Album Review: Breton – ‘War Room Stories’

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Thanks to their current inverse status, in both popularity and innovation, it seems that more and more “indie” records have been picking up dance music’s mannerisms – while Breton’s sound in 2012 called to mind Tom Vek and few others, their relatively unchanged sound sets of a chain-reaction of indietronica associations this time around, from Everything Everything and Two Door Cinema Club to Foals’ Holy Fire and recent James Blake.

Resolutely electronic but retaining an “indie” sensibility, faintly industrial, melancholic; Other People’s Problems  was everything you’d ever hoped Kele Okerree’s solo exploits might be –  the tragic romance and earworm hooks of early Bloc Party transposed into a dance-centric setting. At the time, an awful lot was made of their being a “multimedia collective” from “South London” who “squatted” in an “abandoned bank” – a great press release has the power to drown a great record. That their current blurb includes the phrase “distinctly un-hipster” is telling in itself. Forget the myth-building and ignore that it was recorded in an old Soviet radio station; Breton have an aggression, a droning abrasiveness, that just about justifies their “being a dickhead’s cool” swagger. They make electronic music with indie overtones, not the other way around, and in so doing, still manage to stand out from the crowd.

The excellent ‘S4’ is closer to their early Blanket EP in its production’s ferocity, as off-kilter drums skitter across police-kicking-your-door-in bass, while the Macedonian Radio Symphonic Orchestra lend the band their effortless ambiance of class and Roman Rappak sings a hook straight off Silent Alarm. Similarly fierce is the Chemical Brother-infused, witch-house stomp ‘Got Well Soon’, which brings brain-scrubbing repetition and Breton’s trademark walls of bass together with the edgy, brooding indie of the Maccabees’ ‘No Kind Words’. The gloves are off and it’s genre-meltingly good.

Taking the edge of with ‘302 Watchtower’, War Room Stories also ventures into gentler territory, bringing a trip-hop kaleidoscope of wind chimes and squeaked bum notes to create an immersive stand-alone world within the album. Sliding into ‘Brothers’, things become a little sub-par Foals, with Rappak’s wails demonstrating why he usually sticks to staccato pronouncements, and though the spacious, confident instrumentation is only a stone’s throw from Holy Fire’s gorgeous ‘Prelude’, it feels a little derivative. Likewise, ‘Envy’ appears to be a pastiche of Breton’s past work – their trademark production accompanying the nonsensical, facile rhyme “You’re a tourist, there’s nothing wrong with that / But what you never could have noticed is how your bags were packed”.

At the other end of the spectrum is mid-album deep breath, ‘Closed Category’. A crisp, spoken sample oozes cool, left-hand piano replaces the usual relentless bass pulse and the guitar lines positively shimmer in their delicacy. Though it’s like nothing Breton have released before, it’s instantly recognisable; an unplugged version of their usual rhythmic gymnastics. What War Room Stories makes clear is that the way forward is further exploration and boundary pushing. Unsurprisingly, given both their sound and their ethos, Breton are not at their best when static, but rather forging ahead – cramming the bare bones of their sound into new and unsuspecting genres and influences.

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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.