Posted in SHOFT on Sunday 4th September 2011 at 9:09am
Both a strength and a weakness of the network of bands in Glasgow is its incestuous nature. The entire family tree is no doubt fantastically obscure and many dimensional, with individuals often featuring in many bands at once or drifting in and out of them over time. This of course makes keeping any sort of track of bands and members almost impossible for the listener. But this camaraderie surely pays dividends when the chips are down, and it's heartening to see a scene in action where collaboration seems more common than competition, most of the time at least. And, somewhere on the edge of this dizzying, intriguing and remarkably complicated world are John Knox Sex Club - at once connected via other bands and allegiances, and somehow very much separate from what's happening. They have a minimal online presence, which musically speaking nowadays is akin to becoming a cave-dwelling hermit. But behind this deceptively quiet, almost reluctant exterior is a raging storm of noise and tension. Having stabilised around a six-piece line up, "Raise Ravens" is the second substantive release for a band which reputedly never intended to record anything at all.
If anything truly deserves the much overused 'epic' tag it is surely the opening 'Kiss The Dirt'. Just shy of a portentous thirteen minutes long, this starts out as an almost gentle, lyrical sweep across an urban landscape of tower blocks and abandoned houses, but becomes almost evangelical rather like the John Knox Sex Club live experience. A pseudo-religious refrain of "all that is lost will be found" tops a mesmerizingly repetitive shard of violin, ending in a thunderous explosion of bass, guitar and drums. Sean Cumming desperately howling his oaths to the very end with a repeated, humbling "I'll kiss the dirt beneath your feet". From the outset then, this is awe-inspiring and almost uncomfortably moving music. In comparison, "Above Us The Waves" is a gentle piece with the violin carrying a soaring, life-affirming melody. But even here there is a hint of darkness with a shudder of delay-laden distorted guitar beneath the impassioned vocals. Lyrically too, the close-observation gives away a morbid and dark undertone - dead wasps, the smell of fresh earth - Cumming weaves claustrophobic tales which are highly suggestive and unsettling but never graphic.
Emer Tumilty's strangely sorrowful violin ushers in "Sweet Sing The Rails Go Leave, Go Leave" with the gentlest of guitar lines in the background, reverberating and chiming. A beautiful, well placed instrumental which provides a sense of release and sanctuary. But still dark tinged and sorrowful. Initially "The Neighbours" is driven by Cummings melodic vocal lead, a domestic drama delivered via forensic observations: "her mother disappeared into tiny worlds of figurines". The chorus is a swell of voices, including a higher register female voice which provide a counterpoint to Cummings insistent exhortations. Detailing a private world of obsession, there is a sense of a desperate clinging to the past and implied violence. A duet of sinuous guitar and whooping violin drives the song onwards, weirdly, incongruously upbeat, to its crashing nightmarish climax, before a quiet sad coda makes the implicit explicit and we are left with fear and tension. Interesting in its obscure origins "Katie Cruel" is a gentle, almost delicately delivered traditional song. A strangely unspecific tale of regret which doesn't really reveal much about the predicament of the eponymous heroine, the song's origins are buried somewhere in Scotland and filtered though a transatlantic crossing somewhere around the time of the American Civil War. Utterly beautiful violin work is again the star of the show, winding an appealingly melancholy tune around the lament of the vocal. Finally, "The Thaw" comes on like Codeine or Slint, all pensive post-hardcore minor chords and taut Albini-style tinder dry drums. Dueling guitar and violin melodies shift the song in more chaotic directions with Cumming speaking the lyric in disturbingly calm, measured tones over his own singing. A squall of noise reflects the confusing intensity of the blizzard, before gentle plucked violin notes drip into a quiet, tensely melodic passage with a desperate imploring reminder that "the grass grows beneath the ice and snow" delivered over spirals of noise and shrilling strings.
Reading back, I suspect my ramblings are barely adequate to convey quite how this music works. Somehow John Knox Sex Club combine a firm grasp of tradition with the confidence to twist it to their own ends, rather than slavishly repeating things. Allied to a quietly powerful rhythm section which anchors the wayward violin and burst of searing guitar, the result is a record full of pent-up tension and menacing quiet passages which contain the threat of unexploded devices. When this energy is released the maelstrom is compelling and beautiful. However reluctant John Knox Sex Club feel about self-promotion, there is absolutely no way that something this powerful and darkly lyrical should remain unsung.
You can buy "Raise Ravens" from Bandcamp as a digital download. An extra pound gets you a beautifully packaged CD in a gatefold sleeve, printed and hand-assembled by the band themselves in addition to the download.
John Knox Sex Club - The Neighbours
Posted in SHOFT on Wednesday 24th August 2011 at 10:08pm
A lot of the louder music I've been listening to recently has been pretty messy, ramshackle stuff. I'm not sure if it's down to the resurfacing of a rebellious streak as middle age gallops down the tracks towards me, or whether its just the fact that I've always had a weakness for a muddy mix and a buried gem of a tune? Having said that, there are now probably a few too many bands dusting off their older brother's collection of lo-fi 1990s music and mining it for ideas, and against that backdrop of a concious dumbing-down and scumming up-of guitar pop just now, arrive Trapped In Kansas. Muddy and half-finished this absolutely isn't - from the beautiful Francis Bacon inspired cover art onwards there is concious, careful design at work here, and from within the confines of a pretty traditional rock band set-up, this Glasgow based four-piece manage to arrange some epic, moving and beautifully complex music. The much disputed and fairly meaningless term 'math rock' might well arise, but there are none of its cold, soulless implications here at all. Then again, if it suggests that we're dealing with complicated, technically proficient and challenging music, then it's accurate - but the bright clean guitar sounds radiate a warmth almost never encountered in that genre.
Taking centre stage from the beginning, perhaps atypically for a band which is built around the interplay of a group of skilled musicians, is Finn LeMarinel's voice - warm and full of character which immediately hooks you into his complex lyrics. The vocal leaps and somersaults around the music, and infuses the quieter passages of these songs with depth and emotion which it's fair to say isn't always easy to achieve in this kind of work. Perfectly illustrating this is "The Mask Does Wear The Man", an echoing and glacial post-rock tinged opening, the sparse bones of which are warmed by heartfelt vocals over the solo guitar. The motif Returns later as an instrumental interlude between tracks which lends a satisfying symmetry to proceedings too. As the first track drifts away, "I Was Born" ushers in a change of mood. A recent digital single, this song exudes technical prowess and artistry. Guitar melodies tumble over each other in an effort to have their moment at the front of the mix, while tempo changes coupled with the sometimes whispered, sometimes growled vocals shift the mood of the track. Lyrically, this seems to be a refugee's tale of disconnection and dislocation, with references to "leaving behind what we've known" in the face of impending war. LeMarinel's lyrics are sometimes oblique and surreal, but are equally capable of devastating, forensic incisiveness at times.
Next up, "Stick To The Roads" is wonderfully focused pop with an infectious and exuberant chorus. My one, and to be frank, utterly pathetic and irrational issue with this EP arises here though and I'm sorry to report it's a pretty anally retentive language-geek one too. Put simply, I just can't stop hearing the repeated periphrasis in the lyrics - in other words, those flips of word order and extra syllables inserted to mark time or switch the rhyme around. This is a favourite lyrical technique in Trapped In Kansas tracks at times which generally doesn't worry me at all, but it reaches a pitch on the chorus here with the repeated refrain of "the man DOES wear the mask/the King DOES where the crown" and such like. Those extra "do" and "does" moments, though a time-honoured and valid poetic technique, feel strangely archaic and make things sound a little rushed somehow. While I feel utterly ridiculous for raising it, I guess I'm opening my own scribblings up to intensive examination too now! It's particularly irritating because otherwise I adore this track, with its bursts of melody and self-assured pop construction. You can listen to it below, and tell me what a complete post-modern idiot I'm being later....
Recovering from my frustrated academic's hissy fit, there are more robust, tougher guitar lines threaded through "Skin and Bone" but it's still sprinkled with enough melody and dramatic shifts in time and mood to utterly confound attempts to pin it down. Finn's lyrics are at their visceral best here, and it seems he is rarely more comfortable than when he is scientifically dissecting or exposing situations. Not unlike the cover painting and it's inspirations, this graphic but ultimately very human approach seems to suit this track particularly as it builds towards a crashing, epic peak. "Happiness is an Allegory, Sadness a Story" quite apart from having an intriguing title, again treads a noisier path in places - but balances this against sections of quiet, blissed-out utter loveliness. The triumph here is the choir of backing vocals and the complex drum fills which pepper the track, making the explosive choruses of "I see a black cloud over you" all the more dramatic when they finally land. The thunderous, chugging guitar ending, with it's wide-screen solo is a splendid way to bring this record to a close.
This EP presents some of the most intelligently constructed, assured guitar music I've heard for some time. It delights in it's technical skill but is never brash or showy. Most of all, the band manages to play all kinds of neat tricks with mood, colour and tempo to produce an amazingly broad sweep in just these six tracks. All this of course begs the question of what Trapped In Kansas could achieve in the space of an entire album, and I hope we get to find out soon.
Posted in SHOFT on Thursday 18th August 2011 at 8:08am
I'm afraid these tired old bones can only managed one festival each year, and thus regular readers will have seen me tireless rant on about Homegame during the summer. I can only apologise, but in my defence I'd point out that just that one fateful afternoon in the Erskine Hall has led me to artists who have produced some of the most interesting and exciting releases of the year - with Rachel Sermanni and Mercury-nominated King Creosote and Jon Hopkins alongside Martin John Henry who is shortly to release his solo record. The other artist who played that afternoon, and whom I've waxed lyrically about often and to anyone who will listen, is Iona Marshall. Iona's voice originally reached me via Glasgow PodcArt, who've championed her gently lyrical, Caledonian take on ambient folk for some time. However, it's not always been easy to track down recordings until now, as Iona is a fiercely independent spirit, and is genuinely taking a do-it-yourself approach to music via a series of collaborations, home-made CD-R's and playing anywhere and everywhere she can it seems. The digital release of this EP makes her music more widely accessible and will, I'd hope enable her to reach new ears.
Opening the record, "Aquamarine" is of surprisingly straightforward folky construction with plenty of space for Iona's voice. At first, this is deployed in it's purest form - beautifully clear, capable of wineglass-shattering high notes and sounding like it just rolled in from the Perthshire hillside. Later in the song though, her voice becomes an additional instrument, looped and duplicated. Far from destroying the curiously ancient, nautical atmosphere, this in fact strangely enhances the sense of dark rooms and creaking beams. The sea, it seems, is never far from Marshall's music. "I Music" increases the pace and volume only slightly. Deftly picked on an electric guitar, this grapples with the motivation for artistic creation. While listening to these songs, it's easy to forget that this is an entirely self-released project recorded in a Glasgow living room - and this song perhaps goes some way towards outlining her approach to music and musicianship. An uplifting, infectious chorus which wouldn't be out of place on a big hit single follows, but Iona's voice never fails to tie the song to its traditional roots.
The breadth of Iona's songwriting vision becomes evident on "Hail Madonna". Overall this is a much more complex and dense work, using lots of electronic trickery to support a simple and fragile tune. Meanwhile Marshall sings about clinging to the frail edges of sanity, negotiating the pitfalls of modern life, and seeking a talisman to see you through the horror of what to others is probably just another day. On the surface, it's a technically clever, engaging tune - but looking deeper into the lyrics this becomes a far braver and more impressive feat, dealing with subject matter rarely tackled successfully in my experience. However via Iona's sensitive approach this comes across as honest, heartfelt and triumphant. Meanwhile, "Storm Queen" returns things to a more domestic scale despite beginning with otherworldy whispers. Sparse instrumentation supports Iona's voice which carries the galloping melody through the humdrum city streets to the waters edge and once again out to sea. Her ear for a neat phrase is ever apparent, and surely it's impossible not to be delighted by observations like "the eye of the cockerel on the cornflakes stares me out"? Things come to a close via "Touch Down", an expansive piano-led piece which switches tempo and skips through endless electronic loops and skittering beats on its complicated journey. Once again, the lyrics reflect the landscape - hillsides, canals and rivers negotiated as Marshall's voice soars above the map. It's a fitting ending for a record which is deeply anchored in its place of origin.
The five songs on "I Music" illustrate that Iona Marshall has the uncommon ability to exist in many worlds at once, with the traditional sitting comfortably alongside more experimental approaches - and not least the knack of inserting fantastically catchy pop sensibilities in the brew too. This EP manages to take me back to that quiet, spellbinding afternoon in Anstruther, when we were gently coaxed out of our hung-over states only to be intoxicated again by Iona's songs, and her incredibly versatile voice. Along with her fairly recent De-Fence Records release this forms part of a growing testament to genuine hard graft, commitment and the ability to write damn fine songs.
The "I Music" EP can be purchased from Bandcamp.
Iona Marshall - Hail Madonna
Posted in SHOFT on Wednesday 17th August 2011 at 7:08am
In my wilderness years where I was almost entirely out of touch with much in the way of contemporary music, I'd often find myself wandering around Glasgow and spotting that Y'all Is Fantasy Island were playing somewhere - everywhere in fact, as they popped up in every corner of the city at seemingly regular intervals. I often thought to myself it was a ridiculous name for a band, but a strangely intriguing one too. Somehow it stuck in my mind and I resolved one day to follow up on the instinct and check them out. Indeed a couple of years later I finally found myself devouring their albums and hoping I got to see them play at some point. I never managed to, as the band unfortunately went on indefinite hiatus somewhere along the line and finally, quietly announced their demise during 2010. Aside from some instrumental work for films, this is the first solo record proper by Adam Stafford - the songwriter-in-chief and creative force behind almost all of YiFI's rather fine back catalogue. Again though, I approached this with perhaps a little trepidation - some of Stafford's output in the interim has been challengingly experimental or downright contrary - part of what attracts me to his music I'm sure in some ways, but not always an easy listen by any standard. However what hooked me into YiFI over and over again was his ability to deliver strange, sometimes complicated stories in the space of a song, and "Build A Harbour Immediately" is full of those moments.
The first hint of how this album might sound came with "Fire & Theft" which was perhaps an impossibly easy choice for the single with its infectious, joyous pop and sinister undertones. In many ways this is the most YiFI-like track of the entire album too, with it's nagging, echo laden guitar hook running throughout. Touches of apocalyptic paranoia flit through the lyrics, sung in the weirdly chipper tone of the genuine fanatic, and topped with a curious sing-song chorus at the song's ending. It's a weirdly happy song which hints at underlying doubt and fear with it's "steely voice to whip your bones" a clue about what's to come perhaps? Meanwhile, "Cathedrals" is a gentler paced rumination on time, change and the complexities of relationships, taking a fairly oblique and perhaps longer view than the average throwaway love song. A duet of sorts, the complicated guitar parts are gently embellished with strings, which build towards a portentous but restrained ending. True to the track's name, it's hard not to envisage lofty ceilings, skyward swooping buttresses and shafts of light through stained glass with the atmosphere created here, while Stafford's voice occasionally drops to a low growl here before soaring to impossible heights in the chorus.
I remember an earlier version of "Police No Speech" surfacing on a compilation which was stark and empty, with Stafford's voice unnervingly close to your ear. This version is sweetened somewhat by background flashes of steel guitar and a female vocal foil, but it retains the sense of unease in it's genuinely disturbing lyric. The incongruence is disquietening, with the melancholy but delicate tune playing on as an uncertain but unspecifically horrifying tale unfolds - a break into a home by family members, grooming, burn marks on the stairlift, the smell of death and lilies. Just enough detail to make things uncomfortable, but not enough to sate curiousity - and here, in the techniques which deliver the spine-tingling chill of the best mysteries, Stafford's literary qualities shine through. Thinking back to some of the experimental post-YiFI work, much of this centred on Stafford experimenting with using his voice as the sole instrument. "Shot Down You Summer Wannabes" harks back to this having been a free single release a while back, and is entirely constructed from vocal loops with the addition of a strangely soulful lead vocal. It's a neat trick perhaps, because if this epic, almost-gospel piece had been recorded with traditional rock band instruments, it would have been all too easy to end up with an overblown and cloying outcome. Instead we have a fragile, strange and engaging song. The soul undertones persist into "Step Up, Raise Hands" which is one of those songs which should be a chart-topping hit in another universe. It's a surprisingly straightforward, but encouragingly low budget Motown stomp - but even here among exhortations to "dance like you're born again" there are the dark edges which mark Stafford's often baleful presence as he threatens to "force my face into the crotch of the monograph". A shredding guitar solo utterly defies the soul element for a moment, and I'm again struck by the joy of Adam's singing - his voice much more assured given the space and stylistic variation of these songs. This is absurdly catchy, instantly memorable pop music. It probably wasn't quite what I was expecting, but I'm damn glad it's here!
"Build A Harbour Immediately" drifts in with delicate, duelling guitar melodies - one on target, the other out of focus and off-key. Stafford adopts a Dylanesque drawl here, which is then manipulated and twisted to become am eerie moan. Meanwhile an operatic backing vocal keens and soars before receiving the same distorting treatment. It's a strange parody of prettiness - an uneasy form given to familiar elements. Likewise, it makes virtually no sense at all to describe something as an 'acapella instrumemtal' but that's exactly what "Frederick Wiseman" is. On the surface, just a shimmering chorus of looped backing voices, doubling and building until a swooning lead vocal soars over the backdrop. Eventually the voice falls away, leaving the chattering loops to decay into sinister whispers, which remind me of the highly dubious Electronic Voice Phenomena that all the best ghost hunters claim to receive. Not for the first time on my eerily quiet morning train I find myself looking over my shoulder down the empty carriage. The preponderance of the word 'crystal' in band and song names just now is odd, but here it is saved to appropriately describe the epic closing soundscape of "A Vast Crystal Skull". Issued in with a suitably shimmering, brittle opening things develop with a cinematic, road movie sweep. I first heard this track on a slightly miserable tilting run up the Clyde valley, with dark skies with fast moving silver clouds casting shadows on the valley floor provided curiously fitting scenes. Given space and freedom again here, Stafford's voice dips and soars, arcing over the atmospherics, most particularly the uplifting sweeps of slide guitar which spiral skywards.
The revelation across all of these varied and complex songs is Stafford's mutable, often powerful and hugely versatile voice. in the confines of YiFI it seems Adam often had a little less space to explore this, as he was forced to up the pace to match the harder-edged sound they began to develop, losing some of the finer vocal qualities. However, on "Build A Harbour Immediately" it's given free rein to twist oddly, whisper strangely - and sometimes to just belt out a soulful tune. This collection of songs is almost disconcertingly diverse, often lyrical and packed tight with ideas which threaten to burst out of the songs which contain them. Close to some of his finest work here, Stafford is a remarkable songwriter capable of delivering chillingly observed and sometimes far from easy-to-digest stories, whether in the shape of tight, literate pop music or the more expansive and experimental elements he employs. I get a feeling that this going to be one of those releases which ends up all over the end-of-year lists.
"Build A Harbour Immediately" is available as a digital release and a limited edition yellow tape now from Wiseblood Industries. It will receive it's official launch on 20th August at Stereo in Glasgow, alongside Paws, Miaoux Miaoux and Mondegreen at "Ayetunes vs. Peenko 4 - The Revenge". You can also find the entirety of YiFI's output in a single download costing absolutely nothing here.
Adam Stafford - Police No Speech
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.