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