Enigmatic experimental electro band Snowman had an unusual genesis, consisting of Europeans and an Indonesian who grew up in Perth and formed a band. They won the Next Big Thing competition in 2004 and a 2005 WAMI for Favourite Newcomer. Further awards, tours with big name bands and two albums followed, before Snowman relocated to London in 2008. Now they’ve decided to call it a day, but not before releasing their third CD Absence. This is a band that creates music like broad canvases, with the colours running together, rather than precise portraits. The opening track Snakes and Ladders features finger snapping percussion and hazy lyrics that drift in an amorphous cloud. Individual melodies appear and vanish, rising and falling rapidly just like the song title in this acoustic game. Hyena kicks off with a welter of clanging instruments in a percussive frenzy similar to that employed by Shearwater. The primitive chant “Hyena, hyena” stands out clearly above other vocals that are lost in a maze of echoes. White Wall uses a simple mesmerising melody, which morphs slowly into tribal drums. Séance dazzles with its screeching jungle sounds, ghostly lyrics backed by a rising operatic siren’s call, and gongs similar to the Gamelan orchestra employed by Mike Oldfield in Incantations. Absence is a deliberately mysterious, atmospheric maze of chamber filling sound. However, its allure is reduced by the similarly in song formats that dulls the listener’s attention.
The Middle East’s debut is a thrilling collection of dramatic contrasts between light and shadow. The extreme range of themes, leaping between darkness and frivolousness, is well portrayed by the cover; the grim reaper, arm in arm with a clothed banana.
Opener Black Death 1349 achieves its ghostly atmosphere, as the music fades in and out in intensity like a plastic bag rising and falling on wind gusts. The similarly eerie My Grandma Was Pearl Hall, with a Tom Waits style stagger in the vocals, processes haltingly against a low tone that hovers menacingly in the background. Its lingering finish features tip toeing piano, its notes falling like tears into a bath.
The album then shifts up three gears into more up tempo folk, from the toe tapping playfulness of Jesus Came to My Birthday Party to the hand clapper Months. The deep, bluesy Mount Morgan portrays the band’s love of the experimental, exploring the limits of the folk genre. The Middle East’s music has a fragile quality, which can be almost overwhelmed by the background chatter at gigs, but this production has captured the full depth and richness of their sound.
Bill Callahan, whether under his own name or using his now retired Smog moniker, has been delivering off kilter songs bout love, obsession, death, horses and confusion for over 20 years. Apparently he stopped using Smog because he didn’t like the way the ‘mog’ part looked on album covers. He could be bullshiting – it’s hard to tell with Callahan. His dry wit and straight delivery often makes it hard to figure what is going on in that fractured mind. What is clear though is that Callahan is moving away from cryptic lyricism to a more personal narrative.
Take America! for example – a terse pulsating number that is neither a disrespectful sideswipe at his native country nor tongue-in-cheek satire, but something approaching straight up historical analysis in song form. Albeit one with occasional bursts of squalid atonal jugular riffing amongst acres of sparse repetitive grooves. And if anyone does sparse repetition well – it’s Callahan. Throbbing tightly coiled fingerpicked nylon stringed repetition. On Universal Applicant he makes a break and layers on jaunty North African-esque guitar flicks and rhythms before dropping in a delicate prog-folk coda. Stunning and unexpected.
Throughout it all that sonorous honey-soaked voice remains front and centre, floating above instrumentation with elegant effortlessness. Every song here, bar one, extends beyond the five minute mark so don’t go expecting immediacy. Or Cold Blooded Old Times. Callahan is getting dangerously close to diminishing returns and sadly Apocalypse is only a faltering victory for Admiral Chugginton.
They’re a bit more experimental this time around but the hard-rocking renaissance of Jebediah with their latest record Kosciuszko is hard to fault. Opener Lost My Nerve is dark and angry (in other words, pure grunge), complete with thrashy guitars and warbling synth basslines that create a chaotic ending. There’s something really irrepressible about first single She’s Like a Comet, as the highlights include the offbeat drum accents of The Lash and the oddly Melbourne-esque To Your Door puts harmonies against a boppy blues rock beat, along with my favourite, the uptempo Control – with a fast paced acoustic guitar that moves into a Dinosaur Jr-esque rocker with sweet and glorious lead breaks, as frontman Kevin Mitchell muses “Where did I go wrong? I don’t want to be in control again.” Drum machines and vocoders pop up here and there, on songs like the urgently bombastic Under Your Bed and the eerily serene Oxygen, but who cares? Why should Jebediah or any other rock band take themselves so seriously that they have to be strictly tied to drums-bass-guitar? Kosciuszko boasts a mutated but hypnotic mix of musical elements, all within a fast-paced rock album brimming with excitement, experimentation and sometimes near brilliance. Three words – Must Have. Kosciuszko. Now! Oh wait...
One night (and it was quite literally, as our favourite sons of sleaze The Hell City Glamours would have it, for one night only) in 2008 punk legends XRS took up the cudgels again for a performance at London’s equally legendary Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, the results of which are offered up here for both your listening AND viewing pleasure – and surprisingly dandy they are too.
Star of the show is obviously vocalist (and lone survivor from the band’s halcyon days) Poly Styrene, whose dementoid-on-the-edge-of hysteria (imagine an even angrier female version of John Lydon) banshee wail is amazingly sounding stronger than ever, especially on material from the band’s seminal debut, Germ Free Adolescents, almost all of which is given a pipe-opening run here. Award for best supporting saxophonist goes to the enigmatically named Flash, whose driving horn tootling really adds drive to every song, lifting them out of the three-chords-and-the-truth quagmire they might otherwise have become bogged down in.
Highlights are the ever ferocious Oh Bondage Up Yours! (which appears twice, once as set opener and once as well deserved encore), a steamrollering version of their magnificent blank generation anthem Identity and the title track of that storied debut, though there’s something to like wherever you drop the needle if you’re so minded. A great album for fans old and new alike, and a fitting epitaph to Ms Styrene who sadly passed away a couple of weeks ago. Raise a glass when you listen.
Warrant: archetypal one hit hair metal wonders or serious hard rockin’ legacy pedlars? Their new album, Rockaholic does absolutely nothing to decide this most important of questions, but if you’re a fan of brainless, big-chorused gonzo hysteria then you’ll do worse than waste an hour listening to this whilst pretending to get to the bottom of the conundrum. The worst thing that Rockaholic has going for it is that vocalist and main songwriter Jani Lane flew the coop years ago, so there’s absolutely nothing here in the league of a Big Talk, an Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, of course, the ubiquitous Cherry Pie. What there is, is some general issue stackheeled strut that at times sounds like none other than Canberra’s very own Tonk, thanks to a fleeting vocal resemblance between new Warrant throatsmith Robert Mason and the man Jinx. The rockers are of course mixed in with some big production number ballads, the best of which, Home, is almost up there with the bands best efforts in the field.
There’s too much filler mid album – bands still feel the need to fill a CD even if they ain’t gotst the material to do the job – and after the excellent latter-day Jovi pop rock of What Love Can Do the album drifts until a couple of corkers at the end let the it go out on a high and leave you feeling good about the whole thing. Not perfect, but pretty good nonetheless.
Surely we're due a '90s revival any day now. In fact, the proliferation of flannel around town might suggest it's already begun. Either way, when it does hit and the kids start trading in their synthesisers for Jazzmasters, London's Yuck are well poised to spearhead the revolt.
Borne from the holy trinity of Dinosaur Jr's You're Living All Over Me, Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, Yuck began as guitarists Daniel Blumberg and Max Bloom: childhood friends who, in their mid-teens, formed and later defected from hotly-tipped British indie-popsters Cajun Dance Party. Yuck's self-titled debut stands as a testament to the band's strong songwriting, as it was recorded on the most meagre of set-ups: a couple of mics into a Tascam Portastudio – which sell for under 200 bucks on ebay – and all of it mixed in Garageband. Of course, songs like The Wall and the Yo La Tengo-esque Georgia would sound great recorded through a hearing aid in a rusty milk pail. While the wonderfully daft lyrics of the latter – “tryin' to make it through the wall/you can see me if you're tall/looking over” – reveal little, they serve to support some infectious vocal melodies. Though much of the album revels in walls of guitars that at turns buzz, snarl, squeal and swirl, almost an equal part is made up of more restrained, plaintive fare. From here, it'll be interesting to see where Yuck head next.