Saturday, 1 August 2020

The final lockdown

Yep, this really is it. Is This The Life? is going back to sleep. You may have noticed (or not) I've been doing some R.E.M. stuff for JC over at The (New) Vinyl Villain and will continue to do so. That's been fun up to now, far more fun than writing stuff for this place. Plus people actually read Jim's blog!

I'm signing off with something very loud, very heavy and very, very good. Japanese experimentalists Boris must be one of the most prolific bands in existence. Their discography is vast and complex so I'm not even going to hazard a guess at how many albums they've put out, but it's not unusual for them to release more than one album a year, with or without collaborators. No two albums sound the same, different styles are interwoven throughout their output over the years. Last year's 'LφVE & EVφL' sat proudly on my top 50 albums of 2019.

Boris' latest record was released a few weeks ago. Entitled 'NO', it harks back in places to their roots as a doom metal band, but it mainly has lots of of hardcore, thrash and black metal coursing through its veins. The songs are short - only three breach the five minute mark, with most clocking in at less than 3 - out of step with much of their other recent material. But these bursts of angry disgust provide the perfect soundtrack to our world right now. The band describes the album as "extreme healing music", a frantic catharsis in which the anger and frustrations many of us feel right now can be released in the form of a primal scream therapy with very, very loud guitars.

No, it's not for everybody, probably hardly anyone who's still reading, in fact. But for me, right now, this is aural heaven and is where this blog ends for the foreseeable future. I'm gone. Here's Anti-Gone. Stay safe.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The Lockdown posts: Welsh Wednesday 2020 #10

Rabbit Hole by SERA

(This originally appeared last Wednesday for a few hours until I learned of Tim Smith's sad passing. So I replaced it with a piece about Tim and held it over to this week to avoid it getting lost.)

SERA has been making music for a number of years now, both under her current moniker and as Sarah Louise. A North Walian with Polish heritage, she composes songs in Welsh and English and has released a series of singles since her debut album in 2016.

Rabbit Hole came out last summer and is a little gem, a mischievous folk song with a slightly ominous vibe. SERA releases most of her stuff on her Soundcloud page, and I highly recommend a visit.

This is the final post of the series. It's a good way to bow out, I reckon.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Singing to God: Tim Smith RIP

What a shit day. The genius that is Tim Smith, beloved frontman of Cardiacs, passed away in his sleep through the night. He is already sadly missed, despite his chronic illnesses meaning he hasn't made music for more than 10 years. At least we knew he was still here.

I'd like to point you towards my Tim Smith series from a few years back, even if you already know and love his work as much as I do. I'll be adding YouTube clips to the posts over the next day or so you can hear the great man's voice again. In the meantime though, here's a couple of songs to tide you over.

Rest easy Tim. Sing to God, and make sure she grants you your every wish.

(Today's Welsh Wednesday post has been replaced and will appear next week instead...)

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

The Lockdown posts: Welsh Wednesday 2020 #9

Full Moon Vulture by Alffa

Alffa hail from Llanrug, a village near Caernarfon in North Wales. They're a duo very much in the Royal Blood mould, and somewhat predictably cite the likes of the White Stripes, Black Keys and Jimi Hendrix as influences. They've only been together five years, but there's something of a buzz about them already - in 2019, despite only having two singles out at the time, Spotify named them the most streamed Welsh language act of all time, garnering three million streams.

Since then, a full-length album has been released, the bi-lingual (and dual-titled) 'Rhyddid o’r Cysgodion Gwenwynig / Freedom from the Poisonous Shadows', featuring their first English language single Full Moon Vulture. 'Tis a bit of a beast of a song in truth, certainly bigger than a two-piece line-up suggests.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

The Lockdown posts: Welsh Wednesday 2020 #8

Love Forever by Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard

It's the height of summer so time for a summer anthem. Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard hail from our capital, Cardiff, and have the second-silliest band name in this series. They make what can best be thought of as psychedelic glam rock, or what they themselves describe as “70s sheep in badly-made wolves clothing.”

Led by brothers Tom and Ed Rees (whose dad once drummed for the Bay City Rollers, no less), they've become huge favourites in their hometown and have released a string of the most catchy singles you're likely to come across on You Tube. They also provided last year's Homeless World Cup, held in Cardiff, with its official theme song. Their latest release, the 'Non-Stop' EP features 10 songs, which makes it the EP with the most songs ever released probably. I'm guessing ('cause I haven't heard it at the time of writing) some of the tracks are really short, but still, EP? It's out this week anyway.

The so-called EP doesn't contain today's track Love Forever, sadly. It was released last August and, to me at least, sums up all the best bits of Welsh psych-pop in the tradition of Sibrydion, Yr Ods and, of course, Super Furry Animals. Try listening to it without grinning your face off. It really is an antidote to the shit happening right now.

In a parallel universe where everything is better than the really fucked up one we're in, Love Forever would be being belted out at every festival on the planet.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

The Lockdown posts: Welsh Wednesday 2020 #7

Paper Cups by Bryde

If Welsh Wednesday was still running when Bryde released her first album, she would undoubtedly have featured. Which is why I'm now taking the opportunity to introduce her to the uninitiated. Bryde is Sarah Howells from the west Wales port of Milford Haven. She formed her first band JYLT with her best friend Nia aged just 10. Tragically, Nia died of leukaemia at just 21.

Undeterred, Sarah continued playing, both as touring guitarist for Danish singer-songwriter Tina Dico, and as half of Paper Aeroplanes, who actually had a Welsh Wednesday post way back here, releasing two albums and receiving much acclaim. Sarah has also made a number of vocal contributions to trance records by the likes of Lange, First State and Paul van Dyk.

She launched her solo project Bryde in 2016 and released her debut album in 2018. There were some cracking tunes on there, as there are on her brand new record 'The Volume Of Things' which came out in May. Paper Cups has a 360° video, which means you can drag your mouse around the screen to reveal different elements. Don't get too excited, it's only got a dinosaur in it.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

The Lockdown posts: Welsh Wednesday 2020 #6

Throw It Up by Seazoo

Seazoo featured in the original Welsh Wednesday series. Since then, they've released two full-length albums, including this year's 'Joy'. An apt album title because it's given me quite a bit of that these past few months. If you've not encountered Seazoo before, they're from North Wales and play lo-fi indie pop with a typically quirky Welsh feel to it.

Here's Throw It Up, one of the tracks from said new album.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

The Lockdown posts: The WYCRA 200 articles #2

A few weeks after I wrote the Manics article, SWC and Badger asked me for another contribution and I was tasked with writing about someone who I'd followed since my first year in college aged just 16. I duly obliged with this piece.

THE WYCRA 200 #75
Human Behaviour - Björk

You couldn't make it up really. When I got involved in the boys' shenanigans involving their fave songs ever, the planets just sort of aligned. They sent me a song by the Manic Street Preachers, not only one of my fave bands, but practically local to my current place of residence. My long-running Welsh Wednesday series over at my place was still going, and Wales were taking Euro 2016 by storm. So I offered to do another one for them, and what happens? Badger only goes and send me a Björk track. I love Björk. No, I don't actually. I fucking ADORE her. I was also planning to do a series on the Icelandic music scene, and Iceland had also taken Euro 2016 by storm. Coincidence?

I remember when Human Behaviour came out (June 1993). I had been a massive fan of the Sugarcubes and Björk was, for me, the quirkiest pop star on the planet. I was gutted when they split as I had never managed to see them live, and let's face it, three albums was simply not enough. You can imagine my excitement when I heard Björk was going solo and that within a year of the 'Cubes break-up, her first single would be out.

I don't know why, but I was expecting something very different to Human Behaviour, something - I dunno - more indie? The final Sugarcubes release was a brilliant album of remixes featuring some of the top producers of the time (Justin Robertson, Todd Terry, Marius deVries, etc) so I should have been prepared for something a little more electronic I suppose. But no, I heard Human Behaviour and my heart sunk.

There was a girl who worked in the indie record shop I spent far too much time and money in who, for some reason, had a massive crush on me. I found her a little scary, mainly because she was a few years older than me, and I'd never had anyone take such an interest in me like that before. One afternoon, she dropped by my work and gave me a bag that clearly had a record in it. "I got you a present," she said. "I thought of you when it came in." It was the 12" of Human Behaviour.

I've come to like Human Behaviour quite a bit in the intervening years. Those timpani drums that echo throughout in time (and tune) with the bass make it sound all brooding and ominous. There's a lot of cool stuff going on in it, and it's not all that electronic-sounding really. Some nice growling guitars, an understated rustling snare drum and, of course, Björk's voice at the centre of it all. It's masterfully put together, a great production by Nellee Hooper. In fact, it's not unlike Massive Attack in places, probably for that reason.

The album - craftily-titled 'Debut', even though it was actually Björk's second solo effort, following some 16 years after this - sounds rather dated to these ears nowadays. Human Behaviour still stands up, probably because it is the least electronic track on it. I also still love Crying. But the trouble with electronic music is that it rarely stands the test of time, the sounds get left behind as the technology changes. A lot of 'Debut' suffers from that, I reckon.

I have grown into Björk's solo career over the years. 'Biophilia' is one of my favourite records of the decade - Crystalline floors me every time - and she remains one of pop's most interesting characters at a time when people making pop records have become so incredibly dull and boring. Maybe one day she'll run out of ideas and call it a day, but I doubt it'll be any time soon.

Oh, in case you were wondering about the girl from the record shop and I - it didn't really develop. She was a nice girl and all, but really not my type. I suppose I could have strung her along in the hope of getting more free records, but I'm not that kind of guy. Not exactly SWC and Our Price Girl, I'm afraid...

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

The Lockdown posts: Welsh Wednesday 2020 #5

Army Of Two by Jack Perrett

Some homegrown talent on display today. Jack Perrett is from Newport. Hurray! He's been performing since 2014 and has received plaudits from all and sundry across Wales and beyond. There are no frills with Jack - he's a straightforward indie singer-songwriter who has been compared to the likes of Jake Bugg, Stone Roses, and other such luminaries.

He's a big Newport County fan, performing at matches on a number of occasions. In fact, his paen to his hometown Portlife (a pastiche of a little known song from some 25 years ago...) is often played over the PA at home games. He also supports other Newport sports teams including St Julians Rugby Club and the Riot City Ravens roller derby league, which is based approximately 100 paces from my house!

Army Of Two was a single he released last year, and in the video there's two of him - a Liam and a Noel. you'll see what I mean. Good tune.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

The Lockdown posts: The WYCRA 200 articles #1

Most, if not all of my readers will remember a wonderful blog that once existed called When You Can't Remember Anything (WYCRA), hosted by the dynamic duo of South West Correspondent (SWC) and the late Tim Badger. How these two were so consistently funny and brilliant never ceased to amaze me. After WYCRA came to an unexpected end, they reformed a while later with the equally brilliant The Sound Of Being OK (TSOBO), this time joined by the wonderful Kay (KC/KT).

Devastatingly, as we know, Tim passed away suddenly last year and it knocked everyone for six. As such, TSOBO closed for good. However, I did have the enormous honour of writing a couple of pieces for the boys under the WYCRA banner as part of their series entitled The WYCRA 200, in which they listed their top 200 tracks and asked friends and contributors to write about some of them too. The list never reached its conclusion, but I did do a couple of articles for them which, for posterity's sake, I've decided to reproduce here. As they didn't pay me for my work (and I'm certainly not cheap), I've assumed the Copyright on the articles so publish and be damned, I figure!

I don't recall when they were originally published, but the date stamp on the Word documents I wrote them in show they were written in the summer of 2016. Here's the first one.

THE WYCRA 200 - #101
Spectators Of Suicide [Heavenly version] - Manic Street Preachers

Funny how things turn out, isn't it? When asked for a number by SWC and Badger, I plumped, totally randomly, for 101. And so it is that the writer of a 100-part series on Welsh music and a fan of the Manic Street Preachers ends up with a Manics tune to write about. Who'd've thunk it, eh?

SWC insists that the version of Spectators of Suicide to be critiqued here is the one that appeared on the b-side of the original release of You Love Us on the Heavenly label in 1991. Most people will be more familiar with the re-recorded take that turned up on the debut album 'Generation Terrorists' the following year. Both versions are radically different to each other, both in terms of the music, the vocals and the overall mood. Opinion is generally split amongst fans over which is the superior version.

There are several reasons why Spectators Of Suicide is such a notable moment in the Manics' history. It is, apparently, the track where label bosses at Heavenly decided the Manics were a proper band and should be taken seriously. It was also the first clear indication of the band's manifesto, a distillation of their core ideals and themes that would shape their future output. Spectators... is essentially an anti-capitalist song, though it reflects the tiredness and resignation of those who have tried, and failed, to fight the system. James' vocals on this version are weary and subdued, singing Richey's words with a sigh:

The only free choice is the refusal to pay / Life reduced to suicidal comforting

While held in high regard by many fans, there are various conflicting elements in this original that may lie behind the reasons for the song being redone for the album. For starters, the opening sample of Black Panthers founder Bobby Seale urging his audience to rise up against the government is at odds with the song's passivity. And while James' vocal does live up to the feelings expressed in the lyrics, it perhaps underplays the power of the words within. They kind of get lost among the guitars which at times just seem a little too edgy and bright.

The subsequent album version changed the dynamic. The acoustic guitars present in the original were much more prominent with the electrics tamed somewhat, not only set further back in the mix, but also predominantly swathed in effects. Sean's drums were more restrained and complimented with other percussion, while James employed his trademark higher-register voice to belt out the despair and anguish of the lyrics.

I could make the case for the album version being the better one, but this is SWC and Badger's list, not mine. Besides, the original should be judged on its own merits and it has long been heralded as one of the first signs of the Manics' true qualities as a band. It hinted that there might just be some substance behind the eyeliner.

Here's that original version, which later appeared on the b-sides compilation 'Lipstick Traces':

And here's the re-recorded version from the debut album: