Sunday, 25 November 2012

Album Reviews (Andy Burrows, Philter, Crystal Castles)

Andy Burrows - Company

After leaving Razorlight in 2009, Andy Burrows has been guest drummer with We Are Scientists and one half of the Smith & Burrows collaboration with Editors Tom Smith. His début solo album The Colour Of My Dreams, is an engaging selection of poetry set to music, made as a charity record. Burrows's second album Company is an entirely different record - much more robust and complete, filled with luscious melodies, sharp song writing and meticulous instrumentation. The undoubted highlight at the centre of Company is the stirring ballad Hometown - a song with great structure built around piano and vocals. The emotion pours into the chorus and delivers one of the best lines on the album: "...Leave the lights on when I go, so I can watch you down below" is just beautiful. And the central string arrangement is sublime. Earlier, there isn't a weak moment, from the vocal harmonies and Fleet Foxes/Midlake-esque title track, with subtle building strings, to the country-waltz Maybe You, all vocal melody and more solid lyrics: "I thought about it once; thought about disagreeing with you. But I was someone else; someone whose heart was indestructible...". Even the odd comedy brass break works to lighten the mood. And Because I Know That I Can is near perfect funk-folk with great guitar-work. The scond half breaks from the comfort zone with mixed, yet satisfying, results. On Somebody Calls Your Name, Burrows is Elliot Smith, Stars In The Sky is a soft vocal lullaby and the shimmering pop of Shaking The Colour blends strings and guitars to form the conclusion. A great album.

Philter - The Blossom Chronicles

Little is known of Norwegian musician Magnus Gangstad Jørgensen, AKA Philter. He released his début album The Beautiful Lies at the end of 2011 and the follow-up The Blossom Chronicles continues to blend stirring orchestral arrangements with electronic beats and loops. This time around, Jørgensen focuses on strings and piano, bringing in female vocalist Miriam Vaga for only four of the thirteen songs - so the Blossom Chronicles is an instrumental album at heart. This is the soundtrack for a film/game that exists only in the mind. After the dramatic Prologue, the early highlight is Adventure Time, a string-laden cinematic clockwork soundtrack with buzzing electronica. This is followed by the wonderful Spellbound In 8-Bit - a fun cool combination of 'Speak And Spell' samples and vibrant arcade-style beats. Of the vocal tracks, Mountaintops & Skyscrapers is a great blend of traditional and modern, and Vaga's best performance, with the more delicate They Call Her Blossom a close second. After a good first half, The Blossom Chronicles loses its way, especially in the closing four songs. The Seven Seas is charming enough and a neat blend of guitars and tribal percussion and Draw Your Weapon sounds like a Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds remix, without Cave's vocals, but We Fought Monsters doesn't fit the mood of the album and the over-produced 'chipmunk' vocals of The Lights (Epilogue) are a constant and annoying distraction. But the problems are few and The Blossom Chronicles remains a good example of how to make dance music for geeks.

Crystal Castles - III

Ethan Kath and Alice Glass continue their quest to make dark twisted and challenging dance music. For III, the Canadian duo sought inspiration in Warsaw to make an album of oppression and alienation, throwing away the computerised sound of previous albums I and II, and trying for something more organic and more focused. From the opener Plague, it is clear that Crystal Castles haven't done anything completely radical - all the trademark sounds are here: Kath's layers of production and obfuscation, and Glass delicate and sweet then fighting to be heard through the fragmented noise. An early highlight is the superb Wrath Of God, like two songs intertwined, one forwards, one backwards, again with Glass screaming through the haze of electronic froth. Sad Eyes is about as good as it gets - a ghostly mutated pop song of driving drums, piercing keyboards and above all, melody. Violent Youth would be the album's great pop song if it had a vocal track that didn't jump around, and percussion that didn't sound like a bad Human League b-side. Obviously Crystal Castles are trying to make interesting and compelling music but Throughout III you get the impression that they are specifically sabotaging their own creations. The horrible unlistenable vocals and dull repetition of Pale Flesh, the equally disjointed and nasty Insulin, and The 'mice from Bagpuss' backing vocals and stark empty instrumentation on Kerosene, are notable examples. Affection is pleasant enough but it's like a delicate love song scoured with sandpaper and metal wool. One track that stands out, as it seems to have a solid clear subject, Transgender is clever and sharp, intricate and complex. III ends with a strong trio. The (mainly) instrumental Telepath is cool and elegant, likewise Mercenary is dark and brutal, yet hopeful and uplifting. Closer Child I Will Hurt You is a soft sweet lullaby hiding a razor-blade centre. III is the sound of Crystal Castles progressing, but not as far as everyone wanted. Moments of brilliance and individuality are shattered by mind-numbing chaos and obscure swamped vocals; if this is the oppression they were trying to find, they found it.
-- CS

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Album Reviews (Bat For Lashes, The Album Leaf and Chelsea Wolfe)

Bat For Lashes - The Haunted Man

Natasha Khan has completed her glorious trilogy (following the Mercury Prize nominated Fur And Gold and Two Suns) with The Haunted Man - a more stripped down collection of songs than previous albums. Khan continues to juxtapose the intimate with the distant, drawing the listener in with personal stories and themes, and pushing them away with metaphor and wandering obscurity. The magnificent centrepiece is undoubtedly Laura (co-written with Justin Parker - a fellow Ivor Novello award winner for Lana Del Rey's Video Games); this is a stirring operatic ballad of moving beauty, gaining power and meaning on every repeat listen. The vocal production allows Khan's voice to soar with raw emotion. Equally effective is the dreamy electronic-infused Marilyn, complete with odd robotic chipmunk interlude, and second single All Your Gold is a great combination of 'old' and 'new', from uncluttered tribal opening, and borrowing heavily from Daniel, to the orchestral beats ending. While The Haunted Man is very much a solo record, Khan has gathered a swathe of talent - including producers David Kosten (Faultlines) and Dan Carey (who has worked with everyone from The Kills to Hot Chip), and drummer Rob Ellis. Bringing these musicians into her world, while keeping her vision, is the greatest success of The Haunted Man. The ideas and personnel flow on the title track - the only time The Haunted Man veers into prog-rock waters, only to weather the storm and rise triumphantly through the waves as Khan leads the choral ending. This is the end of a beautiful trilogy.
-- CS

Forward/Return by The Album Leaf

The Album Leaf, the brainchild of Jimmy LaValle, first rose to prominence in 2004 with the release of In A Safe Place - recorded with the help of Icelandic band Sigur Rós. Forward/Return (released as an EP - in spite of its 35 minute running time) is a welcome return after 2010's A Chorus Of Storytellers. Opener Stretched Home is a gorgeous blend of lazy drums, horns and delicate synths while Descent brings a more electronic produced sound. The Album Leaf always play like Mogwai in their more erudite, composed moods; like their Scottish contemporaries, crafting a complex layered composition around a central idea. Low Down brings in another great brass section - not raspy but polished and smooth, and Skylines is simply beautiful, with its stark spiky percussion and gliding strings - a subtle piano melody emerging from the depths. Under The Night, the only song on Forward/Return with vocals, is a prosaic low point which could be much better with the absence of words. That said, it builds to a satisfying, if repetitive climax. Images is a slightly chaotic, unfocused penultimate four minutes while closer Dark Becomes Light is exactly this - bleak droning 8-bit beats through the first three to four minutes to break through at the four minute point into glorious hope-filled rays to complete the transformation. Another wonderful record from a true pioneer of electronic post-rock.
-- CS

Unknown Rooms: A Collection Of Acoustic Songs by Chelsea Wolfe

Three albums in three years for Sacramento's Chelsea Wolfe has brought the gothic singer-songwriter from the ghostly, challenging (try Deep Talks), religious-imagery of The Grime And The Glow to the more impressive Apokalypsis. Now we arrive at Unknown Rooms. As the subtitle suggests this is an album of more organic, guitar and vocal based, folk songs from the singer's unreleased archives - with the Wolfe twist. But this is far removed from the usual dark melancholia and harsh musical arrangements. Lightness is everywhere. The delicate seduction of opener Flatlands comes alive in the second half for a wonderful string-laden finale, while Appalachia has a hardened-edged determination - sharp guitars and howling strings, while Wolfe is superb. The Way We Used To and Hyper Oz are a curious menagerie of vocal arrangements, the former with added military drums, the latter with spooky strings and vocals, while Spinning Centers is a simple guitar/vocal combination; all softness and light touch. Likewise, Our Work Was Good is very reminiscent of PJ Harvey's Let England Shake, with better execution. There are scattered moments of darkness: I Died With You is a short ghostly interlude before the sparse, fragmented and haunting Boyfriend (a cover by Karlos Rene Ayala and Ben Chisholm - who plays with Wolfe on the album). This is a weird, yet wonderful, addition which descends into sinister buzzing synths. Closer Sunstorm is a real surprise, a piano-led vocal duel between two halves of the same consciousness. The two bonus songs, new original compositions, are a great addition: Virginia Woolf Underwater is mesmerisingly great, as are Wolfe's vocals on Gold. Unknown Rooms is unlikely to propel Chelsea Wolfe into the big time but this is certainly her most accessible and consistent album. Ironic then that it is filled with songs that have taken this long to come (in)to light.

-- CS