29 Aug 2014

The Kinks "Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround / Percy" Deluxe Edition


Reviewed by Nathan Ford

It's been a long wait for Kinks fans for the release of this reissue from near the tail end of the band's golden period, with earlier reissues in this series hitting the shelves in 2011.

"Lola Versus Powerman.." inhabits an odd place in the Kinks evolution. Beloved by some fans, but seen as the starting point of the onset of the mediocrity of their later seventies releases by others, it's easy to see things from both sides (although this writer has been a long term fan). It's musically much heavier than previous releases, which is perfectly in keeping with the darker tone of Ray Davie's songwriting here, which largely reflects an increasing frustration with the music industry. It's easy to detect the seeds of the overblown stadium rockers that they would soon become in brother Dave's guitar tones on tracks like "Top of the Pops" but at this point Ray's songwriting was still sharp and benefits greatly from this more muscular approach, with "Powerman" particularly impressive. There's plenty here for those more enamoured of the classic Kinks touch too; "This Time Tomorrow" would have fit nicely on "Arthur", and "Got To be Free" is a one of the best closing statements in their catalogue. Not to mention "Strangers", a tremendously affecting, and slightly Dylanesque ballad which is surely Dave's best ever songwriting credit. A great album, and well worth a revisit for those who had previously written it off as good but not great.

The cynical will no doubt credit the decision to include the soundtrack to "Percy" in this package as a way of making a few extra bucks out of an album that is traditionally a pretty low seller, but it's really a stroke of genius, which will hopefully bring about some sort of reappraisal. A few rambling instrumentals (and "Willesden Green") stop it from consistently hitting the same heights as "Lola", but there are untapped classics here beyond "God's Children". "Dreams" and "Animals In The Zoo" are upbeat charmers, while "The Way Love Used To Be" and "Moments" are two of Ray's best ballads.

Kinks archivist extraordinaire Andrew Sandoval has trawled the vaults for bonus material as per norm, and has come up with some interesting stuff too. Chief of interest and much anticipated are a couple of unreleased tracks "Anytime" and "The Good Life". The former is the clear winner, building into something of an epic after a slightly ropey start, while "The Good Life" sounds like a generic T. Rex outtake from the "Electric Warrior" era. While the alternate takes and demos are generally of lesser interest there's still room for a startling orchestral / choral version of "God's Children (End)", and radically different takes of "Lola" and "Got To Be Free" that offer intriguing glimpses into the band's creative process.

Available here.

27 Aug 2014

Reviews In Brief - Horsebeach, "Country Funk II", The John Steel Singers "Everything's a Thread"

Reviews by Nathan Ford

"Horsebeach"is a rather special debut album from Manchester's Ryan Kennedy, following on from a promising single and E.P over the last year. It's an extremely accomplished example of bedsit jangle that will give those of you who have thrashed your copies of Real Estate's "Atlas" something fresh to sink your teeth into (indeed I think I prefer this, but it doesn't reach the heights of "Days"). Sharing Real Estate's lazy, summer sway, Horsebeach also recalls influences closer to home, particularly Felt, and on tracks like "Dull" there is more than a hint of Morrissey in Kennedy's delivery. The credits seem to indicate that this is a one man show, with Kennedy writing, performing and producing the lot - an impressive feat, particularly when the end result sounds like it's capturing that magic moment in the rehearsal room when everyone locks on to exactly the same wavelength. Pretty great.

Also pretty great is the much anticipated "Country Funk Volume II 1967 - 1974", which does an admirable job of capitalising on the strengths of Volume One. The names may be slightly more familiar, and there may be a higher reliance on covers of very familiar songs, but there are still plenty of surprises. Top of the heap is Townes Van Zandt's whip smart "Hunger Child Blues", a highlight from a surprisingly funky set of sessions dating two years prior to his debut album (those sessions are available here). And Billy Swan's wound down, funereal take on "Don't Be Cruel" set a template that Robert Plant waited thirty odd years to capitalise on with "Raising Sand". Some great stuff here.

I've shown you enough Australian psychedelia over the last few years for you to know that it's got one of the strongest scenes anywhere at the moment. It's usually accomplished on a purely grass roots level so it's always of interest to see who gets picked up and given a serious push internationally. The latest to follow in Tame Impala and Pond's footsteps is Sydney band The John Steel Singers whose second album "Everything's A Thread" is getting some pretty serious, fringes of the mainstream attention in the UK at the moment. One listen makes it clear why this might be the case. Unerring pop smarts coupled with immaculate, contemporary production. These guys are also a whole lot more fun than Tame Impala and pull from a much wider pool of influences; "State of Unrest" is  krauty motorik goodness grafted onto an irresistible, shiny pop nugget, while "M.J's on Fire Again" is smouldering, psychedelic funk of Princely proportions. And that my friends, is just the proverbial tip. Big things await this lot.

25 Aug 2014

The Cleaners From Venus "Return to Bohemia"


Reviewed by Nathan Ford

Because of Martin Newell's recent health scares, those of a cynical disposition may suspect that the unanimously positive reviews for this latest Cleaners From Venus album are a result not of its quality, but merely a reaction to the fact that it exists at all. Any such suspicions are quickly banished upon listening however as "Return To Bohemia" is every bit as excellent as we've come to expect from Mr Newell.

Riding on the crest of a new found wave of (semi) popularity courtesy of an excellent reissue programme on Captured Tracks this new album on excellent Indie label Soft Bodies is a return to a simple, self recorded aesthetic; an opportunity for Newell to create one of his "front room Rubber Souls" the way he used to (hence the title).

It's an appealingly intimate and ramshackle album with tracks like "Cling To Me" demonstrating both an off the cuff demo-ish charm, and the sorts of hooks that most other songwriters plug away endlessly, attempting to catch a glimpse of.  Elsewhere sparser tracks like "He's Goin' Out with Marilyn" have a more rounded and complete feel to them that suggest more deliberation and care.

It's naturally at its most affecting on tracks like "The Days of May", underpinned with a melancholy which, given recent circumstances, is given added poignancy. But when it comes down to it Newell is doing what he's always done: channeling an effortless songwriting deity and cloaking his outpourings in arrangements and melodies so right for them that they immediately sound both naggingly familiar, and impossible to replicate.

Marvelous, get it right away. And while you're at it get a copy of Giles Smith's "Lost in Music" if you haven't already. It's the best book about music you will ever read, and carries the odd amusing anecdote from Smith's days as a member of the Cleaners From Venus lineup.

You can stream selected tracks, or buy the CD or digital version through the widget below:

23 Aug 2014

Juston Stens "Share The Road"


Reviewed by Nathan Ford

All those old "how many drummers does it take to change a lightbulb?" chestnuts are rapidly becoming a relic of less enlightened times (albeit an amusing one). With albums like Foxygen drummer Sean Fleming's "My Friend Fish" easily matching the output on their dayjob, the days of drummers producing albums like "Sentimental Journey" (bless) and "Two Sides Of The Moon" appear to be long behind us.

Jumping ship from the successful Dr. Dog after six years behind the skins has given Juston Stens an opportunity to flex his songwriting muscles, and he certainly seems to have sponged up plenty of his former bandmate's songwriting prowess. Hitting the road on a Triumph, Stens toured around the States, recording these collaborative tracks as he went with the likes of Jessica Lea Mayfield, David Vandervelde, Dr. Dog members and more. The process is documented on the film "I Lay Where I  Fall", but the album functions perfectly well as a stand alone piece.

Stens is a strong songwriter, with the deft ability to evoke classic Americana with a nice,  contemporary twist which also references mild psychedelia and classic pop. Fans of Dr. Dog, Father John Misty, Blitzen Trapper, Wilco and the like should be pricking up their ears about now. Stens has an emotive, Evan Dando-ish croon that works particularly well in tandem with a female voice, particularly on the unmistakeable Nancy and Lee homage "Strange Love", but he's equally at home with low key rural psychedelia "Slipping Away" or peppy Belle and Sebastian pop "It's Aright".

These sorts of albums often end up sounding more like the collaborators than the featured artist, but Stens has a dominant hand here that allows the guests room to breathe, flourish and contribute their best without hijacking the album's direction. Surprising for someone usually hidden behind a drumkit, but on the evidence provided here Stens has his own vision as well as plenty of charisma to carry the role of the frontman.

Recommended.

Dodson & Fogg "After The Fall" Track by Track with Chris Wade


Interviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

Dodson And Fogg, the work of singer songwriter and visionary Chris Wade, is arguably the UK’s current foremost psych act. His back catalogue is filled with glistening musical jewels and treasure that includes collaborations with some of psychedelia and folk’s most revered names such as Alison O’ Donnell (Mellow Candle), Celia Humphris (Trees), Nik Turner (Hawkwind) and Judy Dyble (Fairport Convention/Trader Horne). Demonstrating a strong melodic sensibility but with the oddest and most curious of angles and dark corners, Dodson’s most recent album "After the Fall" is an instant classic. If you haven’t already dived down the musical rabbit hole into their wonderland, I strongly advise leaping in feet first now.

I caught up with Chris to ask him about the album, the inspirations and ideas behind the songs, and those impressive collaborations. Before we begin I’d like to say a huge thank you to him for his entertaining, candid and illuminating reflections.

"Here’s a track by track summary of the album "After the Fall". As I typed, I put the album on the headphones to get myself back into the songs. I know I only released it three months ago but it seems years old already. I always get afraid of sounding self-involved when doing interviews so if I start to go on like a pompous prat you have my permission to beat me with a rounders bat.

"You're An Island"
I wrote this with my partner Linzi when she was pregnant with my daughter, so right away it makes me feel happy just to listen to it. I recorded those simple chords that had quite a weird discordant sound and we started these lyrics about the world being like a wild vast sea and how a man searches far and wide for happiness but it’s actually all laid down in front of you. These weird phrases were being thrown back and forth so it was really fun to write that way. I got the sitar player Ricky Romain to do some lovely flourishes and the violinist Scarlet Rivera plays some beautiful melodies on it. She was on Dylan’s "Desire" album, one of my very favourite albums, so for me that was a dream come true.

"Sweet Lily Rose"
This is about my daughter and I wrote it before she was born. I remember just imagining what she might be like, so it’s another one that makes me feel warm. Like I said the other day in another interview, and Ill repeat it here because I’m a lazy bastard… no because I think it’s true, art is like a diary. You document your feelings and views on the page, canvas, or on sound, whatever your area might be, and then you can look back and the piece conjures up the emotions and feelings you had at the time. This song feels like it was written years ago, because it feels like my daughter has always been here. And don’t I know it at five in the morning!!

"In Your Own Fine Way"
This was one I came up with one day on my father in law’s guitar he has lying about the house. Then Alison O Donnell got in touch asking if we could collaborate again, so I sent it to her and she did some fantastic backing vocals on it. I’m still really happy with how this one sounds. Odd lyrics though.

"Lord Above"
This was an angry one actually. I had the riff and I recorded the whole track then put the lyrics to it. They’re about the government, all the horror that was turning up in the press, so it inspired this cry to the lord above. Quite a simple song actually. People have said it has a bit of a Sabbathy sound to it, which I’ll gladly accept ‘cos Sabbath kick bottom.

"Here in the Night" 
I wrote this one really quick. I got my first capo and started dicking about on it and played an A chord with the capo on and developed this really chilled out kind of track. I think it’s good for an album to have a mix of styles on it, chilled out and stripped down a bit before it takes off again.

"Life's Life"
Me and Linzi wrote this one too. I had the weird guitar bit and then we started the lyrics. It’s an observational thing really, people we see from the window everyday doing their odd little things. Like the old bloke who marches like a soldier, and the other old bloke who is restless all day long going back and forth carrying weird objects, wrestling with delivery trolleys and peddling about on his bike in all weathers. Even when you get up in the night for the baby milk from the kitchen, you sometimes see him farting about in the dark. Poor guy.

"Bring Me Back"
This was another capo thing I did, a surreal lyric, not too sure what it’s about now. I think it came from a dream. It’s quite a laid back one, and I sound pissed on it.

"Careless Man"
This was a bit of a bluesy thing I started playing ‘cos I was listening to early Fleetwood Mac. I love Peter Green’s playing and it reminds me of that a bit. Then Celia added these really cool backing vocals on it that gave it a new slant. Lyrically I was turning the blues round, ‘cos it’s always some fella saying this chick cheated on him or took his pride. So I was singing about a negligent bloke who never thought of other people’s feelings. Some drunken arse really. Seeing the blues from another angle in a way. What am I even saying???

"Must Be Going Crazy"
This was about someone I used to know of who was always battling with his own mind. Sad really. And I imagined what his life must be like day to day, struggling with insanity. Quite a weird one.

"Hiding from the Light"
This took ages to record. I had to piece it together bit by bit and kept adding my bits of violin, flute, guitars and all sorts of stuff. It was about the city, how people don’t look each other in the eye, London in particular. And I thought people don’t really face the truth much, it’s all about what’s on the surface, the day to day things that cover the real important things. Or not admitting something, being in denial, looking away from the truth or the light. Again, I think I sniffed too much Muller Rice this afternoon.

"Just Wondering"
I really like this one. It started as a weird story I wrote that had a double meaning. On one hand it’s a blind girl sitting in a field and all these weird creatures start crawling towards her out of the dirt, and in the end she realizes what they are and runs away. She runs away towards the sun and they disappear, burning in the sun. On the other hand it was about facing your fears and when you face them they go away. I put it to this music that just kind of developed as I went along and then Alison O Donnell did some lovely backing vocals on it. Happy with this one.

"After the Fall"
I had the main tune to this for a while and kept forgetting to do anything with it. In the end I came up with the full song, bit by bit, and plucked the violin on it, played some African thumb piano (an instrument with endless possibilities… with its five metal pegs!). Then I had the idea of doing two voices, one in each speaker, one being the human voice and the other being the soul, and the song kind of ponders the afterlife. It just so happens to have bongos and a sitar on it, so people will call it trippy but I just found that subject interesting and love the sound of Ricky’s playing. I don’t mind people calling it psychedelic, I just don’t think it is myself. I think sounds are sounds and if something tickles my fancy (oo-er) I’ll use it."

20 Aug 2014

The Silver Thread - Stone Breath's Timothy Renner Interviewed

Photo by Meghan Weaver
Interviewed by Amanda Votta and Grey Malkin

Stone Breath’s newest album, "Children of Hum", will be available on August 26th. It’s a wonderful, inspired album (review here) —and one that inspired Amanda and Grey Malkin to ask Timothy Renner a few questions about it, and the path he and Stone Breath have taken over the past nearly 20 years of song.

You can preorder the album via Dark Holler (http://darkhollerarts.com/product/stone-breath-children-hum/) or on Stone Breath’s bandcamp page (http://stonebreath.bandcamp.com/album/children-of-hum)

Amanda: In the past, you’ve referenced a silver thread, the most obvious examples being the album titles "A Silver Thread to Weave the Seasons" and "The Silver Skein Unwound". Here, you sing about the silver thread in “Always All One, All Ways Alone” as something that is always there, that winds around and down your paths. What is the silver thread to you and why is it an image, an idea, a way of describing, that you return to again and again and for so many years? Is the “hum” of the album connected to this silver thread?

Timothy: This idea of the Silver Thread, something which has proven to be a guiding spiritual concept in my adult life, came from a comic book. It turns out, upon finding the back issues and re-reading them as an adult, I greatly enhanced the idea in my mind. I remembered it with more detail and symbolism than the actual story ever had. But the seed was from a comic book I read as a child. A Thor comic book actually. I probably would have been embarrassed to admit that until somewhat recently, but now I just see it as a beautiful example of the thing that hums getting through. The thing that mattered stayed with me and my mind elaborated on the concept.

So, in the original story, Baldur is given the thread that represents his fate by the Norns and thus he gains control of his own fate. That's about all that happened. In my mind, I changed this memory to Baldur receiving the thread and it turning to silver in his hands - and this became a wonderful concept to me - the idea that when we take our fate into our own hands it becomes something precious - and we begin to then weave our own story as opposed to letting it be woven for us. I still love this idea - and so I often use the symbolism as looking back and seeing these trails of threads weaving and winding about each other, and sometimes going off on their own.

As powerful a guiding image as the Silver Thread has been, perhaps more powerful yet has been the HUM - and this, as I explain in the album notes, came from Prydwyn - and it is a beautiful and simple way to just describe our search for meaning and spirit and inspiration - without trying to justify our ways with maze-like meanderings of reason and belief - or apparently confusing labels such as I have used in the past (e.g. Marian animism) - and it is this: Some things hum. Some things do not hum. We follow those things that hum.

So, maybe it's the thread that we hold in the present and trail into the past, but it's the hum that is in all times and guides us forward and back. Hopefully, anyone reading this will understand I am in the process - and have been my entire life - of building a personal mythology and I am not in any way trying to set down a dogma - this is not "they way things are" - but only a series of symbols which are beautiful and meaningful to me. I would encourage others to follow whatever hums to their ears.

A: In the statement you made about this album, you talked about how your beliefs have been misinterpreted, misunderstood and misrepresented by people over the years. So, if you’re comfortable discussing it, maybe you could talk a little about what it is you believe and how this evolved over the years and the history of Stone Breath. How do your beliefs play a role in the art you make, and what role is it they play? Is it an active part of what you create? Both your illustration and your music.

T: Much was made in the early years of the band of us being a pagan or even "wiccan" band. I was always an animist. I guess that is a form of paganism to some, but it's not wiccan to my knowledge. There was a fellow in a band we used to play with occasionally who would insist that I was/am wiccan. At least three separate times he came up to either me personally or the band as a whole and said "You guys are wiccan" - or "you (meaning me, personally) are wiccan." When I would say "No, I'm not" - he would say "Yes you are" - and we would continue this dance until he would finally just smile and nod and say "O.K" like I was pulling his leg.

Prydwyn and I were both raised Catholic and in some sense I still consider myself culturally Catholic - and I do quite love the Blessed Virgin Mary. I am beyond the point of caring if She is a symbol, a real holy being, or some form of the Goddess. I simply don't care anymore. All the dogmatic shit that goes along with organized religion - and the way people use it to control others - I throw that right out the window. The same is true of Her son - I find the idea of a human sacrificing himself for the good of all mankind to be just beautiful and powerful - and though I did, for a time, call myself Christian (though with hindsight, I think this was more to put off those that would insist I was "wiccan" for instance), I realized that this now means something very different and often quite repressive - especially in America, calling oneself "Christian" has become almost a shorthand for believing certain things, not just spiritually, but politically and socially - things I do not believe at all.

In my 20s I spent time with the Chaos Magick folks (you can find my art in the old Thanateros journals - I think I did a few covers for them as well) and as I age I realize that this was perhaps the most positively influential thing in my spiritual path - and while I don't sit around doing the Death Posture and drawing sigils anymore - I value that time for a few great lessons, one of which is: take what works and use it. I have done this, consciously and subconsciously, ever since - and perhaps even before.


Art by Timothy Renner
I find it increasingly difficult to talk about what I believe in any way that makes sense to someone else - and likewise I find it increasingly difficult to write songs to express these things. Stone Breath was ever my vehicle for documenting my spiritual interests and beliefs, and that is changing, I think, slowly and subtly. So, I am in a place, for now at least, where I just said everything I wanted to say on that matter (via "Children of Hum"). While I used to write almost every aspect of my beliefs into songs, or entire albums - I can't say exactly what the future will hold regarding Stone Breath. I think we will be exploring things like folklore - which we have done quite a bit in the past - without so much worry about spiritual/religious beliefs. Then again, who can say exactly what the future holds.

A: This album is a return of sorts for Stone Breath, a going back home. It’s just you and Prydwyn again, making simple yet layered songs. You’re technically more advanced as players and singers, but you still maintain that beautiful imperfection—the element of the human—in your songs. How is it to work with Prydwyn again? Is the way you write song, the way you play and sing affected by doing these things with him in ways that are unique to the way you’re affected by working with other people? And how does the familiarity between the two of you affect what you create together?

T: I guess the question would be how is it to work with ONLY Prydwyn again - because we never stopped working together. Even for that period of time when I thought Stone Breath was dead, Prydwyn and I continued to work on music. But it became apparent that this album was to have a certain meaning and the things we were talking about not only grew out of discussions I had with Prydwyn but also from seeds that we planted together in and out of Stone Breath, so it seemed right to have it just be Prydwyn and me this time.

Likewise, after nearly 20 years and something like a dozen albums, depending on how you count, and multiple EPs, all of acoustic music, I do make a conscious effort to try to change things up from album to album, sonically. The previous few albums with Don on guitar tended to be busier and more baroque - so I wanted to simplify things a bit. We did multitrack, but we didn't record it in a way that we couldn't have done live - in other words, I am playing one instrument and singing on each song. When Prydwyn is singing, he isn't playing flute or whistle - it was recorded in such a way that it could have been recorded live. This was done on purpose - to keep it sparse and natural sounding. The last album we recorded that was just Prydwyn and I was "A Silver Thread to Weave the Seasons" - the second Stone Breath album - and that was done on 4-track. So, this way of recording kind of harkened back to the limitations of the 4-track.

Prydwyn taught me a lot about music. He taught me how to sing. He is partially responsible for me getting over a somewhat bad case of ongoing stage fright. So, what I have for Prydwyn is a kind of deep trust, artistically. I always feel really confident when he is by my side. I still find myself surprised and amazed by his contributions. However, he gets Stone Breath on a really essential level, so I don't have to do a lot of explaining of ideas and concepts. At the same time, he CARES about the ideas and concepts behind the songs. It's not simply about the notes and scales. So, there's nobody and I mean NOBODY I would rather work with than Prydwyn. For me, it's just wonderful.

A: Aside from Stone Breath, you’re involved in other bands. One of those is Albatwitch, where you make much noisier and overtly forceful songs than in Stone Breath. Albatwitch is also more obviously influenced by ideas that are political or social in nature: anarchy, taking a stand against corporations. How and why is it you came to want to be involved in a band where you were much more open about your social and political ideas and ideals? Is this something that’s long been important to you, but hasn’t made an obvious appearance in your music until now? And, again if you’re comfortable with it, perhaps you can discuss a bit the ideas you and Brian are conveying through your music?

T: I grew up in the DIY/punk/zine scene. I was involved with the anarchist movement before, but when I was younger, I never felt good enough. It seemed like there were all of these passionate perfect anarchists who just did everything right - the right politics, the right diet, the right books, etc - while I was just this big fuck up. I just felt like I could never be good enough. As I grew older I realized that we are all flawed and learning as we go through life and I'm just trying to be better all the time - and I still fuck up - but I am an anarchist. It's the political belief that makes any sense to me. I just got the confidence to say it more often and openly.

Brian has a solo project called LAYR - he had me do some vocals on a song and write the lyrics for it. He explained to me that the album was generally political, but used a lot of medieval type symbolism to express these ideas. So, I wrote the lyrics with that in mind. It was one of the first overtly political songs I've written.

Brian lives very close to me - we have children about the same age who often play together - we share a lot of the same interests. I'm actually surprised it took as long as it did for us to start working together - but when we did, I just decided to start writing these political songs. I found I was VERY angry about the way things are in this country and in this world.


Photo by Sara Lyon
Stone Breath has been my vehicle for exploring my spiritual trip in music. I am very lucky to have found people who connect with that - but I am never sure how I am connecting with people. Are they identifying with the things I'm saying? Are they just observing my trip? Do they just like the sounds we're making? Are they applying their own meanings to my words? Any of these things is ok, but I literally just don't know. For example, when we were recording "Lanterna Lucis Viriditatis," I decided that decapitation was in some way related to spiritual enlightenment. It's a rather odd concept and would take a rather long time to explain - but my point is, I don't imagine too many people were just right there with me: "Decapitation? oh, me too Tim!" So, I'm thinking people are connecting in some other way, and that's just fine.

With Albatwitch, on the other hand, I'm saying things that relate to the physical world. I'm saying, for instance - look fracking is FUCKED UP and it's harming all of us and it's ruining the water in ways we don't even understand yet, all so some very very rich men can get richer.

With Stone Breath I'm looking in - or at least I WAS. "Children of Hum" might be all I can say on those matters. In my mind, I've kind of clarified things. I've set the record straight, as best as I could, and I'm done. Stone Breath isn't done - we have plans for more albums - but thematically, I think my writing is changing. Lyrically, Albatwitch songs just feel more urgent to me. I feel like I'm saying things that people understand, I think. I am talking about things that anger and frighten me - things that my children will also likely have to deal with. In this sense I am coming full circle to my younger self - bringing back all the musical experience I've gained - and telling myself it's ok to be overtly political and it's ok to call yourself an anarchist even if you are not perfect.

Grey: You recently made Stone Breath’s back catalogue digitally available on Bandcamp after several years of resisting the online distribution of your music. What changed your mind and how do you feel about digital downloads as a platform for music as opposed to physical copies? As an artist who designs and makes your own (and others) album covers how does the digital medium compare?

T: I started buying most of my music on Bandcamp and figured: well, it's time. I'd greatly prefer people get the physical albums, but I understand it's just not how some people listen to music anymore. Bandcamp gives the artist a lot of control - it's very artist-friendly - and it's very easy. We still won't do iTunes or Amazon mp3 or any of that. I think for most independent bands being on iTunes is just something they want so they can show their friends and parents - "look mom, we're on iTunes!" Anybody with a recording and some extra cash can get on iTunes. It doesn't matter. iTunes and their like are not artist-friendly. For us, Bandcamp is the answer.

G: Stone Breath have covered songs by and paid tribute to The Incredible String Band, Tom Rapp and COB. What other influences do you have musically, artistically or otherwise on your music? Are there any bands in that list that listeners would perhaps be surprised to hear about? Which artists inspired you to pick up a guitar or banjo and begin recording in the first place and what are you currently listening to?

T: Well, as I said, I grew up in the DIY/punk scene in the 80s/early 90s. I always wanted to make music, but I was really poor. Two friends bought me an acoustic guitar for my birthday one year - because neither they nor I could afford an electric guitar plus an amplifier. So, when I got this I started looking into acoustic music and found that I really loved folk music. No part of me ever thought to combine acoustic with punk like some of these anarcho-folk bands do - I find that brilliant. It's raw and exciting and I love it - but it just didn't occur to me. So, I never learned to play rock and roll. This amazes Brian for instance because he handles almost all of the heavy guitar/bass parts for Albatwitch - I can't play like that - power chords and such - I never learned! But I listened to punk and post-punk and I never stopped. Just because I found COB doesn't mean I stopped loving Nausea - I've never looked at music in that way. One of my favorite albums of all time is Saw Throat's "Inde$troy" - we used to carry the CD reissue in the Dark Holler distro long before there was ever an idea of Albatwitch - a heavy album of crusty doom which speaks of environmental devastation at the hands of corporations.

So, what inspired me to pick up a guitar? Honestly, what gave me the confidence was the DIY culture - that idea of just picking things up and DOING them because you want to - of not letting anyone stop you because you don't have formal training or whatever - that was huge for me. I was lucky because around that time bands like Swans were picking up acoustic guitars and the whole neo-folk thing started happening in the UK - while I was looking into more traditional folk music - so it seemed like something was brewing and suddenly it was ok to have an acoustic guitar. Though it would be some years before it was "ok" to have a banjo - Stone Breath took a good bit of grief from indie reviewers for having banjo in our music at the beginning - it's hard to believe now that banjo is indie-hip, but that never stopped me either.

As to what I'm listening to now - I think my favorite current band is probably Northern Liberties. Sort of a post-hardcore band (they call it ghost punk) from Philidelphia. Just bass, drums, and vocals. Kind of eerie outsider music with this weird almost channeled/spiritualist vibe. I love them!

G: Your label Dark Holler has the feel of a family run business with high quality and unique output ranging from albums, artwork and clothing to beautiful custom made instruments. What led you to set up Dark Holler and is there an ethos to how it operates? What future projects do you have in mind for the label and how would you like to see Dark Holler develop?

T: Dark Holler Arts is the sort of blanket name for a series of labels and related pursuits. Hand/Eye is the sort of main label - those releases, for the most part, get distributed in stores and if the artists agree, digitally. Lost Grave is a more limited edition label - Brian and I do this together - these are usually releases of 100 copies or less and often in handmade packaging. Eleventh Key is Brian's label - he does a lot of digital distribution and has a separate distribution deal from Hand/Eye. We just combined everything under one roof, so to speak - as we were constantly helping each other anyway.

I ran a tape label in the late 80s/early 90s. When I started making my own music, it was natural to self-release. Even when I was signed to other labels, I made more music than they could release for me, so I had an outlet for these other projects. After a time other artists started coming to me and asking me to help them release their material - it seemed easy enough as I had the know-how. Eventually, I started going to artists and asking them to work with us and finding reissues I wanted to release and it just snowballed. Hand/Eye alone has had well over 60 releases now.

If there's an ethos it's just try to treat artists the way I would want to be treated. There's not a lot of money to be made - it's really a matter of a few releases that do sell paying for a bunch that don't sell as well - it's always a gamble and it always plays out over a very long time. There's also crazy things like returns from the distributor (so you may think you have sold out of something but then suddenly 100 copies come back) - which make any kind of accounting a nightmare. So, both artist and label have to give a lot and be understanding and really do it just for the love of doing it with the hope to make a little money in the end.

The record industry crash a few years back hit us hard. I invested record label money in some brick and mortar property (a recording studio), thinking that it would be wise to divest. This was a terrible mistake and just did not work out well at all. So we were hit hard and then hit again - the second time was fully my own fault and my poor judgment. It's left us with a very small pool of operating funds, so we just are not able to do as much as we would like anymore. We've had to turn bands away and change other projects from vinyl to CD ("Children of Hum" was meant to be a 10" record, for instance). But we're not finished.

We're trying to get some really great reissues going on Lost Grave - I'm talking old demo tapes from the 80s/90s - we really want to save this music and make physical copies available again. It's crazy hard finding folks and harder yet to get them excited about reissuing their old music, but hopefully as we stay after people we can make some magic happen. Besides that, we will continue to do small editions with new bands we like.

Hand/Eye should have some exciting news soon on the vinyl front - plus we are curating a 2CD benefit compilation which is just in its infant stage.

You can stream or purchase "Children of Hum" here, available August 26:

19 Aug 2014

The Flight Reaction S/T


Reviewed by Nathan Ford

I've been looking forward to getting my teeth into this one. Ever since their previous single "Mourning Light" made itself known to me at the end of 2012, I've been curious about how this Swedish supergroup (featuring ex-members of The Crimson Shadows, The Giljoteens, The Maggots and Les Artyfacts) would approach the album length format.

While "The Mourning Light" single was a very strong piece of vintage garage, with nice, era-appropriate psychedelic flourishes, this self titled debut on the marvelous 13 O'Clock Records label has a much more epic scope to it than "Mourning Light" suggested.

There's still plenty of garage grit on display here, but there's also loads of sitar, mellotron, farfisa, and flute, not to mention a more expansive approach to the songwriting which ensures that this doesn't just sound like a collection of potential singles tacked together. "Every Time You Die" impresses early on with its claustrophobic, mellotron-laced arrangement building into something of a mini "S.F Sorrow". Even better is psychedelic Stones homage "Love Will See Us Through", which does the Rolling Stones trying to be the Beatles better than the Stones did themselves on "Their Satanic Majesties..".

And so it goes on, the influences are worn enthusiastically on sleeve, the production techniques are unerringly vintage (the Swedes do this so well), and most importantly the songs are memorable, anthemic and consistently more than a match for anything from the artists they evoke.

If the busy studio sheen of the new wave of psychedelia led by Tame Impala, Temples and the like makes you pine for simpler times, then this needs to be on your shopping list (it's certainly on mine!)

Available here on vinyl, and here digitally.

Sunstone Records / Simon Norfolk Guest Mix


We've got a guest mix today from Simon Norfolk - noted Shindig! scribe and one of the gentlemen behind the fabulous Sunstone Records label. 

"It is with great pleasure that I present this selection of tracks for the Active Listener. As with most things I do these days it's late and been on my 'to do' list for too long ...I tried to do a series of tracks that would have an almost 'all back to mine' feel - a post night out listen or the kind of thing I would put onto my iPod for some deep listening. Of course if I were to do this again now the entire thing would be totally different. For now enjoy the tunes - Opal , Michael Head and Shack and the Clientele have been constants since I first chanced upon them many years ago, the Gabor Szabo was rescued from a Barcelona flea market, Grand Union has yet to be committed to vinyl which is a travesty. I dedicate this mix to my pals at Sunstone Records and the people we have had / are having the great pleasure of working with, and to Paul Hillery whose Folk Funk and Trippy Troubadours mixes are a constant source of inspiration, and to anyone who has supported our label which means the world to us - thank you!"

Chuck and Mary Perrin – Commencement 
Dando Shaft – Rain 
Gabor Szabo -Galatea’s Guitar 
Grand Union – Morning Brings the Light 
Davy Graham – Fakir 
Caetano Veloso – Shoot Me Dead 
Neil MacArthur – Hung Upside Down 
The Clientele – No Dreams Last Night 
Snowgoose – Shifting Sands 
Shack – Daniella 
Opal – Harriet Brown 
Trees Community – Raga [excerpt] 
Vanilla Fudge – Where is My Mind 
Terje Rypdal – Dead Man’s Tale 
Rotary Connection – Tales of Brave Ulysses 
Them – Walking in the Queen’s Garden 
The Soundcarriers – The Outsider 
Slapp Happy – Blue Flower 
Alexis Korner -Saturday Sun 
Vashti Bunyan – Hebridean Sun 
Trees Community – Raga [to fade]

Stream it here:
 

18 Aug 2014

Stone Breath "Children of Hum"


The new Stone Breath album is such a cause for celebration that rather than let my writers come to fisticuffs as to who would review it, we're running a double review with Grey Malkin and Amanda Votta both sharing their perspectives:

Though it is the newest of Stone Breath’s albums, there is something incredibly familiar about "Children of Hum". Thanks in large part to the return of Stone Breath to the duo of Timothy and Prydwyn, the songs here sound as though they were wrought from the same stuff as their older work. Of course, there are the differences that time brings. Timothy’s skill as a musician has never been more apparent, nor has the beauty of his voice. Prydwyn’s singing is likewise truly remarkable and shining, his flute more mesmerizing than ever. Together, they make these cracked, ragged songs into some of the most perfect in Stone Breath’s history.

It’s always useful in a review to try to define the genre, to make useful comparisons to other bands who have come before or who work contemporaneously in a style similar to the music being discussed. While it would be easy to classify Stone Breath as psychedelic folk, to mention the influence that The Incredible String Band or Pearls Before Swine have had on Timothy and the band—and I just did—it’s also doing a disservice to Stone Breath. They have, over the years and through incarnations and despite classifications, made something truly unique. This may be psychedelic folk, but it’s also haunting and haunted, ephemeral, full of mystery and beauty that can’t be so easily defined. In the opening line of the first song “The Dead Keep This,” Timothy declares that every word he sings tonight “is fished from the mouth of a corpse.” Every note he plays, every sight he sees comes from the dead, from a dream-world beyond this one—these songs are full of ghosts. Here, Timothy’s smooth baritone is accompanied by sparse instrumentation, the plucked notes hang in the air a moment before fading away as the next sounds. If the song, and album as a whole, had stayed with this simple combination of Timothy’s voice and strings it would have been brilliant. However, part-way into the song he is joined by Prydwyn’s lighter voice and delicate, hypnotic flute. The sound of these two combining their voices and instruments is the sound of the heart and soul of Stone Breath, of two people who know and understand one another and one another’s songs. And this is a magical song, like the strains of some strange music that comes floating from the forest. Follow, and it leads you to a cathedral of trees, branches twining, the green so thick the light is colored by it.

On the proceeding song, “The Winding Way,” Timothy’s and Prydwyn’s voices blend in perfect harmony. Sometimes during the course of the song they veer apart, yet always come back together to enjoin the listener—or perhaps themselves—to follow the hum, to walk their own path wherever it may lead. Here, the instrumentation is more overtly complex, which allows Timothy’s skill as a musician to shine through. It is a glowing, lovely song, a celebratory and sorrowing paean to the path he, they, walks. “Always All One, All Ways Alone” follows and here again Timothy’s ability to play, to sing is remarkable. There’s something in his voice on this song in particular that makes you feel as though you’re hearing expressed just to you one of the most beautiful truths there is, listening to Timothy sing his heart under night sky, deep in some dream of a forest. It is, without doubt, an exceptionally uncommon song—even on an album full of such things.

The next song, “Brother Blood, Sister Moon,” is yet another testament to how very right the combination of Timothy’s and Prydwyn’s voices are. They blend, they part, they blend, each singing their own path, yet those paths always meet again. The sound of the music and of their voices here truly exemplifies Stone Breath’s ability to sound traditionally folk, yet entirely like themselves. No one else does what they do the way they do it. Then, with “All This and Alice,” there is something quite baroque, yet something else in the lower notes that feels very much like a contemplative droning. It’s a ghost of a droning, but it is there. In this song, you can also hear some of the different phases and incarnations of the band. Prydwyn’s shimmering flute opens the song that comes after, “At the Well,” and sets the mood of this lonesome apparition of a song sung into the wind and trees. With it, "Children of Hum" proper ends, with the remaining six songs being bonus material drawn from various places, various incarnations of Stone Breath.

It is, perhaps, a testament to the consistency of the music, of the sound, of the ability they have to express the nearly inexpressible, that this shift from album songs to bonus songs is barely perceptible. These songs still reflect that which has just been heard, even though they were made at different times, with different band members, for different purposes. The droning element that seemed to underpin “All This and Alice” is again in evidence with “Song to the Folding Leaves”—though much more prominently. You can hear it both in the instrumentation and in Timothy’s voice, making this song a compelling, almost forceful, one. The delicate sounding “Just Like the River” is a truly lovely song. Dreamy, ghostly, it is haunting and haunted. This is music that sounds as though it comes to you from some Other place, made by those who are not entirely of this world, who exist in some strange and beautiful land on the border of here and there. Music formed from moonlight and rain, made by those who “sit and sing under the waning moon,” with “Holes in our clothes – spiders in tangled hair,” as Timothy sings in “Starlight Sight.” This is a song that flows and sways like willows on the bank of a green river, but, like all of Stone Breath’s songs, there is that solid core around which the song moves. None of their work is ever lacking in conviction, never does the music want for passion, however delicate it may sound. Sarada’s beautiful, shining silver voice graces “Love in the Devil’s Tongue,” along with Don Belch’s baroque guitar and harpsichord playing. He appears again on the final song, “Dark Veils Part,” which Brooke Elizabeth lends her resonant voice to, adding compliment and counterpoint to Timothy’s own rich voice. There is also an arrangement of the traditional ballad “The Famous Flower of Serving Men,” performed by Timothy and Prydwyn. A beautiful rendition and a song that demonstrates Stone Breath’s ties to traditional folk song and the influence it has had on the way Stone Breath’s songs are constructed, the way the music and words fit together.

Just as important as the music are the illustrations that accompany every Stone Breath album. It is Timothy’s art, and it always completes, and serves as a visual interpretation of, the music. Truly, taken as a whole it is the work of a visionary, of someone who has definite ideas and a need to express those ideas in a way that, itself, grants visions. The art reveals and shows the way, the songs lead you down the path. The cover of "Children of Hum" is graced by a skeleton, bones twined round with vegetation, holding its hand out, a ring on the tip of one bone finger, towards birds and moths. An invitation, a warding away, a letting go, a reaching out towards. Listen, and perhaps you’ll know.

Wrought from the dead, from the winding way, from the trees and the earth, from bone and blood and sacred heart, "Children of Hum" is full of shimmering, devastating beauty. (Amanda Votta)

Over the course of thirteen albums and eighteen years Stone Breath have become one of the (if not the) foremost purveyors of modern wyrd folk, their psychedelic cobwebbed laments having influenced many a band (including my own). At root and dark beating heart they are the work and vision of one man, Timothy Renner, with a rotating cast of companions providing delicate and enchanting accompaniment (Stone Breath always feel more like a family of minstrels than having simply collaborators, indeed Timothy’s splendid dark Holler label is a family run affair). Many have walked amongst Stone Breath’s glades and forests over the years, such as Sarada Holt (also of Belladonna Bouquet) and Carin Wagner Sloan (of The Iditarod). For "Children of Hum" the band are solely Timothy and long-time friend and musical partner, the troubadour and solo artist in his own right Prydwyn.

This then is a stripped back, skeletal, haunted version of Stone Breath following ever expansive, layered classic acid folk fare such as ‘The Silver Skein Unwound’ and 'The Shepherdess And The Bone White Bird’. However this does not mean things have become more basic; in fact it is quite the opposite. The melodies twist and weave like the tendrils of one of artist Arthur Rackham’s trees around complex motifs; cascading harp and banjo creating a veritable forest of sound. The music herein is 100% acoustic and comprised solely of two voices, celtic harp, flute, guitar, bouzouki and whistles. 'The Dead Keep This’ is a spooked and wasted wander through some very dark woods indeed, the harp almost mediaeval and regal. It is an epic opener; at 7 minutes long this sets out the stall of this current incarnation of Stone Breath. ‘The Winding Way’, in which the lyrics describe following the Hum of the album title, is a dérive of dread and damp undergrowth. To this listener The Hum is a statement of belief, a means of describing Timothy’s own spiritual and personal path; a statement of intent.Prydwyn's delicate vocals underpin Timothy’s in a ghostly duet, at once both deeply affecting and chilling. To describe this music as intense doesn’t quite cover it. Fans of The Incredible String Band, COB and Midwinter will find much to love here. ‘Always All One, Always Alone’ is a bleak and bewitched acoustic paean with some Spanish style guitar adding texture and colour, albeit darkly.

There is something sacred about Stone Breath. They exist almost alone and isolated from any scene and are timeless; as much as their music has developed and changed over the years something core remains the same. Perhaps it’s because this is music made from the soul, made because the artist has no other option than to create; these songs are both genuine and real incarnations of Timothy and his vision. ‘Brother Blood, Sister Moon’ is akin to something from the True Detective TV soundtrack; black as midnight, it is a rural gothic masterpiece. Indeed, the atmosphere that Stone Breath can create with only a handful of instruments says a great deal about the strength of Timothy’s song writing; to my mind, he is up there with Clive Palmer, Mike Heron and Tom Rapp. Stone Breath are underground but for those who love them they inspire an almost loyalty and devotion. Again, it’s that sense of something personal and truly ‘real’, that this is music that matters.

'All This and Alice’s eastern raga is mysterious and madrigal like, a call into the desert; when the acoustic rhythm kicks in it is genuinely thrilling. 'At The Well's flute and intricate fingerpicking is like the spider in the song's tale, a web of interweaving lines and harmonies creating something spellbinding and unique. A love song of sorts, it is a hymn of nature. 'Song to the Folding Leaves’ twisted Americana and sitar buzz is a doomed delight, hypnotic and trancelike. ‘Just Like the River’s lute guitar also becomes a haunting drone, this is acoustic music but not in the Nick Drake sense. Instead there is a harshness amongst the beauty and melody that reminds us that Timothy also records as Albawitch, a much more folk and blackened metal proposition. ‘Starlight Sight ‘is a whispered chant into the wind, bouzouki carrying the song onwards under the firmament.

Although comparisons do not hold with a band as unique as Stone Breath if you are partial to Angels of Light, The Iditarod, the Jewelled Antler cohort and acts from The Little Somebody label such Novemthree you will adore this. 'The Famous Flower of Serving Men’ is intense; the bouzouki sounds like it comes from the bowels from hell, the song itself a ballad from the depths. This is the closest here that Stone Breath come to sounding like themore percussive Crow Tongue, an earlier band of Timothy’s whose releases are equally well worth seeking out. ‘Love in the Devils Tongue’ is beautiful acoustic folk, nuanced and played with great tenderness and precision. Sung by Prydwyn, the timeless and ancient heart of Stone Breath beats loudly here; it is heartbreakingly lovely. ‘Dark Veils Part’ is a dark lament with keening vocals blown across the sinister and driven backing. This is Stone Breath at their most powerful, percussion rattling in the raging storm of the music.

Stone Breath are a circle, a wheel of life; they change with the seasons but their nature remains. In that sense each album is distinctly their vision, recognisable but also different from what came before; like the different seasons perhaps. This then is Stone Breath’s autumn, skeletal but with a multitude of warm and varied colours and a deep melancholy. Both this album and their back catalogue cannot be recommended enough. Enter the woods, stray from the path; embrace the sound of Stone Breath. (Grey Malkin)

Housed, as always with Dark Holler releases, in a beautiful sleeve illustrated by Timothy.

Digital and CD both available here:

17 Aug 2014

Free Downloads Roundup Southern Boutique / FoneZ / El General Villamil


Here's another quickfire review/guide to recent psychedelic releases that you can download for free (or name your price starting at $0) from Bandcamp.

Southern Boutique "Southern Boutique"
In June I was telling you all about the two debut singles by this Austin trio (also both free downloads), and it turns out they had a full album up their sleeves which is now out. I didn't really do my research with that first review, but I'm now able to tell you that these three had previously been in the band Tiger Waves, which goes some way to explaining how accomplished those debut singles and now this album are. For the most part it's marvelous Beach Boys inspired indie pop with great vocal arrangements, lashings of psychedelia and moments of lovely vintage surf-pop that mesh perfectly with its more contemporary moments. The closest comparison I can conjure is Lawrence Arabia if he'd been raised on the Beach Boys rather than the Beatles. Quite why these gents are giving an album of this quality away for free while some forward thinking indie label like Bella Union hasn't snapped it up is a mystery to me, and one that you should take advantage of. Download, marvel and share with all your friends. The sooner Southern Boutique are household names the better.
Download here:

FoneZ "Adhesivo De Contacto Espacial"
This extremely appealing instrumental E.P is just one of the many things which turn up in my inbox vying for attention each day and it immediately stood out from the crowd. Córdoba, Argentina is probably not the first place that you'd think of for classy krautrock like this, but FoneZ spound like they were born listening to this sort of stuff. There's a lot of krautrock beiong revived at the moment, even mainstream indie bands are pulling on it to a certain extent, but what's refreshing about FoneZ's approach is that they don't use the format as an excuse to let songs drag on, with each of these songs being succinct and distinct with an emphasis on melody, as well as the expected krauty rhythms.  It's also surprisingly buoyant, with vibrant, ascending guitar parts and quirky vintage keyboard sounds revealing a sense of fun that's often absent from this sort of thing, and often leading things into post-punk territory that recalls Magazine or Wire. Pretty interesting stuff.
Download here:


El General Villamil "Archipiélago 32' "
Another surprising E.P from an unexpected source is this great one from El General Villamil who hail from Ecuador. This one has an excellent surf meets early Kinks vibe, kind of like the first Allah-La's album, with great vintage vibes in the form of garage jangle, nasal fuzz guitar and wobbly organs. What distinguishes "Archipiélago 32' " from the rest of the crowd is their odd, progressive sensibility that sees most of these tracks stretched well beyond their expected two and a half minute running time, by adding unexpected and often quite lengthy exploratory codas and bridges.
Really, really good. Download it here:


And while we're talking freebies, Beaulieu Porch's first two albums of quality "Hilly Fields" meets "Sgt Peppers" pop psych are both currently available as free downloads. If you haven't heard them, you're missing out! Get them here.