Friday, 28 January 2011

Manchester Records of 2010 (Part Two)

Acrifolia - Lament
Nov 2010

This aptly-titled debut offers contemplative combinations of lonely piano and guitar over echoing, swirling backing drones. Lament as a theme is obvious throughout, but, like the introspective emotion to which the word refers, there is little joy in some areas of the record.

The sense of loss is tangible, and that loss is a bassline or percussive element that would help the musical scenes progress. But in a sense it is within these desolate soundscapes that a reflection of lamentation’s stagnant depth as an emotion is strongest. Nuance of volume change is the Manchester duo’s answer to a lack of beats, illustrated on opener ‘Peace Within’, which welds Walls-esque electronic crackling to aching acoustic ivories. The mood largely continues through ‘Inscape’ and ‘Caldera’, as piano mixes between anxious and subdued, while the latter switches to a smattering of restrained optimism akin to Moby’s more cerebral tracks.

Long-held notes lend a sort of half-speed Boards of Canadian interlude feel; perhaps into a beat-less Move D & Pete Namlock or Eno/Moebius/Roedelius should they have favoured sparse monotony over intricacy on more of After The Heat.

While Lament predominantly shuns too much build or development, the final two, lengthiest, tracks have more time to fluctuate under Acrifolia’s downtempo template; succeeding better in holding attention through ringing guitar effects and simple, shimmering beauty manifested through waves of foamy, fuzzy undercurrents. An intriguing debut.

Dan Haywood's New Hawks
Timbreland Recordings
Dec 2010

Manchester’s Timbreland Recordings’ double-disc release of chief raconteur Dan Haywood’s folky stories includes work recorded over more than four years. Fans of The Decemberists should lean in closer at this point; Haywood doesn’t necessarily share the Canadian quintet’s passion for the concept album, but does deliver a similarly engaging collection of tales, hinged together by his lone explorations of remote, rural Scottish coastlines.

The double disc format would test any listener’s attention span, never mind that of the mp3 shuffle generation, but perseverance is rewarded; the songs grow in stature, while Haywood’s distinctive vocals – think Gideon Conn merged with The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy – are cushioned by some dextrous musicianship. Amongst his assembled New Hawks are former 808 State, and current Homelife and solo, multi-percussive talent Paddy Steer, whose shuddering timpani rolls are noticeable in the more free form tangents of ‘Middle Nowhere’.

Elsewhere, the mellow sways and slide guitar of ‘Drinking In The Big Towns’ are welcome comfort against bittersweet vocal tones and the subsequent ‘Spate River’ is a standout; darkly creeping up in its dramatic and scathing narrative; lyrically crisp and eloquently articulated. Settings are generally sparser through the flip CD side, briefly losing musical accompaniment altogether for the a cappella ‘Ghost Post’.

Denis Jones – Red + Yellow =
Humble Soul
Oct 2010

Around the turn of the last century, The Hives proclaimed themselves to be Your New Favourite Band. Whether you agreed with them or not depends on your expectation of what a band should be. With the same degree of certainty, Denis Jones could take that attitude and profess to be your new favourite: 'solo electro-acoustic loop pedal connoisseur'; 'avant garde glitchcore bluesman'; 'folky beatbox live producer’, depending on when and where you may've seen him. It may seem like a wide variety, but it’s a fair response when you’re faced with a veritable deluge of cacophonic sounds, bombarding your eardrums with similar multi-modulation and apparent imprecision.

While his debut humdrum virtue showed potential, its mixed reception was in part indicative of the room for improvement. But there is also a certain glass ceiling for Denis Jones, in that the concept of a song with defined boundaries suffocates his aptitude for irrepressible freeform tangents; the experimentation in soulful electronica is what earned him the accolade of the inaugural beneficiary of Futuresonic's (now FutureEverything) artist development program. Last year’s sophomore Red + Yellow = has taken that on board and aimed to channel the aforementioned live show gusto through its eight tracks.

Many compositions, such as a modification of Tom Waits’ ‘Clap Hands’, the fidgety ‘Sometimes’ and a beautifully crafted homage to the impersonator ‘Elvis’, are familiar to anyone who’s seen his sterling live set; these versions do go some way further to capturing and retaining that raw feel of layered reverberation. ‘Rage’ in particular manages to box in the sheer pounding intensity and intimidating vocal rhythms synonymous with its live production. However, you still feel that boxing this music into recorded format is to its detriment.

A rare collaborative performance at Band on the Wall last January displayed how the latter, more widely instrumental, recordings fit alongside a recognisable acoustic accumulation. The shift into the realms of full-band glitch jazz through ‘New Note’, ‘Conception, Consumption and Radiation’ and ‘Bastion of Blood’ offer a conversely minimalistic approach to the thicker, industrially delivered early-album solo looping.

Ultimately Red + Yellow = follows the same mantra as humdrum virtue in that the most uplifting is saved until last. ‘Blengin’ is very much this album’s ‘Beginning’; indication that better still is to follow. The future’s bright; the future’s Red + Yellow =.

Words: Ian Pennington

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Arts, Music & Events Preview, January 2011 (Part Two)

Like a bleary eyed mid-morning on a lie-in day, 2011 is creaking into action. If you’ve already broken that New Year’s resolution then here’s another: check out more of the many events in and around the city. Here are some pointers...

There’s a discussion this evening (Wednesday 19th) on the relevance of poetry in our society; covering some recent attempts to rebrand the spoken and written verse as well as its appearances in other aspects of popular culture such as film and music. Manchester Salon host it in the Blackwell University Bookshop, inviting along Angelica Michelis and Anthony Rowland to shape the open conversation. If you can’t make it, then feed your thoughts on the intriguing subject with their selected background readings.

A reminder that Mooch N4 will bite the dust in a couple of weeks, so grab the opportunity to browse while it’s still standing.

Remember Dot Dash? It was a popular alt-indie clubnight in the Scubar (RIP) basement a couple of years ago. The only reason I mention it is that the Big Scary Monsters Records playlist at Trof on Saturday 22nd is shaping up with a similar ring to it.

As mentioned earlier this month, The Castle Hotel has been setting out its gigging stall as its New Year's revolution. They continue on Monday 24th with a night of folky balladeers headed by Dana Falconberry and curated by local folk troupe The Travelling Band.

Fast forward to Thursday 27th and Blank Media Collective open the doors to their new BLANKSPACE venue with an introductory exhibition under the banner of BlankExpression. Situated at the former home of student arts group Easa on Hulme Street, BLANKSPACE’s four walls are to be adorned by work from 27 artists. The doors remain open until 9pm on that launch night, at which point you could venture across to New Wakefield Street's Sound Control with ample time to catch one of the triumphs of 2010 in the form of cosmic disco groover Aeroplane, who tops the Drop The Mustard promotion.

But keep in mind the latest organised cycle with Bike Friday the following day; don’t tyre (geddit?) yourself out by staying out drinking too late. But if you can ‘handle bars’ (too much?) then I’m sure it’ll be fine. More info on the when and where is here. Too cold for a pedal around town? Another option on Friday 28th is to warm your cockles next to the proposed Manchester Artists’ Bonfire at Islington Mill, where submitted pieces will be ritualistically burned as a symbolic response to the swingeing arts cuts. Described as ‘an event for artists, by artists’, you’re asked to write 250 words explaining your reaction to the event and its motives in order to take part, and the deadline to do so is Wednesday 26th.

Doing some more burning – this time of the midnight oil – that night will be the mouth-watering results of a tech house promoter merger. Über Disco and Untold Motion become Über Motion for the purposes of staging Sascha Dive at Sound Control. Mind On Fire will also be DJing in the building.

Saturday 29th is one of those where everything is scheduled to happen all at once. Well, not everything, but there’re a few options. First off, a toss-up between two political avenues. Those favouring direct action, say aye – and head out to the latest anti-cuts march, starting at Manchester Museum at 1pm before cruising down to Platt Fields for a rally. Don’t let a one-off fire extinguisher incident, and the subsequent undergrad degree-length jail sentence, put you off. Those who’re naysayers to the question of a stroll down Oxford Road while the temperature’s still a bit iffy may favour the Manchester Trades Union Council Conference at Friends Meeting House, where there’ll be stalls (including Manchester Friends of the Earth), and aims to assist workplace and community cuts and to mobilise ahead of a demonstration on 26th March.

In music that day there’s a Friends of Mine all-dayer packed with should-see local bands, from Jim Noir to Air Cav, via The Janice Graham Band, Lucy & The Caterpillar and Rook & The Ravens. That one’s shared between Jabez Clegg and Kro Bar, and acts as a warm-up to their field-based Friends of Mine Festival in May. And if your eyes are still open after all that then there’s the first in Hoya:Hoya’s Secret Series. They’re at the Roadhouse, but just who ‘they’ are will remain a mystery until you arrive. Expect a night of off-kilter glitch-tronica.

Call the Sunday a day off after all that, but Monday 31st sees one worth venturing out for. Veí (who appeared at our Now Then Manchester event in October) takes his electronic orchestra to Tiger Lounge for the Big Dig showcase that also features Leonard Rossiter; free entry.

Finally, the 31st is also pencilled in for the release of local Idlewild soundalikes City Reign's sophomore single, 'Out In The Cold', on their own Cat Boot Records label.

Words: Ian Pennington
Image 1: Michael Thorp
Image 2: Rebecca Wild
[Images 1 & 2 appearing as part of BlankExpression 2011]

Monday, 10 January 2011

Manchester Records of 2010 (Part One)

Before pressing full-throttle on with a fresh twelve months of music, compiling any hype-driven ones to watch lists (which we won't be doing) and jumping on any bandwagons, it’s worth a gaze back to last year. There’ve been a few albums queued for review for a while now and grouping them under this stipulated three-part umbrella seems a reasonable call.

Looking at the the drownedinsounds, pitchforks, etc of this world’s picks, there’s not a lot of cohesion in tastemakers’ mp3 folders; plenty of new niches have emerged, lighting up the eyes of many a genre architect. Needless to say, Now Then’s raison d’être differs, so we’re adding another niche, and there has been no shortage of Manchester musical stirrers who haven’t made it onto the blogosphere’s buzz band shortlist. Here are some local full-lengths to peruse and discover, in no particular order.

caro snatch – Til You’re No Longer Blinkered
Nov 2010

This, caro’s second long playing collection of compositions, follows intergalactic concepts across its nine tracks, which take on both the near and far; otherworldly interpretation through introspection.

‘Mammoth Mountain’ is a sparse, yet lyrically sensual, entry into an operatic universe, which develops in the subsequent tracks, ‘Mary Rose’ and ‘Sense Ability’, into dystopia as industrial mechanism shudders around caro’s articulately expressed spoken word delivery. In fact, her eloquent use of puns is a constant highlight, but the ever-changing instrumental scene-setting cannot be ignored for its role in sustaining the storyline. There’s televisual static in a near-vacuum on ‘To Do List’, while ‘Heart Knock Schule’ relies on a thicker backdrop of bluesy guitar and album-closer ‘She Is Her Kink’ (a remix of a Frau Aike song) offers squelchy beats fidgeting in the shadows of dark electronic echoes.

Often a solo performer (and occasionally without instrumental accompaniment, as at our own event in October), a stage-full of collaborators is promised for a show early next year.

Illum Sphere - Long Live the Plan / The Plan is Dead
Fat City
Feb/Dec 2010

Year of the Sphere – this two-part album has devastated the start and end of my 2010. It’s an intelligent, tightly controlled narrative that creeps up on you, leaving you feeling raped by drones. ‘Psycho’ is definitely one of the deepest songs of 2010. Its disturbingly calculated restraint pits aching sub-bass throbs against distressed high-pitch hiss, tearing your ear drums apart from any sense your mind’s making. For all the malevolence, Ryan Hunn does let you fall into carefully constructed, shimmering episodes – the bossa nova of ‘One For Dimlite’ and slow-burning outro ‘Aftermath’.

The Plan... is also explosive in parts – take two minutes into ‘Shadowman’ – and especially on ‘An Old Escape (Kill Them Kill)’, it holds up some of the heavy dancefloor synth you’d expect from the hip-hop honcho of Manchester’s most forward-thinking electronic night Hoya:Hoya. That doesn’t mean it’s ever far from beats so unhinged they can only just about support the tracks. Don’t let that mistake you into thinking anything other than Illum is in total command.

John Fairhurst – Band
Debt Records
Oct 2010

Don Van Vliet’s recent death brought back to the fore his relentless pursuit of invention and unbridled virtuosity. Echoes of that spirit can be found within this second full-length from the well-travelled Wigan bluesman, John Fairhurst.

While his debut, Joys of Spring, was compiled on the back of some extensive worldly adventures, many of Band’s growls hint towards more homely tribulations. From the barroom bawls of ‘Daylight’ to the swaying deep sighs of a reworking of Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Pay Day’, which adopts more of a Howlin’ Wolf vocal makeover, the lyrical content grounds a diverse musicality in familiar settings.

The Beefheart comparisons don’t end with Fairhurst’s husky intonations, the most noticeable development from an acclaimed debut. Although not as audaciously avant-garde as the Captain’s most lauded work, Fairhurst blends an array of traditional folk and blues learnings into his own brew befitting some of Van Vliet’s other work, such as that composed during the Virgin Records years.

With his wandering troubadour vibes, Fairhurst conjures scenes of an energetic boogie through a fast-paced stomper, ‘Big Dig’, and sing-alongs (for the chorus of “...on the barren ground...”) on ‘Lost My Mind’, before returning to a heart-warming fusion of sax and slide guitar for the lyric-less ‘Earworm’.

To be continued...

Words: Ian Pennington (intro, caro snatch, John Fairhurst) & Sam Bass (Illum Sphere)

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Arts, Music & Events Preview, January 2011 (Part One)

If you’ve been consulting your Gregorian calendar lately then you’ll no doubt have spotted a couple of things. Namely, we’re slowly rolling into another year and this preview feature is a few days overdue. The former significantly more obvious than the latter, perhaps, but both indicative of the sleepy nature of Januarys in general.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything to sink your creative teeth into this month. Oldham Street’s refurbished Castle Hotel hosts Welsh linguists Colorama following their session on the airwaves for Marc Riley’s 6music show – all this evening, Wednesday 5th. And later on, Now Wave’s DJs pick up where they left off in 2010, spinning their tips for 2011's buzz bands to fill the Deaf Institute floor.

Saturday 8th brings another Carefully Planned All-Dayer, albeit a rescheduled one due to pre-Xmas snow. That’ll also take place at the in-demand Castle Hotel with eight more hand-picked musicians from the world of indie-folk. For a more chilled affair that evening, the electronic types at This City Is Ours continue their monthly slot at An Outlet, with tunes selected by Anytime, Blood Boy, LSN and Borland DJs.

The Art Corner launches a new exhibition with a preview night on Monday 10th, capturing the zeitgeist with an artistic interpretation of everybody’s favourite fad, ‘austerity Britain’. They’ve called it Cuts & Grazes, roped in a palette of artists and set an end date at 30th of this month.

Onto the world of film, the curtain comes down on the New British Cinema Quarterly’s run at the Cornerhouse on Tuesday 11th with a screening of brilliantlove, which stars local Manc actor Liam Browne in the role of a besotted character named Manchester. Produced by North Eastern champions of outsider cinema Pinball Films, the film has already been met by independent cinema kudos and an impressive-looking soundtrack includes Sol Seppy, Wild Beasts, David Holmes and James Yorkston.

There’s a seminar worthy of your time on Wednesday 12th (you might want to double-check the date - I've read conflicting info) if you’re prone to a whinge about the frequency of buses. The GMITA (Greater Manchester Integrated Transport Authority) will discuss their forthcoming budget at the Town Hall, but to attend you have to book yourself in by Friday 7th.

Islington Mill bursts into life on Thursday 13th with a trio of alt-rockers in the form of Charles Hayward, Barberos and Gnod.

Over the weekend of 15th and 16th, an alternative political group currently known as ‘Network X’ will hold discussions with the aim of homogenising the activities of similar-minded groups, both local and national. Expect to be involved with planning strategies, defining the shared points of a political ideology and structuring methods of achieving aims. If you’d like to make your voice heard then that’s the time to do it. Contact them for details.

Finally, Chorlton Arts Festival may seem a fair way off in the distant future as yet (19th-30th May), but they’re planning events as I type and will continue to accept submissions for ideas until Monday 17th. Forms can be downloaded here and for more info the contact is Philip.

Words: Ian Pennington