Sunday 30 January 2011

Teenage Kicks: Voltage Variety Night at the Sage

I just got back from Gatehead's Sage, a big shiny building that specialises in art exhibitions and classical concerts. It was nice - a group of volunteers (connected to an organisation called CoMusica, I believe) had organised a showcase of a few young local bands - some probably not even out of sixth form - and, though about as small as you can get there were a handful of cool bands that are worth checking out.

The overall theme of the night - presumably because it's every teenage boy's dream to be a rock star - was heavy, often pop-punk, rock. Unfortunately, while the Sage is presumably a perfectly decent venue for classical concerts, it made a terrible place to hold a rock gig: for a start, the audience was seated, giving it the atmosphere of a high school assembly. Nevertheless, the bands had a good go at entertaining the sedentary audience.

The two that really stood out were Beckenheim and Warning. Beckenheim's impressively dark sound, sporting heavy, chugging riffs, didn't quite work within the family-friendly setting; the lead singer repeatedly assured the audience more upbeat songs were on the way. After a year's hiatus it was a good warm-up gig for greater things yet to come (hopefully!).

The other great band that played was Warning, an energetic rock trio with a surprisingly confident and well-developed sound. Of the original songs being presented by the bands of the night, Warning's 'Domino' stood out with its bouncy beat and great riff; as a friend remarked later, it could come on in a club and easily fill the dancefloor.

Paige Temperley (photo adapted
from promo pic on Solar
Powered Supermen's website)
My favourite act of the night though was Paige Temperley, who perfomed a quietly brilliant acoustic set of just two songs. The first, an original composition, was a lovely little ditty (the name of which I unfortunately completely missed) with interesting chord sequences and changes in tempo; while the second was an excellent reworking of Soulja Boy's 'Turn My Swag On', presumably influenced by Cher Lloyd's famous cover.

Initially Temperley's guitar wasn't miked up properly, which actually worked in her favour - highlighting her surprisingly soulful (and excellent) voice and giving the performance an almost a capella sound: even when volumes were restored to normal levels Temperley's short but sweet set was a joy to behold. Yet it's a little disappointing to find that Temperley's own band, Solar Powered Supermen, is a bog-standard bedroom-rock band - nowhere near as interesting or original as what was on display tonight.

The gig finishes on a group singalong of 'Teenage Kicks' with all of the bands that have played tonight. Though it's a shame the Sage can't even accommodate a standing audience or a fully-darkened room, kudos to them for giving these talented youngsters a platform to perform.

Saturday 22 January 2011

Maps & Atlases Interview

“We went on tour with Frightened Rabbit in America, the shows were incredible,” recalls Erin Elders, guitarist for American math-pop-rock four-piece Maps & Atlases. “One night we played in Minneapolis and we stayed at this hotel. The next morning there was this crazy hostage situation right above us. We woke up totally clueless of this situation that had been going on for hours! There were police officers in my face, saying ‘Go back in your room, there’s a hostage situation!’ I think they just tear-gassed the guy, and no-one was hurt, but we were sitting in that hotel room for hours.”

No matter what happens on their upcoming UK tour, surely there will be nothing as dramatic as that. That’s if they ever get here, mind.
“We’re definitely excited. Though I haven’t really prepared or started packing or anything and we fly out tomorrow!” Elders laughs.

Last year saw the release of the group’s debut full-length release Perch Patchwork, providing a different, but “definitely positive” recording experience to that of their two acclaimed EPs.
“From the early planning stages we knew it was going to be a full-length. We went into it knowing it was going to be challenging, whereas with the EPs we just went in and recorded what we had,” recalls Erin of the year-long process. “When we went into it, we knew we wanted to branch out with the instrumentation and expand upon the EPs.”

Blending the complexity of Foals-esque math-rock with the Afro-pop rhythms of Vampire Weekend, Maps & Atlases’ debut album boasts a host of intricate but melodic tunes.
“Once we realised that those elements were there, we tried to cultivate them a little bit. Early on, when Dave and I would start writing songs, we were influenced by free jazz and ‘70s prog-rock. The influences are really big. It’s all about crafting well-written songs, but maintaining that energy and joy of playing together.”

The album also served to widen Maps & Atlases’ appeal, moving beyond the attention of the devoted math-rock scene.
“For a long time our fans were people who are really into music, but it was interesting to start seeing people at our shows who were just occasional music listeners but who really liked it. That was great,” says Elder.

Now with the album completely finished, Maps & Atlases are ready to hit the road.
“The live shows are going to be very different from the album – there are horns and strings all over the record. When we do the songs live it’s a little more stripped-down and rock’n’roll. It’s translates well, just as a different presentation of the songs.”

UK fans are most likely to have seen Maps & Atlases supporting Foals in 2008.

“In America, Foals are a pretty big deal as well. We became really good friends with them. But when they brought us over to the UK, it blew our minds! I guess we just didn’t realise how popular they are there. We flew over and did our first show to over 2000 people. Musically I think we have some similar influences, but we both kind of do our own things.”

Following the tour, Erin claims that the band “looks to start working on a new record pretty soon.” UK fans should take the chance to see Maps & Atlases before they go global.

Maps & Atlases are playing a few UK shows at the end of January - see dates here.
Their debut album Perch Patchwork is out now - buy on Amazon, or listen on Spotify.

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Monday 17 January 2011

Introducing... Jamie Woon

I came across a video today that really seemed to capture me. No, it wasn't the bulldog dancing to Notorious B.I.G (although that was awesome too), but a live, sort-of-a-cappella performance from Jamie Woon.

You might recognise the name - Woon recently placed fourth on BBC's Sound of 2011, though I confess that before today I'd never heard of him. Those lists can be troublesome things too - just see the winners from the past few years. Ellie Goulding's success was mild at best, releasing an overly electronic album that alienated her original fanbase, while all her new listeners are now likely to have moved on. That simpering cover of 'Your Song' definitely seemed to smack of desperation, and will ironically probably end up her most well known song. The year before that, Little Boots made even fewer waves than Goulding, with other acts in the top five including White Lies, who, whilst not awful, just seemed like a sub-Editors, who themselves just seem like a sub-Interpol.

Well, enough of slagging off other artists, and back to the point. When I first heard the track that you'll find at the bottom of this post, I didn't instantly fall in love with it. I took it in, gave a slight nod of the head, and moved on. But something, a little while later, brought me back to that video.

It starts simply enough - Woon walks onstage, twiddles with a few bits of equipments, and takes to the mic. First, he makes a beat. Then a simple vocal over the top. Then another vocal. And another, now harmonising. Looping and building, the first two minutes of the track, 'Spirits', is pretty incredible stuff. Many have likened Woon to the super-hyped (and it's looking deservedly so) James Blake, and you can see why, with a sound halfway between dubstep and Four Tet-style blissed-out electronics. Woon's voice is a little more R'n'B, and at times I must admit it all gets a little too Craig David. But for the most part, it's a really great song, expertly created - halfway through you have to sit and remind yourself how Jamie has built this song from the ground up. And that's pretty magical. I'll leave it at that for now, and let the track speak for itself:

Jamie Woon is touring the UK in February/March - check out the dates here.

Free MP3s: Spirits | Blue Truth

Pre-order his debut 'Mirrorwriting' on Amazon here.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Gig Review - Pulled Apart By Horses @ Newcastle Cluny, 11/01/11

Newcastle has waited a long time for an appearance from Leeds four-piece Pulled Apart By Horses. With a show in November cancelled on the day (apparently lead singer Tom was coughing up blood - how metal of him), this was their chance to make up for lost time. Preceeding the band were Young Legionnaire, featuring ex-members from the likes of yourcodenameis:milo and Bloc Party. Sounding like Vertigo Of Bliss-era Biffy Clyro fronted by the bastard offspring of Brian Molko and The Mars Volta's Cedric Bixler-Zavala, their set was pretty impressive, chock full with interesting time signatures and loud riffs tied together by incredibly tight drumming. With a debut album out in March, Young Legionnaire are definitely one to watch.

However, any band having to open for Pulled Apart By Horses is placed in a difficult position. No matter how great you play, and Young Legionnaire really were great, the jaw-dropping (ultimate) power of Pulled Apart By Horses' live show is such that, come the gig's close, the punters aren't likely to be talking about the support act when they leave. Opening with the frenetic, and fantastically titled, 'E=MC Hammer', the atmosphere is raucous from the get go. Droves of fans flood to the front of The Cluny's main room, bodies flailing, limbs in the air. By the time 'Back to the Fuck Yeah' starts, even those towards the back of the crowd are at least tapping their toes and nodding their heads - at a Pulled Apart By Horses gig, movement is mandatory. Slap bang in the middle of exam and essay period, it seems there is no greater release than flinging oneself into the centre of a writhing mass of bodies, bellowing "YEAAAAAAH! YEAAAAAH!"

Now with a debut album under their belts, last year's frankly awesome self-titled release, the band have an extremely strong setlist, positively brimming with explosive riffs and tongue-in-cheek lyrics that could bring a smile to even the stoniest faces. Newer tracks 'Yeah Buddy', 'Get Off My Ghost Train' and 'Moonlit Talons' all make appearances that fit in extremely well alongside old favourites 'The Crapsons' and 'Meat Balloon'. The pace, the audience's energy, the band's intensity; none of it wavers for a second. For those that have seen the band live before, the stage staples remain - James climbing anything he can get a hold of, Tom diving into the crowd, Lee remaining silent but effortlessly precise behind his kit. That it still feels fresh and exhilarating is testament to Pulled Apart By Horses' skill both as musicians and manic entertainers.

As the set draws to a close, the big guns come out; 'High Five, Swan Dive, Nose Dive' and 'I Punched A Lion In The Throat' still pack a huge punch, with scorching licks and amazing lyrics in abundance (try I'll make you dance with my balls on fire!, or Ultimate power! Maximum life!). The crowd explodes, the sweaty mob at the front increasing in numbers and stamina in the stand-out highlight of the evening. The final song, the album's epic closer 'Den Horn', with its crushingly monstrous riff, feels like a victory lap as the audience slows down slightly to take in the last devastating blast of sound before it's time for Pulled Apart By Horses to leave.

Overall, an invigorating, intoxicating shot of adrenaline. It's become a cliche to say so, but the point has truly become unavoidable - Pulled Apart By Horses surely must be one of the UK's best live bands. Don't believe me? You'll just have to see for yourself.

Pulled Apart By Horses' debut album is out now - buy it here on Amazon, and listen here on Spotify. I implore you.

Friday 7 January 2011

Gig Review - ATP Presents Strange Days @ London Hammersmith Apollo, 31/12/10

New Year's Eve always tends to be utterly disappointing, and so this year I decided to spice it up by attending a gig organised by the rather fashionable All Tomorrow's Parties - headlined by none other but the gods of noise rock themselves, Sonic Youth.

Considering that I made an extra effort to check out on record all of the many support acts playing tonight, I was a little bit disappointed to miss Factory Floor, whose ice-cold minimalist electronica would certainly have got the party started. Actually, scratch that last bit.

When we arrive at the Apollo - a lovely little theatre that, while a major London venue, is just intimate enough to ensure everyone gets a good view - The Pop Group are the first band we manage to catch. Though touted as an "influential" 80s noise-ska-jazz band, let's not mince words here: on record, I found them absolutely dreadful. I'm sure they must have their fans to be still playing shows over two decades on, but to me they sound like a bizarre mix of early Chili Peppers funk and walls of crippling noise - all drowned out by a raving lunatic with too much reverb on his mic.

Live, they only come off a little better: the funk may be danceable, but the lead guitarist appears to be hell-bent on destroying the song (as well as making a general racket with a distorted keyboard and guitar pedals between songs). The singer - now middle-aged with a belly - still jumps around the stage and refuses to sing anything vaguely resembling in tune. Suffice to be said, we were all very glad when they finally shuffled off stage.

Next up are Shellac. But first the bar, for ridiculously overpriced pints of Carlsberg. Urgh. I don't know if the Hammersmith Apollo was merely taking advantage of the British New Year's Eve tradition of getting hammered, or if their prices are always set high for their captive audience, but £4.20 is not an acceptable price for a pint.

Without warning - lacking an intro track or even tension-building dimming of the lights - Shellac walk onstage, pick up their instruments and start playing music. I'm not going to pretend to know Shellac very well (in fact, shamefully, I'd never even heard of them before buying tickets), but they're good. Really, really good. They don't even play the one Shellac track I know well, 'Prayer To God' - but with riffs so heavy, an atmosphere so thick and a crowd so intense, who needs familiarity?

At last, the time arrives. A couple of minutes before midnight, Thurston Moore walks onstage brandishing an open bottle of champagne and hands it to the crowd. As the rest of Sonic Youth take up their instruments, he begins to count down to midnight. At the stroke of midnight, the venue erupts with cries of "happy new year!", giant balls of glitter explode above us and begin to flutter down, and Sonic Youth begin playing 'Sacred Trickster'. I'm not entirely sure what happened during the next hour and a half. Most of the material was off the latest album The Eternal, although finishing with two tracks off Daydream Nation and the classic tune 'Kool Thing' was absolute bliss.

By the end of the night, I was bruised all over, soaked with sweat and my ears were ringing, but I can't think of a better way possible to ring in the new year.

Photo by DG Jones