Soon: Fotoform and The Homesick

Seattle’s Fotoform released their eponymous debut LP in April. The band is an incarnation of a previous act called C’est La Mort, in which several of the band members did their apprenticeship recording a promising album and a couple of fairly faithful covers of Pale Saints and Smiths songs. The new record is still firmly rooted in the same field of late 80s-early 90s British music, heavily influenced by bands such as the Cure, Lush, Ride and the House of Love. Though a bit uneven, it’s a pretty lovely rendition of the mixture of dreamy beauty, literate melancholy and poppy exuberance that characterised that great era of indie guitar bands. The best moments of the album for me are the ones where the sound crosses over from loveliness into edgy sonorities, interweaving metallic guitar riffs, overtones and feedbacks with looming basslines and intense drumming in the Joy Division mould. At these moments the music shines with all the squiggly lines, spills, spurts and stains of an abstract expressionist painting. I wish they had pushed the vocals a little bit into the mix, and let the true shimmering power of this compact 8-song album come to the fore.

 

Another 8-song debut LP that came out last spring is The Homesick’s Youth Hunt. They hail from a small town in the north of the Netherlands, and their record duly comes across as less the product of clear familiar influences than the unique fruit of an encounter between three attuned yet outlying musicians. Yes, one can drop a few names as references: Wire, Polvo, Krautrock, Bowie, the Go-Betweens with added noise. But really, it feels like a rich and personal home brew: fluid and experimental, brave and brimming with ideas, organic in its inventiveness. The distinctive and affecting, dramatic yet sincere vocals perhaps encapsulate the spirit of this versatile record. Reminiscent of the bold psychedelic vision of Preoccupations, its motoric and irregular rhythms, driving basslines and angular and drizzly guitars are beautifully accommodated by a multi-layered and multi-depth mix.

Untitled, 2017

In an article on contemporary art I came across an evocative sentence, alluding to art works that “seem to re-immerse the tangibility of memory in processes of erasure and abstraction”. The idea seemed intriguing because we often think about art as doing the exact opposite – making memory tangible by summoning and highlighting it and giving it concrete form. It also struck me as a pretty good description of what shoegaze music does, as four quite divergent recent examples demonstrate, in the process also blurring the differences between such dissimilar places as the northern cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Berlin, and the Mediterranean city of Tel Aviv.

The Cherry Wave, “Crashing”, from Shimaru LP

Pointillist impressions of a rainy city. Echoey vocals looming through foggy double-glazed windows, blurred by raindrops and tears. Traces of a past evaporating into the cold of building gloom, getting lost in reflections as clouds form around the hiding sun. Dinosaur Jr.-type noncommittal exuberance. Layers of distortedly reverberating guitars. Snow slips of crushingly bent strings and rolling drums. The rubbed-out anatomy of a crash.

 

Wozniak, “Perihelion”, from Perihelion EP

From the hiding sun to the perihelion – the point in the orbit of a planet, asteroid or comet where it is nearest to the sun. A disappearance not through wet dissolve, but by hazy over-exposure. Crispy drums and groovy bass are gradually obscured by a sprawling and torn guitar sound. The sweet, gender-indeterminate vocals seem enveloped in a film of mist. Then they are simply gone, and for another four minutes the song continues to combustingly pile up, rip, implode and unravel away.

 

Laila, “SpaceMan”, from I’ve Been LP

This is the third single from the Tel Aviv duo’s eagerly-awaited first album, which has just been released. It starts and ends with disarming whiffs of vocals drifting wordlessly through outer space. It sounds like early Cat Power thrown from Southern-US/Downtown-NYC surroundings into boundless intergalactic orbit. It tells a troubled love story obliquely smudged by smoke, sex, confusion, scars, swirling distant harmonies and dense and cathartic guitars.

Vaadat Charigim, “Shalom Lach Berlin”

The first few bars set us up for some U2/Simple Minds Eighties windswept grandeur, yet though the vocals are relatively prominent in the mix, they are so reluctantly articulated that we soon find ourselves in introvert, gloomily abstract territory. The terse Hebrew lyrics make more sentiment than sense, even for this native speaker. Strangely combining both drive and despondency, the song revs lonelily between Berlin and Tel Aviv, grey foliage and blinding glare, staying and running away; it seems to be chasing an elusive memory, but never ends up finding its place.

How We Stayed Individuated

An associative journey into the world of the heavy, hooky, hypnotising guitar riff.

Protomartyr, “Uncle Mother’s”, from Agent Intellect, 2015

This intricate song marks the point where the Detroit band’s album metamorphoses into a weird and truly wonderful creature. Fittingly, the riff itself undergoes various transmutations, as if intent on presenting the plentiful array of post-punk guitar possibilities: after entering a shifty scene of menacing orientation and propelling the song into hypnotic hook territory, it is consecutively chopped into stuttering discordant chords, pared-down into piercing shards, smeared into vaporous clouds of sound, condensed into rhythmically insistent eighth, and finally heaped into rough layers that seem to include all of the above, dominated by the shrill sounds of anxious alarm.

TV on the Radio, “Poppy”, from Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, 2004

Taken from the Brooklyn band’s debut album, this song characteristically adopts the values of hip hop – beat, loop, repetitive minimalist melody – and mixes them with a Sonic Youth-type guitar sound. It tells a harsh, dense, urban tale of identity politics and love. Gradually nature comes into the picture, in the shape of blackbirds and dragonflies, and with the line “there is something special in the air” the song breaks into a signature TVOTR contrapuntal a cappella passage. The idyll is then gradually invaded by a more wall-of-noise version of the original riff, creating a beautiful swirl of jarring harmonies. Until at the end the riff stops again, releasing the human voices into an aerobatic, swarming, disappearing flight. (please excuse the stupid YouTube image)

Lync, “B”, from These Are Not Fall Colors, 1994

Hailing from Olympia, Washington, Lync were one of the shining lights in the experimental jet set, trash and no star-studded firmament of early ‘90s American guitar bands. Their version of the figure-of-four catchy guitar riff is grungy and full of brio: a strident, raspy and ringing affair that is further enhanced by its entangled relationship with the bass and drums. Changes of rhythm, quiet-loud dynamics and varying arrangements of the foreground/background relationships between the instruments provide a wonderful example of imaginative rock trio composition. The song feels organic, contrary and a bit shambolic, but it handles tension and texture so well that every time the riff comes back, the listener gets a moment of pure punk-pop pleasure.

Le Thug, “Bird”, from Ripping EP, 2013

In the Glasgow shoegazers’ hands the riff is piled up and extended over eight bars and stretched and smeared and warped and slowed way down until it becomes a murky and woolly atmosphere, steadily becoming even murkier and woollier, yet somehow managing to be more and more luminous. Also present in their absence are big reverberating machinic drums, a sub-booming bass and distant, deeply-buried and extremely sweet vocals. Each time the tension builds and builds until finally the riff returns, bringing a huge sense of relief in a spacious nebula of electronic bliss. Until in the end it doesn’t – leaving us hanging in an ever-receding, void and echoey expanse.

Soon: Ought

 

My brother once gave me a mixed tape entitled “opera for people who don’t like opera”. I was reminded of that title when I heard the Montreal-based band Ought. For the diehard guitar-loving veteran indie kid, the band’s keyboardist Matt may be said to be playing “keyboards for people who don’t like keyboards”. He actually sounds like a guitarist, and moreover, like a Lee Ranaldo-type guitarist – playing strange chords, ringing arpeggios, melodious feedback and ever-evolving drones. Half the time you’re not even sure what instrument is making these sounds, as the keyboards parts deceptively interplay with the spikey and airy Telecaster played by guitarist and vocalist Tim, the other Tim’s eloquent and fat drums, and Ben’s increasingly crucial bass. And this peculiarity is just one of the myriad things that make Ought’s music so interesting and delightful.

 

Another special characteristic is that with his somewhat theatrical yet disarmingly unassuming charisma, Tim’s vocals offer a very specific kind of focal point. Stylewise, he channels an impressive array of well-loved voices from the 70s, plus their later admirers – Mark E. Smith, David Thomas, David Byrne, Tom Verlaine, Patty Smith, The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster, Stephen Malkmus, Jarvis Cocker, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth – often all within the same song. Which, as these names suggest, makes for a compelling amalgam of poetry and irony, snarl and intimacy, ardour and knowingness.

 

With some arch lyrics, protracted segues and high-concept transitions, Ought seem at times to court the threshold of excessive cleverness. But they always amply avoid it, with loads of sharp rigour, affecting candour and winning grace. There are underlying complexities – nocturnally motoring passages, intricate puddles of sound, endlessly rolling drum parts, lengthy impressionistic stretches – but, especially in their superb recent album, Sun Coming Down, they are all encapsulated into consistently excellent songs. In many ways Ought’s music references not so much the post-punk of the late 70s and 80s as the golden era of US guitar bands of the 90s; bands who excelled in combining musical and structural innovation with emotional depth and edge, and who, whether they were relatively well-known like Polvo or a lot more obscure like Versus, Pony or Eggs, were equally intent on pursuing their own beautiful, aching and intelligent paths.

11:26

Here’s another outstanding contemporary post-punk record from North America.

When I first heard the Calgary band Preoccupations’ eponymous second album, I was simultaneously so impressed and so bewildered that I had to do some background research. I just couldn’t understand where they were coming from, and how they managed to hold together and irradiate such clashing intensities: the no-nonsense masculine guitar rock thrust; the elaborate and ornate pop romanticism; the uncompromising sounds of vacuum cleaners, outer spaces and oceanic swirls; and in the centre of it all, a pulsating, emotional heart.

My investigation turned up some debatable clues: the bass player is also the lead vocalist; the keyboards are played by one of the guitarists; the members of the rhythm section are childhood friends; this album is based on collaborative songwriting. A video of the band playing live at a radio station yielded some more questionable findings: an incongruous Russian hat. An obscure band’s t-shirt. Red fingernail varnish. One converse shoe off.

Art rock, glam, new wave, new romantic, industrial, dark wave, radical shoegaze, prog, space rock, avant electronica, experimental noise, ambient – the album is made up of many different bits glued together, both in terms of the song structure and the combination of parts in a single section, some of which sound vaguely familiar and some utterly unique. There is so much to listen to. It perhaps shouldn’t work, but it does spectacularly.

The vocals and general tone range from gritty anger to high-strung vulnerability to wounded crooning to wide-eyed psychedelia. The lyrics tackle big issues and thoughtful abstractions in a way that’s reminiscent of Laetitia Sadier from Stereolab, who used to write long words and erudite sentences that didn’t quite fit into the song’s scan pattern. But where Sadier’s peculiarities infused her band’s music with charming foreign chic, here the result is an unsettling sense of skewed foreignness from actual native speakers, intent on forging their own idiom. “Leaving our footprints in concrete”, as the singer says in “Degraded”.

The gorgeous, minimalist yet warm design. The gruff single-word song titles. The unfashionable brevity of 9 songs in 38 minutes. The radio-unfriendly 11:26 magnificent minutes it takes the album’s centrepiece, “Memory”, to unfold. In the nick of time, this recording takes Preoccupations a nudge away from the knit-brow bluster of their debut album (released under their former name Viet Cong), just enough to achieve a present-day version of the 11th-hour doomsday beauty of such classics as Joy Division’s Closer or David Bowie’s “Heroes” and “Ashes to Ashes”. Layered and resonant, jaded and edgy, saturated and polyphonic, motoric and moving, cryptic and incomprehensible, feverish, anxious, encompassing and stimulating, barely resistible: this is music for the world we live in.

Side Chains

A friend of mine recently claimed that the more significant creative force in the Smiths must have been Morrissey rather than Johnny Marr, since Morrissey’s solo output has been a lot better than anything Marr has been involved in since the band’s demise. I agree that Marr’s post-Smiths musical efforts have been extremely disappointing, but I don’t think that that proves anything about his stature in the band, which was clearly crucial. More often than not it’s not one person or another, but precisely the encounter between people that creates a great and magical band; the magnificence of such a band cannot be explained by the simple sum of its parts.

Further thoughts about band members and their musical convergences came to my mind when I started thinking about the different bands and side projects that have evolved and revolved around Air Formation.

The Brighton band, consisting of Matt Bartram on vocals and guitar, Ben Pierce on bass, Richard Parks on keyboards, James Harrison on drums and Ian Sheridan on guitar, released their first record in 2000 and split in April 2011, before reforming in 2014. They make high-gloss, lush, melodious and mellifluous sounds, with undulating melodic bass lines, soaring keyboard drones and avalanches of heavily delayed and tremoloed guitars. At its best their music references such Shoegaze obscurinaries as Ride, Slowdive and Pale Saints, merging a blue-grey outlook with shiny drums and a golden melting lava of guitar chords to create affecting and graceful gems. But at its less fortunate moments it seems to partake in a genre that can perhaps be called Midcore – tuneful, innocuous mid-tempo songs, midway between Wagnerian grandeur and humdrum modesty, constantly running in pretty much the same average gear, and lacking in dynamics and dynamism. Taken in large dosages Air Formation can be samey and tiring, even a bit plodding. For music that is ostensibly about space, it offers surprisingly little breathing space.

 

Guitarist and singer Matt Bartram and drummer James Harrison also formed a band called You Walk Through Walls. For this project, they ditched the keyboards and stripped down to a trio, with Harry Irving on bass. This didn’t so much pare down the sound as focused its cloudiness, as it were, generally putting the “driver” back into Swervedriver. The drums are pushed further down the mix, the bass is rounder and more urgent, and the production significantly holds back on the hi-fi sheen. Which actually leaves more room for the wonderfully nuanced, varied, gritty and immersive guitar sounds. Matt Bartram’s voice – soft, warm, gently gravelly – is still very reminiscent of the voice of the late, wonderful Grant McLennan from the Go-Betweens – only this time the music, though obviously different in style, also incorporates the kind of disarming charm that the Australian band was so renowned for.

 

Since 2012, Air Formation bassist Ben Pierce has also released several recordings under the name I Am Your Captain. These releases have a bedroom-recording feel in the best possible way: ruffled, introverted, fearlessly inventive, moving, and utterly lovely. Paying homage to putative old loves like Dinosaur Jr, Sebadoh, Pastels, Cocteau Twins and MBV, Pierce creates fuzzy lo-fi experimentations with indie-pop songwriting, variable moodscapes and noisy effects.

 

Recently we’ve also had the first release from the side project of Air Formation drummer James Harrison, called Code Ascending. Their EP is called ‘What I Choose to Forget’, which includes for example the murmured vocals and self-effacing smudgy production of Harrison’s cohorts. Instead, Code Ascending, in which James plays bass and sings and is joined by Alex on guitar and Laurence on drums, is an in-your-face, razor-punky and extrovert outfit with some seriously interesting guitar sounds. They combine the beaten urban grandeur of Editors, the elegant metrosexual swagger of Suede, and the slightly ridiculous self-regard and bombast of the Horrors, Simple Minds and Killing Joke.

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