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Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing

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Genre: Genre: Prog, Post-Progressive

This has been painful to write. I am so so sorry. Even Mikael Akerfeldt can’t take the blame this time.

If you’re a fan of anything Steven Wilson related, brace yourself. If you’re an obsessive Steven Wilson fanatic, like I am, then try to arrive somewhere that isn’t here. And if you don’t know who Steven Wilson is, please just go buy In Absentia or Returning Jesus or Up The Downstair and pretend this album won’t be released for another 3 years.

But if you’ve seen the documentary Insurgentes, you know EXACTLY what’s coming. We all could’ve guessed the hypocrisy that would arrive with The Raven That Refused To Sing.

What the hell has happened to KScope in a year? First, Gazpacho gave us an above average release, saved almost completely by the moving What Did I Do? Then, Storm Corrosion, although not quite on KScope – but close enough, promised masterchef and instead delivered a medium-rare Ready Steady Cook (with the exception of Ljudet Innan, which is infallible). Anathema brought us Weather Systems, which had the hardest job in the world of following one of the greatest albums of the decade. Subsequently, Pineapple Thief followed with the wholly frustrating All The Wars. Marillion, as i’ve already written, was the best of the lot. Add in all the cash-in live albums and it’s easy to tell it hasn’t been a successful year for KScope Records. Not musically, anyway.

Dear KScope,
I’m your biggest fan. I’ll try not to explode into a sudden Eminem rap, but please don’t let standards slip in 2013. I’m begging you. Sometimes, you’re all we have. I’m your biggest fan, this is Stan.

Things have been hectic for us here in the partially-fake real world at This Year In Rock, but i’ve felt compelled to write about this record because… because i’m not convinced and I don’t trust that Terrorizer or Metal Hammer or The Daily Star will even bother to listen and instead just make up random hashtag keywords like “ambitious“, “profound“, and ”decadent”.

So here’s where we start, and here’s why i’m compelled to write particularly about The Raven That Refused To Sing after such a long break of hospitals and track marks and emptiness:

A) No-Man and Porcupine Tree are two of the best underground British exports since Ant & Dec, possibly ever
B) It’s Marco Minnemann
C) It’s Steven Wilson
D) This is Steven fuckin’ Wilson

And this is where i’d like to stop, please. Hm. 

This is not an album that reflects the beauty of one of modern music’s real geniuses. And i’m saying that early, because the next 4million words will say otherwise. If this is your first exposure to the man’s music (which i doubt will be the case, to be fair) then you’ll instantly write him off. But never forget that; Steven Wilson could spend the rest of his career making records that sound like this one, and he’d still be something of a legend. An increasingly egotistical one, yes, but also a SONGWRITER who deserves to stand side-by-side with Tim Buckley (and this could lead us down a whole different path with Tim Bowness and his contributions, so lets stop there before i warble on abou-).

We have to take a moment to surrender that word for the rest of this album:

Songwriter.

Boom. Gone. Steven Wilson, Britain’s well-kept secret songwriter, the hand that crafted Fadeaway, Mellotron Scratch, Gravity Eyelids, Half Light. Gone for now. Time to shred, bitches! Time to shred. Time to shred. Time to shre…

What you’ll find in this record is an almost offensive continuation of his Americanisms. His bold, new influences picked up during the remixings of ELP, Tull etc. Secondly, it’s an attempt to play-up to the masses; the Download Festival crowd who enjoyed The Incident, rather than, y’know, himself, after ranting and raving for 2 ungodly hours in his documentary about “modern music” and “playing things live as a band like Impulse Records” and “Waka/Jawaka is my favourite Zappa album.”

And, worse, The Raven turns out to be a near-embarassing, but not quite, attempt at mixing Anathema’s We’re Here Because We’re Here with heavier prog.

Steven Wilson, the musician, is a much different persona altogether than Steven Wilson, the elitist person. Here’s a genuine, direct quote from Steven Wilson from Insurgentes, the documentary: (hint: it’s not) 

“I hate prog. Four guys in a band playing as fast as they can, fighting to be heard over each other. Having ten sections in a song instead of giving the atmosphere a straw with which to breathe. Other pretentious things. Widdly widdly wooooo Dream Theater are the worst band in the world.”

Well i hope you’re proud of yourself. Look bro, you can do this as much as you want, but nothing will ever let you fulfil your obvious new life goal and dream of playing Wacken.

Some might think it’s not fair to compare this record to his previous solo releases, but it seems highly relevant in this instance, purely so you can see the disastrous decline that has occurred. Insurgentes was an outstanding album; a pastiche of King Crimson, Deadwing-era PT, and influences that appeared from everywhere and elsewhere. Grace For Drowning was even better. At first, hard to swallow. At second, a long, tiring, brooding lp that made you WANT to sit through it. A truly wonderful record.

And now we’re treated to this delightful 54-minutes of doom.

There’s a song on Grace For Drowning that i think i can guarantee is EVERYONE’S least favourite song. It’s called Index. Everyone “likes” Index, but no one really likes Index. 

Because what this album is, is 5 versions of Index. 6 songs. 5 Index’s. And one that is above average, and gives the record an extra star (to form from being deformed, nyerrr.)

First things first: the first let-down came way back last year when a new guitarist joined the band. When I saw it appear in my inbox, my heart nearly collapsed. It wasn’t inevitable, it was just a complete mindfuck.

“Guthrie Govan has joined the Steven Wilson band”

Guthrie Govan. Guthrie Govan, shredder-extrodinaire. Without even hearing the album, you can predict what i’m going to say, can’t you? It’s so predictable.

I’ll spoil The Raven instantly in three phrases:
*Guitar Magazine Music.
*Steven Wilson has developed musical ADHD
*Bitches Brew badly re-imagined

But that’s what you get when Guthrie Govan has joined your band. After all, any guitarist who’s ever picked up Guitar Techniques magazines knows that the man and knows his 20-finger-stretch-excercises. An excellent technical guitarist, sure, but the perfect fit to join the band of a man who, quite literally, wants the shoe on the other foot? It was never going to work. One thing Guthrie Govan is not, is Allan Holdsworth.

As an album created by an artist who strives to create “albums” not songs that seem disjointed and just bunched together, it almost defies logic. And as a collection of songs, it contains some of the worst things in the entire Wilson catalogue. And, believe me, there’s a lot of bad stuff in there. I won’t go as far as to say that Four Chords That Made A Million would be a standout track on The Raven, but it’d have a chance.

The Raven That Refused To Sing sounds like your teenage best friend, your wannabe guitar-hero and/or keyboard-wizard-in-training short-legged friend, who returns from his weekend shut inside to tell you that he’s created a “50 minute masterpiece”. And, of course, it’s fucking horrific. It’s forty songs combined into “passages” and “movements”, “just like the classical composers, man!” And there’s your first problem right away.

To prog or not to prog.

This would be fine if it were released by Arena, or IQ. But this is a man who nearly single-handedly broke ELP’s jaw by proclaiming he didn’t find the other albums interesting enough to continue working with.

In other words, Steven Wilson is someone who hates technical prog music that has long songs split into sections.

Solution: in 2013, Steven Wilson creates a technical prog album with long, long, overlong songs split into a new section every minute.

Marco Mineman, the ex-Paul Gilbert drummer who bizarrely missed out on replacing Mike Portnoy in Dream Theater (can someone tell me how that even worked out? One listen to Paul Gilbert’s Spaceship One and you know that this man is a GOD), is also here. And even he can’t save something like The Holy Drinker.

Okay, here’s the best parts of the record:
1) Theo Travis. Flute. Get this man his own band. Or reform Gong with him again.
2) The electronic piano. Because, as we ALL know, there is nowhere near enough of that shit in current music. I’m not talking about keyboards, i mean the Bitches Brew, semi-disorted, overwhelming NOISE that catapulted jazz music from sombre to destructive.

And now that the best part is over and done with, let’s begin with the songs. It’s really fucking hard to understand that this is Steven Wilson. And you can say that to yourself over and over as much as you want (I have), “this is Steven…Wilson…” but it’s sure doesn’t seem like it. It’s more like Stephen Wilton.

Luminol starts all over the place. It is literally a clusterfuck. I have nothing to say. At 1min51, the song has already tried to change direction and it seems more out of desperation than anything else. It could’ve been ripped directly from Scenes From A Memory Pt2. Have you ever seen those Dream Theater live dvd’s where Jordan Rudess abuses that fucking electronic strip on the top of his keyboard? Basically, that is what Luminol is. Jordan Rudess being a showoff, but wearing a Steven Wilson mask.

Drive Home… dear lord.

Drive Home is a Blackfield outtake. No, really. It has to be. Just listen to it. It’s really bad. The only thing that could make it harder to suffer was if the kermit croak from Aviv Geffen made an appearance. But even in Blackfield terms, is this song meant to rank up there with Some Day? Or, to return to the historical past of 18 months ago, the oh-my-god-it’s-so-beautiful Welcome To My DNA? “Drive Home…drive home… drive home…” Please do. Because my favourite song is next.

Oh no, wait. No. It’s The Holy Drinker. It’s just The Holy Drinker, guys. It might even be the worst one. I dunno. What the fuck? It starts of THE SAME as the rest of the stuff. By that I mean; Dream Theater. And then… then we get. Something. Something. Just…

WHY IS STEVEN WILSON TRYING TO BE IN URIAH HEEP?

Seriously. The organ is even there. It’s the Four Chords That Made A Million of this album. And then you zone out, and you forget the song is playing, and then you look back again, and the song is STILL GOING. It is the longest 10 minutes you’ll ever experience. Entire forests will regrow in the time it takes this song to plod along, and repeat, then FINALLY arrive at the middle section. 

At 5 minutes, shit gets real. It is awesome.

SEE, I SAID IT.

IT’S AWESOME.

IT SOUNDS LIKE STEVEN WILSON. IT SOUNDS LIKE STEVEN WILSON MAKING BITCHES BREW, BUT IN A GOOD WAY.

And then all the big metal guitars come back and he loses it again with a Hammerfall. Wacken time (9:07). Someone has to copyright that. WACKEN TIME! Thank god that one ends. I wonder what comes nex- oh no oh no oh no.

The Pin Drop.

I genuinely hate this. Genuinely hate it. So far, i’ve just extremely disliked everything. But The Pin Drop takes the absolute piss. Please. No. No comment. Just stop Steven, please. Please stop. You’ll put us into a coma.

Have you ever heard the band It Bites? They were a semi-obscure (but not really) 80s band who made a seemingly impossible comeback a few years ago. Their new material is pretty decent, prog-meets-powerpop, and there’s a wonderful song named Fahrenheit from the album The Tall Ships, which sounds nothing like The Pin Drop, thankfully. I think i’d prefer to spend the rest of this talking about It Bites, who i don’t even like all that much, but i digress, because this is Steven fuckin’ Wilson.

But it’s not.

Anyway, The Pin Drop sounds like something Francis Dunnery would write while coming down from Mescaline.

Even if The Watchmaker doesn’t. This album just gets worse and worse as it goes on. Normally you can accept that; “it falls apart 3/4 way through.” Happens everywhere. That’s fine. But this one didn’t even get started. We got served Dream Theater, from a waiter wearing a “I Hate Everything About Dream Theater” tshirt.

The solo on this track is outrageous, in both ways. Jesus. Just fuck off. Imagine if this appeared on a Porcupine Tree album after his endless rants about “shred” music? It’s getting so, so hard to take him seriously right now, but i’ll try. This is Steven Wilson, this is Steven Wilson, shhhh, shhhhh, even Shallow is better than this, shhhh.

Finally, there’s the title track, which i’m going to write the title of in full just to pretend i’m a prog artist and have long everythings, The Raven That Refused To Sing. It’s marginally better. Is it the best track on the album? I suppose so. That doesn’t mean much though, but it is. It’s the best track on the album.

It’s not particularly “beautiful”, it’s not exactly “melancholic”. It’s not anything that closely resembles the work of one of music’s finest artist’s music. But it’s something, at least.

And I think this is what it is: “Hey guys, you’re from the band Anathema, right? Cool, cool. Yeah i loved your record We’re Here Because We’re Here. Oh you’re right, I mixed it! How could i forget! I forget things that i say all the time! Anyway broz, there’s a song called Dreaming Light on there which has a great outro. I love it. Infact, i’d like to write my own version and include it on my next solo album. Cool? k”

AND IT STILL HAS TO BE OVER-COMPLICATED

But it’s better. I might even play this one as the year unfolds. I like it. A little bit.

But it brings us to a frustrating conclusion; there’s only one track with any kind of emotion on this album. That’s fine, but… i thought that was Steven Wilson’s entire musical philosophy.

Where’s the emotion? I thought that’s what you wanted…

But hey, he doesn’t have to please anyone. Not me, not the people who’ll buy The Raven, not even KScope it seems. But if you’re gonna promise us a work of art, then don’t give us Bernard Matthews.

We have to really hope to some kind of unbelievable force of nature that whatever he does next takes him away from this place, and this rut. The metal isn’t working for Steven Wilson anymore. It hasn’t worked since Fear of A Blank Planet, and now the horse is more than dead and beaten, it’s buried. I would rather go through opiate withdrawal than have to pretend this came from the hands of Steven Wilson. 

Not that he should care; if this is truly the record he wanted to make, then that’s the beauty of music. It’s just hard to believe that this is what he had in mind. I mean, i’ll still be going to the UK dates in March. So, fuck it. Whatever. We’re all hypocrites. We are all Steven Wilson.

Now bring the fucking melancholy back, it’s the best asset.

For Fans of: any kind of technical prog metal. Steve Vai, Satch, Petrucci…

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Chris Robinson Brotherhood – The Magic Door

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Genre: Blues Rock, Jam, Psychedelic, Southern Rock


In the UK we have two media outlets which spearhead and oversee and command the “classic rock” fanbase: Classic Rock Magazine and Planet Rock Radio. That is, the music we’d all consider actual primitive rock and not Chris Martin dancing around with a drumstick on the cover of NME. But, the UK rock demographic – and i’m not talking about us, the music obsessives – is nearly completely made up of two types of hardcore rock fans; those who are so closeminded that they can only accept good music existed before 1972 (Woodstock Wankers is my term) and those who can only accept that good music exists if they’re told it sounds like a band they’ve heard before.

General classic rock doesn’t really exist in younger audiences here beyond educational parents teaching their kids (like I was lucky enough to have), or, in a way that only Britain can manage, when a reissue appears and a band are catapulted into the mainstream again for their 2 months of fame (see: Rainbow, Bad Company, Rory Gallagher)

Now, let me just say that both Classic Rock Magazine and Planet Rock Radio are bastards. Loathsome, bandwagon-jumping, playlist-using, playing-to-their-crowd, overhyping, elitist, fantasist bastards. Elitist being the main word here, because they stick to their own and push their new favourite bands like they’ve just released Physical Graffitti Pt2. A new one every month.

So why am I talking about this?

Well, it frustrates me that they do their best to let things like The Chris Robinson Brotherhood slip through the loops. Instead, “revivalists” like Airbourne and Rival Sons, “saviors” like The Answer and Tracer get narrowly pegged into the small gap where good new music should go. AND THESE BANDS DO NOT EVEN SOUND ANYTHING LIKE THE GENRE, LET ALONE THE BANDS THEY’RE COMPARED TO.

The drummers mechanically play like they’ve joined New Order instead of a rock band. The distortion gets cranked up and makes everything sound like Nickelback covering The Cult. If it wasn’t that we know they aren’t, you could swear all these bands are manufactured. Every rock god pose in the book, every picture looking the exact same, the singer throwing Paul Rodgers movements and the bassist, at least 99% of the time, wearing a hat. It’s about as authentic as a book called How To Be Authentic written by the singer of Avenged Sevenfold.

And that’s where the point that “revival” and “retro” and “throwback” really aren’t ever good ideas. If you ever see those words in a magazine, avoid the album like the artist is coming to murder your pet parrot. All they have to do is look at this album, The Magic Door, which we’ll get to in a second, and see that, if they want proper, gritty, vibe-y 70s rock, it’s right fucking here.

I’ve been holding back on writing about this band for so long because they seem to hit a part of my heart that makes the emotions run in circles. For years i’ve picked up those magazines and waited patiently for a band to give us an album in the true 70s way; live, authentic, rusty, and laidback. Especially laidback. I sure never heard ZZ Top playing 10000 mph drop-d grunge riffs and layering their guitars to make it sound “thick” and “heavy.”

Now, I know that’s not for everyone. But to me, a country kid raised in the rustic Scottish nowherelands, if you’re gonna be a straight-up rock band, then you better be rural and real and know all the words to Going To California, Sweet Virginia and Madman Across The Water.

I’m sure you know who Chris Robinson is; the ex-lead singer of The Black Crowes, originally a good, but not immaculate, swaggering reincarnation of Rod Stewart & The Faces. He is someone who understands everything i’ve just said in the last 90 paragraphs. That is why, as time went on and The Black Crowes became less important to the mainstream, they evolved into a real band. Their last album, Before the Frost-Until the Freeze, was, in my absolutely wrong opinion according to their fans, one of the best rock albums produced since the heyday of the 70s. It sounded like a mix of The Band, The Stones and the Allmans.

So what happens when Chris Robinson breaks up with his band? Well, he forms a new one with Neal Casal (of Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, a band whose 3 hours jamband sets were more like the Grateful Dead Version 2). He promises “cosmic sounds”. He promises “vibe”.

And I was nervous. I really was, man. It sounded like everything I ever wanted. To have a modern day Grateful Dead who I could follow on tour, and collect the bootlegs of, and sleep on sofas just to see them play a Gram Parsons cover for the 2nd-ever-time. As a Deadhead (the worst kind of Deadhead, the “give me a song and i’ll name my ten favourite performances of it“ type) it was a fantasy that just seemed too good to be true.

When the Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s first album hit the shelves in July this year, I bought two copies so that I could have one in the car and one in the stereo at ALL TIMES. The only reason there’s not a review is that it would take more than I could write to describe it. Having had months to reflect over it, it’s a 4.5/5 album, but it still didn’t fulfill absolutely everything. Not yet, anyway.

So that’s where The Magic Door comes in.

This review is an edited version; originally, it was a 6500-word essay that seemed to cover everything from modern jam bands to music venues in the UK and even, somehow, an extended rant at Phish. I don’t LIKE jam bands; the widdly widdly, overplaying, boring, confusing Americanism of the music world. Just two of them. Grateful Dead, and now the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.

Now, you probably want to know what it sounds like.

It sounds like an album that was released in 1974. Right down to every detail, it sounds like something from that era. Not a “throwback” or a “revival”, it just legitimately could fit right in amongst the company.

You already know this thing is getting 5 stars.

Some of the songs aren’t even THAT good. BUT THE VIBE IS WHAT MAKES IT GOOD.

Oh, the vibe. The vibe. It’s recorded live in the studio, of course, and it’s super-super-ultra laid back. Like, imagine those scenes from That 70s Show where they’re sitting smoking mary jane; this is an album that they would be playing. I fail to see how anyone can dislike it. The first track, appropriately titled Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go, is a Hank Ballard cover. It’s not even good, it’s a standard 8-bar blues affair. It’s throwaway. But it is BRILLIANT because of this vibe that is set. Dude, this is just five guys playing what’s in their souls. There are 7 songs on here, and every one just keeps going and going and going.

Someday Past The Sunset, Little Lizzie May, Sorrows of a Blue Eyed Liar and Appaloosa are a lot like the material on the last Black Crowes record. Infact, Appaloosa, despite starting like Freebird here, appeared on that disk and Little Lizzie May was written in those sessions too. I like them better than the originals. Am I allowed to say that the band Chris Robinson has assembled here are better than The Black Crowes? Probably not, but it’s true. Little Lizzie May kicks on and dances like the Yardbirds covering Exile On Main St’s side 1 (just listen to the Jagger-esque way he sings “honeyyyyyy”!) Sorrows of a Blue Eyed Liar is a mix of Stella Blue and Comfortably Numb.

Anyway, enough about those filler tracks.

Right.

The centrepiece of the album is track 4. Centrepiece, masterpiece, call it what you want.

Vibration & Light Suite has to be heard to be believed. It’s an endurance test at 14 minutes. I hated it at first; the opening five minutes are a swirling, jazzy retake of the Dead’s Eyes of The World. But, make it through the first part and you’ll be treated to a trip down psychedelic lane. The first 3 tracks are merely nothing compared to this. You will not expect it. At 5 minutes you’ll be swept into the soothing sounds of prog rock, and Zeppelin, and Syd Barrett and, somehow amazingly because it’s not something you hear often, the most Gong-like thing i’ve heard come from an American band.

Oh that’s right, it turns into Gong.

Chris Robinson, once the husband of Kate Hudson and the singer in one of the 90s mainstream’s favourite rock darlings, is sounding like Steve Hillage.

And then it closes with amazing krautrock ambience that would make Popol Vuh proud. Where did this song come from!? This is not straight-ahead, danceable rock music!

Once you grow to love the opening 5 minutes, it’ll be hard not to call it ones of the songs of the year. I love this thing. I played it 8 times in a row this afternoon. Literally, if you listen to Vibration & Light Suite, you’re gonna come out of it feeling something; it could be anything – disconnected, hate, anger, joy, confused, who knows. But it’ll make you feel something.

And then, just as I was about to bemoan that the only thing missing from The Magic Door was the Little Feat vibe of the first album, here’s Wheel Don’t Roll to close the album. It perfectly captures the mid-period Lowell George from The Last Record Album, but it still sounds like a band doing what they love, it’s not a ripoff (like The Black Crowes were prone to being at times).

Vibration & Light Suite, from 5 minutes onwards, earns The Magic Door every kind of award possible. I don’t care about the rest of the songs right now. Technically, it’s nowhere near as good as the Syd Arthur album I gave 5 stars too, but i’ll be playing this record daily for the mood it brings with it.

The vibe makes this record so incredible that it could’ve been 10 Jonas Brothers covers and it would still be five stars. It could be Chris Robinson telling a joke about the Buddha, but as long as it has this vibe it will always be five stars.

Buy it. Steal it. Download it. Put it on your sister’s iPod and delete the rest of her music so she only has this to listen to. Do whatever you can to hear this, and let your friends hear it too so that they come to Europe.

Hey Classic Rock Magazine, if you want real rock n roll, well you’ve finally got it.

For fans of: Grateful Dead, Little Feat, Black Crowes

Released 11th September

Ben Folds Five – The Sound of the Life of the Mind

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Genre: Powerpop, Bad Music


I’m warning you: this is not a positive, glowing review of a postive, glowing comeback album from one of the best bands of the 90s. Nor is it a completely indifferent opinion from a part-time fan.

I love Ben Folds Five. Whatever And Ever Amen still stands as one of the most important, defining albums of powerpop music. But, right now, the only thing more negative than my current thoughts about The Sounds Of The Life Of The Mind are my current thoughts about Amanda Palmer’s whiny, pretentious kickstarter campaign, the dumb bitch.

If you’ve never heard this band (and I assume, then, that you’ve been living under the largest rock on the planet, or you’re 2 years old and deaf) then please close this page, sit back and listen to The Last Polka, Kate, Song For The Dumped, or any of the perfect songs they created.

Okay. Here we go.

The scary thing is, when Ben Folds Five announced they were reforming after a near-12-year break, no one seemed anxious. I’m not sure if it was because no one cared, or because everyone just assumed they could get back together in a room and write Underground Pt 2. No one seemed anxious that for 12 years every member has veered off the powerpop road and into other territories; Darren Jessee formed the ultra-hipster-indie-folk Hotel Lights, whose effect was more dimming than bright. Robert Sledge disappeared altogether, and Ben Folds… well, surprisingly no one seemed anxious that, you know, Ben Folds’ solo career hasn’t exactly produced the joyful, jump-around-the-room-and-smash-everything stuff you’d have expected. His talent has always been in writing simple pop songs in the way that only he can do, like The Replacements without the tattoos. But lately, things have started to soften up and get a little too quiet and Elton John-y (much like Elton’s last 500 albums, ironically). Songs for Silverman, especially, was the sound of an aging songwriter stretching hard to appeal to his aging audience – who, unlike himself, weren’t yet middle-aged. Are you falling asleep yet? (That is harsh, I know, because, amongst the romantic ballads and the ballads and the ballads about his children, some tracks like Bitch Went Nuts and Saskia Hamilton did appear. Occasionally. Never.)

Maybe i’m being hopeful, but call me hopeful for expecting a new Ben Folds Five album to be exciting and catchy and anthemic. “Punk Rock for sissies.” The early signs weren’t so endearing though.

The album title alone is fucking terrible. The Sounds Of The Life Of The Mind? I mean, that sure makes you want to hear it, what with the sounds and the life and the mind and all that cool stuff. Oh wow, I am so intrigued. “Hey, bro, have you heard the new Five album, THESOUNDSOFTHELIFEOFTHEMIND?”

But I digress.

Above anything else, this album was ALWAYS going to be a matter of which Ben Folds Five turned up – was it going to be the one that made a dent in the Billboard Charts with its impressive way of appealing to both the mass market and music fans, or the band that released Reinhold Messner in 1999, by which time the magic had already disappeared?

So you press play, it’s all or nothing now. And the opener, Erase Me, makes you wish you had the flu today and didn’t have the strength to have pressed play.

Erase Me is lifted straight from The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. It labors on for five fucking minutes with no real hooks or memorability or anything other than casting a magic spell on you to hit the skip button. “Eeee-rase me.” No problem, Ben. Honestly, the first chorus of the album sums up the next 9 tracks in a way that I never could – “what the fuck is this?”

What the fuck IS this? It’s a great start.

And then… then, Michael Praytor, Five Years Later reels you in like a blind fish and gives you false promises because it’s, somehow, awesome. I think my actual words upon hearing this fine slice of sweet Ben Folds Five cake were “YES. FINALLY.” All the things that made this band classic are here – the bouncing piano, the distorted bass, the JELLYFISH HARMONIES ARE EVEN HERE.

And that’s the end. False promises. Like a child molester hiding in a clown suit luring kids to his ice cream van. If this record was just simply Michael Praytor repeated 10 times, it would get 5 stars. Unfortunately, someone told Ben Folds that he is 46 years old.

Sky High, On Being Frank, the title track… do you hear that?

That is the sound of Ben Folds getting old.

It’s all a bit squeeky clean. It’s all a bit too nice. Man, the best thing about this band used to be was that they sounded like they were playing right in front of you, bashing the shit out of that piano together and making your eardrums bleed. Playing Ben Folds Five at low volume used to be illegal in Europe because it only works when the band are loud.

They’re “nice” tracks, sure. There’s nothing wrong with them; they’re absolutely average. I feel nothing towards them, nothing at all, which is the only real trophy The Sounds Of The Life Of The Mind can win. A dull, lifeless medal made from Alanis Morissette’s dull lifeless lifelessness.

If you’ve heard Ben Folds’ last solo release, Lonely Avenue, you know exactly what to expect here. But I can’t really sit and complain: i’m the stupid fucker who bought Lonely Avenue on cd and vinyl and the goddamn handwritten autographed manuscript too before even hearing it. And that’s when everything clicks, and you realize…

THIS IS NOT BEN FOLDS FIVE, THIS IS JUST ANOTHER BEN FOLDS SOLO ALBUM.

Draw A Crowd may be the worst song you’ll hear this year. No joke. It’s even worse than that warbling St Vincent song where she turns on the octaver and makes it sound like a cat. Oh wait, that’s all of them. But back to Draw A Crowd – what the fuck is this shit?

I’m putting the video at the bottom so you can hear it for yourself. Click it right now and behold the marvelous beauty of Draw A Crowd.

Okay. Is he…

Is he…

Is he trying to rap? Is he trying to talk? Has someone broken into the studio while they were recording vocals and told him his car has been stolen? Has covering Bitches Ain’t Shit turned Ben Folds into a kind of psuedo-50 Cent? In the UK, I wouldn’t even give him the merit of 1 pence for that attempt.

And then comes the chorus- NO, WHY. WHY WHY WHY DID YOU HAVE TO DO THIS BEN FOLDS? “Chorus”. I say chorus loosely because it sounds more like the kind of song your boyfriend writes for you to make you kiss him, but instead of being sombre and romantic it arrives in the same style as his punk rock band (who are more of a metal band because the guitarist is actually a Maiden fan, bro, and that’s just the way this shit goes.)

Actual chorus lyrics: “If you’re feeling small and you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall”

Ladies & Gentleman, cover your ears. That is the work of Ben Folds, a 46 year old manchild. If you can’t write a chorus, write about dicks. I’m shocked that he hasn’t tried to fit a rhyme of “fire” and “desire” in there. I don’t even hate the song, that’s the annoying thing. It grows on you (HAHAHA PENIS JOKE) but is this Ben Folds Five or is it a boring band who’d fade into the mist of whocares if they weren’t already famous?

Do It Anyway follows, and it is actually pretty goo- nope, it’s pretty bad, like the rest. But here’s where the funny stuff comes in. Hold That Thought. That’s the title of the song, at least so they tell us, but i’ve given up believing anything these guys tell us. “Ben Folds Five have reformed to make music that sounds like Ben Folds Five“. pff.

What it really is, is a cover song.

Hold That Thought is The Lion Sleeps Tonight under another song title. No, seriously. Do you know that song? IN DA JUNGLE DA MIGHTY JUNGLE. Yeah. Well, this chorus is IT. awoooooooooooooooo. That alone should make this song exempt from rational opinion, so it shall be.

Away When You Were Here is bad too, not just bad in terms of its place on this album, it’s bad because it’s a Ben Folds-solo-ballad that isn’t really a ballad. It’s like a sorrowful, hurting, aching ballad that’s been sped up and now sits somewhere between the Wacky Races and sheer human confusion. And then, finally, we’re at the last track. Except, it’s not really the last track on a Ben Folds Five album. It’s the last track on Songs For Silverman Pt 2. And it’s called…

Thank You For Breaking My Heart.

Ben Folds, thank you for breaking my heart with a solo album that proves one thing:

Reunions never work.

For fans of: Ben Folds

Released 18th September

Marillion – Sounds That Can’t Be Made

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Genre: Art-Rock, Post-Progressive


Ah, here we go.

Look, i’m sorry, especially if Steve Hogarth is reading this, but we haven’t spoken about Marillion here yet and there’s something wholly unimportant that has to be said.

Mention the name Marillion to most music fans (that is, outwith their own obsessive circle of stalkers who care about Marillion and Marillion only) and you’ll be greeted with cries of disdain – cries of anguish aimed at a completely separate band.

So here’s the deal:

Modern-day Marillion sound like a, quite exceptionally, awesome combination of Pink Floyd and U2. Not to mention taking more than a little influence from their K-Scope peers (Porcupine Tree, Anathema, Engineers etc etc). Their long-haired oh-my-fucking-god-he-has-a-gorgeous-voice singer, Steve Hogarth, has, as you can guess, one of the most beautiful voices in Britain. Marillion have it easy; you KNOW that you’re a good band when another band (Gazpacho) steals your entire sound. Oh, and also when they name their band after one of your songs. But I like Gazpacho, I just happen to like Marillion more.

And that Marillion, that post-2004 band, the band who created the delicately soaring album Marbles, is the band that should be the popular one to music fans.

Unfortunately, there’s a dark side here.

You know it. I know it.

We all know what’s happening here and no one can stop this.

I don’t even want to mention it. But we have to.

Urgh.

Kayleigh.

Fish.

The band who took prog rock and almost ruined it. The band who did everything wrong; I mean, think of all the things that are bad about prog, just think, and I can guarantee it appears on Misplaced Childhood. The effeminate synths and strings that make you want to tear your ears off and throw them at the keyboardist. The attempts to fit 20 lyrics in a single line, because, hey, prog rock is about a “story”. Some of the worst album covers since the beginning of time (until Manowar arrived). Overblown, bombastic, attention-seeking widdly wankery. Dream Theater, in general. Neal Morse and Spock’s Beard, in general. Shitty “modern prog” bands like Touchstone, The Reasoning, Bigelf, Karnataka, Beardfish, Frost* and The Tangent, in general. Those kind of bands where every song comes in different “sections” because they can’t write proper, cohesive ones.

Fish-era Marillion are responsible for all of this.

I don’t care if that’s not even the truth: FISH-ERA MARILLION ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR WORLD HUNGER, WORLD POVERTY AND ALSO 9/11.

So thank everyone for giving us Steve Hogarth. Bless the flowers, bless the sun, bless the children for taking it all away. The Steve Hogarth Band (as Marillion should be known) have only released 3 albums since 2004, but every single one has been album-of-the-year material. Marbles was 1hr 40mins in length and very nearly suffered for it, but it didn’t, and it had one of the best songs of the decade: Neverland. Somewhere Else was 50 minutes, strong and all the better for it, and Happiness Is The Road was 2 albums in one.

So, do you see what i’m hinting at here? These albums are too long to be classics that you want to play daily; their sheer length means you can only accomplish them once a week. Listen, Marillion have definitely found their niche with their zealous fanbase who ask for more, more, more, but stuffing so much material into albums and releasing four hundred million live records a year is suffocating. There was a reason a vinyl could/can only accommodate 20 minutes per side before it degrades.

Anyway, let’s take a look at Sounds That Can’t Be Made, which i’m going to spoil the review with already and say that it’s nearly as good as Marbles, and it shares many similarities. But, look. Just look. The first track is 17 minutes long. There are 3 tracks over 10 minutes. The entire album is 74 minutes long. Whose idea was this? In what universe is an album this long ever going to be a good idea!?

Normally, I like to have heard a record at least 10 times before I give my opinion. But, fuck, fuck. Fuck, forgive me.

Forgive me for only having heard Sounds That Can’t Be Made four times.

That is 5 hours listening to this album.

Nonetheless, some of it is really quite good. It’s exactly what you would expect, which i’m not sure is an entirely positive thing. There’s not a lot of new things brought to the table here (except in Gaza, which we’ll get to in a second), and some of it sounds exactly like Marbles, but if you know and like this band already then you’ll be happy and probably have Sounds That Can’t Be Made down for one of the best albums of 2012 before you’ve even heard it. This record is Marillion doing what Marillion do best: long, drawn-out epic ambient-pop-romance-rock with Hogarth’s voice taking the pilot’s seat for most of the journey.

The opener, Gaza, is just utterly, amazingly, and absolutely fantastic. It’s also fucking heavy. Dear lord, it is the heaviest thing this band have ever done. Infact, parts of it could have been placed on Steven Wilson’s Grace For Drowning (listen to that orgasmic part at 4:12 in the video at the bottom, it sounds like the world is collapsing and it’s doing that by punching Remainder The Black Dog over and over.) If you took the excellent Marbles track Drilling Holes and made it 17 minutes long, and then you put it in the oven to heat up, this song is what it would sound like. BUT, these heavy parts are too short. They’re dropped out in favour of ambience and keyboard doodlings. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, we’re not asking for metal riffs here (the bottom tier of music, a complete lack of emotion everywhere) and we do get to hear more of that voice. But, with the latest news that our lives will have no new Porcupine Tree releases for at least 5 years, I feel completely teased and disappointed that, just as soon as these very-Deadwing parts have appeared, they’re ripped straight from me – like taking a girl home only to find she has a penis. For now, I love this track. But I think after 20 plays i’ll either be falling asleep or needing new underwear. We’ll see.

Sounds That Can’t Be Made has one of the best coda/outros i’ve heard since Happiness Is The Road (these are the best parts of Marillion songs, by the way, when everyone just decides screw it, we’ll ad lib for 4 minutes). Plus, extra marks for mentioning Aurora Borealis. Power and Invisible Ink are reasonably standard, Marbles affairs. The Sky Above The Rain walks a tight line between beautiful ballad and X Factor-finalist winning song, complete with falling confetti, fireworks and a choir of fat people walking on stage at just the right moment to bring it all back home, baby.

And then it all gets ruined.

Just as you’re accepting that, hey, I could sit here all night and listen to this… that’s when your grandfather walks into the room naked and everything good in the world disappears and Pour My Love appears.

The track title alone should make it all obvious. I wasn’t aware that “love” was a new brand of Coca Cola, capable of being poured.

Pour My Love is the weakest track here. A sappy, eye-rolling keyboard-driven plodder with a chorus that would fit on any Dad Rock compilation. I don’t understand why bands write these kind of songs. If you’re gonna take 4 years to carefully construct new songs, then how do you end up with… with this?

Lucky Man, thankfully, is a far better song. Despite being lyrically like listening to a drunk dad telling the kids how much he loves their mum (hey, don’t worry, I turn into a soppy romanticist when writing for the girl I like too). The song itself is worthy of playing on repeat. Just that ring-modulated guitar, man. That shit is great. “Some of us pay for absolution, some want sex and call it love, the freedom to cheat is not something i need tonight”. Ehhhhhhhh. Well, at least it’s better than “DRAGONS AND FAERIES ARE EVIL TO LADIES”

Overall, Sounds That Can’t Be Made is a very good record, but only if you have time to dedicate to it, and time to sit down and listen to it. Once the release-hype fades, I imagine it may stand up next to the best Hogarth work. Track-by-track, these songs stand high in the Marillion catalogue; somewhere amongst the mammoth length is something colossal.

For now, it’s almost too much to ingest in one sitting.

But this record is worth getting just for Gaza alone. I suggest you do just that and support the real Marillion.

For fans of: Marillion, Gazpacho

Released 17th September

Tame Impala – Lonerism

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Genre: Psychedelic, Powerpop, Art Rock



Quite how Tame Impala managed to become platinum superstars in their native Australia is anyone’s guess.

2 years have passed since their debut album, Innerspeaker, took over the down under continent seemingly overnight, with its dazzling fusion of prog rock and space psychedelica. Of course, outside of Australia you’d be lucky to find someone who had even heard of them, let alone been one of the thousands who’d bought the album. But look anywhere and, even 2 years on, amongst the bizarrely fanatical Brazilian post-pubescants that seem to have glued themselves to the band, you’ll find that most of their (large) fanbase is still drawn from the source of mainstream, normal music fans. Rhianna, One Direction, Bon Iver, Taylor Swift… Tame Impala…

SOMETHING DOESN’T FIT HERE.

(it’s One Direction, they’re awesome.)

It would make perfect sense if Tame Impala created stereotypical, middle-of-the-road, made-to-please-the-masses pop music. But that is where everything starts to unfold and the delight of confusion sets in. Every few years, there are certain bands who get a short period of fame in their home country that makes absolutely no sense; Tame Impala in Australia is one of them (Muse is another example. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of them, their influence in the UK has been pivotal to progressive rock’s resurgence in popularity worldwide.)

See, Tame Impala make a kind of pop music. But it’s not pop music. It’s pop music in the same way that Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite is catchy pop music. Or in the same way that Harry Nilsson’s Popeye soundtrack was a pop album. In other words, they don’t fit into a category at the record store because they’re a little melting pot of everything.

But let us push aside the Beatles comparisons for a moment because, even though every mainstream media review speaks like Lonerism is the second coming of Revolver (and, while that’s not completely wrong, to compare anything to an album that changed everything is sacrilege), there’s one thing that Lonerism sounds a whole lot more like than anything else; Tame Impala have created something here that seemed impossible to recreate.

Todd fuckin’ Rundgren.

But not the songwriting genius of Todd from Something/Anything, not the half-hearted meanderings of his short-lived band Utopia, and certainly not the Todd Rundgren we’re left with in 2012 (which I refuse to accept exists)

No. It’s the i’ve-taken-5-acid-sugar-cubes-and-i’m-going-into-the-studio Todd Rundgren from “A Wizard, A True Star”. The same “A Wizard”, a near-perfect album, which was pretty much ignored completely in 1973 because it was so different. Well, it now has a son. A son born 39 years later, and it goes by the name of Lonerism.

To talk about the songs individually on this record would be missing the point; much like “A Wizard” it plays as if it’s a medley and, more importantly, it encapsulates a mood as opposed to being 13 seperate songs. That can, however, make Lonerism a very droning, claustrophobic, over-cosy listen. It IS same-y, in a similar way to Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Aufheben – whether you feel that’s important in the case of this album is another matter entirely. Don’t take that the wrong way though, if you were to drop your turntable needle on any groove you’ll find that it’s a treat, not a chore, to hear the sweeping synthesizers added to Lonerism, an upgrate from Innerspeaker’s no-synths approach. Or the incredible vocals that are eerily like someone overdubbed everything with John Lennon’s voice.

Or you might be treated to the final guitar riff in Music To Walk Home By, a tip of the metaphorical hat to Zeppelin’s Out On The Tiles.

Or the dancing sway of Feels Like We Only Go Backwards which could have come straight off Band On The Run.

Or the part-stoner, part-Marc Bolan stomp of Elephant.

Or the trippy, lucid repetition of Mind Mischief, recalling the 90s powerpop of The Posies more than anything.

Or, my favourite, Keep On Lying, an incredible cut that half way through drifts off into an extension of Tic Tic Tic from “A Wizard A True Star”.

However, the best way to experience this album is to press play and forget you’re listening to it. Let it go in and out of your hearing, don’t focus on it as 13 songs, and tune your brain to the mood of the album. In the proper way, somehow miraculously for a mainstream band, this is true psychedelica. You don’t need drugs to enjoy this music; this music IS the drug.

All in all, Lonerism is a more cohesive effort than Innerspeaker. The synths add a completely new dimension to this band, transforming them from Flaming Lips-type indie experimenters to… full blown psychedelia. I suspect it will turn many fans away.

Is it a better album than Innerspeaker? Only time will tell us. There are so many layers to Lonerism that it may be an inconspicuous grower. It may become album of the year, that much is possible. But, on the first week of listening, the sameness and monotony means it is an album for very specific moods. To quote Neil Young at the start of Year Of The Horse, “It’s all one song!” And that wasn’t a bad album either.

But, as far as A Wizard A True Star clones go, this is as good as it gets.

Lonerism is an enigma.

For fans of: Todd Rundgren, Paul McCartney & Wings, ELO

Released 8th October

WE’RE STILL ALIVE

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Apologies for the lack of activity, life got in the way!

Normal service will resume next week. I know you’ve been missing the seething negative reviews (well, all 200 of you who actually read this blog. hahahah) Thanks for your patience! 

-Garry

Syd Arthur – On An On

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Genre: Art Rock, Canterbury, Psychedelic, Jazz-Fusion


It’s a sign of a good band when they can’t possibly be described in one sentence. And, believe me, this is good.

Infact, trying to force Syd Arthur into an insufferable pit of classification is a reasonably challenging and fun game to play. Though I wouldn’t bother if I were you, because this, I guarantee, is near-unbeatable:

An organic, rootsy Tame Impala hitch a ride with The Meters to go see White Denim play in a field in the countryside, where Caravan are discussing their favourite Phish shows and Tomorrow Never Knows is playing in the background.

But there’s one very bright influence, glistening through the rest like a volcanic sun. Canterbury Prog.

It’s so unfair to pigeonhole a band as young as Syd Arthur into a scene they were never part of. It’s also lazy and frustratingly ill-researched to say that they’re merely a resurrection of Soft Machine (which many mainstream reviews have fallen into the trap of doing already.) But to understand the music this band are making, it’s probably best to also understand the music produced in the history of their hometown.

Circa ’67-’78, the Canterbury scene wasn’t so much a genre as it was an entire decade of crazy musicianship, over indulgence and schoolboy humour, all condensed into 40 minute vinyl treasure chests. The tiny quantity of musicians involved could be easily counted on both hands, but the amount of outstanding albums made from that select few would need multiple mutated octopus fingers to tally. Some were indebted to the liberated exploration of free-form jazz being released by Impulse Records in the 60s; Matching Mole, Hatfield & The North’s eponymous debut, Soft Machine’s Three, Henry Cow’s LegEnd. Others to the rise of psychedelia: Kevin Ayers’ Shooting At The Moon, Gong’s Camembert Electrique, Khan’s Space Shanty. It goes on.

Of course, none of these bands sounded much like each other, and to call a band “Canterbury” confirms only two things: a no boundaries attitude and a rare authenticity of overwhelming English-ness. Similarly, to attempt to describe the wonderful music from Syd Arthur’s On & On is also to dishearten it (let alone compare it to an outdated – though brilliant – entry to the history of music). Can you really compare a modern band to a “scene”, not a genre, which faded without trace once punk music took over and all but mutilated and disembowled the art of musicianship?

This is where Syd Arthur fit into being, completely unfortunately, wrongly categorized as a Canterbury band. They are, by all accounts, reminiscent of some of the music produced, certainly, but mostly they’re just a lethal combination of prog, jazz, psychedelic and folk music.

The name itself should tell a lot of the nature of the band, Siddhartha being the protagonist in Hermann Hesse’s spiritual novel set during the time of Buddha. Or maybe it’s the Syd, matching Syd Barrett. Or King Arthur, the man who alone defines the word “English.” But don’t fear if the thought of 20 minute keytar solos and silver capes scares you, no, On An On is a modern album. It’s deliciously retro, indeed, but its feet are planted firmly in the present in the way that, say, Sleepy Sun are. The sweeping string arrangements, the fuzzed-out guitar, the woody mandolin, the time signatures changing without warning. It’s as close to perfect as modern progressive music can get. To add anything would be to detract from what is such a mature vision beyond their youthful years.

The three standouts here serve the purpose as highlights only for the sake of having highlights, for the whole record is immaculate, and, to quote Almost Famous, incendiary. Incendiary. Dorothy is a dreamy, jazz-fueled haze; a recollection of sleepy, 2am moonlights and breathy sunrises. Eye-popping instrumental Night Shaped Light is three and a half minutes of psychedelic bliss. Ode To The Summer possesses a monster Funkadelic-like verse riff that makes dancing in 9/8 possible. Vocalist/guitarist Liam Magill has a soothing, effortless voice, comforting like Nick Drake, but restrained like Brendan Benson in a way that lets the band take the praise together (and there is a slight resemblance of Benson’s solo music outside The Raconteurs on the choruses of On An On). It’s not Robert Plant fronting Syd Arthur, but it works in much the same way that Tame Impala does; using the voice as a texture.

It also doesn’t hurt that they’re all stupidly accomplished musicians. Even the weakest track here, the disjointed and almost-awful Truth Seeker, is glued together by guitar chops more tasteful than a Mars Bar.

In terms of the UK, there’s enough here to satisfy both the Glastonbury crowd (that is, the mainstream magazines and indie festival-goers) and also appeal to the passionate, anti-cool prog fans who would otherwise be turned off by what is, ultimately, pop music.

But it’s thinking man’s pop music. Warped pop music. It’s technical, it’s savvy, it’s adventurous. And that’s why it’s so good.

It’s gorgeous.

Grab your sativa, On An On is mindblowing.

For fans of: Music. Everything.
Recommended Track: Dorothy

Released 3rd July

Pirate Pete’s Fifteen-Word Friday

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FIFTEEN WORDS WITH:
Pirate Pete

—————————————————-

Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros – Here

Hippie wannabes explore the free world by producing… generic indie folk? Positives: Jesus as singer.

Glen Hansard – Rhythm & Repose

Tries hard to be Damien Rice. Ends up like plain Müller Rice: flavourless and lumpy.

Can – The Lost Tapes

Exhaustive. Three inconsistent disks full of rarities. Incredible and confusing. Fanatics only. But that’s me.

The Offspring – Days Go By

Oh dear. Every 90s childhood destroyed and softened into The Cult. Should’ve quit while ahead.

Melody Gardot – The Absence

Smooth Billie Holiday voice hits all the right places. Songs not so convincing. Better live.

Naam – The Ballad of Starchild EP

More Children of The Grave from the psychedelic conveyorbelt. See: every other Teepee Records band.


PIRATE PETE SAYS:

No loot found this week.

Zeus – Busting Visions

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Genre: Powerpop


Holy moly. Holy Supertramp.

It’s easy to forgot that Powerpop was once a chart-dominating, money-making blockbuster genre of screaming fangirls and tight jeans with its own significant place in the history of music. Of course, if you’re a fan, it’s also far too easy to get caught up in the romanticist memory of Apple Records and Badfinger and The Raspberries and Big Star et al.

And after Queen saturated the market with their own prolific output, and after Jeff Lynne threw the kitchen sink into his productions, the reaction to Kurt Cobain in the 1990s left us with 3 categorically perfect powerpop albums; Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk, Weezer’s Pinkerton, and Ben Folds Five’s Whatever & Ever Amen. Since then, many have tried, and all have stuttered far from the finish line.

But it’s still nice to still get powerpop releases. After all, what could be more enjoyable?

On Busting Visions, the 2nd album from Canada’s Zeus, there’s a fine line driven between happy pop tunes and retro throwback. The record is completely bubblegum, completely lightweight, and, more importantly, a hell of a lot of fun. It’s inoffensive and catchy; the kind of album you could take home to meet your parents. But it’s also an ambitious little fucker, piling absolutely everything into the production like Roy Thomas Baker on a cocaine bender, along with the expected thousands upon thousands of vocal harmonies filling every free space. Stop The Train channels Zeus’s inner Electric Light Orchestra rather incredibly, while Love In A Game is the best song Steely Dan haven’t written this year. It’s all cut straight from a particularly British cloth though, coming out like the secret adopted triplet of Wings’ Venus & Mars, Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack and George Harrison’s Dark Horse (his most criminally underappreciated album, certainly when compared to the tedious and overpraised ones ruined by Phil Spector.) Unsurprisingly, the members of Zeus have a more sustainable day job – that is, they act as the backing band to Jason Collett, frontman of Broken Social Scene, which this record sounds nothing like.

With Eyes Closed is one of the best here, a semi-dark folk rocker that owes more than a little to The Hollies during their Evolution/Butterfly psych-pop phase, Graham Nash’s last years with the band before forming CS&N. The highest compliment that can be paid to the authenticity is that it doesn’t sound retro so much as it sounds like something from 1978. Opener Are You Gonna Waste My Time? even manages to hike itself into Joe Walsh territory for its few short minutes – though it’s also one of the longer songs here…

…at a marathon 3 minutes 49 seconds. Zeus may need to consider changing their name to Dream Theater.

However, Cool Blue, the most Beatlesque thing on here, is where all the bad things about Busting Visions collide into themselves and, ultimately, it’s also where the album’s wheels fall off and it spirals towards its untimely death. Amongst the lazy songwriting (Hello Tender Love) and the downright awful (Messenger’s Way) there is some awful, truly awful, amateur guitar work with drifts away into endless, cheap noodling constantly. It doesn’t fit anywhere and it catapults the mood of Busting Visions from playful fun to reaching for the skip button.

The intentions of the band to create such un-cool music are commendable, and it clearly comes from the right kind of passionate place; but you can’t help but feel it’s all just a little TOO ambitious for Zeus right now.

Essentially, what Busting Visions gives is a second rate version of fellow Canadian powerpoppers Sloan. And why listen to Zeus when you can drag out Sloan’s Parallel Play or Never Hear The End Of It to hear how retro albums can be done flawlessly?

But hey, it took Sloan five lp’s before they became a great band. Maybe Zeus are the same.

Not for everyone, but a primarily enjoyable listen.

For fans of: Josh Fix, Sloan, Supertramp

Released August 6th/Mar 27th

Toe – The Future Is Now EP

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Genre: Post Rock, Progressive Jazz


For as long as our incandescent hearts beat, we are emotional beings who will continue to seek the true beauty in the world. For some, that might come from the gaze of the sun; a dream of a happy reality with happy thoughts, shimmering bright and youthful. For others, fragments of decay, death and melancholy can equally create some kind of connection.

Beauty is a complicated word.

And that is why Post Rock is such a complicated subject.

The harsh irony being, of course, that Post Rock is no longer “post” anything. At a grasp, it began to fall behind when it was bruised and corrupted and squeezed like an orange by the hordes of bands jumping the bandwagon – that bandwagon being the social media and Youtube revolution which forgets artists as soon as they learn about them. Because, regardless of where you look or what your intentions are or what you’re interested in, Post Rock is everywhere. It’s in movies, tv commercials, clothes stores, it’s probably even in your mom’s car. At least 50% of all underground music is Post Rock this year. Currently, it’s the “cool” choice of people worldwide. But the genre now wallows in despair, existing more truthfully as Post-Post Rock, and it doesn’t so much resemble Explosions In The Sky or Sigur Ros or Mogwai anymore, so much as it repeats and repeats and repeats what they’ve already done. In modern Post Rock there lies a great conundrum: when it’s good it’s really good, and when it’s bad it’s borderline cringeworthy and pathetically stereotypical.

Yeah, Toe aren’t one of those bands.

Infact, I have no idea who Toe are, or indeed, what Toe are. But they are beautiful. Uncharacteristically so; beautiful like a meadow of a thousand fairy tales.

Obviously, this is where the buck stops, because if you try Googling “Toe” you will break your knuckles in sheer rage. No, seriously. On the four thousandth page there is a picture of Toe the band, caved in and surrounded by intimidating 4000×4000 res HQ images of toes: not just any toes either, all kinds of toes – pointy ones, bendy ones, drawings of feet, diagrams of bones in your feet. Feats you didn’t know were possible. A man in Brazil was apparently born with 8 toes on one foot.

To name your band after a body part you either have to be stupid or foreign.

Toe are Japanese. Of course they are. Only Japan could produce such an oddly confusing band making such unique music.

And it seems so harsh to compare them to others. Mostly because there isn’t a whole lot of things that sound like the music on The Future Is Now, which is an EP, agonizingly lasting only 15 minutes. If there’s a closest reference point, it’s to the Norwegian Nu-Jazz bands; the electronic, trip-hop younger brother of Math Rock. Wibutee, Xploding Plastix, Skalpel, Jaga Jazzist. But only sparingly. Toe have no relation to electronic music.

Imagine the Dillinger Escape Plan if they fell in love and became romantic lovers. Imagine Moe or fellow far-east experimentalists Sgt if they discovered the natural world around them; the blue autumn trees, the searing yellow sky. A Transmodern Frank Zappa circa-Hot Rats, but armed with constant sunshine instead of Captain Beefheart’s clingyness.

The Future Is Now is a teasing bastard. It lasts a quarter of an hour, it only has four tracks, and it’s all over before you can even sit down. That may also be where its brilliance lies – no weak tracks, no condescending filler, and there are no translated liner notes to read, naturally, as it’s a download-only release.

As far as instrumental music goes, all too often it can become tiresome and dragging. The Future Is Now is mostly instrumental, yes, but the last thing Toe are is an ambient band. Aside from a special guest appearance from the clearly well-known celebrity superstar Aco (who?) and the chant to end Ordinary Days , there’s not really space for vocals here. At least, not vocals to ruin it.

The lusciously cute second track, Tsuki Kake, is sugary sweet as opposed to pedantically twee, and the soaring Mini Moog synth which dominates the entire EP is a particular strong point, but it all fades together into one gorgeous 15 minute track. Maybe a full album would be overload, but that judgment doesn’t need to be made, nor should be considered for The Future Is Now. It’s a delicate rose which just calls to be played over and over and over.

Oh, and by the way…

It only costs £2.76. That’s less than a medium Big Mac.

The choice is yours, fatty. But everyone must own a copy.

For fans of: Wibutee, Jaga Jazzist, Xploding Plastix

Released 20th June

Beachwood Sparks – The Tarnished Gold

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Genre: Sunshine Pop, Indie Folk

Fuck Fleet Foxes.

Those are the three words you’ll find in your head after hearing The Tarnished Gold, a record that seems to be built with the sole intent to blow away last year’s critic’s favourite, Helplessness Blues. Because, compared to Beachwood Sparks, Fleet Foxes sound like horribly monotonous children making horribly monotonous music, which is not true at all. Such is the value of this triumphant return.

Not that you’d know Beachwood Sparks were on hiatus and indeed making a return. To know that, you’d have to have heard (and therefore subsequently forgotten) their last album, the sagging and sporadically interesting Once We Were Trees. A critical success, and a huge commercial failure – but who cares – Once We Were Trees wasn’t bad, per se, it merely suffered from being a few years before its time; a few years before magazines like NME and Q abandoned their shameful love of garage rock and decided that, hey, Arcade Fire are at least better than The Vines.

And now, in 2012, it’s a rocky time to be writing psychedelic-tinged folk music. A good time, but a rocky time; one catchy song and you’ve got yourself a spot on every summer festival; one boring album and you sink into the abyss with the millions of other copycats; one good support slot and you’ve gained yourself a cult fanbase.

Oh, and then you’re also nervously quivering in fear that Bon Iver, the manufactured Antichrist himself, will steal anything you do and call it his own. Or bash his battery-powered Casio keyboard at random and call it Art. But I digress.

See, this scene, whatever you wish to call it, from Vancouver to Albuquerque, is a tired and neglected puppy. It needs a rest, it needs some proper love, and it doesn’t even deserve to have much of an audience in this oh-so-elitist futureland with its Beat Detective and its Pro Tools. Enter Beachwood Sparks.

Beachwood Sparks are really quite good.

The obvious comparison is Wilco. Afterall, in the post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot world, everything is compared to Wilco. Wilco Wilco Wilco. Wilco this, Wilco that. It’s a wonder anyone even tries anymore, which is why Beachwood Sparks have looked a little closer to their California home; namely, two notable things:

The Byrds’ landmark Sweetheart To The Rodeo, and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Stained in reverb until the fog blocks the sun, light and breathy like the soundtrack to a Grand Canyon road trip, at times The Tarnished Gold is a breath of fresh air. At times it’s quite impressive. The title cut, one of the album’s standouts, is so deliciously un-country in an intense country way – think Gilded Palace of Sin, one of the best albums of the late 60s. Water From The Well lights up the sky with all its seductive melancholic gloom. Alone Together softly, kindly, magnificently sways from side to side as the only real ballad here. Talk About Lonesome is as close to its contemporaries as The Tarnished Gold, the album, gets – an Of Monsters and Men-like stomp along with searing CSN&Y harmonies to save the day (we don’t want anything to actually SOUND like Of Monsters And Men, do we?).

But the real highlight here is Leave That Light On; an absolute dream; a sub-zero temperature, 5 minute haze of soothing calmness that couldn’t be more chilled if it moved to Antarctica and called itself Mary Jane.

Overall, The Tarnished Gold is surprisingly touching; a near-brilliant slab of hollow cement that bridges the gap between Buffalo Springfield and Grizzly Bear. It’s reflective, relaxing, and, quite wonderfully, a utopia for fans of the one instrument that makes everything sound like heaven: the pedal steel. The pedal steel is all over The Tarnished Gold, almost enough to warrant its own picture in the liner notes as a lead instrument. You can’t help but adore it and its Topanga Canyon charm.

The drawbacks? Oh, they’re here. The lack of a powerful vocalist hampers Beachwood Sparks slightly, but only when things begin to falter near the end with bags of filler and too-short jingles taking the place of real songs. But even when it occasionally slips into Glastonbury dullness, like in The Orange Grass Special, the first half of The Tarnished Gold is so strong that it doesn’t seem to matter. The material is too strong.

Gram Parsons often spoke of his dream for “Cosmic American Music”. Well, it looks like someone finally got the memo.

Beachwood Sparks will likely receive plaudits and praise and hyperbole and heralding for this album, and deservedly, so beat the rush and get it before it’s cool to own it. If you only buy one thing in July, The Tarnished Gold seems like a pretty good call.

For fans of: Nada Surf, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield

Released June 26th

Counting Crows – Underwater Sunshine

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Genre: Folk, Indie Rock, Alt-Country


Counting Crows are the perfect example of a great, great band who have suffered terribly from the inevitable shifts in mainstream music. Subtly hidden behind the concrete layers of perfectly-edited guitars and the mountains of perfectly-edited overproduction there lies an exceptional live act, a jam band struggling to find liberation, and one of the finest roots songwriters of his generation. But the crucial word here is “hidden”, and far too often records like Hard Candy and This Desert Life have done their utmost best to diminish all the impurities and the rough edges that ultimately make the music of Counting Crows so uniquely organic.

You’d never know it, but in 2 decades Adam Duritz has crafted some of the greatest folk songs around. Goodnight Elisabeth, Omaha, Holiday In Spain, Have You Seen Me Lately were all capable of being pièces de résistance if recorded in another era by, say, The Band. So, to hear the news that they were preparing a covers album should have left an excited taste in the mouths of, well, anybody who cares about the progression of mainstream music. Here was a chance for a popular band to parade forgotten classics to a new audience; a new outlet to re-spread the word of Van Morrison, of Jackson Browne, of Gene Clark, of Bob Dylan, of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. With the colossal fanbase their popularity brings hanging onto every word intently, Counting Crows held all the right tools to push a little of their predecessors back into the mainstream limelight.

Unfortunately, very little of that exists on Underwater Sunshine. Instead, Counting Crows have chosen to make an album that is both stupidly trivial and completely superfluous. In simple terms, cover albums generally exist for one of two reasons:

1) Most commonly, so a band can fulfill the final obligation of their record label contract and be free (this also applies to live albums)

or rarely 2) to rework music into their particular style and explore new dimensions of what the music is capable of

But, alas, not here. What we’re rewarded with are 15 bland, irrelevant cover versions, of which more than half were originally bland and irrelevant songs. And here’s the disappointing part:

None of them surpass the originals.

However, the unnecessary choices don’t begin with pre-77 songs simply done badly (but don’t worry, there’s lots of that to come). Instead, colourless cuts of trendy no-one-really-cares bands like Dawes and Kasey Anderson are included, and the only question to ask is WHY!? What could Counting Crows possibly achieve by covering songs IN THE SAME GENRE, some of which were released less than 3 years ago?

The odd choice of Teenage Fanclub’s Start Again, one of the weaker songs from the Glasgow band’s worst album, is a tedious and stale shadow of the one which appears on Songs from Northern Britain; it sounds like a plodding olympic tortoise racing in the 100m sprint against mutant tortoises with superpowers – that is, even in a race of feeble species, it’s still never going to win. In other words, it sounds exactly like the original, except more dense and will leave you braindead with repeated listens.

Meet On The Ledge, archetypically appearing on Fairport Convention’s What We Did On Our Holidays, is transformed into an embarrassing pub singalong. Big Star’s 1972 powerpop treasure Ballad of El Goodo isn’t much better, somehow managing to go from catchy pop gold into rushed and extraneous middle-of-the-road music. But leading the way is Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’ Return of the Grevious Angel, something that was never going to be a good choice to cover. The opening track from one of alt-country’s seminal albums, Grevious Angel almost single-handedly inspired a whole movement and genre, so to turn it into a self-important mess is near unforgivable and should be punishable by death. Death by having your ears cut off.

Unsurprisingly, the rare highlight on Underwater Sunshine comes in the very likely form of an old Counting Crows b-side (yes, they’ve covered themselves, regardless of the attempts in the liner notes to say it was written for another band.) Four White Stallions works considerably better than the insipid covers on here, proving that, when it does matter, they’re a band capable of producing quality, professional material; a band who thrive much more on their own songs. Though, it says almost too much about this album when Four White Stallions can be found in much better form on the live release New Amsterdam (which ANY fan of music should own in their collection.) But see, the song also exists as a bonus studio track on the European release of 2002‘s Hard Candy too, so who in the band decided that recording a third time for this tired and worn session was a good idea? We can only assume it’s one of their groupie’s favourite songs.

It’s hard to see where the audience for this album lies; is it the gullible obsessive fanbase, happy to eat everything up that the band spits out? Is it the near-extinct dying breed of CD shoppers out there, still searching the shelves of record stores and blindly buying solely based on band names and cover art? Probably and most likely. Essentially, this record will allow the band to join the ranks of contemporary pompous indie rock with its wobbling shelf life. But, frustratingly, that seems to be what Adam Duritz wants.

Thankfully, this record will be forgotten about in 6 months time when it takes its rightful place in the “rare” section of the Counting Crows discography. And, with some luck, hopefully Adam Duritz’s newfound passion for live-in-the-studio folk music provides a catalyst for wherever the band go next.

It’s very possible to love the Counting Crows yet still agree that Underwater Sunshine is a terrible mistake.

For fans of: The Decemberists, Josh Ritter, Modest Mouse

Released April 10th