11 Apr 2020

The Return of The Active Listener Sampler

Hi folks. I hope everyone is doing OK in these crazy, uncertain times.

It's been a few years since you've all heard from me, but I figured everyone (myself included) could do with a little distraction, so I put a few feelers out to see if anyone was still interested in our old samplers. To my surprise, I received an overwhelmingly positive response from readers and artists alike so here we are with a brand new sampler. No idea at this stage whether this will just be a one-off or the start of something that appears on at least a semi-regular basis. To a certain extent that will depend on you and the response this receives.

So, assuming this is the start of something, I'm now open to receiving submissions for future samplers as well. If you're an artist who would like to feature on a future sampler please feel free to email me at theactivelistener@hotmail.com with download codes / links etc. Please note that these will only be used for sampler purposes - I have no plans to start reviewing again. And that due to the number of submissions I receive, I cannot guarantee a feature.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's the new sampler. Enjoy it. 26 tracks from artists familiar and new, including teasers for upcoming albums and lots of demos, outtakes and otherwise unavailable material from a host of your favourites.

And please remember that it's pretty tough being a musician at the moment. With widespread gig cancellations and few outlets currently available to sell merchandise, artists need a bit of a helping hand right now. If you hear anything you like here, please visit the individual artist links on the Bandcamp page and buy some merch and music.

11 Sept 2018

So long, and thanks for all the fish

Hi All.

I just wanted to make official what you've all probably suspected for months now.

The Active Listener has closed up shop and ceased operations. There are a number of reasons for this, but mostly it comes down to the time it consumes, and my lack of time to commit to it.

So there will be no further posts on the Active Listener. I hope you've enjoyed what we've done over the years. If we've turned you on to one thing that you wouldn't have found out about otherwise, then we've done what we set out to do.

The website, Bandcamp page and Facebook account will all remain active resources for your use so hopefully they will continue to spread the good word about these wonderful artists in that capacity.

I'd just like to offer a big thanks to all of the contributors, artists and labels that have helped spread the word and create a community which I hope will continue to thrive.

Most of all though I'd like to thank you, the reader, for your continued support through our various ups and downs. You're all champs.

Live well and be happy x

22 May 2018

Thin White Rope - Exploring the Axis / Moonhead

Tempus fugit. It seems scarcely credible to me that I first listened to Exploring The Axis by Davis, California guitar heroes Thin White Rope some 33 years ago. Now remastered by the good folks at Frontier Records and unleashed on limited vinyl runs, the first two Thin White Rope records emerge once more blinking into the light of a red sun reclaiming their rightful place at the very forefront of what we call great independent guitar music.

Context is a good thing. There are two main narratives that are generally considered when we examine California as a centrepoint for musical excellence. The first is the one that radiates in the sunlight and the surf and took the likes of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks into the realms of odyssey - mythologizing a place of endless summer and good vibrations where fun,fun,fun can be had with reckless abandon. The second narrative is less settling and juxtaposes worldliness and black humour with emotional entropy and the mundanity of violence both real and imagined. This is the one picturing a Venice Beach with Jim Morrison lashed to the joists of Venice Pier, blood spewing from his mouth, of Arthur Lee alienated and sitting on the hillside watching all the people die, of punk rock disaffection with posters strewn at Johnny Mathis' Feet.

This dystopian California, of loathing and bittersweet wonder is the territory that Thin White Rope would pitch up in and proceed to rule for the best part of a decade. Their studies of personal dysfunction, mental illness, relationship breakdown, chemical hallucination and (barely suppressed) violence are shot through with some of the most original guitar playing you will ever hear anywhere. This marked them out from their sunny 'Paisley Underground' contemporaries like the black sheep of the family that they probably never belonged to in the first place. This was underground rock from the magma under the desert soil, claustrophobic and often dark. At times they resembled a desert baked Television, at others a peyote chewing Steely Dan but always and ultimately Thin White Rope transmitted their own new and thrilling musical language that once tuned into can never be vanquished.

Exploring The Axis, the bands 1985 debut, remains amongst the best debut LPs recorded and released in the 1980's. This probably shunts it comfortably into the best debut LPs ever recorded. The band's principle songwriter and dual lead guitar player Guy Kyser writing almost all of the songs with a keen eye for dissonant melody and in partnership with key ally, Roger Kunkel, probably the most consistently intelligent use of controlled feedback that I have ever heard. Opener 'Down in the Desert' is the story of the bands associate 'Karl' who drives into the desert one day and has a nervous breakdown, coming back to his friends profoundly changed but unable to tell them what happened or why. This narrative sits astride a melody and arrangement that I can only describe as a really rather pissed-off/sawn-off 'Alone Again Or'. As a first sonic signal to the wider world it was bold and new and brilliant. 'Disney Girl' is about as far away from The Beach Boys as you can get, its unsettling feedback drones and detached analytical vocal/lyric giving way to sumptuous guitar interplay and flagging another of their innovations - feedback as a swooping, swirling, background vocal - no one had pulled that before. 'Lithium' is the best song with that title from many contenders with its beautiful guitar interplay and feeling of high plains drifting - an essay in distance to borrow a phrase. Awesome. 'Dead Granma's On A Train' poses the question of what might happen if you soul mate's antecedents were killed generations before you came around. This is framed in what would become a classic 'Indie-Americana' arrangement with spangling country-fried guitars and a fiery Kyser vocal reminiscent of Johnny Cash at his most snotty. A gem. The title track closes the record and is just monolithic. It is to Exploring The Axis what 'The End' is to The Doors debut. A chilling tale of hallucination, madness and possible (imagined) murder wrapped in a melody and vocal performance that relentlessly stalks you and reels you in to it's utterly terrible climax. Its "Marquee Moon" meets The Shining. A ridiculously powerful closing statement and one that had me desperate waiting for the follow-up.

By 1987, the speed at which Thin White Rope were evolving into standard bearers at the vanguard of intelligent independent guitar music was becoming abundantly clear. If Exploring The Axis unveiled a Pandora's Box for our inspection then Moonhead not so much opened it as detonated it into a million tiny pieces. The music on this sophomore release is pulled deeper into the earth with terrible certainty, sulphuric and volcanic plumes of guitar ejecting across the night sky. The performances captured here crackle and smoulder with an incandescent and dazzling fury .

Opener 'It's Not Your Fault' looms into view on a truly gargantuan and twisted feedback laden guitar riff, its accompanying narrative setting the tone for the remainder of the record with its feelings of guilt, disappointment, bemusement and fatalism. The ante is upped further on the following detonation of 'Wire Animals'. This is a conflagration posing as a primitive hoedown that scorches your ears and blows your head off before those amazing twin guitars relent, squalling to a molten finale. In my humble opinion it is as good a song as you will hear. Ever. 'Thing' on one level is incongruous and perverse with its simple acoustic guitar and brief, tender vocal disarming you but ultimately it's still a song about disappointment and unresolved feelings. The titular 'Moonhead' is spectacular - a beautiful construction that builds on silvery guitar lines before pulling back the covers to expose a terrible secret. 'Wet Heart' is a dilemma, surgically removed from its author on twin incisions of feedback guitar. 'Come Around' provides an almost light relief with it's conversational, bar-room tone and lightly skipping Nashville beat. This is soon discarded 'If Those Tears' is as dark as a Mojave midnight, swinging and dangling shards of guitar that endlessly criss-cross over an intensely delivered vocal focused on betrayal. 'Crawl Piss Freeze' closes the set - a grindingly abstract Lynchian prose piece that leaves the listener stranded by the side of the highway in the starry silence of the night as the tail lights of the battered pick up truck you were hitching a ride in fades away. Moonhead has changed you but like most of the protagonists in its collection of songs you aren't completely sure how or why.

And there we leave the story for now. Two crucial outings from the 1980's that defined much of what would follow have been cleaned up and sent back into battle. Exploring The Axis and Moonhead are available directly from the label here or from selected stockists around the globe. It's worth noting that the label is selling some super limited vinyl variants (150 of each on vinyl) so if that floats your boat go straight to the source.

Shaun C. Rogan

Bong Wish EP

Before the end of 2017, Beyond Beyond is Beyond Records released Bong Wish’s self-titled EP on a limited-edition cassette. It’s now in its second limited-edition run.

Bong Wish is the moniker of Boston-based musician Mariam Saleh, and is enigmatic in scope, splitting the difference between the counterculture folk-rock of decades past and the modern conundrum of existence particular to the 21st century. Just take a look at the video for the wonderful cassette opener, “My Luv,” in which Miriam both wanders through nature and contemplates her smartphone.

Lyrically, Bong Wish leads listeners through universal themes, themes familiar to the genre’s followers – interpersonal relationships, loneliness and nature – but there’s mystery in the familiarity, particularly in ambiguous and beautiful lines like “When the night hasn’t left in days… The light is just a door away.”

Everything is delivered with such confidence the result sounds almost prescriptive, a cure for age-old ennui and new skepticism – and perhaps it is. With both whimsy and assurance, Bong Wish is a small dose, at four tracks, of just what’s needed now.

In just four songs, Saleh and friends cover a lot of ground, but standout track, “Conversation with Business People,” sees the most divergence from its peers. With a tight rhythm section as a background, layers come and go across its full six minutes. There’s room for some interesting experimentation and instrumentation in its middle, though its use of minimalism over maximalism maintains the earthy core that ties everything so neatly together.

I’ve sat with this review for a long time, and these songs just keep getting better.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Murphy

The Bong Wish EP cassette and digital files are available from the Beyond Beyond is Beyond Bandcamp page. Stream it all there, too.

15 Apr 2018

Retep Folo - Galactic Sounds

Ah 2018 begins to really swing into action with a new release on the ever dependable Clay Pipe Music. 'Galactic Sounds' by Retep Folo (or Peter Olof Fransson to you and I) signals a departure from the rather more earthbound and hauntological releases we have come to expect from this most exquisite East London based label. This new offering is concerned with more celestial matters although, it must be said, the fit with Clay Pipe is as strong as any other output despite a rather more cosmic frame of reference. It is a match made in the heavens.

So, 'Galactic Sounds' - a series of 16 often joyful soundscapes and playful sonic riddles, mainly driven by vintage keys and synths evoking that wonder of the universe many of us begin to engage with in childhood and often retain throughout the rest of our lives. Part reminiscence, part homage to 70’s library music and part futuristic hymnal musical adventure. The pieces here are simply constructed, allowing the visitor to wander in and out of them and to luxuriate in the gently compelling thinking space they offer. This approach, tastefully deployed, contributes to 'Galactic Sounds' being a resounding success and very worthy of your time.

As with any mission to the stars, a smooth take off is absolutely essential and opener ‘Galactic Pulse’ performs this feat perfectly, gently lifting off from the launch pad and sending us up toward the heavens. A combination of sparkling synth and vintage electronic rhythmic accompaniment providing all the fuel and direction we need. This is a first class sonic cabin and the only way is upward – would you like a Martini?

Picking out particular pieces for praise can be a rather futile exercise on this particular mission as everything hangs together beautifully but perhaps the dazzling optimism of 'Galactic Spring' is a good place to start. Its shimmering drifts of sound gently orbiting the listener, decorating the mind with all manner of lovely pictures. ‘Galactic Friends’ flutters and drifts gently across your minds eye, its awe and musing hidden beneath gaseous clouds of musical neon. 'Galactic Dream' recalls Bacharach as imagined by Isaac Asimov with its insistent major chord refrain giving it an almost 'Walk On By' quality. 'Galactic Cruise' is as close to a romp as anything on this fine record with a strange dislocated groove - part swinging bossa-nova and part bluesy supernova.

Elsewhere, the mood is more contemplative such as the interstellar waltz of 'Galactic Children' which threatens to send us into a lunar orbit that places us permanently witnessing a corona rather than dazzling sunshine. Similarly, 'Galactic Flare' has an undertow that warns the passenger that not all in the Universe is benign and that respectful distance is sometimes the order of the day.

Our tour of the galaxy is brought to a suitably cosmic conclusion by the deeply impressionistic and infinitely monolithic 'Galactic End'. A backdrop of deeply ecclesiastical organ drones coupled with an icing of starry skied twinkling filigrees of sound. Its a sonic message in a bottle sailing gently away from the gravitational pull of our Sun and heading serenely toward other distant, perhaps more peaceful worlds.

Thanks to ‘Galactic Sounds’ you, the active listener, have found your spot in the firmament and Retep Folo waves you a fond farewell as he recedes into the infinite distance. This has been a very satisfying voyage and one that I will be seeking to make again soon. I suggest you buckle up and do the same, after all, we are all made of stars.

'Galactic Sounds' is available on vinyl (with download) directly from Clay Pipe and from independent retailers of taste and discernment. Don't snooze on this one if you want a physical copy, Clay Pipe vinyl releases invariably sell out shortly after release.

Shaun C. Rogan

4 Apr 2018

Trappist Afterland - Se(VII)en

Trappist Afterland, the vehicle for the sound and visions of Melbourne based Adam Geoffrey Cole and his fellow travellers, have subtly and gradually become one of the most crucial and critically acclaimed psych bands of modern times. Album such as 2015’s essential ‘Afterlander’ and their most recent masterwork ‘God’s Green Earth’ have spread the word, as have extensive European tour schedules and a carefully and beautifully presented repressing of their back catalogue by both Sunstone and Sugar Bush Records. Trappist Afterland’s richly detailed and esoteric instrumentation (bowed psaltery, hammered dulcimer, cittern), not to mention their spiritual and existential convictions and themes and their enduring melodies have placed them in the position of an Incredible String Band for our times. This new opus then comes at a time when their critical fortunes have never been as high and not only does it not disappoint it adds to their deserved reputation and takes the band into new and deeper territory.

Opener '1+1=3' begins with the hypnotic and circular mantra style guitar that Trappist have become known for, hand drums and tabla picking out a steady, processional pace as Cole's distinctive vocals intone and incantate, with flutes and strings weaving in and out of view. Heady but also tight, economical and without indulgence, there is a quiet, inherent brooding power to be found in Trappist’s singular and inspired vision. 'Burning Bushes' guitar is yet more insistent, building and layering amongst violin and finger cymbals, hinting at some of the early work of Six Organs of Admittance (such as Dark Noontide), a dark hued tension developing as the song grows and loops, lost in its own trance. Sounding more haunted than 'God's Good Earth' and sparser and more stripped back than its predecessor, the opulent and esoteric 'Afterlander', 'Se{VII)en' is Trappist Afterland distilled, refined and at their most pure. 'Elm And Bracken' is a case in point; with its haunting Jew’s harp and harmonium this is a ghost of a song, walking the earth in its percussive earthly chains, every footstep a funereal drumbeat. Here Trappist have much in common with their spiritual and musical brothers Stone Breath, the persistent and rhythmic strum and beat becoming its own heartbeat.

Next, 'Forest Mass' enters on a hushed bed of finger picked guitar, Cole's vocals yearning and desperate, moss covered and rooted in the heart of the woodland. Eerie backwards sounds drift through like mist between trees, a lament to the shadows, leaves and branches. 'Knot In Wood's mandolin march is hugely stirring and deeply emotive, the eastern tinged strings whipping the song into a dervish of pleading and devotion whilst 'Sundog', a paean to a lost companion, is bookended by a moving spoken word piece by Alan from Kitchen Cynics, the piece a funeral mass of quiet dignity and beauty. 'Stickboy' meanwhile is a delicate and wistful work that reminds this listener of Joseph Budenholzer's Backworld project, both pensive and wounded but filled with earthy beauty. 'The Blood in the Wood' begins as a chant or prayer, before the steady, hand drum calls time to a swirl of strings and percussion. As the song builds pace you can feel the hairs on your neck rise; Trappist Afterland are an immersive experience, they are not and will never be background music. 'This Clock, Tick Tock' broods and buries itself into the soul, vintage synth punctuating the guitars with a spectral melancholy until album closer 'Trace Your Root' offers a brightness, sitar and flute emerging into sunlight, reminiscent Mike Heron's 'Audrey' and a thing of genuine loveliness.

'Se(VII)en' then is a further triumph for Trappist Afterland, a new jewel amongst their already burgeoning treasures. Perfectly formed for newcomers and old hands alike there is a profound vision and cohesion to this work that suggests a timelessness, that in twenty or thirty years this album will be seen as a classic psych release of this (or indeed any other) era. Seek this out without hesitation; highly recommended.

Grey Malkin

Available through Bandcamp (below) and from the splendid Sunstone Records.

And UK folks have still got a couple of chances to catch him over the coming few days, performing with the illustrious Keith Christmas, Kitchen Cynics, David Colohan and more. Info here.

27 Mar 2018

Premiere - Our Solar System - Monte Verita

Here's something to get excited about: a  new album (the fifth, to be exact) from Swedish psych - jazz - prog collective Our Solar System.

Dungen followers will already be familiar with Our Solar System, as they count Mattias Gustavsson among their number.

"Origins" is undoubtedly their strongest album to this point, a communal outpouring in a manner that will be lapped up by those that appreciate efforts in a similar spirit by the likes of Amon Duul and Sun Ra's Arkestra.

"Origins" is out in a multitude of formats from the wonderful Beyond is Beyond Beyond Records on May 11,  but pre-orders are up now and selling fast.

We've got an exclusive premiere of the album's closing track "Monte Verita" for you right now, and you can follow the links below to pre-order.

22 Mar 2018

Pansies - Cascade of Colors

Many records purport to be psychedelic. Many record label people and record dealers bandy the word psychedelic around like confetti, sprinkling records with fairydust that the sonic evidence contradicts. A lot of so-called psychedelic music is blues rock, hard rock, prog rock, straight folk, AOR, lounge or something else. Pansies are a psychedelic band channeling classic psychedelia and their debut LP, which sneaked out just as 2017 morphed into 2018, is a true and instant classic of the genre. It is totally utterly and wonderfully psychedelic. Pansies blow minds for a living.

Opener, 'Just Like Yesterday' snakes out of the speakers on waves of gently descending Hammond chords and Leslie-speaker treated vocals that frame much of the following songs. Think Procol Harum jamming out with July aboard a not-so Jolly Mary and you are beginning to dig their scene. It is drenched and spins with beautiful thoughtfulness on its own pulsing axis before taking flight and heading off into the clouds. 'Golden Day' follows in its wake and its insistent crashing organ/drum riff reminds me of Five Day Rain's classic 'Leave It At That'. This may be my favourite on the record - its an absolute gem of mind crushing proportions that has me hitting repeat over and over. 'Green Apple Eyes' follows and is stoned to the point of obliteration - its deliciously sloppy double tracked vocal opening drives me insane. I swear there is a trombone in the mix somewhere but the rational part of me says 'no'. Either way its a real swinging affair with a trademark 'Carnaby Street' girl-boy- beat-psych chord progression - all drainpipe jeans and paisley shirted strut. And a pair of beautiful white leather shoes.Fabulous.

"Crystal's Nightmare" is moody and shot through with shadows and reflections, that driving, splashing Hammond organ and spidery guitar stabs giving a phantasmagorical edge - a delicious downer that somehow manages to execute a great double take at the end. "Shoreline Of Your Mind" is a chamber psych trip that evokes the ghost of Felius Andromeda and J.K. & Co. in equal measure. Pansies know the wisdom of meditating in eternity and are happy to share it with you. "Hobbit's Song" is wistful and bounces along on a day-glo trampoline of organ and drums, a perfect pick me up. "Strange Dream" is a doozy - slowly unfurling it's charms in an seemingly endless fractal pattern with a neatly buried vocal line that places its velvet deep underground, navigating a meandering course through the gently wavering synapses of your mind.

Matters are brought to a suitably wasted resolution with the massive, lumbering asteroid of sound that is "Another Time" which seems to float by and through the listener. The smell of incense is heavy and entangled up in swirling organ before setting off with soft explosion into the indeterminate, star spangled distance. Somewhere at least 2,000 light years from home.

So there you have it, the record released at the death of 2017 that should be on every shortlist for best record of 2018. Pansies have captured it, distilled it and recorded it for your listening pleasure. They are a truly psychedelic band, they are a synaesthesia and they are my clowns who I love more than you know. You like psyche? You need this record - go to it.

Shaun C. Rogan

Cascade of Colors is available here:

19 Mar 2018

Dead Sea Apes - Recondite

If you’re reading this here, Dead Sea Apes is likely a household name to you by now. Since 2009, the Manchester instrumental three-piece has built an impressive back catalog of heavy psych that both defines and transcends the genre, absorbing along the way adjacent sounds: lush post-rock, ambient dub, Krautrock and experimental punk – see last year’s Sixth Side of the Pentagon or their collaboration with writer and artist Adam Stone for In the Year 2039.

These latest additions on Recondite – 11 tracks, 80 minutes – represent a broad swath of their permutations, including alternate takes and covers. Tying these all together is a dedication to experimentation and musicianship. Dead Sea Apes can do heavy, but they can equally soothe and meditate.

Recondite opens with an alternate take on “Tentacles (The Machine Rolls On),” once again featuring Adam Stone. Against some serious reverb and experimentation, “Tentacles” stretches out and eases through its dub-infused rhythm, while Stone narrates like a mad preacher, unrelenting until the song dismantles itself. “Coronal” follows and builds upon a drone to a crashing outro, remodeling post-rock into psych madness. Standout track, “Lupine Wavelength,” runs the gamut of guitar styles and tones. It lacks nothing. For guitarists – and all musicians really – it’s a must-hear.

Overall, Recondite works as a summation of Dead Sea Apes’ work thus far, sprawling and heavy, but it might also be a fine introduction for new listeners who might choose a branch to follow back through their catalog. In addition, covers appear throughout, grounding the rest in a tradition: an Organisation/Kraftwerk deep cut, “Rückstoß Gondoliere;” Harmonia’s “Vamos Compañeros;“ and one of Skip Spence’s last recorded songs, “Land of the Sun.”

Joseph Murphy

13 Mar 2018

Mt. Mountain - Dust / Stephen Bailey - Silo

Here's a couple of things I've just caught up with over the last few weeks which came out during our extended hiatus but are very worthy of mention.

First is Perth quintet Mt. Mountain's album Dust. (which is almost a year old now).

If someone had described Dust to me before I heard it - the press release describes it as "capturing the atmosphere of the red/orange landscapes that consume the Australian outback" - I'd likely have thought something along the lines of "That sounds like my sort of thing", but I'd be lying if I didn't also admit that there would be an inner voice whispering "This sort of thing has been done to death, this sounds pretty unnecessary".

Repeat plays however have revealed Dust to be not only necessary, but essential listening. Sure Dylan Carlson's Earth have been doing this sort of thing for ten, fifteen years now - the cinematic, widescreen, windswept vista, but Mt. Mountain's take has an immersive, meditational quality that I've never experienced while listening to Earth.

Over four long tracks Mt. Mountain create and sustain a desolate atmosphere via simple structures that those who aren't quite on the right wavelength may find repetitive, but those who are will find intoxicatingly hypnotic.

The seventeen minute opener threatens to derail the listener's inner peace by bursting into a furious cacophany of noise midway through, appropriately demonstrating the outback's unforgiving qualities, but the remaining three tracks create an unspoiled mood that will slow the most feverish heartrate. From "Floating Eyes" with its appeallingly trippy Doors vibe (think "Riders on the Storm"), to the sustained mellotron drone of "Kokoti", this really ticks all of the right boxes for me.

Vinyl and digital available through the streaming link below.

Given how much I'd enjoyed Dust, I was naturally interested to see that Mt. Mountain's singer/guitarist/organist/whistler Stephen Bailey had followed it up with a solo debut at the end of June.

Silo shows Bailey (who plays everything on here) to be a very diverse character indeed. There's little here to connect this to Dust in anyway. Silo is a much more song orientated affair for a start, but it's also an intriguingly fractured record with some tracks appearing to be very carefully structured while others sound like fragmentary sketches, awash with the excitement of the new.

It's a beautiful sounding record too which reminds me a lot of Richard Swift's production on Damian Jurado's recent albums, although the folky nature of those albums is not apparent in Bailey's appealing psychedelic pop confections.

Opener "Demure" is probably the stand out track here and would be a hit in a world where guitar based music still charted. It's got a pleasing Real Estate vibe to it, but this Real Estate grew up with the output of the Brain label rather than Flying Nun. "Sub Zero" on the otherhand showcases a falsetto that Jim James would be proud of over a vintage organ and flute backdrop with lashings of flower power.

More by good luck than good management this is a judicious time to draw your attention to "Silo". While the cassette edition is long sold out, a vinyl edition of only 80 copies is still available tthrough the widget below. Digital too.

Nathan Ford