[ALBUM REVIEW] All Hail Bright Futures by And So I Watch You From Afar

To those who know them, Belfast-based And So I Watch You From Afar are renowned for their distinct brand of noisy, instrumental math-rock. Here I review their third release, the optimistically-titled All Hail Bright Futures.
And So I Watch You From Afar - All Hail Bright Futures

And So I Watch You From Afar – All Hail Bright Futures

The album does not start with the bang that I had expected from the last two albums. Eunoia is a cheery-sounding build-up which immediately has me curious. Have I picked up the right album here? Is this really ASIWYFA? As if to dispel the myth, Big Thinks Do Remarkable explodes onto the scene, and I’m on an auditory sugar-rush. Clearly this is still the sound of the Belfast lads, just overdosed on happiness.

There’s lots of new stuff to talk about in this release, most notably the presence of some proper vocals. Coming from such an instrumentally-focused band, this may come as a surprise to many. Numerous tracks include chanting, repeated vocals – the aforementioned Big Thinks Do RemarkableThe Stay Golden and Young Brave Minds. I can’t say these sections are very imaginative or interesting, but they are certainly sing-along. This, along with the sheer energy in a large proportion of the songs on this album, bodes well for live performances to come. I should take the time to mention the furiously-fast drumming on Like a Mouse (which is anything but) and Rats on a Rock (listen below), which I expect will blow the audience away when drummer Chris Wee plays live.

The band have also expanded their musical palette in terms of instruments used. This is most apparent on the three centrepiece tracks. The Stay Golden features some seriously catchy electronic loops, adds cowbell and tambourine to the repertoire of percussion. Rats on a Rock whisks us off to a Caribbean beach with steel drums, and Trails rounds it all off with a gentle strings and horns. This eclectic mix of sounds gives some real character and make for standout tracks. And there’s still more to discover, with dreamy flutes on Mend and Make Safe, plus xylophone on the title track.

The addition of all these new elements has an impact of the guitar work. While it still holds the same bombast of previous releases, the lyrics and additional instruments naturally distract attention where they feature, making for less of that in-and-out math-rock intricacy. Never fear though – there’s still some there for fans of that aspect of their work, in songs such as Ambulance and Things Amazing, it’s just less prevalent.

Good as their work has been so far, I’m glad this isn’t a repeat of their previous albums. The formula ASIWYFA have mastered has made for some astounding compositions, and in this release they keep things fresh and interesting. If Gangs is a bottle of Coca-Cola, straight out of the fridge, then All Hail Bright Futures is a bottle of pink lemonade, shaken up to bursting point. While some fans may not get along with the new sound, I think it’s a fantastically feel-good release that lives up to its name.

Mattipus.

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[ALBUM REVIEW] Echo Street by Amplifier

Amplifier’s 2011 album The Octopus, a double-disc release with two hours of content, was largely heralded as one of the benchmarks of modern progressive rock. Two years on, Echo Street is the followup release from Sel Balamir and his fellow band-members. Suffice to say, they have a hard act to follow.
Amplifier - Echo Street

Amplifier – Echo Street

The songs on this album take a more leisurely pace than much of what Amplifier have produced before. Opener Matmos (listen below) has the feeling of slowly rising out of a pool of deep water, the music building from resonant distortion into the big, beefy riffs that are Amplifier’s hallmark. The twelve-minute Extra Vehicular is painted with broad strokes, filled with swaggering crescendos of roaring guitar. These tracks, along with the throbbing bass and eerie synths of The Wheel, make for an impressive start to the album.

Newcomers Steve Durose (of Oceansize fame) and Alexander ‘Magnum’ Redhead contribute to the vocal harmonies in Where the River Goes and possibly the most interesting number on the whole album, Between Today and Yesterday. It’s an acoustic track with some curious key changes and vaguely acapella vocals, and I still can’t decide whether I like it or not. The lyrics in this pair of songs aren’t the most original in the world, but the singing itself is a nice change from Sel Balamir’s solo baritones.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this release is the sense of multiple eras presented in the music. Paris in the Spring, for example, concerns the Nazi occupancy of France.  It still has that space-rock sound that the Mancunian group have cultivated over the years, but with it there’s this nostalgia… it could be the homeliest example of the genre about. There’s certainly a broadening of musical scope here. The fact that a number of the songs are throwbacks to unused pieces earlier in their career speaks volumes.

I have issues with the title track. There’s some nice drum work and again the vocal harmonies are there, but overall it just seems to be a six-minute plod of decidedly fuzzy-sounding guitar underpinned with a repetitive bass line. Conversely, the final track Mary Rose has a strong central bass rhythm which acts as scaffolding for whispering lyrics and more soaring guitar sections – a fine way to end.

Echo Street is an understated album, but Amplifier have already established their prowess at creating some truly epic noise. Sure, it’s not what everyone will be looking for, but something different is always something welcome in my book. I look forwards to seeing where the band goes from here, aside from where the river goes.

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[LIVE REVIEW] Foals at Rock City, Nottingham – 12th March 2013

From their very beginnings in 2007, Foals have proven that they’re fully capable of holding a crowd’s attention at some of the largest UK festivals. Now on tour again with the release of their third album Holy Fire, how do they hold up at a more intimate venue? I travelled to Nottingham’s Rock City to find out.

Prelude is pretty much the perfect opener, with each band member wandering in one-by one as the instrumental builds on itself. From there, we are plunged straight into Olympic Airways, and my eyes are immediately on bassist Walter Grevers, watching as he strums out one of the catchiest bass hooks around. Soon comes the even-catchier My Number, which has everyone singing along. Foals don’t blow all the good stuff early though, and keep a good spread of quality tracks throughout the evening. We have to wait for the encore for the heavy riffs and gritty vocals of Inhaler – one of my most anticipated tracks.

The band made some brave decisions with this tour. First was the omission of fan-favourite Cassius, though aside from a few demanding shouts for it in the encore, it didn’t seem to be missed. Another was the performance of Bad Habit, a song which was reportedly a disaster the only other time they’d tried it. Frontman Yannis Philippakis makes a valiant effort to hit the song’s broad vocal range, with varying success. I can’t say the song benefited much from a live rendition, but kudos for putting it out there. No doubt their performance there will improve as time goes on – practice makes perfect.

However, some of the songs played that night really shine as life performances. Milk & Black Spiders takes a slower, more solemn turn than its studio counterpart. Providence, in my opinion one of the weaker tracks from the new album, is injected with a shot of adrenalin-pumping energy that really pushes it over the edge. And even some older tracks from their debut have something special to offer. The riffs in Balloons, in the absence of any trumpet or sax, get beefed-up to compensate, and Electric Bloom heralds the obligatory stage-dive and some furious tub-thumping from the band’s frontman.

Philippakis is a true showman, openly revelling in the frenzied attentions of the band’s fans. He has a bad habit (punintentional) of hopping off-stage every couple of songs to strut along the barrier while the adoring masses reach and scream and grab his shirt or ruffle his curly hair. Meanwhile, I’m doing the best I can to prevent the sheer weight of people behind me from crushing the young girl to my right. I lost count of the number of passed-out gig-goers that had to be retrieved from the crowd. While the atmosphere was electric, it was also a little claustrophobic – more so than most other gigs I’ve been to. Still, a fabulous night overall which left me singing (and my ears ringing) all the way home.

Mattipus.

Main Set

  • Prelude
  • Olympic Airways
  • Miami
  • My Number
  • Blue Blood
  • Milk & Black Spiders
  • Balloons
  • Bad Habit
  • Late Night
  • Providence
  • Spanish Sahara
  • Red Socks Pugie
  • Electric Bloom

Encore

  • Moon
  • Inhaler
  • Two Steps, Twice
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[ALBUM REVIEW] The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) by Steven Wilson

The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) is the third solo project from multi-instrumentalist Steven Wilson. Having been involved in staggering variety of musical ventures in the past, Steven has consistently been able to deliver high-quality songs from all his projects – Porcupine Tree, No-Man, Blackfield, Storm Corrosion… the list goes on. However, the prog-rock guru stated that he was taking the time to focus on his solo work in the lead-up to this album. Hopefully he’s brewed up something extra special for us here.
Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)

Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)

The opening track Luminol (listen below) starts out with some proper, old-school prog noise. There’s some sweet bass groove that reminds me of Yes bassist Chris Squire’s performance in RoundaboutKing Crimson mellotron, and some Jethro Tull-esque flute. Similarly in The Holy Drinker, the lyrics scream of that 70’s era largely heralded as the golden age of prog. There’s the possibility that it could sound quite derivative for fans of the older progressive bands, but I personally enjoy that Wilson has bought it forwards, and despite the resonance it still feels very much up to the hour. Perhaps it’s just my young age showing through, but if it counts for anything I did grow up to the sounds of Genesis and Pink Floyd.

What is particularly striking about this album is the sheer variety of sounds. 70s throwbacks aside, we have haunting vocals, atmospheric mellotron, beautiful piano refrains, unpredictable and complex guitar, and fantastic cymbal-heavy drumming. The dreamy Drive Home is a weave of strings, keys and mellotron against meandering vocals, whereas The Pin Drop is a cathartic guitar-driven piece with some fantastic solos. There’s less reliance on guitar throughout than one might expect, which only makes for a more mesmerising ride. Wilson has collected a veritable menagerie of musicians to assist in the recordings of his songs, and it really pays off.

As the title suggests, there is a story behind each of the songs, and this really impacts on the lyrics. ‘You were just meant to be temporary // while I waited for gold // I filled up the years and I found that I liked // having someone to hold’ sings Wilson in The Watchmaker. It’s all so honest and soulful, and having listened to the album a good few times I regret not investing in the deluxe 4 disc edition. It’s a release which comes in the form of a 128 page hardback book containing lyrics, ghost stories, and illustrations by Hajo Mueller. As a writer myself, this really appeals to my sense of craft, and mixed-media releases so often add another level of expression that wouldn’t be possible in just one form.

Finally, I must mention the title track. Compared to the other songs, it’s a relatively linear and stripped-down composition. There are no drastic changes in tempo, or swift deviations in time signature. There’s no transition from thumping bassline to saxophone solo to calming string section. But don’t let that fool you. It’s a blissful eight minutes of slowly-building, heartbreakingly-beautiful music which continually leaves me in awe. If you buy this album for anything, do so for this track.

Mattipus.

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[ALBUM REVIEW] Opposites by Biffy Clyro

Since the release of their fifth studio release Only Revolutions in 2009, Biffy Clyro has become something of a household name. But with great success comes great responsibility to fans. With their last two studio releases both going platinum, the bar is set high for their new album Opposites.
Biffy Clyro - Opposites

Biffy Clyro – Opposites

So, what can the Kilmarnock rockers offer us after three years of touring and festivals? Well for one thing, there’s a lot of material. The two-disc version has a total of 20 new tracks and a run-time of almost 80 minutes, which is plenty to get one’s proverbial teeth into. It’s something of a concept album, which immediately sets alarm-bells ringing. They can tend to be something of an indulgence for many rock bands, and such albums don’t tend to be especially mainstream-friendly – a lot of people just don’t ‘get’ them.

Embarking on the first disc, The Sand at the Core of Our Bones, it becomes clear that there’s very little to worry about. What’s there is familiar territory. Single Black Chandelier is classic 14th Floor-era Biffy with an anthemic chorus and a frantic bridge section that makes me want to flail my head like a ragdoll – great stuff. Biblical is possibly their poppiest track yet (bar Pocket, which we’ll get onto), with some serious swagger in the chorus and a curious lack of any heavy riffs. Sounds Like Balloons sounds like anything but, with spiky guitar interspersed with, of all things, a harp. Again, fans of Puzzles will adore this.

And it’s not just the harp that’s unusual territory. As we journey further through the album and onto the second disc, we encounter bagpipes in the final throes of Stingin’ Belle (listen below), electronic beats in the slow and atmospheric Skylight, and even a mariachi band on the exceptionally-catchy Spanish Radio. These particular songs had an immediate and memorable impact, and while they’re not necessarily favourites I’m very glad they’re present. For those interested in their more progressive nuances, there’s stuff for you too. Both A Girl and His Cat and Modern Magic Formula make great use of time signatures that keep the rhythms fresh and immensely enjoyable.

We’ve established that there are some terrific songs here, but there are some that fall below par. Little Hospitals has some great riffs in it, but the lyrics are much to be desired. Pocket is generic enough that it could have come from the catalogue of any number of pop-rock bands. And while it bears some echoes of their early, more discordant sound, Trumpet or Tap just doesn’t quite go the distance, feeling very much like a B-side.

I sit here with the knowledge that Opposites made it to #1 in the UK album charts, Biffy’s first album to do so, and I can’t say I’m surprised. With such a large fan base poised and ready to get the new songs, they were bound to get there eventually. I feel like it doesn’t deserve it, though. Now, I’m not saying that Opposites is a bad album (far from it) – just that Only Revolutions or Puzzle would have been far more deserving of that top spot.

In summary, Biffy Clyro have delivered us an album filled with the rip-roaring tunes and stadium anthems that we are used to hearing from the band, as well as a variety of brand new sounds, giving it that something a bit special. However, there is a scattering of distinctly lacklustre songs that lets the album down. This might have something to do with the sheer length of the album.  The additional release as a single-disc version seems it may have been a sensible call.

Mattipus.

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