Saturday, July 25, 2015

Live Review : Holydrug Couple/Dead Sea @ Espace B, Paris

(Dead Sea : photo - Johanna Audiffred)
Paris is already emptying out for the summer but fortunately there are still a few decent live shows dotted around for those of us who haven’t fucked off on holiday already, Espace B once again coming through with an off-season friendly between two of dream pop’s rising stars. Chilean shoegazers Holydrug Couple are in town as part of their summer European jaunt and their presence has brought out a flock of devotees who mill around outside in the evening sunshine whilst hometown newbies Dead Sea get things underway inside. Having ditched their original guitar-bass-drums set up for a sound propped up by twin banks of throbbing electronics the Parisians proceed to knock out a flawless display of cloud-hopping ‘Turbo Chillwave’ that hits the spot perfectly. For a band with one sole single to their name they’re impressively relaxed and natural, shifting effortlessly from warm electronica a la Boards of Canada through to shimmering indie pop in the vein of the vastly underrated White Poppy. Guitar lines break gently on the surface like bubbles in a champagne glass and vocalist Caro delivers a hypnotic performance pitched somewhere between Hope Sandoval’s intimate coo and the velvet-lined croon of Beach House’s Victoria Legrand. They intersperse their songs with rushes of wave effects to keep the mood up and everything they do is cool, calm and confident – not bad for a band with only a handful of live performances under their belt. If they can transfer the quality of their live show onto vinyl when they record their debut LP later in the year they’ll almost certainly have a hit on their hands – as for now keyboardist Charles tells me they’re off surfing for the summer. One to watch, definitely.

(Holydrug Couple : photo - Johanna Audiffred)
Holydrug Couple have a tall order to follow that but thankfully they’ve come prepared for a challenge. The Santiago duo – rounded out to a four-piece for live duties – were picked up Brooklyn’s highly regarded Sacred Bones records a couple of years back and their second LP ‘Moonlust’ which landed in May should see them graduate to the upper tier of today’s international shoegaze scene. Their sound takes on the widescreen thinking of ‘Primary Colours’-era Horrors but douses the flames with a generous infusion of weightless electro, Air’s blissful Virgin Suicides soundtrack emerging as a stylistic signpost. Any risk of it all getting too pink and fluffy are curbed by frontman Ives Sepulveda’s noodling guitar solos that are characterised by gorgeous tone as well as liberal abuse of his various effects pedals. The boy’s not afraid to think big and I’d be willing to bet his parents had the odd LP by Zappa or Gilmour-era Pink Floyd knocking around the house when he was a nipper. The packed crowd lap it all up eagerly and we witness the emergence of what I’ve decided to term a ‘swirlpit’ – a congregation of transfixed female spectators front of stage cavorting like Kate Bush on an early 80s edition of Top of the Pops. Local hearts are won over yet there’s a lingering feeling that this could have been even better – the band’s multi-textured soundscapes are a challenge to reproduce live and between their swapping of instruments and frequent stage visits from the venue’s beleaguered soundman some of the momentum drains from what would otherwise have been a streamlined rush of sublime noise. As it is we leave nurturing the hope that we’ll get to see them top tonight’s performance as their star continues to rise and their swirlpit grows inexorably wider.

Dead Sea's 'Keep It High' single is available as a free download here and you can check out Holydrug Couple's impressive back catalogue over here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

John's best of 2015 so far (the rest of the world outside France)

Hi again everyone,

Seeing as my previous list focussed exclusively on the French scene, here's a rundown of my favourite records so far this year from everywhere else! Part Two will follow in due course.

xxx John

20. Zenker Brothers - Immersion

Kicking us off are these Teutonic Techno tykes who dropped this intriguing little package back in February. The Zenkers do it the way I like it to be done, building from the floor up in a scheming, elusive style a la Autechre and their 90s knob-twiddling ilk - each of the ten tracks here expands on a sole motif to layer and construct, eschewing basic capture and release dynamics to instead allow tremulous influences in like undercover agents to infiltrate and master momentum. 'Immersion' evokes just that, a boffin-like exploration of the genre amidst leather bound tomes, bubbling flasks and late night sessions scrutinising musical dynamics to fashion a plot for global domination. They might not be there just yet but someone out there needs to set up a file on these kids cos they're surely bound for planet-quaking glory sometime soon.

Check out : 'High Club', six streamlined minutes of industrial plate tectonics.

19. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Chasing Yesterday

Much like his 90s cultural counterpoint Dave Grohl, Noel has wised up to the fact that keeping your media profile high with a string of well-crafted press quips means that you get to relax and put out fairly safe musical releases every few years without people getting on your case about it. However whilst I'd rather drink cement than listen to the Foos run through the same 'Dude! Awesome riff!' shtick for the umpteenth time I've a little more room in my life for Noel and his relaxed take on post Oasis-indie. Call it parochial English prejudice if you like, I just feel he's not so much playing to the gallery as just doing what he loves. 'Chasing Yesterday' isn't the sort of thing he would have knocked out on a diet of gak 'n' Fosters in mid 90s Manchester when he still had a point to prove with everyone but it follows on nicely from those days, showing the same bloke twenty years on happy in the knowledge that seniority affords you the opportunity to do it your own way and at your own pace. The results are reliably anthemic and mellow as a sunny weekend afternoon, even slightly soulful in places and a rich, layered production job gives this new set of songs a robust quality that'll stand up to repeated listens in public and in private. He gets to noodle around on his guitar a bit more than his previous solo offering and there's enough here to rival any pretenders to the throne in the live setting as we saw last month in Place de la Republique. Carry on sir, your legacy remains firmly intact.

Check out : 'You Know We Can't Go Back', the spirit of mid 90s Oasis is alive and well.

18. Beat Spacek - Modern Streets

Steve Spacek's day job as one half of up tempo beat merchants Africa Hitech is obviously only one part of the man's personality - if their stellar '93 Million Miles' LP from a couple of years back was the sound of him in full flight then 'Modern Streets' is a more intimate portrait of the guy away from the white heart of urban clubland. This LP is like one of those heart to hearts you have in the chillout room as beats and bass rebound off the adjacent wall, sensations dulled by excess only now making their way to the surface for closer examination. We're not talking dour introspection here, just a more tempered journey through the bass music he knows and loves. When it landed back in January I inevitably lumped this in with Kele's fabulous 'Trick' LP from late last year and there's still a case to be made for back to back listening, Spacek tracing the controlled downward trajectory from the former Bloc Party man's equally well-plotted ascendancy - the sparkle and fade of sensations chronicled each time with the same grin-inducing accuracy and reassuring lust for life. This is subtle enough not to stick out but way too good to miss out on completely.

Check out : 'Inflight Wave', dipping and soaring between Sub Bass and Skytouching House.

17. Jaga Jazzist - Starfire

I'll be there first to admit that the prospect of Norwegian Space Jazz didn't exactly fill me with enthusiasm when this came across my radar but then again sometimes it pays to keep an open mind. And so it proved for 'Starfire' turns out to be an absolutely mesmerising trawl across the cosmos, drawing its themes out across expansive swathes of disco shimmer, muscular rock dynamics and the more mischievous side of spaced-out Prog. If you can imagine Hawkwind, Daft Punk and the sort of session virtuosos that used to back up Frank Zappa taking turns to soundtrack the genesis and demise of a planet then you're probably in the right solar system. That this could easily have turned into a jizz-soaked exercise in self aggrandisement goes without saying but it's not just the simple fact that it didn't that makes 'Starfire' so appealing, it's that they've managed to set such lofty goals - in this case forging a musical map of how constellations are viewed from different vantage points around the world - and pulled it off with such gob-smacking panache. Unlike many of my other choices here this record is well and truly unique - even if your most basic interests tell you to run a mile, don't. Next time you're looking for an asteroid the size of a loaf of bread several gazillion light years away, consider this the most appropriate soundtrack.

Check out : that title track, a nine-minute space odyssey that'll blow your tiny mind.

16. Raekwon - Fly International Luxurious Art

You know what I realised when the whole Wu reunion thing came together at the end of last year? Two things : first, the solo records were always better than the collective efforts and second, Raekwon was always my personal fave. He was apparently the sticking point in getting the original crew back together and I suspect he may have been saving his best for releases in his own name so if 'A Better Tomorrow' didn't live up to your expectations then direct your attentions here for a blast of how it used to be done. The Chef hasn't gone soft over the years nor has he made concessions to his own self-perception as an unchallenged genius so 'FILA' struts forth like it's the most important Hip Hop record of this or any other year. Popular opinion might not echo that sentiment but he's still on top of his game and this return to form sees him gobble his way through another set of lyrical delights, pinging lines off various guests here including Snoop, Rick Ross and his old counterfoil Ghostface Killah to hit the dizzy heights of his mid 90s heyday. The boy's getting a little tubby these days but he can still verbal run rings round any of his younger rivals. 

Check out : 'Heated Nights', a revivalist dose of ghetto storytelling for the new age.

15. Bjork - Vulnicura

Bjork’s latest fits into that unique bracket of records I’m proud to own yet reluctant to listen to, airings reserved for moments of dour reflection or brittle vulnerability of my own. She’s light years away from the bleep-bloop of her chirpier material here and in full chasm-gazing introspection mode, the production job from museum indie nerd The Haxan Cloak only bringing the weighty lyrical atmospherics into harsher focus. It’s almost as if she’s grown weary of the romantic dreamscapes that have lit up her material in days gone by and now feels the need to survey the emotional fall-out from perhaps one failed relationship too many with the same unwavering accuracy that made her loved-up output so irresistible. If it were anyone else you’d maybe just leave her to it but we’ve had too many good times for me to just turn off when her smile starts to fade and ‘Vulnicura’ shows her dazzle in a whole new lugubrious spotlight, wounds laid bare with characteristic accuracy but still searching for that twinkling light that’ll guide her to better times. Singers only retain long term fans if they can successfully chronicle the transition between different stages of their lives on record and she’s proven here that tragedy and comedy are both well within her repertoire. We’re maybe moving into the stage of her career where she produces her best work as the wheels come off completely….I almost can’t bear to watch. If ‘Big Time Sensuality’ was her ‘Wizard Of Oz’ moment then this is her ‘A Star Is Born’, a time to chronicle the damage in all its disarming sincerity. Like so many times before, this is absolutely stunning stuff.

Check out : the full ten-minute promo clip for 'Black Lake'.....spellbinding.

14. Kolsch - 1983

Rune Reilly Kolsch has been knocking out Ibiza-friendly techno since the late 90s to pay the rent but over the last few years he's turned his not inconsiderable talents to crafting more progressive fare for a spot of irresistible throb 'n' bounce over two stonking LPs on Kompact records. '1983' lands, rather perplexingly, two years down the line from 2013's '1977' which initially made me think he was aiming for a brutally atavistic series along the lines of David Peace's Red Riding quadrilogy but thankfully the results are rather less traumatic, showcasing the big screen thrills he's mastered over the years cranking our floorfillers to craft a deftly-handled dose of sky-skating techno tunes ideal tailor made for sunshine, sea air and vigorous exercise. William Orbit-style string samples intermingle with pulsating spirals of Laurent Garnier-esque Art House Techno for a musical voyage that's as effortlessly graceful as it is engagingly danceable. If you've been waiting for an adequate soundtrack to your questionable overseas behaviour this summer, consider this the perfect fit.

Check out : 'The Road' - if the journey sounds this good then the destination must be pretty fantastic.

13. Viet Cong - s/t

It’s a fairly established route these days : team up with a posse of intense, sallow-faced blokes your own age, hang around libraries dressed in black reading about totalitarian massacres and schooling yourself on bleak, tinny post punk before dashing off to the recording studio and trying to come up with something listenable. Canada’s Viet Cong tick all those boxes nicely to get their foot in the door but promptly ping off in all sorts of intriguing directions on this quality-heavy seven track debut, robotic vocals going head to head with taut guitar lines and skittering drumbeats as they layer their ideas thick enough to flesh out what started life as a skinny cassette demo into a sinewed drill sergeant of an LP. Like most of the genre’s best loved talents (Wire, PIL, Gang Of Four) they use the whole brittle guitar line thing as a launchpad for exploring a range of sounds rather than a songwriting template in itself and there’s an impressive scope here on what is basically just an EP with benefits – I’d be keen to see whether or not they can hack a 45-minute live set on the back of this but it’s nonetheless a thrilling introduction to their world. Jangling 11-minute coda ‘Death’ hints that their next step will be anything but predictable so keep this frequency clear for another ruthless deployment before too long.

Check out : 'Continental Shelf', another floor filler for the Stalinist bunker.

12. Czarfare - Every Hero Needs A Villain

Hip Hop is certainly plenty in the news at the moment although there are perhaps strings attached to the genre’s place in the media spotlight, namely that every rap album that comes out is now expected to either soundtrack the ongoing malaise of urban America or act as a reflection of its worst characteristics. Seems that if a record doesn’t fit into the current Tumblr social justice worldview of good and evil it gets overlooked completely, so keen are we all to satisfy our own need to feel ethically validated by our listening experience that we forget why we got into rap in the first place. Whatever happened to just entertaining people and moving a few butts? Don’t get me wrong, I like that Kendrick Lamar LP too but I elected to overlook it for this selection because it’s already crowded out with overzealous critical praise placing the bar wayyyy to high for him to possibly satisfy. And don’t even get me started on Kanye West….Anyway, if you yearn for a bit of good old fashioned lyrical dexterity, goofy humour and overactive imagination then you could do a lot worse than nabbing Czarface’s devastating second LP that brings a refreshing dose of comic book theatrics, cinematic samples and stellar beatbox dynamics to the mix for 2015. Bolstered by a chrome-plated production job from Inspectah Deck (there’s that Wu-nostalgia rearing its head again), rappers 7L and Esoteric fire lines off each other like the Ultramagnetics in full flight with Kool Keith himself featuring in a list of guest appearances regrouping the cream of past and present that rounds out a thrilling setlist of verbal gymnastics and clinical cut ‘n’ thrust. Whilst it’s perhaps guilty of not offering solutions to all the world’s problems, ‘Every Hero….’ Delivers enough of Hip Hop’s most potent ingredients to leave you thoroughly satisfied.  

Check out : 'Nightcrawler', the boys juggling lyrics with Mr Meth to craft an instant classic.

11. Swervedriver - I Wasn't Born To Lose You

Whilst shoegaze nostalgics like myself are rabidly enthusiastic about seeing the bands we were too young to catch first time round get back together and hit the road again twenty years down the line, the prospect of them actually recording new material is one often met with a good deal more trepidation. After all, if they quit while they were ahead then why ruin it by curling out another half-arsed effort just to please the record company? Thankfully the Swervies (who, unlike Slowdive and Ride I’ve still yet to see live) had their heads on straight when they hit the studio again to tape this worthy addition to their canon and ‘I Wasn’t Born To Lose You’ taps into the warm momentum and weightless glide that fuelled their best moments back in the day. Indeed when you listen back to their 90s stuff it becomes apparent that they were perhaps the most consistent of the shoegaze bands in LP format, their four full lengths between 1991 and 1997 bridging the gap nicely between the UK’s early 90s dream pop scene and the more visceral crunch of MTV alt-rock later in the decade. In that context consider this not only a welcome reminder of their talents but also a prompt to go back and immerse yourself in the sun-drenched fuzz of their heyday, ideally cranked up high with a pair of sunglasses and a cool beverage at hand. Summer’s starting to feel pretty good right now.  

Check out : 'Autodidact' - hey, if it ain't broke......