Steven Wilson – To The Bone

22 08 2017

Cover by Lasse HoileTo The Bone is Steven Wilson’s fifth solo album, and was released on 19th August 2017.

Over the past few months Steven has released a handful of To The Bone‘s tracks as the modern equivalent of singles, to stream on your platform of choice. A lot of the interviews and PR have talked up the ‘pop’ aspect of the album, whilst the SW / prog forums have seen many a fan having a hissy fit about the direction the music has taken – especially with the ELO / ABBA leanings of Permanating.

As with all good albums, hearing tracks in isolation away from the whole album listening experience does not always tell the whole story (please excuse the Kate Bush pun).

To The Bone is essentially a rock / pop album,  inspired by the music of Tears For Fears, Talk Talk, Peter Gabriel, Songs of Faith and Devotion era Depeche Mode and Kate Bush. So not pop in the modern day sense, but one of pops golden eras, when songs were often experimental, bold and bright.

Another key influence to me is the variety of the music that filled the charts in the late 70s and early 80s. The charts would be populated by artists as diverse as the prog-punk of The Stranglers, next to the electronic pop of The Buggles, alongside the metal of Rainbow’s Since You’ve Been Gone or the AOR of Sailing from Christopher Cross. This mixture of very accessible music drawing from varied genres seems to have seeped into this album. The music still contains the Wilson DNA that has run through his work from no-man through to Lightbulb Sun and up to Hand. Cannot. Erase, so it’s not a total reinvention, more a re-focussing using a slightly more colourful musical palette.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the album to me is that SW performs so much more of the music (especially guitar) than on recent albums. The other big plus is the bluray 5.1 mix, which has to be heard to be believed. The bluray comes with the (now soldout) deluxe edition, and can also be bought as a standalone disc.

Photo by Lasse Hoile

The title track opens the album, and contains the first performance from one of the albums key contributors, Mark Feltham. I presume SW knows Mark’s playing from The The and Talk Talk whereas I have been a fan of his work from the late 70s / early 80s new wave / r & b of Nine Below Zero, who I saw live in hot, sweaty London venues as a teenager countless times. Mark delivers some emotive performances on several songs on To The Bone. Former Mansun leader, and now solo artist, Paul Draper adds some Oberheim sequences to this fine opening track.

Nowhere Now also introduces another aspect of this album – referencing other songs on the record. For example, a little bit of Permanating seeps into the bridge of Nowhere Now. The end section is pure Pete Townshend (All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes especially) and The Who, and its clear early on that the rock elements on To The Bone are more classic than progressive.

Pariah is my favourite Wilson / Ninet Tayeb collaboration to date. By the way, if you get the chance, listen to Ninet’s Paper Parachute album, especially the wonderful Child. Pariah is one of those timeless songs that could have been released at any point in the past 40 years, and would still sound fresh.

I’m a big fan of the guitar sound on To The Bone. The Same Asylum As Before has some huge guitar lines that simply burst out of the speakers, topped by the wonderful harmonies that were deployed so effectively on Lightbulb Sun. This song sounds a million dollars in 5.1.

Refuge is fast becoming my favourite song on the album. Mark Feltham delivers a heart-breaking harmonica performance, and Adam Holzman, my favourite Wilson keyboard player, adds exquisite solina strings and Hammond work. I can’t wait to hear this song live at The Royal Albert Hall in the spring. There is a real Ashes to Ashes referencing synth line at the end that cuts right through the mix. It’s a wonderful example of the light and shade, the power and restraint that breathes life into these songs.

Permanating is the one song on the album that has really generated the most discussion amongst fans. I will just sum it up by saying that it’s the sort of song that I can remember blasting out of my FM radio in 1979. No static at all.

Its certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, and is my least favourite track on the album, but it does make me smile (especially the video), and that cannot be a bad thing in these troubled times. Permanating works well at this point in the album, the unbridled joy of the song sits in stark contrast to what follows.

Blank Tapes is a stripped back arrangement with just SW, Ninet Tayeb and Adam Holzman.

“Nothing is left but the blank tapes in your car”

It is short and simple and leaves you wanting more, as the dark tale of terror living next door that is People Who Eat Darkness kicks in. I love Craig Blundell’s performance on this track, and the almost Dr Feelgood / Wilko Johnson clipped guitar playing from SW is awe-inspiring.

Song of I features Sophie Hunger on co-vocals. The most outright piece of electronica on the album, its a song of addiction and possession. I know I keep harping on about this, but PLAY THIS SONG LOUD IN 5.1. The hidden in the stereo mix vocal elements and sequencers counter playing with the live strings are a joy to hear in the 5.1 mix.

“I give it up, I give it all up”

The subject matter of Detonation is pretty much self-explanatory. Another piece of mainly dark electronica that soon mutates into a full band performance. An album highlight, with my favourite instrumental passage being the breakdown as the signature 80s conga percussion, Roland Orzabel-alike rhythm guitar and bass line that I was sure was Nick Beggs but isn’t sees out the track.

Album closer Song of Unborn features the recent SW band minus Mr Beggs and has the album’s strongest, and most direct, lyrics. The arrangement is given a deeper emotional edge by the use of a choral section provided by Synergy Vocals.

“Now the time that is gone doesn’t matter to anyone”

It’s the nearest to the sound of recent albums, and a reminder that SW does album closing songs so well.

So there is much to enjoy on To The Bone, but I really would recommend the 5.1 mix, which is available on blu-ray. The deluxe edition, which is now sadly unavailable, also contains some very good unreleased songs (particularly A Door Marked Summer and Ask Me Nicely) and alternative mixes as well as a hardback book with some great pictures and detailed background to the creation of To The Bone. So if you can track down a copy, it will be a worthwhile purchase.

I hope you enjoy the album.

Buy To The Bone on CD from Amazon

Buy To The Bone vinyl on Amazon

Buy To The Bone [Blu-ray] on Amazon





Tim Bowness – Songs From The Ghost Light

14 08 2017

Songs-from-the-Ghost-Light

Songs From The Ghost Light is a companion release to Tim Bowness’s Inside Out label albums, Abandoned Dancehall Dreams (2014), Stupid Things That Mean The World (2015) and this years wonderful Lost In The Ghost Light.

The 34 minute mini-album is available in limited quantities on CD & vinyl from Burning Shed, and as a download from Tim’s Bandcamp page.

Stupid Things That Mean The World (chamber version) is a stark re-imagining of the 2015 track. Stripped of the albums guitar and drums, piano and strings underpin the vocals, which have a dollop of extra reverb added, making this version a very different beast. A disturbing alternative synth line adds tension to the middle section of the song.

The live version of The Warm-Up Man Forever (the studio version appears on Abandoned Dancehall Dreams) features a stunning drum performance from Andrew Booker and a wonderful Experiment IV-like guitar line from Michael Bearpark. As an advert for the Tim Bowness live shows, the non-studio cuts on Songs From The Ghost Light do their job.

No Longer The One is a reworked, much less proggy version of the Henry Fool rarity Pills in the Afternoon. A more expansive guitar line and a richer arrangement and production take one of Tim’s finest hidden pieces to new heights. Its my favourite track on this mini-album.

Some T-bo trivia – No Longer The One was lyrically altered to work with the Moonshot / Jeff Harrison story. Expect an angry tweet from the ageing old Putin worhsipping Moonshotter soon!

Once A Record is a mutated piece of mellotron madness built from The Great Electric Teenage Dream. Whispers, off-kilter and digitally twisted vocals and dark electronics bubble under the surface of a track that would not have sounded out-of-place on David Bowie’s 1. Outside.

Next up is a live version of The Great Electric Teenage Dream. The version on Songs From The Ghost Light is faithful to the times I have heard the song live at recent Bowness shows. Its a powerful performance, with brutal guitar lines.

The polar opposite is The Sweetest Bitter Pill (chamber version). I prefer this take to the version previously released in 2014. Strings and mid-70s sounding lead synth lines push the songs melody to the fore.

The final live song is Abandoned Dancehall Dreams Dancing For You. One of Tim’s saddest songs of nostalgia and regret, Dancing For You is presented here in a moving live performance. A fine synth solo from Stephen Bennett drives the song to its conclusion.

Giancarlo Erra (Nosound/Memories Of Machines) contributes piano to the album’s closing track Lost In The Ghost Light (giallo), as well as mixing and mastering the album. Kit Watkins adds flute and ‘Heartbeat’ percussion to the discordant re-birth of what was already the most menacing piece on this years wonderful Lost In The Ghost Light album.

“Is there more?”

No Longer The One, The Sweetest Bitter Pill (chamber version) and Lost In The Ghost Light (giallo) actually surpass their original incarnations as far as I am concerned. Songs From The Ghost Light works well as a companion to Tim’s successful Inside Out era albums, making you return to the originals whilst working well as an album in its own right.

Stupid Things That Mean The World (chamber version)
The Warm-Up Man Forever (live)
No Longer The One
Once A Record
The Great Electric Teenage Dream (live)
The Sweetest Bitter Pill (chamber version)
Dancing For You (live)
Lost In The Ghost Light (giallo)

Buy the CD and vinyl from Burning Shed

Buy the Download from Tim’s Bandcamp page





CousteauX – by CousteauX

22 07 2017

CousteauxCousteau were a London-based band who released three albums between 1999 and 2005. Their most well-known song was The Last Good Day of the Year from their debut album. After success in the UK, Italy and the US, the band went their separate ways in 2006. Singer Liam McKahey reunited with song-writer Davey Ray Moor in 2015 as CousteauX, and they release their first album in over 10 years in September 2017.

CousteauX opens with Memory is a Weapon, and instantly the years roll away. This is the music of the debut album with added pathos and a much richer, fuller production. I loved Liam’s two solo album’s, but team him up with Davey Ray Moor and something magical happens. The yearning backing vocals and simple piano motif over the insistent bass-line delivers a powerful and direct opening.

This Might Be Love rides on a bluesey acoustic guitar riff and a meandering synth line. One of the darker songs on the album, it has a real Americana feel to it, and breaks new ground for the band.

Track 3 is my favourite song on the album. Burma features an emotional acoustic bass and piano line, and for the first time I can really see the Bowie comparison with Liam’s vocals. Think Wild is The Wind and Bowie’s rich baritone from the Station To Station era. Burma is a song with wonderfully evocative lyrics, and one of Liam’s finest vocals.

“Go my love steady, just be upstairs ready, my angel”

I’m sure this will soon become a fan favourite. The arrangement evolves in an unforced and natural way as the song progresses.

After the beauty of Burma comes the darkness of The Innermost Light. A sleazy, razor-sharp performance that features Carl Barat (The Libertines / Dirty Pretty
Things), The Innermost Light is a future spaghetti western theme tune in the waiting. It makes you want to kick open the bar door and spit in the sawdust. Or maybe that’s just me.

Maybe You is a less tense affair. Arriving at the mid-point of the album, Maybe You is the sort of stripped back ballad that the band deliver so well. The upright bass is phenomenal, and reminds me of the playing of Danny Thompson and his work with John Martyn.

Portobello Serenade has the feel of a 1950s / 60s Soho, with its hazy jazz percussion and trumpet. Thin Red Lines switches the tempo up a gear and shifts forward a few decades, with an almost glam-rock / T-Rex feel to the jagged guitars and soulful backing vocals.

“Only the mystery remains”

Shelter is an oddity on the album but oh what a lovely oddity! It’s almost the bands take on modern r ‘n’ b production. A minimal programmed drum pattern on top of Art of Noise (Moments In Love) like backing vocals and a lovely Rhodes piano melody explores new territory for the band. I look forward to more experimentation like this on future CousteauX albums.

cousteaux band

The penultimate track, Seasons Of You is the nearest we get to the classic Cousteau sound of old. Its a joyful, breezy track that lifts the mood before the album’s closing song, the mean and goddamn moody as hell F***ing In Joy and Sorrow.

“I’m in love but I’m grieving”

The hi-hat and toms percussion that underpin a stark organ / guitar backdrop propels the brutally honest and direct lyric of lust, hurt and regret.

This is music made for the night. Switch off the lights, pour yourself some whisky on the rocks and let the music take over.

As a long-time fan of the band, who I have only seen live once (a memorable, packed and sweaty early 90s gig in Blackheath) – I was intrigued as to what a modern day Cousteau would bring us. I’m overjoyed to report that the core of what made this band so special is still intact. *That* voice and the quality song-writing and performances, combined with a brave stretching of the bands template, mean that the 2017 version known as CousteauX has delivered an emotionally satisfying and stylistically varied album that stands up to repeated listening. At times, its far from easy listening, but stick with it and you will find so much to savour in these deep, rich and often dark songs.

Welcome back Cousteaux. You have been missed, stay around a little longer this time….

Cousteaux is released on 1 September 2017.

Order the Cousteaux CD from Amazon

Order the Cousteaux vinyl LP from Amazon





Public Service Broadcasting – Every Valley

8 07 2017

Every ValleyEvery Valley is the third album from Public Service Broadcasting, and the follow up to 2015’s acclaimed The Race for Space.

The first thing that strikes you about the album is the musical palette – for the most-part, the heavy electronics are less obvious, so the result is a much more guitar-driven album than its predecessor.

Recorded in southern Wales (Ebbw Vale), Every Valley is centered around the Welsh mining industry, particularly coal mining. The album subtly touches on the obvious politics (on the track All Out) – so it does not detract from the story of massive economic and social change. Yes, I know these changes were mainly a result of politics, but honing in on the miners strike and the huge upheaval instigated by the Conservative Government in the mid-80s would have made this a less personal album, and taken away from the very real emotion in the words and music.

The buzzing of strings usher in the opening title track, and what a beautiful way to start the album. A sampled reading from the deep, warm tones of Richard Burton sit atop a wonderful drum pattern, softly evolving guitar lines and delicious strings. The production on this album is a massive step up from The Race for Space.

The Pit has Fleetwood Mac Tusk meets Running Up That Hill inspired dry drums. A bubbling synth runs alongside blasts of solo orchestral instrumentation and beautifully chorused guitar. Its a richly rewarding piece of music.

An old 70s coal-board advert prefaces People Will Always Need Coal, the most electronic track on the album. I love the 1980 Talking Heads-like groove on this song.

“There’s more to mining than dust and dirt”

Progress features Tracyanne Campbell from Camera Obscura on lead vocals, and whilst it is a rare positive lyric, it also acts as a way of making the forthcoming songs of decay and destruction feel even more sombre.

All Out is the section of the album that directly deals with the miners strike. Angry crowds underpin the brutal guitars, as the samples tell the story of men and women who just wanted to go to work, to do their jobs, to support their families. Its at this point that you realise that this album is more than a document about a time, and a place, and an industry that is long since destroyed. Its an album about the disconnect and the simmering discontent of the world we live in now. History is repeating itself.

James Dean Bradfield from Manic Street Preachers lends his vocals to Turn No More. Its a strong performance, and I like the fact that the music is quite restrained at times, which makes the message so much more powerful.

Every Valley is a chronicle of the men and women of the mining community. They Gave Me A Lamp is a beautiful piece, from the perspective of the women in the communities, and features members of the Derbyshire trio Haiku Salut.

You + Me is a departure on the album. A jazzy, live sounding performance that features a Welsh / English duet between Lisa Jen Brown and PSB’s J Willgoose Esq. The aching strings of the end section are one of the album’s highlights.

The drum pattern is almost an exact copy of David Bowie’s Five Years, so I hope I am forgiven for being confused when Soul Love is not the next song on the album.

Mother Of The Village brings the story towards its bitter conclusion, and reminds me a little of the wonderful Mogwai soundtrack to Les Revenants (The Returned).

“And you begin to realise what you mean by the death of a village”

As the album drawws to an end, the desperate state of the communities is now apparent, with empty pubs and disappearing shops. The Beaufort Male Choir close the album, with the moving Take Me Home.

“Take me home.. let me sing again..”

Every Valley is shaping up to be a much more satisfying album than The Race for Space, which I loved at the time, but don’t find myself returning to as much. This album has a deep emotional core that will keep drawing you back to the stories and the songs that live in Every Valley.

Every Valley (CD)

Every Valley (vinyl)





Scarred For Life volume one: The 1970s By Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence

25 03 2017

OK, lets start with a confession. The 70s is my favourite decade. Its a decade that I lived through as a young ‘un (I was 10 in 1970) and saw me through to my first years as a young adult. It was the decade that provided some of the music that has seeped into my very soul, especially the mid 70s classic rock and the punk / post punk music from 77-79 that shook the establishment. So Scarred For Life volume one: The 1970s was always going to scream out READ ME, READ ME NOW. Oh and prepare to open your wallet – as you will probably find yourselves heading over to Amazon to buy lots of the DVDs and blurays of programmes you loved when you were young, or to eBay to pick up comics (old copies of Look-in) or other 70s memorabilia.

Scarred for Life Volume one: The 1970s

Scarred For Life volume one: The 1970s is a printed publication (740 black and white pages printed, with a free colour eBook version) that covers the decades weird and wonderful television (including favourites of mine such as The Tomorrow People, Sky, Survivors and A Ghost Story For Christmas), as well as a look at the changing face of UK TV culture. And that’s not all – the publication looks at board games – such as Top Trumps and Escape From Colditz, plus films and comics (including the mighty Action from 1976) as well as 70s fads and food (I had forgotten all about Horror Bags Fangs Crisps!). Oh and the array of 70s ice-lollies – no wonder I’ve spent so much money at the dentists over the years.

Scarred For Life volume one: The 1970s opens with an excellent scene-setting introduction by horror writer / historian Johnny Mains. Scarred by Television is the books first section. If you lived through the 70s, the memories are instantly sparked by the description of TV in that decade – no remote controls, tiny screens and few channels, compared to todays HD and hundreds of channels beamed into our homes through satellite / cable and on demand net based programming. On demand was not an option in the 1970s – in fact recording of programmes to watch later didn’t feature in most households until the 1980s. So TV watching was a much more communal event – everyone watched the programmes at the same time and discussed last nights viewing at school or work the next day. And if you missed the programme, or if it clashed with something else your family was watching on the homes ONE TV, that was it – no pausing, rewinding or catch-up TV. You simply missed it.

Programmes discussed in depth in the first few chapters include The Owl ServiceThe Ghosts of Motley Hall and one of my favourites, The Tomorrow People (which has a Bowie reference, fact fiends). Name that tune! The Blue And The Green Tomorrow People story has stuck with me all these years.

SkyOne of the most enjoyable parts of Scarred for Life is the coverage of the HTV series Sky. I remember watching and enjoying early episodes of this programme, but for some long forgotten reason, I never got to watch the whole of the seven part series. But I never forgot those terrifying black eyes…..

There is also a lengthy and informative section on Play For Today – including the haunting Blue Remembered Hills, which can be found on the Essential Dennis Potter boxset.

The sci-fi section of Scarred for Life includes the BBC post-plague drama Survivors. Much grittier than the (sadly cut-short after two series) more recent version starring Max Beesley, the original series lasted three seasons and went straight into my Amazon basket after reading about it in this book.

My favourite TV related section of Scarred for Life is the Gothic TV section – especially  the section on A Ghost Story For Christmas. I occasionally saw episodes during the 70s but bought the BFI DVD collection a couple of years ago due to the 2010 remake of the M. R. James story Whistle and I’ll Come to You, and dipping into this collection has become a Christmas tradition. The Scarred for Life piece goes into great detail, even mentioning the 1860s M. R. James origin of the Christmas Ghost stories that led to this wonderful BBC festive regular. I know its not Christmas as I write this review, but I think I’ll dip into the collection again this weekend. Charles Dickens is not just for Christmas, after all.

The How we used to live section discusses the way that some mainstream 70s TV dealt with race (the impact of ‘light entertainment’ shows such as The Black and White Minstrel Show and Love Thy Neighbour) and particularly the awful, lazy stereotyping in Mind Your Language. The section also discusses the “something for the Dads” casual sexism that was prevalent in Seaside Special / Top of the Pops and various sitcoms such as Doctor In The House and On The Buses. To their credit, the Scarred for Life writers don’t choose the easy “weren’t the 70s wacky” route in their discussions about these issues.

Scarred for Life takes an interesting approach to its lengthy Doctor Who section. Instead of focusing on the show and the stories, they take a fresh approach discussing what it was like being a fan of the show – writing about the Doctor Who Exhibitions and the eras Doctor Who annuals and magazines.

If, like me, you are of a certain age – the phrase “clunk click every trip” will mean you watched the multitude of public information films that ran through the decade, and they are discussed in loving detail in Scarred for Life. To this day, I’m still petrified of dumped fridges and ponds.

charleysays

The section covers with Charley Says, The Green Cross Code and the downright terrifying Joe & Petunia (the coastguard animation still haunts me). Coo-ee!

I spent many happy hours playing Escape From Colditz as a kid in the early 70s. The board game was inspired by the popular TV series, starring Robert Wagner and David McCallum, that ran for two series between 1972 and 1974. It made a change from the endless magic sets and compendium of games that I received each Christmas. So I really enjoyed the children’s games section in this publication, that also covers Top Trumps, a card based game (I recall having lots of military and vehicle based sets – mainly tanks, jets and motorbikes).

The savage cinema section is well researched. Covering films such as Soldier Blue, Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry and the Death Wish series, the writers put these films in the context of the post-Vietnam, permissive society fighting Mary Whitehouse era. Classic films such as Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and Deliverance are also covered.

The writers also delve briefly into the “When Animals Attack” late 70s film genre, mentioning Grizzly, but sadly no mention of one of my  (corny) favourites from the era – Day of the Animals. I saw Day of the Animals as a double-bill (what a great concept, bring it back!) at the cinema in 1977 with a great film called The Car, with James Brolin being pursued through the desert by a seemingly driverless Lincoln Continental (The Car is mentioned further on in Scarred for Life).

Another well-written section of the book are chapters given over to covering some of the satanic / possession films of the 70s. Covering less obvious choices, such as Dennis Potters Brimstone and Treacle (not to be confused with the later film version starring Sting) as well as the sort of films you would expect, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and The Exorcist, the writing is often focused on the public’s perception of the films rather than plot synopses, which is a fresh take on these much-discussed classic horror films.

I also found the folk-horror section interesting – as its a sub-genre I know little about, so feel inclined to explore further.

The Pop Movie Turns Dark covers the trio of pop films That’ll Be The Day, Stardust and Slade in Flame. I’ve never seen the Slade film but love the two David Essex films. I didn’t realise that That’ll Be The Day is based on Harry Nilsson’s song 1941, so thanks for that pop-quiz nugget, Scarred for Life.

thatll-be-the-day

The sections on 70s books and comics is the section I was looking forward to the most, and it did not disappoint. I bought several pre-ban issues of Action – I wish I’d kept them, as it was a ground-breaking comic that is covered in depth in this publication. And I had forgotten all about the Pan Book of Horror Stories – that turned me onto the work of Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker among others. I was also a big fan of the early James Herbert books – The Rats is discussed in Scarred for Life, but my favourite was The Fog. I’ve still got my original copy and it still scares me to death. Its a shame there is not more coverage of James Herbert – he may not be regarded as being a writer in the same class as Stephen King in horror writing circles, but his books were extremely popular in the 70s and 80s for the very good reason that they were terrifying.

Scarred by… food. Horror themed ice-lollies (Lyons Maid Red Devils & Haunted House), Smiths Horror Bags crisps (I can taste them now!) and Golden Wonder Kung Fueys (bacon and mushroom corn balls mnnnn) are all on the menu in Scarred for Life. Oh how I miss the 70s.

There is an interesting chapter on UFO imagery used in 70s music, including Boston, ELO, The Stranglers and a fair bit about David Bowie‘s apparent fascination with aliens. The sections ends with the top 10 UFO songs of the 70s. I won’t give it away – buy Scarred for Life and see for yourself.

Scarred for Life is a great read for anyone who lived through the decade, or for anyone in love with the music, TV and films that poured out of this amazing period. The TV series Life on Mars gave a great flavour of the 70s, so if you loved that show, Scarred for Life will paint an even fuller picture of the decade. I am really looking forward to the next volume, that will cover the 80s. I can’t wait to read about the nuclear paranoia of that decade, especially the mighty Threads.

You can buy Scarred for Life Volume one – the 70s now as a 740 page perfect-bound paperback (the printed version comes with details of how to obtain the colour e-book version as part of your purchase).





David Bowie – Blackstar

8 01 2016

blackstarNew Bowie albums have always been a big deal and a major event for me. And it’s even more so now, as each release arrives I can’t help but wonder if I’m listening to the last Bowie studio album. The live shows look like they are over, and the time will come when the studio albums stop too, so excuse me for savouring each release.

Anyway, sorry about that – enough of the morbid thoughts. Don’t worry – I’m not going to start off by saying that its the best Bowie album since Scary Monsters, as this is only day one of my listening to the full album (courtesy of the new way of hearing albums on release date – the post midnight Apple Music stream until my CD arrives in the post). It’s a brave new world.

The album opens with the seconds short of 10 minutes title track. Driven by Bjork-like percussion and jittery synths and saxes, contrary to early rumours and the Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) single, this ain’t no jazz album. It’s a virtually rock free zone – the guitars are mostly heavily processed and the music is very electronic and playfully experimental.

I love the middle section of the track Blackstar – its pure old-school Bowie tied in with intriguing lyrics.

“You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a marvel star)
I’m the great I am (I’m a blackstar)”

Tis a Pity She Was a Whore has developed from the 2014 digital release (which had the feel of a demo if I’m honest). There is a real consistency in the sound of Blackstar, which continues with Tis a Pity…, a song littered with frantic sax (as is most of the album) and reminding me a little of Jump They Say.

Lazarus, oh my sweet Lazarus. I was excited about this album when I heard the evolving strangeness of the title track, but Lazarus took it all up a notch and is by far my favourite track on the album. I’ve played this song so many times since it was released digitally in late 2015.

The guitars on this track are just stunning, and I think Lazarus is shaping up to be one of my favourite Bowie songs since the late 70s. I love the arrangement especially the build up to the songs climax, as the guitars and drums reach their crescendo and then it quickly slips back to the nagging pace of the beginning, whilst adding some great bass and guitar interplay. Lazarus also sees Bowie delivering one of his sassiest vocals in many a year.

Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) appears on Blackstar shorn of it’s jazz trappings and in much shorter, but markedly heavier form. There is a feel of the Outside album at times, especially on this track.

bowieblackstar

Girl Loves Me is a weird little number. With vocal tics and incomprehensible lyrics, Girl Loves Me is Bowie at his most off-kilter, and sets up the final tracks, two songs that also happen to be the most accessible songs on the album.

Dollar Days is a great Bowie ballad. At times on The Next Day, some of the nods to the past felt a little like pastiche at times, but Dollar Days does not feel forced, even though it feeds on nostalgia.

Blackstar really feels like an album recorded with a band playing off a well oiled-ensembles strengths and Bowie seems to react to this (listen to the enthused yelps on Tis a Pity She Was a Whore).

I Can’t Give Everything Away opens with a musical nod to Low‘s A New Career In A New Town, and contains the return of the heart-wrenching Bowie vibrato in the chorus.

A simple, understated track that rises and drops, ending with some Fripp like guitar buried in the mix towards the end of a song that seems to be telling his audience to back-off a little – whilst asking for some personal privacy.

“Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent”

The album has much more consistency than The Next Day. On the first full play of Blackstar, I came to the end and realised I had been waiting to hear the inevitable album filler, but there wasn’t one. Bowie and his musicians do not waste a single note and no track overstays its welcome.

For an artist with such an influential catalogue of songs and albums behind him, to be releasing music this satisfying so far down the line is remarkable.

blackstar
Buy Blackstar on CD
from Amazon

Buy Blackstar on vinyl from Amazon

Buy Blackstar on MP3 on MP3 at Amazon





Suzanne Vega – Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles

3 02 2014

Suzanne Vega - Tales from the Realm of the Queen of PentaclesTales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is the first album of new material from Suzanne Vega since 2007’s Beauty & Crime. Following on from Suzanne’s reclaiming of her back-catalogue, with the Close Up series, this is the longest gap between new albums.

The album was produced by long-time David Bowie guitarist, Gerry Leonard, who looms large on the album, adding most of the albums electric guitar and more than a hint of the alt-rock experimentation of Bowie’s excellent The Next Day from last year.

King Crimson/ Peter Gabriel bassist Tony Levin is joined by recent Bowie band-members Sterling Campbell, Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford to underpin a lot of the songs on Tales from the Realm…

Album opener Crack in the Wall is not a hybrid of two key tracks from Suzanne’s debut album but a delightful new track, with mandolin underpinned acoustic guitars, and a real live feel. It’s almost a statement opener – this is the sort of sound you would expect from a Suzanne Vega record in 2014. The surprises slowly start to seep through on the album’s second song, Fool’s Complaint, with a very early 70s sound (the backing vocals remind me of Transformer era Lou Reed).

Then along comes I Never Wear White – and this is the point where the album really shifts to new sonic territory. Built on a Stonesey riff, and a very in your face rock sound – just raw guitar, bass (from Levin) and drums (guitar/bass/drums – the killer formula). This is unlike anything else in the Vega back catalogue. Not a keyboard or acoustic guitar in earshot on this track.

“My colour is black, black, black…”

Portrait of the Knight of Wands is my favourite song on the album. Delicate layered guitar and discordant keyboards provide the palette for this moving tale. A subtle reverb on the lead vocal and a wide mix give this song space to breathe.

“His mission, the transmission of technology”

Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain features a 50 Cent sample, the sampled becoming the sampler! A shifting arrangement throws in some Zeppelinesque, arabic-sounding string parts, and a very unique vocal phrasing. This track cries out to be a single.

Jacob and the Angel really benefits from the Gerry Leonard production, with a guitar riff bubbling under the song that Mr Bowie would be proud of. Hand-claps provide the nagging beat, as the song slowly builds as it progresses.

The musically nostalgic Silver Bridge (which reminds me a little of the late 70s new wave of The Cars mixed with Springsteen’s sublime I’m on Fire) is another standout track that reveals hidden textures on repeated listening.

Song of the Stoic is a powerhouse of a song, and for me, the album’s centrepiece. Referencing the production experimentation of 99.9F° (my favourite Suzanne Vega album), the early instrumentation sounds like 19th Century, Deadwood era America, with rustic guitar and percussion that evokes the clanking of early industrial machinery. An intensely moving vocal line and cinematic arrangement make this one of the best songs Suzanne has ever recorded. I’m never going to grow tired of listening to this track.

Laying on of Hands / Stoic 2 has a wonderful dirty Velvet Underground sounding guitar line, and a very percussive backbeat. The album finishes with the optimistic Horizon (There Is a Road), offsetting the darkness of some of the albums preceding tracks.

Releasing a folk sounding record would have been a safe and unimaginative option but thankfully, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is a million miles away from being safe, and should prove to be a career highlight for Suzanne Vega fans.

Visit the Suzanne Vega website

Buy Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles on Amazon UK

Buy Tried & True: The Best Of Suzanne Vega on Amazon UK

Buy 99.9 F° on Amazon UK








%d bloggers like this: