polymath, Frances Castle, operating once more under the moniker of The Hardy Tree.
The beautiful floating soundscapes/sonic friezes found here are dreamily delivered in gently flickering, devotional vignettes that envelop and involve the listener with a warmth of spirit rarely found in such keenly conceptualised work. Every note is drawn out to maximise its lingering pictorial impact as time is stretched and manipulated with sound. As a whole work, "Through Passages Of Time" creates a blurring almost disorientating intimacy that is almost impossible to disengage from. Even if you wanted to.
The opening and instructively titled "Looking Down on London" sets the tone with its simple, almost musical box like structures, creating a lovely minor-key ballad with very effective use of vibes and mellotron. "The Peerless Pool" lopes ever so gently along with vintage synth washes and a mood that wouldn't be out of place on the best of the Ghost Box catalogue. "St John Horsleydown" and "Newport Market" echo with ghostly voices, underpinned once more by the most delicate of musical figures whilst "Baltic Wharf" groans with the sound of straining timbers in the tidal Thames before settling into the stateliest shanty I think I have ever heard. The latter benefits hugely from some lovely mournful viola playing by Left Outsides crew member and Plinth collaborator, Alison Cotton. 'Sluice House Tavern' is a lovely sonic tapestry; a beam of autumnal afternoon light through a lead-glass window, generating a hugely resplendent ambience for the listener. 'Near Windmill Bridge' is all analogue synth twists and gently soaring keys with a whispering drum machine in the background. "Cut Throat Lane" brings matters to a soul soothing end, a series of spirit voices ascending ever skyward on an endless journey back into the afterlife and on to who knows where.
On an instant level, "Through Passages Of Time" works as a highly accomplished musical travelogue, using a historical overview of a London lost to the diggers and the tower cranes as its guiding star and central concept. However, the longer you let these meditations seep into your being and colour your minds eye, the more you realise that what you are experiencing has far more depth and complexity. This record is more like a carefully constructed requiem for London featuring a series of spectral lullabies. The recurring musical devices and themes that link these pieces to create a whole environment for the listener to inhabit and explore draw strong comparison to those collected in any church hymn book. This is all no doubt deliberate as the real 'Hardy Tree', from which the project takes its name, has a strong ecclesiastical linkage that I will leave to those sufficiently intrigued to enlighten themselves with. The sense that every note on this record has weight and has been received from another dimension by its creator is all pervading. In these grooves The Hardy Tree, acting as curator or medium, is telling you something vital about your past lives in the hope that your present one will become enriched, kinder and more connected as a result. And if that sounds profound and heavy its because it is.
"Through Passages of Time" belongs to another (green) world and congratulations should go to Frances Castle for divining this wonderfully touching collection and successfully capturing it on tape. It's musical psycho-geography par excellence and probably the most human record you will hear all year. Get it while you can as, like much of the city it commemorates, I am sure it will be gone before you know it.
Available on limited vinyl from the label direct or a number of small but perfectly formed independent retailers.