Shelter – Ascend (Ministry Of Pop album, 2016)

Shelter are a familiar name to anyone with a passing interest in the solo work of Erasure’s Andy Bell given his collaboration with the duo on 2014’s iPop album, another in a series of extra-curricular projects from the Erasure frontman that have started to emerge in the past few years.

The team of Mark Bebb and Rob Bradley describe Ascend as a more mature offering, and while that might be true in the sense of its slightly more emotional, slowed-up moments, the album is also 100% true to the Shelter sound – namely slick, polished, generally upbeat electronic pop songs that lean heavily toward modern hi-NRG club-friendly structures (see the vaguely ‘Jump’-referencing ‘This Must Be Love’) – but also finds the collaborations that have coloured their previous releases consciously absent.

Judging by the lyrics and phrasing on tracks like the opener ‘Breathless’ or ‘Do You Remember’, Shelter’s time in the company of Andy Bell has evidently rubbed off on them. Mark Bebb’s vocal on these songs has the same thwarted, disappointed, defenceless quality – they’re love songs, for sure, but they seem to be delivered from a unrequited vantage point. Bell has made a career out of that bruised, fragile quality, amplified by Vince Clarke’s sympathetic synth melodies, and what you have here is a decent emulation of that latter-day Erasure style. It’s a formula that Shelter revisit throughout the album, but without ever making them sound like one trick ponies or like they’re just trying to rip off their mates.

Elsewhere, there are moments of rapturous surrender, pitched perfectly for the secret corners of nightclubs; tracks like ‘In The Dark’ might have the rhythm and pace demanded by clubland, but the tone is sullen, dangerous, edgy. Some of the best moments on Ascend happen when Shelter slow things right down and eschew the politics of the dancing for the type of pop music that seemed to wither and die about thirty years ago. ‘Figaro’, for example, is all Latin-inflected rhythms and sun-baked summery heartbreak. The track has that whole ‘La Isla Bonita’ mystery thing down to a fine art, with the juxtaposition of jangly guitars and melodramatic, shimmering melodies more than enough to get a jaded pop music fan like me properly wistful.

It may be a simple product of my general disdain for a pop music landscape which feels duty-bound to use collaborations as the only way to keep things vaguely interesting, but the most compelling moments on Ascend are undoubtedly those that find Shelter operating as a self-contained unit. When they lock the doors to the studio and leave the collaborators outside, Ascend is a smart, well-crafted, confident electronic pop album with plenty of fine songs that suggests a duo finding their own voice.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Suicide – All Tomorrow’s Parties, Camber Sands 23 April 2005

With the untimely demise of the legendary Alan Vega at the weekend, I dug out this review of the Suicide performance at 2005’s All Tomorrow’s Parties at Camber Sands in the UK. Over time this performance has taken on an almost mythical significance to me, a memory almost as blurred and fuzzy as the photo I took below; but as you can see, at least at the time I was less than impressed with the music. You’ll notice that I did, however, make a point of mentioning just how mesmerising both Vega and Rev were.


Suicide were one of the acts that I’d really been looking forward to at this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Camber Sands, East Sussex. And sadly, at least for me, this was not to be the ephiphanic experience I always hoped seeing such a historically important act in the genesis of modern electronic music would be. I’m not sure what the reason was – perhaps the feeling that Martin Rev and Alan Vega were kind of ‘going through the motions’, or perhaps it was the fact that prior to them I’d seen PJ Harvey and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante in very laidback, stripped-down solo performances with only guitars – in contrast, Suicide’s electronic compositions were a little bit too complex; and this from me, ordinarily an electronic music stalwart and a fan of the intricate and unusual.

I’d seen Rev and Vega wandering around the weird jaded / faded seaside glamour of ATP’s Pontins home the day before whilst queueing to check in. Now that was epiphanic – to be just a few feet away from two of my musical heroes while they shuffled past was quite mind-blowing – but the feeling that I got when I saw them perform was of being somewhat less than thrilled. For a start they were at least half an hour late, and then the music appeared to be played on a CD player, with the volume varying considerably from track to track, and often within the same track. Then there was the uncomfortable fact that Rev appeared to be doing nothing more than triggering some noises over the top of the recording, appearing to be the same set of sounds on each and every song. Cymbals, crashes, swooshes and abrasive noises appeared with frightening predictability / regularity, and often out of time.

Another problem was that I really didn’t recognise many of the songs, especially since they were rendered with an eighties pop sheen – none of the grit of their original incarnations at all, and one track even sounded very like ‘Theme From S’Express’ – hardly a counter-cultural statement. The version of ‘Cheree’ was rendered with a rockabilly edge, with Rev taking a stab at some live Phil Spector-esque Wall Of Sound percussion on one bar, then missing the beat on the second bar, finally giving up on the third.

A note on Marty Rev: if Suicide were the unlikely progenitors to the eighties synth duos (Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Blancmange etc), then Dave Ball, Chris Lowe, Vince Clarke and Stephen Luscombe and all the other synth-playing halves take note – this man has a vivid stage personality and an energy that none of these guys have ever shown. He was frantic, like the ubiquitous mad professor, all shock hair and whirling arms with the largest wrap-around shades this side of an athletics track. He really looked like Einstein composing for a Futurist symphony, and when he stood, centre stage, with his back to the audience he was quite a captivating performer. And on Alan Vega, who made showroom dummy shapes with his hands and smoked between (and sometimes during) songs – his voice has become more gravel-filled over the years, becoming the New York post-Beat poet that he always promised to be. I thought he’d totally lost the plot when he started imploring to the audience that you shouldn’t be selfish, that you should look out for your relatives. ‘You should think first before doin’ somethin’ stupid, man,’ he emphatically muttered. And, just when I thought that the fire and rebel spirit had exited the man completely like the smoke exhaled from his lungs, someone thew a bottle at him. ‘Like that,’ he responded; and with that, the punk in him returned. He stepped back from the mic and calmly flipped the bird to the audience member. However, I couldn’t work out whether he was wearing a Davey Crockett hat or a very bad wig. I hope not the latter; it really didn’t match his cyberpunk clobber and similarly-cool shades.

I really thought they’d hit their stride with a totally live version of the classic ‘Ghost Rider’, my favourite electro-punk standard. Sadly, my joyous feeling was to be deflated rapidly as the synth groove failed to run at the same speed as the beat, creating a sickeningly queasy rhythm that was painful after a short while. They followed that disappointment with a track that I didn’t recognise that reminded me chiefly of Depeche Mode‘s ‘A Question Of Time’ with its clanging industrial synth hook and beat. There was nothing especially wrong with their more polished songs, it just always surprises me when a band so at the very centre of their movement become influenced by the bands that they themselves inspired – with results arguably poorer than the newer breed. I left after just five songs, pleased that I’d gotten to see them, but wishing that I was a New Yorker alive in the seventies and able to see them at their CBGBs Bowery prime.

Originally posted 2005; re-edited 2016.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Harrison Bond – Honey (single, 2016)

On this blog, whether covering Mute acts or the various other things that I find myself writing about, it’s not often that I get to write about artists that are local to where I live near Milton Keynes. And so it’s refreshing for me to write about ‘Honey’, the debut proper single from Harrison Bond, a young, bespectacled singer / songwriter based round these parts who has been quietly building himself a reputation on the local gig circuit and who has now also started playing shows in London.
‘Honey’ serves as a stop-gap before a longer release later in the year, and showcases the style that Bond expects to permeate that record – namely sedate, gently drifting electronics blending seamlessly with guitar lines that betray a schooling in blues traditions. The instrumental intro to ‘Fingers’ is almost horizontal in its laidback outlook, shimmering synth patterns and summery guitar sounding somewhere between inclusive old-school Balearic chill and The KLF’s American road-trip on Chill Out.

The main track on the single, ‘Honey’, takes the same vibe but flattens the mood down into something more ephemeral, more opaque, balanced on that intriguing fault line between optimism and pessimism that writers like me get universally excited about. Bond’s restrained vocal here has the air of a confessional, combining quiet anguish and lovesick desperation in one tidy package.

Expect great things.

‘Honey’ is available at the iTunes Store.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Perplexer – Acid Folk (DEF single, 1994)

perplexer_acidfolk

def | 12″/l12″/cd eef100 | 1994

A while ago a friend told me that every London map designer includes a fake road somewhere in their maps, the purpose being that it allows them to tell if anyone has copied their version illegally. One can only imagine how much of a wild goose chase you’d find yourself on if you actually tried to find that road or asked a cabbie to take you there.

I found myself thinking about that when a copy of Perplexer‘s ‘Acid Folk’ arrived through my letterbox in 2011. ‘Acid Folk’ is listed in my copy of Mute‘s Statement 2 2001 catalogue, but nothing about the CD tells you it’s a Mute release at all. No mention on the label, it doesn’t appear to be licenced, and the address for the record label is a completely different part of London from where Mute were based at the time. So I don’t know. Perhaps it’s just the version I bought, or maybe it was issued by Mute on behalf of the label (Deutsch-Englische-Fruendschaft, or DEF) without wishing to draw any attention to the Mute connection. Not much is known generally about DEF, but as they seemed principally to have been a home to Eskimos & Egypt prior to them releasing stuff on other labels, perhaps it was their own label; I’m pretty sure it was in no way connected to the management company, also known as DEF, that Moby was part of for most of his career.

But enough of the mystery. Perplexer’s public face was ‘enacted’ by Marc Olbertz. ‘Acid Folk’ was written and produced by Alexander Breuer, Andreas Schneider and Ramon Zengler; Zengler is most familiar to me as one half of the seminal Hardfloor, whose ‘Acperience’ EP was responsible for stimulating acid house’s second, enduring renaissance on dancefloors. Unsurprisingly, then, that ‘Acid Folk’ should have a lovely set of 303s running through it. However, it plays second fiddle to the bagpipe drone that dominates the track; that’s right, acid house meets traditional Scottish folk music. Just when it seemed that every possible novelty permutation of dance music had been exploited, along comes a track which mixes the sort of happy hardcore beats that used to get skinhead Dutch ravers very excited, bagpipes and acid house grooves. I used to think that you could add a 303 to anything and it would make it sound superb (see acid head Ege Bam Yasi’s How To Acid An Egg for evidence of that); that’s evidently not the case with bagpipes, or at least it doesn’t feel that way to me. I’ll be relatively upfront and say that I don’t really like ‘Acid Folk’.

The vocal mix is too fast for my liking, plus – despite some Scottish roots – I don’t really like the sound of the bagpipes anyway, so it’s sort of difficult to listen to; the Low-Speed mix is slightly slower and I would really love this mix were it not for the bagpipes, since it would just be a constant acid rush. I’m also not a fan of hardcore DJ Ellis Dee’s breakbeat-and-drone version although the rave stabs and 1992 ‘ardcore vibes are quite good.

The House mix starts with some nice sounds, a deep house beat / bassline and processes the bagpipe riff into the equivalent of the euphoric clipped sax samples that used to be a favourite of house producers back in the day. It’s my favourite mix overall, mostly because the bagpipes are treated and not too irritating; I was never a huge house fan back in the day and yet I really like this. The Pro-Gress mix is a bit all over the place for my liking, blending some ear-friendly aesthetics with some deeper sounds to create a hybrid that would probably appeal to fans of trance. Once again it’s the bagpipe drone that stops this from being better than it should be. I do find it quite strange – in 1994 remixers usually went out of their way to dispense with most of the original elements of a track yet here all the mixers keep the bagpipes in. There are other mixes available on the 12″ and limited remix 12″; I’m not that much of a Mute completist to bother with those for this release.

Perhaps I’m starting to understand why Mute didn’t properly affix their name to this after all…

My version of the CD single is now up for sale on Discogs.com under the username nominalmusics. If you’re desperate to own it, head here.

12″:
A1. Acid Folk (Low Speed Mix)
A2. Acid Folk (House Remix)
B1. Acid Folk (Vocal Mix)
B2. Acid Folk (DJ Tom & Norman Remix)

remix 12″:
A1. Acid Folk (Ellis D. Remix Edit 2)
A2. Acid Folk (Cream & Candy Remix)
B1. Acid Folk (Exit EEE Remix)
B2. Acid Folk (Pro-Gress Remix)

cd:
1. Acid Folk (Vocal Mix)
2. Acid Folk (Low Speed Mix)
3. Acid Folk (Ellis D. Remix Edit 2)
4. Acid Folk (House Remix)
5. Acid Folk (Pro-Gress Remix)

First posted 2011; edited 2016

(c) 206 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

The Killer Robots! Crash And Burn (Leomark Studios film, 2016)


I’m not sure how I never heard about The Killer Robots!, a ‘theatrical rock band’ from Orlando, FL where the band members wear huge robot costumes. They seem like a lot of irreverent fun, though I think you have to be a huge nerd to fully appreciate them; or maybe, given their predilection for on-stage pyrotechnics and tongue-in-cheek sci-fi-isms, you just need to be a fan of Muse.

The Robots are just about to release their second movie (the first was called The Killer Robots And The Battle For The Cosmic Potato – yes, you did read that correctly). Co-opting the name from one of my favourite robot flicks of my youth, Crash And Burn is a B-movie-style adventure that follows the Robots as they try to eliminate various nefarious villains in increasingly goofy chapters. The movie was began in 2010 and delivered on an amazingly small budget. The result is both deftly humorous but also, in its own inimitable way, a faithful tribute of sorts to the earliest sci-fi movies.

One-time Mute artist Espen J. Jörgensen contributed voices to three characters in the film – Skippy, RoboNoid and Spytor. Robots founder, bassist Sam Gaffin (who also plays the character Auto and put most of the film together single-handedly over the past five years) wrote a brilliant electronic score for the film that is sure to become as legendary as the movie will, and absolutely needs to be released in its own right. Think of the Louis and Bebe Barron soundtrack to The Forbidden Planet rebooted for modern kit and you won’t be far off.

The Killer Robots! Crash And Burn will be out on iTunes on July 15th. In the meantime, check out the official trailer below.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Sonic Youth – Spinhead Sessions (Goofin’ album, 2016)


The full sessions for Sonic Youth‘s unused soundtrack to Ken Friedman’s movie Made In The USA have finally seen the light of day, some thirty years after they were recorded. In the UK the band had recently signed to Paul Smith‘s Blast First imprint and were about to release their seminal Sister LP after replacing Bob Bert on drums with Steve Shelley.

Despite the transition they were just about to make, Spinhead Sessions – named for the studio where these instrumental tracks were recorded – has more in common with the spooky atmospheres of their Blast First debut Bad Moon Rising.
I reviewed this for Clash. The review can be found here.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

They Might Be Giants – Phone Power (LOJINX album, 2016)

Brooklyn’s They Might Be Giants can probably lay claim to being the first hipsters, back when their idiosyncratic take on pop was just branded ‘kooky’. Phone Power is the third in a series of albums released in the past year, racking up over fifty tracks across those releases.

I reviewed the album for This Is Not Retro. Read the review here.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for This Is Not Retro