28 Dec 2016

Magic Shoppe - Wonderland

Reviewed By Todd Leiter-Weintraub (Hop On Pop) and Joseph Murphy

After teasing us with a 4-track EP earlier this year, Boston’s Magic Shoppe has unleashed its newest full-length, and it’s a corker. Blending together the modern psych sounds of bands like The Brian Jonestown Massacre with the full-on sonic assault of The Warlocks, it’s one of those albums that reveals more and more of itself with each listen.

The album opens with the nasty fuzztone and wah-wah riffing of “Stars Explode”—pure heavy psych a la The Warlocks. But when the arrangement shifts just a little, all sorts of nifty harmonic constructions reveal themselves, reflecting the influence of nothing so much as "Daydream Nation"era Sonic Youth. “Head On the Floor” follows, with the same kind of SY riffing, but here it’s the bassline that drives the song forward. Yeah, the guitars are front-and- center, of course. But when I find myself bobbing my head, it’s to the rhythm of the bass guitar. “Kill” explodes out of the speakers next. It’s a 12-bar blues-based vamp with super-saturated reverb-heavy vocals over a tremolo guitar—Rock, with a capital “R.” The beautifully arranged guitars are stacked on top of one another like the layers of a delicious cake made of fuzztone and rhythm. It’s easy to get lost in this one.

It’s also easy to get lost in the vocal harmonies of “Hearing Voices.” Those vocals, while intriguing, are buried in the mix, so as to beckon the listener closer. As you do get closer, the song sucks you in to its sonic landscape and wraps you up in warm, fuzzy layers of guitars and reverb. Full immersion.

“Blowup” gives a bit of a respite from the fuzz. Some great staccato riffing, punctuated by tambourine reminds me a little but of what The Limiñanas have been doing on their recent albums. “Sister Burden” has some quieter moments, but those moments are more like floating in the sea of sound, before the song kicks back in and, again, you’re swirling in the whirlpool.

I’m supposing you get it, dear reader, that the operative words here are “fuzz”, “layers”, “guitars”, and “reverb.” Magic Shoppe has concocted a glorious wash of sound that envelops the listener; pulling you in, and bringing you into the band’s world. But then, less than 30 minutes later, when the album ends and you’re thrown back to reality, all you want to do is dive back in again. It’s a nifty trick, indeed. And it’s a really, really good record. (TL-W)

Boston’s Magic Shoppe has been around for a while. All that time, they have quietly released subtle, layered – and often noisy – rock albums. Yet this year’s releases – “Interstellar Car Crash EP” (reviewed here) and most recently “Wonderland” – feel like a breakthrough for the experienced group.

Since their first EP, “Reverb,” released way back in 2010, Magic Shoppe has made significant tailoring to their repertoire of sounds. While “Reverb” sampled their many branches of influences and possibilities, their most recent releases are a testament to their honing of their skillsets, which inevitably developed into what has become their singular trademark: tone-perfect rock. But, of course, some things remain the same, seeds of things apparent even on “Reverb”: on “Wonderland,” guitar still reigns, and all guitar sounds are put through a gauntlet of effects, amounting to a sprawling reverb that cavernously shimmers but grinds when necessary too.

Opener, “Stars Explode,” jumpstarts the record, pounding hypnotic rock grounded by tambourine and light-handed vocals. It paves the way for equally propulsive songs such as “Kill,” while still setting up for a few of swaying, spaced-out pop songs that really make the record great.

Standouts “Blow Up” and “Sister Burden” channel West Coast shoegazers such as Brian Jonestown Massacre or Medicine equally. Melodic, upbeat, “Blow Up” plays with standard structure – and our expectations – both in vocal delivery and a searing, dense passage of guitar between verses. While “Sister Burden” saunters across similar ground, it leans toward chilly washes of guitar sound over the warmth of its predecessor. It experiments further with structure and layered landscapes as a means of exploring mood and content; and it works quite well here.

All in all, “Wonderland” is a joy for close listeners, pitch-perfect and finely tuned. This one’s a necessity for those headphone clutchers.  (JM)

“Wonderland” is available digitally or on red vinyl.

23 Dec 2016

The Final Active Listener Sampler

As we limp towards our retirement here at the Active Listener we have one final sampler for you (for now - who knows what the future holds?) - this one has a $1 download charge (to try and cover our bandcamp costs), but as always you're very welcome to stream for free.

I've loved putting these together over the years, and it's gratifying to know that these are enjoyed by so many.

Time is pressing so I'll just say thanks to Paul Thomas for the splendid sleeve art and all of the featured artists (and all involved with previous samplers).

We've still got a few reviews up our sleeves but after that things will go quiet for a wee while.

In the meantime live well, be kind and curious, and have a fabulous Christmas and New Year from the Active Listener xx

21 Dec 2016

Gravy Train - Staircase to the Day / Quiet World - The Road / 9.30 Fly - S/T

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

These pages often feature reissues from Cherry Red Records' Esoteric Recordings imprint, but I don't think I've ever specifically given them a pat on the back. This simply will not do, as the label are providing an amazing service to collectors of lesser known progressive rock, and to the artists that created these albums originally.

They've been systematically rescuing gem after gem from shady quasi-bootleg reissue labels, remastering from the original master tapes whenever possible, and ensuring that the artists and copyright holders are paid royalties for their troubles - something that a lot of fairly well known genre reissue labels that you'd assume were legitimate have chosen not to do in the past.

Their latest batch of releases are a typically intriguing bunch:

First off the blocks (and following on from last month's "Second Birth") is Gravy Train's fourth and final LP, "Staircase to the Day". "Staircase" is probably the band's least progressive outting but in terms of songcraft it's still got some chops. "Starlight Starbright" is a big, bombastic opener, while the earnest "Bring My Life On Back To Me" sounds like it could have become an FM staple if it had been attached to a more widely recognised name (or a label with a greater promotional budget than Dawn Records could muster).

The female backing vocalists (including PP Arnold) give much of what's on offer here a proto glam twist which is very much of its time, something that they'd investigate at even greater length on their final single (appended here as a bonus track) which sounds a little like Cockney Rebel.

The flute and fuzz guitars are mostly toned back a little more than I'd like but there's no arguing that the title track is one of their best tunes - almost as if Metallica's "Call of Cthulhu" had been written by the Alan Parsons Project.

And that Roger Dean sleeve is exquisite.

Quiet World's debut "The Road" is one for all of the Genesis fans out there, featuring the guitar work of Steve Hackett although those expecting the complexities of his work with Genesis may be surprised by how direct he is here (his first time in a studio).

"The Road" is a heavily orchestrated proggy concept album spearheaded by brothers John, Lea and Neil Heather. The Moody Blues' "Days of Future Passed" seems to be a major influence, but this is much less gentile sounding.

The religious slant of the concept is likely to get on the tits of some, but there are some effective songs contained within this suite.

Last in this batch, and pick of the bunch in my humble opinion is the sole self-titled album from the puzzlingly monikered 9.30 Fly. Chiefly a vehicle for husband / wife duo Michael and Barbara Wainwright, this is usually referred to as a progressive folk album, but it's folky tendencies seem minimal to me, the only real qualifier being the extensive use of acoustic guitars and Barbara's vocal phrasing.

It's got that great UK early seventies vibe that makes me think of musty books and rain in a similar way to Ginhouse's excellent sole LP, and a surprisingly progressive vibe given its reputation. This isn't any of that busy Yes style prog though, think slow, majestic builds with effective instrumental passages that make the most of clever arrangements to cover up a minimal recording budget.

Both Wainwrights sing, with Barbara stealing the show more often than not. Her simplistic keys offer some effective shading here and there too, with extensive mellotron usage on "Brooklyn Thoughts".

Highlights though come in the shape of "Unhinged", a brooding menace with lovely lyrical guitar leads ala David Gilmour shrouded in Barbara's wraithlike harmony vocals. Very striking. And the much more upbeat "Summer Days" isn't too far off the pace, especially when it stretches out into its luxurious instrumental passages.

This one was a bit of a surprise and a real grower - I find myself subconsciously reaching for it which has to be a good sign.

What will Esoteric have in store for us next I wonder?

13 Dec 2016

The Seed Coat - Gentle Mindspeed

Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan

On their third full-length outing, The Seed Coat have come from the land of the longships and the rune stones to steal your mind and alter your consciousness. That isn't a threat, it's a promise as once again Swedish psych takes centre stage in Active Listener's London HQ.

'Read My Mind' kicks things off in a suitably promising fashion taking aim at rewriting 'Spirit in the Sky' from the perspective of someone trapped in a K-Hole after three or four days of solid chemical abuse with only a bottle of water and a Spacemen 3 record for company. Its stealthy and nauseatingly hypnotic to the point of being a hugely impressive sonic event. Things change up a gear with the second track, "Reflections of Your Mind" - its rippling paisley underground vibes wrapping up your frontal lobes in a beautiful haze of guitar, keyboard and breathy vocals. This is the sort of song that should be blaring from radios across the world and in every discotheque from Katrineholm to Kathmandu. Awesome!

The mysterious depths of 'The Ripples in the Kara Sea' submerges the listener into a watery submarine world of 80's indie-psych where sonar guitar lines probe your ears and cautionary verse keep you from venturing too close to the palace of Neptune. 'Wonderland' is all scratchy frequency searching diodes and slack-jawed spliffed-out-in-waltz-time wondering. Its a sky in search of a cloud. Sweet.

Things get really trippy when we dance around the 'Obstacle Tree' which has a distinct Broadcast feel to it (as does quite a bit of this record), with much fuzzy warbling, stun distort-guitar riffing and unexpected keyboard led breakdowns which are just drop dead gorgeous. I also get the feeling that the 'Obstacle Tree' concept has something to do with the front cover of this record which to my sonically battered and addled psyche is the product of a sick mind that wants to scare me and control my thoughts.

"Are You Dreaming Alone" jolts the active listener back into the flow of beatific almost devotional musing and Balearic beat which one could easily float away on into the blue. 'Travelling in a Capsule' starts off with some seriously synapse-rippling sound manipulation before settling into an almost menacing vibrato and keyboard wash twilight world of whispered vocals and time stretching snare beats with fabulous delayed recorder led (!) fade out - it's another real high(point). In fact at one stage during listening to this track I felt like I had begun to levitate whilst simultaneously my third eye opened and was astrally projecting me over the rolling forests of southern England. It was that kind of trip, frankly. And I didn't want to come down.

'How You've Been' fundamentally is all Bo Diddley on Valium and magic mushrooms as played by a bunch of recently released psychiatric hospital inmates (with some chops) and features an outrageously simple but stunningly effective guitar break, the likes of which I would like to be looped for about 5 hours and fed to me every night whilst I was asleep to keep my dreams sunny side up. It's so far out it's almost in.

Matters are brought to a suitably deranged and baffling end by the enigmatic 'Wonderland: Reprise' which exists in sound form just long enough to disturb your alpha rhythms before evaporating in front of your very scrambled senses.

So there you have it, not content in 2016 with already unleashing the startlingly excellent Lejonslaktet record (still available folks, track it down) Fonomonik Records now present the equally psychedelic sounds of The Seed Coat. Get down with the 'Gentle Mindspeed' on limited vinyl and other less beautiful but equally effective formats.

Full stream or download here:

7 Dec 2016

Look To The North - You're A Séance Old North

Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

Look To The North, a long distance collaboration between Ireland's David Colohan (United Bible Studies, Raising Holy Sparks and Agitated Radio Pilot) and America's Zachery Corsa (Lost Trail), have previously impressed with their debut '5000 Blackbirds Fall Out Of The Sky', a beautifully detailed slice of psych folk ambiance. It is a significant degree of expectation then that greets 'You're A Séance Old North', which is repaid handsomely and repeatedly throughout what is a unique and truly special recording. This is an album that lives in the hinterland, the twilit liminal space between seasons and seems purpose made for the chill autumn sunsets and approaching winter darkness.

Essentially an album of two instrumental extended pieces, albeit with many subtle changes and junctures ebbing and flowing throughout, this is a deeply immersive album in which the listener can crawl into and inhabit for the space of its duration. And you will want to do so time and again; the opening track, the excellently titled 'Where You Vanished Off The Edges Of A Cul-de-sac, Like Falling Off A Map' feels like entering a hazy, blurred and slightly off kilter dream or memory. Choral drones drift and retreat amongst bird and cricket song, but this is no gentle or new age ambience, instead there is a pleasingly unsettling ‘Twin Peaks’ air to this landscape. Colohan's autoharp picks out a fragile, ghostlike melody as the drones recede into the sound of radio static and muffled, long forgotten voices from the past. Corsa’s piano then haunts the emptiness that remains until an angelic mellotron choir descends; this is a haunted house of an album, a subconscious filled with the sounds, tears and hopes of yesteryear, both sepia tinted and dust covered. Electronic pulses conjure a solar, electric wind upon which a solitary harmonium wheezes and weeps, a chance meeting of several possible timelines at once. Washes of old radio chatter and utterly lovely chiming drones and peals roll in like waves, not unlike a heavily slowed down Cocteau Twins, the music's quiet power utterly beguiling and bewitching.

An elderly man's voice enters and reflects biblically on the fate of the world before the second piece 'Harriet Was Here, Less So Now' begins with a whirring, looping vocal sample to be joined by piano, guitar and a growing torrent of static and feedback. Where the opening track was spacious and sacred, its sister piece is disturbed and storm wracked. All storms must break however and this soon quietens into delicately picked autoharp and further sampled religious dialogue which adds an unnerving post apocalyptic tinge. Wind and rainfall rise to the foreground, the sound of the woods and the creatures within reverberating, merging with spectral conversations and melodies that seem plucked from beyond the veil, as if the curtain between the worlds is thinner here, where this album inhabits. Footsteps on leaves are closely followed by an unearthly breathing, of something not human until the welcome static returns and the autoharp notes cascade like tears over disembodied recollections from voices from the distant past. Again, eerie and unnerving sounds weave through the woodlands, a wraithlike choir not far behind as dark, impenetrable waves of guitar and echoed howls grow to obscure all else. A lone voice emerges through the shortwave crackle to exclaim 'It's still here' and the transmission suddenly ends. Both unnerving and curiously beautiful this is an album that is also an immersive experience; the silence after it has finished feels loud and tangible, as if emerging from a hypnogogic or a wakened dream.

Both Colohan and Corsa are experienced and renowned composers and this album is rich with nuance, detail and gentle, emotive resonance. For those who admire the work of Richard Skelton, Richard Moult and Michael Begg's Human Greed, this is an essential acquisition. Special mention must go the exquisite packaging from AOsmosis Records; a limited edition stitched 16 page booklet replete with transparent and paper prints along with the accompanying poetry of Zach Corsa. Handmade and a genuine thing of beauty, Aosmosis have done themselves proud and a serious enquiry into their other releases is recommended.

Available now as a download or limited CD.

29 Nov 2016

The Hardy Tree - Through Passages Of Time

Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan

Winter is drawing ever closer up here in the northern hemisphere and, as I take in the last of the late autumn light and stare blankly out of my north London window, I am being gently drawn into a brave old/new world by the never less than great Clay Pipe Records. This latest release is a singular piece of work, as the deeply beguiling music and accompanying striking art work is the creative outpouring of label supremo and polymath, Frances Castle, operating once more under the moniker of The Hardy Tree.

The beautiful floating soundscapes/sonic friezes found here are dreamily delivered in gently flickering, devotional vignettes that envelop and involve the listener with a warmth of spirit rarely found in such keenly conceptualised work. Every note is drawn out to maximise its lingering pictorial impact as time is stretched and manipulated with sound. As a whole work, "Through Passages Of Time" creates a blurring almost disorientating intimacy that is almost impossible to disengage from. Even if you wanted to.

The opening and instructively titled "Looking Down on London" sets the tone with its simple, almost musical box like structures, creating a lovely minor-key ballad with very effective use of vibes and mellotron. "The Peerless Pool" lopes ever so gently along with vintage synth washes and a mood that wouldn't be out of place on the best of the Ghost Box catalogue. "St John Horsleydown" and "Newport Market" echo with ghostly voices, underpinned once more by the most delicate of musical figures whilst "Baltic Wharf" groans with the sound of straining timbers in the tidal Thames before settling into the stateliest shanty I think I have ever heard. The latter benefits hugely from some lovely mournful viola playing by Left Outsides crew member and Plinth collaborator, Alison Cotton. 'Sluice House Tavern' is a lovely sonic tapestry; a beam of autumnal afternoon light through a lead-glass window, generating a hugely resplendent ambience for the listener. 'Near Windmill Bridge' is all analogue synth twists and gently soaring keys with a whispering drum machine in the background. "Cut Throat Lane" brings matters to a soul soothing end, a series of spirit voices ascending ever skyward on an endless journey back into the afterlife and on to who knows where.

On an instant level, "Through Passages Of Time" works as a highly accomplished musical travelogue, using a historical overview of a London lost to the diggers and the tower cranes as its guiding star and central concept. However, the longer you let these meditations seep into your being and colour your minds eye, the more you realise that what you are experiencing has far more depth and complexity. This record is more like a carefully constructed requiem for London featuring a series of spectral lullabies. The recurring musical devices and themes that link these pieces to create a whole environment for the listener to inhabit and explore draw strong comparison to those collected in any church hymn book. This is all no doubt deliberate as the real 'Hardy Tree', from which the project takes its name, has a strong ecclesiastical linkage that I will leave to those sufficiently intrigued to enlighten themselves with. The sense that every note on this record has weight and has been received from another dimension by its creator is all pervading. In these grooves The Hardy Tree, acting as curator or medium, is telling you something vital about your past lives in the hope that your present one will become enriched, kinder and more connected as a result. And if that sounds profound and heavy its because it is.

"Through Passages of Time" belongs to another (green) world and congratulations should go to Frances Castle for divining this wonderfully touching collection and successfully capturing it on tape. It's musical psycho-geography par excellence and probably the most human record you will hear all year. Get it while you can as, like much of the city it commemorates, I am sure it will be gone before you know it.

Available on limited vinyl from the label direct or a number of small but perfectly formed independent retailers.

21 Nov 2016

Hawkwind - The RCA Active Years 1981-1982

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

Atomhenge continue their vanilla issue Hawkwind box set campaign and while this latest edition doesn't quite meet the consistent highs of the previous "Charisma Years", it still contains more than its fair share of riches.

Bypassing the band's brief dalliance with Bronze Records (the excellent studio album"Levitation" and the middling "Live '79") the RCA Active years collects three studio albums released within a whirlwind twelve month period.

First up is "Sonic Attack" which sees the band embracing the popular NWOBHM sound of the time. Most commentators seem to focus solely on this, ignoring the emerging emphasis on synthesisers and sequencers which would have such an impact on the two albums which followed - a pity as this creates an impression of a much more one-dimensional album than this actually is. Huw Lloyd Langston's fiery guitar leads fit perfectly in this context and clunky drumming aside (Ginger Baker's shoes are pretty hard to fill) the NWOBHM tracks here are pretty good, if not particularly memorable (although "Angels of Death" became a live favourite). Much more interesting are the tracks where Dave Brock and Harvey Bainbridge's synth tendencies began to take hold, with "Virgin of the World" being particularly effective and evocative.

"Church of Hawkwind" followed in quick succession. Beginning life as a solo Dave Brock synth project, other Hawkwind members were eventually roped in to contribute on what has become one of the band's most misunderstood and underappreciated albums. The album's original release came as a shock to fans willing to embrace the heavier approach of "Sonic Attack", while subsequent CD issues have muddied the waters by messing with the track sequencing and peppering unrelated bonus tracks seemingly at random throughout the album's original sequence.

Restored to its original running order and freed of bonus tracks, it proves to be a singular pleasure, albeit one that will take a bit of adjusting to for some fans. It works particularly well as an uninterrupted suite and while it may be a little less immediate than most Hawkwind albums, I'd argue that it's one of the band's most cohesive - certainly during the eighties.

Synth driven soundscapes make up a lot of the album's running time, but repeated plays reveal these to be full of imaginative melodic and rhythmic twists. And as for 'real' songs, why "Nuclear Drive" isn't rated among the band's best is totally beyond me.

"Choose Your Masques" completes this triptych and it's easy to see why it's considered the best of the three. Retaining the heavy synth emphasis of "Church of Hawkwind", "Masques" is a more song orientated affair with more vocals and more guitars making it much more palatable to long term fans. An unnecessary reworking of "Silver Machine" suggests a lack of confidence from Brock and co. but they really needn't have worried, this is one of their most consistent sets. "Arrival in Utopia" should have been a single, while "Void City" is an endearingly quirky vocoder driven ditty that sounds improbably like Brock channelling "McCartney II".

The balance between driving space-rockers and airy synthscapes is perfect here, making this the best studio representation of the band during this era.

Lovely sounding masters here from Atomhenge in a lovely, simple clamshell box. And while you're at it, pick up "Coded Languages", recorded on the "Choose Your Masques" tour and featuring a returning Nik Turner, it's every bit the equal of what you'll find here and ably demonstrates just how quickly these songs evolved in a live context.

The RCA Active Years 1981-1982 is available here (UK/EU) or here (US).

11 Nov 2016

Wolf People - Ruins

Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the woods, Wolf People have returned from Valhalla having sailed across the Black Fjord aboard the Hesperus, to reclaim their crown as the UK's premier acid folk rock band with their third long player proper, 'Ruins'. Which more than justifies this massive reputation - this is a heavy record in all possible ways. They look the same on the surface but these are changed men. The Wolf People have the thousand yard stare and are seeing beyond. Three years they have been away, three long years...then play on.

Opener 'Ninth Night' appears in a blur of over-amped vocals, whistling theremin, relentless drumming tattoos and a general mood of dread mixed with a relish/mania that only comes with preparing for battle. "Rhine Sagas" has that 1969/1970 High Tide type vibe completely nailed. Imagine 'Elemental Child' by Marc Bolan doused in petrol and set ablaze at midnight to the cries of a million harpies - all powered by a bulldozing bass and drums assault topped by some feral, snarling guitars. Welcome back.

Then, unbelievably, the ante is upped further and things get truly fucking terrifying with 'Night Witch'. This reveals Wolf People's greensleeves to be caked in other's blood and bone, their hands dirty, their eyes ablaze, an apparition in sound with a rocketing guitar solo scooping you up high into the black clouds that stretch out forever - a firestorm of feedback, reverb and dissonance. Take a bow Joe Hollick, you have just razed half of North London to the ground from my stereo.

"Kingfisher" provides a balm of sorts - its delicately twisting and recurring guitar tag-line and warm harmonised vocals replete with spectral flute (a la Mighty Baby) before breaking down and re-emerging on the wings of some hugely tasteful and beautifully chiming dual guitar riffage. It's magical motifs will reappear in brief intervals twice more during the record. It's a great idea and means that you are reminded of its insistence long after listening. Gorgeous.

But, as with everything on this record, you feel some kind of significant reckoning is never far away. The songs collected here feel like they have been wrenched from deep within their creators and are manifest almost against their will. The record's troubled birth documented by bad omens leads you to imagine that 'Ruins' has been some extreme form of therapy for those involved. It has a terrible beauty sitting within its heart of darkness and even at its lightest moments, Wolf People are the unhappiest men at the carnival. This of course, given their mastery of the art, makes for an absolutely riveting listening experience that draws you further in every time you listen. Onward.

"Thistles" is a personal favourite with a fuzzier than fuzzed guitar opening giving way to some beautifully weightless vocals that seem to float and flutter on the periphery of your vision whilst guitars once more swoop and dive counterpointed by a lovelier than lovely string driven figure before dissipating into clouds of feedback. God I love this tune. Pete Townshend would love this tune too. Can I play it again, right now?

"Crumbling Dais" attempts to catch you off balance by coming on like 'Graveyard' by early 1970s no hit folk wonders Forest before slipping the clutch and unfurling its standard in the breeze as a doomy rocker with all the right moves. Cool. A swift 'Jug of Love' type interpretation of the main 'Kingfisher' theme hoves into view momentarily before drifting back along the shore making way for the crunchy, funky rhythms of 'Not Me Sir'. Here again, the sense of shock and dread is prominent and a sense of urgency to get the message through at whatever cost from this field in England is strong as chambered guitar lines flicker like camp fires and Jack Sharps beautifully phrased vocals pull me, dazed and confused, towards the burning heat before the lights go out and I am pitched into blackness.

"Belong" smashes me awake again with its awesome take on the Pretty Things 'SF Sorrow' squeezed into 3 minutes and 49 seconds. To belong to something more indeed. What an abso-fucking-lutely bang on tune. And despite my references to the work of revered luminaries such as High Tide and the ever lurking Mighty Baby, perhaps the overall theme of "Ruins" - its dystopia, its dread, and its not too obscured references to war and its consequences line it up conceptually with the Pretties masterpiece in many ways. That's not to try and hang it from the pole with unreasonable expectation at all as 'Sorrow' is quite rightly considered a huge triumph of the first psychedelic age BUT this is a great record too. And I am going to say its probably the best record I have heard released by any British band this year. And frankly, I needed a new Wolf People record to come out, I needed the splendour of 'Salts Mill' with its beautifully woven tapestry of guitar and reeds to retain my faith in UK acid-rock-folk-prog's ability to make sounds like no other. Thank Christ (for the bomb) they turned up just in time to pull Excalibur from the rock and catch the lightning with it.

The parting 'Glass' is suitably cryptic and glowing, Wolf People take their leave before we have the chance to ask any further questions - leaving us to ponder these ruins we live amongst and decide how best to make a brave new world for now and forever.

So there you have it, the third full instalment of the Wolf People saga. They remain thirsty, they continue to see further than mere mortals and they arrive with the message just when you need them to. We salute them and wish them Godspeed for without their visitations this sceptre isle would be a more barren and unforgiving place. An essential release and a must for the 2016 'best of' shortlist.

Post script: As I complete this review (9th November 2016), I get word that Martin Stone, the immensely talented guitar player from amongst others The Action and Mighty Baby has passed on aged just 69. This gives 'Ruins' a further added poignancy to me as Martin's work has clearly helped scope out some of the vision of Wolf People. This review is very humbly dedicated to his memory.

Ruins is available on CD, Vinyl and digital formats here (UK/EU) or here (US).

10 Nov 2016

Stone Breath - Cryptids

Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

Timothy Renner’s legendary forest dwellers Stone Breath return equipped with both finesse and quiet power for ‘Cryptids’, an album which features a dozen songs concerning the band’s local Pennsylvanian folklore, cryptid creatures, ghosts and legends. This subject matter reveals itself to be ideal for a band that was one of the earliest instigators of what can now be described as the current ‘wyrd’ wave of psych folk, the glimpsed sasquatches, lycanthropes and mysterious bipeds from the woodland mythology find a suitable home amongst Renner’s spectral acoustic and banjo led laments. Aided by AE Hoskins on various instrumentation, Rod Goelz on bass and mandolin, Martyn Bates (of Eyeless In Gaza) on guest vocals and an appearance by long-time collaborator Prydwyn (of Green Crown), ‘Cryptids’ stands as both one of Stone Breath’s most accessible and most deeply chilling albums.

The album begins with the sound of footsteps crunching through piles of dead leaves before Renner’s familiar banjo enters for 'In the Red Witch House', a chilling tale of a lycanthropic child whose condition was said to have been caused by a coven of local witches. Indeed, the album pursues a musical telling of local tales and legends throughout, expertly put to song by Stone Breath's mossy and spectral, rural folk. This is followed by 'The Hidebehind' which adds recorder, xylophone and subtle percussion to a slow paced but stealthy sliver of acid folk. 'Trotterhead's descending mandolin melody and relentless, steady stalking pace generates an air of true menace and eeriness, conjuring a sense of being followed and discreetly watched by eyes that are not altogether human. Stone Breath are masters of their craft but here they seem even more focused and honed, there is an intensity in the brooding, malevolence that they bring to play in the telling of these folk beliefs. The English ballad 'Long Lankin' (previously and perhaps most famously heard interpreted by Steeleye Span) is given an unsettling undercurrent of droning organ as Renner's voice recounts one of the bloodiest and most supernatural of all the Child Ballads. These ballads travelled across the Atlantic as the Scots, Irish and English emigrated to the New World and many such songs and texts can be found as American variations of the originals, 'The Rolling Of The Stones' being a prime example. 'Long Lankin' fits perfectly in this collection of otherworldly, sad or predatory creatures and Stone Breath make this bogeyman tale their own.

'I Know His Name' is equally as disquieting, mandolin and drums calling time as a tale of an inhuman walker in the woods is recounted by Renner's deep baritone vocals, whilst 'The Singing Corpse' is a more reflective, melancholy piece which tells of a grave bound corpse which is said to be sighted singing hymns in an angelic, choral voice. Here the vocal duties are taken by Eyeless in Gaza's Martyn Bates who provides a heartfelt and genuinely beautiful coda to the song. 'Sticks' is classic Stone Breath, Renner's rhythmic banjo providing the structure for his intonations, as if uttering a chant to hell itself. Had The Incredible String Band been formed across the ocean in the dark, thick woods of New England rather than these shores this may well be what they would have sounded like. 'Far Away the Morning' is a mournful but gorgeous ballad whilst 'The Missing' is a skeletal folk ghost story that stays in the listener’s psyche long after the song has ended; it haunts you. The album closes musically with the majestic 'Apples for the Albawitch’, which tells of flute playing creatures who would lure unwary travellers away with their song, never to be seen again. One can imagine the hypnotic and bewitching appeal of Stone Breath doing exactly the same, taking spellbound listeners deep into the copse, never to return. There then follows several genuine recorded transmissions of locals recounting sightings in the woods of various terrifying and unexplained creatures, including police control room recordings. They are incredibly spine chilling and provide a hugely effective ending to what is surely a contender for the album of the year.

‘Cryptids’ is an album which stays with you long after the music has finished. Both the songs and the frightened voices from the vintage recordings haunt the hours that follow immersing yourself with this release and this is how it should be; this album is a forest filled with ghosts and creatures and is utterly entrancing. Leave the path, stray into the trees, feel the cold of the Stone Breath upon your neck.

Available now as a download and CD from the ever splendid Dark Holler Arts (Renner’s own label), the album comes replete with stunning artwork by Timothy. Do also check out the excellent accompanying book of Pennsylvanian folklore by the singer, ‘Beyond the Seventh Gate’ which can be found at the same sources.

6 Nov 2016

Tales of Justine - Petals From A Sunflower: Complete Recordings 1967-69

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

With a frontman distantly related to the Who's Roger Daltrey and management from future gazillionaires Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Tales of Justine is one of those bands that it's very easy to assume have a more interesting backstory than output.

Enter "Petals from a Sunflower", the first ever CD collection of their complete recorded works (an earlier vinyl-only collection on Tenth Planet included around two thirds of the content of this collection) which aims to dispel this illusion.

Signed by Rice (then an A&R man for EMI) and Lloyd-Webber in 1967 based primarily on the potential star quality of 15 year old singer / guitarist / songwriter David Daltrey, Tales of Justine's future looked bright. Rice's influence allowed access to the bright halls of Abbey Road studios, holy ground for a young singer enthralled by the sounds of the Syd Barrett led Pink Floyd.

An initial batch of politely freaky psych-pop demos recorded at Abbey Road (all included here) impressed the label big wigs enough to secure a single release, the Lloyd-Webber arranged "Albert" / "Monday Morning". Unfortunately the a-side was one of Daltrey's weaker numbers, and despite a number of favourable reviews, the single sank without a trace. Daltrey himself was reluctant to issue "Albert" as the a-side, and Rice is now of the opinion that had the single been flipped, things could have been very different for the band. "Monday Morning" certainly would have made a great single, with its anthemic chorus and psychedelic guitar / keyboard duel promising much. It's been widely comped since.

That wasn't the end for Tales of Justine (who had by now dropped the definitive article from their name) though. There was plenty more to come and their best work was still ahead of them. "Sitting on a Blunstone" is perhaps their masterwork, a mystical raga recorded on a two track in a tiny publishing studio as a publishing demo. The fact that Rice and Lloyd-Webber never saw fit to give it the proper Abbey Road treatment shows just how little they understood of Daltrey's vision, but their influence wasn't wholly negative.

Lloyd-Webber had spent some time observing the sessions for Mark Wirtz's "Teenage Opera" and when it came time again for Tales of Justine to enter Abbey Road, everything but the kitchen sink was utilised. The results were uniformly impressive, from the moody "Pathway" to the jaunty "Jupiter" to the absolutely glorious " Morpheus", which captures, and improves upon the orchestrated pop psych vibe of Aphrodite's Child's "Rain & Tears" absolutely perfectly.

EMI showed no interest in releasing it though, and Rice and Lloyd-Webber were more interested in their own "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat" (which Daltrey had a starring role in).

Several Daltrey solo sessions followed, the results of which are also here, but psychedelia was passing out of favour and management's attempts to reinvent Daltrey in a Scott Walker meets Lulu vein continued to leave the label unimpressed.

Aside from a few live dates, that spelled the end of Tales of Justine. Daltrey was eventually released from EMI's clutches, joining the band Carillion, who would eventually morph (without Daltrey) into the rather excellent wannabe Byrds band Starry Eyed and Laughing.

Everything that Tales of Justine recorded is here, and it sounds exactly like what it is:a promising young band being poked and prodded in directions that they're not necessarily comfortable with, but generally transcending the situation they found themselves in to deliver material that deserved more recognition. There are a handful of unknown classics here that are absolutely essential for UK psych aficionados, although the band's fluffier leanings make this more one for lovers of pop-psych than psych-pop.

Available here (UK/EU) or here (US).

1 Nov 2016

Ultimate Painting – Dusk

Reviewed By Todd Leiter-Weintraub (Hop On Pop)

When Ultimate Painting released last year’s "Green Lanes" it grabbed me on first listen. Their sunny pop, to me, felt like Chicago in the 1990s, the time and place where I came of age. So yeah, it evoked some nostalgia and that was certainly part of the appeal. But nostalgia only goes so far; ultimately, it's the songs that have to hold up. And they do.

Their follow-up, the appropriately titled "Dusk", is not nearly so sunshiny. If "Green Lanes" sounds like the summer days that I spent record shopping and eating at greasy spoon restaurants, "Dusk" is the nightime. It’s the hushed, peaceful drive home from the clubs, winding through urban neighborhoods. Listening to music with the windows rolled open on a crisp summer evening.

The album opens with the shimmering guitars and thin drum sound of “Bills” which sets the stage with its driving rhythm that is reminiscent of Stereolab. However, in lieu of chugging guitars, gentle guitar arpeggios skitter over the top of it all, with half-mumbled vocals on top of that. “Song For Brian Jones” follows with the same lazy, summertime cadence; but some additional percussion loosens up the groove just a little bit.

The album carries on with “Lead the Way.” It’s a somber march that pushes forward with the same sort of chiming guitars, and a single droning synth note that hovers in the background that both lulls and disquiets. “Monday Morning, Somewhere Central” uses little bits of electric piano to add some interesting, subtle counterpoint to the electric guitar. Some nice vocal harmonies strengthen the song’s hook to make this a song that could have been a college radio staple around 1996 or so.

On "Dusk", Ultimate Painting sets a mood and maintains it; it’s evocative as hell. The album casts a spell starting with the very first note, and simply won’t let you go until it’s run its course. It’s one of those records where, each time I drop the needle, I don’t want to pick it up, or even get up out of my chair until the whole thing has faded into the darkness, leaving only its beautiful ghost behind.

It’s another very highly recommended release from the Trouble In Mind label.

Available on CD and vinyl here (UK/EU) and here (US).

Streaming and downloads here:

28 Oct 2016

Lake Ruth premiere their epic space-folk version of "Tam Lin"

Artwork: Stephen Grasso

It's not every day that I get contacted by a favourite new band to tell them me they've just covered one of my favourite songs and that they'd like us to premiere it here.

Fortunately today is not just any day, so we're thrilled to bring you the premiere of Lake Ruth's version of the immortal "Tam Lin" (which you can stream below). Lake Ruth, you'll remember, blew me away with this - their debut album, baroque space-pop of the highest order.

Lake Ruth's Allison and Hewson pick up the story for us:

"But tonight is Halloween, and the Faerie Folk ride, Those that would their true love win, at Mile's Cross they must hide".

For a song that dates back to 1549, or even earlier, Tam Lin is a surprisingly modern fairytale which subverts the traditional 'damsel in distress' narrative in favor of a formidable heroine, who by innate strength, witchcraft, or both, defeats an equally powerful female rival: The Faerie Queen.

The story is set in the forest of Carterhaugh, near Selkirk in the Scottish Borders. Walking through the woods, young Janet, wearing her magical green garter, encounters the knight Tam Lin, who forbids her to pass through his territory. Janet picks a rare double-headed rose, and replies that she will go where she pleases. Her courage seems to make a good impression on Tam Lin, and they become lovers.

When Janet returns home some time later, her father notices that she is showing the signs of pregnancy, gently suggesting in a 'meek and mild' tone that they marry her off before things become too obvious. Yet Janet refuses to forsake Tam Lin. When she returns to Carterhaugh, he informs her that he is a prisoner of The Faerie Queen. He fears that the Queen plans to hand him over to the Devil on Halloween night as her 'tithe to hell', which she must pay every seven years.

To free Tam Lin, Janet has to conceal herself at the crossroads at midnight, pull him down from his horse as the Faerie Court rides by, then hold and hide him from sight as he is transformed from a series of fearsome animals back into a human. This she successfully does, much to the anger of The Faerie Queen, who accepts defeat but muses that she would have turned Tam Lin into a tree, had she known what he was up to.

Our rendition of Tam Lin is an homage to Fairport Convention's excellent version on the 'Liege and Lief' album. In the course of acquiring the streaming license, we learned that their adaptation was arranged by the late, virtuoso fiddle player Dave Swarbrick, who sadly passed away back in June of this year. We decided, in the spirit of the song's heroine, to throw caution to the wind, and put out a song with umpteen verses, abundant guitar solos, and occasional mixed time signatures. This Halloween, we invite you to listen to the fruits of this perilous endeavor!

The Tyde - Darren 4

Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan

The Tyde returns after a ten year hiatus!

Ahhhh, that cool Sierra Nevada breeze at dusk after a long day baking in the sun is exactly where I am presently residing psychically thanks to this splendid reminder of the song writing chops of Darren Rademaker (also of Beachwood Sparks). I got my bottle of Anchor Steam, a Marlboro Light in my hand and Zuma Beach is just on the horizon, waves gently shimmering in the early evening surf. I am in a reverie created by a songsmith at the top of his game.

Opener "Nice To Know You" kicks things off in splendour. Its a bright, driving opener with Rademakers vocals reminding me of a countrified less uptight Tom Verlaine (not a bad thing at all in this persons view) motoring on a sweet riff that breaks down half way through into a nice half speed outro that just satisfies real well. "Ode To Islands" ups the ante considerably with a sweeter than sweet chiming guitar that shimmers and modulates all over the 'so in love' celebratory refrains from our main man, though you can't be sure if the celebration is of what is or what should never be. You cannot fail but to love this kind of approach to song writing, its impossible cos it rules. "The Rights" is a beautiful trawl up Highway 5 with a few roadhouse pit stops, its sophisticated and gently circular riffing and rhinestoned guitar stabs taking the listener off into the blue on its extended coda. It features the best guitar solo on the record (of which there are quite a few). Can someone get me a Marguerita now and give me a quarter for the phone?

"The Curse in Reverse" features some very tasteful guitar work (and vocals) from limey guitar slinger par excellence Bernard Butler - his distinct, Neil Young flavoured modulated and wailing runs adding a further dash of colour and verve to what is a regretful and cautionary tale of miscommunication and dysfunction. It's probably the darkest point on a record where melancholy is never far from home but generally is worn with a measure of understanding and good humour that comes with the realisation that we are all only here a short while so its probably best to enjoy the experience even when the cards don't fall your way.

"Rainbow Boogie" is a bittersweet romp through open fields of country fried riffage underpinned by suitably galloping and teetering drums propelling matters along very nicely indeed. This is thinking drinking music and provides a great fun-filled taxi ride to our next reflective moment provided by the truly gorgeous "Situations", which I think is the most confessional moment on the record. It's one of those great songs that manages to be both torch song and valedictory farewell to a special someone. It is also possibly the sweetest song to ever repeatedly feature the word 'motherfucker' in the history of recorded music. Believe. It shimmers and shines in a reflective pool of melancholy that is just irresistable. If 'Darren 4' reaches its, surely intended, perfect state of grace it is during this wonderful song. You involuntarily exhale deeply at its conclusion even after listening to it a dozen times or more (I lost count).

Matters are brought to suitably longing and only partially resolved close by the "It's Not Gossip If Its True". We are truly in cosmic country territory at this point, all swooping pedal steel replete with sumptuously spectral backing vocals and I am left desperately looking for a scotch and soda to accompany me on a return trip as I immediately want to play this record again and luxuriate in its beautifully executed and deeply soulful cosmic Americana.

So there you have it, The Tyde made you wait a decade but it was worth it. Get high with them and remember that in their company, even if you cant always get what you want, your glass is always half full not half empty....

Available here (UK/EU) or here (US).

23 Oct 2016

Rusalnaia - Time Takes Away

Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

Rusalnaia combines the significant talents of both Sharron Kraus (who has already had a prolific run of essential albums in the last year with the gorgeous 'Friends And Enemies; Lovers And Strangers', its sister album 'Hen Llan Recordings’ and most recently the poetry/music of 'If You Put Out Your Hand') and Ex Reverie's Gillian Chadwick (if you haven't encountered 2008's 'The Door Into Summer' then I recommend you do so immediately). The previous Rusalnaia outing, their self-titled début, was a psych folk gem recorded with various members of Espers that left the listener spellbound, eagerly awaiting its follow up. 'Time Takes Away' may be eight years in the making but it is well worth any wait, indeed it surpasses the already high expectations held by those who follow the music of both Kraus, Chadwick and their work together.

The album begins with the creeping dread of 'Cast A Spell', a looping acoustic motif merging with hand drums and ever increasing chants to conjure a truly sacrificial Summerisle mood before scattering into a full blown psych guitar and violin dervish. At once both hugely powerful and hypnotic it is a shiver inducing opening to an album that then maintains its spellbinding hold upon the listener until the final fade out. 'Take Me Back' follows, Chadwick and Kraus's vocals mingling and weaving in and out of the others amidst the most unsettling array of analogue synths and pounding, ritualistic drums. Equal parts acid folk and full blown gothic psych (in the sense of such forerunners as Mellow Candle and Stone Angel) Rusalnaia display an (un)easy mastery of the wyrder angles and corners of folk; this music is in their blood, these incantations come from their very beings and are all the more affecting and alluring for this. 'Driving' is a case in point, its deceptively simple rhythmic pace is both beautiful and unsettling, a minor key entering and tilting the song into the darker shadows and more hidden, unusual places. Aficionados of Faun Fables, Espers and UK psych folkers Sproatly Smith and The Rowan Amber Mill will find much to love here.

The Pentangle-esque 'The Love I Want' introduces woodwind to its call and response folk majesty and is breathtaking in its steady but dramatic building and layering towards a bucolic and Bacchanalian finale. Next, 'The Beast' is transported on an intense and fiery flow of fuzz guitar and organ, both vocalist's lines intertwining as if recounting some twisted, unearthly nursery rhyme. Rusalnaia are no fey, rustic folk act, these songs scream, howl and haunt with intent; think early PJ Harvey meets the black hearted acid folk stylings of Comus. And when they quieten, they do so in a manner that gets under your skin to just the same extent, if not more so. 'The Honeymoon Is Over' is by turn a spectral and ghostly lament, solitary drumbeats punctuating a delicate but driven slice of melancholy perfection. 'Bright Things' casts its (book of) shadows gently but with a circling and cackling sense of expertly pitched melodrama. 'Lullaby (For A Future Generation)' meanwhile allows some sunlight in, organ and vocal harmonies combining to create a work of genuine emotive impact and beauty. All too soon the album reaches its finale with the title track, a recorder and organ filled wonder that stays with the listener long after the song has finished.

In short, 'Time Takes Away' is a triumph. It is no leap of the imagination to picture this album being played and revered in twenty year’s time in the same manner that we do with our copies of 'Basket Of Light', 'Swaddling Songs' or 'Commoners Crown'. This is a hugely accomplished and truly special recording; trust me, you need this album.

Available now on download from the band's Bandcamp page and as digipack CD from Cambrian Records.

20 Oct 2016

Gravy Train - Second Birth

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

Sandwiched between their two most acclaimed albums, 1971's "(A Ballad of) A Peaceful Man" and 1974's Staircase to the Day", Gravy Train's third album "Second Birth" seems to have acquired a reputation as the band's low water mark. Roger Dean's attypically uninspired sleeve art certainly can't have helped (he'd redeem himself on the followup though), and a cursory listen to the contents within may have suggested that the bland cover art was some sort of statement on the music itself. After spending a number of years with each of the band's albums though, I'd like to initiate a critical reappraisal of "Second Birth".

It's by no means an immediate album. Nor does it possess the collector's appeal of its two Vertigo swirl predecessors, or the spacey prog charm of the following year's "Staircase to the Day". Instead it's an album that quietly worms it's way into the listeners consciousness, without relying on flashy sleeves, collectibility or gimmicks in any way.

I'd suggest that the album's lowly reputation lies largely upon the fact that it's generally a shade less progressive than the band's other releases. Fans of the band's heavier rock tendencies and of J.D Hughes' flutework (which often saw the band lazily compared to Jethro Tull) will however find plenty to wet their whistle here.

In "Morning Coming" it has quite possibly the band's best opening statement, a hooky hard rock epic with stinging guitar work and a great proggy mid section that has that peculiarly English prog vibe circa 1970 that bands like Tonton Macoute, Ginhouse, Spring and Titus Groan captured so well.

"September Morning News" and "Tolpuddle Episode" stray into folkier territory where the band distinguish themselves a little less freely, but for every acoustic gaffe there are at least two storming hard rockers.

The title track and "Fields and Factories" extend their playing time with simplistic but effective prog sections, while "Motorway", does make me reluctantly admit that there's more than a touch of "Aqualung" and "Benefit" to be found here - though the band's constant Tull comparisons do them a disservice as there is much more to their sound than this one facet.

And then there's "Peter", which has an almost glam-rock chorus that sounds like a lost hit. Why wasn't this on the radio?

Certainly not the lame duck it's made out to be, I'd argue that "Second Birth" is, if not an entirely great album, a very good one, in possession of at least four stellar tracks, and Esoteric's new reissue has it sounding better than ever.

Available here.

17 Oct 2016

E Gone - Advice to Hill Walkers

Reviewed by Joseph Murphy

E Gone (Daniel Westerlund of Swedish band, The Goner) released "Advice to Hill Walkers" on cassette in 2015 via Zeon Lights. Mixing electronic and traditional instrumentation, E Gone proved on this sophomore release that he well deserved a wider audience. So now, Sunrise Ocean Bender and Deep Water Acres have teamed up to make that happen; "Advice to Hill Walkers" was remixed, remastered, repackaged and expanded – and beautifully so in every way.

"Advice to Hill Walkers" sounds like an artifact, uncovered in some far-off and forgotten land, like a nomadic people lost in the skies. Instrumental, eclectic, and lush, E Gone’s music nods Eastward, upward, inward and just beyond the canny. Opening tracks find inspiration in Eastern musicians – and at least to my ear, Tuareg guitars – particularly in the wonderful “Follow Moonmilk Rivers.” Westerlund even adapts a Syrian traditional song, “Ya Bent Ehkimini,” in “You Don’t Know It yet but We are Losing You.” But “Build Your Camp Out of Alpine Moss” twists that same approach until its wrung to a few sci-fi whirs that give way to a brooding, horror film’s synth lead.

Closing tracks, “Continue Ascent while Blindfolded” and “Reach the Summit, Egg,” serve as final posts in the journey and recall the many paths to reach the pass. “Continue the Ascent while Blindfolded” blends glitchy electronics with a woozy, reverb-heavy progression, while “Reach the Summit, Egg” revisits drones, deep hand-percussion, and mesmerizing, looping string themes. At just under ten minutes, the song ends in a current of sounds that becomes a trickle, then finally silence. One can’t help feeling relief, in a way, the same relief one feels at the end of a long hike upward, where one hears the same wash of sound – and then silence. It’s a reward, and though recognizably difficult, you’ll do it again and again.

"Advice to Hill Walkers" is available on CD from Sunrise Ocean Bender’s website and Bandcamp.

If you’re not convinced, check out the video for “Record the Humming of Melodious Caves” linked below.

Highly recommended.

16 Oct 2016

幾何学模様/Kikagaku Moyo - House in the Tall Grass / 落差草原 WWWW / Prairie WWWW - 霧海 Wu​-​Hai"

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

I enjoyed the last batch of GuruGuru Brain releases that I reviewed so much that I thought I'd take a crack at some of the surrounding releases too.

I'd initially decided not to cover Kikagaku Moyo's latest on the Active Listener. You've read about their previous releases here already and they're getting major coverage in places with a much higher profile so it seemed a little unnecessary. "House in the Tall Grass" has really gotten under my skin though and I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it's the best psychedelic release of the year, so it really wouldn't do for it to be ignored in these pages.

So, those of you already on board this ride can nod in agreement and move forward a few paragraphs, but for those yet to be exposed to this wonderful Japanese band, hold onto your hats because "House in the Tall Grass" is quite a special album. Previous Kikagaku Moyo releases have been thrilling,  adventurous things too, but none have taken on a life of their own quite like "House in the Tall Grass".

It's a hugely varied album which operates at a much less hectic pace than their previous releases. Opener "Green Sugar" wrong foots the listener with a cacophonous intro, before the curtains part to reveal a lovely, dreamy piece of Krautrock with shimmering guitars gently undulating over a fab Neu! rhythm section. And when the sitar comes in, it all seems so right that it feels like a piece of music that has always been. They could have simply peddled this vibe for the rest of the album and come up with a pretty enjoyable record, but full credit to them - they had other ideas. And lots of them. There's a pastoral vibe that hangs over the whole record, but within that setting they manage to cover an awful lot of ground. "Trad" bridges the gap between "Liege and Lief" and "Careful With That Axe Eugene" perfectly. "Dune" would have been sampled by every DJ on the planet by now if it had been recorded forty years ago. "Silver Owl" manages to evoke both early spacey Verve and Black Sabbath within its not-long-enough ten minutes. And "Kogarashi" may just be the most lovely, magical thing that I've ever heard.

What an indescribably lovely album. I haven't done it justice by a long shot, but hopefully you get the picture.

Also new from GuruGuru Brain is   "霧海 Wu​-​Hai" by Taiwanese experimental folk band 落差草原 WWWW / Prairie WWWW. If the phrase experimental folk makes you think of the Incredible String Band (as it does with me), it might be wise to recalibrate before tackling "霧海 Wu​-​Hai". Chances are, this is unlike anything you've heard before.

The title of opening track "Shapeless Beast" stuck with me while listening and seems to be a pretty concise phrase to describe the sound that the band create, combining poetry, ambient electronics, Taiwanese folk forms, and some absolutely transcendent tribal drumming.

"Moon" on side one gives a good indication of the promising nature of this combination, but it's the two track suite that makes up the second side of "霧海 Wu​-​Hai" where Prairie WWWW really fire. "Callous" writhes nebulously, building to an almost unbearable level of tension, before the charged atmosphere is breathlessly dispelled by the title track's percussion heavy brilliance.

Oh, and if you're wondering how to pronouce the band's name, the label press release clears that up:
"The four Ws in Prairie’s band name are not to be pronounced, serving as a pictogram for a waveform, as well as the imagery of the grass that blowing in the wind."

GuruGuru Brain are truly doing the lord's work. I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

You can stream and download both albums through the links below. The vinyl releases are beautiful artifacts, complete with OBI strips.

6 Oct 2016

Trappist Afterland - God's Good Earth

Reviewed by Shaun C Rogan

Trappist Afterland are a pagan folk ritual in sound and with their latest offering, "God's Good Earth" they once again plunge the active listener deep into the forest of past memories, generations of DNA passed through the foggy blanket of time to somehow resurface once more in 2016 in a series of beguiling, unsettling and sparse incantations.

The opening track, "God Botherings (parts 1 &2)" sets out the pathway for what follows with its gently rippling minor chord riffing and almost monastic vocals that barely raise above the acoustic guitar, cello and hand percussion that support them, endlessly asking "What good is God if you have questions that are never heard?" This dissipates into an unearthly howling of scratched strings and ghostly voices. This isn't easy listening, this is intense participatory bordering on hallucinatory songwriting, not a million miles from the seminal and highly stoned 'Moyshe McStiff' by COB, upon which much of the resurgent acid-folk scene would regard as a touchstone.

There is a restlessness and almost palpable fear and discomfort that permeates this whole record as the brief 'Sungirl' and the very psychedelic 'Parasites' would attest to. The latter in particular with its revolving searchlight of backwards-forwards hurdy gurdy and naggingly insistent rhythm opens a psychic door that leads to an exploration of uncomfortable mental spaces. What Jim Morrison memorably referred to as 'the feeling of not quite being at home'. Times several thousand. "No More Summer Caravans" is a paean to the past with a lovely drone driving the familial reminiscences (real or imagined) that provide another unsettling narrative.

"Chosen" is my personal highlight with its swirling undertow and palpable sense of foreboding attached to its tale of ritual awakening. Quite extraordinary. Some much needed sunlight is provided by the rather sweet lament of "Treehouse by the Shore" which shows a deftness and subtlety that allows us to draw a breath and contemplate what has gone before. This is followed by a similarly untethered "God Botherings part 3" which reprises the dilemma of the opening track but juxtaposes the lyrical musing in a major key, gently lilting in the breeze like a field of wild flowers. The title track brings matters to a suitable conclusion with its slow burn of child spoken poetry, cascading mellotron (I assume)and wordless tumbling harmonies. In the world of the Trappist Afterlander, if you are prepared to take their trip and examine your inner workings, you are ultimately cleansed and returned to your rightful place in the firmament. A better person for the experience of their unique sound and vision. Amen.

Digital and CD available below, LP sold out :-(

5 Oct 2016

Susan Matthews - From Veliko

Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

Welsh musician Susan Matthews has been recording and releasing essential and experimental works of wonder and dark beauty for over a decade now. Deeply atmospheric and evocative mood pieces, Matthews’ work is almost unclassifiable and often otherworldly yet equally seems to hinge on and tap into something deeply human, something familiar and recognisable. ‘Before I Was Invisible’, her recent collaboration with Rainier Lericolais on the Wild Silence label was a quiet gemstone of an album. 'From Veliko' is a similar subdued but powerful treasure, inspired by recent visit to Veliko Tarnovo (the medieval capital of Bulgaria); Matthews recounts “most days I wandered to The Monument Of The Assens. I sat and contemplated the old town across the Yantra river, where the ‘hanging houses’ cling precariously to the steep hillside, some are literally crumbling and sliding towards the river below. This seeming fragility is reflected in both the music & lyrics I composed for this project ‘The Road From Veliko’ is also a metaphor for a psychological journey - from the darkness of depression back towards the light.”

Beginning with the piano hymnal of 'The Road from Veliko (Part One)', we are immediately drawn into a world of shadows, of reverberated, descending notes and backwards voices and tapes. Both paradoxically calming and unsettling, the sheer impact of the piece is evidenced by the hold it has on the listener; the outside world ceases and the music becomes all there is. This is no ambient, background work; these tracks are entirely immersive and demand your full attention and involvement. Matthews' fragile voice recounts 'these things they are inside me, inside my dreams and in my mind…' as the piano gradually stops, leaving her alone observing 'the darkness descends...descends'. It is a heart stopping moment. 'A Room Of Lights' follows, a processional organ piece framing Matthews' text as she recounts her travels and the transformational effects that they have upon her. There is almost something sacred about this work, it feels like a surrender to something bigger, some supernatural experience that can only be conjured in hushed, solemn terms. The piece is also a work of great beauty and stillness, one can easily imagine that those who love the music of such contemporaries as Richard Skelton, Michael Begg and James Leyland Kirby will find much to admire here. The EP/mini album finishes with the vast, cavernous dronescape of ‘St Paul In The Yantra', an echoing chamber piece of spoken word vocals and wintry waves of strings, combining to hugely evocative and moving effect.

You almost have to draw breath after the album finished, this listener suddenly realised that he had been holding his, hanging on every note. There is genuine power held in these songs, quiet and drifting as they are; they have an intensity that is bewitching and all encompassing. This is music for the liminal hours, for dawn or dusk, for candlelight. Highly recommended, this album deserves your close attention.

Available below to download on a name your price basis or as a physical CD from Siren Wire.

2 Oct 2016

Hawkwind - The Charisma Years 1976-1979

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

This latest box set from Hawkwind specialists Atomhenge collects the four albums Hawkwind released for the famous Charisma label between 1976 and 1979.

Lemmy had just been ousted from the band and the emergent punk scene viewed Hawkwind with distaste, distrust and perhaps worst of all, disinterest. Prog was the enemy and Hawkwind was lumped in with the other dinosaurs, never mind the fact that Lemmy was busy reinventing heavy metal by imbuing it with the most punk of attitudes in his new band Motörhead.

Given this attitude and the fact that this era is regarded by some as the beginning of the band's decline, you'd be forgiven for not expecting much from these albums. Truth is though, it was a second golden period for a band that continued to innovate and shift with the times. "In Search of Space" this is not - but in its own way it's every bit as vital.

First up is "Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music", a transitional effort that sees the band beginning to venture beyond its space-rock roots with fascinating results. It's not always 100% successful but it is always interesting and there's a visceral thrill involved in hearing the band stepping out of their comfort zone. Robert Calvert returns, but is not yet the dominant force he would become on the following three albums, here sharing the limelight with Nik Turner and Dave Brock on roughly equal terms. There's even an attempt at a hit single on the David Gilmour produced "Kerb Crawler", which gives a hint of things to come.

"Quark, Strangeness and Charm" followed in 1977, and is rightfully regarded as one of the band's very best albums. It's certainly one of their most focused as well. Nik Turner had stepped aside by this point allowing phenomenal violinist Simon House a chance to shine. House's playing on atmospheric middle-eastern prog gem "Hassan I Sahba" may well be my favourite single Hawkwind studio moment. It's no wonder David Bowie stole him away in the night for his band. Elsewhere "Quark, Strangeness and Charm" continues the band's move towards more concise, tightly structured songs. The title track, "Spirit of the Age" and "Days of the Underground" are among the band's most memorable songs and in a slightly quirkier world could have been hits on the pop charts.

"25 Years On" and "PXR5" continue in this vein, embracing a surprisingly forward thinking proto-new wave sound, without ever allowing you to forget who you're actually listening to. The songs aren't quite up to the material on "Quark, Strangeness and Charm", but they're not too far off.

"25 Years On" is sure to appeal to those who enjoyed "Quark, Strangeness and Charm" and is one of the band's most varied and mellow releases. I hadn't heard this for many years, but it's aged marvelously and I was quite taken aback by just how good it now sounds - partially down to the excellent mastering job present on all of these discs, but also a testament to the quality of the material and the original production job. Opener "Psi Power" is the album's catchy single, but the album tracks following provide the album's real substance. "Free Fall" is a lovely, mellow number with burbling vintage synths with a definite BBC Radiophonic Orchestra vibe - quite an unexpected treat. "Flying Doctor" on the other hand is well established as a love it or loathe it piece for Hawkwind fans. It certainly pushes all of the right buttons for me, one of the catchiest tunes the band ever produced, in spite of / because of its repetitive nature. "(Only) The Dead Dreams of the Cold War Kid" is the other big highlight here, a great Calvert tune with some more excellent Harvey Bainbridge synthwork.

Lastly, "PXR5" was recorded prior to "25 Years On", but held up for over a year due to legal issues - issues that were serious enough to briefly necessitate a name change to the Hawklords for the release of "25 Years On". A seamless mix of studio and live recordings, "PXR5" is front loaded with two of the band's catchiest new wave pop songs with "Death Trap" and "Jack of Shadows", before plunging into deeper waters with fan favourite "Robot" and one of Calvert's finest moments, "Uncle Sam's on Mars".

If you want the bonus tracks from Atomhenge's deluxe reissues you'll need to buy these individually, but undiluted by add-ons, the 'vanilla' reissues containe within this box are, as far as I'm concerned, the definitive argument for this brief time period under Calvert's guidance being among the band's very best. And there's plenty more worth investigating just beyond the horizon, particularly 1980's excellent "Leviation" (a return to the band's earlier space-rock sound, featuring Ginger Baker on drums), as well as a pair of fascinating synth driven albums recorded for the RCA Active label which we'll hopefully have the opportunity to cover very shortly when this set is released. Stay tuned!

"The Charisma Years 1976-1979" is available here (UK/ EU) or here (US).