Sunday, 15 May 2011

Is 'The Big Move' really so big?

Today, I applied for my first job proper (I’ve applied for others but more out of desperation than actual want) in London as part of ‘The Big Move’.

Considering I’ve spent the past week or so freaking out about having to migrate South in the very near future, this is the most calm and positive I’ve felt about everything.

The fear of having to uproot from all I know has been playing on my mind a lot since Su got a new job in Ipswich. Trying to focus at work has been almost impossible and I’m pretty sure my boss thought I was having some sort of internal micro-breakdown without actually displaying it to the outside world. If so, she’d have been pretty close to the truth.

But a day off, an impressively enduring hangover and a very long and sweaty run seems to have flicked a switch of realisation: This could, in actual fact, be a very good move for me, both personally and for my career. If the right job comes along, then moving to Suffolk may well be the best thing I ever do (apart from, y’know, the getting married thing).

So far, I’m noticing that life is already feeling very different. I have absolutely no knowledge of the South of England - neither the way it works transport-wise or the just where things are (who knew Cambridge was so close to Colchester?)- so I'm having to read a lot of maps to figure out if potential journeys are doable.

And looking for jobs without the security of feels a lot like slipping on a new pair of Converse after wearing my previous pair every day for a year straight i.e. slightly unstable and confident I’m going to trip up at every point.

But, I’m getting there. And once I’m actually ‘there’ I’m fairly confident things will work out, even if I do have to fathom living in a country where bars close at 11pm . So for now, I’ll just try and enjoy everything a city that’s been my home for 11 years has to offer. One thing I know is, I'll definitely miss Auld Reekie.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

News: T Break announces final 16

The 16 acts set to play the T Break stage at this year’s T in the Park have today (Friday 13 May) been announced.

We’re delighted to say Radar favourites Lady North, Conquering Animal Sound, United Fruit, PAWS and Cancel the Astronauts feature in a particularly eclectic and intriguing roster of unsigned Scottish bands.

With over 1,000 demo submitted from bands across Scotland, all scrutinised and debated by 13 Scottish music industry figures (including this writer), the final few were always going to raise eyebrows. But given the breadth and quality of what’s on offer, the line up should satisfy even the most discerning music fan.

The full list of bands strutting their musical stuff on this year's T Break stage is:

Aerials Up
Boycotts (Radar profile)
Cancel the Astronauts (Radar profile)
Conquering Animal Sound (Radar profile)
Lady North (Radar profile)
Marrik Layden Deft With Scatabrainz
Otherpeople (Radar profile)
PAWS (Radar profile)
Reverieme (Radar profile)
The Lafontaines
United Fruit

Of the line-up, George Kyle, Head of Sponsorship at Tennent’s Lager says: “The competition this year has been outstanding and really reflects what’s going on in Scotland’s grassroots music scene. Yet again we’re so proud to be supporting these new artists by giving them such a great platform to perform and boost their music careers, sharing a bill with some of the best homegrown and international headliners on the planet.”

From a Radar perspective, this is the kind of provocative line-up T Break’s been promising for some time, running a broad stratum of genres, from off-piste leftfield hip-hop to chirpy, chart bound indie pop. And it’s particularly pleasing to see a number of artists we’ve championed over the past few years finally get an opportunity to take their sounds to a bigger platform.

But, of course, the selection is never going to meet with everyone’s approval, so we’d like to know what you think of the line up? Is it a step forward for T Break or is it missing the sort of bands you’d like to hear? Let us know below…

Album Review: Psychedelic Horseshit - Laced

Let’s face it, if Matt Whitehurst had a plan, playing the game would never be part of it. Having spent the last six years heaving up a bile of grubby-pawed guitars and rat-gnarled melodies under the censor inflaming Psychedelic Horseshit banner, the Ohio dwelling enigma carries more hostility than an Al-Qaeida recruitment rally in a New York City fire department. At times, he’s probably just as popular.

Admittedly, in this age of anodyne soundbites and aeon-pondered quotations, Whitehurst’s razor-fanged attacks on even his most tenuously linked contemporaries offers a welcome swoosh of hilarity (never has there been a more expert attempt at trying to fabricate friction as this bile-filled, brawl of an interview). Yet, when it comes to getting a position in the musical races, such an openly malicious stance tends to find the main stables bolting their doors and reinforcing the locks.

So, when Fatcat came calling with a full album deal it must have taken Whitehurst by surprise. After all, this rickety, unreliable semblance of a band he’s clawed together isn’t one to wager a 7-inch single on, never mind a full formed record fit for prolonged listening. But the Brighton-based label excels at transforming risk into results. And Psychedelic Horseshit’s second proper longplayer Laced proves Whitehurst's not lost his touch.

Crafted in the scuzzy, mothball-addled realms of basements, bathrooms and living rooms, Laced is produced like an audiophile’s Airfix kit; a multi-facet of sounds prit-sticked together on reel to reel tape. Despite the admirable lack of studio wizardry, there’s little sign of the obliterating garage-drone Whitehurst’s troupe (now a duo comprising Whitehurst and drummer Ryan Jewell) have been pushing since those first Horseshit CD-Rs were released in 2006. Instead, this is an electronically-tinged record imbued with certainty and precision, bearing the unmistakable glare of a band finally playing to its strengths.

Decked out in deep tribal rhythms and woozy synthesized melodies, the chaotic Horseshit aesthetic remains intact. In a thrilling three minute wave, the primitive beats of introductory number 'Puff' gives way to 'Time of Day’'s thick coating of carouselling synths and mechanised percussion, while Whitehurst barks out a nasal stream of consciousness. As an opening gambit, it’s light years away from the flimsy wares of 'Too Many Hits' or Shitgaze. These are onion-layered arrangements, dense in sound and underpinned by an ever-present pursuit of ear-gluing melodies.

This penchant for adventurism often finds Whithurst exploring a sprawl of effects-board inspired avenues. The intense calypso-varnish of 'French Countryside' is impossibly hip-jaunting, while 'Tropical Vision’s lobotomised feedback pulses to an intense, ritualistic beat that could have been born in the belly of an African jungle. More exacting, the opium keyboards that slowburn across 'Dead On Arrival’s deep nocturnal lament recall the comatose state of an Andy Weatherall-inspired Primal Scream – particularly with Times New Viking’s Beth Murray making an appearance on cat mewing harmonies.

Of course, Whitehurst’s over eagerness with a synth doesn’t always pay off. Airy numbers like ‘Automatic Writing’ and the lifeless title track jar with a feeling of incompleteness, like products of a half-cooked idea still bubbling to fruition. Yet, such gripes are pithy when confronted with the magnificent seven minutes opus ‘I Hate The Beach’. Gearing up to the sound of bending keys and cowbell clatter, Whitehurst drawls out “I hate the beach, but I like the nice weather” as the cut morphs into a cocophony of scratching guitar and virulent drum. From here, it transcends as the sort of riotous, primary coloured acid trip Gruff Rhys would be proud of.

Unquestionably, the track is Whitehurst’s finest moment to date; a euphoric high on a record that doesn’t just build on the band’s potential but kills its ‘shitgaze’ credentials stone dead. Ladling Psychedelic Horseshit in amongst the lo-fi blurting of Wavves and Vivian Girls rejects the grandiose ambitions sought and often scaled throughout Laced. Closing out on the positively charged, almost ebullient, bongo-blast of ‘Making Out’, this coarsely cut sophomore LP represents a pivotal shunt in direction and, perhaps more importantly, psyche for Whitehurst. For once, he can consider the game well and truly played.

ALBUM REVIEW: Cat's Eyes - Cat's Eyes

Four years ago, the idea of The Horrors trading lyrical blows with an operatic songstress was hard to imagine. Back then, the over-cooked proto-goth-punk of Strange House flirted with Rocky Horror pastiche. This was not a real band. This was a cheese-string, chicken ham, beef jerky sort of band straight off the production line, massaged by the vapid palms of South London A&Rs and worshipped by a congregation of equally stagnant and hair-sprayed hipsters. Their career path was set. The Horrors’ legacy would be a flash in a urine-stained pan that was already clogged with similar tuneless excrement like The Paddingtons and The Others.

And, then, something changed. The release of 2009’s Primary Colours showcased the sound of an act with real, undeniable mettle. Sure, taut of trouser they still remained, but the album was a masterstroke of atmosphere, built on massive wedges of thick, thrilling, ear shattering guitar. It could have been The Stooges, it could have been Joy Division, but what it couldn’t have been was The Horrors. Except it was. It really fucking was. Even now, almost two years on, the tremble of that gargantuan, oscillating record requires a second check. It’s still almost impossible to believe something so vacant could become so voluptuous.

With album number three continuing to ferment, band frontman Faris Badwan seems eager to continue his run of shock and awe. Teaming up with Canadian opera singer and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffia, his Cat’s Eyes side project could have been a step too far. In theory, the juxtaposition of styles could be ravenous egoism built on a flicker of critical acclaim and artistic stupidity. But in practice, the duo’s self-titled debut is a triumphant beast that floats very close to having crossover appeal.

Rather than showboat their vocal histrionics, Zeffia and Badwan have opted for a series of short, swooshing Phil Spector-inspired soundscapes, heavy on saturated instrumentation that recreates wall-of-sound acoustics. Lyrically, the pair conjure a straight-laced narrative, box ticking the requisites of Sixties teen pop, with Badwan playing villainous hellraiser and Zeffia taking the role of insecure, heartbroken squeeze. Given the subject matter, it shouldn’t come as such a surprise to find Cat’s Eyes cornerstoned by these grandiose swells of melody - but it does. Even more perplexing is just how effectively it’s carried off.

Much like Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan’s most successful efforts, the interplay between baritone and purr is central to Cat’s Eyes’ draw. The title track’s roll of bass and keys lays the path for Badwan to gravel his way into Zeffia’s leaf-green strains, stirring up an enveloping, unsettling ambience that feels guttural and salacious. ‘Face In the Crowd’ is equally brusque; pounding to drums and swirls of acrid guitar while Bawdwan bellows “Don’t try and tell my you’re the only one, you’re not anyone at all” across a breathless rush of sharp, tingling brass.

At its core, Cat’s Eyes is a wide angled record: big in texture, bold in execution and littered with cinematic moments. ‘Bandit’’s mariachi sways and splashing cymbals is the sound of Tarantino getting to grips with a Wild West showdown; ‘Over You’s striding keys combine with Zeffias’s acrobatic swoops to stretch into a slickly produced James Bond blow-away; while 'The Lull’s string-washed contrast of cerebral mew and earnest growl trickles out as a tear-duct moistening Disney lament. Sure, such silverscreen ambitions are a long way from the Horrors’ bestial numbers, but these emotion-grinding moments carry much greater sway.

With his murderous, bowel-stirring roar, it’s easy to focus on Badwan’s feral contribution - particularly during ‘Sooner Or Later’s drone of jarring, industrial feedback where he’s found hollering like a strung out, violence-ravaged Nick Cave. Yet, Zeffia’s porcelain intone is equally engrossing. Over the gorgeous melancholic weep of album standout ‘I’m Not Stupid’ her repeated cries of “I can see she’s better than me” accentuate the pirouetting music box melody. It’s a grief-strewn moment of unadulterated sadness, underscoring the weight, both musically and emotionally, Cat’s Eyes carry.

Even now, four years and one critically acclaimed album later, it’s hard to believe a member of The Horrors could have shaped such a powerful piece of work. But, in these 28 minutes, Badwan underlines his determination to expand beyond traditional patterns, creating an album that’s absorbing and rewarding. Where he goes next is starting to look a whole lot more interesting.

Live Review: Meursault, Conquering Animal Sound, Jonnie Common

Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh
Saturday 2 April 2011

Edinburgh crowds have always had a bad rap. The popular view is that, despite the vast student insurgence, Auld Reekie is a town without a solid gig-going culture. In truth, it’s easy to accede to such an outlook. All too often touring (and local) bands are met by an almost empty room, give or take the mandatory guestlist inhibitors and local music hacks. Yet, nights like tonight prove the exception to the rule. When Meursault are in town (which is not as often as it once was) the locals flock like sheep. And, right now, Limbo is the pen they’re all huddling in to.

The Voodoo Room’s inaugural musical offering comes from much vaunted Glasgow maestro Jonnie Common. Taking to the stage armed with effects board and guitar – the obligatory artillery for Scottish solo artists these days - Common’s shtick is cutesy off-piste pop with a sprinkling of technological sorcery. For the most part he hits the mark. His understated cooing over the minutiae of every day life is transformed into bouncing astral straddling ditties that share the Beta Band’s penchant for a scuffed up, ragtag tune. It’s chirpy stuff, wholeheartedly of the Fence persuasion, but such ramshackle tidings can, at times, feel contrived, as though executing a song without marked flaw is a capital offence.

In stark contrast to Common’s dilapidated approach, Conquering Animal Sound (CAS) are stout purveyors of sonic perfection. For a long time, the pair of Anneke Kampman and James Scott were constantly hit by catastrophe; seemingly never able to recreate the texture-heavy compositions of their recordings live. But slowly the calamities have weaned away. In their place is a concentrated sound that not only replicates the multi-layered arrangements of debut LP Kammerspiel, but accentuates and magnifies them to fill more expansive environments.

Thanks to the Scottish transport system’s rudimentary weekend collapse, CAS take to the stage without the benefit of a pre-show soundcheck. Despite the hitch, the duo pull out an engrossing set. Kampman’s hair-tingling mew is the obvious focal point, her impish yelps climbing all over the skittery flushes of ‘Bear’ and ‘Flinch’. These electronic efforts are bulging with intrigue, each one slow-building into thick rhythmic pulses that consume the room. If anything, too many ideas are packed away in these bulbous arrangements, but when a band can close on the thrilling serration of ‘Tracer’ such complaints are trite. On this display, CAS are an experience to sink in to again and again.

In the past, headliners Meursault have had similar fits of over-cramming, fleeting too readily between genres to grasp the kind of linearity that floats more mainstream boats. But tonight, the only thing the Edinburgh ensemble cram is the stage. With numbers swollen to seven, encompassing a newly induced drummer and violinist, this is an entirely different beast from the five-man troupe that toured album number two, All Creatures Will Make Merry. Gone are the bitmapped electronics and brittle canticles. In their place is a band with muscle and velocity. A band that sounds like its time is now.

From the first blasting of bass and drum that rifle the air, Meursault mk II clearly mean business. Thick swathes of percussion swallow Pennycook’s soaring crow whole; scarring guitars swirl around like murderous post-rock; mourning strains of violin tingle with lachrymose emotion. If it didn’t say Meursault on the door, you wouldn’t believe it. In fact, so far removed is this rambunctious din from creaking, scratching alt. folk, it could conceivably be an entirely new band with entirely new ideas.

Adding to the sense of renewal, much of the set revolves around freshly-formed numbers like 'A Mother’s Arms’ and ‘Hole’. While a hint of folk sensibility still resides, both are tuned with a full band in mind, subtly shaded with screeds of violin and guitar. Old favourite ‘Crank Resolutions’ is still an apocalyptic pummel of jogging electronica, but this time it’s accentuated by clamorous, ear-battering drums that oscillate relentlessly. It’s a thrilling tidemark in a set of persistent highs, including the dramatic siege of ‘Settling’ – a rousing triumph that outlines Meursault’s stance as a fully functioning unit.

With harmonies pulled straight from a Scottish barber shop, the stripped-bare ‘One Day This Will All Be Fields’ finds Pennycook’s spiked vocal spiralling out above destitute ukelele plucks. It’s perhaps the closest the night gets to recalling Meursault of old, yet these tender strains fit perfectly with the band’s new found bluster. Closing out on a struggle of tumbling percussion and wailing strings, ‘What You Don’t Have’ notches the decibels back to deafening. A fitting finale to a remarkable show, the last drifting notes are met by 400 palms blistering in appreciation. If this is the sound of Meursault today, tomorrow can’t come soon enough.

Monday, 2 May 2011

One of those days...

Well, this has been a strange day. Awaking to the news that the table topper of the FBI's most wanted list has been exterminated was not how I envisaged this bank holiday beginning. But that's exactly what happened.

My wife was living in New York State when the twin towers dropped. One of the first questions I asked her when we met (well, when I'd sobered up the next day) was "what did it feel like to be there?". Her response was melancholic and vague back then and, to this day, she still can't (or won't) articulate the emotion of the day.

Generally, she's not one of those flag-waving sorts, so her reaction to today's news was more muted than those who took to the streets of Washington and New York. She was pleased, but I sense that as an American and someone who lived close to the tragedy her feelings are caught up in a mixture of patriotism and embittered attachment.

For me, I always find it difficult to celebrate the death of any person. I've grown an innate (and unrealistic) belief that there's good in everyone. Such a disposition is not something I'm particularly proud of - it often makes me far too quick to relent - yet it's an aspect of my personality I live with and one my more staunch wife tends to balance out quite well.

Sure, I'm happy justice has been done, as President Obama proclaimed, but I have a niggling feeling that there would have been more worth holding OBL captive and extrapolating as much information as possible.

Returning to the first paragraph, what I expected to happen today was for Su to leave for Ipswich for two days and for me to try and find something to do on my day off. To fill my time in between rolling news reports that never seem to change, I toddled off to Salisbury Crags to take some pictures. You can see a few of them below and more at my Flickr account.

Considering just how strange and monumental a day it's been, it was good to find out that the sun was still shining, the wind was still blowing and the swans were going about their every day business with typical elegance. Now, that's the kind of freedom everyone should have.