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Category Archives: 4 Stars

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

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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

Brian Jonestown Massacre – Aufheben

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Genre: Neo-Psychedelica, Space Rock


Ah, psychedelic music. For something that’s become such a household term, branded around like a nomad with no real home, there sure are a lot definitions for it in the modern era. Anyone can be Psychedelic these days it would seem, both as a compliment and an insult. It’s similarly both debased and pathetically overused. Indeed, one could always suggest that the word psychedelic now conjures up an image of uninspired and ordinary banality. A category for bands who just haven’t found their niche yet.

But is “psychedelic” a clichéd peace sign, a floral shirt, and a vivid colour portrait of nature? Maybe a throwback to a 5 year period in the late 60s when Psychedelic Rock was as much a fad as Post-Grunge has become today? (Because, let’s face it, The Doors were the Nickelback of 68 and Woodstock a gathering of trendy kids subscribing to the latest fashion. Jefferson Airplane proved it best by morphing into Jefferson Starship; clearly it defied all their hippie beliefs to jump on the bandwagon of the next trend and release “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”)

In its raw, primitive state, Psychedelica is an explanation for the no-boundaries exploration of sound – the art of capturing a mood and a feeling, rather than a melody and lyric.

And, thankfully, this record is of the right kind.

Stylistically, it closes in on a musical area just short of Faust-meets-Sgt-Pepper, the vocals hidden way back in the mix, adding another layer of substance as opposed to being the main focus. But regardless of comparison, Aufheben is anything BUT a retro record. Infact, it’s arguably the most post-modern piece of work Anton Newcombe has ever recorded.

Beware, this is not music for the casual listener. That is, there are no real standout tracks here, there’s little in the way of song variation, and it is the kind of album that requires a certain dedication to understand. It has to be thought of as one full piece of art rather than individual songs; you don’t pick a track to enjoy and play it on repeat. This is complex mood music, it is challenging and demanding, it’s something you let simmer in the background as it charges your emotional senses. To some it may be genius, to others a complete waste of time. But if you’re aware of Brian Jonestown Massacre, you’re aware of what this music is capable of producing. It doesn’t exactly push outside of the box for the band or explore new sounds, but it doesn’t have to. It sounds like a Brian Jonestown Massacre album.

The krautrock motorik of Viholliseni Maalla and Caravan-meets-Didier Malherbe-isms of Face Down On The Moon are excellent. Others are not as excellent. But as a complete piece, it all seems to work very, very well. Aufheben is a record which shows its influences with pride and then expands on them as if they were a blank canvas – the love letters to Canterbury prog and Low-era David Bowie exist everywhere, but it’s on Stairway To The Best Party In The Universe where the self-aware Paint It Black ripoff shows a well-needed sense of humour in an otherwise serious and dark album.

However, there are negatives here too. The introduction of Will Carruthers to the band permanently has signified a change of approach. The ex-Spiritualized member, an unbelievably overrated band if there ever was one, brings a relentlessly persistent Britpop drawback to the exhaustive ramblings of I Want To Hold Your Other Hand in particular.

Conclusively and rather obviously, it takes the right state of mind to appreciate the beauty on show here; I wouldn’t find it all too surprising if most people loved this album one day then hated it the next.

But if you’re ready for the adventure, Aufheben proves to be a mostly transcendent trip.

For fans of: Tame Impala, Wooden Shjips, Spiritualized
Recommended Track: Illuminomi

Released 30th April

Angus Stone – Broken Brights

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Genre: Singer/Songwriter, Folk, Indie Rock

Beginning like a mellow overdose of valium, subdued album opener River Love doesn’t exactly kick start Broken Brights with a bang. But regardless of the preferences of Angus Stone’s target audience (iPod-obsessed Pitchfork readers who are all but too quick to judge albums within the first 30 seconds) this premature disappointment manages to accomplish making the following 12 tracks sound overwhelmingly superior by comparison; something that did, afterall, work especially well for Uncle Tupelo on their classic Anodyne.

Things quickly improve and, perhaps surprisingly for an artist who made his name in an upbeat indie pop duo with his sister, the album’s highlights come in the form of two Neil Young-esque rockers – the driving Bird On The Buffalo and stunning Only A Woman could easily have found their way onto 1975′s Zuma, complete with meandering guitar solos and droning vocal harmonies. Elsewhere, the Aussie songwriter wears his influences heavily on his newly rolled and roughed-up flannel shirt sleeves; Clouds Above channels the phased-out spirit of George Harrison, and the eponymous Broken Brights slumbers along like an Elliott Smith lullaby.

Clocking in at a mammoth hour in length, the glaring inconsistencies in quality rears its ugly head just a little too often in the second half of the album for it to be considered completely flawless, but with his new found freedom of being a solo artist, Angus Stone has produced the perfect soundtrack for those introverted, cloudy days when all you need are an open mind and a lust for escape.

For fans of: Neil Young, Bright Eyes, Jeff Tweedy
Recommended Track: Only A Woman

Released 16th July