Monday, 22 August 2016

Can it ever top this? A review of Green Man 2016

This being my tenth review of the Green Man Festival in the last eleven years, you'd think I'd be running out of things to say.  Not so.  Although the 'best ever' description is one I've used before, it's not difficult to find new superlatives when you get back from the exhilarating experience that was Green Man 2016, muddy and smelly but reflecting how, remarkably, this one really did manage to outstrip all others.

There are certain very rare experiences, across many fields of human endeavour and recreation, where you feel things are going your way and are about to get better no matter what happens - that fate cannot stand in the way of the inevitable upsurge of a great time.  Such was the feeling that hummed around the Far Out Stage of the Green Man on Thursday night, when the remarkable twisted sound experiments of Meatraffle drifted out into the still sunny surroundings.

From there the sun frequently disappeared, giving way to thrashing showers and high winds, but the mood never dimmed and the Far Out continued to play one of its most memorable hands ever.  The Membranes delivered a typically forthright punch to the solar plexus that throbbed lovingly well into Friday afternoon; then Suuns produced a set that managed to top the one they so memorably unpacked in the same place five years ago.  Geoff Barrow's BEAK>; just about topped them both on the Saturday, their set of pummelling, winding noises encircling a crowd that wasn't so much entranced as part of the entrancement.

That's why reference to the music alone isn't quite enough to describe the particular joys of this Green Man.  I've raised mild concerns in recent years about a creeping atmosphere of sniffy cynicism discernable among certain purist elements, alongside a fear that the festival was also becoming a camping weekend for people who could afford simply to lounge around soaking up an atmosphere to which they contributed nothing, leaving their own tents only fleetingly to park their seats in front of the main stage and read the paper. 

Such elements seemed, for whatever reason, entirely absent this year.  A buzzing sense of anticipation encircled all the arenas; men and women older than me walked around in Belle and Sebastian t-shirts, while teenagers strolled about with The Smiths and Joy Division plastered across their chests.  Two kids, wearing unicorn and rabbit heads, danced manically, for ages, to the vintage disco being pumped out of one of the stalls.  Two teenage girls performed the most astonishing improved dance routine up and down the Mountain Foot stage steps as B&S performed in the rain on the last night. 

Belle and Sebastian
Excited and enthusiastic talk of what had been seen the night before reverberated with a gleeful sense of un-blinkered discovery around the grounds each morning.  A guy in his sixties conversed with me about the many wonderful manifestations of Malcolm Middleton, before bashing away enthusiastically on the steel barrier as he (Malc, that is) performed a storming set at the Walled Garden on the last night.  During the headline act's Sunday set, Stuart Murdoch invited dozens of fans up to fill the stage during 'The Boy With the Arab Strap'.  As they left, one young woman grabbed a microphone and yelled 'Fuck Brexit' to rapturous cheers from the crowd.

Perhaps that was part of it.  The post-Brexit need for communal enjoyment bringing out the best in people.   Opposition to this act of economic and cultural vandalism was certainly voiced from the stage on numerous occasions and drew rapturous waves of approval every time.

Middleton's set edged it in terms of the Walled Garden's many highlights, but there were many close challengers.  The gentle reflections of Steven James Adams offered poignancy, honesty and genuine warmth.  Happy Meal Ltd produced an astonishing set on the Sunday, taking glam rock sensibilities, rubbing them howling into brashly displayed torsos and delivering an irreverent, musical Bronx cheer into the bargain.  Throws were bewitching, yanking the founding members of Tunng back somewhere close to their magical roots.  Bill Baird and band crashed through a ramshackle set of gloriously melodic tunes, a kind of slacker-embossed wonky pop that's been so good for so long and it was great to see it performed here.

The Mountain Foot offered its own delights.  Belle and Sebastian's closing set on the last night was magical, a fully rounded romp through one of the finest back catalogues of modern times.  Yorkston/Thorne/Khan produced a lovingly crafted live run-through of what has been one of 2016's best albums so far.  Tindersticks were slickly enigmatic, with disguised musical punches popping up all over the place - everything you want them to be.  And people keep telling me they don't understand why I like The Unthanks so much: whatever it is, I grabbed the opportunity to see them for a second time here and wasn't disappointed.

In any other year, that final Belle & Sebastian set would have been the undisputed highlight of the weekend.  However, nine years ago Battles played a set here that I regarded - and still do - as one of the best gigs I've ever been to and it seemed too much to expect they'd get anywhere near it on this much-anticipated return.  They duly smashed it.  A full ten minutes before they came on the Far Out marquee was humming with expectation.  Then they arrived to deliver a phenomenal set that included, among other delights, a revised version of 'Atlas' that managed to do everything the old one did, and add, incredibly, still more.

The same might be said of Green Man.  I really didn't think there could be such an improvement on the many hours of exhilaration I've enjoyed at Glanusk Park in the past.  I was wrong.  The one cranked it up another notch, one I didn't know existed.  Highlight of the year - indeed, of any year.

Green Man 2016 - A personal top ten

1. Battles (Far Out, Saturday)
2. Belle and Sebastian (Mountain Foot, Sunday)
3. Meatraffle (Far Out, Thursday)
4. BEAK> (Far Out, Saturday)
5. Malcolm Middleton (Walled Garden, Sunday)
6. Suuns (Far Out, Friday)
7. Bill Baird (Walled Garden, Sunday)
8. Yorkston/Thorne/Khan (Mountain Foot, Saturday)
9. Happy Meal Ltd (Walled Garden, Sunday)
10. Steven James Adams (Walled Garden, Friday)

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Staraya Derevnya - Kadita Sessions

There was really only one way to end my traditional summer blogging hiatus and that was with a review of an album that's done so much to get me through a couple of months of hotel rooms, train journeys and improbable work deadlines.

Kadita Sessions came out in April so it's frustrating that I've not been able to write anything about it before now.  It is, frankly, one of the most magical and bewitching albums I've heard for a long, long time.  From the guttural howl that is the starting point for opener of 'Hram' to the frantic close of 'Kadita', the listener is taken on a journey that's perhaps best described as one third aural Alice Through the Looking Class, one third experimental psych jamboree and one third impossible to describe.

One listen of the aforementioned album opener was enough to tell me that this was a collection that was likely to keep me occupied for a damn good portion of my life, working on the assumption that at some point in the hopefully far-off future I'll lose my faculties at roughly the same time as my bladder control.  An inability to appreciate something as wonderful as this is what makes me dread such a day (the loss of faculties, I mean; the loss of bladder control will be regrettable, but probably something I can learn to live with).

From there we're taken on seven extraordinary journeys, from the understated 'Chastity' to the majestically freakish 'Het', one of the album's shorter excursions but already a contender for my favourite track of 2016.

If that's not enough to whet your appetite you should know that you can download the whole thing here for NYOP, although there's also a CD version available and you can get your hands on a cassette via Weakie Discs.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Sekotis - For Your Weird Ears

Long-time listeners to my Dandelion Radio show will know that a few years ago I revealed the results of research that showed that Brighton had more good bands and artists per head of its population than anywhere else in the UK.
I'm sure if I carried out further research the same result would emerge, because since then there's certainly been no let up in terms of innovative music coming out of the aforementioned city.  The latest discovery for me is Sekotis, an artist who, I was faintly humbled to find out, has actually been doing what he does for several years.
The musical alias of Tom Stokes, a quick look at his bandcamp site alone reveals musical treasures going back to 2008.  For Your Weird Ears, his latest collection, came out in March this year and it's what, finally, has turned me on to his richly satisfying work.
To say I feel I've a lot of catching up to do is an understatement, although for now I'm finding so much to love in this latest album I really don't feel like going anywhere else just yet.  Sekotis specialises in the kind of churning electronica practised with an inspired and creative hand that's for a long time found a home in my show.  Opener 'Drones' is more than enough to give you a flavour of that, a slow-burning piece of sonic exploration that matches experimentation with the kind of intoxicating groove that pleasingly crops up all over this collection.
Don't get the idea that there's anything one-paced about For Your Weird Ears, though.  'Ravens', which I'm playing in my Dandelion show this month, eschews the considerable pleasures of the slow burner in favour of frantic percussion and richly patterned instrumental lines that take the listener in all sorts of heady directions. 
And after feasting on that, you've still got the album's epic closing tune to feast your ears on.  'Trolls', at twelve minutes plus, manages to add even more to the many diverse elements you've already encountered, its swarming beginnings giving way to spiralling waves of sound to provide a triumphant, lingering close to the nine tracks.
You can get the album as NYOP at the Sekotis bandcamp site here.  When you've done that, you could do a lot work than check out the rest of his fascinating recent musical history while you're there.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Reptilians From Andromeda - Sonic Rabbit Hole (Small Bear)

I don't know of many previous match-ups between the Isle of Man and Istanbul - in fact I'm not sure I know of any - but the concept seems loaded with interesting possibilities.  So, when the Manx Small Bear label announced they'd put out an album from Istanbul husband and wife duo Reptilians From Andromeda, I was firstly intrigued, then delighted, then finally blown away. 
With cap doffed firmly in the direction of the excellent Postcode, I can't think of a release on Small Bear that's thrilled me as much as this.  Although there's a psychedelic spaciness about RFA, it merges and collides with a discordant new wave jerkiness to take it somewhere entirely different.
Take opener 'Psychic Girl' as an example, where a Nico-meets-Grace Slick vocal lies atop a kind of militaristic beat to deliver the kind of triumph of clashing musical sensibilities that makes this collection so instantly unforgettable.  Or take a song that, with a title like 'Wicky Wacky Witches' has no right to work, yet does far more than that, its slow burning melodic growl offering a perfect contrast to the wild cacophony of closing track 'Like the River to the Sea'.
The EP's highlight, for me, is 'Jungle', a frantically meshed together tumble of possibilities where a more up-front vocal line meets meandering guitar lines and, yes, animal noises.  It's the kind of meeting of musical possibilities you really hope will work and which, in the hands of Reptilians From Andromeda, certainly does and I'm playing it in my Dandelion Radio show this month.
Get Sonic Rabbit Hole from the band's bandcamp site on CD or as NYOP download here.   

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Seal of Quality - Affective Design (Kythibong)

The Kythibong label so often manages to keep you waiting for a new release just long enough to get the old anticipatory juices flowing before hitting you with something so wonderful you forget the time lapse and just want to get on with playing the thing.
Such is the case with this album, coming your way in early May.  Three years on from his debut for the label, it shows Seal of Quality seriously stepping up to the mark and truly living up to his name.
It's not just the weird quirkiness or the clash of instruments intended for the purpose (guitar) with others not so intended (Gameboy) that make the release stand out.  After all, there are hundreds of artists attempting the same thing, few of whom manage to achieve anything anywhere near as good as this.
It's more that Seal of Quality manages to fuse these elements into something that leaves so few concessions to convention.  Drum tracks (on opener 'All Set Up', for instance), rather than simply providing a beat, chatter frantically like how Stephen Morris might have had he ever achieved his ambition of transforming into a machine.  
'Push & Pull', which has been featuring in my Dandelion Radio show this month, is one of several breathless creations that offer a sense of these disparate elements clustering together, rushing to get to the same point.  The album's final and longest track, 'Deceiver', begins with a pretty much standard retro-futuristic vibe (think Blancmange battling with The Normal and losing, with greatly improved results) before you hear the chiptune noises and rhythmic patterns working away in there, ganging up into a tempo-altering frenzy that takes it - and you - somewhere else entirely.
It's astonishing at times that these tracks hold together so well, but hold together they do, most brilliantly.  Indeed, the overriding triumph of Affective Design comes in its ability to and produce something so defiantly melodic from all of this stuff.
Do I use the words 'worthy addition to the Kythibong catalogue' too much?  Probably, but it's hard not to.  More to the point, that's certainly what Affective Design is.  Get it on LP and CD here

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Chloe Juliette Beswick - Seven Sewers Away (Philophobia)

Formerly of indie pop band Chat Noir, Chloe Juliette Beswick's debut solo release sees her opting for a stripped-down approach that imbues those indie pop sensibilities with a sub-Velvets spirit of repetition and in doing so takes them somewhere else entirely.
On top of it all are Beswick's gorgeously fragile vocals that sound close to falling apart on the EP's title track in a JAMC 'Cut Dead' kind of way, held together by a melody that's simply close to fracture but gloriously engaging for all that.
It's a spirit that's present throughout the whole EP, five tracks all of which sound close to collapsing in on themselves but whose foundations have somehow been manoeuvred into a position that keeps them standing - somehow - and in the process enables the construction of something gloriously unique.
Stand-out track is unquestionably 'Bust A Move', a track that holds the aforementioned edifice together for more than five minutes.  Frankly, its straining vocals and bare, repetitive strum could go on forever and you wouldn't mind.  It's one of the best things 2016 has coughed up so far and I've been playing it this month in my Dandelion Radio show.
You can get the release as NYOP here.  Get it and keep an ear out for more from Chloe Juliette Beswick.  I sense this is merely the start of something very interesting indeed.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

The Bordellos - Underground Tape Series

St Helens band The Bordellos recently put out Volume 4 in this series of EPs, all of which dip into the archives to showcase brilliantly their uniquely appealing brand of lo-fi tinged with psychedelic inclinations.   It seemed a good moment to reflect on some of the highlights of the series so far, all of which can be downloaded for free here
Volume 1
These Boots Are Made For Stalking (4 track version)
Not a twisted version of the Nancy Sinatra classic but a slowed-down, 'Sweet Jane' style confessional from a self-styled 'motherfucking crazy guy' who, among other things, declares his intention to be the padding in his target's wonderbra.   As it goes on, the music becomes more frenzied and 'Sweet Jane' becomes 'Waiting For The Man'.  Madly exquisite.
Volume 2
Sweet Hangover (Dandelion Radio Session)
Originally broadcast as part of a session recorded for my Dandelion colleague Jeff Grainger's show back in July 2011, this shows a gently nostalgic, reflective side to the band that surfaces every now and again and the world always feels a lot better for it. 
Volume 3
Poet or a Liar (Alternate Mix)
Delightfully woozy portrait of the artist 'praying for stage fright' and harbouring the belief that 'every line deserves a heavenly choir'.  And it draws you in so well you start to believe it.  One of their finest songs.
Volume 4
Punk's Not Dead
You can hear this in my Dandelion Radio show this month, a gloriously fragmented piece of tempo-shifting brilliance that manages, even at well under four minutes, to cram the spirit of punk and Nat King Cole together in its lyrics and make it work.

Clearly there's a lot more to come in this fascinating and highly enjoyable series so keep an eye on the band's bandcamp site for more.  They'll also be recording a second session for my Dandelion show later in the year.