Thursday, 25 September 2014

Army On The Dance Floor - Many Faces of War

Who?

You probably haven't heard of Army On The Dance Floor. I certainly hadn't when I was tipped off by Primitive Race, who in turn I found out about after a particularly brilliant PWEI gig. On a particularly dull morning, I was introduced to the sound of 'Machine':
If you like your beats big and your vocals powerful and crystal clear you'll probably be as taken by the excellent album opener as I was. With a driving, pumping bass, classic synth sounds and a mid-paced tempo that guarantees to get you moving the track just drags you along with it to its super catchy chorus whilst remaining spacious and airy throughout. In fact this airiness and space pervades the entire album, creating a sound both familiar and old-skool yet very, very modern.

This sound is a true credit to the production abilities of AOTDF driving force Kourtney Klein, who is no stranger to big sound with her former associations with EBM/industrial outfits Combichrist and Nitzer Ebb. Not content with just being a classically-trained percussionist, hot-as-hell go-go dancer or TV presenter, Kourtney has assembled AOTDF to self-release the synth-driven music that she wants to - a refreshing move in the current climate of label-crafted wannabe all-from-the-same-mould plastic pop stars.

Synthpop

After the opening track come 'Juggernaut' and 'Lightning Strike' - straightforward pop songs, perhaps a little heavy for commercial radio despite their catchiness.

'Five Million Stars' has hit single written all over it. A lovely little love song that calls to mind Erasure - not the first or only nod to an obvious inspiration. This is followed by 'Carnival', yet another cracking pop song that manages, both lyrically and musically, to conjure the swirling of a fairground waltzer-ride.

'Bury You Alive', featuring Dann Saxton is possibly, for me, the only track that doesn't quite fit on the album. Whilst having no obvious defects, the darker sound and longer length with a less catchy chorus just don't quite tie in, being more Depeche Mode in feel. However, the track acts as a good breather before the second half of the album really kicks off.

Deep

'Leia', the beautiful Leia to borrow a lyric, brings the album back on track with its programmed drums, synth patterns and haunting vocals. For me, this was the first track where the lyrics really come to the fore. Behind the sparkly pop production and radio-friendly vocal there are some extremely powerful and compelling lyrics expressing sadness and jealousy at a relationship ruined by a fixation on a past lover. These deeper lyrics make you reconsider the other tracks, and soon you realise even as far back as first track 'Machine', with it's description of battling to suppress emotion, you realise this is a far cleverer album than the poppiness suggests.

Hints of Erasure appear throughout the album but are at their strongest on 'Captain of Your Own Sea' - another track with the sadness of the lyrics a counterpoint to the jolliness and jauntiness of the music. The shameful shortness of this track almost makes you think this could well actually be a Vince Clark cast-off.

Many Faces of War

The album closes with the absolutely stunning title track 'Many Faces of War'. This 12-minute multi-sectioned epic is a mini album in its own right. Opening with a haunting mock battle cry, the track starts with strangely fantastical, almost Game of Thrones style imagery, before pumping beats and metaphor mutate to a crescendo with much more personal lyrics exposing inner thoughts.
The track climaxes, and ultimately breaks down, in a fit of screaming bitterness and consuming anger that gives way to quiet reflection and acceptance - regret, sadness and loneliness all captured painfully yet perfectly, framed by high Numan-esque synths and Peter Gabriel-style pseudo panpipes. 

By the time the refrain is taken up by a haunting (yes, I use that word again) reverb-laden piano, you can feel your heartbeat slowing to match the music - a beautiful melancholic end to a stunning and clever track and a compelling album.

More?

This album seems to have had no big release, no live support, no physical CD or mechandise and no publicity. However, it is so complete and well-realised that it would be a travesty if it were overlooked by the wider world. My fear is that it'll be considered too poppy for a lot of people, and too unfashionably tuneful to get the airplay it deserves. As someone who regularly listens to stuff like Voice of The Beehive back to back with Strapping Young Lad though, I encourage you to give this a go - the entire album is currently up on YouTube so please give it a try at least!

Rating: 8/10 - Cracking debut. Dark, poppy and beautiful synthpop

Friday, 12 September 2014

U2 - Songs of Innocence

Free music!

Much has been written already about the way Apple have given away U2's latest album and there has been much speculation as to why and how much U2 pocketed as a result. I'm not going to cover that in detail here. As far as I'm concerned, it's pure marketing or alternatively, an attempt at a new form of distribution. Either way, U2 would never turn down an offer like that at this stage in their career. I suspect with dwindling airplay, now they've been usurped by the like of The Killers (who ironically stole both their sound and engineer/producer Steve Lillywhite) this was the only way they could reach a new and wider market. With iTunes offering half price deals on their back catalogue they're bound to pick up a bit more as people rediscover the joys of the Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and Zooropa. Nestle use the same approach with KitKat - release a 'limited edition' mint version for a while and everyone remembers how good the normal ones are and sales jump.
Er, so having now covered that in more detail than intended, on to the album itself!

Worth the price?

Opener 'The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)' kicks off the album with a straightforward grower of a track. While not in your face, it is one that will morph into an ear worm after a few radio plays - I can imagine this fitting nicely into the Absolute Radio playlist, for example.
'Every Breaking Wave' follows, a nice gentle mid-tempo number with a rhythm guitar part reminiscent of The Police's 'Every Breathe You Take'. Perfectly pleasant, but nothing special - and so it continues...
In terms of performance, by this point I was already starting to notice a weakness in the performances. Bono's voice seems to be suffering at the high end, resorting to falsetto far more than usual - sounding almost Prince-like on 'Sleep Like a Baby Tonight'! Whilst he's always had a slightly strained quality, which has been used to accentuate more emotive lines in the past, now it seems a little thin and almost as if the top couple of notes are requiring real physical effort to hit. Probably time for the band to think about tuning down a tone...
If fact, it's the performances that let this album down. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the songs, but there's no imagination in the orchestration - The Edge's guitar sounds are fashionably bland - even further distancing U2 from the delayed, processed tones of some of their biggest hits.
Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton are also taking it easy. This was not an album that had the band jumping round the studio, even on the 'big' track 'Volcano'. Rather, this has the sound of four guys sitting comfortably in a room strumming away gently - an irony given the punk references in the opening track and liner notes.

Lazy production

This is a very clean sounding album. All the instruments are well placed, but the mix favours the vocal, with the backing almost disappearing, perhaps because there's nothing worth bringing forward. The vocals have a very airy, live sound - it's easy to imagine them emanating from a stadium stage. However, it sometimes feels like you're hearing from the bar or toilets as there's so little else at the front of the mix.
Despite this, it's not a bad album at all and has some nice grooves in places. If you like your rock radio friendly and modern then you'll probably love it. If you want crazy guitar sounds a la 'The Fly' shaking your trouser legs you'll be left a little short.
In summary, this is probably the best U2 album I've heard this century, but it's not a patch on anything from the golden days of '84-94.

Overall: 3/5 (3.5 for the songs, 2 for production!)

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Running again...

It's been a while

Recently, I've finally got running again. I've had a love/hate relationship with running for years, and regularly start getting out (nearly always in the winter months bizarrely), but then stop completely for several months after minor injuries or general life stuff knocks my routine and inclination.
I used to run for the school cross country team, and stamina has never been a problem - it's  normally fitness and strength that stop me progressing.
I seem to have an ability to run well from nothing - I did my first half-marathon in less than two hours off the back of about five 6km training runs after a two year period of inactivity, and can easily do a 32 min 6km from zero training. However, this rarely proves a good strategy, and so after a month I've nearly always forced into a break with achilles injuries, stiff knees or aching hips and the laziness sets in and the cycle begins again.

This time I'm doing it differently...

Spurred on in part by the need to lose weight (a month ago I was topping 95kg - the heaviest I've ever been and it's not all muscle!), and by the need to get outside more, I started running again. This time I'm doing it properly. Well, better, at least.
For a month I've been sticking to short runs and managing to get out 3x a week. Whilst I'm only doing 4km, I'm working on building pace (I'm never been terribly quick) but stopping within my muscle's current capabilities.
My heart and lungs are already cruising it now and I'm barely breaking a sweat. However, my ankles and knees are feeling fine - definitely feeling like I don't want to push them further just yet, but they're growing in strength. This approach is making me enjoy running again. It's definitely a case of 'leave them wanting more'. I feel I could do an extra lap of the park, or add in another loop to my longer circuit, but I'm purposely resisting the temptation and heading home early. Seems to be helping me physically and mentally by making it easier to get out the door next time round.

Inspiration

My new found enjoyment in running has also been inspired greatly by Ronnie O'Sullivan's book 'Running'. Ronnie's long been a big hero of mine on the snooker table, not least because of how he's had to weather so many personal and mental issues in public. His book is a great read explaining how using running to keep himself fit and hungry for improvement has given him the mental space to succeed at the day job, and with life in general. Even if you're not into snooker, it's a great read, and an excellent insight into the thoughts of a very normal person suffering from depression and anxiety.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Casualties of Cool - Union Chapel 4/9/14

On stage tonight...

Tonight, Devin Townsend bought his 'Casualties of Cool' side project to London for their first 'proper' gig. This was my first visit to the Union Chapel, having sadly missed out on Dev's 4-night residency in 2011 celebrating his 4-album 'Devin Townsend Project'. If you get the chance to visit, do! It's a stunning venue, and it's vast octagonal chamber is perfectly suited to music.
The show started with a well-suited opening set from Messenger, with their down-tempo Pink Floyd-esque prog covering a similar feel to the most recent Opeth albums.
After a little technical difficulty, Casualties of Cool finally came on as a seven piece band, looking slightly cramped around the beautifully carved stone pulpit filling the centre of the Chapel's stage. The band consisted of Devin and his writing, singing and guitar-playing partner Che-Aimee Dorval out front; to the left, the electronics of longtime collaborators Mike St-Jean's (I think) laptop and Dave Young's keyboards; to the right, the rhythm section of drummer Morgan Ă…gren, and a bass player and acoustic guitarist whose names I missed.

Only three "thank yous"

With the guitar tech struggling to coax a sound from Dev's staple Fractal Axe-FX II, the man himself was forced onto stage in a slightly less than ideal way - placating the patient crowd with his useful goofy banter before finding the mute button or whatever had caused the problem. After a little giddiness, the promise was made to keep stage chatter to a minimum - something that obviously came as a genuine struggle to a man who's a consummate crowd-pleasing performer known for his witty quips and humour. Besides a little comedy gurning during a couple of the guitar solos (but never at the expense of the music) little was said - a wise move that allowed the music to take centre stage as it flowed from one song to the next.

Ambience

The set consisted entirely of songs from the Pledge-funded debut album. Although there were extended, semi-improvised introductions to some songs and a couple of jams, the show never felt too thin, despite the limited material of the new band being spread over 75 minutes (no encore).
Che-Aimee's obvious nervousness failed to show in her voice - her beautiful alto tones as crystalline as on record. Once a little more settled, she even started dancing a little, before self-conciousness dragged her firmly back to focussing on the music - a sweet and genuine performance amongst today's 'born for the stage' identifit wannabes...
The swirling ambience of the music transported the crowd into a forest clearing; the eight great stone pillars of the Chapel like huge tree trunks amongst the sound of crickets accompanying a number of the songs. Devin looked surprisingly comfortable alternating between a Strat and a Tele - unusual for a man famed for his EMG-driven metal. In fact, it was difficult to imagine this is the same guy that wrote 'Skeksis' and 'Oh My Fucking God', but it was a delight to see his obvious enjoyment experimenting with single coil sounds - evoking shades of David Gilmour on more than one occasion.

Honourable mentions

Whilst the whole band were extremely competent, special mentions have to go to Dave and Morgen. Dave Young, as in his role for DTP, never sought the limelight, yet acted as a perfect foil with his understated keyboard lines and string pads filling the space while never getting in the way of the stripped down songs. Morgen showed what drumming is all about - a simple kit bought to life with clever techniques and an amazing ability to stretch rhythms to add tension or ease the mood as required, not to mention a dextrous display of polyrhythm, with at least three limbs emulating the winding down of a clock to dramatic effect.

Let's have some more

It's not a surprise that a Dev-fronted band was an entertaining watch. However, this particular group showed themselves to be a great lineup. There was barely a hiccup all evening - amazing given how little these guys have played live together. It would be a real shame if there was not the opportunity to see this band, and hear this music again. Whether it was the magnificent venue, the reverential crowd, or just that rare magic spark that just happens sometimes, the songs really came alive, escaping the slightly claustrophobic feel of the record to really fill the space. Perhaps the only thing I'd wish for next time is a choir to bring the climax of 'The Bridge' to even more goose-pimple inducing proportions!
8/10

Thursday, 28 August 2014

"What happens if it rains?"

Leith Hill microadventure

In Ronald Turnbull's excellent and highly entertaining 'Book of the Bivvy', he answers the question with a succinct and honest "you get wet". As the following account shows, he was not wrong so I suppose I could argue I was prepared, although sadly in expectation rather than equipment...
We met at Dorking station just after 1800, all geared up for a night in the hills. It was a warm evening, although there was a persistent low cloud base and the promise of rain overnight. I'd given my walking buddy the chance to pull out and we even checked the last trains home - just in case things really turned bad early on. Escape options planned, we hit the footpaths.

A lovely walk

Heading east from the station, we hit the trails across the southern edge of Ranmore common. Although the sky was overcast it turned out to be perfect walking conditions; warm, but not so much as to break into a sweat and not too humid. As a result we made cracking time through woodland and across lush green pasture before turning south onto the Greensand Way.
We passed some stunning Surrey farm houses, wondering whether the beautiful buildings with their colourful rhododendrons and neatly manicured lawns made up for being stuck in the middle of nowhere (well, as remote as it gets round here anyway). The path continued along more fresh green trails through farmland and fisheries, with a decidedly English feel to them.
A grassy bank made an ideal location for a quick packed dinner, just before we entered the woods of Squire's Great Wood as the light started to fade due to cloud.

Night draws in

Headtorches came out shortly after, as the thick trees and gorse closed around us and the thickening cloud and lack of moonlight left us otherwise in near pitch black, despite it only being 2030 in August. Still, good time was made and so we decided to head down into Coldharbour for a nightcap.
If you're in the area, the Plough Inn is worth a visit. It has a good selection of real ales, including some from their own Leith Hill Brewery and has always been welcoming.
The warmth of the bar and the relaxing effects of a couple of pints made it difficult to get the packs back on. One of the locals eyed up our gear and asked if we were headed up the hill for the night with a grin as the barman offered us a B&B room for the night. "No, no", we assured them, "we'll be fine!" In hindsight, £69 may have proved to be a worthwhile expenditure!

Up the hill to bed

Within seconds of leaving the pub the drizzle started. Whether it was the forecast coming true, or because we were walking up into the cloud, by the time we reached the summit it was bucketing it down. Sideways rain, driven by the wind that had picked up over the crest of the hill started to make things rather unpleasant. Surprisingly, perhaps the biggest difficulty was the lack of visibility - too dark without torches, too much glare off the rain and fog with them. Whether on high or low settings, the moisture in the air was seemingly impermeable to light, leaving us to choose possibly the worst possible location to bed down for the night.

Ronald was right

Mr Turnbull was not lying. If it rains, you get wet. Very wet.

In a fit of "oh, it'll be fine", the failure of the tarp I'd ordered to arrive and lack of alternative plans meant we were left with just our bivvy bags for shelter. Whilst I have no doubt my excellent value AlpKit Hunka itself is watertight, it's amazing how much water can leak in through the tiniest face opening. Whether the wind was driving the rain in, condensation from breathing, or water pooling in folds and flowing in I got very, very wet. I woke numerous times through the night, getting progressively wetter and colder. I would not have believed I'd actually slept at all if I hadn't been told I was snoring the next morning. With dripping wet hair, I put on a fleecy hat which proceeded to soak up water like a sponge. In one particularly cold, shivering, miserable waking moment, I saw my other crazy friend's bodybag-like bivvy next to mine and wondering whether there actually was just a corpse inside now, and whether to prod with a stick to see if they were still breathing. The rest of the night passed:
  • 0300 - awake
  • 0330 - need a piss. Shouldn't have had that second pint
  • 0400 - I wonder if we could just get up now and walk? Can't be worse than this.
  • 0430 - only one more hour before I can think about getting up properly
  • 0515 - 15 mins
  • 0530 - right, fuck this. I'm getting up
Finally, the drizzle eased up, just as the grey light of morning allowed us to see Leith Hill Tower for the first time, despite being within 50 metres of it all night.
Still, with dry pants and socks on, the walk down the hill and across to Holmwood station was surprisingly pleasant, with what was possibly the worst night's sleep I've ever had already starting to feel like a surreal dream.
We were back home an hour later, and with a washing machine full of soaking wet gear on the go, I was just settling down to work at 0830 when the doorbell rang...

My tarpaulin had arrived.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Microadventures ahoy

Why microadventure?

The term 'microadventure' has become a bit trendy in outdoorsy circles recently, created or at least popularised by the wonderfully unsnobby and inspirational Alistair Humphreys. The concept is simple: Grab a sleeping bag, some cheap basic kit and a bite to eat and head to the hills to spend a night under the stars before returning to real life the following morning; A '5-9' adventure.
As many people find, having a 2 year-old little girl brings many great moments, but often at the expense of time for long weekends away to the Peaks or Lakes, especially living in South London where it's 3-4 hours travel to most 'proper' walking areas.
Missing the opportunity to hike, climb and camp makes the microadventure an appealing alternative to full on camping.

My challenge

With this in mind, I decided to set myself a goal: one night in a bivvy bag each month for a year.

But isn't it going to be cold in the winter?

Er, yes. But I'm hoping that the sunrises on a crisp, clear frosty morning in Januarys, the lush greenness of dewy spring mornings and telling how long until morning by the rotation of the stars will be more than reward. Not to mention the good humour and entertaining company of whoever else is brave enough to join me!