Saturday, 17 September 2011

Rocket Recordings

Now here's a cracking label that I've received some promotional discs from over the last few months and who are absolutely deserving of having received a much prompter follow-up on this blog, since all of their releases are in their various ways, highly interesting to visitors and followers here. (At this point, a big shout out and hello to new readers – the traffic here has leapt up since the coverage of Leave No Star Unturned and Parallel Universe, and of the Steven Wilson playback actually, so hope you like the other stuff being covered here and will now have this blog in your RSS feed or are popping by regularly. It's great to have so many hits!).

Here we go. Annapurna IllusionLife Is An Illusion. Ah, well, this is less of a rocket recording, more of an engine on tick over. Repetitively hypnotic sounds and effects – very Tangerine Dream – reverberate and intone across the six tracks here. What it is, it's a melodic drone, oppressive and closed in on itself but still aurally permeable and approachable. It works on a shamanistic level, calling out an uneasy hymn to its Kosmische Krautrock forefathers. The accompanying press invokes "the highs of the Nepalese mountains ... the spirits of the dead ... their mantra's chant atop mossy ruined temples..." And it is that, in a way; a meditative or trace-like summons of those who've come before. As much as I hear someone hunched in concentration over a synthesiser or studiously and studiedly twisting electric guitar notes I also want to visualise the religious intensity of a Buddhist Monk in a meditative fervour, so that it both lifts you out of your surroundings and at the same time compels you into its absorption. It's an intriguing record indeed.

Oneida / Mugstar: Collisions 02. This, as the title suggests, is the second in a series of what I guess would have been double A-side 12" releases back in the day. Mugstar need absolutely no introduction here, as I've previously covered their Lime album and their involvement in the Hawkwind tribute collection In Search Of Hawkwind and, indeed, I've an earlier Mugstar album here that I also need to cover in a future posting. Here they've a nigh-on seventeen minute extravaganza, 'European Nihilism' which has a dark 'Angels of Death' undercurrent to it, certainly in the ominous, repressive, marching of its guitars and bass line against its punctuated drums and synths. This track is immense in its soundscape, really very powerful stuff, but it's not simply as dark as its first sections, or indeed its title, suggest, since the final third of the piece turns the theme on its head. It still has the robust, heavy, undertones but across the top we have some vocal intoning and instrumentation that reveals chinks of light, like the sun breaking through a storm cloud sky.

It's a game of two halves though, as well as having that double-sided concept to it and being from both sides of the pond with Mugstar coming out of Liverpool and their fellow contributors hailing from New York, because Oneida's 'Shahin's Bong', despite being similarly epic in its length and construction, didn't appeal nearly as much as Mugstar's track. It's a gratingly industrial discordance – could we say it's rather Einst├╝rzende Neubauten in its approach –a free-form cacophony that, for me, is just too experimental, too jarring ... just too much, really. 'Shahin's Bong' is all demolition sites and metal on metal, vibrations and buzzing, a real mesh of sounds and textures that I guess is quite cleverly put together. It just didn't work for me.

Those are imminent releases; the other Rocket Recordings promo that I've got here is one that I've had for a while and which was released, LP and download, back in June is one that's been receiving some very good notices elsewhere: Gnod's InGnodWeTrust. This one then doesn't have a track list as much as it has an Order of Service; it's two elongated tracks, 'Tony's First Communion' and 'Vatican', clocking in at twenty and thirteen minutes respectively. Visually it is provocative stuff; its cover seemingly representing a faceless Pope presiding over social breakdown and chaos. Aurally it reflects the darkness of those images, not with violent sounds but with introverted machinations, the single notes and beats of 'Tony's First Communion' repeating themselves with drone-like foreboding and drumbeats that almost call for the bringing out of the condemned and the fuzz-infused buzzing of 'Vatican' playing similar themes while playing with a screaming, hell-bound, rearrangement of Church organs. It's an extremely disorientating and disconsolate reconceptualising of religious tones, twisting and turning them into something malignant and malevolent. It works, but it's the most incredibly uncomfortable listening experience I've had for a very long time... but it works.


Monday, 12 September 2011

Man... or Astro-Man? – Your Weight On The Moon

An astronautic Dick Dale rides the white-heat of Fireball XL5 while a 1950s TV announcer intones, with great seriousness and a solemn gravity not to be found in the title of this record, "MAN... OR ASTRO-MAN..." and the monochrome flickers of 405 line launches into another exciting episode of our favourite... Well, okay, it's not really that, of course, but Your Weight On The Moon has something of that ethereal atmosphere, completely lo-fi, unashamedly B-movie and futuristically retro chrome. Surf guitar plays space rock – it ought to come with a free jetpack for every space cadet.

On the other hand, and down to Earth, Man... or Astro-Man were a surf-punk Alabama band from the 90s, playing almost manically cartoon instrumentals with Dick Dale-style guitars and science fiction overtones and, now I come to look them up, seem like they were pretty prolific over much of that decade. What we have here, on Overground Records, is a gathering up of three separate releases previously on Newcastle-based One Louder Records: A 10" vinyl of the same name, and a couple of EPs (Mission Into Chaos and Return To Chaos). In one way this is just up my street to be honest: fast and furious and totally devoid of reverence; tongue seemingly firmly in cheek but at the same time taking a really infectious joy in the themes and influences, so that it is that sci-fi B-movie or black and white television show, torn and creased copies of Galaxy or Worlds Of If pulp magazine or Gold Key comic book representation of SF: interstellar travel and bug-eyed monsters all delivered with that thrilling surf twang. Or, put another way, it's a Quentin Tarantino remake of Forbidden Planet. Maybe not as classic as Forbidden Planet, may be more The Time Travellers.

It's relentless, though. As a compilation of three separate releases these tracks almost certainly work better as, well, three separate releases. By the time we've got to nearly the end of the original 10" and hit their rock-solid rendition of The Rezillos's 'Destination Venus' just the fact they've got someone belting out lyrics is a welcome relief to the relentlessly lo-fi, relentlessly driving, relentlessly madcap instrumentals that have come before. And when we've surfed on through to their cover of 'Goldfinger' (an even more irreverent version than Howard Devoto created with Magazine's take on that one – and that's saying something) we're left feeling that we've been pummelled by a combined force of Atlantic breakers and solar winds; irresistible in more ways than one.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Paradise 9 – State Of The Nation EP

Look here! Moments after noting in my Osiris The Rebirth review that I've still got punk rock running through my veins comes Gregg McKella's latest Paradise 9 record, proudly proclaiming itself, via a previous reviewer, as being "Hawkwind meets Joe Strummer" and firing off salvos in all directions. Of course, there's a story, perhaps apocryphal, that when The Clash first considered how to tackle their cover of 'Police & Thieves', Strummer's immediate suggestion was to "do it like Hawkwind." I nearly met him once – well, actually I spotted him on Taunton railway station and realised he'd been in the next carriage down from me all the way from Paddington, but such is my admiration that I'll forever chalk it down as having 'nearly met him' – I'd have loved to have asked him whether there was any truth in that one.

Someone else who it seems to me had a certain Strummer-like quality in being principled about his music and who is also sadly no longer with us has a more direct relationship to this new Paradise 9 offering in that he plays on a couple of its tracks and has a heartfelt tribute to him, written by Gregg, in its liner-note, was Judge Trev Thoms, probably best remembered by blog readers as a member of Inner City Unit. I didn't know Trev terribly well, but I wish I had. We talked once on the telephone, in an interview for Festivalized that unfortunately really came too early in the conception of the book and therefore was rather unfocused and didn't really relate to where the book went as it developed. I'd like to say that we knew each other across the ether – via e-mail and newsgroups – but that's not really what happened either, since we only exchanged a few messages, mainly when Trev was trying to drum up some interest in a revived Inner City Unit and thought it would be a good idea to try and get a retrospective feature published on the band, which was a sound idea but didn't come off, and once when I'd written press for the Barney Bubbles Memorial Gig, which he played at, and for which he sent me a very kind note saying that it was nice to have "professional promotional material for a change." So I didn't know him well and I'm sorry for that, really.

I think, though, that I've enough sense of him to understand exactly what Gregg means when he writes, of the EP's first track, 'State Of The Nation', that it was "great to get Trev [guesting on it] as this was right up his street." Indeed I can imagine that it was, punk-space-rock, three minutes twenty-five seconds so it's short and sharp and completely to the point but smart and catchy as hell as well and, as a new song written by Gregg, still just the epitome of the space-punk collision that Trev and Nik Turner and their cohorts in ICU had been playing back in the day. I bet Trev felt completely at home, righteously searing his lead guitar on this one and I'm bloody glad that it happened, and got recorded, and that it's out for us to revel in it. 'The state of the nation out of control / The state of the nation hitting an all time low'. Fucking great.

But Gregg's right to remind us that that was only one facet of what Trev's music was all about and was also spot-on in capturing Trev's "more reflective acoustic feel on 'Distant Dreams'. This one's another incredibly catchy piece, but more expansive and drifting, nearly seven idealised psychedelic minutes that lyrically riffs a bit on themes from In Search Of Space – oh, but Paradise 9 could in another life have been a really great Ladbroke Grove band of '69, '70 – and which captivates and enthrals in its dreamy haze.

Elsewhere here, 'Is This The Time' is a staccato cartoon-punk companion piece to 'State Of The Nation'; it's like this EP wants to travel back in time and be a vinyl release with a punk A-side and a psychedelic B-side. I wasn't as sold on this track, it just felt a little ordinary alongside the other tracks, though I can hear it being well-received live. Three out of four is a damned good strike rate though, and the 'other' psychedelic number here is a moody instrumental entitled 'Ocean Rise' with some pensive bass from Neil Matthars and what I guess is Gregg's clarinet giving a contemplative, even mournful, characteristic to the piece.

I like what they've given us here, but I love that they've made it in part such an articulate representation of Trev's musical qualities and that it takes such positive influences from him.

Osiris The Rebirth - Lost

Dave Adams and Miles Black were founder-members of Hawkwind tribute act Assassins of Silence and that made me a little cautious in approaching their regenerated incarnation of Dave's 'other' space rock project, Osiris. Now, before we all splutter coffee across our collective keyboards let's clarify that. Actually, I only managed to catch Assassins of Silence once, and that was on a night where the sound was somewhat 'challenged', but they struck me as highly entertaining and very good at what they were doing and I'm sorry that they don't seem to be playing their Hawk-covers around Oxfordshire and the Home Counties anymore as I'd certainly have liked to have caught them again. But, and here's the catch that generates just that modicum of caution in approaching Osiris The Rebirth, I do hear a lot of stuff that's so beholden to, or in awe of, Hawkwind that it fails to have its own vision and doesn't really breathe through its own lungs or beat with its own heart. I sometimes wish that there were more out there who'd take Hawkwind as a starting-point without then having to use their work as a finishing point as well; I want to hear more bands spotting where Hawkwind are on their musical map without then being rooted and routed to them as the only grid co-ordinates. So, members of a Hawkwind tribute band play their own space rock ... danger of unimaginative derivativeness ahead? As it happens ... absolutely not!

Actually, I'll give public thanks to these guys for sending over a couple of records that indeed have some themes and delivery styles in common with Hawkwind but who've very much struck out on their own path, building around the band a revolving set of collaborators and constructing a very smart brace of concept albums that owe something to you know who ... but which owe much more to these guys being excellent musicians with a keen sense of their own musical identity.

Their latest album is Lost, which I'll comment on in moment, but for perspective Milo also kindly sent me over a copy of their first, Remnants Of Life, and as we should start as close to the very beginning as possible – pausing to note that the very beginning would take us much further back, into the 1980s and Dave Adams's Osiris band from which some of his original material has been reworked here – let's think about what this part of their journey delivered, since Lost takes them off onto a different tangent in a lot of ways.

Remnants Of Life appeared in November 2009, featuring guest appearances from Nik Turner, Bridget Wishart, viper violinist Cyndee Lee Rule, and former Assassins keyboardist James Hodkinson among others. It's the certainly the more tangibly space rock of the pair, at least on first listen, kicking off with a spoken-word sequence, 'Phase Transition Initiate', that echoes 'Ground Control to Pilot' from Captain Lockheed, which appeared as the taped introduction to 'Ejection' in many Hawkwind shows, right down to 'the little white ones...' before heading out into the expansive sounds created by the busy drums and spacey guitar lead of 'Colgate Valentine'.

It's a vividly realised record, one that reminds you just how vibrant and wide-ranging this genre can be, as though Adams and Black are casting their eyes what's been done before, what could be realised in the future and what tangents and side-paths might be explored. At one point ('Siren') it seems that they've hit on a similar formula to Danny Faulkner's Pre-Med albums, all urgent keyboards and driving bass lines – dynamic, contemporary and highly charged - and at another they've let Nik Turner loose with some lovely and haunting flute music for his own 'Osiris' musings. They veer out of sci-fi and into fantasy, Kim Novak's strong and precise vocal delivery on 'Dragonslayer' repaying the sense of majesty that resonates within both its lyrics and music. 'Technology' I've tried hard to put my finger on – is it influenced by early Porcupine Tree? Perhaps in part, it has that progressive-rock feeling to it, and some ├╝ber-geek lyrics, but in its instrumental moments maybe there's also a touch of Pink Floyd.

In fact, there's a lot that's hugely exciting about Remnants Of Life, much of which is pulled together and conceptualised in the sprawling fifteen minute final track, 'End Of Something', the sort of number that cries out for replaying just as soon as it ebbs away in its final moments: arresting, intriguing and properly immense. If it were a sci-fi novel, it'd be a doorstep-sized space opera page-turner. It's an album that I've played a lot since receiving, and which I'll absolutely be playing a lot more in the future. Spot on stuff.

Lost is less immediately accessible than I found Remnants... to be, and it's also a little less space rock and a little more veering towards progressive rock with an overarching storyline that works or doesn't work according to your liking for concept works – I'm not as negative as I would have been a few years ago, though I'll confess to still not always being hugely enamoured at albums that attempt to roll-up their tracks into one opus idea, I'd guess that I've still enough punk rock running through my veins to want to be saying, "Give me a song .... Give me another song ... and again". So this one took a little longer to grow on me than its more upfront and forthright sibling did.

But, and it's a big but, it's a record that does repay putting just a little more effort into getting to know and understand it, and I'm immensely glad that I've made that effort, played it several times and learned to appreciate its quality and its qualities. You'll note, of course, my own riffing around the idea of 'quality' and it's deliberate since this album is studded with high quality work – highly professional musicianship (I love the mix of pride and frustration that seems to exist so that where more high profile players will note their sponsorship deals, that leads these guys announce "Dave & Milo exclusively use instruments and equipment bought with their own money"), brilliant vocal performances and some damned good songs.

It's a concept album, the mystery of the strange disappearance of Osiris Spacelanes flight 2317 on a routine hyperspace journey – as noted in a Stephen Hawking-styled preamble. It hangs onto that story through its nine tracks, a bit Star Trek – Voyager in conception perhaps, realised through extended pieces that the guys reflect on having "musical experimentation ... yes, there is space rock but also perhaps a heavier prog influence ... an unashamed homage to early '70s bands such as Camel, Caravan, Focus and their ilk." These are smooth pieces, with the lyrics ably delivered variously by Bridget Wishart, Underground Zero's Jude Merryweather, Tina Thomas, and, again, Remnants Of Life's simply wonderful Kim Novak, whose contributions to both RoL and here on the opus 'The Mirror Of Her Dreams' are such a compelling component.

So Lost is Dave and Miles stretching their creative legs even further than Remnants Of Life took them, reaching into a sort of space-progressive rock hybrid that also touches on pastoral moments and times when they break loose and create a genuine cacophony of sounds (again here their twenty-four-and-a-half minute 'The Mirror Of Her Dreams' with some really mad violin from Cyndee Lee Rule and equally manic saxophone from Erik Michael Shroeder). That's where I am on the need to put a little effort into absorbing this one. The sum of its parts are individually very good – the deliciously seductive 'Kneel At My Feet', the anthemic 'Look To The Future' with its vaguely Stranglers-esque keyboards, 'Brave New World' which starts as a though it's a riff on Hawkwind's 'Dreamworker' before moving through a range of moods and textures – but it's as a suite of music that it really delivers so well.

In the end, then, I've come to this band and these albums with some reservations and concerns, perhaps with some prejudices, but going back to that word 'quality' again, it's the quality that resonates throughout both of these CDs, quality of vision, quality of writing, musicianship and vocals, quality of conceptualisation, sheer quality of the end result that's going to keep bringing me back to these albums and which will keep me wanting to hear where Dave and Milo's eclectic vision is going to take them next.