Liars have managed an unprecedented feat in my music world. The art punk band that, until their new CD was the work of duo Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill, have now made 8 albums in a row that I have loved. In the past 30 or so years, no other artist has made that many consecutive albums that knocked me out. Radiohead and Wilco were in the running, but then each made an album that failed to floor me. So Wilco stalled at 7 in a row. That leaves Liars in this unique position… a band I love who have never made an album I didn’t find thrilling. Their debut in 2002, the bizarrely titled THEY THREW US ALL IN A TRENCH AND STUCK A MONUMENT ON TOP, was responsible for one of the most memorable listening experiences I’ve ever had on the road, with a 30-minute closing track that absolutely marked them out as authentic weirdos. The follow-up, THEY WERE WRONG, SO WE DROWNED, was kind of a song cycle about witches and witchcraft, with some seriously spooky stuff on it, and some willfully perverse anti-commercial compositions that dared you to like them. I did, though… something this band was doing sounded like no one else, and seemed to be the product of an aesthetic that was hard to pin down. Their music combined chants, tribal percussive elements, odd fragments that could be haunting for a spell and then disappear, ambient passages and, sometimes, kick-ass driving rockers. Through it all, the voice of Angus Andrew, which sometimes he’d use to actually sing and sometimes he’d employ in the service of controlled atonality or spooky asides, served as a sonic trademark; Liars established their sound early on, one that was never less than intriguing and that featured fascinating stylistic variations each time out. It was weird, hypnotic, rhythmic and mysterious. It wasn’t for everybody, but so what? It was for ME, that’s all that mattered. In just 15 years, this eccentric band have made 8 albums I love. That’s a damn good track record!
LIARS (Angus Andrew) (uncredited photo)
But when I heard that Hemphill had left the band before this new CD, I was seriously worried. My first reaction was anger.… what, Aaron, being in one of the most fascinating bands of the new millennium wasn’t enough for you? Was Angus too controlling? Was your own muse being stifled? Not enough records being sold? I really wanted to know WHAT happened, and in the pre-release publicity, I read that Andrews wasn’t too happy about the departure. He went back to his native Australia after shuffling around multiple locations between the US and Europe, and set about making TFCF on his own. He remarked that he felt like a “bride being left at the altar” or somesuch, and indeed, the unsettling cover photo shows a dejected looking Andrew sitting by himself wearing a bridal gown, an uneaten cake nearby. It’s the most off-putting Liars cover, but in context, it makes sense and it’s quite sad. As a fan, going into this record, you had to be wondering if this was going to be the first Liars album to fall short – if the departure of Hemphill was gonna reveal that Andrew REALLY needed someone else to rein in his weirder artistic impulses, of which there were many. What were we in for, anyway?
The answer, miraculously, is another great Liars record. Here is proof positive that Angus Andrew is a true visionary, a singular composing talent who has enough adventurous ideas and experimental willfulness to keep the Liars sound fresh and flowing. One big surprise is the prevalence of acoustic guitar on this album. “The Grand Delusional” begins right away with a bit of sombre picking… haunting and evocative. “We said we would ride/We said we would take them out to sea,” Andrew sings, and it could be a reference to his ex-bandmate or a metaphor for something else. It doesn’t really matter; it’s lovely and cryptic. There are two songs that have a specific recurring line that must surely have something to do with the pain of Hemphill’s departure. “Staring at Zero” is short but it has a fairly typical ominous Liars rhythm track over which Andrew sings “Why can’t you shoot me through the heart?… We both were broke right from the start.” Sounds like admitted self-pity to me, and when it segues into some singer/songwriter-y acoustic guitar again right away, the effect is not typical Liars at all, and yet startling in that Liars way. Fascinating stuff. On the memorably titled “No Tree No Branch,” one of several songs that has echoes of Radiohead (past albums had even more songs somewhat reminiscent of Thom Yorke and company), the recurring lyric that sticks in your head is “If you listen you’ll hear that sound right there in my mind.” It’s true, we DO hear that sound and the rapid, demented keyboard bit over which it’s sung is captivating. This goes right into “Cred Woes,” possibly the most quintessential Liars track on the album. With a truly insistent simple percussion track and an ascending synth line that is sort of an earworm for those of us into this kind of weirdness, Andrew goes on about something obviously important to him but you won’t necessarily make out all the words. You also may not be able to read them in their tiny white type over green background flora as presented in the CD booklet. No matter; something compelling is being presented here, something dramatic and original. It has never mattered to me personally if I could understand everything Andrew was singing on Liars recordings. Some of the most memorable moments are slow and contemplative here: “Ripe Ripe Rot” is like an Eno-esque, slightly sour ambient track with a subdued Iggy Pop-style vocal. “You don’t remember what I said/And it’s time again to explode your heart/Yeah it’s time again to let go,” Andrew sings, with a resigned sadness. This dissolves into a big slice of ambient drift that would be pure hymn-like afterthought if not for the repeating dissonant machine sound that laces it, but maybe that’s the point. Andrew is still carrying on, still indulging his sense of sonic wonder… but his brain is surely hurting, and he’s up to something more than prettiness. In fact, he’s always been up to something partially inscrutable, something where others may not go gently. Liars albums take WORK, and I’m glad this one is no different. It’s one of the shortest Liars discs, but a worthy successor to 2014’s MESS. Sorry about your bandmate, Angus, but hell… you’ve proved you don’t need ANYONE, right? You’re one of the most interesting guys in rock, and I for one plan to follow you wherever you go.
I like noise! Noise is good. Particularly the conflagration of noise manifested by David Brenner, recording as the dark ambient project, Gridfailure. Five months after the release of the bone-jarring debut, ENSURING THE BLOODLINE ENDS HERE, Brenner is back with FURTHER LAYERS OF SOCIETAL COLLAPSE, an EP that is full of the best kinds of noise, utilizing field recordings, as well as heavily processed rock and pop instrumentation, lending the entire proceeding the air of a landscape decimated by industrial collapse. In less than thirty minutes, David (who is co-founder of the influential extreme music public relations firm, Earsplit) takes the listener on a trip that is – alternately – serene and pastoral, frightening and apocalyptic. In short, this is a sound pastiche for the thinking man. The seven-tracks, released on October 31 as a free download (name your own price) at Gridfailure’s Bandcamp page, is scheduled for a limited edition cassette release in the near future. In the meantime, feel free to listen below.
If you’re familiar with paranormal investigative shows like GHOST HUNTERS or GHOST ADVENTURES or the “found footage” of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, you will recognize the underlying vibe of “A Severing of Ties.” The entire thing plays like an EVP (electronic voice phenomena) session conducted deep in a haunted forest, with weird, disembodied voices buried in a sea of white noise. Toward the end of the track, some tribal percussion (courtesy of Full Scale Riot’s BJ Allen) peeks out of the miasma. “Digital Crush” maintains the thematic thread of the first piece, as the drums resurface briefly at the beginning, before more found sounds and other-worldly voices are introduced into the mix; what appears to be a ghostly single-note piano coda intrudes on the whole affair, while crickets, cicadas and other woodland noises filter in and out to great affect. On “Android Infusion,” the EVP detector has been replaced by a transistor radio tuned to a weak-signal free-form Jazz station transmitting from somewhere within a war zone. “Get Fucked Dance” sounds like a residual (looped) haunting at the site of a horrible train wreck, relaying images of doom, destruction, pain and… a Native American wind instrument?
With “Broken Systems,” the skittering and buzzing of insects reacting to the wildly fluctuating radio waves and apocryphal voices seem to announce the opening of the Gates of Hell. The sounds of forest creatures is slowly replaced by a fever dream of industrial cacophony on “Indian Point Direct Proximity Warning Tester.” This calm before the atomic fallout is, quite naturally, played out over the incessant drone of a warning siren. “Woodlands of Self-Impalement,” though the final track, is the pivotal centerpiece of this dystopian soundscape, encompassing nearly one third of the total time. Thunder in the distance heralds the heavy winds and the storm is upon us; the creatures – natural, spiritual, demonic – cease their chirping and moaning and laughing… the dream, the inner turmoil gains momentum as the white noise of despair overtakes all thought, leading to silence and the sweet release of…
Brian Eno doesn’t release albums casually. It tends to be a big deal with him: He’ll start a project, mess around with it, change it substantially from the initial idea, mess around with it some more, and maybe scrap it for years, filed away in his vast archives for an unknown duration. Maybe, though, just MAYBE, he’ll like the results, or the specific parameters of the project dictate that it be released sooner rather than later, OR, a collaborator will inspire him or advise him to get the thing out, like, NOW. All those things seem to have taken place during the gestation of his latest Warp recording, THE SHIP, which began life as part of a sound installation and a provocative initial theme having to do with the Titanic and the folly of World War I, two oft-cited examples by Eno of man’s technological arrogance and delusional thinking that resulted in catastrophe and harsh lessons not learned well enough. Eno is certainly not interested in any linear history lesson, however, or even anything approaching a conventional song cycle. What we fans treasure about the man is the sonic EXPERIENCE he provides listeners: The studio innovation, haunting sounds, stylistic surprises and contextual shift from album to album. THE SHIP is a most welcome entry in Eno’s considerable canon: A consistently listenable platter that harkens back to previous releases, features familiar immersive ambient textures and breaks new ground simultaneously. Describing it is tough, but here are the main features of this remarkable work.
Brian Eno (photo credit: SHAMIL TANNA)
It consists of two very long pieces and two short ones. First up is what we used to call the “side-long” piece, “The Ship,” which commences with lovely, drifting ambience that certainly can make you think you’re on the vast open sea, under disarmingly calm skies. Much like Titanic’s passengers were, of course. Just when you’ve been lulled by a healthy slab of Eno’s familiar synthscape, the first surprise: Eno’s own vocals, intoning “The ship was from a willing land/The waves about it rose.” With his voice utilizing intervals both a fourth and an octave apart, Eno provides something we haven’t heard on one of his records for a long time. There are shades of “By This River” and the atmospheric feel of his classic ANOTHER GREEN WORLD here (which referenced water several times). “A slave to hopes of destiny/Illusion of control” is a line that pops up later in this section, clearly a key lyric in the context of the theme. Increasingly diverse sounds begin to enter… nautical beeps and pings, clanging sounds (it’s known that much of Eno’s childhood in the Woodbridge area of England found him soaking up the sounds of nearby shipyards and greats masts probably flapping in the wind), unsettling background voices and whispers. The ghosts of lost souls are active on this record, no doubt. The spell that is cast is a considerable one. You find yourself amazed that this innovative artist and composer is using all his familiar tricks, and yet somehow coming up with something fresh, something that gets under your skin once again. It’s kind of stunning. There is certainly a narrative at work here, but it doesn’t all need to be clearly discerned or “conventional.” This is MUSIC, after all. Not oral history. “Wave… after wave… after wave” a disembodied voice concludes in this shimmering, lovely track. The three-part “Fickle Sun” is up next, and this is a doozy in Eno’s vast output. The lengthy first part, titled simply “Fickle Sun,” again features ambient layers unfolding, but something really ominous quickly grabs our ears. A pulsing, uncertain bass keeps intruding at various volume levels, with distant brass and a threatening feeling imposing itself with increasing intensity. Eno’s voice again comes in, talking about “a cumulus of pride and will/Dissolved in all the oil and steel,” and other provocative lyrics. “The line is long, the line is gray/And humans turning back to clay/Right there beneath the fickle sun/The empty eyes/The end begun… ” (not sure about the last two words). Things begin to get ferociously intense after this passage. “There’s no one rowing anymore… ” Eno sings, an obvious image from the aftermath of the Titanic sinking. Then we hear pounding orchestral music, another big surprise on an Eno record. All hell has broken loose, and there wouldn’t even NEED to be words in the piece for it to be effective. But the combination of the evocative, minimalistic lyric passages and the enveloping music is simply a wonder. “All the boys are going down/Falling over one by one… ” our narrator tells us, now getting a piercing image from World War I into the mix. Sad, organ-like keys now adorn the unspooling narrative, with Eno’s voice receding or changing character dramatically. The next seven or eight minutes rank as one of the most powerful sections on any Eno album. It’s weird, it’s disturbing, it’s utterly beautiful and texturally gripping. It doesn’t need to be described in detail, but it’s classic Brian Eno, ending with a sequence of huge, lush chords and ghostly voices that are the work of a master. I’m STILL shivering from listening to this section repeatedly.
Brian Eno (photo credit: SHAMIL TANNA)
A spoken word essay delivered by Peter Serafinowicz and accompanied by simple, straight melodic piano, constitutes “The Hour Is Thin,” a short and memorable interlude. Eno has had more than a fair amount of spoken word on his recordings in recent years, but this piece is effective here, clearly addressing the nightmare of post World War I England and the changes that befell the populace. I love the last line, “The universe is required. Please notify the sun.” It’s immediately followed by another delightful surprise, a gorgeous Eno-sung cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free.” It’s rare that Eno covers other artists, and when he does, he usually keeps such tracks tucked away in his studio. In fact, in recent interviews he talked about how much he liked this song and what it meant to him, but he couldn’t find the right context for this legendary recording until now. What a gem it is. “I’m set free to find a new illusion,” he sings, and Eno clearly regards that as a working mantra, tipping his hat to what Lou Reed and the Velvets meant to him in the process. Sweetly sad, captivating, filled with gorgeous synth work and Neil Catchpole’s fetching violin and viola contributions, “I’m Set Free” serves as an unlikely yet perfect coda for a truly stirring record. THE SHIP is the work of a master craftsman still finding ways to surprise both himself and his vast audience. Drift along with Brian Eno, folks… he’ll make sure you get safely to shore with new things to think about.
The Oxford Coma (only one “m”) is a Phoenix three-piece (I suppose we could call them a “power trio”) that has alternately been described as “psychedelic anxiety rock” or “the world’s heaviest jam band.” Call them what you will… I rather prefer “math genius metal.” A few seconds into “Canadian Question Mark,” the opening cut of the self-released PARIS IS MINE, it is obvious (to these ears, anyway) that this is something exceptional. The song, a sort of progressive hard rock instrumental affair (if there are vocals, they are minimal and buried deep in the mix), features a nice mid-tempo groove, with oddly appealing dissonant guitars and a humongous, thudding bass. Though the guitars sometimes sound as if the track is about to explode in a flurry of speed, the rhythm section remains solid. On “Ritaling,” James Williams offers a very punk rock kind of a bass line, while the vocals and guitars have a distinct mid-’90s Kansas City sound (think Season To Risk). There’s a heavier-than-the-rest section with a certain Tony Iommi-like heaviness in Billy Tegethoff’s guitar; the second half of the tune is sort of creepy, with great atmospheric work from Tegethoff. “Daisies” is trippy and psychedelic, with a chukka-chukka kind of rhythm guitar thing and near-Residents like vocal outbursts (Tegethoff and Williams are both credited as vocalists, but who sings what isn‘t listed). Once again, the bass and drums (the latter supplied by Patrick Williams) border on minimalist, leaving the almighty riff to do most of the heavy lifting. This isn’t metal, but it is suffocatingly heavy and there’s a great wah-infused solo at the end that is hard to ignore.
The Oxford Coma (Billy Tegethoff, Patrick Williams, James Williams) (publicity photo)
“The Pulls” is propelled by heavier-than-thou bass and some understated (though still powerful) drumming, allowing for some excellent guitar and haunting vocals to hover just above the surface, giving the tune a demon-spawn sound akin to the offspring of some 1970s hard rock band and Stone Temple Pilots, circa their first three records. The next track, “Ados Watts Jam,” is exactly what the name implies: A jam. Clocking in at a robust ten-and-a-half minutes, the KC/Season To Risk comparisons find their way back into the conversation, with bullhorn vocals crawling just above the mix. There are also a couple of jazzy, Sabbath-esque breaks leading into the final, improvisational section of the tune, all of which proved to be quite entertaining. Even if the song doesn’t exactly fall into the “jam band” category, it is a stretch on the group’s standard song structure. The final track is well-known to rockers and blues aficionados the world over: “When the Levee Breaks,” The Oxford Coma’s version manages to out-heavy the Led Zeppelin version, with Patrick’s nearly ham-fisted Bonham-esque skin pounding and a massive guitar sound. This version is as far from Zeppelin’s version as their version was from the 1929 original by Kansas Joe McCoy and his wife, Memphis Minnie Lawlers. You can listen to (and purchase) PARIS IS MINE, as well as earlier releases, at the group’s Bandcamp page. You will not be disappointed! And, if you are… you need to acquire better taste in music.
For many years, I’ve worn it as a badge of pride that I was almost always the one, at whatever publication I wrote for, to champion the weirdest, darkest, most challenging music the publication received. I developed an interest in ambient and experimental music quite early, and although I don’t just automatically like things BECAUSE they are weird and dark, I sure can tell when a creative aesthetic is at work, and when the practitioners CARE what they are doing. There is no doubt that Insect Ark mean it, man. This PORTAL/WELL release, their debut, is a stunning journey to places most folks just won’t go. We’re talking serious, concentrated creepy atmospherics, a sonic template where drones exist at a frequency outside the comfort zone and metallic sounds emanating from a dark urban alley may be from a decaying structure trying to return to its original nature or from the titular “portal” to some very threatening subterranean place. And also, something WICKED this way DRUMS… the pounding, ominous percussion here on tracks like “The Collector” (I would NOT wanna know what he collects!) and “Octavia,” though played by a human being named Ashley Spungin, does NOT represent the sound of physical release, It simply is not the rhythm of anything but perhaps a tortured psyche. Spungin isn’t the auteur here, though. Remarkably, Insect Ark is almost entirely the vision of a woman, a remarkable female composer/multi-instrumentalist named Dana Schechter. Her past music includes the more luminous Bee and Flower project, and she is an animator and video artist working in the film business.
I can only guess Schechter’s reasons for making such unsettling, alien music. She’s probably heard some records by Lustmord and Nurse With Wound, or who knows, maybe she is working through her own inner demons with this stuff. The Insect Ark website helpfully relates: “Creating a personal soundtrack to the human psyche’s underbelly, Insect Ark weaves a brooding textural landscape, a starless night spiked with light and flash.” Yeah, THAT! Gosh, I am not seeing much light, though. “Portal” and “Parallel Twins” could be soundtracks for a modern horror film, something by a European director, perhaps, who pushes the envelope too far. Life is NOT a safe, fun thing as expressed in this music. And yet, there are moments of eerie, spellbinding ambient beauty, as on the haunting “Low Moon,” which fully falls into the genre category of “dark ambient” and probably bests a few male composers of that style in its purity. Not to put too fine an oh so sharp point ON it, but we’re not used to hearing women make music like this. It’s potent, scary and damn self-assured. Insect Ark do NOT want you to sleep comfortably or, in fact, to draw too much inspiration from the beauty of life when there’s plenty of nightmarish stuff also deserving of your attention. But still, this is only a record in the end. A vital, off-center, somewhat unhinged soundtrack to stumbling through the darkness in dangerous times. I admire what Insect Ark have conjured. It’s got a good “buzz” and you can TRANCE to it…
Carlos relaxing in the Foam lounge (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
I’ve been to Foam exactly twice now; the first time was for an interview with Beth Bombara and, now, for this show. Wray, the evening’s headliners (even though they eventually went on third of five acts), and I arrived at approximately the same time (6:00 PM), due to the venue’s web-site giving the start time as 8:00 PM (or, 8:30 per the Facebook page for ACID KAT ‘ZINE). Around about 10, the sound guy/bartender told someone that it was probably time to start the show; fifteen minutes later, rapper/performance artist (and AK’Z contributor) Tubby Tom began a bizarre set that we’ll discuss shortly. Foam is a very cool place, with a great vibe, friendly staff and really good coffee but, if this is a standard occurrence, they’ve really got to rein in these acts (especially the locals) and keep things tight, on schedule and moving along. So, anyway, having arrived early, I had the pleasure of hanging out with a young Hip-Hop artist named Carlos (see above photo). It’s really cool to see someone so passionate about music… not only his own work, but just music in general; I mean, that’s why I started writing more than twenty years ago… a passion for music. Carlos may or may not have what it takes to get to the next level or to be a huge star but, I certainly heard enough to tell you that I am looking forward to seeing and hearing more from this young man somewhere down the line.
Tubby Tom (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Performing a patently odd style of Hip-Hop over old Disco, Soul and pop records, avant-garde rapper Tubby Tom’s set seemed to be,,, uh,,, divisive. The material proved to be particularly well received by a small contingency of female revelers, while a smaller contingency of patrons merely decided to visit the rest rooms of to step outside for a smoke. Most of the tunes were kinda dorky little ditties about lust, love found and love lost. However, the very short set ended with a very compelling piece; the tale of kidnap, abuse and eventual escape was as urgent and claustrophobic as the scenario implies. By any musical standards, the song, with a distinct Gothic horror feel, was a brilliant use of lyrical imagery and a stifling musical bed to add to the emotional chaos. I gotta admit, I was rather ambivalent about most of Tubby Tom’s set… that final, extended dose of weird definitely upped my estimation of the man’s talents. I have no idea if any of this material is available in any recorded form (or if they are merely spur-of-the-moment fever dreams) but, if they are, they’re well worth checking out.
Those Jerks (Tornado Tommy and Terrible Tony; Nasty Jordan; Terrible Tony) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
According to advance promotions, Freeburg Illinois noisemongers Dem Scientist was scheduled to play their final show as part of this bill; I have no idea what happened but, they were replaced by an apparently thrown-together three-piece who, when I asked their name after the show, decided that Those Jerks worked as well as any… after much Stooges-like (of the Moe, Larry and Curly variety, not the Iggy and the… type) debate. The band also came up with the rather descriptive personal sobriquets of Nasty Jordan, Tornado Tommy and Terrible Tony. Given the tight confines of the Foam stage, the guys set up on the dance floor, with drummer Tommy facing the stage and the others, hanging close to the stage, facing each other. Their music – a combination of barely formed originals and impossibly obscure covers – was a rambling, shambolic skree of fast and loose old school punk; in short, Those Jerks’ set was the virtual epitome of dumb, stupid fun. And, we all know that there just ain’t near enough of that sorta thing in the world today.
Wray (David Brown; Blake Wimberly; David Swatzell) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Unbeknownst to me (and, probably, the listening public at large), there is a burgeoning experimental music enclave in the unlikeliest of places: Birmingham, Alabama. Sure, I’d heard of (and listened to) Through the Sparks, Wray and, of course, Communicating Vessels (the label home of both) founder Jeffrey Cain’s group, Remy Zero (not from Birmingham, by the way, but the connection is valid), but… you really don’t envision this type of Eurocentric music to come out of Alabama. Wray plays an unrepentantly jangly, gauzy type of shoegazing elegantia, with throbbing bass, powerful drums, layered, effects-laden guitar and, hovering above it all, wispy, nearly whispered vocals; with a visual presentation (actually, a series of images and visual stimuli created – or chosen – by the band to augment each song) that is as mind-bendingly beautiful as the music, their show is a multimedia tour de force. Bassist and primary lyricist David Brown handled most of the vocals, while guitarist David Swatzell was content to build soaring layers of sonic Nirvana, adding the occasional backing vocal or a short, atmospheric lead with a voice as ethereal as Brown’s. Blake Wimberly followed where the music led, sometimes diverging from any type of standard time-keeping percussion but always bringing his playing back around to the rhythmic thread, all of which contributed to the hypnotic vibe of the song (most of which were from of the band’s latest release, HYPATIA). A highlight of the set was the group’s subtle, amazing cover of Faust’s Krautrock classic, “Jennifer.” Unfortunately, with the late start, rearranged order and other variables, Wray’s set was woefully short (somewhere around thirty minutes), but, without question, the highlight of the evening.
Soda Boys (Austin Nitsua; Jordy Shearer; Austin Nitsua) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Like Those Jerks, Soda Boys play fast and loud; it’s punk, if tinged with a defiant dose of pop and a distinct Saint Louis flavor. Local scenester and founder of ACID KAT ‘ZINE, Austin Nitsua, is the band’s guiding light, a genial spaz in a Steak ‘n’ Shake paper hat, shouting lyrics over bass-heavy tunes like “Creamy Soda,” “Burgers and Fries” and the coulda-been-a-hit-in-another-era “Soda Girl.” These Boys (especially Nitsua) ran, jumped and rolled around the floor in a punk rock frenzy, obviously enjoying their set as much as the dwindling audience. Unfortunately, the only other band member I was able to identify was drummer Jordy Shearer, who somewhat reminded me of the late, great Tommy Erdelyi, the original skin-beater of the Ramones; as with Shearer, the unidentified guitarist and bassist more than held their own, but this show was unquestionably all about their charismatic (enigmatic?) singer, Austin Nitsua.
The Cowboys (Zackery Worcel; Jordan Tarantino; Mark McWhirter) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
The Cowboys, from Bloomington Indiana, may have been the closest thing to a rock band playing on this Saturday.Their music is equal parts hard rock, psychedelia, punk rock and echo-drenched Rockabilly, delivered with an alcohol-fueled zeal. Celebrating the release of a compilation of the best material from their three cassette-only releases, the group – led by main songwriter and vocalist Keith Harman – charged through a set of tunes that included “Thumbs,” the trippy, late ’60s psychedelic groove of “Aqua Marine Love Machine” and the loopy hillbilly punk of “Cool Beans and Godspeed,” which featured some cool effects from guitarist Mark McWhirter. McWhirter proved himself adept at a variety of styles, including the riff-filled Buddy Holly inspired “Cindy Lou” and a fuzzy, screeching solo on “Creature of the Deep.” The rhythm section of Zackery Worcel on bass (and backing vocals) and drummer Jordan Tarantino were suitably sloppy while somehow managing to stay in the pocket throughout the night. Yeah, the night started off in a somewhat suspect manner, but the folks who stayed around for the finish were treated to a fun – if occasionally disjointed – evening of musical diversity.
Things can change just like THAT. One day the reality is THIS, the next it is something very different. That is certainly the case with BLACKSTAR, the newest album from the (unexpectedly) late David Bowie. The narrative should have been (and clearly WAS for the early reviewers) that Bowie was back doing experimental stuff, returning to his glory days of the late ’70s, at least in terms of creative daring, and adding to the thrill of his “comeback” on 2013’s THE NEXT DAY with an even more classic, incredible album. The pioneering artist is back! He’s challenging us again! He’s made another boldly original statement! The tone of some early reviews of this record is painful to ponder now, and in some cases, even embarrassing. David Bowie has died. It was a huge, huge shock. It was anything but common knowledge how sick he was except perhaps to his family and a few close friends, so all of us waking up the morning of December 11 to hear the news were devastated. Bowie? The beautiful conceptual architect behind Ziggy Stardust? The “Thin White Duke”? The “Berlin trilogy”? GONE? Impossible. He was bigger than life, this man, an artist so entrenched in the full history of classic rock from the end of the ’60s to right now that a world without him seems unthinkable. It’s a world greatly reduced somehow, with a music industry wobbling in a more unstable manner. We NEEDED David Bowie… he represented the consummate rock icon, the master of disguises, the ultimate creative auteur who could control his image and take his audience on a wild, unpredictable ride. Bowie was HUGELY influential, often thrillingly weird and original, and the master manipulator of image, fashion, and the entirety of the “rock star game,” whatever that means. He shouldn’t be gone. We should have been better prepared… why didn’t he tell us he was so sick? Except, why SHOULD he? The amazing thing about BLACKSTAR is that it is an incredibly rare example of someone making a powerful artistic statement almost certainly KNOWING they are dying, laying down sounds and sentiments that are not often presented in such a choreographed, “this may be FAREWELL, folks” manner. But Bowie infuses this album with so much mystery, so many unanswered questions, that you hunger for more as you listen. You wonder whether he was suffering as he recorded these tracks… it’s known that he loved to work FAST, but was there added urgency because of his ill health? How much did he know about when the end would come? Were tracks like the title track and “Lazarus” intended as messages to his fans, perhaps intended to be comforting in the coming “after period,” or were they just his latest songs? We don’t know. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long-time producer and collaborator, simply said “Bowie did what he wanted to do; he’s always done that” in a recent interview. We don’t know all the things we’d like to know, that’s for sure. Bowie took many secrets to the grave. And the outpouring of grief has been steady since he died, from musicians of all stripes, fans around the world. Not David Bowie. Not HIM! He CAN’T be gone! But… he can be, and he is.
David Bowie (photo credit: JIMMY KING)
So, listening to BLACKSTAR now, knowing it’s the last album David Bowie made as the purposeful, visionary artist he’s always been, is an utterly haunting, unforgettable experience. It is a phenomenal album, one that ranks extremely high in the Bowie canon. A friend asked me if I would think so highly of the album if Bowie hadn’t died. Yes… I had heard two of the songs before the news came, and I was riveted. I heard something new, eerie and boldly experimental in those two tracks (including the long title cut) and couldn’t WAIT to hear the rest. What Bowie’s death does to the listening experience is mostly about adding layers of sadness, forcing you to hear a “last testament” in these grooves, a place that Bowie knew he was going to that his fans could not follow, a place he himself had never been. The back cover of the CD jacket, the disc itself and the pages of the insert booklet are all black, with some shadowy photographs inside and the lyrics and credits almost unreadable as they, too, are black. But despite the darkness permeating this entire presentation, the music is vividly, powerfully full of life and wonder. It’s beautiful stuff from start to finish, reminiscent of the Berlin trilogy in many ways, but a new, jazzier kind of experimentalism that represented a new direction for Bowie. The 10-minute opener finds Bowie singing a perfect fifth harmony with himself that is mesmerizing, building a LOW era-vibe that keeps expanding outward, taking you on a journey to an unknown destination. There’s a solemn, minor-key mood that unexpectedly changes after a few minutes to a major key, almost upbeat section that features some of Bowie’s most plaintive vocals EVER, giving chills at the originality of the music. Ironically, though, Bowie sings this widely quoted lyric here: “Something happened on the day he died/His spirit rose a meter and then stepped aside/Somebody else took his place and bravely cried/I’m a blackstar/I’m a blackstar.” The word “blackstar” appears throughout this track, along with curious star negations such as “I’m not a popstar… I’m not a gangstar… I’m not a film star,” always followed by “I’m a blackstar.” It’s overwhelmingly unsettling to learn that the term “blackstar” is an oft-used term in medical literature to refer to a kind of cancerous tumor due to its appearance under close examination. This is something missed by the early reviewers of the album… they were looking for a more cosmic, outer-spacey sort of meaning, and perhaps Bowie wanted that interpretation to be valid as well. After all, one panel of the sleeve does indeed show a starfield, with a particularly bright star in the lower left corner. Whatever Bowie meant we can only guess at, but I’m betting that the significance of the “blackstar” concept was very much on his mind as his mortality came more and more to the front and center of his reality, and he had to wrestle with it in his own unique way. It makes this very daring track impossible to forget; it’s a soundscape worthy of immersion on every level. Mark Guiliana’s drums on this track are worth singling out… he’s called upon to do some unusual things, and he matches and holds down the weirdness Bowie himself is putting down on multiple other instruments. “’Tis a Pity She’s A Whore” continues the thrilling art rock with riveting saxophone from Donny McCaslin, one of the musical stars of this record. There are echoes of HEROES, LOW and SCARY MONSTERS in what we get here, but McCaslin plays with atmospheric bravado in a way that Bowie must have been thrilled by. The song rocks, rolls and soars madly, and Bowie sounds like he is having a blast in the studio. On the other hand, “Lazarus,” a song made into a morbid, unforgettable video, is going to be regarded by most of us as some sort of epitaph. With squonking horns again and some of Bowie’s most impassioned singing, we get lyrics like these: “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now… You know I’ll be free/Just like that Bluebird/Now ain’t that just like me.” How can fans NOT react emotionally to stuff like this? It’s simply impossible to separate the reality of Bowie’s passing from the immediate reality of what this track does. “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” is a snarling, frenzied rocker that would’ve almost been easy to enjoy for its madness and musicality except that Bowie yells out at one point “Sue… Good bye!” and then you have to deal with truth again. “Girl Love Me” is a pretty weird song, with the repeated refrain “Where the fuck did Monday go?” (a question a lot of us probably ask from time to time, although more about OTHER days, I imagine) and it has an impatient, aggravated sense of ennui that is uniquely Bowie and his vocals reflect it. But the two closing tracks really KILL emotionally… that would be “Dollar Days,” an elegaic ballad and “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” In the former, over a plodding rhythm and that McCaslin sax again, Bowie seems to be heading out right before our ears and his voice trails off over these lyrics: “I’m falling down/Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you/I’m trying to/I’m dying to.” That penultimate passage is just too much to take in light of reality, and someone is gonna shed tears if they bother to strain their eyes to read the black lyrics on the black page. Finally, in “I Can’t… ” Bowie gives us one last classic, a melodic, beautifully sung gem with a haunting refrain (that title), airy synth, and a band that is in absolute perfect lockstep with him. It sounds like the end of his story, frankly, and I can’t hear it without getting chills. “This is all I ever meant/That’s the message that I sent/I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY.” That title is in a larger point size in the lyrics… maybe it isn’t as significant as I think. Or, maybe, Bowie was clearly saying to us, “Some things have to remain a mystery. Figure it out yourself. I can’t spell out all my secrets for you.” Whatever the case, he left an astounding final musical statement. BLACKSTAR is a sad, haunting classic, a soundtrack to the final journey of one of the greatest musical adventurers and multi-media artists of all time. We won’t see the likes of the former David Jones ever again, and it’s fitting he went out with one of his greatest recordings. But honestly, I’m feeling pretty LOW that one of our most important musical HEROES is now a true starman in the great beyond. Bowie titled a recent career anthology NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Sadly, that’s not true at all. EVERYTHING has changed with his departure.
David Bowie (uncredited photo)
BILL WINER review:
I bought David Bowie’s new album, BLACKSTAR, the day it came out, on his 69th birthday. It’s haunting, adventurous, sonically beautiful… everything you would expect from him and more. Very different from his previous album, THE NEXT DAY, which was his first in ten years. I played BLACKSTAR all weekend, then found out Monday morning, he had passed away after a long battle with cancer. To say I was shocked and stunned would be an understatement. BLACKSTAR is such a wonderful album… now, it has turned into his swansong and his epitaph. The title song and “Lazarus” are the longest tracks and are haunting in every respect. I must also add that his backing band are New York Jazz musicians, including Donny McCaslin, who plays some of the most haunting saxophone I have ever heard on a pop or rock record. Mark Guiliana is a wonderful percussionist and is all over the place with great fills and superb drumming, adding to the sonic depth of the album. “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is one of the best rockers on the album; two of the middle songs “Sue(Or In a Season of Crime)” and “Girl Loves Me” are very strange; “Dollar Days” is a great piano ballad. The real kicker is the last number, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which is Bowie saying goodbye with a wonderful song and he sings his heart out on it. I’ve seen some of the video for “Lazarus,” which is one of the most haunting and bizarre music videos ever. He sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven” and his body starts floating away. BLACKSTAR is a must have album and as good as anything he has done. The fact that, now, it becomes his swansong makes it even more important. As Bowie’s longtime friend and producer, Tony Visconti, said, “His death was no different than his life… a work of art.”
Stackridge, 1971 (Mike Evans, Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren and Billy Bent ) (publicity photo)
Growing up in The Middle of Nowhere, Illinois as I did, it was hard enough finding a store that stocked the popular music of the day, much less the fringe releases I preferred, by such artists as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Captain Beefheart or Fireballet. The special order became a way of life for me, allowing me to be the only kid on my block to own the latest releases by Fanny or Osibisa or the odder-than-usual concept album, FLASH FEARLESS VERSUS THE ZORG WOMEN PARTS FIVE AND SIX; actually, I may have been the only kid on my block that wanted those albums… but, you get my point. Anyway, with all of that, the band Stackridge somehow slipped under my radar. Naturally, I was familiar with the name. After all, I could and did read a lot of music publications as a young impressionable pup (still can and do, as an old impressionable hound); it just seemed that there was always something that interested me more.
Stackridge, 2015 (Eddie John, James Warren, Andy Davis, Clare Lindley, Glenn Tommey) (publicity photo)
So, I said all of that so I could say this: I eventually did manage to get my grubby fingers on a Stackridge album – EXTRAVAGANZA, I believe – and I was hooked. I was ecstatic when England’s Angel Air Records began their painstakingly comprehensive reissue campaign of the band’s back catalog, along with a live album and a couple of collections peppered in among them. When I decided to get back into the review game, I knew that one of the things I wanted to do was an interview with the two-headed beast that led and continue to lead Stackridge: James Warren and Andy Davis. In early 2014, I contacted their manager, supplied him with a few questions via e-mail and awaited a reply. Fast forward approximately ten months and, I am finally in receipt of answers from Mister Warren. Fast forward another couple of months and, with no reply from Mister Davis, the decision was made to move ahead with a revamped format, using James’ answers. Now, nearly a full two years since my initial request, here – so to speak – is the finished product. There are several questions and answers that allude to the 45th anniversary of the band and the chances of them recording another album of new material, as well as an extensive mention of the Korgis (the other band fronted by Andy and James) that may sound redundant, but please keep in mind that questions were posed and answers were given in 2014. Following the interview, we’re gonna delve into some of the best from both Stackridge and the Korgis, so stick around.
THE MULE: The original band got together in 1969, making this your 45th anniversary. The current line-up still features both of the primary songwriters and vocalists of the various incarnations of the group. Aside from the occasional break-up or vacation from each other, to what do you attribute the longevity of Stackridge?
JAMES:I think the longevity is due to the fact that the repertoire is so stimulating and diverse. It’s great to be able to perform songs as varied as “Fish In a Glass,” “Anyone For Tennis,” “The Road To Venezuela” and “Something About the Beatles” all in the same set. I’ve never been in any other musical combination that offers anything as fun or challenging.
THE MULE:Aside from Andy Davis and yourself, who is involved in the current version of Stackridge? Are the musicians – comparatively speaking – young guns or do you all enjoy a certain advanced… uh… musical acuity. Can we get a feel of the players’ musical pedigree?
JAMES:So, we have Glenn Tommey on keyboards – we’ve known Glenn since 1978. He’s a multi-instrumentalist but, when we met him, he was a recording engineer who worked on the first Korgis album and even sang backing vocals on “If I Had You,” a top twenty hit for the band in the UK. Clare Lindley is on violin, acoustic guitar and backing vocals. We only met her around seven years ago but ,she’s a veteran of the folk and classical circuit. She’s from Aberdeen, in Scotland. Eddie John is on drums and has been a very well-known and respected player on the Bristol scene since the 1980s. Clare and Eddie are in their 40s, Glenn, myself and Andy have all made it beyond 60!
THE MULE:The last album of new material, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE, was released in 2009, after a long lay-off from recording. That album featured two more original members, Michael “Mutter” Slater and Jim “Crun” Walter. How did the album come about? How was it to work with Crun and Mutter in the studio again?
JAMES:The album was produced by Chris Hughes, original drummer with Adam and the Ants and producer of Tears For Fears and we recorded it at his home studio just outside of Bath. We’d known Chris for many years and the idea was suggested at a birthday party we were all attending. Because both Crun and Mutter had full-time day jobs and Mutter had the additional problem of living about 40 miles away from Bath, at least 75% of the work was performed by Andy and I. Crun is a lovely bloke but wildly eccentric, so creating music with him is never easy-going – he continually suggested completely perverse and off-the-wall ideas that we had to try then, inevitably, discard – and Mutter hardly participated at all except to sing his songs. So, it was a very different situation to how we worked together in the 1970s.
Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren) (publicity photo)
THE MULE:Did the Angel Air reissue program rekindle a kind of warm fuzzy spot for you regarding the group? Did it tempt you to reform some version of the band and get out on the boards and into the studio again? Have the reissues raised the public awareness of Stackridge, bringing along new fans? Or, is it just geezers like me looking to upgrade from that scratchy old vinyl?
JAMES:I think we never wanted to rule out the thought of a reformation. A handful of new fans have appeared but, to be honest, it’s essentially the “old guard” re-living their youth!
THE MULE:Can we expect to see new Stackridge music soon… or ever? If so, who will be involved in the project? Are you and Andy game to play with the “old guys” again?
JAMES:Sadly, I have to report that September 2015 will see the farewell tour of Stackridge. We’ve now pretty much exhausted the back catalogue in a live performance situation and it no longer makes any economic sense to record new material. There just isn’t sufficient demand for Stackridge music in the modern world! So, come and see us for the last time in 2015!
THE MULE:The group’s sound has always been the epitome of British “outsider” music, taking in bits of free jazz, traditional folk, Northern Soul, Beatles pop, the Incredible String Band and Frank Zappa. How have your musical tastes and influences changed over the years? When you are on holiday or have down time, what can we generally find you listening to?
Stackridge, 2012 (James Warren) (photo credit: MATTHEW REES/HAM LIFE)
JAMES:My wife, Clare, and I have sixteen year old twins, so when I do the school run in the mornings, me and the kids always listen to CD compilations of the latest top 20 hits – so I’m right up-to-date with contemporary pop! And I like a lot of it. Clean Bandit are one of my current favourites. I hate the typical middle-age attitude of only being able to appreciate the music you grew up with – I’m not sentimental about past musical eras in that way. I still adore and listen to the Beatles; don’t listen to the Incredibles any more, but THE HANGMAN’S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER will always be a work of genius for me. I listen to a lot more classical and jazz these days. I’m especially fascinated by 20th century composers like Stravinsky, Ravel and Satie. One of my treasured possessions is a 22-CD box set of STRAVINSKY CONDUCTING STRAVINSKY.
THE MULE:Your fans were and are, if not legion, very loyal. What is the profile of the standard Stack-fan? Do they now tend to bring along the kiddies (or grand-kids), to introduce them to the music of their youth?
JAMES:Don’t think there is a standard profile – they come in all shapes and sizes. It’s rare to see youngsters in the audience, although there are a few. I know when I was a teenager I wouldn’t be seen dead going to a concert of music my parents were into!
THE MULE:Forty-five years in, what keeps bringing you back to Stackridge? Is it the musical intricacies, the fans or some other intangible?
JAMES:I can’t improve on the answer I gave to your first question. The Stackridge repertoire is so wonderfully diverse and challenging so it’s like a musical holiday to go out and perform that stuff.
THE MULE:Certainly, over the years – particularly the first run – you have released some great albums (FRIENDLINESS, THE MAN WITH THE BOWLER HAT) and some very memorable tunes. Do you have any favorites, individual tracks or full albums? How about least favorites? Are there some albums or tracks that you thought were great at the outset but have since come to loathe?
Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, James Warren, Micahel Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)
JAMES:The first album (STACKRIDGE) is a problem for me. I can’t listen to most of it any more. My singing is so fragile and under-confident, especially the falsetto bits and, most of the lyrics are painfully adolescent in a ridiculously self-indulgent sense. But, it was 1971 and I was only 20 so that explains a lot. I think there are some lovely tunes on FRIENDLINESS; the title track, “There Is No Refuge,” “Father Frankenstein,” “Lummy Days.” …BOWLER HAT still holds up well except for “To the Sun and Moon” (because of my singing). I think “Venezuela,” “Galloping Gaucho,” “Humiliation” and “Fundamentally Yours” are great. And “God Speed the Plough” is an absolute classic. I like almost all the tracks on EXTRAVAGANZA and MISTER MICK. SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND I still love. It’s more whacky and harks back to the original Stackridge mainly due to my extensive collaboration with John Miller, an incredibly eccentric keyboard player full of brilliant unconventional ideas. Wish I hadn’t lost touch with him.
THE MULE:I think that my favorites probably mirror those of most fans: “Dora the Female Explorer,” “Slark,” “Syracuse the Elephant.” The list could go on but, for brevity’s sake, what are your memories regarding the writing and recording processes of these fan favorites? Were they kinda instant favorites or do you remember them slowly taking on a life of their own to eventually become essential?
JAMES:“Dora… ,” “Slark” and “Syracuse… ” were “first generation” Stackridge compositions. Andy and Crun had the basic ideas then we would rehearse and rehearse to hammer out the arrangements. It was tremendous fun. The FRIENDLINESS songs I contributed were pretty much already mapped-out before I introduced them to the band but, then again, with …BOWLER HAT and beyond we would work hard as a unit to make a finished track from one person’s basic idea. I think the “favourites” sounded special from the outset.
THE MULE:You are one of the few bands, aside from the Beatles, to boast a production job by Sir George Martin. What was it like to work with him? How much – before, during and after THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT – has his work been an influence to you, personally, and the band, as a whole?
Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
JAMES:It was fantastic working with George. I’m happy to report he was as gentlemanly and effortlessly competent as one expected him to be. The …BOWLER HAT experience was very brief (about three weeks) but very intense. It’s a wonderful production. Even now I love and am influenced by his very simple but strong arrangement style.
THE MULE:Through the years, Andy and you have both worked on projects outside of Stackridge, both during the band’s heyday and following the original break-up. Did you use those instances – your solo album, Andy’s work on John Lennon’s IMAGINE, the Korgis, – to refresh the batteries, so to speak, or as a chance to branch out into something completely different from Stackridge? Can we expect to see something coming from either of you soon, outside of the usual Stackridge lunacy and the Korgis reunion gigs?
JAMES:Can’t speak for Andy but, our various alternative projects are, for me, both a refreshment process and an opportunity to investigate something completely different. I think Andy has been working on an album, whereas I’ve just been trying to come up with “coverable” commercial material.
THE MULE:Speaking of the Korgis, the other band that you have both been with since the beginning, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, as well. The Korgis have been called “the pop side of Stackridge.” How do you view the Korgis, in comparison to the “mother” group?
JAMES:The Korgis is a way of expressing a more distilled, “radio-friendly” type of songwriting. I’m quite excited by the prospect of performing that material live. It’ll be the first time we’ve done it and, you never know, the project might “have legs” and lead on to an interesting new path.
THE MULE:Over the years, you’ve been able to slip out of one band and into the other rather seamlessly. How much of that ability to switch gears has to do with the dynamics of and differences in the musical styles?
Stackridge, 2008 (Rachel Hall, James Warren) (uncredited photo)
JAMES:We used to love the Kinks, the Hollies, 10CC – and it’s just easier to come up with and produce that kind of thing when it’s just the two of you, rather than having to take account of the whims and preferences of a whole band. Hence the need for the Korgis project.
THE MULE:A Korgis tour has been announced, the first in a while. Is it hard to get into a “Korgis state of mind” after such a long time off? What can fans expect to see from the Korgis as they celebrate their 35th anniversary?
JAMES:We’re about to start rehearsals, in January 2015. Basically we’ll be making the show up as we rehearse. But we’ll be aiming to provide an evening of dynamic and scintillating pure poptasticness!
THE MULE:Are there plans beyond this tour for more Korgis? A new album or more touring? Will you simply return to Stackridge to continue that group’s string of successful tours and live releases?
JAMES:As I mentioned above, we’ll be putting Stackridge to bed after September 2015. We’ll just have to see if there’s a public appetite for the Korgis. If there is, then I’m sure we’ll be inspired to record new material. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Thank you, James, for taking the time to fill us in on Stackridge, the Korgis and your plans for the future.
PART THREE: STACKRIDGE, ESSENTIALLY
When exploring adventurous music, it may be prudent to start with a “greatest hits” or “best of… ” collection. Even though most of Stackridge’s proper albums are definitely worth adding to your own personal collection, you may want to heed the above maxim and check out…
PURPLE SPACESHIPS OVER YATTON – BEST OF…
(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2006)
The 2006 Angel Air Records release features fifteen essentials from four of the band’s first five releases (not even “Spin ‘Round the Room,” the single from EXTRAVAGANZA made the cut) and heralded in the label’s brilliant reissue program of the band’s catalog. The collection was reissued in 2008 as ANYONE FOR TENNIS?, part of Angel Air’s Sound and Vision series, coupled with a DVD of the band’s April 1, 2007 show (25 songs, the audio of which has also been released as a double CD called THE FORBIDDEN CITY… got all of that?). The only flaw with this release is the exclusion of one of Stackridge’s best known and most loved tunes, “Slark.” But, we’ll be addressing that one later. The accompanying booklet for PURPLE SPACESHIPS… features a fine essay from author Michael Heatley (as do the subsequent reissue titles), archival photos and complete lyrics. The music itself is chock full of just-left-of-center fan favorites like “Dora, the Female Explorer,” “Do the Stanley,” “Fish In a Glass,” “Syracuse the Elephant” and a rerecorded version of the title track (originally a non-album B-side to the “Slark” single), all magnificently remastered under the watchful eyes (hearful ears?) of James Warren and Andy Davis. Having listened to this impressive sampler (in one of its various forms or another), you will undoubtedly want to check out the original albums to hear the tunes in their natural habitat, so to speak. Of course, that is best accomplished by re-starting at the beginning with…
(MCA RECORDS; 1971)
In 1971, everyone wanted to be the Beatles. James, Andy and the other members of Stackridge were no different. Well… maybe they were a little different; they also wanted to be Frank Zappa… and Bob Dylan… and King Crimson… and the Incredible String Band. The quintet of progressive folkies (or is that folky progressives?) are out of the gate with what must be declared “an instant classic,” with nine tracks of mesmerizing pop and rambunctious rock, including at least four that should be required listening.
Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, Michael Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)
The album kicks off with the elegant, ambitious “Grande Piano,” which features a great bass part from Warren (original bassist Jim “Crun” Walter, by the time the band began recording, had opted for a more reasonable career as a bricklayer before returning to the fold for FRIENDLINESS) and a memorable – dare I say, “grand?” – piano part from Davis. “Dora the Female Explorer” is the only song on the debut album credited to the entire band; with it’s bouncing, reeling music – highlighted by Michael Evans’ violin – and oddly engaging vocal melody, the tune has stood the test of time as well as any of the tracks from STACKRIDGE. “Dora… ” is followed by the instrumental “Essence of Porphyry,” an eight minute piece with several distinct movements, all of them quite operatic in their scope (despite the lack of lyrics). Evans’ violin is again a featured instrument, along with Michael “Mutter” Slater’s flute. The entire affair has an air of Zappa about it, the final section a prog rocker’s dream, evoking RED-era Crimson and Brian Eno’s Roxy Music. The centerpiece of the album (if not the career) is “Slark,” a fourteen plus minute “monster” that plays beautifully off the theme and melody of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and led once again by Davis’ piano, Mutter’s flute and Evans’ violin. The lyrics suggest a lonely “monster” looking for acceptance and love but, being rejected because he isn’t like everyone else. The other tunes on STACKRIDGE are all pleasant progressive folk numbers, with just enough oddball charm and sweet melodies to make the album, in its entirety, indispensable. Angel Air’s reissue apends a stomping, rousing traditional reel called “Let There Be Lids,” a B-side from an unreleased 1973 single, as well as the single version of “Slark,” to the original album.
(MCA RECORDS; 1972)
As essential as the band’s debut is, it is, perhaps, their second release that offers the absolute best of what Stackridge aspired to be: A traditional English folk band with progressive and slightly loopy leanings. The opening track, “Lummy Days,” is rollicking, rolling sort of instrumental reel featuring some impressively heavy drumming from Billy Bent, now calling himself “Billy Sparkle.” What surely would have been a dancehall fixture in the early-to-mid 1920s, “Anyone For Tennis” shows the boys’ affinity for the oblique. At nearly nine minutes, “Syracuse the Elephant” would appear to be the band’s attempt to recreate the mini-operatic feel of the first album’s “Slark.” The tune, however, is a majestic piece of childlike progressivity, the tale of a forlorn elephant, raised in captivity and wanting nothing more than to live out his days in the company of his trainer, eating his favorite herbs.
The second side of the original album features such oddball fare as “Amazingly Agnes,” about a mule lamenting the fact that she is, in fact, a mule. That one is followed by the ballad, “Doctor Frankenstein Is Behind Your Pillow,” an apparent leftover from the first record, and the Beatles-esque rocker, “Keep On Clucking,” which features a killer backwards guitar solo from Crun toward the end. The final track, “Teatime,” would not sound out of place on Jethro Tull’s MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY or SONGS FROM THE WOODS; it starts as a rather pastoral madrigal before erupting in frenzied progressive blues, with Evans’ flute front and center throughout. The Angel Air reissue features the bonus tracks “Everyman,” the B-side to the “Flora, the Female Explorer” single; the chaotic, occasionally dissonant “Slark” B-side, the previously alluded to “Purple Spaceship Over Yatton,” one of the single greatest progressive tracks ever put to tape; the single-only release, “Do the Stanley,” a non-dancecraze inducing stomper, and it’s accompanying B-side, the beautiful, lilting “C’est La Vie.”
THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT
(MCA RECORDS; 1974)
The third Stackridge album, the intended title of which was THE ROAD TO VENEZUELA (and was renamed PINAFORE DAYS – with a very different track listing – for consumption in North America), was something of a dream come true for the sextet, as legendary (even then!) Beatles producer George Martin came on board (with engineer Geoff Emerick in tow) to lead the lads to new heights. The group was particularly disappointed with the sound quality of the first two records; along with Martin and Emerick came Sir George’s (such is his current title) state-of-the-art Air Studios in London and the sparkling, vibrant production quality and the brilliant arrangements and orchestrations that was nearly as important as the music on those highly revered Beatles sides. The difference is immediately heard, with the opening track, the poppy romp “Fundamentally Yours,” with Martin adding some well-placed piano.
As with the Beatles’ albums, Martin’s handprints are all over the remaining nine tracks of …BOWLER HAT, as well, adding piano here and there, bringing in orchestration elsewhere and generally giving the lads the benefit of his vast knowledge and experience in musical arrangements and production. The essential cuts include “Pinafore Days,” with its somehow Victorian sounding waltz and lyrics that would not seem out of place in a Monty Python sketch; released as a single in advance of the album, “The Galloping Guacho” opened side two, with a swirling calliope of carnival music that would not have been out of place on a late-period Beatles offering; the sparkling pop of “Dangerous Bacon” features a galloping drum pattern, a great guitar solo and a guest spot from Roxy Music’s sax man, Andy Mackay; a shot of Andy Davis whimsy, “The Indifferent Hedgehog,” leads into the majestically orchestrated instrumental, “God Speed the Plough,” which again highlights the flute of Mutter and violin of Mike Evans to great effect. Unfortunately, Martin’s involvement with …BOWLER HAT did not result in increased sales. Equally regrettable is the fact that the recording session seems to have included only the ten tracks featured here, as both singles from the period (the second was “Dangerous Bacon”), as well as their respective B-sides (“Fundamentally Yours” and “The Last Plimsoll”), come from the album; as a result, this is the first Angel Air reissue to not feature bonus material.
(THE ROCKET RECORD COMPANY; 1974)
With a move to Elton John’s new vanity label and Tony Ashton (late of Ashton, Gardner and Dyke and a brief stint in Family) in tow as producer, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater (Mike Evans appears briefly, performing the solo on “The Volunteer”) introduced a radically reconfigured group to the stalwart Stackridge fans. Not that there was an appreciable change in the music, although, without James Warren’s charming compositional skills, Davis and Slater tended to lean toward the more cabaret-esque side of the Stackridge spectrum; the pair also seems to have abdicated their newly-minted leadership to Rod Bowkett, the band’s new keyboardist, who wrote or co-wrote seven of the record’s ten tracks. The album opens with Bowkett’s 1920s dancehall-styled single, “Spin ‘Round the Room.” Considering the prevailing musical climate in the United Kingdom, I find it virtually incomprehensible that neither this nor the pair of …BOWLER HAT singles were radio or chart hits. It isn’t until the third track, “The Volunteer,” that we here a song from Davis, one of three co-songwriting credits on EXTRAVAGANZA. The song moves between a somber waltz and a rollicking sort of reel, one of the very few tunes that harken back to the original Stackridgian joie de vivre.
Stackridge, 1974 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
“Highbury Incident (Rainy July Morning)” follows, a jaunty little piece of Beatles-like pop written by Davis, Bowkett and Mutter, highlighted by rather Crimsonesque work (consider Ian McDonald’s work on IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING) from new woodwinds player Keith Gemmell. Side two of the original vinyl took a decidedly jazzy swerve into – cover your ears… uh… eyes, children, as I type that word that should never be typed – fusion territory with, incomprehensibly, three cuts out of four being instrumentals. Former King Crimson (there’s that name again!) bassist Gordon Haskell walked in the front door, dropping off “No One’s More Important Than the Earthworm,” the most progressive tune here (go figure, huh?), on his way out the back door, leaving the bass duties to Paul Karas, formerly of Rare Bird. The three instrumentals are adventurous but, aside from “Pocket Billiards,” sound out of place here. “Rufus T Firefly,” the side’s opening track, is mentioned here because… well… Groucho Marx! Like …BOWLER HAT, Angel Air’s reissue of EXTRAVAGANZA features no bonus material. The album isn’t terrible; it just doesn’t come off as a proper Stackridge record.
(THE ROCKET RCORDING COMPANY; 1976)
The fifth Stackridge full-length comes with an oddly familiar history behind it: Their record company didn’t like the concept and demanded changes be made. The record started life as a concept album, following the life of a cranky old man, with Mutter adding odd bits of dialogue – written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde – to move the story along. Rocket Records sent them back to the drawing board, basically telling the boys to “lose all this talking stuff, cut these songs and, by the way, where’s the single?” The resultant product looked and sounded quite different than the original, as did the band as Andy and Mutter welcomed back Crun Walter on the bass, with Keith Gemmell the only holdover from the EXTRAVAGANZA band; the lineup was completed with drummer Peter Van Hooke and former Greensalde member Dave Lawson adding synthesizer textures. As much as Stackridge had known a bit of success on the singles chart, it must have been quite humorous to be told, “We don’t hear a single. We need a single.” Another trip to the studio and the band had a single, a sort of Caribbean (or, if you rather, psuedo-Reggae) take on the Beatles’ “Hold Me Tight,” which was released several months before the MISTER MICK album. Rocket Records were immediately rewarded with a release that seemed to disappear from existence virtually before it was released due to a surging apathy for anything that could not be considered punk.
Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
The reorganized and partially rerecorded version of the album featured a sound that owed more to 10CC, than it did to any of the original Stackridge’s influences or, indeed, to any of the previous four Stackridge records. Having missed the mark (chart-wise) with the band’s Beatles cover, Rocket decided to cut their losses and open their version of MISTER MICK with “Hold Me Tight.” This version really isn’t too bad but, with the more standard progressive pop featured throughout the remaining nine cuts, sounds very much out of place. Possibly, the most adventurous piece on the album is the B-side to “Hold Me Tight,” “Breakfast With Werner Von Braun,” a holdover from the original sessions, which could best be described as a Bedouin waltz. The incongruities rear their ugly heads rather quickly, as “The Steam Radio Song” features the accompanying narrative thread (written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde and delivered by Mutter) from the original recording; as sequenced by the record company, this bit of dialogue shows up about four tracks too soon. While the official version of MISTER MICK has its flaws, there are still enough nice moments to make it listenable, including the original album’s opening track, “Hey! Good Looking” and the Beatles-esque “Fish In a Glass,” also from the original, Stackridge version of the record. The Angel Air reissue pairs the Rocket Records release with the original, rejected twelve track version, which previously saw release as THE ORIGINAL MISTER MICK in 2000. Comparisons prove there are now stunning differences between the two but, with only seven overlapping tunes, the double disc release gives you five previously unheard (or, at least, very rarely heard) tracks.
PART FOUR: THE KORGIS, COLLECTIVELY
The Korgis, Andy’s and James’ other band, like Stackridge, got the “best of” treatment from Angel Air, first with 2005’s KOLLECTION, which, like a lot of Angel Air releases showed up a little later on in a Sound and Vision version as SOMETHING ABOUT THE KORGIS (a demo called “Make a Fuss About Us” was replaced with a new version of the Stackridge tune “Something About the Beatles”). The recent release of a much different package called …BY APPOINTMENT weeds out a few of the lesser tracks from KOLLECTION and adds a few cuts from an acoustic release called – naturally – UNPLUGGED. For essential music from the Korgis, I humbly suggest…
THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT
(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2015)
After the MISTER MICK debacle, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater laid Stackridge to rest. Shortly thereafter, Andy and James Warren made nice and formed the Korgis, with violinist Stuart Gordon and keyboard player Phil Harrison along for the ride. The eponymous first album was released within two years of the demise of the mother band and garnered Warren and Davis something that had alluded them throughout the seven year career of Stackridge: An actual charting single… a hit, in the form of “If I Had You.”
The Korgis (James Warren, Andy Davis) (publicity photo)
The gently rocking “If I Had You” opens …BY APPOINTMENT, sounding for all the world like a George Harrison outtake. The group’s biggest hit, “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime,” follows; the languorous lead single from the second Korgis album, DUMB WAITERS, hit number five in the UK and was Top 20 in the States. The next single, the Beach Boys-lite of “If It’s Alright With You Baby,” barely nudged its way into the British charts, the last release from the group to see any such action. THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT – by my calculations, the tenth compilation package from the group – features a mix of single releases and album tracks, rerecorded for this release, though a few are culled from 2005’s UNPLUGGED record; Andy and James are joined by long-time collaborator, John Baker. Highlights include the oddly appealing “True Life Confessions,” which is a bizarre combination of Mariachi horns, English pop and Caribbean percussion… truly an embracing of the “world music” vibe; a taught, tense “Lines,” from UNPLUGGED; the anthemic “One Life,” with its brilliant lead and harmony vocals, charging percussion track and massive organ leading the way.
The second half of the collection features “Mount Everest Sings the Blues,” a blast of old time rock ‘n’ roll and boogie-woogie; a beautiful, lush remake of “Something About the Beatles,” from the late-90s Warren-led Stackridge reunion (SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND also featured original members Crun Walter on bass and Michael Evans on violin); a cool version of the Korgis’ first single, “Young ‘n’ Russian,” from UNPLUGGED; a weird, faux-jazz Andy Davis tune called “Art School Annexe.” While the final half of …BY APPOINTMENT is more easy listening than the first half, overall, this is a solid introduction to the Korgis and their music.
PART FIVE: THE LAST WORD, FINALLY
With Stackridge calling it a career and Angel Air Records reissuing the original albums (with plenty of bonus material), now is definitely the time to jump on this band’s wagon. As mentioned above, a great starting place is the “best of” collection, PURPLE SPACESHIP OVER YATTON but, you really can’t go wrong with the group’s original run of albums (STACKRIDGE through to MISTER MICK). Other recorded highlights from the band’s reformative years include SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND (1999), THE FORBIDDEN CITY (2008’s double CD of the group’s April Fool’s Day show from the previous year) and their final album, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE (2009). Any or all (as well as any of the Korgis collections – UNPLUGGED and …BY APPOINTMENT being personal favorites – and various James Warren and Andy Davis solo projects) are worthy of your attention.
UPDATE: Stackridge took their final bow in their hometown of Bristol on December 19, 2015. A film of that last show will be edited and released on DVD sometime in 2016. Of course, we know that – like comic book characters – rock bands never truly die and, sometime when we least expect it, Stackridge will mount another comeback. I’ll be waiting.
I have long been enamored of the look, the feel, the sound of Melora Creager’s pioneering Gothic cellists, Rasputina. For the past two decades (more or less), Creager’s dark pop sensibilities have collided with her sense of adventure, creating a sound that is, at once, steeped in musical styles long out of vogue and thoroughly modern in its approach. Rasputina’s lyrics are legendary in scope, retelling the folkloric stories of women – both real and fictional – generally relegated to the footnotes and page margins of history and myth. Now, after a prolonged layoff, Melora and Rasputina have returned with a new collection of fourteen chamber pop masterpieces, the self-released UNKNOWN. While the album is mostly Melora alone, in what she has called “a dank basement studio,” current Rasputina members Luis Mojica and, after a near-twenty year sabbatical, the returning Carpella Parvo do make the occasional guest appearances.
Rasputina’s Melora Creager (publicity photo)
Though the album (only available here) is less than 50 minutes in length, it is a sprawling miasma of diabolic visions and unsettling noises, as befits the purely modern incident that triggered the music… Melora was Cloud-hacked. The opening track, “Curse Tablet,” is a mad madrigal, with pretty voices reciting dark lyrics just below the furiously sawed cellos… rather like the voices you hear coming from beneath the blasphemed soil in an abandoned graveyard. The song is operatic in its musical scope and lyrical content (what you can make out through the haze, anyway). “Pastoral Noir” is a sing-song fever dream featuring a tribal vibe underneath some squalling, feedback-drenched cello. The narrative follows the goddess Vesta on her search for a shepherd named Tony. The goat-god with the answers, Pan, is embodied by Mojica and his chaos piano. Next is “Sparrow-Hawk Proud,” a (mostly) instrumental extension of the previous tunes aural abuse. “Unicorn Horn Mounted” is a unicorn’s lament for her lost horn. A whimsical tale of a guileless maiden named “Bridget Manners” sees the title character seeking her place in the world (or her stuff in the Cloud). The song is a brilliant vocal exercise featuring great harmonies (Malora’s multi-tracked voice, mayhap?). The dichotomous paranoia of “Indian Weed” offers another multi-tracked psychedelic vocal trip; it manages to be very disconcerting while sounding quite pleasant. “Unknown” is a jazzy, instrumental improv sort of thing, kinda like a Jaco or Stanleybass solo performed on a cello.
“Emily Dickinson’s Trophy Envelope” is a seemingly rambling discourse on… Emily Dickinson by… uh… Emily Dickinson. It’s a frenetic, lunatic fringe of heavy, chugging cellos and tinkling piano fills. God, the Wizard of Oz and pudding all meet on the back of an envelope… that Dickinson woman was nuts! Another instrumental, “Steady Rain” is sort of like a Gothic hoedown. A very Siouxsie Sioux-like vocal performance with lyrics that well suit the track’s title informs “Psychopathic Logic.” Early on, the question becomes “just who is the psychopath?”The music is vaguely Middle Eastern. “Untitled I” is an instrumental, tonal in quality and a percursor to “Sensed.” That number is a languorous poem about death and obsession, but…is it real or imagined? Is the death natural or a murder or a suicide? Scraped strings and eerie vocals add a definite sense of horror to “Taken Scary,” a Sixteen Horsepower type of Gothic tale of revenge and murder. The album closes with “Hymn of the Wormwood Women,” another sullen, solemn mostly instrumental piece, with cellos and spooky vocalizations (no actual lyrics) doing the heavy work.
Rasputina’s Melora Creager on stage, circa 2010 (uncredited photo)
After too long away, it is certainly good to have Melora Creager and Rasputina back with new music and back on the road, including a stop in Saint Louis at the magnificent Old Rock House on Sunday, August 9. Find other dates at the above link.
(SUPERIOR VIADUCT/URUS RECORDS/DISJUNCTA RECORDS; vinyl only reissue, 2014; original release, 1975)
No matter how much you follow music, no matter how well you think you know a certain genre, you can always be surprised by something previously unfamiliar. I am a long-time devotee of ambient and electronica, always have been, but somehow Heldon escaped my notice. The French prog-tronica pioneers made a clutch of well-received discs in the ’70s, and founder Richard Pinhas has released a ton of discs under his own name since then, as well as various collaborations with Merzbow, Pascal Comelade, John Livengood and others. But until this reissue of their amazing 1975 album, ALLEZ-TEIA (their second effort), I’d never heard of either Heldon or Richard Pinhas. That’s a shame, ’cause this is amazing, hypnotic stuff. In the early to mid-’70s, new and powerful sounds were beginning to permeate the fields of prog and electronica. With European artists such as Can, Neu, Kraftwerk and Cluster changing the sonic landscape, the possibilities for modern music expanded a hundredfold. Brian Eno and Robert Fripp blew more than a few minds with their static early ambient explorations on NO PUSSYFOOTING and EVENING STAR, and that’s a good starting point to talk about the music on ALLEZ-TEIA. The opening track is even called “In the Wake of King Fripp,” showing the group’s reverence not only for Fripp’s early innovations on guitar, but his continuing sojourns with King Crimson, obviously one of the most important progressive bands of that era. Another track,”Moebius,” is undoubtedly named after Dieter Moebius, one of the founding members of German electronic pioneers Cluster.
Heldon (Richard Pinhas and Georges Grunblatt) (uncredited photo)
That Fripp and Eno sound, particularly as heard on EVENING STAR, is overtly referenced here; no attempt is made to hide how much Heldon loves the evocative but sometimes brittle sound Fripp conjured, especially when Eno got ahold of those repetitive tape loops and put entrancing layers of twinkly synths below them. In “Omar Diop Blondin,” anyone but the most avid Fripp connossieur would guess it was the maestro himself playing here, so close is the patented Frippertronic sound to what’s going on; the song, in fact, is dedicated to the pioneering ambient duo. But Pinhas starts playing this hypnotic little 5 or 6-note repeating sequence that the showier electric guitar glides and buzzes above in flashy style, and then something genuinely unique results. I’m surprised by how nostalgic this stuff makes me for an era long gone. The 12-minute “Fluence,” a slowly building classic of ’70s sequencer/synth trance, has an organic purity to it that sucks you right in; it never calls too much attention to any of its components the way a lot of overproduced similar stuff of later decades tended to do. And “Saint-Mikael… ” (the title is actually much longer than that, but I’ll spare you from the unwieldiness of it), probably the penultimate track here, is just smashing, an intimate close dance between guitar and ambient synth that truly wants to make you float away in relaxed ecstasy. The surprising switch to dual acoustic guitars at roughly the 7-minute mark is wondrous; in fact, Heldon’s use of acoustic guitars on a few tracks is evidently something of a rarity in their early recorded work.
Heldon (Georges Grunblatt and Richard Pinhas) (uncredited photo)
One thing’s for sure; this music deserves to be heard. Pinhas and company had not only the chops, but the understanding of what makes trancey instrumental music work: the mood created, the graceful interplay of the instruments (so important when you’re dealing with technology that can be cold or overly detached sounding), and good editing instincts. This isn’t a long album, and it’s actually quite a breezy listen; even non prog-tronica fans could enjoy it. Nor does it sound dated, even though its references are mostly from decades past. ALLEZ-TEIA is highly recommended for any fans of that early ’70s electronic music genre; it’s a work of great, to use a word King Crimson loves, discipline. And for me, an Eno and ambient fanatic, this disc was a genuine revelation. It’s something I look forward to hearing multiple times, and I definitely don’t always say that about reissues like this.