Sunday, 21 September 2008

THE ACADEMY IS... at The Carling Academy, Oxford


(An edited version of this review originally appeared in The Oxford Music Scene)

Remember when teenagers used to go to gigs to get messed up and wreck shit?

Nor do I, but I’ve heard stories. Stories that flush embarrassment and whither in the presence of the 400 shrieking adolescents who fluffed up their hair especially to sob innuendo at the three emo-core staples playing the Academy tonight. The Maine, We The Kings and headliners The Academy Is, three bands whose ability to provoke hysteria (or nausea) seems to increase exponentially with their set times and ratio skinny jeans : length of fringe.

Upstairs is near capacity by the time The Maine arrive to skip blithely through a barrage of tracks with one overexcited tempo change per number - harkening back, perhaps, to the days when boybands would stand up if a song modulated. We The Kings spring through an identical setlist: although this time we are exposed to an irredeemable cover of ‘Feel Good inc.’, Fred Durst-esque rap included. ‘I want to see you move’, shouts frontman Travis Clark. I want to see him burn.

Finally our headliners, deserving of some respect both for navigating through what must be gigantic piles of cash (courtesy of label mate Pete Wentz) and for not, as their predecessors chose to do, coming on stage to an inexplicable hip-hop sample. The Academy Is… manage to provoke as yet untold levels of hysteria: when front man William Beckett magnanimously breaks from writhing around in self-indulgent misery to pass out bottles of water his audience react like they were quaffing Holy Water from Jesus himself. Single Slow Down nearly provokes a stampede and, as if things couldn’t get any worse, the frontman from We Are Kings joins the band for a hug during ‘About a Girl’.

Fleeing the scores of fans clustering outside around the artist’s entrance, I struggled and finally hit upon the one redeeming feature of the gig. For the past week, some joker had managed to proclaim ‘The Academy Is… Sold Out!’ in large red letters over the front of the venue. The co-incidence, and resulting confusion, is literally the only good thing that came of inviting these three bands to Oxford.

Liz Dodd

JUBILEE at The Bullingdon Arms

(This review originally appeared in Nightshift magazine)

Between cheating death on the M5 and ducking exploding amps onstage, this hasn’t been an easy tour for Jubilee. They’re a band with an ethic: that despite the alt-rock goliaths involved – Aaron ‘Nine Inch Nails’ North on guitar/vocals, Mikey ‘Queens Of The Stone Age/Wires on Fire’ Shuman on bass and Travis ‘the new Lester Bangs’ Keller behind the scenes - this will never be a super-group. The statement pays off. By playing small venues and shirking promotion, Jubilee’s respective rock idols create an atmosphere in which they can – finally – get down to playing what they want to play.

Even the set, with a certain glorious petulance, refuses to be pigeonholed. Individual tracks pitch from gentle shoegaze to rocking Stone Roses: curve-balls sit alongside comfortable singles, and nothing here sounds like the day jobs. It takes three tracks to reach single Rebel Hiss, where sarcastic harmonies hold their own over a 60’s Britpop lick before dissipating into frenzied shreds and wheeling static. References flit past in the space of a tremolo – nods to the Beatles, Van Morrison and Eliot Smith. North pitches around the stage with the enthusiasm you’d expect a crowd of 80,000 to deserve; it’s infectious, energetic and overwhelming when there are a dozen of you.

It’s all over before you want it to be – the band’s sheer enthusiasm gestured towards a few more oddball covers, or at least a stage dive (although North reliably informs us that the after party is chez Thom Yorke) – and the band are off to surprise the next fifteen people. Jubilee’s tour is an entity apart from their upcoming album, which will feature guest spots from Dave Grohl, Trent Reznor etc. This is a small scale, EP promotion set-up: the band have downscaled their per diems and sleep in a transit van, subsisting on little more than their own enthusiasm. Refreshingly, it’s got nothing to do with who they know – for once, it’s all about the music.

Liz Dodd

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

THE GO! TEAM: Interview

The Go! Team is no ordinary band. It started out of mastermind Ian Parton’s kitchen in Wales, where he recorded the debut album Thunder, Lightning, Strike from samples. The band then snowballed into a live entity, picking up members left and right until Parton had the line-up to match his samplerific recorded material. There’s a terrific hotchpotch, bratty energy in the band’s work, driven forward by brash sirens and immense percussion, and reproducing it on stage takes two drummers, several guitars, a keyboard, and a hell of a lot of stamina.

“There are songs where someone in the band would need a rest before the next song,” says the band’s frontwoman, freestyle rapper Ninja. “For me, when you’ve got three mad songs together, it’s killer with all the singing and dancing. But if you’re in the Olympics and you’re running a race or something, just because you’re tired it doesn’t mean you’re allowed to stop. You have to keep going, like I started at this level, so I have to continue at this level till the end of the show. I’m not allowed to be tired, I’m the gang leader and I’m leading the crowd into having a great time. When they see me dance, they want to dance.”

Ninja was declared the fifteenth coolest person in the world by NME a few years ago. And cool she is; her speech is fast, extremely confident and articulate: a lot like her onstage rhymes. Her enthusiastic voice draws you into the conversation just like it draws you into the Go! Team’s music. Just like the music, she’s vibrant and boisterous. And just like the music, she defies categorisation. Born to a strict middle-class family and expected to train as a doctor, she shocked her relatives by becoming a musician. If she had to classify the band, what would she say?

“I used to call every week and be like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a word! How about... rainbow pop funk!’ ‘I’ve got another one! Okay... Electrunk!’ I used to call up every week with these crazy terms and everyone was like ‘You’re being silly.’... I think a lot of people just take elements of what they liked when they were growing up and turn it into what they like now. “We take elements of a lot of different decades, but it’s been made into something completely new. It’s not music from the 80s or 70s or 60s, but because of all of those influences, and because of the world we’re living in and the technology we have now, we’re making something completely unique.”

She prefers performing at universities to playing at bigger, more open venues. “I think we’re quite well known within the uni crowds,” she says. “And in America, as well, college students seem to love us. I think we just have a lot more fun - older crowds, you come out and you feel like they’re waiting to be impressed. But young people just want to be carefree and have a great time, and it’s going to be a great crowd. If it’s all uni stops on our next tour, then it’s going to be
great.”

Last year the Go! Team’s uni gigs included the May Ball at Trinity college. “Oh yeah!” Ninja exclaims delightedly when we mention it to her. “I remember! It was really strange, like, I don’t know, I’m a North Londoner, and I feel like as a Londoner I’m normal. The Cambridge ball was like another world, it was just loads of posh kids who were all like ‘oh my gosh, you guys are so fantastic’. We went to the food table, we were going around in our jeans... A couple of us went up to the fruit table and this lady came up to them and went ‘What are YOU?’ They came back to the dressing room with, like, half an apple, and told me and I said ‘Oh my god, I swear, if I was there and she said that to me...!’ She looked at them as if they were travelling monkeys or something, because they were in jeans and stuff, and she shooed them away from the food table like squirrels. Quite rude, but we saw stagediving and people there in really expensive ballgowns flying above a sea of hands, it was hilarious. When you just walk in there you can smell the privilege. I mean, we saw it at Warwick university as well, you could make the privilege into a fragrance and spray it on yourself and walk down the street and people would turn their heads.”

Creative force Ian Parton is also behind the Team’s videos, which are as kaleidoscopic and chaotic as their music. “Ian used to make documentaries and he’s really into Super 8 cameras,” says Ninja. “He’s mainly in control of the videos. He’s got loads of ideas about how he wants things to be seen. And just like the music is kind of quite choppy and cut-and-paste, the videos are like that as well. It’s got quite a vintage, retro feel to it, because we don’t go for the glossy videos.”

And that’s the Go! Team’s aesthetic in a nutshell: no gloss, just Frankensteinian, unconstrainable mayhem. Long may it continue.

Saul Glasman

Monday, 1 September 2008

SLIPKNOT - All Hope Is Gone

Let’s be honest: Nu-Metal died a mangled and dishonourable death somewhere around the new millennium. Its blackened soul fell through an emo-shaped fissure and wound up in hell. For that particular moment in music, All Hope Is Gone. But at least Slipknot are providing the entertainment: the be-masked nine seem pretty comfortable playing to the converted damned – All Hope Is Gone is by-rote Slipknotastic – but, whatever the album title may make you believe, they’re not going down without a fight.


‘Let’s pretend we’re not at the end’, the couplet that underpins soft-black-metal ‘Vendetta’, encapsulates the album’s motif. Slipknot’s scene may have crumbled, but by packaging political lyrics with riffs heavy enough to interest hardcore fans, and familiar enough to draw in old Maggots, they’ve stirred up more press attention than they deserved to get with the old ‘abandoning the masks’ stunt. Punishing tracks may seem commercial if Dying Foetus is your regular poison but, for the Maggots, this is a violent lurch away from approachable rap-metal. They’ve even gone political: ‘Gematria’ (The Killing Name)’ layers political vocals – the oft repeated ‘America doesn’t care’ – over thrashtastic drums. Without, incredibly, sounding like emo-core lost at an Obama rally.

This is a dark album – as befits what is, effectively, a requiem. Part Cradle of Filth, part Meshuggah, gothic guitar tremolo and descending discordant base lines spasm into shuddering riffs before diving back down, if you’re lucky, into a hook that you can get your head around. Corey’s doing his best one-man Napalm Death impression, leaping from on-key melody to guttural vocalchord shredding, and coming over all sensitive on, yes, power ballad-esque ‘Snuff’. Thankfully, power ballads aren’t Slipknot’s new direction, just the odd ill-advised (but surprisingly fitting) pitstop. When they really try to escape the box, as with highlight Butcher’s Hook, it’s complex tempo Math Rock rather than soaring piano wankery.

‘I’ll never survive, but I won’t be born again’, Corey bawls in ballad-esque ‘Dead Memories’. There’s a confident grace in Slipknot’s latest: they’re not exuming the body of a genre that was only briefly exciting as an alterative during era Backstreet Boys, but they’ve not veered off on an illadvised dance-meets-prog road. The kids have grown up and left home, and it’s given the band a chance to turn up the volume. Buy the album: pay your respects and move on to somewhere darker. Slipknot are waiting for you.

8/10

Liz Dodd

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

NINE INCH NAILS - The Slip

Never kick a gift horse in the mouth, or so received wisdom goes. Trent 'NIN' Reznor dropped The Slip on his cyber audience this May, only months after masterminding the Radiohead style release of purely instrumental album 'Ghosts I-IV', and did so with the pithy 'this one's on me'.

Something of an overall retrospective, The Slip pulls out tricks Trent's been using from Pretty Hate machine, through the Quake soundtrack, all the way to Ghosts IV-V. Breathless vocals trade with punctuating riffs, techno-beats give way to double-kick bass, and vice-versa. Where the album gets interesting - and where it takes off from the With Teeth and Year Zero era - is the en vogue prog-rock musings that make up the second half.

There's no concept here - as there was with future-horror 'Year Zero'. That's not a bad thing. The album is a palette of atmosphere bubbles, something that speaks to Reznor's strengths in its ability to lurch from the engaging - 'Discipline' - to the contemplative. The album's post-rock experimental second half is skin-crawlingly disconcerting - maybe it's because it sounds like the Twin Peaks soundtrack - as you're plunged from thrash through approachable techno to something that sounds a bit like Radiohead on a really bad acid trip. Dotted with strange samples swelling out of a cold, Space 20001-esque space ship lift off, and closing with inhuman screeches, The Slip is every bit as pessimistic a nod to the future as Year Zero - or anything by Godspeed You - just without the agenda.

Sounding like the moment at the end of a horror movie when the survivors peel what's left of the zombie invaders off and lurch out into the sun, The Slip is unfriendly, schizophrenic and maudlin but, like pessimism in general, it's contagious. Reznor’s magnanimously given fans and critics alike the slip - and it was worth the wait.

8.5/10


Liz Dodd

Monday, 28 July 2008

ALICE COOPER: Along Came A Spider

Nothing says 'hazy summer afternoon' like a born-again Christian pro-golfer's take on the exploits of a wannabe anti-Spiderman serial killer.

Yes, Alice Cooper's released album 6, 666 (probably), 'Along Came a Spider'. A piece of musical theatre, the album revolves around a spider-like serial killer busy collecting the limbs of his eight female victims to build his own - presumably female - spidery play-zombie. It’s an open invitation to throw any semblance you ever had of taking shock-rock seriously out the window – more appropriately, to banish it to the deepest pits of rock-snob hell. Once you've done that, you're free to enjoy Cooper's latest work for the unabashed, horns-in-the-air nod to the age of Hammer Horror and pedestrian zombies that it is.

The band, Alice’s touring band, sounds tighter and more together than they have in years, but the guest slots alone make the album worth a listen: Slash contributes a magnificent old-school guitar solo to anthemic second track 'Vengence Is Mine' and, in a move of sheer crazed genius, the harmonica solo on 'Wake The Dead' is provided by none other than Ozzy Osbourne.
There's less of an industrial flavour to this album - this time around it's all Rocky Horror meets Twisted Sister - which is peculiarly relevant given that the Nine Inch Nails latest album, 'The Slip', is released on CD this week, and that Trent 'NIN' Reznor discovered, produced, fell out with and then reconciled with Cooper’s closest rival, Marilyn Manson. Unlike Manson, however, Alice Cooper has always been an act – in interviews, Alice refers to him in the third person - and his skill as a performer is an attribute that makes this album. It's why a born-again Christian can get away with singing 'I've got some chloroform and some handcuffs/Just for you' only tracks before the well-intended - but as lyrically subtle as being slammed around the head with a copy of the King James - penultimate track 'Salvation'.

That 'Salvation' is overturned by 70s-budget-horror epic 'I am the spider/epilogue' is perhaps a glimpse of the seething underbelly that lies beneath the shimmering Alice Cooper trademark, the discomfort that must come from making a reputation bating the religious right before, oh, becoming one of them. As Cooper sings on 'Wrapped in Silk': 'Where did you get that skin/It covers up all your sin/I wonder what’s underneath’. Does knowing that Cooper is an evangelical Republican de-fang the spider? Not really. Alice is as believable in the role of sneering-leering stalker as he is playing love-struck and in need of redemption. If you're a long standing Cooper fan, this is a fascinating album, a veiled glimpse at the demons of the Prince-of-Darkness made good. If you're not a long standing fan, you can still shred air guitar to Slash's trademark and solo and headbang along to the epic choruses. A solid all-rounder, then - and to so conclude a review of a shock-rock concept album is a fitting tribute to Alice Cooper’s 60 years of contradiction defying, melodramatic, tongue-in-cheek music-hall rock .

(7/10)

Liz Dodd

Friday, 25 July 2008

LAURA MARLING - Alas, I Cannot Swim

It's unfair, but I harbour an intrinsic mistrust of singer-songwriters. I think it's something of a Pavlov's dog situation: every time you throw on an easy listening-folk album these days you're assaulted either with the irritatingly sentimentalised dronage of James Blunt/Paulo Nutini/etc. or the faux-blues strains of Adele/The Winehouse.

Years of abuse at the hands of the music industry meant, then, that I shifted Laura Marling's new album around my desk for about a week before bracing myself for the potted-lounge-jazz assault that, ultimately, never came. Instead Regina Spektor-esque fragility tumbles out of album opener, Ghost, sparse acoustic guitar racing away from a drumkit that sounds like it's in a different postcode to the microphone. Alas, I Cannot Swim is a breath of fresh air. Marling resists the current avant-garde for expressing emotion through the jagged erosion of vocal-instrumentals. There is emotion in this album, but it's living in the gaps, in the pauses between child-like clipped sentences and down-tuned strings.

Marling (18) doesn't let her age get in the way of punchy truisms. "Well I sold my soul to Jesus and since then I've had no fun," from The Captain And The Hourglass is straight Delta blues without assumed Americana. Night Terror is the darkest few minutes on the album and indicative of where Marling can go from here - confident leaps from the lowest to the highest notes in her range, insistent, nautical drums and Patrick Wolf-esque ghost strings. Marling may not be able to swim, but she has released a debut powerful enough to blast your Duffys and your Adeles out of the water, setting a new standard for British singer-songwriters. About time.

(8/10)

Liz Dodd

ATHLETE - Interview & Gig Review

Sprinting (ok, walking briskly) the five minutes from the office to The Cambridge Corn Exchange, we indulge in a grumble. Never, we reflect, have we actually managed to conduct an interview on time. Artists - or at least, their PR - seem to have come to the conclusion that student press have nothing better to do than huddle among amps and keyboards in some drafty backstage cave while soundcheck runs half an hour late because the band decided, fifty-nine nights into a sixty-night tour, to hold an extended jam with whoever happens to be in the building.

Athlete, mild, predominantly religious soft-rockers that they are, were no different, hustling us (plus Dictaphone) back out into the rain because we had the audacity to turn up on time. A half hour (of grumbling) later, we are finally ushered into a dressing room/canteen, littered with such rock'n'roll accoutrements as hummous, olives and celery sticks. "We found ourselves doing the major cities, and that's what a lot of bands do," Athlete's Steve Roberts points out when we try to find out why the band are gracing our small town. "We wanted to do some slightly smaller places... I think around the 2000 capacity is kind of ideal. It's enough people for it to feel like an event, but not to many so that you feel that you're not as close to everyone."

Stadium rock - a title that has, like it or not, followed Athlete for their entire career - might be taken to imply, well, a stadium, but Athlete's latest release Beyond The Neighbourhood is a conscious move away from Coldplay-esque pop. "We really wanted to make more live sounding album," Steve explains. "I guess we wanted to make something that sounded quite electronic, but at the same time something that that captured the performance. We've been quite fortunate at our record company. We've always just gone with what we want and that's what the record company is given. They've been quite hands off."

Athlete's record company is EMI, a label slowly imploding under the weight of Radiohead's headline-worthy exit and the slightly bizarre news that Robbie Williams has decided to go on strike. "In the next month most of the people we know might be gone," Steve points out when we bring up industry woes. "The EMI thing has really affected us because the whole company is at a standstill. We're just keeping our heads down and not try to worry about the industry side of things. That's the worst thing for a musician to do. At the end of the day people will still want music - we'll just carry on. The Radiohead thing is great. They're in a position where they can do that, and they made an absolute fortune. They've sold records they manufactured themselves for £40. That's a huge amount of money, and people are talking about it. It kind of forces the record companies to go 'oh, we actually do have to take this seriously now...' "

With an EP on the way - featuring, Steve informs us, acoustic versions of earlier tracks brought out for a Radio 1 event as well as a track from the new album - and an American tour in the works, Athlete don't show any signs of slowing down. Nor should they - the Cambridge gig has sold out, and the crowd are as receptive to new tracks as they are to the greatest hits. "That hasn't happened before,' front man Joel Pott tells the crowd after a prolonged, venue-wide singalong to hit Wires. "Thanks." Athlete's feel-good pop rock might not be your thing, but it's both a laudible response to an industry crisis and a relief to their legions of fans to discover that when the going gets tough, the tough intend to retreat to their studio and do what they do best.

Liz Dodd

LOS CAMPESINOS! - Hold On Now, Youngster (2008)

Sonically located somewhere between tripping in a Hong Kong arcade and a house-party in Pac-Man's bachelor pad, the debut album from Welsh septet Los Campesinos! is not an album to listen to after ingesting a large amount of caffeine. Hold On Now, Youngster... is probably best listened to while on some kind of multicoloured treadmill.

Far from trying to drag all seven members into any musical concord, Los Campesinos! have settled for a discordant free-for-all that, against all musical odds, really works. Tempting as it is to recoil with jealousy - all seven are still university students, and they've titled the track I most wanted to refer to This Is How You Spell 'HAHAHA, We Destroyed The Hopes And Dreams Of Faux-Romantics' - their special brand of hyper-pop fills a void between Mike Skinner and I'm From Barcelona that I wasn't even aware needed filling. Tracks like Drop It Doe Eyes establish a "female vocals-over-syncopation versus punk-male vocals-over-driving-4/4" pattern that counters the crazy in cacophonic tracks like Don't Tell Me To Do The Math(s), while the whole album emerges layered in challenging tempo, samples, and a veritable who's who of indie namechecks - spot 'Meanwhile Back In Communist Russia' on Don't Tell Me...

Vocals range from screech to whisper, stripping back to reveal bizarre couplets in understated raps. It's impossible to get a grasp of where this group are going, and quite how they squeeze such a vivid emotional vocabulary out of an amalgamation of synths, xylophone etc. played quickly and at the same time. Hold On Now, Youngster... is a flamboyant mix of style and substance, hyperactive and complex.

Los Campesinos! have earned the right to take themselves seriously, but long may they waive that right in favour of long track titles and glockenspiel solos.

(8/10)

Liz Dodd

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

LIGHTSPEED CHAMPION - Interview & Gig Review

Apparently Lightspeed Champion, alternative music's man-of-the-moment, was responsible for inventing new rave. "Oh, God," he rolls his eyes when TCS brings up the NME cover story. "I'm so sorry! I don't even know what it is!"

Leant up against the wall in the Cambridge Barfly hours before the first gig of his first tour, Dev Hynes, previously of the Test Icicles, is a paragon of self-deprecating indie-geekdom. His album, Falling Off The Lavender Bridge, may have come out to huge critical acclaim, but as far as Dev's concerned it's "bad. I don't know. Bad all around," he laughs, punctuating a modest refrain familiar to anyone who’s been following the Test Icicle's sudden breakup and Dev's resurrection as cartoon character Lightspeed Champion. "I used to say the character was just me, but I'm starting to see it as a completely different person. I see articles and posters, and I kind of freak out a bit. I remember the other day I had a particularly bad night, it was raining, and I was walking and I saw this poster. God, it was like the last thing I wanted."

Lightspeed's fragile confidence, both in himself and his own work, is reassuringly bolstered by the team of friends he tours with - he was jamming with long-time buddies the Semifinalists when TCS arrived. "We've only practiced once," he admits. "But I always try to tour with friends. Like Patrick Wolf. I see him as a musical big brother - there are definitely similarities between our music, so he can give me advice." Like Wolf, Lightspeed has chosen to populate his new album with bizarre, often archaic, instruments. Does he have a favourite? "There's a half guitar. Which is a strange instrument, it plays everything an octave higher. On Dry Lips I redid all the guitar parts with this octave guitar...so it had this weird feel, like you never know what pitch it's in. The wurlitzer was pretty fun," he adds, before taking a characteristically self-deprecating turn, "but it was all at a level of just...bad."

With artwork for the next round of releases already in mind, and a run-through of a brand new song at soundcheck, it seems that, lack of self-belief aside, Dev's only looking forwards. "There's loads of new stuff," Dev agrees. "I recently found stuff from about four years ago which is pretty good, and I'm just like... wow... So just going to see what happens with that. I've been compiling a discography," he reveals. "But it'll probably be a really long time before that sees the light of day. At the moment I'm writing... re-describing the Lavender Bridge album, writing paragraphs about each song. I see reviews and people don't really get certain things, and I want to just tell them."

Dev has to leave on this, a whirlwind of genius and modesty, to return to soundcheck, and the gig later that night does indeed showcase more Lightspeed's unique musical talent as much as it does his eccentricities. "I don't know any more songs," he warns the crowd when the set finishes fifteen minutes early. "What do you guys want to hear?"

Lightspeed Champion can get away with just this kind of brutal, endearing gonzo-professionalism, and it's a kamikaze attitude that, refreshingly, you wouldn't expect to hear from the artist behind an album as complex a solo debut as Lavender Bridge. Whether his blend of honest self-deprecation and genuine passion for music will last the abuse of a UK and US Tour remains to be seen but, naiive or battered into cynicism, you get the feeling Dev Hynes will still come out way ahead of the game.

Liz Dodd

Monday, 10 March 2008

THE KILLS - Midnight Boom

Trying to predict what a new Kills album will sound like is about as productive as trying to guess how Thom Yorke will release music.

The band are notoriously anti-industry, refusing to give interviews or circulate promos. Gloriously, this hasn't stopped Midnight Boom from becoming one of the most hotly-tipped albums of '08, the Kills' two-fingers up at the music industry left intact. While opener U.R.A Fever is, admittedly, perilously close to a crimp that crawled out of The Mighty Boosh tried to start a music career, sparse post-punk crashes gratifyingly into the next track, a beautiful hybrid of Sonic Youth and Death From Abovee.

Alison 'VV' Moshart - somewhere between PJ Harvey and Karen O - espouses a merciless confidence, spitting out lyrics with a sarcasm that sees the drum machine softening, rather than punctuating, the lyrics. 'I want you to be crazy,' VV snaps in Cheap and Cheerful, 'cos you're boring baby when you're straight'. The album veers from stripped back gothic dance (a strange image) to eerie playground game-esque rhythm, culminating in the brilliant What New York Used To Be, a track that goes all Jonny Greenwood on you to render a guitar riff an organ solo, all perfectly juxtaposed against VV's barely-breathed lyrics about the decay of the American dream.

Between skipping from references to Crime and Punishment to clapping games, from No-Wave dance beats to Sonic Youth-esque guitar crunch, The Kills have penned an album entirely worthy of the hype. Frankly, it's great having no clue where they'll go from here.

(8/10)


Liz Dodd

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

HOT CHIP: Made In The Dark

Hot Chip are an enigma. Who are they, exactly? Are they really as awkward as they look in their videos? Is this anything to do with the fact that three of them went to Cambridge? What are they doing in those clothes? Questions like these will have to wait for an interview, but in the meantime rest assured that their unforgettable new album Made In The Dark leaves any such bafflement in a beaten heap by the wayside.

The bouncy, jocose album opener Out At The Pictures lays the band’s ability to write ultra catchy, danceable music out on the table. It’s brilliantly poppy tracks like this one that give Hot Chip their unique licence to unexpectedly geek out into electronica in the middle of a rock song. But by the time the rickytick, clattering drum line of Shake A Fist kicks in, it’s clear that there’s still more going on. On the first single from the album, Ready For The Floor, Alexis Taylor sings about being prepared for rejection on the dancefloor. But a more fanciful listener might think that the persistent, jarring electronic chirp that underpins the song signals darker emotions boiling beneath the surface.

Cancerous gouts of techno rage erupt from the flanks of the otherwise merely melancholy Don’t Dance, and an uneasy undercurrent runs through even the beautiful ballads We’re Looking For A Lot Of Love and title track Made In The Dark. ‘I’m only going to heaven if it feels like hell / I’m only going to heaven if it tastes like caramel,’ sings Taylor on Hold On. And there’s the real enigma of Hot Chip; they’re heavenly and hellish in equal measure, but their music still tastes just like caramel and makes your pop receptors light up like sparklers. Stunning pop music for the thinking person.

Saul Glasman

LIGHTSPEED CHAMPION - Falling Off The Lavender Bridge

Falling off the Lavender Bridge is an incredibly bold debut, rising as it does from the ashes of a thrash punk outfit - the Test Icicles - to showcase the agoraphobic musings of an oversensitive frontman.

Devonte Hynes has inadvertantly ended up as poster boy for the angst-ridden, unneccessarily intellectual pop that threatens to overwhelm new releases in 2008. That the lavender of the album title apparently refers to a piece of the herb that Devonte would fall asleep holding, and to which he attributes the dreams and fantasies that form a backdrop to his debut, is hardly going to convince his gnarlier fans to trade a night of sniffing glue for an evening's teetotal emo.

Musically, despite being so great a departure from Hynes' previous work, the album is a masterpiece, fusing banjo lines, swinging oboe and wistful strings with more lilting confidence Hynes' 22 years would have led anyone to expect. The vocals are, on first listen, tough to fall for - tripping over vowels and barely bothering to cover consonants, while critics have pilloried Gerard 'My Chemical Romance' Way for couplets less jarring than 'I'm going to assume that my phone is broken/Delivery reports have ruined my life'.

Lightspeed Champion succeeds where others have failed by punctuating the mundane with the completely unexpected - so Devil Tricks For A Bitch can flip from 'I think I'm going to stay in today/Before something really bad happens' to sneer 'Sketchy motherfuckers/Take me to great heights' - summing up the self indulgent leap from mole-hill to crushing mountain with a genuine vulnerability that poorer quality emo tends to make embarassingly unconvincing.

Ultimately, in a music scene where global warming, conspiracy theories and Bird Flu (cheers, British Sea Power) typically provide the subject matter for any critically acclaimed album, it's about time cynical music lovers realised that decent music can be structured around the humble mobile phone and extreme hangovers. Delivered in Hynes' offbeat monotone and textured with discordant guitars/violins/ukelele, Falling Off The Lavender Bridge's greatest acheivement - both lyrically and musically - is to make self-indulgent angst refreshingly palatable.

(7/10)

Liz Dodd

Monday, 4 February 2008

EARTH - The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull

It may come as a surprise to some to learn that ‘drone’, far from being a derogatory term for music that sounds like industrial imploding in self-righteous boredom, is actually a genre.

Calling a genre ‘doom metal’ – drone’s alternative name – was never going to assure widespread public affection either, calling to mind as it does a morose Maiden fan or a forlorn sheet of aluminium, your choice. Pioneers of drone – or, if you prefer, doom metal – Earth consistently blow such timid preconceptions out of the water, and latest opus The Bees... is no exception. Epic, soundscape music, the album conjures up swathes of desert with fewer riffs than it took The Joshua Tree.

The Bees... is a move away from Earth’s past few albums (this took a few years hiatus in an avant-garde jazz band, apparently). Drone it still is, but The Bees... piles on layer upon layer of Eno-esque synth, creating acres of space by squeezing every last note from the decay, overdriving the amps until you feel they should be allowed to unionise. The guitar comes across – sometime longterm influence The Melvins, sometime Godspeed You, Black Emperor – arching out of the feedback, shattering the implied continuity of the music. It would be uncomfortable if it didn’t answer some deep-seated need for a melody somewhere in the field of feedback. Rhythm, far from being lost to the overriding hum of experimental guitar-jazz, structures (as loosely as possible) a best that refuses to be caged, forlornly marking the end of a bar for a set of musicians who couldn’t care less.

It feels harsh to try and separate tracks out when they’re fused so organically – suffice to say Miami Morning Coming Down II is the least bleak, drenched in sunshine and optimism. Well, not when compared to, say, Mika, but certainly juxtaposed with the rest of the album. Engine of Ruin, meanwhile, leaps from piano-chord progressions to Santana-style desert rock noodling, showcasing the talents of guest guitarist – and master of distortion - Bill Frisell.

Earth have, in the course of their roughly 15-yr-old career, done more than anyone to claim drone a space of its own – they’ve released consistently innovative albums, with them inspiring a whole new generation of experimental artists – SunO)) and Harvey Milk, for example. With The Bees... Earth have raised the bar for their musical protégées. The highs are higher and the lows are lower, and the soundscape is even more vast and vivid than before - which, for the grandfathers of doom, is no small feat.

(9/10)

Liz Dodd

Saturday, 2 February 2008

ALTER BRIDGE - Interview & Gig Review

So you're standing at the bar, trying to explain that you really do only want ice in your whiskey, when the first few chords of The Band You Came Here To See float down the stairs. Time was you would have recklessly abandoned your drink, forced a way through the crowd, desperate to be in that front row, leaning on the barrier. That time has passed. You forget that there's nothing quite like actually waiting to see a band play live, that there was that time you arrived at Twickenham seven whole hours before (ahem) U2 were coming on stage just to catch a few notes of soundcheck.

Nostalgia aside, Loaves of Sound, snobs that we are, were mystified to find fans queuing outside the Astoria from 8am to see Alter Bridge, a band thrown together from the smoking wreckage of Christian-rock band Creed. Crammed into a broom cupboard somewhere in the maze that is backstage, we try to fathom how Alter Bridge inspired this level of commitment.

"It's us, creatively as a band, making the music that we really want to make," drummer Scott Phillips decides. "The songs are all about persevering through whatever struggle it is that you may be facing that day or for the rest of you life, whatever it is, just to try and find a better place." He's quick to agree, though, that Alter Bridge's inspiro-rock isn't for everyone. "Major labels don't see that kind of vision. They want to twist it and turn it and make it into that sort of cookie cutter, 'this is what's selling right now, so that's what we want you to do' music. It's rare to find the opportunity to join up with a major label that lets you do what you want to do". But would he advocate smaller bands 'doing a Radiohead' and going it alone? "Independent college bands, or whatever, they're making the music that they want to make," Scott points out. "The play nowadays is to try and do it on your own as much as possible, because it seems like most major labels are still clinging to a formula that doesn't work any more."

Rock'n'roll sentiments indeed, but it took more than an interview with an upbeat drummer to convince us that Alter Bridge were worth the fandom. It took, well, the gig. When the band took to the stage it became impossible to distinguish teenybopper from tattooed metalhead as the sold-out Astoria audience hurled itself at front-man Myles Kennedy with religious fervour. Alter Bridge know how to move a crowd, clawing their way out of dark, distorted fills to soar (appropriately, in 10-minute epic Blackbird) on the back of guitar solos, leading the crowd in the occasional sing-along and dropping in just the right level of between-song banter.

Of course, the whole thing was flawless, rehearsed and manipulated to within an inch of being mundane, but a life-affirming mini prog opera isn't going to affect the same transcendence if a string breaks, or your front man leaves his mic on the wrong side of the stage. Following an extended encore, Loaves of Sound forced its way through weeping fans with a guilty sense of power-chord induced wellbeing. Alter Bridge's recycled rock wasn't quite enough to convince us to arrive ten hours early for their next gig, but we might just give new album Blackbird another, less cynical, listen.

Liz Dodd

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

DARKEST HOUR, GLAMOUR OF THE KILL & Malefice at the Cambridge Barfly

It’s an unwritten law that hype isn’t as ubiquitous a phenomenon in the world of metal as in certain places elsewhere. So while a comparable tour in the indie genre (let us invent one, purely for the sake of hypothesis, and arbitrarily call it the NME Awards tour) might sell out huge venues within hours, the Kerrang! Most Wanted tour is essentially a few bands gigging up and down the country in basements to inquisitive but noncommittal, small audiences.

This year, the ragtag trio of bands comprised techy prog-death ensemble Malefice, metalcore headliners Darkest Hour, and emo-mongers Glamour Of The Kill. So began the quest of the three groups, which in due course took them to the Cambridge Barfly. Glamour Of The Kill played second, but I’m going to talk about them first. This is because they were, apparently, actually pop-punk band Busted after listening to an Iron Maiden CD, deciding they wanted to play metal and changing their names to Chris Carnage and Mikey Massacre. The result sounds almost like Alexisonfire while drunk and wearing handcuffs; this is no doubt what the band are shooting for, but they don’t quite make it, especially when vocalist ‘Davey Death’ raises his tuneless, whining voice to the top of his high tenor. Bottles shattered behind the bar. That aside, the reason it’s a real shame that the tour didn’t get more publicity is because the abovementioned direness was sandwiched between two hefty, satisfying blocks of metal.

Openers Malefice have a thrillingly hyperactive, warpspeed progressive style, reminiscent of Sikth with all of the whimsical jumble taken out and replaced with pure relentless steel. Their ambition just about exceeds their technical proficiency for now, with drummer Craig Thomas slightly losing track a couple of times, but they still provided the highlight of the evening in the aggressive Dreams Without Courage.

American headliners Darkest Hour themselves are an innovative metalcore band with a huge live presence. “I’ve seen them before,” a man said to me at the bar. “Their performance is so energetic... I walked in and when I saw the pillar on the stage I worried on of them was going to injure himself.” While the band have some very nice riffs and some clever, unorthodox chord progressions, it’s in the immense energy of their performance their attraction truly lies; vocalist John Henry leaps onto speakers and scowls like a monkey, baring his ferocious metal teeth to the audience. If future Kerrang tours are as good as this one, maybe it’s time for new metal bands to receive the same sort of raving media hype injections as their indie counterparts.

Saul Glasman

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

THESE NEW PURITANS: Beat Pyramid

Ripe for a dose of strident, cocky new-rave hip-rock? Then step right this way, ladies and gentlemen. Beat Pyramid is bizarre, enigmatic and too postmodern for its shirt. Hyped indie four-piece These New Puritans, being barrier-breaking types, have today blurred the line between legitimate experimental production and self-indulgent electronic noodling. Not content with that, they go on to challenge the long-held idea that excessive repetition isn’t necessarily a good thing, followed by thoroughly debunking the music industry propaganda that is rhythmic variation.

Take that, fuddy-duddies! Tomorrow the world! It’s a pity that every song is dominated by Jack Barnett’s monotone vocal delivery, reminiscent of Mark Smith drugged up to the eyelids on paranoia juice. If this weren’t so, we could appreciate the occasional interesting instrumental turn, like the first fifteen seconds of Swords Of Truth or the whole of album highlight Infinity Ytinifni. The synthed-up basslines and tribal drums ooze foreboding and menace. But instead Barnett’s deadpan draws your attention to the lyrics, which are nothing other than embarrassing.

“What’s your favourite number? What does it mean?” he raps over the opening of single Numbers and repeats ad nauseum, before launching into a list of numbers and their interpretations. “One: is the individual! Two is duality!” he barks. No, really? You can’t help but feel there’s supposed to be some kind of Pynchonian narrative running through the record. But if so, it doesn’t show itself after several listens. On another track, 4 pounds, the only lyrics are “Four of your pounds!” I can only guess they want me to buy their singles. The album curls deeper and deeper into itself as the tracks progress before swallowing its own tail in a flash of pointlessness as the end of the last track becomes the beginning of the first. These New Puritans could have made a decent dark synth-rock record, but they decided to wallow in pretension instead. An album to be avoided.

Saul Glasman

Monday, 14 January 2008

MAGNETIC FIELDS - Distortion

With 2008 gearing up to be the year of sophisticated shoegaze, New York's Magnetic Fields couldn't have picked a better time to release this follow up to 2004's concept album, i. Distortion is a no-holds-barred, more Jesus and Mary Chain than the Jesus and Mary Chain, industrial symphony that fuses biting lyrics with complex arrangements and intense distortion.

First single California Girls is a case in point, an aggressive response to the sundrenched Beach Boys classic of the same name. Merritt drawls out lyrics with a baritone that bears comparison with Scott Walker, switching from conscious Americana on Old Fools to 50's crooner on anti-Christmas anthem Mr. Misteltoe.

Distortion could easily have descended into pointless self indulgence were it not for countless moments of soaring affirmation - Drive on, Driver wrenches a heartbreaking refrain from a bedrock of seething white noise and propels it into a mesmorising round, interspersed with startling one liners - 'take me to the airport/I need to be extremely far away'.

Frontman Merritt, obsessed with 'theme', refused to record the album until a concept had been hit on - begging the question of where the retro synth-band could go from an album underpinned by having every track beginning with an 'i'. The artist that he is, Merritt wouldn't settle on, say, 'j', instead rendering Distortion an uncomfortably realistic album, the band making their point by juxtaposing dark vocals - The Nun's Litany is a great example, 'I want to be a dominatrix/which isn't like me, but I can dream' - with upbeat 60s harmonies and complex chamber pop. An incredible album, Distortion has raised tha bar for any consciously adult rock set to roll in this year, proving that paying tribute to your musical influences is all about inspiration, not plagiarism.

(7/10)


Liz Dodd

Saturday, 5 January 2008

FOXY SHAZAM: Introducing

“I must say, what a very nice bunch of boys,” intones a stuffy narrator over the sound of a ravening crowd on opener Introducing Foxy. Seconds afterwards, as the guitars scream into top gear and the track settles into a handclap-driven groove punctuated by bursts of hardcore rage, you realise he’s right. The weird piano-heavy hybrid punk sound of Foxy Shazam is strangely beautiful and beautifully strange, and at times it’s difficult to tell whether they have a conscious agenda of subversion or are just having a good time.

The band excel in below-the-belt, bait-and-switch musical tactics. Inexplicably titled A Black Man’s Breakfast seems to be a pretty straight Queen-influenced love song, but your opinion changes slightly when lead guitarist Loren Turner soloes sweetly in the wrong key. Ghost Animals trips the listener up with four unexpected rhythmic surprises in its first forty seconds, while the Latin horn tune that heralds album highlight Red Cape Diver is abruptly muffled by a tender piano melody, only to later return in a smoky Santana-esque
guitar lick.

Speaking of Queen, Foxy Shazam compare themselves to said late great band in their press releases, although again it’s uncertain how much they’re just trying to stir up controversy. Vocalist Eric Nally uses his stunning voice for evil, not good, sounding in his soul-infused snarl a bit like Freddie Mercury after being kidnapped, tortured and told all his family were dead. Introducing... captivates on a first listen with its eclectic uniqueness and then progressively reveals its subtleties. Foxy Shazam will divide opinion; this is the first Marmite album of 2008, and perhaps the first great one too.

Saul Glasman

NADA SURF: Lucky

In a musical climate thriving on the ethereally delicate, the harshly abrasive and the epically ambitious, it’s reassuring that a toe-tapping but instantly forgettable record like Lucky can draw an audience. It’s not so much that Nada Surf play inoffensive, formulaic pap (although to some extent they do). Their vacantly pretty alterna-pop-indie is heartfelt and well-crafted, like the glass diamond on the wedding ring of a poor peasant girl. For a crude comparison, try Death Cab For Cutie minus the brains.

Penultimate track The Fox is an anomaly on which the band inexplicably decide to pull out the stops and employ more subtlety and imagination than you could find in the whole of the rest of the album put together, but apart from that, Lucky trudges through its eleven rock-by-numbers tracks. They range from mid-tempo guitar pop to, er, slightly faster guitar pop, and never stray from their straight-up verse-chorusbridge song structure and their tweely emotional melodies.

The charming thing about Lucky is the sweet life-is-whatyou- make-it ideology put forth in its lyrics. I Like What You Say has the plaintive “They say you have to have somebody
/ They say you have to be someone / They say if you’re not lonely alone / Boy there is something wrong”, and From Now On sums up the album’s attitude with the line “You’ll have to
invent what you lack”, presumably spurring the listener to new heights of self-determination.

The steady stream of blankly hopeful melodies, tempered by the steady rhythms of Ira Elliot’s uncomplicated drumming, form the perfect backdrop for bog-standard, middleof- the-road, pedestrian rock music’s arrival - at last - in the late Noughties.

Saul Glasman

BRITISH SEA POWER: Do You Like Rock Music?

Do You Like Rock Music?, like all of the Brighton indie band British Sea Power’s releases, oozes sincerity and emotion. Don’t be put off by this; it’s very credible sincerity and emotion as sincerity and emotion go, and it’s been ages since any band managed to write a song about a flood on a Thames island in 1953 without sounding ridiculous.

The band, in its current incarnation, sounds a little bit like Joy Division tussling playfully with a post-rock band in a sunny meadow with a fashionable touch of Arcade Fire for good measure, and guitarist Martin Noble’s soaring guitar tone begins to pall slightly not too far into the album. Having said that, there’s a definite musical contrast between the cloudier first half of the album and the jolly second half. The band have a pretty good repertoire of moods, from the anthemic future single No Lucifer to the gentle chamber pop of No Need To Cry. The angular immediacy occasionally present on previous albums has gone, but to be fair, it never really
suited them anyway.

The lyrics, however, stay stormy all the way through. Even when they’re singing about something as highly benign as Czechs, beer and Czech beer (Waving Flags), they manage to be just cryptic enough to make it look like they’re making a point about immigration without it being at all clear what that point is. On bouncy album highlight A Trip Out, they sing “Out with the daggers / Off with the gloves / There is so much / That you can love”. They also mention the apocalypse repeatedly. I don’t really know what it’s about. However, despite its faults, British Sea Power have produced a convincing, accomplished album, probably their best yet. Fans won’t be disappointed, and converts will be made.

Saul Glasman