= JULY 2005 =
|Written by:||Alasdair Roberts|
|Simon Lewis (Editor)||Radio Massacre International|
Like the gently lapping waves on the quayside, this album slowly infiltrates your mind with a beautiful guitar sound that calls you into the world of gorgeous psych-pop that is Apothecary Hymns. Opening song ‘Abandoned Factories’ slowly evolves from the gentle intro into a fine slice of T.Rex style guitar riffery that pushes the song along nicely. Next track ‘The Father’ is an atmospheric song with some wonderful instrumentation, the glockenspiel (I think) adding a shimmer to the proceeding, complementing the excellent guitar playing and creating a folksier feel to the tune. Fans of sixties U.K. Psych will love ‘The Marigold’, four minutes of mellow perfection with suitably trippy lyrics and excellent vocals from Alex Stimmel, the man responsible for this joyous album.
Elsewhere ‘The Human Abstract’ mixes the words of William Blake with some laid-back banjo and wyrd folk flute, whilst ‘Watching The Bay’ is another song straight from the ‘rubbles’ handbook with its sing-a-long melody lodging itself in your brain with gay abandon. The atmosphere is darker and more psychedelic for ‘(A Sailor Song) with the synths rattling and swirling in the background adding an extra dimension to the sound, before things get very strange as ‘The Conclusion, In Which Nothing Is Concluded’ collapses into a collage of backward noise and vocals describing the latent energy of rocks.
This is a fine and cohesive album that is full of strong songs and a production that adds brightness to the collection, creating a splendid listening experience that no fan of melodic psych should be without. (Simon Lewis)
(CD/LP on Drag City Records, http://www.dragcity.com)
Like Richard Thompson, Alasdair Roberts' work has always had a touch of antiquity about it - a certain fluidity of interchange between the self-penned and the traditional. His 2001 album of traditional covers 'The Crook of My Arm' was a mere stone's throw in feel from his work with Appendix Out, and his follow-up masterpiece 'Farewell Sorrow' had many scanning for the designation "trad" in the songwriting credits only to find that it was exclusively comprised of original compositions. 'The Crook of My Arm' was clearly no exercise in dilettantism, for Roberts has now issued an emphatic second record of traditional ballads, in this case focussed on the ever-popular area of murder.
‘No Earthly Man’ eases into its grim work in a low-key fashion. ‘Lord Ronald’ is starkly arranged, despite the significant number of instrumental contributors. Cello, guitar, keyboards and drums form a distant miasma behind Roberts’ clear, keening and beautifully accented vocal delivery. ‘Molly Bawn’ is an Irish variant of the well-trammelled ‘Polly Vaughan’ and the reading is bleak, even for this genre. Spindly dulcimer, death-rattle drums and haunted-house piano drive the thing along like a plague cart. Robert’s version of a ‘Cruel Mother’ is a highlight, combining the tune from a 1976 Silly Wizard reading (called ‘Carlisle Wall’) with words culled from three sources; the Silly Wizard version, the singing of Aberdeen-born Lizzie Higgins, and from the version on Shirley Collins’ 1967 album ‘The Sweet Primroses’. What this version of ‘The Cruel Mother’ illustrates is the profound intelligence and respect with which Roberts’ approaches the body of tradition. He is clearly aware of the work done before by folkies down the decades, and both acknowledges and builds on it.
Great takes follow: ‘On the Banks of Red Roses’, ‘The Two Brothers’, ‘Admiral Cole’ and ‘Sweet William’ mix traditional instrumentation, superb vocals and some subtle feedback and electronics in places. Most striking though, is Roberts’ version of ‘A Lyke Wake Dirge’ - it owes much to the work of ‘The Young Tradition’ for its arcane power, but is given a thunderous arrangement that transports the listener right back into a 15th Century interment procession, fog bound and illuminated by burning torches. Its ritualistic power is enough to suggest that Roberts would be an ideal candidate to provide the music to any proposed remake of ‘The Wicker Man’.
Collaboration is deeply important to the world this
record presents. Isobel Campbell (of Belle & Sebastian) plays cello on all
but one song in addition to singing on two and playing piano on another.
Producer Will Oldham sings on four songs, and also plays bass and piano on
another. Paul Oldham, in addition to mixing the record, also contributes
bass to one song. In the final analysis, the most substantial collaboration
is the wedding of Roberts’ British Isles grounding of the material to
Oldham’s backwoods Kentucky vision of how the record should be arranged and
(CDR from Humble Bee Recordings)
If one imagines the Terrascope to be the city at the heart of the Terrastock Nation, then ‘Notes over Hadrian’s Wall’ is a guided walk around one of it’s most fascinating and yet least-known quarters; a delightful amble through a warren of cloisters, courtyards and passageways, hidden places where shadows of the past are locked in an embrace with the avant garde, sudden moments of high drama and breathtaking architectural splendour. Your principal guides are Alan Davidson (aka The Kitchen Cynics) from North of Hadrian Wall and from the south, Simon Lewis (aka The Phoenix Cube, and also also known as the your reviews editor). The Cynics kick things off with the gorgeously Gothic-tinged folk song ‘Black is the Colour’ which, primarily thanks to the use of a melodica and a haunting cello refrain from Duncan Hart, bears favourable comparison to some of Jeff Kelly’s solo works. High praise indeed. The Phoenix Cube’s first piece on here, ‘Empty Bottles’ (not the Mazzy Star song) is likewise something of an architectural tour de force, at first sighting a sighing, gentle acoustic refrain with vocals from Cara Lewis – who also hand-made the lovely little cloth bags the CDRs are housed in, and thus deserves medals for both style and patience – it then rises up to reveal itself as a glittering sentinel, a signpost that nods towards the psychedelic cathedral which is ‘Swarm Behaviour’ – Phoenix Cube’s finest moment, and arguably the centrepiece of this whole little collection; particularly given that Alan Davidson himself lends some guitar and effects to the mix. The landscape shifts and shimmers before you like mist cloaking a graveyard and for a while I was transported back to some of Atman’s earliest works (this is no bad thing; even their own successors the Magic Carpathian Project have never quite captured the atmosphere of their 1st album in quite the same way as this does). Fitting then that the next Kitchen Cynics song should be entitled ‘Shift’ – it’s actually more to do with time than shapes or colours – and that the final Phoenix Cube song should be their own interpretation of ‘Black is the Colour’, which the attentive amongst you will have noticed was the song that the Kitchen Cynics opened with.
All in all, a charming and disarming collection, and given that it’s from two of the Terrascope online forums’ most regular contributors it’s definitely something we should all be supporting. Contact Simon Lewis at email@example.com for details of how to get hold of a copy. I’d really like to see more collaborations like this happening in future, maybe involving a few more contributors (since I know there’s a lot of musicians out there hiding behind a variety of pseudonyms!). It’s all up to you. (Phil McMullen)
(2xCD from Cuneiform Records, http://www.cuneiformrecords.com )
As soon as I heard this I found myself thinking I really really wished I knew more about Radio Massacre International. I’ve since gone on to find out, and hear, a whole lot more about (and by) them – apparently they are “the world’s best exponents of epic electronic space improvisations”, and have released upwards of 22 CDs, if we include self-released CDRs in their discography. Nevertheless, ‘Emissaries’, despite only having been recently released, stands firm as a perfect introduction to the band; I just believe it should carry a warning sticker to the effect that listening to it could potentially be damaging to the pocket, since few bands this side of Acid Mothers Temple have been as prolific.
British based and formed in 1994 out of the ashes of an earlier synthesiser outfit named DAS (thus immediately adding a further 12 albums to their discography!), Radio Massacre International are an improvisational trio consisting of Gary Houghton (guitars), Steve Dinsdale (drums) and Duncan Goddard (bass) – all three can add “keyboards and digital and analogue equipment – and it shows; there’s a warm glow and a tint to their shifting soundscapes which is sadly absent from much modern “progressive” and pseudo-classical electronic, techno, industrial and new-agey music. This, friends, is good old-fashioned space rock played at it’s very HIGHest level – think Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel and Klaus Schulze, laced with a dash of scorching guitar from Houghton, who is no mean player of God’s chosen instrument. Even their album titles seem at first glance to be nods towards the Floyd (whose ‘Echoes’ is never directly referenced but often seems to be just over the sonic horizon) – ‘Organ Harvest’, ‘Borrowed Atoms’ and, indirectly I suppose, ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ (Pink Floyd by way of Porcupine Tree)
And so, to the CDs in hand. Epic in scope as well as by nature, Radio Massacre International’s debut album for Cunieform Records consists of a studio CD, based around RMI’s musical interpretations of a 10 page comic ‘novel’ (more of a novella really) created by the fellow responsible for the line-drawings in Cuneiform’s distinctive advertisments, Matt Howarth - six songs in all, together making up the “Emissaries Suite”, of which the first number, which in the hallowed days of vinyl would have taken up all of Side 1 of the 3 record set, features some of the band’s best riffing and undoubtedly their finest title: ‘Seeds Crossing the Interstellar Void’. The second disc features a live U.S. FM radio broadcast by the band dating from May 2004, recorded at 2am and appropriately for that hour starting out subdued and somnambulent, although over time it builds into an absolute crescendo of sound. Great stuff. Strongest track on here is, coincidentally enough, entitled ‘The Arrival of the Seeds’ – presumably the same seeds which had earlier crossed the interstellar void (as a matter of fact the chronology is wrong: Howarth drew his comic strip after hearing the band’s radio broadcast); glorious bleeps and whooshes that are very much in the Tangerine Dream circa. ‘Phaedra’ mould, which is no bad thing at all if you ask me. (Phil McMullen)