Thursday, 31 January 2013

FEATURE: Ecstasy

*Originally published for The Tipping Point (in assoc. with The Generator) (29/1/13)

It’s been a trend in recent years to have one-word band names (Chvrches, Haim, Grimes and Peace – not to mention recent Tipping Point artists: KHUSHI, SOAK and CUBS). Long gone are the days of ‘The’ prefixes, where joining a band was like joining a club with the pre-determined guitar/vocals/drums/bass set-up. Nowadays, with so many musician-cum-producer-cum-DJs and vast experimentation with hybrid genres, it seems pertinent for musicians to name themselves after something less simple than, say, a group of animals. This is where Ecstasy come in, a relatively new act from London who produce “popgaze” tunes in a presumed effort to elevate one’s mental state.

The act’s latest creation, ‘Exhale’, is introduced by abusive klaxon synths but supple boy/girl harmonies soon soften the heavy blow. Double-wrapped beats and juddering synths sit nicely below lively vocals, much like the stylings of a Naked And Famous or Mausi track (the latter tipped this month). A mesmeric drone neatly carpets the song throughout – perhaps explaining the “popgaze” label – leaving you feeling rather warm and fuzzy inside.

Ecstasy don’t need to fling any amphetamines to fans (and that would be silly, wouldn’t it). Thankfully, their brand of strident power-pop has its own, uncompromising energy.

Tip courtesy of Adam (Alphabet Bands), Rob Platts & Tom Cotton (Amazing Radio)

Friday, 25 January 2013

REVIEW: He Who Never - Timing EP

*Published for Spires Magazine (1/2/13)

Social networking hasn’t just boosted interactivity between musicians and fans in the “I LUFF U CAN I GET AN RT PLZ?” sense; it’s done much more than that. Facebook and Twitter enable artists to link fans to fundraising recording campaigns, which means dreams of a new record can become a reality.

This is precisely what Aaron Rosell, aka He Who Never, has done for his second EP, Timing. Rather than asking friends to dedicate an inconceivable of amount of unpaid time to help him record his latest efforts, he set up an Indiegogo campaign to pay them back.

Appropriately, this do-gooder from Minnesota has made an entirely open and honest record in Timing. Lyrics detail relationships thwarted by distance, the uncertainties of growing up, memories, hopes, regrets and redemption.

Lead single ‘Pardon’ is one polished and powerful piano ballad. The galloping drums and clean keys do well to keep up with Rosell’s absolutely stunning recording voice, helping transform the track from docile beginnings to a tectonic-shifting blow-out.

The next few tracks open with those same, vacant piano chords and you begin to worry what similarities the rest of the EP will harness. Thankfully, ‘Mirrors feat.Metasota’ presents something altogether different: a dark, minor note driven track full of menacing echoes, skittish guitar harmonics and mechanical drum patterns. It’s not unlike something Muse would pen in their early days, save for the rather incongruous but impressive rap from Metasota.

‘Fault Lines’ jolts back to the calmness of EP opener, ‘Oars’, but finally forces full expression out of Rosell. Breathy falsettos welcome in a seven minute build-up, while bottleneck guitars and heavyweight drums flesh out the song’s beautifully sombre piano notes.

Timing lacks the variation that would make it a sure-fire hit, but the remarkable songwriting and solid production behind it do more than make it an enjoyable listen. Timing proves that Rosell has undeniable talent, and a whole host of people who believe in it.


Click below to read the review in Spires Magazine...

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

REVIEW: Speck Mountain - Badwater

*Originally published for The405 (23/1/13)

Some say that when you have found your style, you should stick to it. Why answer to anyone else?

The Chicago-based quartet, Speck Mountain, seem to be the type of band that has no one to answer to. Marie-Claire Balabanian and Karl Briedrick have written together as a creative core for a good few years as Speck Mountain (other musicians contributing intermittently) and appear happy for smokey vocals and wandering guitar lines to continuously define their sound. Baywater, however, is the band's first record as a bona fide quartet, so who knows of its direction with fresh blood in tow...

Opener 'Caught Up' hears Marie-Claire's vocals erupt with an immediate confidence whilst rhythms chug like a desert train. The song is a welcome introduction to Badwater, but is no more enticing than early tracks, 'Slow So Long' and 'Flares'. 90s guitars, muggy drums and a bitter organ stomp around Balabanian's faux-southern drawl on 'Flares' – a voice not unlike Hope Sandoval's of Mazzy Star fame.

Unfortunately, the triumph that is lead single, 'Slow So Long', is brought in too early on this record. Speck Mountain's stylised sound is shaken out of its bed in this track, where electronics complement the band's idiosyncratic, Chris Isaak whammy guitars. Out of nowhere, Balabanian projects stunning celestial harmonies that shift the group from dusty landscapes to ambient-pop terrains, and the results are startling.

The only upbeat number on the album comes in the form of the title track. Drummer Chris Dye's spurring, marching drums roll nicely with tort basslines, which prick their ears to Balabanian's command. Higher octaves counterbalance the deeper, more soulful aspects of Balabanian's singing and guitar solos glisten in a dreamy stream of consciousness. When the band notch things up a gear like this, references come thick and fast to Brooklyn/Washington trio, Widowspeak.

'Young Eyes', by contrast, sounds tired and is at a loss for direction. Where the solos in 'Badwater' skip freely in a gorgeous psychedelic haze, here they sound like they've run out of juice. Perhaps the band was trialling ideas to recreate the free-flow of 'Badwater', but accidently pressed record.

By 'No Words' and 'Live It Down', you're pretty sure you've got Speck Mountain all sussed-out. The former track keeps the record's sound consistent, but the surprising jazz drums and lounge bass found in 'Live It Down' give it some much-needed distinction. A brilliant, delayed surf-rock guitar comes in quite unannounced at the last minute, yet Balabanian's habit of mimicking root notes stifles overall efforts.

The hum that runs throughout the album, aided no less than by Linda Malonis' woozy organ, just about comes to a climax in closer, 'Watch The Storm'. Keys cling, bass lines swell, guitars pulsate and choral vocals yodel across plains, all building towards a crescendo of epic proportions. But it never happens. As if embarrassed of what it promised, 'Watch The Storm' disappears into nothing.

From the start, Badwater is what-you-see-is-what-you-get. It's not as different as was hoped with the band's refreshed line-up and a four year recess from releasing albums. But this is Speck Mountain, and if you like your lashings of drone-rock, Americanisms, and a band proud of its style, Badwater is for you.


Monday, 21 January 2013

FEATURE: OMB's guide to Oxford #3

*Originally published for Artrocker (21/1/13)

Scientists claim that today is the most depressing of the year. Crap weather, empty wallets and a lack of upcoming holidays are but a few of the reasons behind “Blue Monday”. To top it all off, there’s a chance that none of us are allowed to use our HMV gift vouchers (did you actually get any for Christmas? Yeah, didn’t think so).

In cheerier and more relevant news for the Oxford Music Blog's guide to Oxford, the city’s only independent record shop, Truck Store, will be celebrating its second birthday on 10th February. Blessing Force’s “sad disco” lot Trophy Wife will headline with support from Rhosyn, Salvation Bill, New Carnival and Jordan O’Shea. It’s a stellar line-up to say the least, and one that will nicely celebrate the city’s illustrious music scene. You should probably thumb through some records while you’re there, too.

If, like others of the 21st century convenience mindset, you prefer to get your music from the comfort of your sofa, then be sure to download the exciting freemixes of Kill Murray’s latest single, ‘For The Kids’. Ambient-pop newcomers, The Sea The Sea, have done a smart remix of the track. The man behind it, Dave Freeman, said: “I spent my teenage years before I learned to play guitar producing electronic music, so it was fun to go back to.” He also cites the support Kill Murray have given the band: “They headlined our first gig and helped us organise it. Aaron mastered our first single. It's nice to know other bands in the area because you can help each other out.”

Kill Murray were in session for BBC Introducing in Oxford last week and you can download the podcast for free from the Introducing website.

Saturday night also saw one of the biggest turnouts for Introducing in Oxford’s monthly Upstairs at the O2 Academy nights, with an explosive, sold-out headline set from Falmouth’s Tall Ships. One of the highlights of the evening was, undoubtedly, the performance by Introducing in Oxford’s adopted sons, Stratford-upon-Avon’s My Grey Horse. The show’s producer, Liz Green, has tipped the harmonic-pop lot for 2013. Local favourites Wild Swim and the elusive but rather wonderful Salvation Bill are also on the list.


Liz added: “We’ve also got a great electronic scene emerging in Oxford. Artists like Theo Bass and After The Thought are certainly doing things differently.”

Other local releases to get excited about in the coming weeks is the new single from The Scholars, ‘Love The Thunder’, Pixel Fix’s video for new song, ‘Rosa’ and the debut EP from cellist and “multidimensional artist”, Rhosyn.
Seb Reynolds of The Epstein and Flights Of Helios is also launching a monthly charity remix project. Proceeds from the downloads will go to Helen & Douglas house and the first instalment, a remix of ‘Dearly Distracted’ by Edinburgh’s Meursault, is available from his bandcamp.

Lastly, with Truck Store defying the digital age, the new online magazine for local music and culture, Spires, has announced plans to go into print from April. Editor Matt Ayres said: “I still see the value of print media in the digital age. To me, there's something timeless about leafing through a nicely written, well designed article on your favourite local or national band/artist when it's on paper. It feels more permanent.”

February’s issue sees an exclusive interview with local heroes Stornoway, who are playing two headline gigs at the magnificent Oxford Town Hall on 14th and 15th of February.

Who said January was depressing?

Thursday, 17 January 2013

PREVIEW: Tall Ships, Listing Ships, The Sea The Sea and more at BBC Introducing gig

*Originally published for BBC News Oxford (17/1/13)

Tall Ships will be supported by four up-and-coming bands at January's Upstairs at the O2 Academy Oxford in association with BBC Introducing.

The line-up on 19 January includes Oxford acts Listing Ships, Robots With Souls, and The Sea The Sea, plus Stratford-upon-Avon's My Grey Horse.

Ric Phethean, from Falmouth trio Tall Ships, said: "We're really excited to be playing for BBC Introducing again.

"It's the first show for us this year and the line up is looking great. It's going to be awesome."

He added that the band were "stoked" to be asked back to play after their BBC Introducing slots at Reading and Leeds Festival in 2012.

The post-rockers' debut album Everything Touching was released in October to much acclaim, and saw them perform album tracks for Huw Stephens at Maida Vale.

'Oxford is home' 

It will be the second time that Stratford-upon-Avon's rising stars My Grey Horse have played the BBC Introducing stage.

Co-vocalist and guitarist Oobah Butler said: "To be supporting Tall Ships and playing in Oxford for BBC Introducing again is exciting.

"Oxford just kind of fits us; it has a real sense of home. Stratford-upon-Avon has no music scene so we've been really lucky to have such amazing support."

BBC 6 Music's Shaun Keaveny named Need Wood his Record Of The Week in December, which is the lead single for the band's new EP Stop Before The Dry River.

"It's great to have support from people like Shaun at BBC 6, and BBC Introducing, who are so enthusiastic about us," Oobah added.

My Grey Horse have received comparisons to The Shins and Grandaddy, but they find it difficult to describe their sound.

Oobah said: "I really love pop music, but with My Grey Horse we're probably fighting it as much as going with it.

"The main thing is that we always try to put a narrative and a sentiment there."

The band are about to write their debut album.

"I'm not sure exactly where we're going yet, but it'll involve sleeping on floors and possibly hiding ourselves away in a commune in Wales."

'Top secret' 

One-man music machine Steve Wilson, AKA Robots With Souls, has played previous Upstairs gigs as a member of local acts Phantom Theory and Toliesel.

Steve said: "I'm really looking forward to this gig. Upstairs gigs are always good nights and, as it is just me this time, it's very exciting."

He explained how he came to be a solo act: "When everything with Phantom Theory began to slow down, I started looping riffs at home on a beat up old bass guitar, just to play drums to.

"The bass just ended up becoming a part of the drum kit to make the whole process easier and then, as riffs turned into songs, it became less about the drums and more about keeping everything in its rightful place."

Self-described as an "art rock/noise rock band," Steve is influenced by Death From Above 1979, Femme Fatale, and Sonic Youth.

The debut Robots With Souls EP release is pencilled in for the summer and is to be recorded in a "very top secret never-been-done-before super-exciting way".

He added: "Think cassettes and MiniDiscs, melted down to a plastic liquid, then sent to you in an insulated jiffy bag... but maybe in a less abstract way."

'Artistic fervour' 

Newcomers The Sea The Sea are delighted to be playing their second ever gig.

Vocalist and guitarist Matthew Clarkson said: "Opening the bill that sees Tall Ships headline will be a very memorable experience."

The five-piece cite dream pop, ambient, post punk and post rock as their influences, but "ultimately, we write guitar-driven pop songs, experimenting as we go".

Matthew describes Oxford as a "very strong" music scene.

He added: "It's small but bustles with artistic fervour. It's an inspiring and romantic place."

The band released four free singles in the run up to Christmas and will spend 2013 expanding their profile.

Every month a selection of local talent plays the regular band nights at the O2 Academy, with highlights featured on BBC Introducing in Oxford.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013


*Originally published for The Tipping Point (in association with The Generator) (14/1/13)

In the words of the American writer Henry David Thoreau: “one must maintain a little bit of summer, even in the middle of winter.” Newcastle’s Mausi are no strangers to this philosophy, with the sun-bleached electro-pop  of ‘sol.’ wearing record needles thin over the course of 2012. Now the quartet are welcoming in the new year with ‘Move’ and still have every intention of overdosing on the Sunny-D.

‘Move’ already feels like an established Saturday night floor filler with its beefy 90s piano hooks and fluttering high hat taps. Darting synths bring Calvin Harris’ ‘Sweet Nothing’ to mind, but the organic harmonies of Italian-born siblings Daisy and Thomas Finetto results in its more carefree disposition. 

Your mother may fail to describe what the kids get down to nowadays, but the words “groovy” and “funky” do have their place here. ‘Move’ is to-the-point, feel-good dance music – a breath of fresh air in the stale furrows of January.

Mausi play The Tipping Point's Roundhouse Rising Showcase at The Sage Gateshead on Sunday 17th February.

*Tip courtesy of Bob Allan at The Generator.