Saturday, 29 January 2011

When Saints Go Machine - Fail Forever

Nowadays, winning a national music competition is no sure-fire career win. In fact, it’s usually the final nail in an already rickety coffin. One minute you’re busting your lungs out in front of millions, the next you're chomping elephant testicles in a jungle with the bloated remnants of celebrity past (hey, look everyone, it’s Dom Jolly). So, as the Danish National Radio Talent of the Year Award winners, When Saints Go Machine have a lot to prove.

But should they? After all, it’s not the Copenhagen quartet’s fault that sceptical listeners are bodyswerving the shtick of hard-working competition winners. There’s more at play here than a purposeful loathing towards those who’ve done well; this is the rejection of music playing out like pantomime on millions of blinking boxes across the land. It’s what happens when a decade of aural diarrhoea lines the pockets of sycophantic arse-wipes and Dannii Minogue.

In just twenty-five glossy, star-striding minutes, WSGM do an admirable job of wiping away any detractors. Glistening with electro-orchestral compositions, the quartet’s debut Fail Forever is the sort of ambitious post-club fare that slithers effortlessly between dancefloor-cradling wooze and the heavy trance of a 7am comedown. Thankfully, it’s no by-product of a dollar-skimming conveyor belt; Fail Forever is the makings of something much more refined.

The band’s influences lie close to home: the nocturnal pop nodes that radiate from the album’s title track share an intellectual glow with fellow Scandinavians The Whitest Boy Alive and Fever Ray. But it’s the wailing strains of Nikolaj Manuel Vonsild that separates WSGM from the pack; his brooding, almost acrobatic, tenor gasps for air amongst the thick carpet of bass and tear-duct moistening cello.

High on complex arrangements, this penchant for the complicated has a tendency to muddy the record’s more ambitious efforts. Pirouetting around a Sufjan-like labyrinth of vocal loops, the bubbling rhythm of 'Pick Up Your Tears And Run' gets lost inside space-age drone, turning the track into little more than pedestrian electro-fodder. Likewise, 'Grey And Blues' is highly concentrated effects board wizardry, but the industrial site pounding quickly plods along as if exhausted by its own intricacies.

Bookended either side by these confusing swathes, the middle pairing of 'Pinned' and 'You Or the Gang' proves the record’s main pull. The former batters pneumatic drum and delicious key hooks into a dramatic slab of synthesised pop, while the latter’s suffocating rhythm gyrates to a sticky beat that sweats more sex than a trick-turning chanteuse on a running machine. Both intelligent and infectious, these cuts are fuelled on an aesthetic of gloomy self-reflection that’s not far removed from Arab Strap’s more energetic numbers.

As easy as it is to dismiss the Danish National Radio Talent Of The Year, Fail Forever suggests WSGM have some mettle to merit the accolade. There are some flaws, but this is a record that demonstrates the band’s expertise in creating smart electro-pop flings. And given the dearth of longevity in modern day competition winners, it could be the first chapter in a surprising success story.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

A self-indulgent aside: My interview with Record of the Day

Record of the Day recently asked me to answer a few questions for the Media Spotlight section in their weekly industry magazine. I have to admit I was a little apprehensive about it; self-promotion's not something I'm particularly interested in. But, Nick and I are aware we need to promote the Radar site with a bit more vigour and personality, so I felt it was probably worthwhile. Industry types usually read the rag and, well, it might just help to give some exposure to our site and some of the bands.

So, here's the interview in full. It was a bit disconcerting being on the opposite side of things, even if there was no Dictaphone involved (thank god), but I think I managed to come across OK without sounding like too much of an ignoramus. It has been a strange start to the year; not only did this crop up but I've been asked to be a selector for this year's TITP TBreak stage. It's not something I'd ever thought I'd be doing, but if it helps some deserving bands out then it can only be a good thing. Can't it?


Billy Hamilton


First music-related job:
Reviewing various music-related shenanigans on the Edinburgh Fringe for ThreeWeeks magazine. 110 words for a review seemed like big deal back then. Working every day and having to file to deadline was a steep learning curve.

The last music I purchased was:
It was actually a collection of Otis Redding songs for a fairly arduous car journey up north. Not that cool, I know, but Otis had pretty hefty set of pipes.

The music that's exciting me at the moment is:
Well, there’s a young Edinburgh three-piece called Lady North who are probably the most brutal and genuinely breathtaking band I’ve seen in the city in years – the drummer is insane. We’ve actually got plans to put together our first in-depth photo-story with them, which Nick [Mitchell, fellow Radar co-editor] and me are quite exited about.

A recent trend I've been enjoying is:
I’m not sure I enjoy trends so much, but I’ve got a lot of admiration for the people putting on makeshift shows around Scotland at the moment, in spite of the demise of the country’s smaller venues.

A trend I have less time for:
Is Rihanna a trend? She’s seemed to be on every R&B record these days, so I think she counts. Her voice is like a vocoder-affected chest infection.

How I'm listening to my music now: (Spotify, iTunes, CDs)
I absolutely loathe listening to music through computers, probably because mine is a bit shite, so usually it’s just MP3s through my stereo/iPod, or good old fashioned CDs or vinyl.

The best thing about my job is:
Seeing a new band for the first time and feeling like you absolutely need to write about them. It’s a pretty satisfying feeling.

The worst thing about my job is:
Enduring the wounded blog posse that rounds on writers after a middling (or less) review of their favourite band. It can get particularly blood thirsty up here and I’m certain it affects what journalists write, which in turn does no one any good.

How have recent changes in the media world affected what I do:
The gradual movement from print to online was a big change, in terms of style and tone and just the amount of space you have to write. Also, I think having to ‘tool up’ and work with multi-media content is something most journalists have had to get to grips with. Ultimately, it’s made music journalism more dynamic, if maybe a little less personable.

The best interview I did recently was:
James Graham from the Twilight Sad is always a pleasure to interview, so it was probably my last interview with him in October. It’s just a shame we couldn’t publish half of what he said.

The worst interview I did recently was:
I guess the worst I’ve had in the last year was with a singer from an American band who was clearly annoyed by being phoned up at 12pm US time, as agreed with his PR. Add this to his complete inability to understand my accent and it turned into a pretty uncomfortable half hour.

What other music magazines or writers do you read?
The usual online/magazine fare, I’m afraid: Pitchfork, DiS, Quietus, Cokemachine Glow, Pop Matters, Stool Pigeon. Every month I’ll wade through The Skinny, which is still Scotland’s best music magazine. Also the NME has been getting noticeably better so I’ve started picking that up more often.

One change I'd make to the music industry?
Kill off The Brits.

One act I'd really like to succeed this year is...
John Knox Sex Club. Their debut LP Blud Rins Cauld was one of last year’s best records and their live shows are incredible, yet they’ve barely been heard of outside the Central Belt.

If I didn't do this job, I'd...
Probably have more spare time and less junk mail.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Introducing... Lady North

They’ve only just started pummelling local punters with their pneumatic math-rock, but in 2011 Lady North’s noggin-crunching sonics will stretch way beyond the central belt. It’s been too long since an Auld Reekie outfit has crafted such a ferocious entanglement of guitar, bass and drum, but the wait, which has dragged on through myriad drab alt-folk combos, has been worth it.

Think Don Caballero gyrating against Foals’ triangular, floor-filling rhythms like a hyper-sexed teenager and you’re only half way there. It’s more than that. Much, much more.

So far, a trickling of online cuts has only hinted at the band’s muscle. But live, well, Lady North is a seething, stomach acid-frothing ogre of sound that rams its fist into your face again, and again, and again.

Riding on the kind of apoplectic percussion that signatures Battles’ more barbarian efforts, swathes of matadorial guitar expulse with such brutal urgency it induces lashings of cold, stinking sweat: part in fear, part in utter exhilaration. Believe me, no matter who you are, you need this band in 2011.

Photo: Su Anderson

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

A look into the Scottish music scene in 2011

Radar's recent recap of 2010 underlined one thing: a year is a long time in music. The last twelve months saw the Scottish music scene’s industrious beehive finally produce the honey it’s been promising. Bands broke; labels formed; ideas congealed; people danced. It was, without doubt, the year that capitalised on our nation’s steadily brewing potential.

So, where will 2011 take us?

Well, resting on laurels is not an option. While Glasgow’s musical boom shows little sign of impending bust, its east coast counterpart is fighting for its life. Over the past few months Edinburgh venues have been dropping quicker than Nick Clegg’s approval ratings in a student union. Financial mismanagement and poor decision-making is threatening to suck the lifeblood out of the city’s music scene.

Thankfully, a strong hand of Edinburgh bands and promoters are far from defeated. The meltdown of traditional venues has led to the rise of innovative alternatives. Gigs are springing up all over the place: houses, art studios, charity shops, churches. And these are no ill-thought out affairs – they’re professionally run, heavily attended and, most importantly, entirely independent. 2011 may just spell the end of the traditional gig as we know it.

Despite the DIY protestations of local scenes, a whiff of professionalism permeated 2010. Recognising a need for evolution, longstanding blogs turned managers and labels to the bands they’ve been championing. Others transformed their off-the-cuff musings into articulate reports on the scenes they’re involved in. Promoters and bands, meanwhile, seemed more eager than ever to espouse PR and media savvy in the digital age.

So this year, we wholly expect the musical underbelly to continue treading the industry rungs. More in tune with audiences than London-based money men and carrying more collective clout than many established publications, the growing gaggle of local entrepreneurs needs to drop the ramshackle shtick for a more polished edge. Like it or not, money makes the industry go round. What we need now is the right people making that money for the right reasons.

Unquestionably, the central belt is the heart of Scotland’s music scene. Realistically, it’s not that surprising – the area contains around three quarters of the country’s music venues, while longstanding labels and media outlets are predominantly positioned at both ends of the M8. But, believe it or not, there’s life outside Edinburgh and Glasgow. And by the tail-end of 2010 our inbox was increasingly filling up with propositions from bands, labels and promoters from Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness and, erm, Stornoway.

Pushing into a new year, we’re hoping this trend continues. Sure, the thought of the next big hope deriving from somewhere beyond our comfort zone is intriguing for an Edinburgh based publication like us. But just knowing that scenes are sprouting up in towns and cities across the country is reassuring. The idea that new music, unaffected by central belt trends, is waiting to be heard is an invigorating prospect for 2011.

And finally, perhaps this is the year that eventually welcomes home an abandoned friend. In recent times, we’ve seen a swarm of electronically-tuned acts hogging the limelight, while the growing trend towards the comforting cradle of acoustic folk has continued apace. So where did our riff-throttling, sweat-bucketing, decibel-rattling guitar bands go?

At the moment, Dananananaykroyd and Bronto Skylift are the country’s bastions of eardrum assaulting clatter. But beyond these volumised flag bearers, there’s little sign of any high-end contemporaries rising through the ranks. It’s strange to say it, but somewhere along the line rock music fell out of cool. What 2011 needs is a band to kick down the doors and put it back in its place. Now, the big question is, who’s it gonna be?