Mike Atkinson

Troyka – Nottingham Bonington Theatre, Thursday September 20

Posted in Bonington Theatre, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on September 24, 2012

(originally published in the Nottingham Post)

Troyka might well be the youngest act to appear in this autumn’s Jazz Steps season, now into the second week of its Thursday night residency at Arnold’s Bonington Theatre. But although the trio were all “Born in the 80s”, to quote one of their track titles, their musical influences stretched back further, most notably to the jazzier end of progressive rock.

Looking at the line up – guitar, organ, drums – you might have expected the odd nod to The Soft Machine, but the rippling fluidity of certain key passages had more in common with other Canterbury acts, such as Caravan or Hatfield and the North. At other times, elements of King Crimson’s heaviness and crunch came to the fore, particularly thanks to guitarist Chris Montague, who could switch in and out of a powerhouse riff in an instant.

These influences were counterbalanced by a jittery, twitchy nerviness, which was all the band’s own. In this respect, drummer Josh Blackmore was a key player, who took delight in breaking rhythms down into fractured abstractions, with a less-is-more approach that let light and space into the arrangements.  Meanwhile, working on two organs at once, Kit Downes filled out the sound, adding bass tones and inventive melodic flourishes.

Most of Troyka’s numbers were ambitious, episodic affairs, spanning a wide range of moods and time signatures.  At times, the trio would fuse tightly together, in gloriously purposeful passages where every note felt planned in advance. At other times, each player would spin off into uncharted free-form territory, moving forwards more by instinct than design.

Leading the band, Chris Montague demonstrated extraordinary versatility as a guitarist, twisting all manner of fresh sounds from his instrument, then tweaking them further with his effects pedals. There was a strong percussive element to his playing, and a rule-breaking inventiveness which never ceased to fascinate.

Tracks from Moxxy, the band’s newly released second album, sat comfortably alongside the more familiar earlier material.  There was also room for a brand new, unrecorded composition, Ornithophobia, inspired by Montague’s lifelong terror of seagulls. This was a frightening track for him to play, we were warned. But as a listening experience, it was – like the entire evening’s performance – nothing but pure pleasure.

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Hyphen Hyphen, Moseek, The Lawyers – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Tuesday September 11

Posted in Bodega, gigs, LeftLion by Mike A on September 24, 2012

(originally written for LeftLion)

There was a uniquely international feel to the Bodega on Tuesday night, as participants of the World Events Young Artists festival packed into the upstairs space for a free gig, staged as part of World Music Village night.

Indeed, you had to search hard to find any familiar city faces at all – but with such a wealth of events for us to choose from, including three simultaneous free gigs within five minutes’ walk of the venue, it was scarcely surprising that townies were so thin on the ground.

That said, perhaps it was a good job that few of us were on hand to witness the opening act: four clean-cut Spanish law students, whose uninspiring choice of name – The Lawyers, what else? – was matched by the plodding timidity of their performance. Quite how they came to be chosen as ambassadors for Spanish indie-rock is anyone’s guess; if they had entered this year’s Future Sound of Nottingham, they wouldn’t even have made it past the first round.

Mercifully, this was one of those bills where each act was at least ten times as good as its predecessor – which is not to damn Moseek with faint praise, as the Italian three-piece delivered a sparky, energising set, salvaging the night in an instant. Led by corkscrew-haired, permanently smiling Elisa Pucci (lead vocals, guitar and songwriting), and underpinned by the lofty, dreadlocked Fabio Brignone on bass, the players displayed an easy, natural rapport, and a relaxed good cheer which spread throughout the room.

The arrival of headliners Hyphen Hyphen, an electro-rock act from Nice, signalled another quantum leap upwards in every respect. Their bodies daubed in day-glo warpaint, the two glittery girls (Santa on vocals, Line on bass) and the two bare-chested boys (Puss on guitar, Zac on drums) gave it all they had, storming the stage with devilish glee.

Stylistically, they bore immediate comparison with Late of the Pier – indeed, the much-missed Donington lads are officially credited as an influence on their Facebook page – and fans of Yunioshi, Swimming and Navajo Youth would also have found plenty to enjoy here.

Material from their two EPs – Wild Union and the brilliantly titled Chewbacca I’m Your Mother – dominated the set, and Santa in particular established herself as a forceful, fearless presence, whether ordering us all to drop to our knees, or skipping right to the back of the room, mid-song, in order to reward her sound engineer with a kiss. This was Hyphen Hyphen’s first Nottingham show; let’s hope that it wasn’t their last.

Charlotte Church – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Friday August 17

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on September 5, 2012

(originally written for the Nottingham Post)

In her fifteen years as a performer, 26 year-old Charlotte Church has never before toured the UK. Now that the moment has finally arrived, she has confounded all expectations, booking a series of low-key dates in small, indie-rock-type venues at the quietest time of the year, in order to unveil a brand new musical direction. “I feel like I’m starting again and building from the bottom up”, she has said. Posters for the gig, which have been few and far between, show the singer’s mouth knitted shut with string. It’s all a far cry from the TV chat show days, and the chirpy pop of hits such as “Crazy Chick”.

Fans from the “voice of an angel” days seemed in short supply on Friday night. Instead, the respectably full (if far from capacity) house looked to be made up of curious-minded Bodega regulars, ready to give the girl a fair hearing, and a fair smattering of industry types (the guest list was sizeable).

Frizzy of mane (it’s platinum blonde these days) and devoid of finger jewellery, Charlotte made an unassuming entrance, positioning herself in front of a laptop and an array of knobs and pedals, then crouching to the floor as she began to sing. Wow, this was different. Had she turned herself into some sort of histrionic indie diva? Would there be wails and sobs? Would there be rolling on the floor and foaming at the mouth?

Not a bit of it. As was eventually explained, Charlotte is still a little awkward around technology, and the crouching was basically to ensure that she was pressing the right pedals. In this respect, luck wasn’t always on her side. A later attempt at live-looping her voice into a multi-part choir quickly stalled, prompting a giggle and a rude word. “Have I deleted it, or have I pressed stop?” she asked her band: four standard-issue indie blokes, who played very well, but who were never introduced.

No such glitches marred the vocals, though. It was odd to hear the celebrated Church pipes wrapping themselves round the all-new, self-penned, as yet unreleased material, which leant towards the more dramatic end of the indie-rock spectrum, without leaping too far into the leftfield. (Easy comparisons should be resisted, but it’s a fair bet that Charlotte has a few Florence and the Machine tunes on her iPod.) They aren’t the catchiest of songs, and the stridency of the vocals sometimes sat strangely against the backing band, working slightly at odds with the arrangements.

This felt entirely deliberate, and it was a bold move for a singer who is still in the process of re-inventing her performance style. For in contrast to her brash public persona, Charlotte seemed somewhat hesitant at times, cautiously feeling her way into her new role, and sometimes singing as much to herself as to her audience.

Lyrics were hard to make out, but some songs had unmistakeable messages. Judge From Afar was inspired by nasty online comments, posted under a nasty newspaper article. Beautiful Wreck offered “a cynical view of the mainstream music industry”. Another song was written after Charlotte’s appearance at the Leveson inquiry into press standards; it was sarcastically dedicated to Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail.

As Charlotte explained to me after the show, a series of EPs are planned, starting from next month, with videos to accompany each song. Both offstage and on, there was no mistaking her commitment to the project, the disarming honesty which she brought to bear in her performance, and the sheer bravery of making such a risky public move. If the shows never scale up to larger venues, you sense that she would barely be bothered – because, although still far from perfect, this just doesn’t feel like a vanity project from a pampered star, indulging her latest whim. Indeed, there didn’t seem to be any vanity on display at all – and even for that alone, Charlotte deserves full respect.

The Afterdark Movement – The Afterdark Movement EP

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on September 5, 2012

(originally written for leftLion magazine)

A distinct lyrical progression runs through this six-track debut from our current Future Sound of Nottingham champions. Even on ADM, its cheery opening signature tune (“Let’s drink and dance excessively, so much you have to rest for weeks”), voices in the fade-out mutter of “not having a future, not having any kind of possibility”. This sense of impending doom colours the seemingly chirpy Since I’ve Been Here, which references the sunny, playful optimism of Nineties hip hop as MC Bru-C recalls the lost innocence of his childhood. Things take a bleaker turn on Better Days, which sees the rapper trapped in a struggling single-parent household (“I can’t remember the last time I was happy”), paving the way for a full-scale eruption of pain on the metal-tinged Psycho:Sik. Street Spirit adds a nervy, desperate rap to the Radiohead classic, and on Made In Britain, with its bitter denunciation of political incompetence and greed, the rage is finally turned outwards.

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Natalie Duncan – Devil In Me

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on September 5, 2012

(originally written for leftLion magazine)

The Grammy-winning producer, the internationally distinguished musicians, the top-flight recording studio, the major label push… faced with such an abundance of resources, a lesser artist could have been drowned out by the sheer weight of expectation. Thankfully, Natalie Duncan has risen to the challenge. She begins the album unaccompanied, letting rip with one of her most unflinching lyrics: “Sometimes I feel you looking for the devil in me, like I’m a dying dog and I’m begging for your bones.” From then on, she remains in full command, steering us through thirteen tracks that cast her variously as tormented soul (Sky Is Falling), cool observer (Pick Me Up Bar), or concerned friend (Flower), and offsetting her searing, soulful vocals with delicate, stately keyboards. And rather than letting herself be moulded into the “new Adele” – whatever the instantly familiar opening bars of Old Rock might suggest – she asserts her own personality, whose complexity is reflected in the densely worked songcraft and the surprisingly varied shifts in mood.

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