In a nightmare I am falling from the ceiling into bed beside you….

March 7, 2010 at 6:21 pm (Uncategorized)

One of the problems with creating an album as dense, ethereal and sonically ambitious as The Antler’s ‘Hospice’, is that at some point, if enough people get to hear it in the first place, you will need to replicate its charms in a live environment. Not only this, but as the album is the kind of work that could only ever really become popular through word of mouth (its central concept is the helpless sense of loss engendered by watching someone you love dying of cancer), the band are somewhat limited in terms of the venue size and sound quality they have to work with.

This predicament leads the band to Brighton’s Hanbury Ballroom and a crowd that is a pretty equal mix of hipsters intrigued by the hype, slavishly loyal acolytes ‘Shhhh’-ing in annoyance at those talking at the bar, and the friends/partners they have dragged along with promises of greatness. The band take to the stage with the minimum of fanfare and begin building the tension with heavy tombstone slabs of percussion and feedback drenched guitar enveloped in a shimmering keyboard haze. Wisely sticking to working their way through ‘Hospice’ pretty much from start to finish, the band sound unhurried, almost methodical in their approach, giving every song time and space to unfold and breath through the static, reverential crowd.

As such, the first couple of songs slip by fairly unobtrusively, and it is not until ‘Silvia’ with its soft metallic humming and sudden explosions of wrought emotion that the band really unleash the considerable power of their abilities. Pete Silberman’s voice veers between calm, constrained dignity and an almost terrifyingly raw falsetto and acts as a counterpoint to the relentless cacophony of Michael Lerner’s drums and the range of spectral sounds emanating form Darby Cicci’s keyboard. These elements fuse together to incredible effect on record, and the band push the capabilities of their three instrument set-up in the live setting, placing a huge emphasis on the atmospherics of each track.

‘Two’ is shorn of its delicate acoustic guitar and voice opening in favour of a wall of noise approach that builds to a climax of crashing drums and heady, swirling guitar. Similarly, ‘Bear’, one of the more straightforward and cleanly arranged songs on ‘Hospice’, is slowed down and elongated live as the band look to extract every ounce of emotive tension from its brittle frame, and push it towards an epic climax. After a while however, this extraction begins to feel a little like pulling teeth. The band’s determination to make every song into an overwrought, barrage of noise blankets the delicacy and innovation of the musical arrangements that made ‘Hospice’ so enthralling in the first place.

This continued attempt to turn every one of the album’s tracks into an epic works very well in the context of individual songs (‘Atrophy’ in particular sounds amazing), but over the course of an evening it starts to lose its effect. Indeed, when this is combined with the in-built emotional weight that the songs already contain, it makes for an experience that is often genuinely uncomfortable rather than moving. In fairness this may not be solely the fault of the band, as tonight they are sadly let down by a sound system that occasionally screeches feedback from Silberman’s microphone and generally fails to mix the band’s components into a coherent whole throughout the set.

However, in all it is still a huge pleasure to witness music this good unfold in a live context, and the band’s considerable strengths far outweigh any complaints. Here’s hoping that by the time they return to these shores it is in a venue that is big enough to accommodate their considerable vision.

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Acolytes

January 22, 2010 at 4:11 pm (Uncategorized)

Delphic – Audio, Brighton – 19/01/10

In theory, Delphic should have well and truly missed the boat by now. Having almost made it big as wide screen melodic guitar outfit Snowfight In The City Centre a few years ago, the band have re-grouped and re-invented themselves as a dance-rock hybrid some two years after new rave was foisted onto the world.  In theory, the prospect of yet another act intent on splicing 80’s electronica with 90’s indie is enough to make any jaded music hack want to put their head through the nearest Klaxons picture disc. In theory, no one should care.

It seems a little surprising then, that Delphic should enter 2010 with their star firmly in the ascendancy, yet they seemed to have followed the template for new band stardom down to a tee. Having appeared on consecutive editions of the highly respected Kitsune Maison compilation towards the end of 2009, they made their first appearance on ‘Later…’ in November, were short listed for the BBC’s Sound Of 2010 award a month later, and released their debut, ‘Acolyte’, to glowing reviews from all corners of the music press at the start of the year.

As a result, tonight’s show at Audio is absolutely rammed, with a crowd eager to see the band in a relatively small setting, and curious to discover if the hype is justified. The band take to the stage backed simply but effectively by strips of coloured neon lights, and launch into ‘Doubt’. Jittery drums intersect with cut-up vocal samples beneath a haze of dreamy synth tones and sweet harmonies, and though the band are extremely tight and confident, their sound is hardly groundbreaking. As the track builds, however, and more and more elements are brought to the fore (a bit of ‘Wicked Game’ style guitar here, some weird panning effect between speakers there), the lights start dropping into deeper and more intense flashes of crimson and violet, and the audience gradually find themselves in the presence of something special.

The band showcase a range of dance sub-genres, shifting from Erasure style pop (‘Submission’) to out and out techno assault (‘This Momentary’) without losing their sense of cohesion or resorting to throwing in incongruous elements of electronica for the sake of novelty. Every track seems to have evolved organically, and even songs like ‘Red Lights’, which starts fairly innocuously and threatens to peter out into gentle ambient dance eventually works itself into a proper pulsating frenzy of euphoric trance at its conclusion. The band finish with an epic working of ‘Counterpoint’, which evolves sublimely from a restrained, emotionally tense slice of New Order style pop, to something akin to Orbital’s 90’s live heyday. The crowd are thunderous in their applause, and baying in their cries for more, but the band, consummate professionals already, leave them hungry.

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A Strange Beauty

January 22, 2010 at 3:57 pm (Uncategorized)

Vivian Girls – Freebutt, Brighton –  14/01/10

Vivian Girls arrive in Brighton for the first leg of their UK tour with a fair amount of hype behind them. Their debut album was released to favourable reviews in the Indie music press in 2008, and their live shows, including a set at last year’s Great Escape festival, have helped push them onto many critics ‘Pick Of 2010’ lists. Indeed, the Freebutt is packed to capacity tonight to catch a glimpse of the beguiling Brooklyn three-piece, who arrive on-stage with little fanfare and proceed to casually sound-check their way into their set.

Their style is a seemingly contradictory mix of 60’s style girl-group staccato pop and fuggy 80’s shoegaze, which makes for a fairly disorientating experience. Vocals are rendered insensible by cloying coatings of heady reverb, drums pound ominously throughout, and the two guitarists somehow conspire to create an intense wall of sound that is simultaneously a shimmering haze and an oppressive droning maelstrom. Heads bob along on-stage beneath blonde, red and dark brown fringes in a carefree pastiche of American wholesomeness, but there is an underlying sense of sly deviance that underpins the performance, and it is this combination that makes the band so interesting.

‘Wild Eyes’, for example, marries sweet, yearning vocal harmonies to a discordant, opiated wall of guitar squall, while ‘Can’t Get Over You’ follows a similar formula, sounding akin to a wasted Ronnettes covering Joy Division. Both are over almost before they’ve begun and as such the band are able to rattle through a fair number of tracks in a similar vein, but this does lead to a pretty worrying sense of déjà vu as the night draws on.

The fact that there is relatively little to choose between each song can be fairly helpful, in that if one particular take on lo-fi shoegaze-meets-Spector-in-a-submarine pop doesn’t quite float your boat, there will be a marginally different one to try in less than a minute. However it does quite quickly leave the impression that maybe four or five of their songs could be successfully amalgamated into a brilliant distillation of their art without too much being left over.

Some newer songs do hint at a touch more depth (some of them even break the three minute mark), and they are at their best on the rare moments when they fully let themselves go and start manically ramping up feedback during mid-song instrumental breaks. The live context allows them the freedom to expand and explore some of their songs in a way they have seemed reluctant to do on record thus far. On tonight’s evidence, this would certainly be a step in the right direction and may ensure that Vivian Girls are still making waves on these shores once the hype has abated.

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Easy Does It (sorry…)

August 12, 2009 at 1:57 pm (Uncategorized)

Easy Star All Stars – Brighton Concorde2 – 05/08/09

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One of the main problems of being in a covers band, other than having ‘proper’ musicians constantly turning their noses up at you, must be the nagging feeling that all that applause, the accolades, groupies and free drugs, are really meant for someone else.

Sure, the crowds may flock to your gigs and sing along to every word, but at the end of the day they are someone else’s songs, and the feeling must remain that you are merely loaning their talent for a night, only to return to mediocrity in the morning. This, incidentally, is especially true for practically all of the reality TV created pop stars who are feted as gods while ape-ing ‘Light My Fire’ or ‘Hero’ on national TV, but find themselves promptly back at the deli counter at Tescos as soon as they try releasing anything that isn’t simply a tired re-hash of some hitherto forgotten Bananarama song.

X-Factor Covers - Music to everyone's ears

X-Factor Covers - Music to everyone's ears

The Easy Star All Stars are a different proposition however, and while you would have to class them as a covers band, both their choice of material and the way in which it is re-interpreted has made them an exciting proposition in their own right. I was first alerted to the band around six years ago when I heard their version of Pink Floyd’s Breathe billowing out of a flat window on a hot summer’s day and subsequently spent the best part of a year searching for what I believed to be either a fantastic remix, or at best a one off cover version.

Following the discovery that they had in fact covered the entirety of Dark Side Of The Moon and were to follow up with a dub version of another of my favorite albums, Radiohead’s OK Computer I realised that this was not just some reggae enthusiasts mucking about with other people’s songs, but a band dedicated to exploring some of the finest music ever made and extracting something fresh and vital from its depths. With perhaps their most ambitious project to date, a cover of Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band recently released to further acclaim, the band now have a wealth of incredible songs to call on for their live show which stopped by at a muggy Concorde2 last night with palpable anticipation in the air.

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Taking to the stage with two of their own songs as a sort of warm up for the sing-alongs ahead, the depth and power of the band’s sound is immediately obvious. Warm bass lines coarse up through the floor and into chests where they nestle alongside booming drum beats from the back of the stage, while the top end is dominated by a squalling brass section that blasts out riffs into a beaming crowd. The whole sound however is somewhat dominated by Elenna Canlas’ synthesiser, which envelopes the entire crowd in a claustrophobic cocoon of echoing effects and ear-splitting stabs of gun-fire percussion. It is a technique that ensures depth and complexity to the group’s sound and really helps with some of the longer psychedelic passages particularly in the Floyd tracks, but at times it threatens to overwhelm some of her bandmates, especially as MC Menny More’s mic is far too low in the mix at the beginning of the set.

Still, the first few songs are very well received, and provide proof not only that the band can really play (as they will demonstrate admirably throughout the remainder of the night), but that they can create formidable blasts of dub reggae from scratch that could well stand up alongside some of the genres major players in the future. For tonight though it’s straight into Sgt Peppers, with the album’s intro segueing into an a-cappella ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ to the crowds obvious delight. The atmosphere created by these relentlessly upbeat renditions of such well loved songs borders on that of spiritual epiphany, with the crowd, (a mix of pretty much any demographic you care to mention) swaying together, holding hands, singing into each others ears and generally behaving like heavily sedated worshipers at some ultra-hippy commune, but for me there is a nagging doubt that the new material doesn’t quite match up to its predecessors.

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Perhaps the songs are a little too familiar and have been covered so many times that some of the novelty has worn off, but there doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as much depth of thought going into the arrangements as those from Dubside, or Radiodread. Lucy In The Sky in particular just sounds flat and unexplored, and it is at times like this that the band merely sound like a very good covers band, rather than a musical entity in their own right. Certain tracks, a joyously hyper When I’m Sixty Four for example, are much better suited to a reggae interpretation, especially with MC Menny More returning from the wings to energise the crowd with his perpetual smile and natural charisma.

For the most part however, the Beatles material falls a little way behind the rest, and it is only with the opening chords of Paranoid Android that things really get going. The soft bass lines and gentle percussion married to Kirsty Rock’s angelic vocals lull the song from a raging inferno of distorted noise and confusion to a soulful lament, beautifully enlivened by perfectly executed horn section. Come the final ‘rain down’ refrain, of course, the whole crowd are crooning along softly, arms aloft, and radiating love back to the band in abundance.

Things pick up further as the echo laden keyboards, atmospheric lighting and swirling on stage smoke herald the arrival of tracks from Dub Side Of The Moon, still arguably the most popular of the band’s releases. The strength of the band’s Floyd covers lays in the potential for divergence from the original musical theme inherent in the song’s structures.

Tracks like Breathe and Us and Them contain elongated musical breaks which allow the band to veer off into all manner of dub/reggae/drum n bass avenues, before returning with a snap to the original theme, thus giving the band the opportunity to stamp their originality on each piece. Guitarist Shelton Garner even rips through an outrageous Hendrix-esq solo at the end of Money, while a touch of flute in the intro to Time sets the song off in a newly soulful direction.

From here, the band has the crowd in the palm of their hands, with classics from Dubside and Radiodread segueing into each other amidst blessed out lights and mass singing and dancing. To be fair it would be pretty hard to fail considering the strength of the material, but when you have people singing along to a three minute saxophone solo you must be doing something right.

Perhaps the big problem with covering Beatles numbers lies in the fact that they are, although undeniably brilliant, fairly simple pop songs. With little room for interpretation outside of sticking a reggae beat underneath the basic melody and occasionally employing a bit of MC-ing over the top, the songs sound more like obvious cover versions rather than the illuminating re-imaginings that characterise their handling of more intricate tracks.

This is demonstrated aptly in closer ‘A Day In The Life’, and the encore of ‘Karma Police’. The former actually works brilliantly, with the band making the most of the long orchestrated ascent following ‘I’d love to turn you on’ and turning it into a piece of threatening dubstep before dropping back into the original grove. Karma Police ends up sounding flat in comparison, mainly because it’s probably the closest thing to a simple three minute pop song on OK Computer, and as a result the band have little option other than simply play it through from start to finish.

That in itself is still enjoyable, and singing along to a fine cover band, especially one that invigorates everything with a hit of reggae-fuelled sunshine is always going to be fun. The genius of Easy Star All Stars however, is that they’ve learned to do so much more.

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Between Thought and Expression….

February 16, 2009 at 3:43 pm (Uncategorized)

…There lies a lifetime.

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