Sand – A Sleeper, Just Awake.

25 09 2016

cover_275lA Sleeper, Just Awake is the second album from Sand, the solo project from Sam Healy of North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO).

I bought the first Sand album in 2013, and it didn’t grab me straight away, but I rediscovered it recently and its had lots of plays particularly the haunting A Pill to Keep the `plane from Crashing (a track so good it appears on the forthcoming North Atlantic Oscillation compilation).

So I was pleased to find out that a new Sand album is on the horizon. A Sleeper, Just Awake builds on the primarily electronic vein of the debut album, but has much more variety in its choice of instrumentation and hit home much quicker than the first album.

Mayfly is a powerful opener and a real beauty – with a stunning arrangement and percussion that reminded me of Talk Talk and Steve Jansen / late period Japan. As with NAO, there are twists and turns and a great use of power followed by restraint that keeps you hooked throughout the songs.

L.T.G.B. has intriguing lyrics (I can’t wait to see them in the CD sleeve-notes) and is presumably a play on the term LGBT.

“Comic opera brought you here, months too late”

One of the first things that attracted me to NAO was the complex, often manic drums that topped a modern, progressive sound palette. Sand offer equally ambitious percussion, mainly using drum machines, which adds to the different taste between the two projects. Commitment to the Bit reminds me a little of Danish pop proggers Mew. I love the almost overloaded mix on this track, as it breaks down to a synthy, reverb-laden middle section, as the brief respite allows you to appreciate the songs power.

The awkward time signature of Seldom Used Furniture adds to the tracks charm, and at the moment, its my favourite track on the album. A slowly evolving arrangement in a song devoid of an obvious chorus makes this song stand out as one of the albums key tracks. Every single time I play Seldom Used Furniture I silently exclaim to myself “those synths”. Its a stunning piece of music, and one of Healey’s greatest songs.

“Knock yourself out”

Talking of time signatures, berceuse is a style of composition that is a lullaby, usually in 6/8 time. Sand’s Berceuse is instrumental for the first half of the track, before deep, heavy instrumentation and vocals disturb the arrangement before it shifts back to its almost mantra-like song structure.

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Embers ushers in one of the albums more atmospheric arrangements. Sparse guitar and synth populate the verses, with an almost Beatles / Lennon like chorus.

Initial has a Nine Inch Nails meets David Lynch vibe, with danger and disquiet hiding behind the almost cinematic string arrangement.

“First I damage you, then you carry me”

The album draws to a close with its two longest tracks. Coward builds from swirling organ and a click-track percussion track into an arrangement that blurs the boundaries between Sand and NAO.

“We’ve come to rest, at the edge of the air”

One of my favourite parts of the album is the quiet section just after 4 minutes into Coward. An almost no-man, Returning Jesus sounding section – just drums, bass synth, piano and distant, discordant guitar carry the song to its final destination.

The album ends with its longest piece, Earth Mound Square. I love the mixture of hard-sequenced synths and acoustic instruments that drive the first section of this track. I’m a sucker for songs that mix electronic and natural sounds, so I was always going to be a fan of A Sleeper, Just Awake.

The arrangement shifts, sways and evolves slowly, maybe mirroring how landscapes evolve over time through the gradually changing seasons. The end section has some moving, minimalist lines that bring the album to its conclusion.

Earth Mound Square is a well-chosen ending to a beautiful, moving and varied album by Sand. A Sleeper, Just Awake is already well on its way to being my favourite release from the North Atlantic Oscillation / Sand catalogue.

A Sleeper, Just Awake along with Hannah Peel’s similarly titled Awake But Always Dreaming, must surely be a contender for best electronic album of 2016.

A Sleeper, Just Awake is released 30 September 2016.

Buy the album

Buy the CD / download directly from Sand

Buy the download on Amazon

Buy the first Sand album on Amazon

Buy North Atlantic Oscillation – Lightning Strikes The Library – A Collection from Amazon





Department M – Deep Control

9 04 2016

Deep ControlDeep Control is the first full-length album release from Department M.

Department M is Owen Brinley (former Grammatics singer / guitarist) and drummer Tommy Davidson. They are joined on the album by vocalist Snow Fox, James Kenosha and Lins Wilson.

I was a fan of Grammatics debut album – especially the songs Relentless Fours and Inkjet Lakes, so have been looking forward to the first Department M album, and it does not disappoint.

Department M dial up the electronics on Deep Control, and inhabit the space vacated by Songs of Faith and Devotion era Depeche Mode. Guitars are not the driving force in Department M, they are more atmospheric and layered and work well with the powerful drums, deep bass synths and intricate keyboard lines.

Bad Formulae is an early example of how Brinley’s voice and songwriting has progressed over the past few years. The pace and mood shifts from soft to menacing in the blink of an eye.

Bleak Technique is propelled by some great interplay between the bass and drums, as well as joint vocals from Brinley and Snow Fox. I love the goth-like guitar lines that precede the chorus.

Watch a (very different from the album cut) but moving nonetheless live solo performance of Bleak Technique below…

Kill My Superstition takes a few listens to get under your skin, but this song of addiction, with it’s nagging flute / synth line pays dividends after repeated plays.

“Kid sister morphine, you blaze a trail, from neon carriages sirens exhale”

Stress Class is the nearest to the sound of Brinley’s former band. But the album really shifts up a gear with Air Exchange,  which is easily one of my favourite tracks on the album. I love the changes in pace and the duel vocals. A lot of electronic bands rely too much on processed percussion – Department M having a non-VST driven drummer adds a real sense of power and urgency to these performances.

“Help me forget myself, how hard could it be?”

Department M

Deep Control, Pt. 2 is a gorgeous late-night torch-song, that reminds me a little of Flat Earth era Thomas Dolby. The album was recorded at The Lodge, Bridlington, as was the final Lone Wolf album from last year. The sound of the studio, which ran deep through the Lone Wolf album, can  really be felt on this track.

Linear features a strong electric bass-line, and as the synths break-down, the second section of the song is the most powerful piece of music on the album. Linear ends on an almost post-punk note, it’s a wonderful track.

“trace the vapour trails above, so linear.”

Compulsion is the album’s closing piece. A perfect storm of hard sequencers, off-kilter jazzy sax lines and a nagging guitar riff push the track, and the album, to it’s conclusion.

Deep Control was made to be played loud, so download the album, and do just that

Buy Department M – Deep Control on Amazon





East India Youth – Culture of Volume

8 04 2015

eastindiayouthCulture of Volume, the second album from East India Youth, opens with The Juddering, an instrumental that starts off spitting out a synth- line reminiscent of Bowie’s title track to Station to Station, before the big synths take over.

Culture of Volume is not an instrumental album, the majority of the tracks feature vocal performances, the first of which, End Result, sneaks in some Duran Duran sounding synth flavours, and displays an intelligent, expansive arrangement.

Beaming White, though driven by mid-80’s sounding synths in the intro, has a feel of Delphic‘s Acolyte album. And that’s a key point with this album – William Doyle (aka East India Youth) is clearly influenced by the 80’s sounds of Kraftwerk, David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, John Foxx and Soft Cell but he writes songs that are contemporary, with vocals more inspired by Wild Beasts and Everything Everything than his apparent 80s influences.

Hearts That Never is one of the more up-tempo pieces, with a great bass-line and rolling percussion. The hands-in-the-air anthem Entirety is lifted by the sweet keyboard lines towards the middle of the pacey, at times industrial track.

The stand-out song for me is Carousel, which has shades of The Garden era John Foxx, and a real 1980’s 4AD feel in the use of long, spacey reverbs. Beatless and beautiful, it’s a moving piece of music, especially the slowly distorting outro, which has a little of the feel of The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski.

The straight-forward pop of Don’t Look Backwards has a dreamy treated piano and strings ending, which plays perfectly into my second favourite track, the 10 minute plus Manner of Words. Slow-burning textured pads and lead lines give way to disintegration and decay.

The album closes with Montage Resolution, another instrumental soundscape built from layers of jagged reverb-heavy lines underpinned by a deep synth.

This is the first music I’ve heard from East India Youth, and its piqued my interest enough to seek out their debut album, Total Strife Forever.

Buy Culture of Volume CD or download on Amazon

Buy Total Strife Forever on CD or download at Amazon





Gavin Castleton – It Was the Worst of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

12 10 2014

It Was the Worst of Times, It Was the Worst of TimesPortland’s Gavin Castleton has released a new 5 song EP via his BandCamp page. The EP is a collection of songs about unconditional love and loss, but with a twist. If you’ve followed Gavin’s music over the years, you will know who he is singing about, and I won’t need to explain.

If the language of love is universal, then the same thing can be said about loss, it crosses borders and species and it always cuts deep.

Underestimate Me is a piano (and 1950’s sounding guitar) ballad that sets the scene – welcoming the subject of the EP, and the playfulness of youth and the promise of the future is echoed in the instrumentation during the middle section, before the final two lines hit home, signalling that this is an EP reflecting on memories tainted by loss.

“So I’ll just remember how you made me forget the world all around me
while the world still reminds me of you.”

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Watering the Soil is a beautiful song, with the sounds of night-time crickets providing the rhythm to the saddest of sad songs.

“I put you in the ground tonight
out beside the house
by the window light”

Where is the Fire? is the darkest lyric on the EP, riddled with regret and wishing you could go back and re-live some of the better times.  I love the subtle reverb on Gavin’s vocals on this track.

Expensive Love is a much fuller arrangement than the live take in the video below, but the EP version makes it clear that this is simply one of the best songs Gavin has written.

Rhodes and a nagging beat drive the song, which has some wonderful Venus as A Boy recalling strings underpinning the later verses.

“But then you got much worse when I took the job –
I had to leave work late and get up at ungodly hours to get out of all the debts I owed.
Maybe you couldn’t see the man for the brand new clothes…”

If you have ever experienced deep loss – whether it was the loss of a parent, a relationship, or a close companion or friend, this song will surely resonate. There are no cliches in Expensive Love – no trite “I’m missing you” – the song serves up some of the raw truths of the cost of love, which can be paid in an emotional and a physical sense.

“I knew you had to go but didn’t know how much it’d cost me”

Image by Carrie Vonkiel

The EP ends on an uplifting song in Team Love – with it’s multi-layered vocals and hand-clap beats.

“I’ll be fixing up my inputs and my outputs
I will learn to love and be loved from any direction”

The change in mood at the end of the EP might suggest that if you are going through the worst of times now,  hang in there because you never know, the best of times could be just around the corner.

Gavin Castleton – It Was the Worst of Times, It Was the Worst of Timesbuy the EP on Bandcamp

Visit Gavin Castleton’s website.

If you’ve not heard Gavin’s music before, take a listen to his cover of Frank Ocean‘s Swim Good (mixed with the sublime Roads by Portishead).

I also recommend the Home (a zombie love story or is it?) and For the Love of Pete albums as good starting points in your journey. You will become hooked, trust me!





Laura Groves – Thinking About Thinking EP

29 09 2013

"Thinking About Thinking" EPLaura Groves (who previously recorded under the moniker Blue Roses) has released her first new solo material since 2009, with the digital (and vinyl) release of the Thinking about Thinking EP on Deek Recordings.

The opening track, Inky Sea, has a real late night feel, with the dark rhodes piano and layered 80s keyboards reminding me of Cliff Martinez‘s Drive soundtrack.

The music has progressed from 2009’s mostly acoustic Blue Roses album, and benefits from a much wider production palette.

After the beatless opening song, Pale Shadows is driven by a tight drum machine track, and back to the 80s again, has hints of China Crisis The Cocteau Twins in the instrumentation, topped off with a very Robert Smith like guitar riff. It’s probably my favourite of the 4 tracks, with hints of Fleetwood Mac in the chorus (always a good thing!)

Sadly, a by-product of the post-CD age, it’s impossible to tell who is playing on the tracks as there are no liner notes with this digital release.

“When the walls break down, it’s a beautiful thing”

Laura Groves

Easy Way Out sneaks in a crafty bossa-nova beat and a strong bassline to underpin the complex, ever-evolving arrangement, that grabs you after repeated plays.

The title track of Thinking About Thinking slows down the tempo of the EP, and has a real USA West-Coast vibe, with hints of mid-70’s Todd Rundgren seeping through to my wise old brain.

At times, the close harmonies remind me of Prince‘s sublime Sometimes It Snows In April from the Parade album.

I hope the EP is a taster for a new album in the not-too-distant future. If you liked the Blue Roses album, or are a fan of early Kate Bush, this EP will be something you will want to investigate, so go on, treat your ears.

Buy the EP

Buy Laura Groves – Thinking About Thinking EP from Bandcamp

Other releases

Buy the Blue Roses album from Amazon

Buy the Does Anyone Love Me Now? EP (featuring Grammatics) and the excellent First Frost Night on Amazon

Buy the I Am Leaving Single (featuring the wonderful Moments Before Sleep) from Amazon








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