15 Apr 2017
Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan
Ah, Spring 2017 is almost fully upon us and like the blooming daffodils, Clay Pipe Records has emerged from hibernation to herald the real new year with another beautifully evocative offering from Jon Brooks. As with Jon's previous outings on the label ('52' and 'Shapwick') there is a strong sense of conceptualisation and sonic impressionism (or audio cinema verite if you like) that informs 'Autres Directions'. In this instance the new offering is inspired by time spent by its creator in Brittany and Normandy in northern France. And perhaps this sleek, beautiful organic, wonderfully alive and textured work is a prescient love letter from post-Brexit Britain to its soon to be divorced European counterpart?
Musically there is much to place the record in the ongoing artistic development of its author. Part episodic series of ethereal soundscape canvasses, part field recording driven hauntological essay, part ambient/prog reinterpretation of the kind of approach the likes of Pink Floyd, Harmonia or Eno were aiming for in the 1970's - In totality it reflects all of this whilst retaining its own robust identity and makes for a deeply immersive sonic experience that reveals great depth with repeated listens. Read on active listener, read on...
'Se Reveille' calls us to rise with a cluster of brightly repeated notes, concluding with the perfect intonation of our French ferry announcer advising us that our journey across La Manche is about to conclude, our arrival on the north coast of France imminent. We make landfall by 'Le Chateau' where gentle analogue waves lap on the shore beneath the castle walls. This is probably my favourite piece on the record with its warm droning filigree of notes evoking nothing simpler or more beautiful than beads of sunlight dancing on the gently crashing surf. Seagull sirens of sound float in and out of view rising upwards on the thermals of sound that swirl upward into a sunbaked blue sky. Imagine 'Big City' by the Spacemen 3 removed from its urban environment, slowed, stretched and relocated to a beautiful place of coastal countryside. It is a stunningly beautiful moment of teleportation on a consistently beguiling and absorbing record.
"PN_17" glides into view following the sound of a train passing before unfurling itself on the other side of the tracks to reveal a hushed afternoon meadow of sound punctuated with some lovely gently swaying tones and bird calls. Sounds swell, feedback builds and fades, pictures sharpen then dissolve.
The use of field recordings that capture distant voices inside a revolving 5 note synth wash on the title track manages the very difficult trick of being both very simple whilst entrancing the listener into a kaleidoscopic reverie of flashbacks entirely sourced from one's own memory banks - hauntology par excellence.It's final cluster of hazy, unintelligible voices close out the first side of the record in a strong and strangely cinematic fashion.
Side two opens with "L'ancienne Grange", a tightly wound melody with counterpoint set in a botanical garden of mysterious and exotic sounds - it has an almost hypnotic quality. "Lanverec" is a slow burn descending drone piece replete with bird calls and a somewhat sinister vibe to it that gives rise to thoughts of cloudy hillsides, overamped electricity pylons and shaded country lanes. It leaves the listener uncertain of the intended destination and definitely strikes hard as the most unsettling point on the record. "Centre Vile" follows, bringing some momentary focus with its soberingly sharp church bell introduction ringing out a note of awakening. This call to prayer is followed by washes of synth, bowed cymbals (I think) and drones that once more envelop and surround the listener. It's a pretty mesmerising scene, heavy with blankets of ambient sound that breathe slowly and deeply through the speakers.
Le depart arrives all too quickly with the brief and appropriately titled 'Sortie', its combination of field recordings and light drones transporting the listener effectively to the point of departure. The ferry announcers call is heard and closes the circle but on this ocassion the voices are distant, mysterious and unclear giving way a denouement is almost indetectable. We arrive back at our present location, unsure of where we have been but our perceptions changed by the journey we have completed. Therein lies the power at the heart of 'Autres Directions'.
So once again Clay Pipe release a compelling work of imagination and guile, another wonderfully evocative piece of work from Jon Brooks that may be his best solo outing thus far. Needless to say as with all Clay Pipe releases this is beautifully packaged in what I am interepeting as a wonderful collision of vintage Blue Note and Highway Code graphic artwork courtesy of the endlessly talented label owner Frances Castle (on a lovely fog coloured vinyl too). Equally needless to say, this limited vinyl run of 500 will almost certainly sell out with days of (pre)release so look sharp and grab a copy while you can. Au revoir mes amis.
Vinyl pre-orders are available from the label, and digital will be available directly from Mr Brooks on the release date of May 5th. Put it in your diary!
29 Mar 2017
Reviewed by Joseph Murphy
There are few bands around now that insist upon long-form songs; still, there are fewer that absolutely require just shy of twenty minutes to really express a contained, continuous and coherent idea. Gothenburg, Sweden’s Lamagaia make long songs feel necessary and effortless – even brief, in a way, by their continually vibrant, fresh take on Krautrock-inspired heavy psych; the two songs making up their proper debut, “Aurora” and “Panorama Vju”, are both one side of a 12”, but their urgency and pace have a way of shrinking their significant lengths to quick and potent doses.
With only a 7” and a self-released 12” to their name – both available from the band’s Bandcamp – Lamagaia is slowly but surely building their catalog; in so few tracks, the band has quickly and impressively built a brand, one of balanced fervor and outrageous composure. Their eponymous debut simply tills new tracts of the fertile ground. “Aurora” is a deft and dense track that, at first, feels so complete as it builds, the vocals – straightforward as they are, though masterfully effected – come as a surprise, almost unnecessary to the song’s fullness. It’s hard to find such welcome surprises in most listens.
“Panorama Vju,” undoes all the density and frenzy of its reverse side and spirals through a hazy and atmospheric exploration. The song really gets its legs five minutes in as it vaults a skyward, delay-heavy melody, only to let loose entirely through the remainder of the song with washes of guitar noise and manipulations. Co-released by Sunrise Ocean Bender and Cardinal Fuzz, get the vinyl or digital format of your choice on their respective Bandcamp pages.
Highly recommend this one.
27 Mar 2017
Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)
Here is something very special indeed. A collaboration between fellow ornithologists and Scottish sound technicians Gayle Brogan (of the wonderful Pefkin and Electroscope) and Alan Cynic (of the legendary and critically acclaimed Kitchen Cynics), 'Owls In Her Eyes'can be found 'nursing an obsession equally with Syd Barrett and lepidptera' within the grooves of this vinyl only release. Housed in a beautiful collage style sleeve designed by Alan himself, four lengthy but weightless and truly transcendent tracks take the listener from the coastal haar of Kitchen Cynic's native Aberdeen to the misty showers of Brogan's west coast. Indeed, there is much of a sense of nature and of a wild and weather stricken environment contained within the floating, drifting beauty of these hugely atmospheric, arcane and ambitious pieces.
'The Cynic, the Dipper and the Thrush' opens the album with harmonium drones and picked acoustic guitar, Barrett hued slide pulling the song into focus as Brogan's unearthly but startlingly beautiful vocals emerge from the morning haze. Cynic's deep Aberdonian brogue recites a delicate spoken word piece as shimmering cascades of guitar and analogue synth gently hover behind. An incantation to the land and to the seasons that is reminiscent of the ethereal yet earthy Fovea Hex, this is material to truly raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Midway, a descending guitar run and flanged vocal takes us deeper down the rabbit hole into a more cosmiche universe, something more madcap and lysergic before the song ends in a symphony of backwards tapes and voices. Next, 'Forvie' enters on a foundation of pulsating organ drones and subtle fuzz guitar that combined proves quietly effective. Brogan's vocals are again utterly striking and the track seems to have its own internal pulse and breath, wraith-like synth bleeps and vintage keyboard sounds pick out an unearthly and eerie melody from the glistening haze. Cynic's guitar builds to come to the fore along with a steady, insistent harmonium note before Brogan's layered vocals create a ghost filled, echoing choral resonance that seems to linger long after the track has finished. The album's title track comes next, repeated keyboard spirals and a deep humming herald a breathtaking duet between Cynic's emotive and haunting voice and Brogan's treated backing vocals. Droning psych guitar notes pierce through the washes of sound, slide guitar and strings weep and wander towards the stars; the result is akin to ancient Scots lament by way of the UFO Club in London's swinging 60s. Genuinely affecting and quite unique, this really has to be heard. Finally, 'The Rain Has Come In Misty Showers' starts with a melancholy, resonating keyboard pulse and Brogan's pensive and reverberating vocals, a deep sense of stormclouds overhead and the weathered landscape never far from mind. Indeed, a piece by visionary poet John Clare is recited, further emboldening a mood that seems rich and filled with the environment and its effects upon both the psyche and human condition. At once filled with beauty and dread, this is a heartbreaking piece that begs to be played somewhere wild, barren and windswept, preferably at dusk.
This album comes very highly recommended; fans of Pefkin and The Kitchen Cynics will both want to seek this out and for newcomers this serves as a different but equally fine entry point to both artists, providing you also seek out their rewarding back catalogues along the way. 'Owls In Her Eyes' is a veritable nestful of riches, do not let this pass you by but also do not delay; this release is limited to 80 copies complete with download code.
11 Mar 2017
Reviewed by Nathan Ford
While they're relatively unknown internationally - even to psych collectors - the Avengers were genuine stars here in New Zealand during the latter part of the sixties. Their versions of the Episode Six's "Love Hate Revenge" and David McWilliams "The Days of Pearly Spencer" still crop up regularly on classic hits radio and are regarded by many (myself included) as definitive.
This collection from New Zealand sixties reissue specialists Frenzy & RPM gathers up the the majority of the band's two pricey studio albums along with a few single sides and curios for the band's first international CD release.
Impressively, the band's legacy was all put to tape between 1967 and 1969, with the band's two studio albums and sole live album all released in one calendar year (1968).
Assembled by manager Ken Cooper as houseband for his club, "The Plaice", the Avengers were essentially a manufactured pop group, initially costumed in John Steed style suits and bowlers, with their extremely successful first single ("Everyone's Gonna Wonder") coming from an outside writer - Chris Malcolm. Fear not though, New Zealand Idol this is not; the band gelled quickly and soon proved themselves to be gifted performers, writers, and interpreters.
Not unusually for the time, their first album, "Electric Recording" threw a little bit of everything into the pot mixing pop, mod, beat and psychedelia in fairly equal measure, along similar lines to the first Aphrodite's Child album or early UK Bee Gees albums. As debuts go it's a very strong effort, but the best was yet to come.
"Medallion" may well be the best album to come out of the local sixties psychedelic scene, and is every bit as colourful and lurid as it's sleeve. New Zealand's studios at the time were pretty primitive so local attempts at psychedelia often fell a bit flat. That's certainly not the case here though; while the Avengers were definitely more on the pop-psych end of the spectrum rather than psych-pop, tracks like creepy stand-out "Midnight Visitation" stand up remarkably well production-wise against similar material recorded in more affluent UK based studios. Compare "Midnight Visitation" to the Yardbirds' "Turn to Earth" for a prime example of this.
There's not much missing from the two albums here and the extensive liner notes and top mastering make this a very fine substitute for those who don't have the $300 you'd have to lay down for nice original copies. Now let's do something about reissuing the live album "Dial Triple A, Alive! Avengers in Action", by all accounts a very exciting affair which sounds like it'd provide an intriguing counterpoint to these well tailored studio excursions.
Available here (UK/EU) or here (US).
9 Mar 2017
Reviewed by Kent Whirlow
The long-awaited second Greek Theatre LP has arrived! Lightning has indeed struck twice (thrice, if we're keeping count, as 2016's excellent The Sunniest Day EP, reviewed here, is surely not to be overlooked).
I am always hesitant to throw around terms like "instant classic", but this certainly fits the bill. The album kicks off with the wonderfully titled "Fat Apple (at About Noon)", which also happens to be the longest track on the LP, clocking in at over seven minutes and it really sets the stage for this beautiful record. For the initiated fan, within the first 30 seconds you will recognize that you are in familiar territory and in for a real treat (those unfamiliar with this brilliant Swedish outfit would do well to acquaint one's self with their first masterpiece here). Indeed, this is unmistakably The Greek Theatre that we know and love, a duo who have somehow managed to create a stunningly unique sound that I've not heard any contemporary band match. The guitar work is even better than ever, and that is saying something. As with all of their songs, there is a tremendous amount of depth and texture to the music. There is quite a bit going on, which is evident when you carefully listen to and study each track and start to understand how it somehow all blends together so seamlessly. This is psychedelic music at its very finest. There are some wonderful Folk, Country, and even Progressive Rock ingredients as well. However, dear listener, you may do yourself a favour and dispense with genres, labels, and any preconceived notions, as there is really no way to pigeon-hole the sound of this band. Just close your eyes and allow the music to take you to that special place that only music can do. The pacing of this opening track is brilliant; the introduction lures you in and it gradually starts to build, incorporating all sorts of instruments and arrangements and just takes off in a truly majestic flight. The trademark Greek Theatre vocals are firmly in place, buoyed by some outstanding interwoven guitar work.
"Paper Moon" will be instantly recognizable to those who have already had their ticket punched by way of their aforementioned "The Sunniest Day" EP, though a different version is present here with some new arrangements, resulting in a fuller sound this time around. Lovely swirling sounds in the background, beautiful harmony vocals which ring through clear as a bell, powerful drums, and some pretty mean bass playing are all components here. Again, some searing psychedelic guitar work takes center stage, along with some gentler acoustic guitar blended into the mix. "Still Lost Out At Sea" is the not-so-missing link to the classic first LP, both in terms of sound and, obviously, the title. A gentle, pastoral piece that is filled with reflection has a bit of a country feel to it, particularly in its slow shuffling, though subtle backbeat. It is uniquely punctuated by some sublime woodwinds. There is a terrific calming, contemplative mood woven into this track. The rhetorical question, "So, why am I lost out at sea?" cleverly recalls the lyric "Another year. lost out at sea" from the first album. However, make no mistake, this record is not merely "Lost Out at Sea, Part Two". The wonderful psychedelic journey continues, though what we have here is a brand new endeavor; this record clearly has its very own identity. The repeated lyric, "Love you even more..." somehow serves to reinforce the feeling of the record.
"Stray Dog Blues" marks the second appearance of a track first heard on "The Sunniest Day" EP, and as with "Paper Moon", it fits in perfectly with the album. A delicate masterpiece, we are treated to new mix of this track which differs from the EP version. Still present are the lovely female backing vocals in what appears to be a melancholic, though ultimately optimistic song offering up hope. In what I believe is the first instrumental piece from our beloved Greek Theatre, "1920" arguably serves as a short interlude that ties together the first and second parts of the record. Here we have some exquisite classical guitar work, with both a Spanish and Blues flavour sprinkled in. There is a careful dialog taking place between the various guitar parts here, a sort of unspoken story. It is, to me, unlike anything else in the Greek Theatre canon and one of the countless reasons to love this band so much - they are filled with so many surprises and cannot be nailed down in any singular way. The album's title track, "Broken Circle" fires up the aural cauldron for a delectable ambrosial psychedelic stew. There's a terrific driving organ that reminds this active listener just how important Rick Wright really was to Pink Floyd. I, for one, am waiting for the hour long out-take of this truly spellbinding jam, though I fear that particular dream may go unfulfilled. Things start to wind down into a calming, plaintive bridge with a lovely flute passage and the journey continues with a chorus of the song's title. A timeless, epic track, this is surely one of The Greek Theatre's finest moments. This piece is a testament to the power of music; there's an embarrassment of sonic riches somehow crammed into less than six minutes. The musicianship is truly stellar here, every little nuance is expertly crafted and fits together perfectly.
"Ruby-Khon" features some graceful layers of intertwined acoustic guitars and gentle, ethereal voices. Imagine yourself floating on a cloud and this is the perfect soundtrack to accompany you. And that may serve to exemplify what The Greek Theatre does so eloquently. They effortlessly take you to places where time and space cease to exist, they unlock that secret combination to one's imagination and allow you to be transported to a magical world. "Kings Of Old" begins with an almost unassuming introduction, but soon launches into a full-throttle psychedelic adventure, anchored by the record's most intense drumming. The album closes with "Now is the Time", which slowly winds things down and offers the lyric, "I saw you smile", which is outlined with cautious optimism and endless possibility. Soaring harmony vocals are joined by a splendid brass arrangement culminating in a grandiose farewell to a truly special record. If this is not the finest release from 2017, I'll gladly eat my hat.
Lastly, it must be noted that the production of this record is truly excellent, so if you're Bandcamping, don't short-change yourself with an mp3. Buy and download a lossless version and you'll be treated to a glorious 24-bit recording.
Vinyl available direct from the label here, digital through the Bandcamp link below:
3 Mar 2017
Reviewed by Nathan Ford
The Mike Stuart Span may have a pretty formidable reputation in hindsight, but during their heyday they were somewhat down on their luck (as evidenced by the "A Year in The Life" documentary which is sporadically available on youtube). No surprise then that the boys leaped at the chance to record for the legendary Elektra label, something only one previous UK band (Eclection) had done at this point. Elektra head honcho Jac Holzman had a couple of conditions though; first and foremost a name change to a more monolithic moniker -Leviathan in this case - and while you're at it lads, how about a few heavy blues numbers ala Led Zeppelin?
With that in mind they set to work on a rather splendid album that was pulled at the last minute by Holzman and not released officially until 1990, and then only on vinyl. This release from Grapefruit Records represents its first release on CD and is very welcome indeed - particularly as it includes several previously unreleased recordings as extras.
Ironically the weakest cuts on offer here are the heavy blues numbers which come off as leaden and cumbersome, but they're a very small minority here with the bulk being made up of material from the Mike Stuart Span days, as well as newer material that aligns more closely to the Span's more convincing psychedelic tendencies.
The Span were unusual for the time in that they didn't have a psych-pop period in the wake of "Sgt Pepper's..." like the majority of their peers. Instead, there's was a gradual evolution from freakbeat to heavy psych, and as a result here, the guitars are pretty wild at times with barely restrained feedback and plenty of tasty tremolo bar abuse. The incendiary lead guitar riff that kickstarts Flames could even be mistaken for a vintage Iron Maiden song - perhaps a subliminal influence on "Aces High"?
Elsewhere, numbers like the moody epic "Time" show admirable restraint and depth that hints there could have been a lot more of interest in store had things panned out well for the band.
Holzman unceremoniously pulled the plug on the album at the last minute though and the rest, as they say, is history. History lessons are rarely this captivating though and Grapefruit Records are to be thanked for blowing the dust off of this tome. Recommended.
Available here (UK/EU), or here (US).
26 Feb 2017
Reviewed by Joseph Murphy.
Up next from the inimitable Guruguru Brain is Dhidalah’s NO WATER. At the head of the latest wave of heavy, experimental space rock is Japan’s Dhidalah, whose members masterfully balance the intense beauty of the genre with the free-form harshness. Guitarist Ikuma Nawabe – who did a stint with Church of Misery – takes lead against a tumultuous rhythm section (bassist Gotoh and drummer Konstantine) as they propel themselves through a dense, alien atmosphere.
Unlike many of their counterparts, Dhidalah – for this listener – focuses more on the sculpted atmospheres as a continuation of the funereal, pounding doom rather than a calm between heavy waves. As rewarding as each of the grinding passages can be, equally moving are the atmospheric repetitions that build organically toward heavy, sonic release. Even at their most atmospheric, with their lightest touch, the trio still manages to raze structures and wrinkle landmass, destroy and build at will.
Composed of two long tracks, NO WATER fits squarely in the established realm, yet something about its focus sounds different. Opener, “GRB” gives a soft start to a heady album, but it’s not long before it rips into a reverb-drenched heave, complete with a gritty pick slide and double bass kicks, which tirelessly presses onward until its close.
NO WATER’s eponymous track is where the band truly shows their diverse skills though. At its halfway mark, “NO WATER” percolates, wobbling around a resonating calm before returning in dense, pounding doom. The shift is natural and necessary – and when it all falls away again, that, too, is a needed reprieve before the next wave of noise. Dhidalah knows these boundaries and savors them throughout.
Despite having formed a decade ago, this is Dhidalah’s proper debut; you’ll find a demo out there and their significant contribution – a nearly 20-minute song – on Guruguru Brain’s 2014 compilation (a “Name Your Price” download).
NO WATER is available below; look for the limited edition 10” vinyl or digital formats.
22 Feb 2017
Reviewed by Timothy Ferguson
The first wave of psychedelia that came to flower back in 1967 – the Summer of Love – was amazing. An explosion of something hopeful, idealistic, experimental yet dangerous, and ultimately short lived. It came on like a hand grenade and like the politics of its time, collapsed under the weight of its own excesses. But like a flower, it was merely a beautiful device for its own replication and continuation. The seeds were cast to the winds of time.
Flash forward 50 years, and we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of the third generation of psychedelia. The seeds scattered by the wind those many years ago are still blooming, with new and unique flowers exploding in unexpected places. Picture yourself in a boat on a river, well maybe not a river, but instead the small Midwestern city of Ft. Wayne, Indiana. This is the hometown of the exceptional, sometimes sinister, but consistently entertaining Heaven’s Gateway Drugs.
On their third full length record, "Rubber Nun" (Dizzybird Records) Heaven's Gateway Drugs blend Syd Barrett’s dollhouse darkness with equal measures of clever lyricism, catchy melody and just enough weirdness to evoke that morning-after- a-trip feeling of ‘did that really just happen’?
"Thee Heathen Twist" kicks off this new collection, pulsing its eerie little heart out and setting the pace. "Copper Hill" follows with a nearly pinched Warlocks riff, but quickly establishes itself and what the Drugs do best – sing-song melodies swirling around a smoky room, drums bashing about and pulling you forward. “It’s all Fun & Games, until you get hurt”, indeed. And there’s always that thought in the back of your mind. You’re at a party where you don’t really know anyone, you’re not sure how long you’ve been here, or even how you arrived. It’s that exact mood that Heaven’s Gateway Drugs have an amazing knack for creating. It’s at once alienating and inviting, a series of doors, constantly opening themselves to the listener, but perhaps masking something secret. Is it sinister purpose or just a madcap lark – having a bit of fun with a stranger? There’s only one way to find out.
Title track "Rubber Nun" continues it’s double entendre game – "fake plastic gun/ melt in the sun/ I still got mine/ my Rubber Nun/ life on the run/ isn’t it fun?" These dudes are definitely fucking with me. "Dear Charolotte" feels like something Barrett might have written if he didn’t go quite so far off track. "The Horrible Tale of Edwin Crisp" and "Only Child" only solidify the lyricism. "Knowing" marches and stomps then dissolves into a dreamy coda, setting up the rocker "Utah Spirit Baby". By the time we reach the closer "War With June", the sky is starting to lighten and the shadows of the night before have transformed back into familiar figures. Dark figurines return to non-menacing shapes and the fun house doors open to bid you farewell.
Some drugs can cure, some can drive you mad. What you bring to the party is up to you. With "Rubber Nun", Heaven’s Gateway Drugs offer a darkly disorienting experience, but one I would definitely prescribe.
6 Feb 2017
Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)
Following the single ‘Fraction of a Wolf’ (reviewed here at The Active Listener alongside an interview with Driftwood main man Eddie Keenan) comes The Driftwood Manor’s fourth album proper ‘For The Moon’, an intense yet nuanced collection of dark folktales and eclectic and rich instrumentation that adds yet another solid jewel to the treasure vault that is this band’s (highly recommended) back catalogue. The Driftwood Manor have never been afraid of creating a coherent yet eclectic approach to their song craft and, pulling on various musical strands that include psychedelia, Americana as well as traditional folk, ‘For The Moon’ proves to be a layered and lasting piece of work with a wealth of jewels and diamonds to discovered therein.
The album opens with the beautiful, pensive ’Fraction of a Wolf', Keenan's voice heartfelt and soaring over the most melancholy of fiddles; this already feels like an old friend and a classic Manor song. 'Spring' follows, opening acapella style and reminiscent of the most heartrending and affecting of Bonnie Prince Billy songs, before banjo and bass pick out a creeping, processionary melody that raises the hairs on your arms as much it also aches the soul. This is The Driftwood Manor’s gift and subtle magic; they can create something that chills and affects in equal manner, something hugely melodic that still has an uncompromising edge and tension. The growing collection of chanted voices becomes almost hymnal or devotional as the track layers, ever ascending. Next 'When Wisdom Was Lowered from Heaven' finds a more reflective space to share its gentle sing-song melody and delicate fingerpicking, cello flanking Keenan as he recounts so intimately that it feels like he is in the room with you. It’s a heart stopping moment of sheer beauty, one of many on this album. 'Fire And Brimstone’ follows, a country tinged, widescreen treasure, violin weaving in and out of the backdrop of slide guitar and Keenan's plaintive voice. 'For The Moon' keeps hold of the hint of country music for a dark barn dance of a song with a black hearted refrain of 'time took away everything…'
'The Secret People' utilises what sounds not unlike throat singing and banjo to create something that feels both sacred and ancient, sounding as though it is coming out of the earth itself. It is testament to Keenan's mastery of his craft that he can sit such varied approaches together and yet they follow seamlessly, each unmistakingly a Driftwood Manor track. 'The Fox and the Bear' follows, a ghost story of a song, ably and hypnotically recounted by Keenan with a beautifully wrought violin and guitar backing that leaves the listener breathless. The album comes to a close with two of Keenan's finest ballads to date, the affecting, sepia tinted and timeless 'The River Changing' and the apocalyptic 'I Have Become The Waves' in which Keenan sounds truly wracked and weary, a genuinely spellbinding performance and fitting finale to this highly recommended album. A strong contender for one of the albums of the year and another gem in the embarrassment of riches that is the Driftwood Manor's back catalogue
Available now on CD and as a download at Folkwit Record’s Bandcamp and website. However, once you have investigated this release, do delve further into The Driftwood Manor’s other albums, you will not be disappointed.
12 Jan 2017
Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan
Wow! Someone finally remastered and reissued this monster on vinyl...
It was 30 years ago today…well it was about 30 years ago today that I first heard the then new debut full length LP by The Steppes, “Drop of the Creature” released on Greg Shaw's legendary Voxx Records. In 1986 this record stood pretty much alone as a perfect example of modern psych-rock-folk. Whilst many of the groups of the decade who had hinted at taking the magic swirling ship downed tools, signed to majors and retreated into distinctly un-psychedelic AOR rock land, The Steppes were heading outwards into the purple mist.
The band didn't so much buck the general trend as obliterate it, unleashing one of the great psychedelic rock records of all time (in my humble opinion) with the masterful ‘Drop of the Creature’. This is a record loaded with wonderfully constructed songs supplied by California residing, Irish-American brothers John and David Fallon. It is psychedelic for sure, it is also folky and prog and rock and beat and avant garde - all at once. This was musical. It displays myriad influences - from the 60's and 70's, from Europe, from America and time has shown it was clearly years ahead of its time. This was musical alchemy par excellence and nearly all selections contained therein are underpinned by a mysterious, almost religious, celtic flavour that often adds an epic drama and romance to their strangely strange but oddly accessible sound.
“A Play on Wordsworth” opens proceedings, appearing on the horizon with a slightly ominous and unsettling barrage of slashing power chords and impressionistic utterings counterpointed by several cluster bombs of wah-wah driven guitar breaks. It’s quiet-loud changing up through the (Disraeli) gears and use of light and shade immediately marking this out as a very different beast from their ‘Paisley Underground’ contemporaries. What we have here is no overly stylised slavish retro-trip; this is a musical tour de force, dripping and pulsing with invention and ambition - as an opening gambit you know you are in heavy territory.
‘Somebody Waits’ is a sublimely beautiful acid-folk ballad that could melt the hardest of hearts, a postcard from home to a distant and ancient traveller who is searching for something that is already there. Its plaintive closing advice of "don’t you dare drown in the spring", remains as profoundly affecting to me now as it did on first listen all that time ago. ‘Holding Up Well’ is muscular and driven by a powerful 70’s prog arrangement and wonderfully dramatic vocal performance. 'Make Us Bleed' is daringly deft - all scrolling guitar runs and alternately biting and lyrical vocals that seem to simultaneously invoke the spirit of Phil Lynott and John Lennon - go figure. ‘Cut in Two’ is detached with an almost diffident delivery, replete with slide guitar buried in the mix of a soft shoe shuffle. It’s jolting endgame is impressive and sounds nothing less than an asylum door being slammed firmly shut. 'The Sky is Falling’ manages to combine that celtic lilt with some truly heavy psych moves and appropriate use of slide as a way of knocking the listener off balance. “See You Around” is as close as The Steppes got to their immediate peers, a slab of straight ahead sunshine pop that seems to fluctuate between The Byrds of ‘I See You’ and The Beatles of ‘Drive My Car’. It’s a beauty and should have been the song that launched them out of the underground and into the daylight. 'Lazy Ol' Son' is a bar room argument between Syd Barrett and Rory Gallagher with no clear winner emerging from the ensuing spat. 'Bigger Than Life' is a total trip. All see-sawing echoed bass stabs, ultra-compressed "Lucy in the Sky..." vocalising, amazing squalling shards of backwards guitar and watery drums. Its a bit like "The Man Who Sold the World" era Bowie and its utterly magnificent.
'Black Forest Friday' is a short piece of sonic grand guignol, its queasy keys, snaking guitars, end of the hallway flutes and mechanical sounds making it one and a half minutes of totally spooked out baroque madness. ‘More Than This’ closes out the album proper with a lingering sigh and some suitably wise words that still resonate as one expects they will forever, “there is no chosen holy land...I wish today was like tomorrow, I’d pack up my bags and all my sorrow..” – all set inside some lovely guitar phrasing and a closing Page-esque guitar solo that arcs upwards towards the sun before fading in its golden light. Add in the beautifully kaleidoscopic 'History Hates No Man' as one of the bonus tracks with its fabulous melange of floating guitars, chimes and mantra-like voices singing hosannas from the highest hilltops and you really are being spoiled here. This is fabulous stuff.
Thirty years later, time remains hugely kind to the ambition, vision and uniqueness of this record. It's ability to startle, unsettle and beguile the active listener with its magick remains undiminished, its stock continues to appreciate. 'Drop of the Creature' is simply a fabulous achievement. Believe.
So, is this the reissue of the year? Yes. Should you buy it? Yes. Should you buy it for your friends? Yes. More than this I cannot say. Amen.
Available from limited stockists and the label direct below.
Also: The Checks "Green Velvet Electric" Review
3 Jan 2017
Reviews by Nathan Ford
I'm getting too old to keep up with all of Sugarbush Records' wonderful output, but here are a couple of highlights from their last few months of releases, lovingly pressed in small quantities on vinyl (350 and 200 copies respectively).
A new Green Pajamas album is always cause for celebration, and "To The End Of The Sea" may well be their best for a decade. CD and digital releases happened earlier on in the year, but Sugarbush have done us all a favour by putting it out on lovely blue vinyl (their third Green Pajamas vinyl release).
While recent albums have tried different things and had much to recommend them, "To The End Of The Sea" returns to the tried and true 'classic' Pajamas sound of the late nineties / early noughties with Jeff Kelly's best set of songs for a long time, albeit with a more knowingly psychedelic presentation, which is just fine with me.
"When Juliet Smiles" is another in a string of perfect, wistful psych-pop gems. This and "Ten Million Light Years Away" are the sorts of songs that have GP fans tearing out their hair and shaking their fists at the cruel hand of fate, and it's hard not to agree that this music should be heard by so many more than it is.
And while it's easy to cherrypick specific tracks for praise, for highlights are many, it's as a complete suite that this works best.
Get the vinyl here (digital and CD from the link below).
Also new, and fabulous, is "Gathering Leaves", a carefully curated compilation of material originally featured on Ptolemaic Terrascope's free CDs from the nineties and early noughties.
For those unfamiliar, Ptolemaic Terrascope was a long running psychedelic fanzine founded in the eighties by Phil McMullen and Bevis Frond's Nick Saloman, the approach of which was very similar to ours here at the Active Listener, but on a much more ambitious scale.
"Gathering Leaves" does a great job of illustrating just how diverse a genre psychedelia can be, embracing everything from folk (Sharron Kraus), psychedelic pop (The Dipsomaniacs & The Green Pajamas again), to more experimental fare like Saint Joan who's lengthy epic "December" is something of a highlight here - particularly as I'd never heard of her before.
And let's not forget that at the time, this was pure outsider music. Psychedelia was yet to be homogenised and reintroduced to the masses by the likes of Tame Impala. This acknowledgement that even in the (musically speaking) darkest times, adventurous and exciting music is being made, if you're willing to look hard enough for it, resonates deeply with me.
I'm amazed that there are copies of this left still - but apparently there are. You can get them here (all prices include international shipping). Get in quick!
2 Jan 2017
Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)
Two essential releases related to the beautiful and consistently impressive Wild Silence label, one from label owner Delphine Dora who offers an exquisite tableaux of dreamlike chamber folk (and which can be found on the similarily wonderful Bezirk label) and the other from Krotz Struder, the one man project of Julien Grandjean who musically interprets fifteen of the poet Emily Dickinson's works in a melancholic, understated and truly gorgeous manner.
Dora's 'Le Fruits De Mes Songes' begins with the delicate but intense piano of 'Dans La Brume Chuchotante', which is quickly enveloped by the buzz of collected and whispered voices to create a disorientated, dreamlike air. Indeed, some of the text used was taken from books in Dora's own library which she describes as like using'passages of prose used as samples...I like using different random sources in the same song, different fragments to have a disparate meaning, something that is mysterious to the consciousness, something that can question the listening experience. I tried to use my voice as a whisper, or many voices to induce a subliminal effect to the consciousness of the listener." This album certainly evokes just that; it is experiential in nature in that it demands our full attention and takes the listener to the dust filled and haunted corners of our thoughts and memories where the odd creatures of our past reside. 'Oraculum’ is one such piece, on a myriad of harp notes Dora's layered vocals take us to a world of wakened dreams and half remembered pasts. 'Harp-psi-chord' is a baroque, regency styled piece with Dora's vocals flowing and ebbing over the shimmering harpsichord notes whilst 'Alpha Centuri' is a chamber folk gem; gossamer cascades of piano, music box notes and icy slabs of organ come together to conjure a truly otherworldly experience and sound, a cobwebbed fairy tale of a song. This must be the sound that dreams make when they sing...'Hush Lullaby' is a more conventional but no less lovely piano piece that sounds both timeless and haunted, as if being heard through a crack in the present that has allowed the ghosts of sounds from the past to enter. At once both earthy and traditional as well as experimental and unique, Dora's music continually fascinates, evokes and resonates. This is a stunningly fine album, should you wish music to be challenging, beautiful and emotive then do not miss out on this singularly lovely recording.
Moving on to the second of the releases, Krotz Struder approaches Emily Dickinson's words by cloaking them in a shimmering and delicate web of finger picked and chiming guitar, skeletal piano and his own unique style of chanson. Having previously interpreted the works of Blake and Bernhard, Grandjean is clearly at home with such material and his versions are unspeakably lovely; 'The Foreigner' and 'The One, The Other' would not be out of place on This Mortal Coil's classic 'It'll End In Tears', such is the reverberated, sacred mood evoked here. This is not in any sense however a one note performance, indeed Grandjean adds interesting, curious and left field shadows and corners throughout with squalls of ebow sitting alongside icy shimmers of guitar and the songs themselves web and weave in some unforeseen directions, pleasingly quite unlike anything else you may have heard. Grandjean takes Dickinson's romantically morbid visions and creates something entirely new and bewitching with them, adding his own bohemian and poetic ingredients. This is an album of highlights however 'The Thought Before', a Leonard Cohen-esque treasure, and 'Cap Of Lead', in which Grandjean’s guitar sparkles like sequins on a sky of ink, are two noteworthy moments. Seek this album out, it would be a crime for something so accomplished and downright beautiful to not be heard.
Both albums are available on physical and download formats, Delphine's being available on cassette and Krotz Struder on CD. As always with the Wild Silence the packaging and sleeve design of '15 Dickinson Songs' is a work of art in itself.
1 Jan 2017
Reviewed by Timothy Ferguson
I’ve been a long time in putting this review together, as "The Acceleration of Time" was released by The Luck of Eden Hall way back in April. Perhaps it is apropos that a record so obsessed with time should be reviewed only after the reviewer has given this collection of songs the time it so richly deserves.
There should be no need to introduce you to The Luck of Eden Hall. After all, they’ve been around for a long, long time (time again), diligently producing album after album of premium grade psychedelic pop. Popping up again and again on those juicy Fruits de Mer compilations, now appearing on soundtracks and in Record Collector magazines. Always solid, always producing much more than mere perfect songs, but solid and well-crafted works of art. If there’s a dud in the cannon, this reviewer sure hasn’t heard it, and I’ve had my eye (and ear) on these cats since Pumpkins were mere sprouts and the Chicago scene was the last unspoiled hunting ground for a music industry that never had a clue.
However, if this IS your first foray into the work of The Luck of Eden Hall, you’ve certainly joined the party at a high point. On "The Acceleration of Time", the band goes from strength to strength, serving up their unique brand of psychedelia that features flashes of power pop adrenaline, prog virtuosity and plenty of :Lucy in the Sky..." flower power imagery. The instrumentation is confident and pristine, with not a note out of place. Best of all, LoEH write SONGS. This is no echo drone phoned-in formula psych. Instead you get verses, choruses, hooks, clever turns of phrase and actual sonic stories. This is purpose over Prozac; psychedelia for the thinking man.
"The Acceleration of Time" is an ambitious 15 song double album, and it may be the crown jewel in The Luck of Eden Hall's already accomplished recording career. Time is obviously a concern, and a growing one for The Luck of Eden Hall, as the songs on this impressive collection are haunted by the pursuit of the second hand. Throughout the work, clocks tick, bells chime, reminding us again and again that we are being pursued by our own mortality. How many songs do we have left in us? How much time is left on the scoreboard?
Kicking off with "Slow and Blown to Kingdom Come", fans will recognize the touchstone elements that make The Luck of Eden Hall sound so unique. Greg Curvey’s multi-headed hydra of guitars that crunch and bite or soar and attack like a psychedelic cobra, drumming by Carlos Mendoza that could hold it’s own against an artillery barrage, Mark Lofgren’s melodic yet precise bass guitar lines that add rhythmic sinew and bone and that amazing melotron washing color onto everything it touches, courtesy of Jim Licka.
"A Procession of Marshmallow Soldiers Across the Clockwork Pudding" has to win some sort of award for best song title of the year. This instrumental is the first of several, and serves as a beautiful counterpoint to the clockwork precision of the poppy openers. Although Curvey carries the lion’s share of songwriting credits on this release, Lofgren’s title track "The Acceleration of Time" is a gem, and could be a lost Eno track from "Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy". His other contributions to this masterwork are equally spectacular, my favorite probably being "Only Robots Can Search the Deep Ocean Floor".
One of the best things about this record is how well it works as a front to back concept record. It also works as a collection of greatest hits (if one can do that on a single collection of songs from the same record). Fans of the Shuffle feature will revel at "The Acceleration of Time", as there is no way to mix this up in a way that doesn’t work. Time may move in a linear direction, but the Luck of Eden Hall have fashioned a 77-minute wormhole of a record. Rockers are paced by haunting lullabies, pop gems give way to lush instrumentals and the whole thing is well paced, hypnotic and dreamlike.
Sometimes a reviewer gets a record that is love at first sight. And like love that is more passion-based, those glowing Spring feelings may wane with the passing of time. I’m glad that I gave this record such a long gestation period before penning this review. Time itself has served as a proving ground for the intelligence, wit and depth of this sterling effort. Some loves are meant to withstand the test of Time.
Best record of 2016.