Posted in SHOFT on Wednesday 18th January 2012 at 8:01am

I realised recently that one reason this blog will never be wildly popular or highly regarded - aside from my contrary tastes and over-complicated ramblings - is just that I'm too damn slow! I could of course pretend that this is some sort of defiant refusal to play the industry game, choosing to do things at my own pace. But it isn't - it's pure laziness and navel gazing, with a dash of irritating real life getting in the way too. No amount of new year's resolutions are likely to get me to pick up the pace, but perhaps it's time to not worry so much about how timely these reviews are, and just get on with listening to interesting music? With that in mind, here are a couple of things which keep cropping up in my playlist just now - one which from the tail end of last year, and one so new it's not even available yet.

There Will Be Fireworks - Because, Because EP

There Will Be Fireworks - Because, BecauseIn keeping with the theme of my ponderous pace, I remember stumbling almost accidentally across There Will Be Fireworks majestic first album, far later than the rest of the world, and being amazed that something so striking and explosive could have escaped my attention for so long. Regular readers will know that I spend much of my time apparently stumbling around the internet with my fingers in my ears, so probably won't be surprised. But that record was packed with swooping dynamics, huge crashing guitar endings and vocals which veered unsteadily from whispers to hysterical screams. In short, it was the kind of record I'd normal have been banging on about for ages. This is the first recorded output from There Will Be Fireworks since 2009, and reflects the journey so far towards their second album. The EP hints at perfectionism and slow, steady progress - there's nothing rushed or unfinished here - and while it's a close relative of that first blast of a record, there are subtle changes afoot.

The record opens with "Harmonium Song", which sets off with a steady rhythmic single note piano refrain and a gorgeous drone. The understated vocals provided by Nicky McManus are supported by little bursts of controlled guitar. It's an unrelentingly grim tale of loss and being lost, which builds to an ending drenched in mournful Joy Division synth sounds which finally fall away leaving just that nagging, stark piano motif. Next, "This Feels Like" builds around simple acoustic guitars and a sinuous bassline. With vocals further up in the mix, the lyrics merit closer attention - densely packed couplets and neat observations which set this apart from almost all of the band's obvious comparators. But the images of passing time and vague regret are never far from the theme, with lines like "the message reads like your first school bible/meaningless, dull" hinting at off-screen sorrow. Vocal dynamics are at the heart of the equally simple "From '84" too, with lupine howls and yelps of frustration. This is pretty much as close as There Will Be Fireworks get to a straightforward love song - but through their dark lens it's all frustration and unrealised opportunity. Finally "In Excelsis Deo" is a Christmas song by all accounts, serving to illustrate just how out of touch this blog is! It couples the introspective, acoustic themes of the rest of the EP with an increased tempo and a choir of backing voices. Lyrically it's hardly "Frosty The Snowman" - with casual, dark observations like "I'm drunk and hearing voices in carparks" reminding that Christmas isn't just full of happy excess. The increasing tempo builds to a sudden flourish of strings and a tumultuous crash of guitars which the band have resisted until the very end of the EP. Ususally, I'm no lover of festive novelty songs which can only be dusted off once each year, but this is quite different - and it will get filed away in the library for future use alongside Withered Hand's superb 2011 effort.

There's a strange sense of being teased by this EP, with the explosions and dynamics reserved for the very last seconds - but that's perhaps no bad thing. The triumph of the first album was in it's dynamics and epic shifts of tone and mood, and perhaps this EP serves to prepare the ground for more of the same on album two, bringing the quality songwriting and intense lyrical observations to the forefront. The message seems to be that There Will Be Fireworks aren't just another quiet/loud/quiet post-post rock outfit - this is something a bit different and a bit special. It's a bit late for Christmas, but it's not too late to enjoy this slow-burning gem of a record.

The four track "Because, Because" EP can be purchased from Bandcamp or iTunes.

So Many Animal Calls - Traps

So Many Animal Calls - TrapsDespite setting out to write about rare examples of the traditional single format in these posts, I find myself straying towards the far more common EP these days, and in the process breaking all of my own rules. I can understand this, and given the relative ease of digital releases it makes abject sense for bands to get as much representative output available as possible. But the single still has a place - the chance to make an announcement, signal a change or just get a couple of songs out there which are too good to hold back. I suspect that final case is the drive here, and it's encouraging to find I finally have some real, old-fashioned singles to consider, including "Traps" by So Many Animal Calls. This band sit in a category of acts which I read about much more than I've actually heard so far, despite being a very well regarded EP into their career. There's always the nagging worry in those cases that the story is more interesting than the music, but it's hugely pleasing when the reverse is true and you realise that the hype is well worth believing.

Lead song "Traps" is a strange collision of the precision, turning-on-a-dime dynamics of post-hardcore and a gorgeously melodic brand of abrasive, intelligent pop which seems deeply unfashionable these days. It's an unlikely mix perhaps, but somehow, fused together they produced a proper old fashioned pop single with strident choruses and blasts of harmonic guitar. It's the kind of thing which has lured me back from my more obscure musical wanderings for years, and which has more often been the preserve of bands across the pond. But Glasgow's So Many Animal Calls seem to have nailed this genre by pure musicianship and hard work, making the band's self-coined 'failpop' tag completely inappropriate. There's nothing slack here - Sean McKenna's vocals are clear and pure, with a seemingly infinite range and a genuine melancholic ache bursting to escape. The whole complicated structure is supported by a superbly tight rhythm section including Ross Coll's liquid bass. As the parts tumble into place, and the song builds through chorus after naggingly memorable chorus, I find myself grinning like an idiot and feeling like reliving my distant youth. Flip side "The Best Way To Be Broken" is a different prospect entirely, but no less well crafted. Kicking off like a soft-rock piano ballad it drips regret and experience far beyond the years of it's ridiculously young creators. A couple of verses in and the solo piano is joined by swooning bass, military drums and chiming guitars which finally explode abrasively into life. It's like the theme tune from Cheers undergoing a genetic mutation before your ears, and once again it's very, very good.

So Many Animal Calls ability to manage the dynamics of a song is remarkable - particularly in the sense that they're not afraid to leave space and silence between their explosions and epic choruses, and they never seem tempted to go for the overblown or overwrought. I can't help but feel this is an early step on a potentially very exciting journey.

"Traps" will be released on 13th February by Overlook Records.

Movebook Link

Posted in Railways on Saturday 14th January 2012 at 5:44pm

The last couple of years have seen fairly late starts to the railtour season, which has meant lots of opportunities to plan my own visits around the country. This is both a blessing and a curse - zipping around at possibly the quietest time of the year is always pleasant enough, but finding the time and the imagination to try to plan lots of new things to do is sometimes near impossible. However this year things have conspired to place a number of pretty fantastic trips in a short space of time. Indeed there are more I could have done if I'd not had other plans in February, but having a couple of track bashing type excursions right from the outset has to be a good thing.

This had already turned into an unexpected and luxurious long weekend. A brief but enjoyable trip to Bristol yesterday, and a near-to-home start today made for a fairly easygoing itinerary. It didn't feel that easy heading out for the 05:48 this morning in fairness, as the winter finally landed with a wonderfully fresh, frosty morning. We sat waiting for the ECS of the London HST at Weston too, which set the train back just enough minutes to be worrying late. I had a +12 into the Swansea train which reverses at Bristol Parkway, but hoped to grab some breakfast and coffee on the way, knowing that Parkway was pretty much shut up this early. Thought about flagging it for my reserve train - 1M21 at 07:00, but thought it might not be wise and dashed for the 06:46. Into Parkway on time, but predictably not much open. Settled in for the short wait for the stock to arrive from Eastleigh, heralded by the rumble of 66002 tackling Filton Bank. The seating issues reared their head early, and it became clear that the whole mess was bigger than my ticket, despite my almost being bumped down to Standard being possible the most drastic outcome. Soon settled into the warm and steamed-up, but the soapy window trick soon fixed that, and I settled in for breakfast and a wonderful sunrise as we headed north through Gloucestershire.

The rest of the merry band joined at Birmingham New Street, having set out far too early and got bored and cold waiting at International. Good to see lots of familiar faces anticipating a sociable day of interesting track. Out via Leamington and Banbury before our first bit of unusual track at Oxford where we briefly waited in the loop from which the Cowley branch peels away. Lots of speculation about future access to this, before we headed around the West Curve at Didcot, and took the line through the gates of the power station. This was huge track - particularly given the difficulty of doing anything on private lines nowadays. The downside of doing the Coal Line rather than the more common Ash Line was the MGR speed limit, actually imposed on all trains - 0.5 mph! It took significantly longer than timed to make it around the loop, and on the warm stock, things became a little drowsy. There was a little concern now that perhaps we wouldn't manage the loops on the Great Western given our lateness - with a counter view that actually we'd get looped everywhere because we were out of course now.

In the event, after a quick reversal in the sidings at Appleford, we set off to cover almost all of the booked loops at Steventon, Challow, Hullavington and the most interesting for me, the Down Goods at Bristol Parkway, between the platforms and Stoke Gifford Yard. Once through the Severn Tunnel and into Wales, we headed further west tackling the loop at Alexandra Dock Junction before traversing the rare crossover to the Valley Lines platform 7 at Cardiff Central. I was into long unvisited territory here, with the Valleys being an early target after I restarted my travels. The lines to Barry had seen a further visit when Vale of Glamorgan trains started - but that too was years ago. Noted the massive redevelopment in the area, and it's gradual gentrification too. Soon we were clear of the conurbation and onto the coast as the sun began to dip - always a consequence of winter tours - with a stunning sunset over the sea and the Somerset coast beyond. I remembered the tangle of lines around Aberthaw which had confused me on my original journey, as the mainline cuts in sharply from the coast near the curious Boys Village at St.Athan. Instead we followed the line into the Reception Sidings before proceeding into the Power Station site. Somehow more impressive than Didcot, the fading light gave it an even more sinister aspect as we slowly made our way onto the Oil Line, meaning at least we kept up a reasonable pace. During the traversal of the loop we learned just how touch-and-go this whole trip had been, given the parent company's reluctance to let a passenger train into the site. Thankfully persistence and contacts had paid off, and we were soon back into the Reception Sidings and heading towards Cardiff. We'd lost a little of the time we made up though, and missed the loop at Cogan Junction - but this might well have been because of it's condition - certainly the opposite loop was very rusty indeed.

Back through Cardiff and Newport, taking the Bishton Flyover to maintain the relief lines, though this was ascertained mostly by instinct and inquiry, as it was now very dark indeed. Sadly we were around 35 late now - just late enough to make my preferred move at Cheltenham a little less robust. So, no quiet run home on 1V65 for me tonight, instead bidding folks goodbye and bailing at Bristol Parkway, via a curious dash through the train due to being stopped short on the platform. A comfortable connection into a slightly late 1V63, a decent coffee at last in Temple Meads, and then home an hour earlier than planned. Despite not touching dry land all day, and as is becoming worryingly common, not having a single photograph of the trip, a very good day out. Almost everything planned was covered, and once the seating situation had been resolved it became a very sociable occasion. Lets hope that next week's rare track excursion is just as successful...

Movebook Link

Posted in SHOFT on Monday 9th January 2012 at 10:01am

Evil Hand - Rain CheckI came very late to Evil Hand's release "Huldra" last year, and regret that I didn't get a chance to write about it's strange atmospherics here until it was much too late. And here again, in these first hungover weeks of the new year when most right-thinking people are still licking the wounds of the first week back at work rather than thinking about new releases, "Rain Check" arrives. There is of course, every danger it could again go undetected too, slipping under the radar while we're all contemplating our waistlines or trying to figure out if the recycling collections will ever get back to normal. But in another sense it couldn't be better timed - the post-festive comedown is never easy, and in these straightened times even less so perhaps. So what is the perfect sound track to this time of year? What lets you wallow in just enough of the winter darkness before lifting you with it's almost absurd optimism? Perhaps Evil Hand has had a damn good go at writing that very record here. Evil Hand is of course Derek Bates - one half of Bottle of Evil who recently graced these pages with their "Inside Looking Out" EP, a record which has only grown in my estimations since first hearing. What is less clear is quite how to describe "Rain Check" - it's either a long EP or a short album. In a sense it doesn't matter because it stands alone as a collection of regret-laced noisy tunes and curious musical experiments, beginning with "A Drop of Sunshine" with distant vocals buried in doomladen guitar chords and a wash of white noise. Next, "Good For Nothing" is a wistful piece with hints of late-sixties guitar pop and traditional folk ballads, like an out-take from a lost Gene Clark album. It's gentle melody and half-whispered vocal shimmer over a backing of hollow electronics and replicated voices, with the whole thing melting beautifully together.

I confess I've never been much of a fan of the Beach Boys, though I've always respected Brian Wilson's songwriting craft above their over-sweetened bubblegum delivery. But by 1971's "Sunflower" the dark heart of the songwriter was beginning to overtake the gleeful harmonies, and "Forever" is a surprisingly gloomy faux-country oddity. Evil Hands's take preserves both the forlorn lead vocal and the gentle melody, but couples it to a tremelo-heavy, note-bendingly joyous musical backdrop. On what I regard as the record's stand-out track "Three Faces", Bates manages to accomplish what My Bloody Valentine have been fruitlessly trying to repeat since 1991 on a tiny fraction of the budget, by fusing skittering beats, washes of effect-laden guitar and a gorgeously delicate tune. As the first vocal section of the song fades into it's own noisy sheen an extended instrumental coda strikes up, building layer on layer of blissful melody and squalling feedback. It's a short, unfocused and confusing piece in some respects - but the simple fact is that it's utterly beguiling. Likewise, the jittering pop squall of "Sonograph" - a dizzying clash of guitars and tweeting electronics, with a low-slung Mary Chain like vocal embedded deep in the mix, and which builds towards a fuzzy, psyched-out ending. The record closes with a couple of more experimental pieces, culminating in the mighty "Iceberg". Clocking in at nearly seven minutes of David Lynch soundtrack style rumblings and washes of sharpened guitar sounds which dissolve into static. Then, perhaps when least expected, the track is invaded by what appears to be the entire 1970s staff of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Strange, analogue synthesiser drones which have teleported in from Blake's Seven or Doctor Who sit alongside echoing atmospherics. Played loud, it has a curious effect. I used to it to quell some irritating neighbours to remarkable effect. It's a curiosity rather than an essential part of the EP for sure, but it demonstrates the breadth of Bates' interest, musicianship and vision.

So, another year of my rambling about music kicks off with a release made in such an understated way that it would be easy to miss - it's to my great dismay that it took me so long to find Evil Hand's previous work, and I'd urge you not to commit the same error. This is in parts dreamy and ambient, and in others noisy and challenging - but throughout there is a thread of pop sensibility winding through these songs which I find completely irresistible. Here's to 2012. Happy new year.

Evil Hand's "Rain Check" is available as a free download from Bandcamp, where you can find 2011's "Huldra" album, again absolutely free. More of Derek Bates work can be found via Bottle of Evil.

Evil Hand - Three Faces

Movebook Link


Posted in Railways on Saturday 7th January 2012 at 10:01pm

The year has started uneasily, and I found myself looking forward almost desperately to this trip - a chance to escape and not have to consider some of the really pretty irritating things which have been going on just lately. My injured foot ached, and wearing brand new boots probably wasn't a smart move either, but as I dragged my sorry self to the station I knew that it was imperative I got moving. Today was a bit of a random gluing together of several imperatives - some visits I'd not realised I was going to make, some revisitations of old territory and some familiar and comfortable trips to soothe the soul. I started out as early as possible, making the switch to the London train at Weston. Oddly, some late running on the first Down service meant the stock hadn't arrived, so had the novelty of watching the ECS terminate before boarding, getting breakfast and dozing and reading my way to sunrise. This happened somewhere around Didcot, a golden and clear morning. This is one of the best reasons to leave so early.

The first target was Liverpool Street. With C2C services running out of the station due to work at Fenchurch Street, this meant the novelty of the Woodgrange Park section, and the flyover at Barking. Nothing new, but it had been a while. My objective was Tilbury Town. I'd been reading about Tilbury and wanted to square my image with the reality. After a slow journey, padded with excess delay minutes to mop up any issues on the diversion, we sped up over the flat empty marshes at Purfleet before pulling into the rather grim station at Tilbury Town. To the south, the dock wall blocked any view at all, and to the north the boarded up facade of Dock Road. A range of deleted and closed businesses, shutters down. The Post Office closed - unclear if it was forever - it's former pub status proclaimed by the "Toby Stout" tiling above the doors. A pawnbroker nearby had lost two of the balls from the traditional emblem, just a single pendulum hanging outside the shop - one of the few still open. Pressing into the side streets soon indicated that this short parade was Tilbury. There was nothing behind the facade. So, I moved east toward the junction with Calcutta Road and a Metropolitan Water Trough celebrating the founding of Tilbury Town in 1912. One hundred years later, there was little left. Across the street was Rourke's Drift - a boarded up guest house of terrifying aspect, beside a yard also belonging to the mysterious Rourke. Uncomfortable with the empty streets and the attention of the Dock Police car which was now tailing me as I pointed my 'phone camera at things, I returned to the station and to the relative comfort of London, much earlier than planned.

Rourke's Drift Guest House, Tilbury
Rourke's Drift Guest House, Tilbury

With some time on my hands, I made a slow circuit to Marylebone, using one of the new S-Stock underground trains. These subsurface only units are proving troublesome and deliveries have been halted, but the ones in operation on the Metropolitan Line seem pretty reasonable to me. Air-conditioned, and open plan so that passengers can pass along the train through wide gangways like the Class 378s on the overground, they feel safe, light, open and spacious. The short hop to Baker Street was an enjoyable enough ride. Wandered to Marylebone via Dorset Square, hoping to sit and read away some of my spare time, but the private garden was locked. Noted a plaque unveiled to celebrate the first MCC match being played on Dorset Fields, before heading into the station and finding a spot to watch activity while I waited. It was a fairly quiet time, the midst of the afternoon lull in the rather beautiful old station. I don't use this place enough I decided, and I noted I'd still not tried the new 'mainline' locomotive-hauled services on weekdays. Today's traction was a Class 168. It was comfortable, not too crowded and had Wi-Fi and power sockets. It takes a few minutes longer by this route than using Virgin from Euston, but the route is a pleasure to travel - rolling Chiltern countryside and graceful old Great Western stations are the order of the day. Even Banbury's 1960's concrete cavern has a certain charm, if only in the period typography around the station. The sun set over the M40 as we sped north west, a relaxing and calm trip despite a precocious child demanding attention a few seats away. Headphones on and tuned into the countryside and the rails rather than the passengers, the time sped by. This trip cost the princely sum of £5 by advance ticket. I'd promote this more, but I want it to stay a secret.

Leaving the splendid GWR terminus at Birmingham Moor Street, I walked the few feet into the centre and found a chaotic Saturday still winding down. No room to sit and contemplate coffee, so wandered back to New Street via a strange encounter with a rather well-to-do, middle class Irish woman. She stopped me, very specifically and asked if I had any change because she was recently homeless. I looked at her and wondered - who knew if mental health issues, domestic abuse or some sort of relationship breakdown had put her onto the street? Given that no-one else appeared to be stopping for her I delved into my pocket and grabbed a fistful of copper and silver. "It's just pence" I said, "but you're welcome to it". She looked a little scornfully at me and said "it doesn't matter". Trying to read this situation, I played for time with a rather silly "are you sure?". Was she upset because it wasn't enough, or was this some sort of test to see if I'd stop? If so, had I passed by stopping - or had I proved that people give indiscriminately to those why don't need it. She flapped her hands at me, irritated "go, no it's fine". I left, feeling confused and foolish.

I mulled over this encounter with coffee as I waited for the familiar 1V65 home. It made little sense, and I'd been very tempted to go back to find her to demand some sort of explanation. I had no right of course, and it was very unlikely she'd be there. I even checked my pockets and bag, imagining it had been some sort of distraction technique. I put it out of my mind, boarding the refreshingly quiet train and heading home in the dark, head buried in a book. It had been just the distracting, diverting day I needed.

Movebook Link


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.

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