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.