Saturday, 28 March 2009

Prog Rock - Not Very Progressive

My first ever post for Chordstrike

Press Releases are always to be read with a degree of skepticism, but one I saw the other day set me off on a train of thought that I'm still trying to put the brakes on. It called a new band, who shall remain nameless, "prog rock innovators," likened them to prog rock giants like Pink Floyd and Yes, and described them with a barrage of prog rock key words: "abstract," "figurative," "intelligent," "conceptual." The album only had a handful of tracks but each were several minutes (and "stages") long, and the album even had a silly pretentious name. PRs are always full of dubious claims, but it seemed particularly odd to me that this band was being held up as "innovators" when they stuck to every prog rock cliche in the book.

So what does prog rock actually mean now? Is it intrinsically "innovative," even when it's formulaic? I don't think it can be. In the 70s, progressive rock was so-called because it involved high-minded ideas about what rock music could sound like with a little experimentation, and much of it was incredibly pioneering when compared to the rock scene of the time. But surely modern progressive rock must still be progressing, and its comparative rock scene must be today's -- 2009s -- not the early 70s? What we should now be talking about as modern progressive rock should be bands like Battles and Animal Collective, surely, neither of whom sound anything like Pink Floyd. Isn't that kinda the point of being "progressive"?

It seems to me that music which is in thrall to the early 70s is retro, and retro is the opposite of progressive.

But if the meaning of "prog rock" is stuck in a time capsule, that's no different from what's happened to "alternative rock" or "indie rock," genres which now don't seem to require the artists to be alternative or independent at all.

While you ruminate on those ramblings, why not improve your day by watching this clip of Pink Floyd performing "Time," from Dark Side of the Moon, in London in 1994.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Music Criticism: A New Model

If you don't read Popjustice already, you should. Every day. Even if you don't care about Girls Aloud, Peter Robinson's writing is essential. Take his latest critique of the Chris Cornell/Timbaland album:


In honour of this brilliant new method of reviewing music, which seems so obviously great now that it's been done that you have to wonder - "why has it taken until 2009 for a music critic to do this?" - I have attempted a similar review myself.

This is my first subject. It is a cover of "(I Wanna Be) 500 Miles" by The Proclaimers, performed by Christian skate-punk band MxPx.


And this is my first draft review:

Can't argue with that.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Cancer Is Not Courageous

I don't want to say too much about Jade Goody, but I will say this.

If you can't think of anything genuine and nice to say about a seriously ill person, please don't patronise them with allegations of "bravery" or "courage". There is nothing brave or courageous about getting cancer. This The Onion report is fictional (and very funny, because we know that it's fictional). But it points to a truth: Cancer patients don't have a choice: to be brave and courageous, or to not. You can only possess a virtue, like bravery, if you choose to exercise it where someone lacking in that virtue may not. A cancer patient's "choice" is this - the Doctor says "you've got cancer"; then you deal with it. That's it. No virtue required.

I know that it's well-meaning, but it's a platitude. For what it's worth, a better compliment to reach for is probably "strength". It takes extra mental strength to get through something like cancer, to remain emotionally stable and to attempt to live as normally as possible despite it all. But unless our hypothetical cancer patient has run into a burning building or saved a drowning child from a lake, calling them "brave" or "courageous" is meaningless.

edit: this probably seems like a mean-spirited, unhelpful post, but it's just a personal bug-bear of mine. I had Leukaemia when I was younger and being constantly told I was brave was nice, but I knew it wasn't true.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

We Were Promised Jetpacks

interview for The Mill magazine

High-fives all round for the FatCat scouts who brought us The Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit, two brilliant Scottish bands who've flourished with a little help from the Brighton-based independent label. Now they tell us they've found another great band from roundsabout here, and we're predictably salivating: FatCat's latest Scottish project are four-piece We Were Promised Jetpacks, discovered by none other than the aforementioned fearty bunny.

Singer Adam Thompson explains: "After a gig at Barfly in March last year I think the Rabbits phoned FatCat and said they should think about signing us." The groups had met previously while sharing a bill for an Is This Music? night and quickly became pals. "I've always imagined it to be like the bit in Back To The Future when Marty is beasting out the solo and the guy with the cut hand is on the phone telling his cousin to sign him. I hope it was like that."

Of course, record deals don't usually come with 'recommend a friend' promotions on the side, but FatCat obviously saw enough in the young quartet from Edinburgh's outskirts to keep listening, and eventually to sign. If there's something special about the Jetpacks, it's probably in the way they use rhythm: not as an unimportant wallpaper to the tune, nor as a herky-jerky fast-track to punk-funk cliche; but as a catalyst to every song, adding a restless urgency to Adam's vocals that add to their sincerity. Ian Curtis used to spasmodically dance when Joy Division's Stephen Morris locked into his groove: with the Jetpacks it's almost as if Adam is persuaded by the rhythms to gush out his innermost thoughts, his tongue flailing around like Curtis's arms.

"We do spend a long time getting the drums done once we have the skeleton of a song," Adam says. "They take ages [to get right]. It's a shame cause everyone with the stringed instruments yells at Lackie to play better drums and we all play the air-drums to help describe what we want it to sound like. He just sits there like he's about to greet!"

It's been a long road to get to this stage, with the group now recording a debut album for a growing expectant fanbase. After meeting at high school, the first ever Jetpacks gig was in April 2003. "We certainly didn't bond over a common love of a few bands or anything like that. Our drummer was into Blink 182 and screamo, Michael [guitars] didn't start liking guitar music for ages, and myself and Sean [bass] were content going to see the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Obviously as time has passed we have become much more passionate about music and are a bit more focussed now."

Luckily for all concerned, they sound nothing like a Blink/screamo/Chilli Peppers hybrid. Tastes can change a lot in six years, especially through school and young adulthood, and with the benefits of regular gigging and paying customers who won't hold back from offering a scathing critique where it's needed. "A guy came to one of our early gigs purely because of our name. He then heckled us and called me a farmer!" Adam complains, but with that they dropped their Wurzels influence, so all's for the better. Recent gigs have been going much better. They made a schoolboy error in selling out Nice N' Sleazy's -- "We had to turn friends who had bought tickets from us away, Sean's sister had to sneak in after we started!" -- and thoroughly enjoyed their September performance at Edinburgh's The Mill. "Yes that was great!" Adam says. "We were a bit suprised that it was so busy for us that night. It was great fun."

Now for that debut album. "We've recorded everything we've got! We're very pleased at how it's coming along. We feel it's a great interpretation of the live show: loud and quiet at the same time. We've done a bunch with Ken Thomas, who produced a couple of Sigur Ros albums, and M83, and they're getting mixed right now by Peter Katis, who's done Frightened Rabbit, The National, and Interpol."

And along with these opportunities, these esteemed names legitimately dropped, comes just a little expectation. I ask Adam about the Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit albums, which both won Album of the Year in The Skinny. "Yeah we completely love those albums. It's a bit scary because they are both soooooo good and Scottish and we are on the same label. We were joking about having to win The Skinny's Album of the Year now, you've put us under so much pressure! And now, of course, it'll go to Merriweather Post Pavillion because it's glorious. We're doomed!"

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Super Adventure Club

introduction for The Mill magazine

99 reasons to love Super Adventure Club 1. Their name is a South Park reference 2. It's the name of an international paedophile ring that kidnaps Chef: "We just liked the name cos it's silly" singer Bruce explained to The Skinny 3. They named their debut album, released last year, Chalk Horror! 4. Partly because it's a pun, and they like doing silly things like punning 5. Partly because they have a song about a fight between prehistoric chalk monuments, including the Uffington Horse taunting the Rude Giant with "Saint George was no saint you see, but he never flashed his piece at me" 6. Their drummer Waz is amazing 7. They have a song about over-thought no-fun Math Rock, with lines like "a new rock and roll is here, it's based on algebra" 8. You could say Super Adventure Club play Math Rock 9. Which one dunderheaded reviewer thought was hypocritical 10. Crucially forgetting that Super Adventure Club were mocking the very austerity of the form 11. Which is obvious live with bassist Mandy grinning throughout 12. They have a song about the super obese, sung by grinning Mandy, with a chorus of: "No offence to Rik Waller but you're not that much smaller than the state of Tennessee" 13. The lyrics are not in fact the best thing about this band, because they are musicians, not comedians 14. Two-thirds are music teachers, and all three together are tighter than, em, Rik Waller's tights 15. Frank Zappa might be their most obvious single forebearer, for his eclectism, virtuosity and humour 16. Live they're ferocious, veering between metal, punk, power pop and noise 17. They have a new song about the link between hip-hop and Pot Noodles 18. Clearly, they do not know the meaning of cliche 19. Whaddaya mean there's no more

(Obviously this clever ruse doesn't work online. Don't ask me for 80 more reasons! Also, this was not actually published in this form, for hilarious reasons which I cannot reveal. But it was butchered a bit and squeezed into the March issue of The Skinny)

Thursday, 12 March 2009


introduction for The Mill magazine

Edinburgh-based music and arts collective FOUND have been Scotland's most curious indie band for almost three years now, deftly side-stepping easy summation because they prefer asking new questions to asserting familiar answers. Signed to Fife's Fence Collective, their experimental bent is certainly reminiscent of hallowed Fifers the Beta Band, ex-members of which they regularly collaborate with. FOUND are carrying that torch further, squeezing pop songs into the spaces between uncommon scaffold, and borrowing others' songs to remix into more intriguing shapes. Succintly self-described as "Unpredictable, noisy, melodic, daft, electronic-art-pop", FOUND are a far different proposition from Edinburgh's usual indie traditionalists, and it's that singular spirit which has earned them an invitation to this year's South-By-Southwest industry showcase in Austin, Texas. With two excellent albums (the first earning a rare 5-star review in The Skinny) and countless eye-opening, horizon-expanding shows under their belts, it's hard to imagine what oddities they could possibly come up with next; but with a seemingly endless array of weird and wonderful instruments to tease new ideas from, we don't doubt there's plenty more to follow.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

We See Lights

introduction for The Mill magazine

We've been seeing a bright future for We See Lights since their debut EP landed last May, but they've since evolved from the trio that recorded that promising little sample into a seven-piece collective dedicated to playing with your heart-strings like puppeteers. A debut album is in the can and will be available imminently, but it's live where we suspect they will continue to excel. Take lead single and band anthem "Parachute" for an example: while male and female lead vocalists regretfully trade confessions, it's the sight of all seven members chanting the "break my fall" chorus that reminds us we've all done things we're not proud of. It then becomes a communal admission of fallibility, a group hug involving everyone in the room, even if you didn't know you needed comforting when you walked in. With four songwriters contributing to their setlists, and a revolving cast of lead singers, they manage to avoid repeating themselves while still retaining a distinct group character: one of bittersweet melancholy that uses open-hearted song as therapy. Don't catch them on a down day, or you might just walk out blubbing.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Morrissey - Years of Refusal

Morrissey - Years of Refusal (***)
album review for the skinny

Are you sick of reading hagiographic reviews of icons of yore by writers who can't get over their teenage love affairs? Because I am, fed up of hearing about how Stephen Malkmus's latest effort is his best yet, as is Bruce Springsteen's and Frank Black's and Bono's and Bob Dylan's. Morrissey's cult of personality is such that he's always been given generously uncritical reviews of his solo work by still-grateful journos who, like all good canon inquirers, grew up with a healthy portion of The Smiths on every plate. Whatever Years of Refusal means as a title to Steven Morrissey himself - and Wikipedia aint giving any clues towards confirming or denying my "appeal to non-conformity" theory - let's twist it back on itself: fans and critics have refused, for years, to call out Morrissey's limited thematic range and dwindling ability to turn a pithy phrase. They've forgotten that sometimes interesting people say boring things, that not every utterance Oscar Wilde ever made was a pearl of profound wisdom or wit. There's endless streams of daily tedium in-between all the quotables, and Steven Morrissey's been paddling in those streams for years.

Let's begin at the end: Years of Refusal's most exicting moment is its climax, the end of "I'm OK By Myself", in which the guitarist hits the overdrive pedal, the drummer flicks into a rampage, and Morrissey swallows the mic and continues to holler towards crescendo. That brief transcendent point, when Morrissey's band hits the energy levels Trail Of Dead hit a dozen times a song, is the payoff for forty minutes of muscular modern rock that never really adds up to much. At least it's consistent - it's an album full of nothing but album tracks. "When Last I Spoke To Carol" stands out stylistically due to its Latin touches - its Spanish guitar and horn flourishes make a welcome change from the previous five tracks' standard template, while Morrissey's lyrics do evoke sympathy for the suicidal subject. "You Were Good In Your Time" (a title which just begs to neatly close a scathing review) also deals with fatality, with Morrissey paying tribute to an unnamed subject on his deathbed, while dialogue from a French film runs quietly underneath, emerging at the end among ominous winds and creases. And the gleeful "All You Need Is Me" is possibly aimed at snipers who "hiss and groan and constantly moan", but keep coming back for more because "you don't like me but you love me, either way you're wrong, you're gonna miss me when I'm gone". That may be aimed at a specific unnamed person, but it's more interesting if it's aimed at his media detractors. In summing up the conflicted stance of the modern Morrissey skeptic, he's suggesting a middle-ground compromise before spiking it with a cheeky claim of 'hey, but at least I'm a character!'

Sadly, this album leaves that claim floundering on the rocks of his more charismatic past, because there's few other lyrics here worthy of a second look. Lots of artists are boring as hell interview subjects - they're perfectly nice, but have nothing particular to say, and often those who do have something interesting to say have to sacrifice their nicety for it. Morrissey's never been "nice", and judging by Years of Refusal, he's no longer got much of anything to say. No-one expects musical genius from whichever guitarist has been picked to write his riffs, but is it really asking too much to expect a little personality from a Morrissey record?

Glory of Secondary Importance to Football PLC

Last week both Spurs and Aston Villa played weakened sides in the UEFA Cup and were subsequently knocked out; and Manchester United played a weakened side in the Carling Cup Final against Spurs and only won on a penalty shoot out. The message is clear - no tournament apart from the Premiership and Champions League is worth a damn to English teams, because those are the only two tournaments worth any money. Forget that Spurs or Villa winning a European trophy would be worthy of glorious celebration from their fans: it doesn't earn the club enough money to be taken seriously. It's far more important to Villa to finish 3rd instead of 4th, or 4th instead of 5th, in the Premiership, than it is to win a European trophy. It's far more important to Spurs to finish 14th instead of 15th, 16th instead of 17th, than it is to win a European trophy. Why? Because of the cash cow of the Premiership. The potential celebration of the fans means nothing. In 20 years, in 50 years, nobody will remember that Spurs achieved 14th in the Premiership in 2009, but they certainly would remember if they won the UEFA Cup in 2009. But it's only fans who care about such irrelevancies as trophies these days: clubs, managers, owners, only care about cash flow.

The English Premiership is so money-swollen that no other competition can matter to EPL clubs, bar the Champions League. Man United's Carling Cup Final appearance meant nothing to them - key players like Rooney, Berbatov, Fletcher (!) and Van Der Sar weren't even named on the bench for such an inconsequential match. If winning a Cup Final means nothing to Man United where it doesn't come with a huge financial pay-off, there's only one conclusion: football is a tangential operation to Manchester United plc.

What has happened to football? When money becomes more important than glory, the integrity of the game dies. When AC Milan care more about mid-season glamour friendlies in Dubai than they do European trophies like the UEFA Cup - because guess which one is more financially lucrative - the whole structure of the game is left in doubt. This breathtakingly ignorant article by Paul Wilson in yesterday's Observer exemplifies the problem. I could honestly tear apart every single sentence he's written there. He claims that the UEFA Cup is a total waste of time, basically because it doesn't provide as much money to competitors as the Premiership or the Champions League.

Yes, and? The aim of a game of football is not to earn money; the aim is to score more goals than the other team and to win the match. Not every club in Europe is either a) in the English Premiership or b) in the Champions League. That doesn't make those clubs or their football meaningless. Paul Wilson's stance ascribes irrelevance to any club unfortunate enough to not have access to the most moneyed competitions in the world; so fool him, this so-called football journalist, who seemingly thinks football outside the very highest level is not worthy of anyone's time. I'm sure Zenit St. Petersburg, who won the UEFA Cup last year, were incredibly proud of their on-pitch achievements; the financial rewards were, as they should be, a secondary consideration. Sadly that's no longer the case for desperate English clubs whose only aim is to remain in the Premiership.

Well, if you can spend £17m on a player like David Bentley who can't even simply put a penalty on target, it's no wonder finances are tight.

Paul Wilson's views on the matter are scandalous, and it's sad that they were even deemed publishable. Clearly it was naive to think a football journalist might actually love the game of football.