Wally play with their hands tied

WALLY

I remember hearing the first track of Wally’s eponymous debut album from 1974 in the downstairs DiskUnion prog store in Tokyo and thinking it sounded surprisingly soft and a bit poppy, not totally unlike Fruupp. So of course I had to have it.

I also remember my disappointment when playing the whole thing back home and discovering the American country twang on some of the tracks. I suppose that both progressive rock and country have its fair share of detractors; given that I count myself in the second group, this is the point where I wished I had put the album back in the (bargain) bin. But at some later point in time, I started thinking that the damage done by that twang thang wasn’t as great as I had initially thought.

Although second track ‘I Wanna Be A Cowboy’ is obviously set in rural America, sound-wise it doesn’t really go down those muddy trails. Lyrically, it also conveys much more of a West Coast hippie dream about the cowboy lifestyle than anything realistically Wild West. Whatever that may be…

However, once you think the danger has passed and you are enjoying the third track, sounding much more like a bitter British ballad for another rainy day on the dole, suddenly a slide guitar raises its ugly head; not only that, it does so with the ridiculous vocal line “All I need’s a steel guitar / to keep me company”. And that unbearable combo is repeated not once, but twice. It really does ruin a perfectly good song.

There are also a couple of fiddly jig breaks in the next song ‘’Sunday Walking Lady’, but they are in fact quite nice, and could just as well be Irish as far as I am concerned. And hey – that’s it.

To be fair, there is steel guitar all over both of these albums – but apart from the above episode and one of the hitherto un-compiled B-sides, it is all commendably un-twangy and not Americana cheesy. Heck, as far as I know, steel guitars come from Hawaii and shouldn’t be confused with cow herders anyway!  And while there is an obvious influence from West Coast music and American FM rock of the day, all of that is wrapped in Yorkshire understatement and as an effect become something rather different. Quite interesting, to be honest.

You obviously still have to stomach the band name, which of course has nothing to do with that 2008 Pixar/Disney film. That one’s spelled Wall-E. Instead, the name is allegedly related to the band’s original guitarist being really fond of gherkins (or wallies in cockney dialect).

What stands out on both ‘Wally’ and the 1975 follow-up ‘Valley Gardens’ is that there is lots of space in the music. The playing is is strictly restrained and there is a glossy sheen to the production. While that has led many to compare to Pink Floyd, I disagree. Instead, one of the defining instruments here is an electronically treated violin that sounds a bit like Eddie Jobson even before he had fully adopted that style. Vocals are also much more high pitched and there are often soft background choruses.

The focus on giving the sounds space and letting them breathe is partcularly pronounced on 1975 follow-up ‘Valley Gardens’. That is particularly the case on side-long opus ‘The Reason Why’ where it feels like Wally towards the latter half are playing with their hands tied to their chairs. Now that’s restraint for you. Constraint, even. And it does sound like little else from 1975.

If you like me love not only Fruupp but also underdog 70s prog bands like Druid, Cressida, Kestrel, Beckett and so on, then you need to know that Esoteric Recordings are now releasing both these albums newly remastered with single B-sides that until now have been unavailable on CD as “Martyrs and Cowboys – The Atlantic Recordings 1974-1975”.

A release you should seriously consider!

Diagonal go Arc

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After the release of Diagonal’s self-titled album in 2008, a quite good record although it leaned heavily on prog and hard rock from the 1970s, Alex Crispin  pursued something more akin to art rock in Baron. Diagonal went on to make one more album without Alex (and without bass player Dan Pomlett), ‘The Second Mechanism’, before going into hibernation.

Now, seven years later, the Alex and Dan are back and Diagonal have released the excellent ‘Arc’. In fact, it is their best record ever in any constellation including Baron.

And before we let Baron off the radar, this album more than anything picks up where that group left of with ’Torpor’. Furthermore, it does so by honing in on the ambition to combine the seemingly incompatible elements of Van der Graaf Generator and Talk Talk. And in their best moments, on ‘Arc’ they manage to create  a strange but beautiful geometry out of it.

To that, Diagonal add a newfound funky yet deadpan pop touch, most prominently on opener ’9-Green’.

Simultaneously they have scaled back on the less interesting post-rock influences that Baron had, while cleaning up on the distortion and opening up the sound to be wider.

One instrument that adds a of texture is Nicholas Whittaker’s saxophone, and I particularly like how he allows interplay with the various organ sounds to conjure up a quite 70s atmosphere; something that in turn is allowed to contrast wonderfully with some of the more Talk Talk influenced moods.

Although the album works nicely as a whole and I honestly have had it on repeat since it was released, I would easily pick ‘Citadel’ as the highlight. Granted, it is probably the most traditionally proggy track here, but I just love every aspect of it; from the stark vocals in the beginning, to the superb 60s sounding organs in the middle and the sax that gradually takes over towards the end.

Then, when you start wondering if the Talk Talk influences were nothing more than fictions of you aural imagination, the music comes to a long halt on penultimate track ‘The Vital’ and the rockier energy that was in the air is replaced by something much more ethereal and fragile. I am not sure what the title actually refers to, but as a statement that Diagonal is reaching beyond most other bands in the current prog revival, it certainly states its intention as clear as could be.

And although the album is available on most streaming services as well as being distributed physically by Svart Records in Finland (yes that may sound odd, but Svart also released ‘Torpor’ back in 2015), this really is an album you must buy on Bandcamp.

I am not saying that because Bandcamp is the best music distribution platform on the planet – which I do think it is – but because you will get a full-blown 24 bit 96 kHz audiophile grade download thrown in for free. Or, you can just get that audiophile download for only £3. Heck, that is what they charge for the cup of burnt coffee on the Stockholm-bound train I am sitting on while typing this! Avoid that coffee and get the album download instead!

The Cold Spells sum up the holes

Cold Spells Interstitial

Let’s be honest, the sophomore album ‘Interstitial’ from Tim Ward and Michael Farmer aka The Cold Spells is easy to pass by. It is a restrained and autumnal affair, only occasionally dipping its toes into passages that bother the VU meters. In that, it is no different from last year’s cryptically titled debut album ‘- . . . . . / – . – . – – – . – . . – . . / . . . . – – . . . – . . . – . . . . .’.

But compared to that debut, the sound is more polished and the interplay between electronic and acoustic elements more to the fore. Although it might be a simple thing, the combination of synths and acoustic guitar on ‘Landscapes’ works incredibly well. 

Although the album was recorded in only two days, you certainly get the feeling that the post production phase in which synths and noises were added got much more love this time round. Whereas the debut album had more of a divison between the music and the background amendments, the sound here is more integrated and arranged.

Generally, that works to the band’s advantage, although I can sometimes miss some of the slightly rougher edges and more overtly psychedelic leanings. Instead, the storytelling folky elements from something like ‘Thomswood Hill’ on the debut are more indicative of where the new album is going; the deal-with-the-devil track ‘For All Us Sorry Travellers’ might be a standout example.

Hence, the more existentially oriented ‘It Is Time’ was exiled to the back of their recent single, as thematically it might harken back more to the debut. Nevertheless, it is a lovely, flowing piece of music that you shouldn’t miss.

However, this is not a competition and I have to say I love both Cold Spells albums equally much at this point. Their brand of contemplative psych-folk pop is difficult not to like. Melodies take their time to stick in your mind and the clock ticks only slowly, but bit by bit, you disappear into a parallell universe that while not containing any of the hauntological components on something like a Ghost Box Records release, still seems uniquely British yet impossible to pinpoint in place or time. The conjured-up landscape is the sum of the holes rather than the whole; located somewhere between the now and the then and the here and the there. In short, an interstitial place.

The promotion material mentions a range of artists from Robert Wyatt, via Brian Eno to Cluster. There is definitely a bit of wyattesque melancholia and intimacy at play here. The krautrock reference, on the other hand, applies nicely to the instrumental titular track, but with the twist that the monotony is driven by a jazzy acoustic guitar. Fab!

If you are an anglophile post-punk pop lover with a soft spot for the forlorn and experimentally pastoral, then this album is definitely just as much for you as it is for me. Kudos to Gare du North Records for continuing their quest to release quirky and interesting albums. ‘Interstitial’ is certainly another highlight in their fearlessly varied catalogue.

Fruupp and the petty story of pretty prog

fruup wise as wisdom

Both rock and pop come in various states of rigidity.. 

Most obviously, there is hard rock of course – it can also be heavy or full-on metal. But there is also soft rock as its polar opposite.

The pop world has a similar toughness grading. Power pop on the one hand, and soft pop on the other.

However, when it comes to prog there isn’t much talk about anything being soft. Progarchives.com, for example, lists heavy prog, progressive metal and tech/extreme prog metal as different official sub-genres, but makes no mention of anything even remotely related to soft, delicate, balmy, gentle, mild or even light. Nada. Nichts.

Which is a shame because it is certainly as difficult to make good music that could be described using such adjectives rather than just stoking the fire, as it were. Going rough is just taking the “gentle” out of the man, how hard can that really be?

You might say that Canterbury is a soft prog genre and while that could sometimes be applied to bands like Caravan or Hatfield & the North, the genre contains a lot of stuff that isn’t soft as well. Not least by the Soft Machine…

Enter Fruupp; delicately and without much fanfare. With harpsichords rather than distorted organs; and whispers not screams. That is not to say there are no organs or screams on Fruupp’s albums; there are plenty, we are just inverting the power scale here.

And while on the topic of instruments, Fruupp is unusually a prog rock band conceived by a guitarist, namely Irishman Vincent McCusker. Just don’t expect any solos. Or power chords. For what Vince doesn’t do, he is really is a guitar hero.

Fruupp’s debut album ‘Future Legends’ is the only of their four efforts that gets a four star rating on Progarchives, the others all get a meagre three stars.

To me, that is a bit like giving ‘Trespass’ by Genesis a higher rating than their subsequent albums. But even though Fruupp’s debut is of high standard, reviewers fail to appreciate that the band then progressed beyond the conventional prog-rock fold, and, in many ways, left comparisons behind.

While second album ‘Seven Secrets’ is good yet somewhat transitional, Fruupp find their true voice on ‘The Prince of Heaven’s Eyes’. While you get what by now is almost a signature dial-in of the music, opener ‘It’s All Up Now’ makes it quite clear that Fruupp are no longer the slightest afraid to be cute. Not camp in any way, just plain pretty. 

Prince of Heavens Eyes

But that gives them a more colourful palette and a broader range to draw from than most other bands. The album manages to constructively build on that dynamic, and is not only my clear favourite in their catalogue but also one of the unique moments in prog. Fabulous stuff. Their final album ‘Modern Masquerades’ is almost as great, even though it is more of the same rather than another big leap forward.

Although I have all their original vinyl albums as well as the original Japanese CD reissues from 1990, the Japanese paper sleeve editions of the first three albums on Arcangelo from 2004 together with ‘Modern Masquerades’ on my own Strange Days label in 2006, and the Esoteric remasters from 2009, I still think it is great that Esoteric have now collected the albums in a box with a name taken from a track on the second album, ‘Wise As Wisdom’.

Mind you, there is nothing new on this box: no hitherto unreleased material, and the masters seem to be the same ones that were used by Esoteric last time round. Also, if you want quality replicas you still need the Japanese paper sleeves.

But Fruupp are a band that deserves every reissue they get!

The pop listener’s fear of the pollen count

Now that abnormal weather is the new normal, it feels like it has been a loooong sneezy season. I have been doing little more than popping antihistamins and hitting the beach; with summery pop music in my ears most of the time, of course!

The eagerly anticipated Francis Lung album ‘A Dream is U’ was released in the beginning of August and it is different both to the more experimental indie rock stuff he did as a member of Wu Lyf and the laid back home recorded pop of his two more recent EP’s ‘Vol I (Faeher’s Son)’ and ‘Vol II (Mother’s Son)’. However, the difference to the EPs is more in production than necessarily in songwriting. The sound here is layered and incredibly lush. The music is quite introvert and deal with, among other things, very contemporary identity problems. It all feels both intimate and unhurried. The effect is that of a bedroom recording done in a big studio, which gives the album a unique touch. The songs are great too, and show a strong Beach Boys influence.

Speaking of the Beach Boys, it is impossible not to hear their influence also on Roger Heathers on his latest album, ‘Next Week In Münster’, although there is also a lot of other stuff going on here. In fact, the standout feature of this album is exactly that over-the-topiness; songs stop and start and are full of instruments and ideas in a mid 70s way that make you feel rather overwhelmed the first time around. But I love this type of energetic and intelligent pop a lot and have been playing this album to death. Amazingly, it is only about 25 minutes long but you really have to double check that timing when you’ve listened because there is so incredibly much on offer here.

Speaking of much to offer in a small package, it is impossible to not mention the new EP by The Martial Arts, ‘I Used To Be’. The music here also shows its mid 70s influences but has a much more commercial sheen, more Elton John than Cockney Rebel if you get my point. And spice that with an ABBA influence or two. But that certainly does not mean lightweight as the songs on this EP are complex and grow with every listen. Although The Martial Arts sounds like a band (which I believe they were at the time of their sole 2006 LP, ‘Your Sinclair’), but this is the work of a single person, Paul Kelly, who has played with several other great Scottish acts such as How To Swim and The Radiophonic Tuckshop.

Check out the video below where Paul plays all the parts, and then make sure to get a copy of the EP, it is incredibly worthwhile. Unfortunately the EP is not on The Martial Arts Bandcamp site (but the album is, just a few copies left!!) but you can get it directly from the label, Last Night From Glasgow.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FfpOOBqBN8

Another small package is of course John Myrtle’s debut EP simply called ‘Here’s John Myrtle’. Although Myrtle also references that musical past, it is the quintessentially English side of that past that is at the fore here. The instrumentation is also much simpler, focusing on acoustic guitars, and there are few if any production flourishes. But all of this works to great effect as the songs themselves are allowed to take the front seat and show off their considerable quality.

if there is anything that disappoints with ‘Here’s John Myrtle’ it is that there are only four new songs, as the track ‘Cyril the slug’ already appeared on the excellent ‘Two Minute Bugs’ digital single last March. I honestly had hoped for more from Mr. Myrtle by now. But what is here absolutely raises expectations for a full LP through the roof. Classy stuff!

And you can’t of course talk about classy in this context without mentioning John Howard. As opposed to the other artists introduced in this post, he was there back then and debuted with ‘Kid In A Big World’ already in 1975. Very much an archetypal pop singer/songwriter of the era, combining the pop sensibilities and vocal capabilities of someone like the already mentioned Elton John, albeit with his own signature theatrical touch, his debut went nowhere on release. Although its reputation has been growing slowly and steadily ever since, I remember picking up a vinyl copy in the early 90s and it still cost next to nothing.

Even though John Howard is over 65 years old now, he is still making music, and his latest album ‘Cut The Wire’ is as classy as they get. While also being quite sparse, there is much more instrumental variation from track to track compared to John Myrtle. It is also soon obvious that Howard knows all the tricks in the book: Although the recording budget probably was not very big, the arrangements are great, the vocals are never less than superb, and Howard certainly has the musical ideas to go along with the craftsmanship.

Overall, an album full of songs that are every bit as good as they were in the 70s from an artist who no-one might really expect more from, yet turns out to be at the top of his powers.  Not only does Howard often run circles around younger musicians, strangely, he doesn’t sound a day older than them either. A little gem.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YepVprmtz1A

These records have been on repeat in my ears as I have been anxiously keeping an eye on the pollen count. But even though the pollen season is over now, I am still playing the music. You should be too!

Grapefruit box sets tease further British 70s treasures

How many British sub-genres to rock and pop would you say came and went in the handful of years from the mid 60s to 1973? Baroque pop, heavy psych, psychedelia, psychedelic pop, underground, popsike, singer-songwriter, female vocal folk and folk-pop, just to name a few?

If you know and care about these distinctions, I would call you a certified nerd. And in that case, at least one specific 3CD clamshell box in the series of such boxes offered up by the Cherry Red sub-label Grapefruit certainly has your name on it.

Or you might be a different kind of nerd, who, just like me, simply want all of the stuff from that era because you think most of what was made there and then is most often great, but at least always interesting to hear. Like me, you then probably appreciate the talk of sub-genres as a story-telling device, but in your heart you really just want to hear all of it.

But in both of these cases, you have been served well by two decades of increasingly barrel-scraping reissues and you might already have it all. Could this be a bit of challenge even for pop archeologist David Wells who is heading up Grapefruit?

At least I am feeling the pinch as we now get a look at avant-pop and art rock on a three-CD collection titled Lullabies For Catatonics as well as an examination of progressive pop on a ditto collection called New Moon’s In The Sky. Both collections contain an incredible amount of great music, but to put it bluntly: I have all but a few tracks on these boxes already. And regardless of what kind of nerd you are, if you are in the market for this, I suspect you might have most of it too.

But here’s the thing. The few tracks I hadn’t heard before here are truly special – and they also tantalisingly point to hidden treasures yet to be unearthed.

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There are in fact only three tracks I previously didn’t have on Lullabies For Catatonics. But what they lack in numbers they certainly make up for in substance! First of all, there is As You Like It, a band that rose from the ashes of Tales Of Justine and here contribute the lovely and very tuneful ‘No More Sunshine Till May’.

This track really makes you want to hear more from them, and it turns out you might well do just that at some unspecified point in the future. More exactly, they recorded a full album 1972 at the R.G. Jones studio in Morden – from which the present track is taken. But then they recorded another full album at Chalk Farm. Incredibly, neither of the albums were ever released, due to commercially trickery and subsequent failure by their manager. Given that a track appears here, I assume that Grapefruit have obtained the rights and could release both albums rather than just tease us with a track like this! Wow!

And as if finding one full set of hen’s teeth wasn’t enough, a similarly unbelievable story unfolds with the folky yet progressive sounds on ‘The Machine Grinds On’ by Gnome Sweet Gnome. Yes, that band name might sound like a garden variety joke, but the music here certainly is for real, and imbued with exactly that playful whimsy I just can’t get enough of. Again, there is potentially lots more where that came from: We are offhandedly told that Gnome Sweet Gnome recorded “a couple of albums” that only made it to acetate stage, while the liners tease us with a sound amalgamating early 70s Genesis with Canterbury scene acts like Caravan. OK. So I would pay an arm and a leg to hear those albums, not just this one song!

In all honesty, the third previously unreleased track here, ‘Can I See You?’ by former Donovan backing-band Open Road is every bit as amazing, with its moody mellotron and soft string backing. And once again, the inclusion of the track here teases more treasures to come. Because although the first Open Road album, ‘Windy Daze’ from 1971 was indeed released and is a pretty decent album, nothing there is even half as good as this, which comes from their second, fully completed but never released second album. 

So again, wow!!

Please, please David Wells, release all these albums now that you obviously have access to them!! I am counting to at least five full albums that have not yet seen any release in any shape or form in the intervening (close to) half century. That is a sub-genre in its own right, worthy of its own box set! 

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Although the New Moon’s In The Sky box doubles the number of tracks I did not have before from three to six even though it just focuses on the year 1970, they struggle to live up fully to the by now extremely highly set expectations. But that’s not to say the sky is empty here, maybe it is more that the moon doesn’t shine as brightly as the stars on the previous box.

For starters, four of the tracks, from Bill Oddie (of the Goodies fame, no less!), Love Street, The Iron Maiden and Canticle, are from singles and as such might not point to further treasures. But, as often is the case, there’s more if you scratch the surface. And – no, it is not because the Iron Maiden here have any relation to the metal spectacle that came later. Instead, this bunch came from Essex and were actually called Bum; a name deemed too offensive and thus changed to Iron Maden for their sole single that went nowhere. A real bummer that, because it turns out they recorded a whole album that never got beyond acetate stage!

And then there is Love Street, whose cover for the Israeli release of their single here serves as cover picture for the whole box set. It turns out they as well made an unreleased 1970 LP that I would very much like to hear, although it seems to contain a fair share of cover versions.

There are only two properly hitherto unreleased tracks on New Moon’s In The Sky, and in fact both of the acts have appeared with other unreleased tracks on other Grapefruit compilation boxes , so it seems that David Wells is portioning them out across releases in order to always have something unique for the nerdiest collector. More specifically then, the Regime who appears here with ‘Mr and Mrs Franklin’ were also on Come Join My Orchestra with the lovely ‘Dear Amanda’; and Lifeblud who had ‘Waxing Of The Moon’ on Strangers In The Room now appear here with the beautiful, baroque pop sounding ‘Bridge’.

Are there even more pop nuggets from these two bands just sitting on the shelf in the Grapefruit offices, awaiting future box set releases?

How nerdy and how much of a completist are you? If you have read this far, I think you already know the answer, and will want these boxes regardless! 

But I urge you to also let Grapefruit know that you’d really want to see a box with all those unreleased albums only teased and hinted at in these two releases. In a recent interview I did on behalf of Swedish mag Mono (in Swedish only, see link below), David Wells explained the reason for his focus on box sets: “The problem is that single CDs now have the feel of a monthly music magazine giveaway. With a box as well, you have scope within to put in a massive booklet. So it is a more collector friendly format, and it gives me space to expand really on certain bands.”

Well, half a dozen hitherto unknown albums form the early 70 would certainly tick all those boxes! I promise that I will buy a copy regardless of the price of such a set and even splurge on a second copy just to support the cause!


POPARKEOLOG DAVID WELLS ÖPPNAR DÖRREN TILL EN NY VÄRLD

 

Black Midi reinvent music from a full page

blackmidi_​Schlagenheim

MIDI is an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a technical standard for digitally playing, editing and recording music. If you think about MIDI as a musical annotation for the digital age, then it is not difficult to imagine MIDI sheet music that is so full of notes that only a computer is fast enough to play them all. Picture the mechanical pianos of the past with their punch-hole rolls for notes in a digital scenario and you get the idea.

Black MIDI takes that picture at least one step further, as it is the concept of sheet music so full of notes that is not only beyond human playability, but also beyond the capacity of computers. Sheet music like that would be so full of notes that to the human eye it would look completely black, hence the  name. And given that there are black MIDI compositions using the maximum number of notes possible in the MIDI standard, around 93 trillion, I am sure any printer would in fact print that just as a black sheet anyway…

The band Black Midi are a young London quartet taking inspiration from such incredibly dense and unplayable music, and as a result the sound they make is cacophonous, manic and frequently quite hard on your ears.

Now if you think that sounds like a description of a Cardiacs record more that anything else, you might be quite right, because if I would be forced to use only a single word to describe the music on this quartet’s amazing debut album ‘Schlagenheim’ it would in fact be pronk, the term invented to describe the musical style combining punk and progressive rock invented by the Cardiacs.

But while pronk is indeed a good starting point, the Black Midi are certainly not copycats. Although they do reach firmly into King Crimson territory both when it comes to fragility and brutal power, hardcore punk when it comes to sheer speed and abandon and the Talking Heads when it comes to postmodern frustration, they stretch beyond that. More particularly, black midi add a sense of post truth disillusion that feels very much 2019 – such as for example when singer Georgie Greep, with a true sense of envy repeats the comment “what a magnificent purpose” over and over again on debut single ‘BMBMBM’ as if someone seeing any kind of meaning is beyond his imagination in the age of fake news.

As is often the case for me, I find it hard review of music that really surprises me, and certainly that is true for this record. I am totally transfixed by this record, to be quite honest, and just can’t stop playing it.

So for now, I will limit myself to saying that the sound on ‘Schlagenheim’ is incredibly fresh and invigorating. And while it is impossible anymore to say that something sounds like nothing else, this comes as close as you are likely to get at least inside of the rock music idiom, while still managing to deliver beautiful melodies and poetic moments. 

It is as if by filling the sheet with so many notes that it becomes totally black, has in fact made it blank. The page that is truly full has enabled these young musicians to start with new musical ideas, from scratch again.

A truly unique album that you need to hear.