Mike Atkinson

The Cult Of Dom Keller – self-titled album

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

Part-assembled from reworked EP tracks and part-funded via a successful Kickstarter project (although the £1000 “have a date with our manager” pledge went unclaimed), The Cult Of Dom Keller’s debut album offers a long-awaited treat for fans of heavy psychedelic noise. It opens with the grungey Wild West twang of Swamp Heron, which steadily accrues intensity before unleashing a searing acid-rock guitar solo, couched in feedback and effects. Keyboards make their entrance with Eyes, whose vocals are mixed relatively high – you can even catch the odd lyric – before being submerged in swampy reverb for most of the remainder. The exultant squall of Worlds marks Side One’s midway high-point, but by the start of Side Two, things have taken a doomier turn. You Are There In Me nods towards Crystal Stilts’ lysergic garage rock, Nowhere To Land picks the pace up, and the journey ends with All I Need Is Not Now, an epic, all-consuming drone.

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Pentatronix: Sabar Soundsystem featuring Si Tew and Ling Peng / Sura Susso / Haiki Loki – Nottingham Contemporary, Friday June 7

Posted in gigs, LeftLion, Nottingham Contemporary by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally written for LeftLion.

Appropriately enough, given Sabar Soundsystem’s roots in African music, the premiere of Pentatronix was preceded by two African performers with Nottingham connections.

Haiki Loki left Ethiopia, her country of birth, at the age of twelve. Once resident in Nottingham, she now lives in London, where she has recorded an album for July release. An elegantly self-possessed performer with a warm, silky vocal style, she fronted a three-piece troupe, holding the audience rapt with her self-penned soul/jazz compositions.

Music as quiet as this can sometimes get lost in large stand-up venues, but Haiki’s subtly commanding presence warded off any such dangers. Stepping forward, she perched on the edge of the stage and sung about leaving her comfort zone, to a stark, bluesy backing that evoked some of the spirit of early Everything But The Girl. A toddler’s gurgle briefly broke the spell. Haiki stooped down and asked her name. “I want you to come to every gig”, she grinned.

Later, during an Amharic song, learnt on an extended visit to the singer’s birthplace, a girl of six or so threw graceful ballet shapes in a corner of the room, lost in her own world. Elsewhere, old Nottingham friends smiled, waved and traded quips with the stage.

This easy-going homecoming mood was challenged by the final song, inspired by George W. Bush’s presidency (“I can see there’s evil in your eyes”), but when rage sounds this seductive, mellow good humour can’t so easily be dented.

Sura Susso plays a Gambian kora, handed down from father to son over many centuries. It’s made from calabash and covered with cowhide, with a long mahogany neck and twenty-two nylon fishing strings. Before beginning his set, Sura demonstrated the essential kora technique. His left thumb strummed the bassline, his right thumb picked out the melody, and his two forefingers added rippling improvisations.

A sound hole, cut from the calabash bowl, doubled as a repository for tips. “Please show your appreciation”, we were urged, smilingly. “It’s usually with money, but there’s no pressure. We take credit cards. You can swipe…”

You wouldn’t think of playing a kora in public, without already being a virtuoso. Schooled in his instrument since childhood, Suro is unquestionably a master player – but more than that, he is a born performer. Kora music can sometimes sound arid and ornamental, but in Suro’s hands, it was given added passion, variety and depth. His playing ran the full gamut, from gentle and reflective to intensely rhythmic and whoop-inducingly frenetic. A first class performance.

Pentatronix is a new collaborative project, in which Mikey Davis’s Sabar Soundsystem – a sizeable percussion troupe, with African drums and bespoke tubular chimes – is augmented by the classical Chinese playing of Ling Peng and the electronic beats, samples and basslines of Si Tew.

The fusion might sound unlikely, but actually it’s logical. The Sabar chimes follow a five-note pentatonic scale, making them ideally suited for Ling’s Chinese melodies, and Si’s background in electronic dance music makes him a natural partner for Sabar’s percussion, which aims to evoke the feel of modern dance music acoustically.

At the front of the stage, surrounded by stacks of kit, Si and Ling forged their own rapport. Ling would conjure up an exquisite melody, on her zither-like guzheng or her bowed, python-skinned erhu, and Si would sample it, treat it and echo it back. Around and behind them, a shifting array of players, led by Mikey Davis and featuring Biant Singh on tabla, pounded seven shades of merry hell out of their combined arsenal. The effect was tumultuous, uplifting and energising. Naturally, dancing became the only valid response.

It wasn’t all perfect. The tablas needed to be mixed higher, especially when their job was to augment a particularly brutal beat. The beautiful-looking guzheng was underused, and removed from the stage too early. There was the occasional moment when the specially commissioned compositions seemed to teeter on the brink of chaos – but the sheer glee of the players, and of the unstoppable Mikey in particular, swiftly put paid to any potential logistical pitfalls.

Arts Council funding brought the Pentatronix project into being, but the troupe are on their own now, seeking to take their show onto the festival circuit. This is the sort of thing that would work brilliantly in the open air, whether in sunlight or moonlight, as all who witnessed it could testify – so let’s hope that this Contemporary show was the first of many more.

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Cantaloupe – Splish / Wet Dog

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on June 10, 2013

Originally printed in LeftLion magazine.

Formed from the ashes of the much missed Souvaris, Cantaloupe follow up last year’s Teapot EP with a three-track 12-inch release. The happy, spurting whale on the cover sets the mood of joyous playfulness which predominates. No strangers to the tricky time signature, the band adopts a 10/4 rhythm for Splish. It’s a frisky, optimistic workout that moves through various phases, underpinned by crisp, spacious percussion and a merrily wandering bass line. Breakdowns and sideways shifts punctuate the main melodic theme, which returns for a triumphant final run, overlaid by beatific synth washes. Wax Stag’s remix initially feels straightened out rhythmically – the drum track is much simpler – but the 10/4 is retained for a cooler, more subdued re-interpetation that shifts the bass to the front of the mix. Wet Dog opts for a driving 4/4, propelled by retro-futurist synth lines, with a half-speed mid-section for good measure.

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Pentatronix / Sabar Soundsystem / Mikey Davis

Posted in features, interviews, LeftLion by Mike A on June 3, 2013

An edited version of this interview originally appeared in LeftLion magazine.

On a Wednesday in late April, I met up with five core members of the Pentatronix project at the Night Rooms studio, where they were working on a specially commissioned show for Nottingham Contemporary, under the direction of Mikey Davis, leader of Sabar Soundsystem. The invitation came with the promise of an exclusive performance of a brand new piece, which had been composed that very morning. Before that, while the rest of the team broke for lunch – classical Chinese musician Ling Peng, electronic artist Si Tew, and two players of the “chimes”, Sabar’s unique tubular bell constructions – I settled on a sofa with Mikey, who filled me in on the background behind the project.

I started by raising the delicate subject of Mikey’s 2009 appearance on Dragons Den, which saw his old percussion troupe, BassToneSlap, secure funding for a drumming-based corporate team-building venture. “That was one of the greatest errors of my life” he admitted.

But your clips weren’t embarrassing.  You gave a good account of yourself.

Basically, we only ever wanted to do it for the advertising. We never actually thought we would do the thing, even though we shook hands. We didn’t take the money, but we made a lot of money just from being on the show.

So how could that have a negative consequence?

If you stick a big lot of money into a group, it changes people. And the working relationships all just changed. Basically, we went down a really stupid route, and we ended up doing a load of corporate shit, which is not why I play drums. We got caught by the pound signs in the eyes, and we lost sight of what it’s about.

We didn’t exactly disband – we still met up and did gigs – but it was very, very wounded. Then we started getting some fresh blood in, and we started getting back to what it was actually all about.

You changed your name to Sabar Soundsystem at the start of 2011. Did you consciously want to rebrand – to break the link?

Yes, and just to clear out the dead wood. One side of this studio used to be floor-to-ceiling with 150 djembes, which we used for corporate workshops. So we got rid of all the gear that was this monument to the failure of the whole thing, and we started writing fresh music.

How did the idea for the Pentatronix project come about?

A few of us are involved with City Arts, a Nottingham based arts company who do a lot of outdoor theatre. They gave us some money to develop a tune, which we performed at the WEYA festival last year, in front of the Council House. It was the first collaboratively written piece that we’d done. Afterwards, we thought we had to do more. People kept saying that I should apply to the Arts Council. I’m a drummer and I hate paperwork, but eventually I did it. It got the green light about three weeks ago, so we’ve just begun.

How many performers will be with you on the day itself?

It’s about ten at the moment. We’ll also have a tabla player: Biant Singh. He’s the most amazingly inspirational guy. He has a project called The Science of Rhythm, which has basically got the entire Nottinghamshire mental health service to put drums into their assessments. So when somebody is having a review, to see how they should be handled, they actually have the opportunity to drum with the people assessing them.

What does that bring to the assessment?

Rhythmic music has an effect on people. It links people together, so people start getting a communal feeling.  On a fundamental level, people’s minds become synchronised, and it creates an openness. Through that openness, people become very empathic with each other.

Now think about those people who can’t communicate verbally. They’re the kind of people that Biant is dealing with.  If you put a drum in there, they can drum with the people that they’re struggling to communicate with. And they just become in tune. They start to feel each other.

I was trying to track your influences when I saw Sabar performing at the Arts Theatre last year. Biant brought some Indian flavours, and I could also detect aspects of Indonesian, African and Cuban music.

That’s accurate. The sabar drums come from Gambia, and that’s where we take our name. Conceptually, our chimes are very similar to Javanese gamelan, and they use the same pentatonic scale as Chinese music. Now we’ve brought Ling in for her Chinese influence, and Si for a more European electronic influence.

There’s been a sort of a journey that has gone on for many years, which is the driving force as to why I do this thing. When I was a kid, I had this crazy fascination with Africa. Then I got the opportunity to go there in my late twenties. I went a few times. I spent a while in Gambia, living with a family who were traditional drummers, going back for generations.

The third time I was there, I basically realised that no matter how much you study it, you’re always going to have this problem of translation – because at the end of the day, it’s not my culture. I was so demoralised. I wanted to stop drumming, because I realised that I could never have the thing that I wanted – which, at that point, was simply to have been born into that culture. I got depressed about it for a long time, but then I started thinking: OK, what is the reality?

The actual reality is that I was born here, in England. We don’t really have a rhythmic tradition of our own; it’s all completely dissipated. As a nation, we’re utterly disconnected from our rhythmic root. Meanwhile, there are so many amazing bands from Africa, so why be a load of white guys playing African music? What is the purpose of that? Let them do it – they’re brilliant at it. But in England, we’re good at dance music. It’s a living folk music. It’s all made by computer, but it’s massively popular, and it gets people up and dancing.

I realised that I was barking up the wrong tree with the whole African thing. Actually, what it’s about is looking at what’s really successful here and creating it acoustically, because I think that acoustic music is always more powerful. Music made in the moment, by humans, is more powerful than a computer-generated version.

So essentially, that’s what this has now become: a sort of acoustic dance music, with a huge range of different influences.

It was time to hear an example of this music. The players gathered in a circle: Mikey on drums, Nicky and Ceri on chimes, Si on his laptop and sampler. Completing the circle, Ling picked up her erhu: a bowed instrument, whose small sound box was covered in Chinese python skin. “I went to the mountains and waited for the python to come out”, she explained. “You have to catch your own python, or else they don’t let you play”, Ceri added.

(OK, so this was a total wind-up. But let the story stand, as a testament to my gullibility.)

The piece that followed was a gentler, more meditative affair than I was expecting. Taking a traditional Chinese melody, Ling started unaccompanied, playing with exquisite beauty. The melody was taken up by the chimes, and expanded into rippling variations. Si added a discreet electronic bassline, topped with subtle samples of Ling’s erhu that stretched out her sound, without smothering its essence. Working to a click track, Mikey supplied the mid-paced rhythmic backdrop. It felt like an overture; the calm before the percussive, immersive storm.

Sabar Soundsystem presents ‘Pentatronix’ featuring Si Tew and Ling Peng: Nottingham Contemporary, Friday June 7. Tickets on sale from Nottingham Contemporary, gigantic.com, Alley Cafe, Jamcafe and The Music Exchange.


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Kirk Spencer – Wonderland EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on May 2, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

For his first EP release since The Shanghai Underground in 2011, Kirk Spencer has teamed up with three local singers, for a five-track offering that combines bassy, mostly downtempo, sometimes trap-inspired beats with atmospheric, richly worked arrangements that cast a bewitching spell. There are still a few trademark Eastern touches – a sitar here, a chant there – but these are no longer the most dominant components of Kirk’s sound. Instead, on lead track Kukcu, Safia May invokes the dreamy tone which characterises the EP: “Where do you go when you close your eyes?” Louis Scott takes over for A Kid, an initially unhurried meditation (“nowhere to go, but it doesn’t matter”) which is accelerated by the arrival of a benignly twinkling, almost EDM-style synth riff. Long-time collaborator Marita also returns for the brooding yet affirmative Life On The Island, which pits her prayer for survival against icy swirls and ominous bass thuds.

Download this EP.

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Hot Coins – The Damage Is Done

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on May 2, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

Four years in the making, The Damage Is Done is the work of Danny Berman, best known in Nottingham as Red Rack’em, and now based in Berlin. Its ten tracks offer “an estranged homage to late 70s NYC anti-culture”, with a mood that reflects the austere, angsty, recession-hit and pre-apocalyptic gloom of a period where post-punk met choppy new-wave funk and early electro. First single Geek Emotions sets the mood, as a desultory spoken vocal complains that “I never get to go to anything, overlooked and underpaid, on a string”. Elsewhere, New Beat carries echoes of Yazoo’s synthy burble, and Leathered nods towards the dark side of Italo. The clouds part for the final three tracks: the lengthy, beatific Roadtrip is almost cheerful, and I Ching (described as “David Mancuso having tantric sex with himself in a NYC loft”) soundtracks the post-club comedown.

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Rob Green – Learn To Fly EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on May 2, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

Rob Green is a born entertainer, whose irrepressibly buoyant eagerness on stage shines through in all his recorded vocal performances. Available as a free download via his website, the Learn To Fly EP is an instantly delightful representation of his talents. Magnetic kicks things off: an accusing scold, with a smile on its face. On the title track, a gently acoustic intro bursts into life with rippling piano and supportively cooing backing vocals, as Rob states his personal mission: “Wasting no more time pining, ambition climbing, got to change my state of mind.” Things get faster and funkier on Playing With Fire, with breakneck verses and playfully staccato jibes at Rob’s errant lover; indeed, it’s hard to think of any words rhyming with “fire” that aren’t spat out along the way. Finally, live favourite Over And Done delivers the ultimate kiss-off: “It’s been all of the pain, but none of the fun”.

Download this EP for free.

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Disclosure & Clean Bandit – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Tuesday March 5

Posted in gigs, LeftLion, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on March 17, 2013

Originally written for LeftLion

Although this was a sold-out show, punters were still thin on the ground as Clean Bandit took to the stage. This didn’t dent the enthusiasm of the six gold-clad performers, whose innate sunniness was a joy to behold. They were a disparate bunch: a hooded keyboardist, a classically trained violinist and cellist, and a troupe of three singers – plucked from a community singing group in Kilburn – who alternated lead vocals.

The diversity of the line-up was reflected in the music, which gleefully plundered genres like a latter-day Basement Jaxx, and with comparable wit and colour. Tracks would sometimes halt for chamber-music breakdowns, which quoted naggingly familiar classical pieces. This worked so well, that you found yourself wondering why nobody had attempted it before.

As it’s still early days, there were a couple of covers: a mash-up of Gangsta’s Paradise and Survivor, and a rousing take on SBTRKT’s Wildfire that seemed to seal Clean Bandit’s popularity in the ever-filling room. Forthcoming single Mozart’s House closed the set. It’s an absolute corker of a track, boosted by a clever, compelling video, which deserves to do well.

For such a mature-sounding act, Disclosure’s youth still comes as a surprise: Guy Lawrence is just into his twenties, and his brother Howard is still in his late teens. A clean-cut pair, with an unaffected, boyish enthusiasm, they stationed themselves at diagonally facing consoles, beneath a custom-made, back-of-stage lighting rig and diamond-shaped projection screens.

Relying on pre-recorded elements as little as possible, the pair brought a properly live feel to their music, which was augmented by Howard’s bass guitar and Guy’s percussion. Cuts from the forthcoming debut album, of which there were many, slotted seamlessly alongside tracks such as Boiling – an evenly furrowed glide that updates house and two-step garage for a new generation – and current hit White Noise, whose instant-recognition factor lifted the whole room.

Adding live percussion to electronic dance music is an approach that can be fraught with peril, as anyone who ever witnessed dodgy bongo players at tribal house nights could testify, but Guy’s crisp, to-the-point embellishments served the tracks well. By adding cymbals and cowbells to an elongated, dubbed-up version of Running, the Jessie Ware remix which helped make Disclosure’s name, the track felt re-invigorated and renewed.

The biggest whoops of the night came for the brothers’ breakthrough hit Latch, which closed the show. Although far from typical of Disclosure’s sound in rhythmic terms – it’s less of a skitter and more of a march – the track’s popularity proved to be unmatched. The retina-burning backlights rotated and flashed; the head-shaped logos shimmered, seemingly in mid-air; and a happy, equally youthful crowd hollered along, turning the love song into an anthem of collective good cheer.

Interview: James Waring of The Invisible Orchestra

Posted in interviews, LeftLion by Mike A on March 10, 2013

An edited version of this interview was originally published in LeftLion magazine.

How did the idea for Invisible Orchestra get off the ground?

It’s been a culmination of things, over the years. Playing with lots of different people, meeting lots of different musicians. Everybody’s been in their own bands, wanting to get a bigger project together. And it’s also having a lot of music written that doesn’t actually suit the band I’m in [Royal Gala], and that would suit a much larger band. Then I met Martin, who plays the double bass, and we went on a tour together in Holland. I thought I’d really like to be in a band with Martin. And I just kinda got obsessed with it. It kept building and building. I know loads of brass players, and I’d probably got twenty people in the band by the time I booked the first gig, at the Arts Theatre. People were saying: I think it’s a bit short notice, I don’t think we’ve got enough time.

How far in advance did you book the gig?

I’d got about three and a half months, and we’d got about fifteen minutes of music together. So by having a date booked, it became a thing. I wanted a theatre, because I wanted to put on a proper event: a show, rather than a gig.

I saw a few people in the audience who were clearly Arts Theatre regulars. They looked a bit shell-shocked, that their Am Dram venue was turning into this maelstrom of excess.

(Laughs) Yeah, everybody was wasted and dancing off tables and chairs in the aisles – they were literally dancing in the aisles. The girl behind the bar was crying her eyes out, because she’d got three hundred people in front of her, all wanting a drink, and she was the only bar staff on. The theatre had a massive shock. I was telling them all along that it would be busy; it wasn’t going to be like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

How did you go about matching your tunes to the singers?

I didn’t approach some of the singers until we’d got the tunes done. I try not to have anything to do with the lyrics. That comes from the singers. What I do is to instigate things generally. I don’t write everybody’s parts, although I’ll remember everybody’s parts, even if they forget them. I’ll perhaps write a loose rhythm, ideas for percussion, the main brass line. Then they’ll get together and write around the idea that I’ve got. With some other people, I will write their complete lines. I might suggest something to Martin on the double bass, but he’s experienced enough just to know what it needs straight away. With Percy Dread, who’s been doing roots reggae for forty years, I asked him to do it, and he came along with a reggae tune. He’s been playing music for longer than I’ve been born, but I was getting him into the idea of doing a completely different style, but still in his own voice.

It was a very dramatic and unexpected start to your set. I was expecting Jools Holland-style good times from start to finish, but then Percy came on like this prophet of apocalyptic doom!

Percy’s a great guy, and he’s doing another song with us, for the next show. A lot of people are guests, but Percy’s like a proper member of the orchestra. At the rehearsal studio, the gates are locked and people have to ring me from outside, then I’ll go and fetch them. But somehow, once we start playing a song at rehearsals, Percy will just turn up, every time. He’ll walk straight in and start singing. I don’t know how he does it!

It must have been a huge departure for another of your singers, Ed Bannard from Hhymn. It would have taken him well outside his comfort zone.

I’ve known Ed since I was about 19. I knew him when he was in Skinny Sumo, and we’ve always been around each other. I wasn’t quite sure if he’d do it, but I think he enjoyed it in the end. For that particular song, I wrote all the music, and then Ed came in. To be honest, it took him about two rehearsals, and then he kind of nailed it.

Does everyone in the band come from Nottingham?

We’ve recruited a few people from further afield, but most people come from in and around Nottingham. Justin, the Hammond player, tours with Bad Manners quite a bit. He’s got a Grammy. He’s also played for Lee “Scratch” Perry. So, including all the vocalists, there were twenty-eight of us last time around.

Was it a logistical nightmare, getting all these people in the same room at specific times?

It was, but then it wasn’t so bad for the gig, because we knew that we’d be loading at 12, and we were paying the theatre from 12. We’d not finished some of the tunes on the day of the show. The percussion section sorted out some of Hannah Heartshape’s tune while we were sound checking. We only had about an hour with Natalie Duncan. She came to sound check, and we had a bit of a chat. So before the gig, we were as excited as anybody else to see how it sounded.

How did it feel when you were actually up on the stage?

It felt fucking great, to be honest with you. Everybody was hugging each other afterwards. It was a really, really fantastic feeling. Everybody put in such a lot of hard work, sacrificing their time. A lot of people had cancelled gigs to come. After the show, I said that we should take a break for a month or so. That lasted about a week. Then people were asking: when are we rehearsing again? So we organised the next practice a bit earlier than we intended – and everybody turned up!

What’s the plan for 2013?

I’ve just booked a show at Nottingham Contemporary on Easter Sunday, March 31st. We’ve got the whole of downstairs: The Space, and also the café bar. The line-up starts off with a barbershop quartet, then we’ve got Rollo Markee and the Tailshakers , a swing-blues band who I went on tour with. There’s also DJ Switch, who’s been three times the world DMC champion. He’s also the only DJ ever to play at The Proms, at the Royal Albert Hall. It’ll be like a family thing; we all know each other. We’ve had a lot of support from the Contemporary, and from Ste Allan of Dealmaker. So it will be a lot easier than last time, when we had no funding, no backing, a shell-shocked venue…

We’re also trying to confirm a show at The Scala in London at the moment, and there are a few more London shows in the pipeline as well. We’ve got a booking agent who has been looking for suitable festivals – and for realistic festivals, as this is not the sort of thing that we can go on tour with, unless there’s a lot of help and a lot of forward planning. There’s also a new Royal Gala album, which is coming out pretty soon; all the tracks have been recorded. And Invisible Orchestra have recorded five tracks at Paper Stone, who backed us without hearing us. They just trusted us.

How does this project differ from what you do in Royal Gala?

You get to work with a lot more different people. I’ve been working with Royal Gala for six years. Stylistically, they’ve become a lot more electronic, and a lot more dancey, which was our original plan anyway: to be a dance act.

Perhaps Royal Gala are more groove-based, whereas Invisible Orchestra are more song-based.

I suppose so. We are writing songs, that’s true. And we can go slow in the orchestra as well. Royal Gala are usually on late at a festival, with everybody off their heads, all dancing. We tried putting in a slow tune, and people just stopped dancing.

So the orchestra gives you a chance to explore a different range of emotions.

Yes, a complete range. Within your hour of set, you can have a whole show of emotions. We have been exploring that a lot more for the next gig. I want to work with more vocalists, and I’ve been talking to a few people. There will also be more people in the band; I’ve increased the strings, and there’s a sousaphone player and a really amazing trumpet player. I think there are seventeen in the brass section now.

Do people get you confused with The Hidden Orchestra, who are a completely different act?

Well, there’s fucking thirty-two of us now, so if they want to meet us outside in the car park, we’ll kick the fuck out of them!

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LeftLion: The Lion List

Posted in features, LeftLion by Mike A on March 10, 2013

We asked fourteen local music experts to select the top ten Nottingham bands and artists they were excited about in 2013. We then collated their results and picked out the dozen that came up most.

This is not a ‘best of’ or ‘most likely to’ list. It’s a mixture of established acts and newcomers who our panel believe are on the verge of doing something interesting musically this year. In alphabetical order we have…

Continue Reading

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Grey Hairs – F.S.D.T. / Cheerful / Forehead

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on March 10, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

Although they started as more of a side-project than a serious concern, Grey Hairs have almost unwittingly turned into one of the hottest acts in town, proving there’s often a lot more mileage in happy accidents than carefully laid masterplans. Hard on the heels of their One Hundred Breakfasts EP – a collection of early-days demos, available for free from Bandcamp – this three-track 7-incher showcases the band at their primitive, brutal, smart-plays-dumb best. If you’ve ever seen them live, then lead track F.S.D.T. (“Fuck Shack Darts Tournament” – don’t ask) is the one that will have stuck in your memory. It starts on a single chord, and stays there for what feels like forever, building the tension while singer James/The Cup screams something about “treble twenties” (that’ll be the darts, then) and “waiting for the pain to stop”. Thus, when the second chord finally arrives, it feels – momentarily, at least – like the most thrilling moment in music, ever.

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Joe Danks – Bear On Ice EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on March 10, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

Born into a musical family – his parents’ band, Wholesome Fish, have been plying their trade since time immemorial – Joe Danks has been surrounded by music all his life. Now aged 17, he is quickly coming into his own as a characterful singer-songwriter and an engaging performer. Inspired by the likes of Neil Hannon, Elliott Smith and Nick Drake, Joe’s songs offer wry, doleful observations on love and life, with lyrics that veer from open-hearted straightforwardness to intriguing obliqueness. Stylistically, we’re in acoustic-folk territory, skilfully arranged and performed – most notably by Joe’s mother Beth, whose melodic fiddle playing offers a sympathetic, touching counterpoint to her son’s expressions of teenage angst. This is particularly evident on the upbeat Hook Line and Sinker, whose nautical metaphor is extended on the yearning, lovelorn Buoyancy Aid. Elsewhere, Bear On Ice is mysterious and sombre, while More Than Milk hides an unexplained riddle within a break-up song.

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We Are Avengers: Midbrow/Revolution

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on December 16, 2012

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

We Are AvengersFor their second single this year on Farm Yard Records, We Are Avengers – now expanded from a trio to an elegantly turned-out six-piece – have dipped their toes into funkier waters, without surrendering any of the tight songwriting and arranging skills that flavoured their debut release, Trouble.

You can hear this most clearly in Revolution, which pits a loping backbeat against choppy, bluesy guitar and a discreetly swelling Hammond organ, in a way that bears comparison with Nineties trip-hoppers and acid-jazzers such as Young Disciples. The slinky, spacious and deftly restrained arrangement makes a neat counterpoint to Midbrow, the lead track. Here, a brooding bassline ushers in stately, rippling piano, funk-rock guitar, and ambient strings, forming a suitably cinematic backdrop for Emily Martin’s smouldering, torch-song vocals. “Can we make an agreement”, she pleads, while a ghostly chorus coos in the background. Natalie Duncan’s already a fan; there’ll soon be plenty more.

Listen on SoundCloud.

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Kappa Gamma – Just Another / Wildfire

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on October 9, 2012

(originally written for LeftLion magazine)

Along with Kagoule, whose debut release is due soon on the same label, Kappa Gamma are spearheading a fresh wave of teenage talent in this city, and it’s to Denizen’s credit that both acts have been picked up so promptly. Each of these tracks offers an accurate reflection of the band’s live sound: freewheeling yet tightly structured, cheerfully tumbling and chiming – while still packing an emotional punch – and compressing a dazzling number of musical ideas into three and a half restless, constantly shape-shifting minutes. Tricksy math-rock instrumentation is sweetened with Dog Is Dead-style choral harmonies, solid refrains (“you control it” / “and it’s dark and it’s dark and it’s dark”) sit alongside oblique excursions into the unexpected, and yet the band’s assured lightness of touch makes all of it seem unforced, instinctive, and the most natural thing in the world.

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Liam Bailey – Please Love Me / On My Mind

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on October 9, 2012

(originally written for LeftLion magazine)

A year on from splitting with Polydor, Liam Bailey’s re-emergence as a solo artist continues in fine fashion with this, his sixth – and arguably his best – release. Released by New York’s Truth & Soul label, these two tracks adhere to the label’s in-house style, inspired as they are by vintage soul traditions – but more importantly, the deft, sympathetic arrangements offer the best fit to date for Liam’s strong vocal personality. On Please Love Me, the singer sighs and swoons in falsetto over a simple template – choppy Stax guitar on the left, twangy country guitar on the right, snappily bouncing bassline in the centre – before strings and brass make their entrance. Meanwhile, the flipside re-visits an EP track from last year, re-casting it as a strutting, swaggering, almost menacing Southern blues shuffle. If this is how the album’s going to sound, then we’re in for a treat.

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Gallery 47 – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday September 17

Posted in gigs, LeftLion, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on October 9, 2012

Originally written for LeftLion.

This time last year, Jack Peachey was riding the crest of a wave. Retaining the name of Gallery 47 from a previous band, but recording and performing as a solo artist, his album Fate Is The Law had earned good reviews, and his name was beginning to be tipped for wider success, beyond the supportive confines of the regular Nottingham gigging circuit.

But then, with appalling timing, disaster struck. Clobbered by an illness that he couldn’t shake off, Jack’s strength was sapped for months on end. Worse than that, the condition had attacked that most precious asset, his voice. For three whole months, the singer couldn’t even speak. And yet, agonisingly, the offers continued to roll in, offering him opportunities that no artist would ever normally turn down. Laid up and lying low, by necessity rather than choice, Jack entered what he now freely admits was a period of personal emotional turmoil.

Finally, over a year since his last live show, Gallery 47 returned to the upstairs stage at the Rescue Rooms, supporting headliner Rachel Sermanni. Friends and well-wishers were thick on the ground, and an atmosphere of warm goodwill prevailed.

As the space filled with that instantly familiar combination of piercing, reedy vocals and intricately curling and tumbling guitar lines, it swiftly became clear that those long months of inactivity hadn’t left a single dent on Jack’s performing skills. A ring of seated supporters formed at his feet, settling in for the ride. Smiles met smiles, reverberating around the room.

The man himself was in a relaxed, good-humoured frame of mind, shrugging off the oppressive heat and offering us background context for some of his newer songs. Waiting For My Girl dealt with the immediate emotional aftermath of relationship, when you know that you’re supposed to “move on”, yet stubbornly refuse to do so. Mister Baudelaire was a song about critics. Another song addressed the events of the past year, with some baldly candid lines that hung in the air (“Oh no, what about the DHP show, feel I’m falling down”), and other passages that defied straightforward interpretation – for as Jack explained, when you’re feeling sick and all you can do is scribble lyrics, then some pretty strange metaphors can emerge. On Invasion, another new composition, the lyrics faded away halfway through the song, replaced by wordless – but no less communicative – keening and wailing.

Unlike certain other talented young acoustic singer-songwriters from this city, Jack’s cheerfully uncool demeanour is never going to win him fashion spreads in FHM magazine, or showcase gigs for casual clothing companies – but if there’s any justice in the world, his remarkable talents shouldn’t be hidden from wider public recognition for too much longer. In the meantime, a five-track EP, Dividends, is due out soon as a free download.  “That’s because I can’t be bothered to sell anything”, Jack grinned, doling out the last remaining copies of his album to anyone who wanted them. But as nice as it is to receive freebies, we can only hope that his gifts soon find their true and deserved reward.

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World Event Young Artists: Blackout, Nottingham Contemporary, Wednesday September 12

Posted in gigs, LeftLion, Nottingham Contemporary by Mike A on October 9, 2012

Originally written for LeftLion.

With all coats and bags checked in, and with all phones fully powered down – strictly no exceptions, folks – we were led into The Space in groups of four, through a curtained ante-chamber and into total darkness. We shuffled in with hands on each other’s shoulders, guided by ushers with see-in-the-dark sensors, who plonked each of us at some indeterminable spot in the middle of the never-more-vast floor. Robbed of visibility, we staked our positions with chat, easing the risk of being bumped into by stumbling incomers.

It was strangely disinhibiting, this blackness. I found myself talking to a young British writer, one of WEYA’s 1000 delegates from 100 countries, who had read at Broadway earlier that week. She had once dined at a blackout restaurant in Berlin, staffed by blind waiters, whose aim was to direct their diners’ focus solely towards the food. This was to be an analogous exercise, pitched at ears rather than tongues. Or, as the NME saw fit to put it: “an innovatively synaesthetic descent into a world of music-led sensory possibility.” Or, to put it less pretentiously, we were about to listen to a live music performance in the dark, without having a clue as to who would be performing, or what genre they would be performing in.

As the room filled, the hubbub swelled. I had expected hushed, reverential anticipation, not this giggly babble. And here we hit the first hurdle: as there were no house lights left to dim, and hence no cues that the show was about to start, the players were obliged to wade in over the top of our chatter.

Faced with a more typically reverential audience, who hadn’t been hanging out with each other all week, perhaps the opening notes would have silenced us. Failing that, maybe a more pronounced, more dramatic introductory flourish would have done the trick. But as it was, the unexpectedly low-key start – a solo male vocal, devotionally chanting in an unfamiliar tongue – barely registered in the room. As further voices made their entrance, so the conversation began to ebb, egged on by a good few shushes. (This blackness could be empowering, as well.)

After several austere minutes of unaccompanied chanting, a drum struck up: an unexpected jolt of energy, which drew claps and cheers. Other stringed instruments eventually appeared, as the music built in intensity and tempo, without surrendering its core spirituality. But what was this music? Was it North African, Middle Eastern, Arabic? In what context was it more usually performed? What did the words mean? What emotions were being expressed?

And who was playing it?  Where were they in the room? And where was everyone else in the room? Were they facing the customary stage area? Or had they turned round, as I had, to face what seemed the most likely source: upstairs, at the back, in the far corner? And were they standing, or sitting, or lying down?

The rhythms built and solidified. I stood up, suddenly emboldened and – what the hell, let’s go with the flow – ready to dance.

At this exact point, the music suddenly stopped and the lights gradually raised, revealing a colossal projection screen, masking the stage. We shuffled around to face it, as abstract fields of colour emerged from the gloom, soundtracked by formless rumblings and quakings.

A giant pair of hands descended, sliding plastic shapes across a translucent table top. One shape said “stress”; another said “routine”. Some of the shapes left thin white lines behind them as they moved. Elsewhere, tiny cubes appeared, orbited by even tinier moons.

The sounds shifted this way and that: musique concrète, devoid of melody or rhythm. Perhaps the movement of the shapes was shaping the movements in sound? The more you looked, the more likely it seemed – and yet the laws of visual cause and sonic effect didn’t quite seem to apply, either.

Although different in almost every respect from the blackout performance, this still was an austere, demanding experience. Most of us stayed seated on the floor, gazing at the barely shifting visuals. Towards the far side of the room, the urge to lie down flat proved contagious for a sizeable minority. Around the sides, a small number opted to stand. Oddly, there was a greater sense of concentration in the room, now that we could all see each other – or was it merely zoned-out ennui? Time slowed to a standstill. How long had we been in here? It was hard to judge.

At the end of the second performance – which might have been twenty minutes long, or two hours long – the audience slowly rose from the floor and drifted away: softly and quietly, as if waking from a collective dream. A post-show Q&A had been billed, but this never materialised: a missed opportunity, as some background knowledge would have helped us to form a clearer understanding of what we had witnessed.

As it turned out, the blackout performance had been provided by a Lebanese ensemble, Taht Ahl El-Hawa, who had led us on a musical journey through classic and traditional Arabic renaissance styles, from the Byzantine period through to the 19th century. Performing from behind the projection screen, they were followed by Marco Colasso, a sound artist from Uruguay, whose piece Because was inspired – in ways that I couldn’t even begin to fathom – by the Beatles track of the same name. It had been an improvisational exercise, apparently separated into four sections – earth, fire, water and air – which sought to explore “the frequencies connecting the world and its inhabitants, and the relationships which occur between them”.

Although this had been a thought-provoking (if backside-numbing) experience for the most part, I left with a slight sense of disappointment, and a feeling that the promise of the evening had not been fully realised. Unannounced surprises might have their place, but perhaps a little retrospective context would have been no bad thing.

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.

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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