Mike Atkinson

Dog Is Dead, Kappa Gamma, Kagoule – Nottingham Rock City, Saturday December 17.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rock City by Mike A on December 18, 2011

(Originally written for the Nottingham Post)

Becoming only the second Nottingham act ever to play a full headline show at Rock City, Dog Is Dead returned to their home town on Saturday night, topping an all-local bill and facing a packed house. It was a perfect way for the band to end their year, which has seen them signing to a major label, gaining national radio play and press attention, playing larger venues and festival stages (including a riotously well-received set at Splendour over the summer), appearing on E4’s Skins, and releasing plenty of fine music along the way.

Stepping in to fill the gap left by Tribes, who pulled out of the gig due to an injury, Kagoule opened the show in impressive style, visibly growing in confidence throughout their set. The vintage Sonic Youth t-shirt worn by singer Cai Burns gave you a clue where their influences lay, as the trio drew on elements from early Nineties grunge and shoegaze, mixing them with a modern sensibility and a youthful approach. Still only in their mid-teens, the band made good on the promise of their debut EP Son, adapting to their new surroundings with commendable maturity.

Kappa Gamma were up next, their slot on the bill secured by winning a competition in which local music experts, the voting public – and finally Dog Is Dead themselves – selected the act which they felt most deserved a place on the Rock City stage. The band also claim Bruce Forsyth as one of their biggest supporters – and while this might have come as a surprise to Brucie himself, who was more focussed on hosting the Strictly Come Dancing final than cheering on a Nottingham indie band, a generous supply of Forsyth face masks helped to perpetuate the illusion.

Kappa Gamma’s complex, powerful math-rock made them the ideal warm-up act, and the crowd responded with heart-warming enthusiasm, moshing furiously and cheering them to the rafters. Barely known at the start of the year, they will have won many new fans, and a bright future surely awaits them in 2012.

By the time that Dog Is Dead took to the stage, anticipation had reached fever pitch, and the band were duly greeted like homecoming heroes. Opening with their third single River Jordan, the set mixed familiar favourites with some brand new tracks, which offered a taster for the forthcoming debut album.

This was also Nottingham’s first chance to welcome new drummer Dan Harvey to the band, following Lawrence Libor’s departure in August. The sole non-native musician on the bill – he’s a Doncaster lad – Dan’s delight was clear for all to see.

That aside, all the familiar elements of the Dog Is Dead sound were in place: Trev’s sax, Joss’s keyboards, Rob’s calmly commanding vocals, those soaring, almost church-like five-part harmonies, the chiming guitar runs, the insistent melodies, and the anthemic choruses.

Of the older songs, Young was the inevitable mid-set highlight, its chanted refrain (“Hold your breath and count to ten, we’re losing touch, we’re losing friends”) bellowed back at the band by the whole room. The current single (Hands Down) and its B-side (Burial Ground) closed the main set, leaving us in no doubt as to the encore.

As the opening bars of Glockenspiel Song rang out, Rock City erupted into full-on delirium. Fists pumped the air, heels pounded the floor, and a thousand voices belted out the lines that adorn the back of the new t-shirts: “We are a mess, we are failures, and we love it!”

“If the bells don’t ring in our home town”, sang Rob Milton, “they’re just cheats and liars”. The next time that the lads headline Rock City, perhaps we should be putting St Mary’s Church on standby.  In the meantime, let’s congratulate Dog Is Dead on a remarkable year, and wish them every success for the year to come.

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Adam Ant – Nottingham Rock City, Thursday December 8th

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rock City by Mike A on December 9, 2011

Originally written for the Nottingham Post.
Click here for a photo gallery of this show

For someone who dominated pop so totally in the early Eighties – in 1981 alone, he had seven singles and three albums in the charts – Adam Ant’s legacy has been unfairly overlooked. A drawn-out battle with mental illness didn’t help; between 1996 and 2010, the former star played just one live show, and it seemed unlikely that we would ever hear from him again.

Just over a year ago, Adam started to make a few tentative returns to the spotlight. The gigs were low-key at first, but they were enough for the word to spread: against all the odds, the man had found his form again.

Expectations were therefore running high for last night’s show, which attracted a mixture of fans from the cult punk band days, nostalgic forty-somethings, and a fair number of curious younger observers. A few had gone the whole hog, plastering white stripes across their faces in tribute to Adam’s signature look.

Their efforts were more than matched by the 57-year old legend himself, who was decked out in a huge, feathered pirate hat and a gold brocade jacket, with a black cross daubed on one temple. The “dandy highwayman” of 1981 had returned to life; bespectacled and a little thicker round the waist, but still instantly recognisable. A trim little moustache completed the look. It was impossible not to be reminded of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, until you remembered that Adam was the originator, not the imitator.

In place of The Ants, backing was provided by The Good, The Mad & The Lovely Posse (“they’re good, I’m mad”), which featured two drummers (how could it not?) and the burlesque performer Georgina Baillie, no stranger to unwelcome press attention herself. (You might remember her as the girl in the centre of the Brand/Ross/Sachs hoo-hah.)

Instead of opening with one of the big hits, the marathon 27-song set began with an obscure track from the early days of The Ants: Plastic Surgery, from the soundtrack of Derek Jarman’s 1978 punk movie Jubilee. It set the tone for much of what followed, as Adam reconnected his pop career with his formative punk roots. Almost all the hits were there – Stand And Deliver, Goody Two Shoes, Antmusic – but so were the early singles, album tracks and B-sides. The B-sides in particular were a real treat: Beat My Guest, Kick, Fall In, a blisteringly brilliant Red Scab, and a deliciously kinky Whip In My Valise, surely a blueprint for much of Suede’s early material.

Compellingly energised throughout – hollering and strutting and baring his teeth, and ripping his T-shirt half-open during Kings Of The Wild Frontier – the singer only stumbled once. Introducing his 1995 single Wonderful as “the only love song I ever wrote”, Adam struggled his way through the song, which sounded awkwardly at odds with the rest of the set.  He recovered with a brand new song, written in tribute to the late rockabilly singer Vince Taylor: a fallen star, who never recovered from a descent into drug abuse and madness.

Based on the evidence of this magnificent show – performed with dashing, if damaged, panache and cheered to the rafters by a rapturous crowd – Adam Ant looks to have escaped that kind of sorry fate. It was truly heart-warming to see him back where he belonged: on stage, tarted up to the nines, standing and delivering, and bringing smiles to the faces of his reunited “insect nation”.

Set list: Plastic Surgery, Dog Eat Dog, Beat My Guest, Kick, Car Trouble, Zerox, Ants Invasion, Deutscher Girls, Stand And Deliver, Puss ‘N Boots, Kings Of The Wild Frontier, Wonderful, Vince Taylor, Whip In My Valise, Desperate But Not Serious, Antmusic, Cleopatra, Never Trust A Man (With Egg On His Face), Goody Two Shoes, Vive Le Rock, Christian D’Or, Lady, Fall In, Red Scab, Prince Charming, Get It On, Physical (You’re So).

Swimming: binaural headphones show, Broadway Cinema, Friday December 2

Posted in Broadway, gigs, LeftLion by Mike A on December 8, 2011

(originally published in LeftLion)

“Are you here for the binaural?” The respectable looking lady to our right leaned over to us, with a friendly, enquiring smile, before introducing herself as the mother of Swimming’s singer John Sampson, and their drummer Pete. During the conversation which followed, I was hit with a new thought: to fully grasp where the art is coming from, perhaps you need to talk to the mother. For John and Pete’s mum was not only a mine of information – biographical details, key career highlights, the full skinny – but she was also possessed of a keen understanding of the ideas, inspirations and aspirations that have informed John’s songcraft.

And there was nothing that she didn’t know about “binaural” performance methodology, either. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it’s a method of sound recording that seeks to reproduce the exact sensation of being in the same room as the musicians, by means of microphones which are attached to the ears of the binaural broadcaster.

For this unique performance at Broadway, Swimming were cloistered away in the Lounge, while the rest of us gathered inside the Café Bar, each equipped with a pair of high-specification cordless headphones. Our channeller for the evening was Dallas Simpson, who has been working within this medium for the past ten years. “My ears are your ears”, he told us before the set began, explaining that we were about to be offered “a one-to-one relationship with Swimming”.

Two video displays were activated, each beaming onto a different wall of the bar. On one wall, a fixed camera showed Simpson in the middle of the lounge, slowly moving between the seated players. On the other, a camera attached to Simpson’s head showed us what he was seeing, as he moved this way and that.

As the performance began, introductory sounds of running water were replaced by the music of the band, transmitted from the instruments in the Lounge to the ears of the bar. Indeed, there was no external amplification whatsoever; if you slipped off your cans, all you heard was the rare silence of a packed city centre bar on a Friday night.

What hit you first was the extraordinarily spatial, three-dimensional quality of the sound, which felt as if it existed outside of your head, filling the room.  The effect was amplified by a number of long white tubes, which Simpson arranged on the floor of the performance space, occasionally tilting them hither and thither.  The tubes acted as speakers, channelling each individual player’s contribution from one corner to another, and increasing the sensation of distinct sonic separation.

By stepping around the performance space, drawing close to different band members in turn, Simpson was able to subtly influence the mix, his physical proximity to any chosen instrument increasing its prominence in our ears. His intent, focussed, acutely “present in the room” demeanour set the mood for the audience, who remained in rapt concentration throughout.

Some closed their eyes and surrendered to the sonics, while others flicked their gaze from one wall to the other, connecting the two pieces of visual information – but all were actively engaged in an exercise of sustained listening, of a nature that was wholly unlike anything that you could have found at a standard rock gig.  The communal listening experience was still present, but our responses were freed from the usual influence of the crowd.

The performance differed in other ways, too. Projected high above our heads, there was an Olympian detachment about the players – and yet at the same time, an extraordinarily direct and intimate connection was formed between them and us. In turn, this informed the band’s re-interpretations of their recorded material.

In marked contrast to the closely melded indie-rock production of the records, in which individual parts coalesce into a fuzzed-out whole, this was a performance that invited you to separate out the components of each track. Noisy and pumping on their parent albums, the songs became contemplative and delicate, with sparkling, stripped-down new arrangements.  Swimming Unplugged… or was it Swimming Re-wired?

On Sun In The Island, for instance – a song inspired by a search for inner spiritual calm, following a near-miss encounter in a shoot-out on the streets of Sneinton – the pounding synth riff was transferred to a softly tinkling xylophone. It was a beautiful, affecting transformation.  At other times, songs dissolved into extended, unstructured, unhurried interludes, before eventually regrouping into recognisable new melodies.

With few clear pauses in the music, and without the physical presence of the players to encourage us, applause only broke out a couple of times before the hour was up. It felt odd, clapping for people who weren’t really there, and who couldn’t hear us clapping anyway. (Binaural is a strictly one-way process, you see.) But as the spell finally broke, and as the lights went up, restoring Friday night normality, the cheers rang out loud and clear. This was a remarkable, bold and brilliant venture, from a band that had pushed itself to new heights of creativity. Much like the rest of us, the mother and her friends beamed from ear to ear with blissed-out joy – and with justified pride, too.

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Forest Fire, Hhymn, Twenty Year Hurricane, Fists – The Chameleon, Nottingham, Thursday December 1st

Posted in Chameleon, gigs, LeftLion by Mike A on December 7, 2011

(originally published in LeftLion)

“We’d just like to say to Forest Fire: we’re not usually like this”, said James from Fists, following a second fluffed intro. “We played Glastonbury!” he added, smiling sheepishly. “Yeah, but that was two and a half years ago”, a band mate reminded him. The band giggled, shrugged, regrouped, and tried again.

Perhaps they’ll never be the slickest of acts, but Fists – who, despite booking the acts and promoting the night, were happy to place themselves at the bottom of the bill – aren’t the sort of band who will let the odd wobble knock them off their perches. Not that they were exactly perching in the first place; The Chameleon’s lack of a raised stage literally placed the band on a level with their audience, allowing an easy rapport to bloom.

Mixing brand new material with relatively old favourites such as Ascending (which has to be in the running for Nottingham’s single of the year), the band exuded a ragged good cheer.  This sat well with the amiable menace of their music, the guitars coalescing into a sustained collective growl.  Fists have a winning knack for playing as if teetering on the edge of a precipice; it could all collapse in an instant, but by lashing themselves together for support, they battle on through. Their journey peaked with the final track Stag, in which a steady one-note throb gradually became subsumed into a raging squall, climaxing with a rasping, chanted refrain from the whole band.

Despite being led by Nick Lawford from Hello Thor – the label who signed Fists, as well as Anxieteam and We Show Up On Radar – Twenty Year Hurricane were perhaps the least known of the four acts on the bill. They might not play out that often, but you would never have guessed it from the quality of their performance, or by the ease with which they gelled as a unit.

As rock trios go, they were an improbably diverse looking bunch: a burly drummer, a close-cropped, hard-looking bassist (whose demeanour stood in marked contrast to the fluid grace of his playing), and a front man who performed as if he was exorcising personal demons, raging bitterly against the hard knocks that life had dealt him.  On occasions, they evoked memories of The Jam – one song in particular sounded on the cusp of morphing into David Watts – but in this instance, Weller’s politically fuelled recriminations were replaced by Nick’s altogether more personal settlings of scores.

Worthy successors to the grandiose, orchestrated lugubriousness of Tindersticks, and boosted by a superb sound mix that filled the small room with a cavernous, reverb-drenched magnificence, making their lone trumpeter sound like an full brass section, Hhymn made good on all the promise of debut album In The Depths, casting their spell upon a rapt crowd.

“We haven’t got time to talk”, lead singer Ed Bannard muttered near the start of the set, before once again clenching his eyes half-shut in concentration, and channelling his sorrows into an affecting and wholly convincing performance.  Album opener These Hands was a particular highlight, and as good an illustration as any of the Albert Camus quote which greets purchasers of the band’s CD: “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invisible summer.” If Hymn hailed from Brooklyn rather than Nottingham, or if they were signed to Bella Union rather than Denizen (without meaning to cast any negative aspersions on one of our finest labels), they would surely be feted across the land.

As it happens, headliners Forest Fire do hail from Brooklyn – and while they’re not exactly feted across the land, they’ve been steadily accruing a solid critical reputation since the release of their debut album in 2008. Still, you sensed that the touring life was taking its toll; garments looked threadbare and torn, and tempers felt equally frayed, leading to a heated exchange between some of the band before the set began.

For those of us who hadn’t seen them before (although apparently we hadn’t missed much, if their sour dismissal of the previous Nottingham show was to believed), it was a surprise to discover that Nathan Delffs – the tall, charismatic guitarist with the rock-star bandanna and the thousand-yard stare – wasn’t the band’s front man after all. Instead, the duties fell upon the slender shoulders of Mark Thresher: a bespectacled, dorky looking fellow with a Dee Dee Ramone haircut, and the look of a miniaturised, 1983-era Mike Mills.

Forest Fire’s recently released second album, Staring At The X, sees the band moving away from the folksier textures of their first release, and towards a fuzzier, dronier sound. This was signalled from the off, as a casually flicked floor switch set off an extended electronic drone, which acted like a call to prayer, summoning stragglers up from the bar downstairs.

A mostly downtempo set was saved from becoming too gruelling by occasional flashes of contrast – a loping funk groove here, a flashy guitar solo there – and by unexpected theatrical flourishes, such as when Nathan opted to turn his guitar into a mouth-organ, sucking it and chewing it with alarming relish. Thresher snapped a string early on – as did Nick from Twenty Yard Hurricane, two sets earlier – but once again, this barely registered.

The band’s odd approach to songwriting dynamics meant that songs often ended just when you least wanted them to, stopping dead in the middle of strong sections that didn’t yet feel resolved. This left us wholly unprepared for the seemingly endless krautrock jam which closed the set. Underpinned by a brutally simple, never-changing drum pattern, the players lurched into grinding battle, stretching and detuning their strings, and scaling ever greater heights of mesmerising madness.

Reaching for an uplighter in the back corner, Nathan pressed it into service as a bow for his guitar, brandishing it high as his eyes gleamed with malevolent fury. As the track neared its climax, he collapsed into a corner, twitching like a foetus that had been returned to its womb. Still clasped to his chest, his uplighter flickered on and off in time to the music, like a malfunctioning home-made life support system.

“Let’s get drunk”, he gurgled from the floor as the music spluttered to a halt, coaxing nervous laughter from the stunned onlookers. As show-stoppers go, this one had passed all known points of return.

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Trent Sound Radio: Can Sound Turn A Pound?

Posted in features, LeftLion by Mike A on December 7, 2011

(Written for LeftLion magazine)

For those who still remember Radio Trent in its Seventies and Eighties glory days, when the station broadcast on 301 metres AM, Trent Sound’s studio address should hold a special resonance. In point of fact, there wasn’t a “301 Coventry Road, Bulwell” before the service launched on June 13th – but for station manager Andy Lloyd, who sold his adjacent computer business in order to fund the start-up, the chance to revive the memory was too good to pass up.

It’s a fitting inspiration for a station that seeks to “capture the magic, fun and local identity of Radio Trent” – although for the latter-day owners of the now defunct Trent FM, which was subsumed into the Capital behemoth on January 3rd, the tribute fell on somewhat stony ground.

According to Lloyd, “All hell broke loose; they sent a courier up from London on a motorbike, with a cease and desist letter. They didn’t want us to use the name Trent at all. We had to sign certain undertakings about things that we wouldn’t do, and they in turn “permitted” us to use the word Trent. We pointed out that it’s actually the name of a river – which they may not have been aware of, down in London – and it’s not really in their gift to grant. We’ve got Trent Valley Windows, Trent Kebabs… Trent everything, really.”

While various Trent exiles – including the station’s first ever on-air presenter, John Peters – clubbed together at radiotrent.co.uk, which launched as a web-only service three weeks after Trent Sound, Lloyd and his team started to forge a different path. Their ultimate objective is to secure a community radio licence, which would allow them to migrate to FM full time. There will be a chance to do that in 2013, when Ofcom opens its doors to the next round of licensing applications – but until then, the station is obliged to remain almost entirely internet-based, broadcasting round the clock from http://www.trentsound.com.

Despite this restriction, there are still periodic opportunities for Trent Sound to hit the city’s radio dials, thanks to Ofcom’s “restricted service licences” (or RSLs, as they say in the business). These can be granted to stations who are preparing to apply for a permanent licence, up to a maximum of two 28-day periods per year.

Handily timed for the holiday period, Trent Sound’s first RSL is scheduled to run from December 12th until January 8th. You’ll find them right at the top of the dial – on 87.9 FM, just to the left of Radio 2 – and if you like what you hear, they’re hoping you’ll follow them back onto the internet, after the licence expires. In this respect, the welcome lack of on-air adverts should help curry favour with new listeners. “We really need to get the station out there”, says Lloyd, “and we don’t give a stuff about making money”.

Although the station’s weekday output sticks to an oldies-based format – nothing before 1965, nothing after 1995 – a wide array of evening and weekend specialist slots aim to create “a radio station for everybody”, according to Lloyd. There are programmes dedicated to rock, indie, R&B, house, world/folk and blues, as well as a gay show on Saturday nights, and a three hour show on Wednesday evenings called Notts Live, which is dedicated to promoting local talent.

Presented by Andy Haynes and Bainy Bain, Notts Live has been doing its thing since September 2010. After its original hosts Sherwood Radio shut down in May, the show quickly found a new home at Trent Sound. Each week’s edition is themed around acts that will be playing in town over the following week, and a full gig guide is broadcast during the first hour. “We try not to be genre-based”, says Andy Haynes. “If they’re from Nottingham, we’ll try and feature them.”

Since its inception, Notts Live has featured tracks by around five hundred Nottingham acts.  It’s a staggering total, which speaks volumes about the healthy state of the current scene. Live studio sessions have featured such local worthies as Will Jeffrey, Alexa Hawksworth, Adam Peter Smith and Euler, and regular “two hour takeovers” have been hosted by the likes of Satnam’s Tash and the Amber Herd.  No stranger to music-making himself, Andy Haynes has been known to join the Amber Herd on stage, brandishing his Theremin. (“I put myself out there as a bit of a Theremin slag”, he explains, “but I’ve not had too much take-up on that.”) The Notts Live brand also extends to occasional live promotions, and to this end there will be a “Notts Live Office Christmas Party” at the Jam Cafe on Dec 21st, headlined by Spaceships Are Cool and broadcast live on the show.

As for the rest of Trent Sound’s schedule, Andy Lloyd’s operates an “open access” policy, which presents opportunities for aspiring broadcasters to get involved. “This doesn’t mean that anybody can”, he cautions, “because you have to have some degree of professionalism, but we’re not an old boys’ network and we want to be accessible. But it’s going to be staffed with the people who will stay. What I don’t want are the glory boys, who will just come in for the RSL. We’ve had it already!”

They’re aiming high, and there’s still a long way to go. But if you agree with Lloyd that “the whole premise of independent local radio has died” – just listen to Capital, and weep for what has been lost – then Trent Sound deserves full credit, for trying to put the “local” back into local radio.

Listen to Trent Sound at trentsound.com.

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Origamibiro – Shakkei

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on December 7, 2011

(Written for LeftLion magazine)

As any Japanese garden designer will tell you, shakkei refers to the principle of “borrowed scenery”, whereby elements of the external landscape are incorporated into a garden’s internal composition. An equivalent approach can be found in Origamibiro’s music, which adds electronically treated background effects to the trio’s playing, suggesting the rush of heavy rainfall, the rumbling of an approaching train, or the cheers of a large crowd. Even when these noises are absent, the music retains suggestions of specific environments.

This sensibility is amplified in live performances, in which sound effects are generated on stage – rustling camera film, a vintage typewriter, a flickering early animation device – and beamed onto video backdrops. Presumably, similar techniques have been used in the recording studio, but the lack of visual clues soon frees the listener from wondering about the “how”, as the ambient textures instead begin to cast their spell.

Initially, these textures are slow, sparse and meditative, with bowed instruments dominating the immediate foreground. Halfway through, a swell of steadily shimmering strings emerges from the stillness, like a sudden shaft of sunlight. Later on, musical box-like tinkles and a repeating two-note interval that could have been lifted from Somewhere Over The Rainbow (“Someday I’ll wish upon a star…”) introduce a sense of nostalgic longing, as if the music was wafting out of dusty crates in a grandparent’s attic.

Experimental but fully finished, ambient yet wholly captivating, this is a truly beautiful piece of work.

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