2015 might well be starting off on a great footing with 3, yup, 3 amazing albums already released and jostling for position on my turntable and CD player respectively, but first I thought I’d look at a few gems from towards the end of last year that are worth investigating and listening to.
Anytown: Trouble on the Water
Songwriting genius Matthew Taylor, better known as the driving force behind Sheffield’s Dead Like Harry, puts his talents to good use here on the debut album by his new project Anytown, featuring a stellar line up of fellow Dead Like Harry members Robin Baker (bass, double bass) Alice Faraday (vocals) brother Samuel Taylor, whose making a name for himself as a solo performer on guitar and vocals, as well as the additional vocals of Rhiannon Scutt and Kirsty Bromley fill our the sound, whilst Matt’s distinctive warm vocals and his piano and keyboard work dominates the albums 9 tracks.
Dead Like Harry’s trademark vocal harmonies are carried over here, as Matt & Alice’s voices beautifully complement each other, whilst the stripped down sound of Anytown suit Mutts maturing songwriting superbly. The mood here is melancholic and contemplative, from the wonderful opening Balham Road, underpinned nicely by Matts accordion whilst the vocal harmonies soar.
The River is a fantastic piece with more of those gorgeous harmonies that fill the room and are the musical equivalent of a big warm hug.
Delhi Rising is the song about the protests throughout Delhi after the brutal rape and death of female student Jyoti Singh Pandey back in 2012, which shocked the world, and this song does her memory and the aims of the protesters justice. Also written in the traditional folk idiom of reflecting true events is the title track Trouble on the Water, the tragic tale of the Penlee lifeboat disaster.
The songwriting here is closer to the folk idiom than Dead Like Harry, and when performed in an intimate atmosphere (as I had the pleasure of seeing a few weeks ago) the songs send a tingle up the spine, and Matt’s songwriting has the uncanny knack to pull you into the story and take you to that particular place. A knack very few performers have.
A wonderful reinterpretation of Dead Like Harry’s Free as a Bird is heartbreakingly beautiful, whilst the haunting Winter Sky, with its beautiful harmonies and its tale of loss is followed by the superb The Promise, with some amazing piano work by Matt and beautifully understated guitar work, with some heartfelt lyrics.
Anytown is another one of Matt’s story songs, with his lyrical vignettes painting a picture with the songs, and is another song full of wonderful vocal harmonies.
The closing cover of Runrigs This Time of Year, with its beautiful vocals and performance is worthy of a Christmas release and with its lyrical theme brought a tear to my ear.
Anytown is an amazing musical project from Matt and co, and is an album full of melancholic, uplifting, introspective, haunting and beautiful songs, the type of album to be listened to on a dark winter night by a warm fire, as the optimism and beauty shine through and the lush vocal harmonies wrap themselves around you.
Don Harper: Cold World
Eric Siday: The Ultrasonic Perception
Now here’s a couple of treats for anyone who is into early experimental electronic music, particularly the work of composers associated with the BBC Radiophonic workshop, that legendary laboratory where composers and avid experimenters created new sounds and revolutionised contemporary composition. Its influence echoes down the years from the work they did on early synthesisers, to being a major influence on the Krautrock genre, and for electronic pioneers like White Noise, as well as contemporary acts like Hot Chip. Famous of course for its work on the ever endearing Doctor Who, the theme tune is probably its most famous piece of work, and these two albums released on vinyl and CD by specialist soundtrack merchants Dual Planet, who have done a great job on the remastering and packaging.
Cold Worlds is a version of Don Harpers score for the Doctor Who story The Invasion, and are re-recordings of his original score, opening with a jazzed up version of the traditional Doctor Who theme that then goes from space into jazz funk, and runs the gamut of early synthesised sounds, with the centrepieces on the album Nightmare and Cold Worlds being eerie, atmospheric and of their time, with discordant synth tones and counter tones, electronic waves and disjointed bleeps, this pre-empts Krautrock by about 5 years, and separated from the images creates claustrophobic and sinister pictures in the mind. As a talented jazz pianist and composer the free form element of Harpers work is there, and the eerie sax that winds it way through Cold Worlds works so well against the cold sparse electronic backdrop. Other tracks like Psychosis and Sinister Stranger evoke the moods they were intended for, and are superb examples of how the electronic pioneers of the 1960’s pushed the musical boundaries, even though the brief pieces were hidden by dialogue or just used fleetingly as linking themes.
Eric Sidays Ultrasonic Perception is a collection of shorter musical cues, with Siday having been at the forefront of electronica musical scoring, and here on the Ultrasonic Perception a collection of his library music this explores his scientific study of sound, the Ultrasonic Perception, and large portions of the music on this collection were used throughout the 60’s in Doctor Who. From the 60’s and 70’s the eclectic and exciting sounds that are created here are ahead of their time. The synthesised sounds here pre date the traditional start of synthesised music, and Siday was such a pioneer that his work was an influence on Dr Moog, when working on his first commercial synthesiser, and undoubtedly influenced the nascent Radiophonic work of composers like Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire. This groundbreaking sound here still sounds clear and contemporary, and is worth listening to.
Frost* The Rockfield Files
Multi talented Jem Godfrey presents the latest chapter in his prog supergroups story featuring John Mitchell (It Bites) Nathan King and Craig Blundell. Recorded at Rockfield studios in Monmouth, this is a CD/DVD package featuring some rerecorded versions of classic Frost* songs like the brilliant Milliontown which showcases Godfreys superb songwriting skills, whilst John Mitchell makes his mark with some superb guitar work and his amazing vocal work all over this project.
More a holding activity than a new album (although we are promised a brand new one soon) this is a delight for all Frost* fans, and the DVD is superbly made, and the re-recordings of these classic songs, plus the brilliant Lantern here on record for the first time showcase a four piece band at the peak of the powers, and with Jem writing some amazing prog songs like Hyperventilate, its no wonder Frost* are so well loved.
As we’re speaking of John Mitchell lets come back to the trio of albums released this year that look set to help define the sound of 2015 and beyond (you’d almost think I’d planned it this way)
Lonely Robot: Please Come Home
This is John Mitchells latest musical project, having contributed to Frost*, Arena, It Bites and many other projects over the years Johns talents as a guitarist, vocalist and producer are undisputed. This album reaffirms the stamp of quality that John brings to any album he works on, and is a fantastic piece of work from the opening instrumental power of Airlock, featuring the unique talents of Jem Godfrey to the closing The Red Balloon; this is a powerful album of amazing musical moments and haunting beauty. Dealing with alienation, loneliness and the human condition the lyrics are never short of genius, and the music is atmospheric, haunting and elegiac throughout.
With a collaborative cast of talents including narration from Lee Ingleby, a core band of John Mitchell and Craig Blundell, with additional bass from Nick Beggs, there’s guests of the like of Peter Cox who provides vocals for the fantastic The Boy in The Radio. Heather Findlay adds her beautiful vocals to the haunting ballad Why do we Stay? with a certain Steve Hogarth bringing his unique vocals and piano playing along for the journey. Kim Seviour adds her vocal talents to the duet on the brilliant Oubliette whilst the most powerful song on the album, and one of the most beautifully written and realised tracks I have heard so far this year is the hauntingly gorgeous Humans Being with Steve Hogarth guesting on vocals and Nik Kershaw playing guitar.
As albums go this is a stunningly original record, with some majestic songwriting from John Mitchell, and like all great producers he knows how to cherry pick the best collaborators to bring something of themselves to his album, and still maintain his overall identity.
I have no doubt whatsoever that when the best of 2015 polls are written, this album will be making its presence felt.
Grand Tour Heavy on the Beach
This wonderfully evocative concept album is the culmination of years of work from former Abel Ganz man Hew Montgomery, and is based around his fascination with all things Cold War and Nuclear, and seems unnervingly contemporary with the challenges the world is facing today with a resurgent Russia and the rise of Islamic State. Joined by the vocal talents of Joe Cairney, and Mark Spalding on guitar and Bruce Levick on drums, this is a band of no mean talent, and this album delivers the goods time after time.
With swathes of vast Floydian keyboard work, and real epic movements, this is a slice of classic concept prog, with wonderfully direct lyrics from Cairney that reference the beach time after time, and with motifs that crop up throughout the album, this is a piece of art that has to be listened to all the way through.
Like all the best concepts from Dark Side of the Moon, to Le Sacre du Travail, this isn’t an album to dip into. It’s all or nothing, and with the devastatingly powerful instrumental Little Boy and the Fat Man, referencing the two nuclear devices that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the two part track The Grand Tour which almost bookends the album, and the superb title track that is classic prog given a contemporary twist, this album is magnificent in every sense of the word.
The hard work that Hew has put into this pays off magnificently and I would say this is his crowning musical achievement so far.
The band he has with him are more than up to the challenging of interpreting his song-writing, and their innate musical ability puts the meat on the bones of the concept, and makes this record one that you have to buy.
Public Service Broadcasting The Race for Space
English musical duo Public Service Broadcastings raison D’Etre is creating musical soundscapes based around old film footage, and their debut album Inform, Educate, Entertain is one of the best debut albums I have ever heard, and their reinterpretation of their track Signal 30 which closed the 2013 Formula One season review on the BBC has to be seen to be believed.
Taking as their concept for album number 2 is the Space Race between the USSR and the USA and their starting point is setting John F Kennedy’s speech about The Race for Space to haunting choral music, (with motifs that reoccur throughout the album) and ending with the last manned moon landing.
The artwork for this album is wonderful, two different covers on either side of the record showing either the American or the Russian perspective, and a beautiful booklet in the vinyl edition, which I had to have.
From the driving Sputnik, the jazz funk of Gagarin and then the haunting tribute to the astronauts killed in the Apollo 1 disaster (Fire in the Cockpit) and the celebration of Valentina Tereshkova who became the first woman in space (Valentina, with guest vocals from the Smoke Fairies) and the elegiac closing Tomorrow (when Apollo 17 became the last manned flight to leave the Moon), this album sets itself as referencing a specific period in time, when, with space flight anything seemed possible.
The beauty of Public Service Broadcasting is their use of archive recordings, and matching the music to the mood to evoke a golden era of interstellar travel when everything seemed possible, and it’s 43 minutes plus brings that period back to life and reminds us musically of a time when we spent looking at the stars in optimism, instead of gazing down at our feet. Of the time when people wondered ‘How can we do that?’ not ‘we can’t do that because of the cost’ and of a time when we thought we could live in space. It seems sad that the space race is now, to all intents and purposes history rather something that continues to this day, and this album is a beautiful tribute to all those who contributed and who gave their lives doing so.