Wednesday 25 May 2011

Grotesquely Good - The Horrors Return

It’s a long while now since the release of ‘Death At The Chapel’, the two-minute punk track that established The Horrors as a mad, energetic band with oodles of character. It was, of course, overshadowed by the band’s obsession with silly haircuts and ten-minute sets, as well as intentionally macabre lyrics that never felt entirely genuine. After one album and a brief spell in the spotlight, no-one expected to hear from them again.

And then that album came out.

There have been few transformations, a least musically, than the metamorphosis that occurred between Strange House and Primary Colours. The leap from from three-chord sub-goth punk to energetic shoegaze was astounding: From the ambient introduction to ‘Mirror’s Image’ to the galacial synths of ‘Who Can Say’ and the distorted, mangled guitar riff of 'I Can’t Control Myself’, the record was a treat to behold.

The key track, of course, was ‘Sea Within A Sea’, a minimalistic beast of a song with no chorus and one the most beautiful synth arpeggios ever devised. Serene, psychedelic and immaculately arranged, it was a world away from the scrappy punk rock of their early songs and stepping dangerously close to electronica. Though narrowly missing out on the Mercury Prize (pipped to the post by the utterly undeserving Speech Debelle, whose career shortly imploded), the album went on to be hailed as one of the best of the year.

So here we are, two years later. Though many still write off The Horrors for their insistence on continuing to wear all black and have silly haircuts, this is very much not the band that once sang about “hacking at a sea of appendages”, as proven by ‘Still Life’, a new song released to the world yesterday.

The forced paranoia and cheap tricks have melted away - this is not the work of a punk band. This is pure psychedelica, a calm and blissful journey of a song that plods along at its own pace. Distorted guitars - once the lifeblood of a band who still retained a ‘garage’ sound inbetween all the shoegaze - have been replaced with an interweaving, reversed riff and massive 80s-style synth parts.

The song builds to an incredible crescendo and ends on that repeating, anthemic refrain. It’s simply glorious: a technicolour burst of controlled energy that manages to hit a spot so few psychedelic bands manage to reach.

Can new album Skying (due 11th June) top Primary Colours? If this first single is anything to go by, it could well do. One thing to consider, though: now that their music is warm and life-affirming, should The Horrors really be called The Horrors? The only thing horrible about ‘Still Life’ is that it only lasts five minutes and twenty-one seconds.

Album Review: The Leisure Society - Into The Murky Water

Another very late review here, and another album which provided great company in the library while I slogged away at my mountainous pile of essays until the wee hours. Yes, the second album from The Leisure Society came out a fair few weeks ago, however the fact that it's still getting regular plays at Quiff HQ is testament to what a great album Into The Murky Water is.

Fronted by Nick Hemming (who it seems obligatory to mention once played in a band with Shane Meadows and Paddy Considine), the eight-piece group were notably nominated in the 'Best Song Musically and Lyrically' category at the Ivor Novello awards for 'The Last Of The Melting Snow' from debut album The Sleeper. Though they didn't win, Hemming's ability to masterfully craft songs really is remarkable, and surely places him at the forefront of British songwriting. Into The Murky Water is, as its title would suggest, adventurous and exciting, but with a dark undercurrent.

The opening seconds of first track 'Into The Murky Water' are wonderfully cinematic - there's an immediate sensation of submersion, a plinking glockenspiel, flurrying strings and thumping drums really giving the impression of a descent into the deep. As the chorus arrives, so too does a huge, beautiful melody, with gently swaying, tidal composition. The whole thing plays out like some sort of wide-eyed underwater discovery, full of musical flutters, grand, harmonising backing vocals and a real sense of exploration: 'The Life Aquatic with Nick Hemming', if you will. It's a perfect opener, and an immediate example of the band's use of all eight members to create an amazingly immersive, atmospheric five minutes of music. The almost Arcade Fire-esque stomp of 'Dust on the Dancefloor' is a real blast, with a surfy bassline, and a wonderful buildup to the toe-tapping conclusion. 'Our Hearts Burn Like Damp Matches' is a '...Melting Snow'-esque delicate acoustic ballad, with fantastic use of piano to accentuate one of the album's most touching vocal melodies, as Hemming sings "Hollow words sit silent in my mouth/Reasoned voices idle on the ground". Similarly, 'I Shall Forever Remain an Amateur' begins as a low key acoustic track, before blossoming with soaring strings and playful flute arrangements.

Into The Murky Water's highlights arrive at the centre of the album in the forms of 'You Could Keep Me Talking' and 'This Phantom Life'. The former begins with a pomp-filled staccato horn and string riff, with wonderful use of dynamics in the subdued pre-chorus, before suddenly giving way to a fantastic burst of vibrant instrumentation. The track builds into an awesome crescendo with a squealing distorted guitar, around the brilliant couplet "Most folks collide with such sickening ease/Their instincts arrives as my intellect leaves". It's an incredible song, only bettered by the aforemention epic 'This Phantom Life'. As the gorgeous instrumental introduction sunddenly launches into a full-on, dizzying arrangement of guitars, organs, strings and gigantic vocal harmonies, 'This Phantom Life' is a masterpiece of complex, intelligent, well-written British pop music. It's a perfect summer song, absolutely brimming with postivity and vitality. It has the best chorus on the album (both in terms of music and lyrics), as the whole band belts out "If we only knew the answers, we could print them up onto T-shirts/We could sing for revolution, we could fight all our wars and win them/Or while away the summer days in a day-dream". There's even a jazz-flute (yazz-flute?) solo in there somewhere, an audacious move which actually fits the song perfectly.

The only drawback of 'This Phantom Life' is that a few of the tracks towards the end struggle to live up to it. Whilst 'The Hungry Years' is touching and poignant with fantastic lyrics, 'Better Written Off (Than Written Down)' is a country-tinged number which, with its Western American sound feels a bit at odds with the overtly British feel of the rest of the album. It's certainly not a bad song, and not one that you'd skip, but it never reaches the heights of the sensory blast of what's come before. Luckily, 'Just Like The Knife' provides an excellent closer. If 'Into The Murky Water' was the album's plunge into the deep blue, 'Just Like The Knife' is the ascent to the surface. It's a fairly calm and relaxed retreat from the thrill of the preceding adventure, but it's still full of the quirks that make The Leisure Society's music so distinctive.

Overall, this is a fantastic album which sees Hemming and the band more than live up to the promise of The Sleeper. With it's nostalgic '60s British pop sound, there's nothing particularly 'cool' about Into The Murky Water - it's certainly no 'hot new sound', and it's unlikely to feature on the hottest NYC blogs, but it's so amazingly composed and well-written that it really does demand your attention. Lyrically, it's surprisingly deep, with wryly observed couplets and a surprisingly dark tone, while the music itself is full of so many twists and turns that it's a joy just trying to keep up, and you'll never know where it's heading next. Also, it's definitely worth noting that the presentation of the CD is incredible - not only is the album cover already one of the year's best, but the book-style casing and fantastic artwork really makes the physical release worth your hard-earned cash. It wouldn't be surprising to find the band on the nominations list for the Ivor Novellos (yet again) or the Mercury Prize this year - and with Into The Murky Water, they've got a bloody good chance of nailing it.

  The Leisure Society - This Phantom Life by pdis_inpartmaint

Into The Murky Water is out now - buy it on Amazon here. They've also announced a big UK tour, check out the dates here.

Sunday 22 May 2011

Album Review: Wild Beasts - Smother

So, we're a bit late with getting a review of this one. It may have come out a few weeks ago, but having been under strict library confinement I've had very little chance to write as many blog posts as I would have liked - however, just like the rest of the world, I've been pretty wowed by Smother, the last album from Wild Beasts, which became an integral part of the soundtrack to my essay writing nightmare.

The Leeds music scene is, frankly, getting a bit ridiculous now. Between Pulled Apart By Horses, Dinosaur Pile-Up and Sky Larkin, they have grunge, pounding riffs, and super-melodic guitar-pop covered, with a formidable live reputation to boot. Wild Beasts, whose second album Two Dancers garnered considerable acclaim in 2009, add yet another ridiculously talented string to the Leeds music bow with their genre-defying mix of pop, alt-rock and operatics, and with Smother they've yet again created an extraordinary body of music.

In a few years time, 2011 may be viewed in retrospect as the year that pop music reclaimed the art of silence. Take, for instance, James Blake's debut - the intricacy and precision of the production ensuring that silence becomes part of the music, with the sparsity allowing every thrum of bass to resonate, every beat to plummet, and the vocals to glide serenely across the epic sonic landscape. See also tracks such as 'Night Air' and 'Spirals' from Jamie Woon's debut Mirrorwriting for a masterclass in the application of atmospheric stillness. To a certain extent, Smother follows a similar ethos, taking pleasure in moments of tranquility and subtlety.

This isn't to suggest that Wild Beasts have gone all post-dubstep on Smother, although there's certainly a throbbing bassline at the core of 'Albatross'. Rather, they have simply mastered the art of atmosphere - from the pulsing synth intro to opener 'Lion's Share', Smother is an absolutely captivating listen. Hayden Thorpe's trademark falsetto is stunning as usual, both placid and unsettling as it floats above the woozy electronics. Most astounding is the band's use of rhythm and percussion here - take tracks such as 'Plaything' which innovatively injects incredible resonance and dynamics into a military beat, or the gorgeous, sultry swagger of 'Deeper' which really has to be heard to be believed.

Despite its sophisticated-sounding exterior, on the inside Smother is a brilliantly smutty album, full of lyrics that'd make your mother blush. As Thorpe trills on 'Bed of Nails', "Our love/Frankenstein in nature and design/Like the Shelleys on their very first time/When our bodies become electrified/Together we bring this creature alive/It's alive! It's alive! It's alive!", both the band's literary aspirations and their mastery of eccentric seduction is brought to the fore. When they aren't being discreetly filthy, Wild Beasts display their darkness, from the Coleridge-referencing gloom of 'Albatross', or the haunting, gothic melodrama of 'Invisible'. The proficiency of their lyricism just adds another expansive dimension to an already stunning, complex work.

Yet for all Smother's intellect, it's surprisingly accessible. Its intelligence is never alienating or condescending, and despite being predominantly atmospheric, it's an album which never bores or becomes pretentious. In fact, one of Smother's greatest strengths is that it never overtly flaunts its brilliance - for all the dramatics, Wild Beasts never allow their eccentricities to overwhelm. They've simply produced an astonishingly consistent collection of tracks that bristle with melody, emotional intensity and dark magnetism, and it's bound to appear in many critics best-of lists come December.

  Wild Beasts - Albatross by DominoRecordCo

Smother is out now - buy the CD here, or get the MP3 download at 7Digital for £4 here, bargain! Also, be sure to check the band out on tour, as they're incredible live. Dates are here on their official website.

Monday 16 May 2011

Re-Connect the Dots

It seems that nowadays most cities have their own one-day festivals, doesn't it? Well, that's because many of them do, but  few are usually as talked about as the Nottingham-bred 'Dot To Dot', which, since 2005, has gradually spread its wings out towards Bristol, Manchester, and briefly in 2008 to London for 'Hox To Dot'. The all-dayer's renown is well-earned - just see the lineups of previous years, featuring the likes of Klaxons, The Horrors, Foals, Late Of The Pier, Sky Larkin, Laura Marling, Santogold... I could go on. So I will: Friendly Fires (whose latest album is sure to top the charts this week, it's a little bit brilliant), Fight Like Apes, Dinosaur Pile-Up, Titus Andronicus... the list goes on and on. Every year, the festival strikes a perfect balance by managing to assemble a line-up which both appeases a mainstream audience with big names at a fraction of the weekend-long summer music fest price, as well as slipping in a fair few less well-known but equally bloody brilliant acts. Rather excitingly, this year's Dot To Dot is rapidly approaching, taking place between the 28th and 30th of May, and in terms of lineup quality, it's another belter. In anticipation of what is sure to be one of the best weekends of the year for live music, Elliot and myself give our rundown of the acts we're most excited about seeing.

No messing about here - Dot To Dot have secured one of the very best bands I've ever seen live. If you've never seen Dananananaykroyd's hyperkinetic, glorious, self-professed fight pop/party-core on stage, then be sure to make these Scots one of your top priorities. There are few bands out there at the moment who are as thrilling, but most importantly as much sheer, joyous fun to watch than the 'Kroyd. Expect singers Calum and John Baillie Jr. to be giving you high-fives in the crowd within minutes, and be prepared for one of the best parties you've ever been to.

Notable tunes: The whole of Hey Everyone! is incredible, but check out 'Black Wax' / 'Watch This!' / 'Totally Bone' / 'Pink Sabbath' / 'Some Dresses'... oh, the whole bloody thing! And new single 'Muscle Memory' too...

  DANANANANAYKROYD - Black Wax by nettwerksync

Large, silly hats indeed...
Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs
Along with Dananananaykroyd, these guys have definitely one of the best band names on the line-up, and anyone who heard our Quiff Pro 'Fro radio show on Friday night will have heard us give 'Garden' a spin. TEED play miserable yet very danceable electronica, with a few dubsteppy beats thrown in for good measure, and have made a considerable impact with tunes like 'Household Goods' and the aforementioned 'Garden'. They also apparently have a fondness for large, silly hats, and have attracted a fan in Annie Mac - what else could you need?

Notable tunes: 'Garden' ft. Lulu of folk group Lulu and the Lampshades / 'Household Goods' / 'Trouble'

  Household Goods by T-E-E-D

The Joy Formidable
Anyone who likes their rock music loud and grungy probably already knows about The Joy Formidable. Their debut album The Big Roar is sure to feature in a few critics' best-of lists come the end of the year, and has won over audiences across the UK for good reason - there are brilliant melodies behind the growling, swelling guitars, and in Ritzy Bryan they have a magnetic frontwoman who, erm... whirls round the stage lots and has been known to smash her guitar just one song into a set. It's sure to be one of the loudest and heaviest sets of the day - check it out if that's your thing.

Notable tunes: 'Whirring' / 'Austere' / 'Popinjay'

  The Joy Formidable - Austere by

Here's a name that, if you don't know now, you'll definitely know in a few months time. These massively hyped but reluctant superstars-to-be, channel classic motown R'n'B into spooky indie music, with fashionable boy/girl vocals. Having signed to Lily Allen's record label (not a particularly obvious match), they're due to launch a debut in the next few months, making this a chance to see them before they get big, and so you can feel all smug and superior about it.

Notable tunes: ‘Abducted’ (great organ and glockenspiel use) / ‘You Know What I Mean’ (wait for the build up into a humongous, climactic finale!)

  Cults - Abducted by cultscultscults

2011 Lineup - Click to Enlarge
Other acts to catch on the day:

Stagecoach - I've written about these guys loads ('Introducing...' piece and new single review), and can't wait to see them live. 'Map to the Freezer' is bound to be absolutely huge!

The Naked And Famous - Elliot raved about these guys in his live review, with a moodier and more intense live sound than on record.

Guillemots - The former Mercury-nominees released a new album this year to minimal fuss, but Fyfe Dangerfield's songwriting talents are impossible to doubt.

Benjamin Francis Leftwich - Great to see this guy doing so well, and expect big things from him this summer. He's great live and a very nice guy - expect a brilliantly chilled and atmospheric set.

We Are Scientists - Come on, you know exactly what to expect from We Are Scientists - a bunch of catchy pop rock tunes that make you feel 15 again, and a load of hilarious jokes from one of the funniest bands in the world.

Dot To Dot takes place in Bristol on May 28th, in Nottingham on May 29th, and in Manchester on May 30th. For more details, tickets and line-up announcements check out the official site here.

Saturday 14 May 2011

Introducing... Room Full Of Owls

Note: I wrote this piece for another publication last October, but unfortunately it never made it to print. I recently unearthed it and think that this awesome band deserves as much publicity as possible, so here you go!

I'm sitting with Room Full Of Owls, an up-and-coming folk band from Alston, Cumbria. There's a lot to discuss before they go onstage for a charity battle of the bands, but first there's a very important question to be asked. How many owls does it take to fill a room? "Fifty, in an average room," drummer Steve Orchiton tells me. "It depends on the room though."

Having formed in late 2008, the band have been slowly building a name for themselves, including support slots for the Joy Formidable - who recently headlined the NME Radar tour - and the Airborne Toxic Event, as well as playing several local festivals. Recently, the band were invited down to BBC Lancashire to do a live session for the broadcaster's BBC Introducing initiative.

The band performing for BBC Introducing
"We were really nervous about it," says frontwoman Fiona Clayton. "It was quite hard because we didn't know if we were on the radio or not."

"It was horrible, just standing there," adds guitarist Tom MacMillan, a music student at Newcastle University. "You get your first chord ready on guitar for like fifteen seconds, sweating!"

"I fell over and pulled the laptop wire out!" laughs bassist Jan Cardy. Although the broadcast didn't set their fan pages alight, they've had offers to play within the region again. This happily also coincided with the launch of their first iTunes single, Heartbeats, which singer Fiona describes as "a promotional thing" rather than being the first steps towards commercialism, as most people seem to treat releases - but then again, who makes money off selling their music these days anyway?

All jokes aside,  is the name meant to have rural connotations? Apparently, Room Full Of Owls was chosen as "the most random backstage request we could think of". In fact, the band are clearly unwilling to, er, pigeonhole themselves as a "folk" band, and though Fiona admits a fondness for Mumford and Sons, the rest of the band describe their style as "wall of sound", "progressive rock" and somewhat bizarrely "postrock". "That drawn-out instrumental stuff," assures Tom, detecting my skepticism.

Live, the Owls are upbeat and danceable, the fiddle accompaniment giving a warm and rustic sound. "Legs In A Bag" - a song about "dancing very slowly with yourself" - is catchy and surprisingly funky. The stage banter is less inspiring. "I get told not to talk at gigs 'cause I ramble on... yeah," mumbles Fiona. It's in a cover of Magnetic Man's "Perfect Stranger" that the band's previously mentioned influences spill out: the guitar is thrashed into a distorted roar and the band build up to an enormous shoegaze-style crescendo.

There's more to Room Full Of Owls than being just another band with a fiddle swept up in the recent folk revival, then, but it's clear they're only just beginning to explore their craft. It's clear this little gig is far too small for the Owls - and at the end of the night, they're crowned the winner of the battle of the bands. It's the first of many awards, hopefully.

Monday 9 May 2011

Stagecoach: Back Into The Scrum With Jonah Lomu

A few months ago, I championed the incredibly fun Crash My Ride EP from Stagecoach for being chock full of great singalong lyrics, growling guitars, and most importantly having a massive, stupid grin on its face. The band are back with the double A-side single release of two brand new tracks -  'Jonah Lomu' and 'Tony Hawk', and they're both belters.

'Jonah Lomu' brings an almost brit-pop element to Stagecoach's self-proclaimed "junk-pop", especially in the catchy 'ooohs' that open the tune and the distorted, sneering vocals. Later on though it's back to the usual business with squealing, chugging guitars, simple but effective drumming, and a hook-laden chorus.

'Tony Hawk's opening yell of 'And it goes like...' once again lays way to a brilliant pop-punk chorus, while the lyrics, with talk of packing bongs and playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, continue the Stagecoach tradition of being exquisitely, knowingly trashy, which isn't to say they're bad at all - the band deals in a very precise form of entertainingly disposable wordplay. Whilst I feel that Stagecoach are at their best when they're having fun, there's a pretty serious message underlying the tune too, about university students being unappreciative of their opportunity to learn, which in the light of the Tory cuts seems more pressing than ever.

These two tunes might not surpass the best moments of Crash My Ride (the Dananananaykroyd-esque 'Map To The Freezer' still holds the crown of being their best tune), but 'Jonah Lomu' and 'Tony Hawk' certainly make good company in the University Library when you've got 10,000 words of essays to write (hence the lack of posts recently), and that's got to be a good thing.

Jonah Lomu by Stagecoach

'Tony Hawk' is currently unable to embed, I'll link it if it becomes available!

The double A-side single release can be bought on CD (in limited pizza box packaging!) at the upcoming Stagecoach UK tour.