Album Review: Werkha – ‘Beacons EP’

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If you’re in the business of making eclectic, influence-crunching electronica that’s rooted in live instrumentation, being invited to tour with Bonobo is quite the seal of approval. It’s not hard to see how 22 year old Tom Leah caught the attention of his simian soundalike; there’s more than a passing resemblance in Werkha’s layered instrumentation and pattering beats, but like any decent opening act, Werkha packs more energy and dancefloor draw than the blissed out whirls of Black Sands or The Northern Borders. Elsewhere, another big name endorsement comes from Gilles Peterson, which is not overly surprising given Leah’s interests in jazz, Afrobeat and soul, amongst others.

Beacons kicks off with ‘Lapwing’, a jitter blend of jazz sax and soulful house that calls to mind the louche electro-swing of Parov Stelar’s work. If Jeeves & Wooster were on the dancefloor today, this would be entirely classy enough for their jazz-age cool.  Underpinning it all lurks a fuzzy, ambient bass, tying the track together with a delicate, crafted feel. (It also has an endearing video starring middle-aged yoga enthusiasts – bonus points).

 

‘Moving with the Nuisance’ is slightly less successful in its jazz reappropriation, as an electric guitar stirs over a dubby, distorted beat and T.E.E.D. style layers of micro percussion. The vocals are slightly too generic (“Put your hands up if you came to party”) and the jazz/house fusion a little too laboured.

The pace is soon ramped up again though, as the EP’s apex arrives with the excellent ‘Sidesteppin’’; a soulful house cut that is dominated by Bryony Jarman Pinto’s pure, unprocessed vocals. It’s a irresistibly crisp, silky track that builds into a solid groove, with a crunchy synth line and a beat that carries off the chorus’s claim – “I can feel my body rockin’ side to side!”.

From there, Beacons takes a slide down into the dark, with dubstep trumping jazz as the foremost influence on display. ‘Tempo Tempo’ brings a slinky, beat-driven open of clinking chimes and cymbals before succumbing to a dominant wonky synth pulse. Thankfully, this is on a different continent to aggressive brostep though; Leah commented recently, ““Since the bastardisation of the term dubstep, I have been keen to demonstrate that it doesn’t all have to sound like robots being sick” – mission accomplished. Smart, sexy and minimal, this is far more interesting than Skrilly and co.

One for those searching out unconventional grooves, Beacons is certainly an impressive calling card for Werkha. Skipping across genres carelessly, stitching his multiple interests, the EP heralds an undeniably original sound. There is a risk of lapsing into slightly bland, dinner party music – but if it’s good enough for Bonobo and Four Tet, that might no longer the criticism it once was. Next time around though, it would be nice to think you’d bother to interrupt someone mid-sentence to ask what was playing.

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Album Review: Bryce Hackford – ‘Fair’

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Twenty minute-long songs are principally associated with overblown, over-extended prog or with self-indulgent, solo-laden hair metal. Of course, it is also a format that is extremely well suited to the electronic genres’ repetitive beats. Without resorting to sprawling outros or overstretched bridges, Bryce Hackford’s debut album features two tracks that are longer than an episode of The Simpsons, using the extra time to sustain its looping grooves and carve out an immersive listening experience, as the tracks’ myriad layers slowly intensify and lull, complicate and simplify, often so subtly that you hardly notice until the change being wrought is complete.

Fair begins with ‘Another Fantasy’, a much-hyped blast of storming techno that builds to a slightly disorientating climax with an industrial jitter reminiscent of Mitstabishi’s ‘Printer Jam’. Thoroughly enjoyable and the perfect soundtrack to losing all your friends in darkened room full of strangers and lasers, it’s exactly what you would expect from a man who has spent recent years playing pounding Brooklyn warehouses. It is also, however, entirely incongruous alongside the rest of the record. Like an experimental jumping-off point, from here on in the tracks only get longer and increasingly ambient.

By second track ‘Heart To Beat’, the bpm has plummeted and the vocals are already dreamily slurred. An iambic pentameter as strong as Shakespeare’s forms the beat and everything else continues to stretch and compress – metallic claps, growling sub-bass and floating drones combine excellently. Here again, both the instrumental layers and the hazy vocals dip in and out allowing the song to range infinitesimally from the minimal to the complex. With ‘Slow Emotion’, things only become more horizontally chillaxed, as a gentle, slightly mystical intro twinkles over gorgeously warm bass and a slow 4/4 pulse; distinctively trippy.

Finally come the mammoth closers, with the last two tracks almost hitting 50 minutes runtime between them. At first listen, ‘Run On Cirrus’ sounds like the product of those apps that build pretty rippling jingles according to the pattern left by your fingertips on the screen. Soon, the lazy fuzz of a stationery lightsabre flickers in the background, then slashing and clashing – conjuring distracting mental images of sparring Jedis. ‘Modern Propeller Music’ builds looping electric guitar samples to create a warm, ponderous ambience, a meditative conclusion to a decidedly out-of-body album.

Ethereal and cosmic, Fair is perfect listening for lucid dreaming or dope-fuelled naps. Too inaccessible to win any ambient converts it may be, but certainly an unexpected pleasure for the initiated. And those brought here on the back of ‘Another Planet’, chasing more brain-wiping techno, will be thoroughly disappointed.

Album Review: Destroyer – ‘Five Spanish Songs EP’

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Dan Bejar has never been a predictable man. A serial genre-chameleon, under his Destroyer guise, he has churned out everything from acoustic indie to ambient and experimental electronica. If you were to pick an “indie” band to put out a Spanish-language covers EP, Destroyer would be second only to Damon Albarn.

 After the British accented, “Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker…” name-dropping of 80s soft rock Kaputt, it’s no surprise to see Bejar don another genre, persona, and even a new language. All of the tracks on Five Spanish Songs are Sr. Chinarro songs originally, but instantly everything from the production, sheer pop hooks, and tongue-in-cheek vocals shouts Destroyer. That’s not say the pose isn’t convincing – with such an authentic accent, this could easily be a Castilian imposing his lyrics into Destroyer compositions.

The laid-back, Californian lounge vibe that dominated <i>Kaputt</i> lingers, as electrics ripple over delicate acoustic strumming and Bejar continues with the morning-after-excess quality, although he’s swapped the playboy coke tales for mythical Spanish warriors and religious processions. Opener ‘Maria de las Nieves’ brings a glistening, lounge riff over gentle acoustics, as Bejar laments “Maria of the Snows”, his troublesome ice queen. A melancholy, fragile earworm, bringing early Elliott Smith to mind both sonically and lyrically – such praise is not lightly given. “Esterilizantes con alcohol, practicantes de una rara religion / Como una monja bella, a ver que dice ella” (Sterilized with alcohol, practitioners of a strange religion / A beautiful nun, let’s see what she says).

Elsewhere, ‘Babieca’ continues the lounge funk, bringing Chic guitar stabs and overwrought flourishes to pattering finger percussion. Over a silky smooth chorus, Bejar relates Chinarro’s story of El Cid, a medieval Spanish warrior, and much immortalised folkhero. It’s a gentle caress of a song, cleverly combining Destroyer’s trademarks with a traditional Spanish narrative. Those of you who don’t speak Spanish, be warned – bogus attempts at singing along are guaranteed. ‘El Rito’, a song about the San Juan Saint’s day, brings a bizarrely Britpop sound, with a riff straight of Different Class, held together by a folk-stomp backbone: whatever the language, this would catch your attention; as the chorus insists, “Bailarà! Saltarà!” (You will dance! You will jump!). Additionally, there’s evocative love song ‘Del Monton’ (“I looked at the castle and believed Franz Kafka, and I wrote a song that ended in a tavern…”) and ‘Bye Bye’, a Chinarro classic that comes to evoke Bright Eyes in Bejar’s hands.

By transplanting his work into another language, and into songs written by somebody else, Bejar takes the oblique lyrics and “I write poetry for myselfKaputt-approach even further, as many won’t understand a word. But it’s a good test, and one that highlights Destroyer’s sheer musicianship. Regardless of their supporting tropes, the songs prove themselves consistently memorable and enjoyable. It’s another home run for Bejar – a disappointingly short taster that will leave you dreaming of Spain’s mountains and deserts, and longing for more.

Album Review: La Femme – ‘Psycho Tropical Berlin’

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La Femme: a French band plying us with jangling West Coast surf-pop, undercut with doom-laden kraut-coldwave. It’s as unusual as it sounds – Google “surfpop coldwave” and they’re on their own. Add to that mix a serious dose of wackiness and a general Halloween vibe, and the whole thing should be a disaster. Their debut album Psycho Tropical Berlin sounds like the Beach Boys jamming with the Velvet Underground and Françoise Hardy, covering ‘Monster Mash’ – and though that sentence has to be up there with “Santa, the Armadillo and I” in terms of implausibility, it’s a style that is astonishingly catchy, natural, and flat-out fun. It’s time to surf the coldwave.

Throughout the album, most tracks have the same broad blueprint. A thudding, ominous intro laden with thwacking bass that blooms into sharp, punchy surf guitars. A spooky ambiance lent by droning organs or synths, and yéyé, aggressively rhymed vocals from one of the group’s many femmes. There’s a constant aura of kooky upbeatness – most of Psycho Tropical Berlin could be featured in a zany advert for French cars, wasted in that context but still prompting you to reach for Shazam. A standout is former single ‘Sur La Planche’, a pleasingly repetitive romp through the pleasures of surfing, updated here to be faster, tighter and more synth-dominated. Frantic, glorious and lighthearted, it’s all you can ask surf-pop to be.  Elsewhere, opener ‘Antitaxi’ pushes the 60s Californian influence further, flexing razorsharp guitars and a Theremin whilst slightly menacingly extoling the benefits of taking the bus (“Antitaxi! Prends le bus!”).

Good as these tracks are, sixteen of them would perhaps be too much. This is where La Femme’s odd genre combination comes into its own, as their surf side can be played down, and their other interests pushed to the fore. The excellent ‘Le Blues de Francoise’ is a case in point, demonstrating a more sombre style with not a jangle in sight. Over a haunting organ and subdued strums, a perfect monotone spoken delivery details Françoise’s blues as she sits alone with her tissues and cigarette ends, “pas un email, pas un coup de fil”. The chorus chimes in, and another Femme jollies things along, insisting “Tu n’es pas belle quand tu pleures” . Another gentle success comes in ‘It’s Time To Wake Up’, a slow ballad which captures wheezing synths and soothing organs, calling to mind their compatriots M83. Initially a simple lovesong, it quickly unravels into brilliant post-apocalyptica, as we learn they are together forever, the survivors – “Tout le monde se fait tuer / La silly cause / La guerre était finie – Mata Hari!”.

Though La Femme’s music is often irreverent and their female singers anonymously ever-changing, the women of Psycho Tropical Berlin are packing ideas behind their sultry vocals. Whether or not you can be bothered to translate the lyrics, their manic, rollercoaster pop and fierce hooks should be enough of a draw for the most Anglophone listener. 

Marshall Mathers and His Many Alter-Egos: ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2’ Album Review

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Content-wise, Eminem has always been problematic –the misogyny and homophobia that lurk throughout his lyrics are still there. But somehow, we collectively got over it. Funny and intelligent though he often is even at his most deplorable, his saving grace is Marshall Mathers’ infinitely fractured personality; is he genuinely advocating what he’s saying or is he in character?

It was a question that dominated The Marshall Mathers LP and one that he addressed perfectly in ‘Stan’, satirising the media frenzy about the violence his songs might inspire whilst counselling, “maybe you just need to treat her better”. He had just devoted a track to rapping about killing bitches, but the distinction was clear. What happens on record isn’t okay in real life (despite his own history). The point is that ever since he first got the outraged reaction he was looking for, Eminem has been mocking the humourless critics who take what he’s saying entirely seriously – the jokes and insults, like his true self and his alter-egos, have long been expertly blended.

Thirteen years later, and the master of self-referential mythologizing is back on top form. With The Marshall Mathers LP 2, the connection to its iconic prequel is explicit. As well as revisiting the sounds of his earlier album with rock-rap production and furiously fast flow, he further complicates and enriches his web of self-obsession by scattering call-backs throughout the album (the “Hi!” from ‘My Name Is’, a snippet of the hook from ‘The Real Slim Shady’ and more). Even better, many lines are careful echoes of the past, pseudo-homonyms that both subvert his old lyrics and beautifully mess with our expectations. On ‘Asshole’, it’s the altered line “Soul’s escaping through this asshole that is gaping, whilst ‘So Far’ has him again “spittin’ on your onion rings” and the ‘Rap God’s dizzying flow conceals references to ‘Kill You’ and ‘My Dad’s Gone Crazy’. When he raps “It’s just you and the music now, Slim, I hope you hear it; we’re in the car right now – wait, hear comes my favourite lyric!” during ‘Bad Guy’, he knows exactly what he’s doing – this is meticulous manipulation of the millions who have his words seared into their minds and it’s grin-enducingly glorious.

The Inceptionesque complexities of his inter-alter-ego references at the heart of MMLP2 are most overtly laid bare in its opening and closing tracks. ‘Bad Guy’ tackles Marshall Mathers’ biggest legacy head on, kicking things off with an astonishing, seven minute follow-up to ‘Stan’. Initially, with the simplistic flow, he takes the voice of Matthew (“that’s my little brother man, he’s only six years old”…), taking revenge for his long-dead older brother: this time around, it’s Eminem screaming in the trunk. It’s a chance, confusingly, for Eminem to take a shot at himself, as Matthew mimics him “I’m the bad guy who makes fun of people that die / And hey, here’s a sequel to my Mathers LP just to try and get people to buy” – he’s always been a fantastic mimic of his critics. Deeper self-analysis comes, as “Matthew” raps “I’m the bullies you hate that you became with every faggot your slaughtered / Coming back on you every woman you insulted with the double-standards you have when it comes to your daughters” – he’s well aware of his own contradictions and it’s irresistible listening.

Closer ‘Evil Twin’ is just as satisfying complex, another piece in the jigsaw as the album continues to seesaw wildly between justifying, apologising for, and glorying in his own character creations. Here, it’s all swagger, he’s the “borderline genius who’s bored of his lines”. Singing sweetly, he proclaims “That ain’t me […] he’s just a friend who pops up now and again, so don’t blame me – blame him” – but it’s never that easy. Next, he spits “Then again, who wants a plain Eminem […] look at that evil grin, evil twin, please come in!” before proclaiming “Still Shady inside, hair every bit as dyed as it used to be when I first introduced y’all to my skittish side and blamed it all on him when they criticised – cus we are the same, bitch” – Jesse Pinkman, eat your heart out. Immature insults, self-obsessed analysis, and deadly flow – Eminem is back, the same old hot mess he’s always been.

Aside from the occasional freestyle, Em hasn’t stretched himself like this in a long time. It’s an album that’s jam packed with ideas; constantly upping the ante with each verse and unstoppably gaining momentum with every track. It’s incredibly energetic and bursting with evident enjoyment despite the anger that’s being chronicled; for a man who’s just turned forty, he hasn’t sounded this young since 2002. Slinking ‘Rhyme or Reason’ packs the jokes in as he further explores his thoughts about his father, ‘Headlights’ contains an astonishing apology to his mother (“I love you Debbie Mathers, oh what a tangled web we have”), and ‘Rap God’ is the fastest, most technically complex song  Eminem has ever recorded. The excellent ‘Love Game’ will be a genuine passing of the baton if this really is Em’s last album. Kendrick Lamar’s verse is exemplary, but it’s irrelevant whether or not you consider him to have “outshone” Eminem. Despite the earlier “why be a king when you can be a god” putdown, this is still the Eminem show, and adding Lamar’s skills to the mix is a generous move – he isn’t close to being threatened by Kendrick.

Imagine a world where Dr Dre had never uncovered Detroit’s greatest export, that this was somehow your first time hearing Eminem, and there’s no way that MMLP2 would not be as seismically important and game-changing as its prequel. This is Eminem’s best record in a decade – and one of the most impressive, entertaining and addictive hip-hop albums of the year.

Album Review: Cage The Elephant – ‘Melophobia’

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What do ‘Losing My Religion’, ‘Twist and Shout’, ‘Mr Brightside’, and a million others have in common? Undeniable, irresistible choruses – a great chorus is the essence of great pop. Catchy doesn’t guarantee quality (see: ‘Moves Like Jagger’) and there’s no need for perfect songs to be chorus-led or even hummable (see also: Kid A). But we can all agree that a sky-high chorus, enclosing a hook big enough for all the gods to hang their coats on, works wonders.

Cage The Elephant don’t think so. Melophobia means ‘fear of music’ – but it might as well have been called chorusophobia. Stepping away from their grungy, alt-blues sound into wider experimentation, their third album is crippled by incredibly generic choruses and forgettable riffs.

 Gone is the grunge-glitch of Thankyou Happy Birthday and the Southern swagger of their debut, with many tracks sporting gentler instrumentation and Matthew Schultz reigning in most of his trademark howls. And in this pop-rock incarnation, Cage The Elephant could use the kind of choruses that ‘Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked’ and ‘In One Ear’ did so well. Single ‘Come A Little Closer’ is a fair representation of Melophobia’s flaws –a Babyshambles-style bassline and hushed vocals potter along pleasantly enough, but soon a chord-step kicks in and a basic “anthemic” chorus hamstrings it entirely. A by-the-numbers knockoff, it might get some airplay, but no-one is ever going to lose their voice screaming it. Similarly, ‘Halo’ starts like an American ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’, but thanks to a simplistic, banal chorus quickly descends to a depressingly Fratellis/Pigeon Detectives standard.

‘Teeth’, easily the record’s best track, brings a hurricane of feedback, thrash, and distorted vocals. Here, at last, they are recognisably the band who crowdsurfed clear out a Reading tent. Cocksure, Schultz demands “Are you into the beat?!” as Black Lips-worthy guitars churn. A stuttered, bum-note outro and “Aw, shut up and dance”; more like this, and I might have done.

A further nail in the coffin is Melophobia’s terminal struggle for depth; in Schultz’s words, “super inner-reflective songs”. This striving for profundity too often results in immature, faux-meaningful lyrics, typified on ‘Telescope’ – “Time is like a leaf in the wind / Either it’s time well-spent or time I’ve wasted / Don’t waste it” – if ‘Adam’s Song’ moved you to tears, you’ll love this. Alison Mosshart clocks in for the stripped backed White Stripes fuzz-n-thump on ‘It’s Just Forever’, as does a rare hook (yippee!). It’s stolen from the Strokes’ ‘Juicebox’ though, so does it still count? Mosshart’s vocals chime well with Schultz’s, but again the lyrics are dismal (“Maybe we can die together, laying side by side / Even in the afterlife, girl you’ll still be mine”).

It’s a confused effort, with the songwriting faults, misguided lyrics, and the foolish sidelining of their greatest weapon (Schultz’s voice) assassinating the vast majority of tracks. Next time, scrap the cod-philosophy and concentrate on the tunes.

Album Review: Moby – ‘Innocents’

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From the first swell of warm, gliding synth, this is unmistakeably a Moby record. The spacious soundscapes and disjointed, house-lite percussion could have been lifted from his coffee-table hit Play – it seems we’re going to be partying like it’s 1999 again.

But, maybe in a bid to avoid the mass commercialism that rendered Play so overexposed despite its brilliance (though being the first album in history to have every single song licenced for commercial use didn’t help), Innocents is a less radio-friendly affair. On opener ‘Everything Rises’, the epic swell that previously would have led into an ad-friendly hook destined to launch a million products now simply pushes on, a gentle, looping tsunami of epic synthwaves over those familiar, jutting beats. Later, ‘Saints’ brings the album’s biggest drum-line, pure 90s house, and the synths take off in a hymnal ascent. The indecipherable vocals echo, and another classic Moby hit is born.

That said, much of it is unrecognisable. Anthemic joy dominates the middle of the album, with the Wayne Coyne featuring ‘The Perfect Life’. A bounding euphoria coupled with overblown choral backing and a George Michael-worthy guitar sashay: in isolation, I would never have guessed this was Moby. The lyrics are classic Coyne misdirection, providing that Morrissey/Marr double-whammy of a jubilant melody backed by dark words. Though the first verse deceives with twist-and-shout contentment, soon the content becomes clear: “Little Mikey steps everywhere / Knives in his pockets, bullets in his hair / He has nothing to live for, nothing left to say … Spoons and foil are all he needs, a bed and some china, a lighter and some speed – it will sing you to sleep and it will hit you awake”. Well, all that ecstatic elation had to come from somewhere I guess.

Less in-your-face exultation, but still strongly Flaming Lips-reminiscent is ‘Almost Home’, a woozy, enveloping ambience featuring indie-folker Damien Jurado. The tone is exactly Play, but the hooky drops are no longer present. Elongated and leisurely, it’s more suited to sighing than dancing. Elsewhere, Inyang Bassey guests on the prowling ‘Don’t Love Me’ – a creeping blues jam laden with chips of organ and guitar chirrups and wahs over a beastly beat that calls to mind the lighter side of Elephant.

There follows a plunge into melancholia. Mark Lanegan lends his deep, gravelly presence to ‘The Lonely Night’, a country-influenced lament layered over a generic “Moby” beat. It’s lyrically facile (“So tired wondering around and starting over / No garden grows here now, just a one-leaf cl-ooooh-ver”), but lowers the intensity in time for lengthy coda, ‘The Dogs’. Amidst the meditative pace and whining synths, Moby tells a tale where all his darkest high-vegan prophesies have become reality: “Hope lost to fear and nothing was clear when we lost it all / This is how we tried, this is where it died, this is how we cried, like the dogs left outside”.

So whilst the 90s flavour is strong and those distinctive synths and chord progressions have returned, this isn’t a simple rinse and repeat. There’s a huge range of styles on display, but Innocents remains a remarkably cohesive and creative record, thanks both to Moby’s instrumentation and to the album’s conceptual feel. Not just for dinner parties and Eminem disses after all.

 

Album Review: Placebo – ‘Loud Like Love’

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While Brian Molko’s voice has always been divisive, Placebo’s darkly glittering alt-rock has been unfairly maligned for years. Unusual vocalists pedalling intelligent, introverted rock tend to be met with more acclaim; Michael Stipe and Billy Corgan amongst the most obvious examples. But with their borderline-goth image and endless supply of angst, Placebo were unfairly dismissed in with the early noughties’ emo scene. Menacingly seductive and with a lyrical wit to rival Morrisey, there’s always been far more to them than that – even if much of their musical has been unquestionably well suited for crying bitter teenage tears into single-bed duvets or sourcing attention-seeking MSN names.  As the band’s twentieth birthday looms, it seems their best days are behind them. Though Loud Like Love is more interesting than the bland Battle for the Sun, we’re a long way from the quality of anything pre2006.

From the moment you press play, it is unquestionably obvious that this is Placebo. It’s all here. The chugging attrition of simple riffs, laden with brooding, emotive key changes. Lyrics dissecting sex, sadomasochism, androgyny and drugs. The unchanging constant of Molko’s voice, here sometimes reminiscent of Neil Tennant, though of course the power-pop is swapped for gritty melancholy.

To the casual ear, this could be any of their other albums. But with such a consistent sound, it becomes harder for individual songs to stand out. The bald, cold open of ‘Too Many Friends’, “My computer thinks I’m gay”, and the half-understood muttered bridge on ‘Hold Onto Me’  are classic Placebo, all drawling introspection and misunderstood depression, but it fails to distinguish itself from all their other work.

Despite all this, Loud Like Love hides a few seeds for hope. ‘Exit Wounds’ brings flagrantly digital drumming, presenting the familiar themes in a refreshingly different setting – and bringing the first sign that this is indeed the Placebo of 2013, not merely a stagnant repetition of past history. Continuing in the same vein, ‘Purify’ brings choppy industrialism and a gloomy bassline to a traditional Molko tale of seduction.

Unlike albums past, there are no clear choices for singles and little that doesn’t seem a rehash of old material. Ballad ‘A Million Little Pieces’’ piano and turbulent percussion reference ‘Song to Say Goodbye’, and the squalling guitars on ‘Rob The Bank’  aim for the anthemic territory of ‘Every You and Every Me’, but their former triumphs are only echoed. The best hooks and the most memorable poetics are missing, and Loud Like Love offers nothing to rival the highlights of their existing back-catalogue.

Half-way through the record, in his unique quaver-soar of a voice, Molko asks “Can’t you tell I’ve lost my way?”.

Unfortunately, I rather can. 

Album Review: Forest Swords – ‘Engravings’

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In an oft-cited XKCD comic strip, writer Randall Munroe demonstrated an easy way of making people of any age feel old; citing a generation-wide cultural touchstone (Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Finding Nemo) and asking if they realised how long ago it had come out. Punch line aside, it made a neat point about our inability to date cultural trends – some releases continue to seem fresh, current, and are consequently assumed recent, whilst others date quickly or fade in appeal, quickly appearing completely outmoded.

Toy Story 3 came out three years ago! As did still-loved records like The Suburbs, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Total Life Forever. The year of LCD’s last release, a year dominated by ‘Love The Way You Lie’ and when The Social Network premièred. 2010 was also when experimental dub began throb in the mainstream’s consciousness – the year of James Blake’s first EPs, Mount Kimbie’s Crooks and Lovers and another producer/composer, Forest Swords’ remarkable debut EP. If anything, the genre has expanded in the intervening years, as attested by the success of both Blake and Mount Kimbie’s 2013 releases. Engravings, Forest Swords’ debut LP and first release since the excellent Dagger Paths, conforms to the pattern – still bewitching, still utterly relevant.

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There are many more bedroom producers now than in 2010, and witch-house has become a central hipster genre. But Matthew Barnes, the hermetic Merseysider behind the moniker, still stands out, his distinctive deeply layered ambient trip-hop and haunting dub remaining instantly recognisable. There has been no sudden shift in sound, no Kanye or Foals jump forwards – in fact, having struggled with hearing problems and apparently considered giving up music altogether, Barnes seems to have merely concentrated the essence of his sound. Unsettling drones, complex post-punk guitars and always the rumbling threat of deep bass and pounding percussion combine with ambient recordings and hazy vocals to create the feeling of waking from a half-remembered, half-understood dream. Mixed outside under the Wirral’s threatening skies, Engravings has an undeniable visual quality to it, invoking a grim, elemental nature – a counterpart to Burial’s bleak urban scores.

Though inevitably the album is stronger listened to in whole, with the ebbs and flows of Forest Swords sonic kaleidoscope uninterrupted, there are a few standouts early on. The cinematic ‘Irby Tremors’ puts panpipes and a lazy, pseudo-xx guitar line over a colossal jungle beat to enormous effect, whilst ‘The Weight of Gold’ brings a trilling, very Occidental harpsichord into the mix, with droning synths and the odd reggae bounce keeping it fresh.

On paper, it sounds a mess – on record, the abstraction is absorbing and a refreshingly different listen. With references to house, dub, and instrumental rock all stitched together into a looping, building tapestry that manages to be both visually and emotionally evocative, this is certainly an album that will keep your interest long into the next fad.

Album Review: Phaeleh – ‘Tides’

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 Matt Preston is a classically trained musician from Bristol – that’s more than just a fun fact; these two autobiographical details are highly discernible in his work as Phaeleh. That he makes ambient/trip-hop records of course draws comparisons to Massive Attack and Portishead, but there are nods to the post-dubstep of Burial or Zomby and hints of Bonobo to be found as well. His second album Tides is a record that attempts to draw together many electronic influences under its urban ambience.

Mid-album highlight ‘Whistling in the Dark’ encapsulates the album’s central split between hope and fear. Lent a Portishead vibe thanks to guest vocalist Augustus Ghost, who brings the sort of beautiful melancholia that Laura Marling does so well, the gentle lulling melody skips over the faint sub-bass, representing an always linger sense of insecurity. Lyrically, it ranges from the down-right bleak (“Twilight, and the mud begins to crack, you cross your fingers twice behind your back / But your feet start to slip, you stumble and you trip, the sky breaks and the clouds are dripping black”) to an emergent love story (“Hold my hand against the night, show me all the demons left to fight / And I’ll patch up the hole in your heart, and carry on whistling in the dark”), invoking a calm, poetic beauty. The Portishead comparison carries.

Cinematic opener ‘Journey’ is far closer to Mezzanine-era Massive Attack, employing a liquid trip-hop beat over both chopped and unadulterated string samples to hit another gorgeous peak. Elsewhere, towards the album’s close, ‘Never Fade Away’ and ‘Tides’ are in much the same vein, if admittedly slightly less memorable.

By ‘Night Lights’ though, a sombre combination of textures and ticking chimes strung together with a reggae lilt, Tides has begun to show its weak underside. The beat is less interesting, the melody weaker, and while Cian Finn does nothing particularly wrong, the vocals are somewhat forgettable. Phaeleh’s biggest problem has begun to rear its ugly head – the vocalists. ‘Here Comes The Sun’ in particular is an affront to its George Harrison namesake, featuring the kind of high-pitch, technically demonstrative style that so often succeeds on the X-Factor, calling to mind bad 1990s chart house. It’s a break from the rest of the album’s aesthetic, and certainly a failed experiment.

Elsewhere, Preston sticks to ambient instrumentals, with the 7 minute closing coda of ‘Distraction’ a definite highlight. Occasionally it comes close to the classic IDM hazard of sounding too much like lift music, but on the whole it’s enjoyable and well-produced. Overall, I found Tides a somewhat unbalanced listen, with both genuine highs and a few frustrating lows. But hey, you’ve got a computer – you don’t have to listen to whole album in order. The best tracks are excellent, and you can always uncheck the rest.