10 best albums Q1 2018

The 10 best albums of Q1 2018 in alphabetical order


Field Music – Open Here

The counter-clock world of Petter Herbertsson

anti-clock [24-44]

The first Sternpost album was a pleasant surprise, and although it set the bar for the follow-up very high, I was not prepared for this: “Anti-clock” is a true marvel.

For those of you who do not know, Sternpost is a solo project by Petter Herbertsson from experimental pop band Testbild!.

Petter himself describes the music on “Anti-clock” as a sound collage, but it could really fit into a number of genres, such as ambient, experimental, electronic, musique concrète. Or progressive rock: Although Peter cites Lindsay Cooper and Chris Cutler as inspirations, I would rather describe this as National Health filtered through Karda Estra and imagined as the soundtrack to a film about a world where humans never regained language capacity after being punished for building the tower of Babel.

But arguing about genres is pointless. What is important is the fact that this music believes in its own capacity to explore. And that is incredibly exciting.
In this age of streaming, everyone can have encyclopaedic knowledge of music, and there are simultaneous parallel revivals of all genres as a consequence. Everything has a tendency to collapse into a post-modern game of spot-the-reference. Yet, “Anti-clock” has the power to make the listener believe there is still an unknown (and, in this particular case, unspeakable) musical landscape out there.

Although presented as a continuous piece of music – divided in two only because the LP format demands it – in reality this is more like a concept album consisting of short tracks tied together by field recordings, odd sounds, voices and snippets of dialogue between a man and a woman. Unfortunately their babble (brilliantly delivered by David Yates and his daughter Mabel) is unintelligible, although we can understand the emotional content of their chatter.

The tracks themselves are mainly instrumental and the few vocals that appear are again impossible to decipher, so if there is a story unfolding here, the listener has no way of finding out.

The music is often complex in a Canterbury prog way, but can without warning become quite simple or take on a dreamy, filmic quality. I suppose the atmosphere is quite dark at times, but there is too much musical playfulness for the darkness to linger very long. Melodies are frequently gorgeous, with chord progressions typical of Petter Herbertsson.

Taken as a whole, this album is of course very experimental, but the sweet tunefulness of much of it makes for a surprisingly easy listen. And most importantly, it never gets boring.

At the time of this writing, my iTunes play count is clocking in at 97 plays. And in this era of over-abundance of music, that is huge. That is probably ten times more than I listen to other albums however much I like them. As it happens, the only album that I have played more in recent years is “Il Misantropo Felice” by the Breznev Fun Club.
In other words, judging by my own listening data, I can’t refute the fact that “Anti-clock” must be one of my favourite albums of the decade.

Sternpost: Anti-clock

Christmas pop for summer


After Christmas, all Christmas pop songs are forgotten. For a reason – they normally stink.
So how would my pick for Christmas album of the year back in 2017 sound as Easter rears its eggy head?

I am listening to it right now, and it honestly remains every bit as good as it was back when there was a dead fir blinged out with plastic balls in my living room.

I am talking about “The Winter Garden Playtest” by the Radiophonic Tuckshop, a band recently put together by Joe Kane, from Dr Cosmo’s Tape Lab, the Owsley Sunshine and other bands.

Hastily conceived and recorded – altogether over three weeks if we are to believe the lyrics – this is a concept album about Christmas (and the coming of the January sales). It is not particularly politically correct and outright stupid at times. Cliches abound. Some of the spoken parts are also seriously cringeworthy…

Nevertheless, this is pop heaven. Minus the religious part. Simple as that.

An alternative take on the concept of this album is: “Take a bunch of amazing tunes, and stick silly Christmas lyrics on them to make sure the whole thing is instantly forgotten.”

But you really should not forget this album. Heck, I’ll be just as happy playing it while dancing around the maypole this summer! I will just ignore the C-word.


Psych without the bling


“Scarlet Fever” is the title of the Green Seagulls debut album and as far as I am concerned, it is one of this year’s key releases in the crowded neo-psychedelic genre.

Formed by Paul Nelson from New Electric Ride and Paul Milne of Hidden Masters and Magnetic Mind fame, the band rush-released two mesmerising singles last year. The single tracks are all included here together with ten new cuts that are equally good. (Just as the albums of those previous bands were by the way – albums that you must seek out if you don’t already have them!)

Although “Scarlet Fever” is a record that simply oozes 1967 from every beat, chord and vocal harmony, it manages to avoid the pitfalls that most other psychedelic time travellers seem to fall in.

First of all, although vintage instruments are very much the order of the day here, the production eschews the use of pepperisms such as backwards sounds and studio trickery.
Secondly, while the lyrics very much seem to reflect the naivety of the original era, they are nevertheless thankfully lacking in the cliche department; we are spared technicolour terminology and other types of too obvious and worn-out psychedelic baggage.

But while abstaining from all the kaleidoscopic stylings, the band instead revel in a knowledge of late 60s music that is kaleidoscopic indeed.
From the Mamas & the Papas to the good old Beatles, it is all here. Just without the bling-bling.

This quieter and more measured approach is instead built on a reliance on very strong songwriting skills and an almost reductionistic baroque pop sound. In that sense they are probably more comparable to a band like Honeybus than the current crop of 60s-influenced bands.
Yet by honing in on the elemental compositional structures of the era, the Green Seagulls are actually making a kind of encyclopaedic pop that can only exist now that we can cross-reference every single chord sequence and note online in a second.

And herein lies the magic. This is music that is simultaneously locked into the past and the future. A portal that can take you anywhere.

Dreams and Canterbury from Sicily


“Della stessa sostanza dei sogni” is one of the most anticipated releases for me this year, and now it is here! This is the third album by Sicilian art rockers Homunculus Res.

They are generally seen as being the second coming of the Italian Canterbury sound, roughly taking over where Picchio dal Pozzo left off in 1980. But while it is true that they belong to this tradition, they have transcended their influences and are clearly making music for the future rather than the past.

They are still mixing components of jazz, Canterbury prog and RIO, but the pop influences of what I imagine to be cheesy middle-aged entertainers on Italian TV have grown.
Having said that, they have not abandoned their inspirations. When they suddenly and briefly sound like “In the Land of Grey and Pink” era Caravan in an instrumental section of “Se la mente mentisse” my neck hairs literally stand on end.

The songs on this album go in bewilderingly many directions. “Della stessa sostanza dei sogni” translates roughly into “Of the same substance as dreams” and just like in dreams, seemingly unrelated pieces flow naturally into each other. In fact, the juxtaposition of weird time signatures with wordy vocals in a range of voicings becomes almost hypnotic. At least if you, like me, don’t know a word of Italian.
Although two tracks have female vocals, band leader Dario D’Alessandro fools around a bit with his vocal approach on other tracks. For example, I could have sworn that the main vocalist on “Il nome di Dio” was an American, but that seems not to be the case.

Speaking of Americans, Dave Newhouse from The Muffins is contributing saxophones, clarinets and flute all over the place. You first notice his wonderfully unhinged sax part on “Faccio una pazzia” but then realise that his contributions lock in with all the other wind instruments for what is really a key part of the band sound.

Other notable guests here include Petter Herbertsson who plays many of the instruments on the lovely “Rimedi ancestrali” and Rocco Lomonaco from my other favourite Italian band Breznev Fun Club. Rocco not only provides his signature orchestration skills on “Bianco supremo” but also contributes the only composition not penned by Dario, “Preludio e distrazioni”. And that is two minutes of pure genius right there.

“Della stessa sostanza dei sogni” completes a magical trilogy where each consecutive album not only takes a step further but also makes each previous album grow in stature as a result.
This is the point where Homunculus Res becomes one of the few bands whose reputation is set to grow exponentially over time – just like Picchio dal Pozzo, The Muffins and Caravan before them.

Felt reissues and a new Go-Kart Mozart album


My experience of Lawrence has always been one about exaggerations.

Back in 1980, as I was making a fanzine together with a good friend, we decided that we wanted to publish an interview with Lawrence about the Felt debut album “Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty.” Alas, there was no Skype back then and we had already spent whatever money we had traveling to London to make interviews with other acts.

Instead, we managed to get an acquaintance of the band to make the interview and write the article for us. I remember being very unhappy when translating it into Swedish because it was just too full of superlatives. Felt were depicted as the most important thing to happen to music ever, more or less. Lawrence and guitarist Maurice Deebank were beings from another dimension.

Despite my feelings that we were losing credibility by publishing it, we went ahead in the end.

Listening to “Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty” now, I find it very much easier to live with the exaggerated superlatives. This album has aged extremely well. Not only does Lawrence’s quite British take at lazy vocals and Maurice’s lyrical and ringing guitars work as very creative conduits for their Television influences, but the cymbal-less sound seems totally contemporary also today.

The exciting tension between Maurice’s classically influenced guitar playing and Lawrence’s pretentious yet shambolic outlook remains on subsequent releases; the predominantly instrumental “The Splendour of Fear” the masterly “The Strange Idols Pattern & Other Short Stories,” and Maurice’s final album – the uneven but partly jaw-droppingly brilliant “Ignite The Seven Cannons.”

If you don’t have this stuff already, now is the time to pick the albums up as they are being reissued by Cherry Red as a box set called “A Decade In Music.”

The box also contains a renamed version of Felt’s first attempt at music without Maurice, the instrumental, and misguidedly cheesy “Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death”. Although a low point in Felt’s catalogue, interestingly, it serves as a bridge to Lawrence’s latest release with his current band the Go-Kart Mozarts, also now out on Cherry Red.

True to form, the press release accompanying “Mozart’s Mini-Mart” holds none of the hyperbole back. This time, we are told that: “This really is the most commercial set of songs Lawrence has ever released and it is definitely, absolutely the top most pop album of the year. It can’t be topped and it won’t be stopped!”

Ironically, given the fact that the band sound like they are using instruments bought in the titular mini mart, the overall sound sounds as dated now as that first Felt release without Maurice sounded then. The cheap electronic voice treatments certainly do nothing to change that impression…

But that is not necessarily to diminish the music, because what we have here is another wry and disillusioned look at modern life from the underside. The first song is called “Anagram of We Sold Apes”. What could that anagram be, you wonder? Opal Swedes? Your guess is as good as mine.

Here are songs about depression, alcoholism, trying to not further into poverty, not having sex, more poverty… Lawrence portrays his characters as ultimate losers but it doesn’t make his observations less relevant or less biting.

Not really top most pop. But when Lawrence sings about stuff that is too awkward to sing about, you can’t help but thinking that all this fake stuff is very much what reality is made of.

So, who knows? Today I don’t agree, but maybe I will look back at the exaggerations in the press release a couple of decades from now and nod my head. Could it be that Lawrence is really ahead of his time again?