Today is the last day of July. Today is also the day the last a July album is released. And let me tell you that these guys are going out with a bang. “The Wight Album” is as sprawling as it is ambitious, and does not shy away from comparisons with its homonymic twin.
It is an album full of darkness, experimentation and attitude. It might in fact be the last great psychedelic album from the original era, as it stretches all the way back to 1968, yet simultaneously is very much of the present.
What connects back and indeed makes it feel like a true psychedelic artefact is the approach to music making, rather than the sound on the surface.
Obviously, the production is much better. Tom Newman who is one of the two remaining core members did after all go on to become one of the key Virgin Records figures, when he together with Richard Branson created the Manor Studio where Mike Oldfield’s unlikely smash hit album Tubular Bells was recorded with Tom’s able help; and he also produced several other key Virgin albums, as well as continued working with Mike Oldfield. Tom still knows his way around a studio, even at the age of 77.
But the music itself still comes across as quite ramshackle, even artless to a degree. Things do not happen in logical order, and conventions seem to be unrecognised rather than broken. Whereas many modern records that recreate analogue sounds from the 60s come across as lifeless and somewhat mechanical, here is a record that breathes and surprises at every step.
There is also at least one track on the album that actually belongs to the iconic 1968 July album era. After having finished what was originally intended to be the final version of “The Wight Album”, Tom one night had a dream in which he was singing one of Pete Cook’s original compositions called “The Game” that was never recorded back in the day. But this dream was unusually lucid in the sense that Tom could still sing the track when he woke up. He immediately called Pete – the main songwriter in July, although he was manoeuvred out of the group for the 1968 recordings – and sang it to him. Pete could not remember it but he found the title in his book of songs, confirming that he had indeed written it. Pete subsequently reconstructed the few parts that Tom had not been able to remember from his dream, and it was added to the album.
What connects “The Wight Album” to the here and now, on the other hand, is very much the perspective on life as experienced by two old men who are getting close to 80. Whereas their brilliant comeback album from 2013, “Resurrection”, aimed at stepping back into their teenage heads and write from there, the perspective this time round is much more grounded in the realities of old age.
Tom – who has been more productive as a songwriter this time than previously with 9 of the 23 songwriting credits – takes what you might call the typical old git stance and largely writes about what has gone wrong in the modern world. But he is also painfully aware of his lifespan nearing its end and offers up his regrets and goodbyes. One touching example that combines both elements is “Love’n’Love” where Tom examines the important relationships of his life and sees that he was not mature enough to keep them going, but instead always ran away.
Pete, on the other hand is bitter, and his anger is as intense as ever a teenager’s anger can be. But whereas Tom looks back on his youthful arrogance with affection, Pete concludes that it was all just hot air that led to nothing. He sees himself as an underachiever and a failure. He never managed to become a rockstar although that was all he ever wanted from life; he didn’t even manage to be on his group’s iconic album and didn’t even get credit for his songs that were on it.
His self-loathing is most visible on tracks like “Special Guy” but in fact underpins most of his writing; it can take ironic turns as on “Truth” where the main character realises that there is an afterlife after all and he is an even bigger failure than even he had imagined because his utter disrespect for such things in this life will doom him in the next.
The album title reflects the fact that it was recorded in Tom’s studio on the Isle of Wight, but is also an obvious homage to the Beatles. Just like their so-called “White Album”, it is a sprawling double set, and also contains a collage intended to play a similar role as “Revolution 9”. Although everything pales in that comparison, it does point to the level of ambition on display here, and the dream of creating something of lasting value at the end of their careers.
Available both on double vinyl, and as part of a CD box set titled “The Complete Recordings” – I suppose to hammer home the point that July is seeing their last summer – I urge you to give it a chance. This is psychedelia from the original era, yet original, vital and new.
When Homunculus Res release the best album of 2020 so far, “In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni”, I can only lament that I speak no Italian. Because as fascinating and utterly enjoyable as this album is on musical merits alone, I realise that I am missing out on half the fun as the lyrical content is as complex and full of allusions, illusions and humour as that of the music.
So forgive me – if you speak the language and understand better – for my misunderstandings and misconceptions in the following, but it seems that whereas the first trio of albums where dedicated to the elemental forces earth (as in dirt), water and air in that order, the basic components of the homunculus have now been covered and it can now rise and burn itself in consuming flames – or should that be the flames of consumption?
In any case, the title this time round translates into something like “We go around at night and consume ourselves in the fire” which in Italian is a palindrome (try it out!) of unknown medieval origin that also happens to be the title of a 1978 film by Marxist philosopher and filmmaker Guy Debord. Although I am sure there are many subtleties and nuances I will never grasp, suffer to say that the title points the finger to the inevitable self-destructiveness of our current consumerist way of life.
And forgive me also if I am equally naive in my interpretation of the musical wonders contained on this record, but I just received this CD in the post today from btf.it and I have listened to it constantly on repeat until it has induced a hallucinatory state from which I no longer know how to escape.
It is my impression that compared to earlier albums, previous comparisons to the crown jewel from the Canterbury scene, Hatfield & the North, are both less and more relevant .
Whereas the sweet pop melodies are as much to the fore as ever, they are no longer separated by airy interludes as much as embedded in a more compact format with the drums sometimes marking every beat in the meter. This in no way distracts from the characteristic playfulness but rather creates the basis of a denser and more original sound that is less indebted to the Hatfields while simultaneously keeping the same spirit of unabridged creative joy alive.
However, remaining as complex as ever, it is not an easy album for the listener to approach. Again, as a non-Italian speaker, you initially find little to navigate with, but at least there are a few pegs to hold on to, such as the High Llamas sounding ending section of Buco Nero, arranged and partly played by Petter Herbertsson (from Swedish art pop institutions Testbild! and Sternpost).
You may also recognise Emanuele Sterbini (from the equally art pop oriented Italian band Sterbus) guesting on vocals on “La Spia.” But relief is only temporary as you realise he is not using English like he does on his own albums.
Hence, you grasp after the final seconds of “La Luccicanza” that resolve into “Hey Jude” and let you know that this music is indeed part of what you refer to as popular, although it clearly no longer isn’t.
But from there on, you, like me, are lost among the dense and flaming sounds. Yet strangely, on a third, fourth, or possibly fifth listening, you feel the astonishing sensation of being buoyed along on the current rather than drowning in it. You start going with the flow, it no longer scares and disturbs. Minutes later your body begins moving to the jerky rhythms almost by itself as if it where a homunculus controlled by outside forces. And while still not understanding what is happening to your mind, if you are losing your humanity or in fact gaining it, you are realising that music is an elemental force in its own right; music is the very ether that surrounds you.
I am not sure why I put myself through this pain every quarter. Selecting favourite albums inevitably means taking away several albums that are really great. This quarter that includes releases by Sparks, the Magnetic Fields, Iris Viljanen, Tim Burgess, Bananagun, OHMME and Robert Sotelo just to mention a few.
Still, it forces me to pick the albums that really matter the most, although I am sure that you, dear reader, would make other choices. Music taste is personal!
Aksak Maboul – Figures
With their feet firmly placed in the Canterbury origins of RIO and their heads in a cloud of Stereolab albums, Aksak Maboul have delivered quite a masterpiece.
Although I initially struggled with the rhythmically monotonous parts and skipped to the more National Health sounding passages, repeated listenings have made me capitulate and reconsider. There can be variation also in repetition. That idea also works quite amazingly for the vocal parts of this album. Whereas Marc Hollander and his wife Véronique Vincent pay tribute to Francophone 1960s pop, they simultaneously turn it upside down. The track ‘Dramuscule’ features a dialogue between a dominant man and a submissive woman while simultaneously exposing the absurd misogyny on display.
Véronique Vincent was not an original member of the band, but she certainly takes centre stage here, and the album is all the better for it.
Betlehem Casuals – The Tragedy of Street Dog
Bethlehem Casuals feature seven members, and they certainly make a racket on their second album. While definitely a pop album, it is eccentric, full of twists and turns, and with a sound that throws everything from the past 50 years into the sonic mixer.
But somehow, it all comes out in a quite tuneful way, and doesn’t sound contrived at all. Some tracks are progressive and funky, with a driving saxophone theme; others are smooth and melodic with restive violins and beautiful voices.
Saying that this is the future of pop is an overstatement, but the Betlehem Casuals certainly prove that pop has a future!
Doomshakalaka – Doomshakalaka
Don’t buy this thinking that you will finally get another Hot Club de Paris album. Now in his 30s, Paul Rafferty has moved on from the life affirming racket of his XTC math rock days and embraced a less quirky and somewhat more anthemic indie-rock world view.
And rather than looking forward, he his now looking backward at his lost youth and revisiting important moments and memories.
This about-face is also reflected in the band name. The expression boomshakalaka is used in baseball for a slam dunk and more generally to express something powerful and joyous. But it probably originates from a nonsense word passage in the 1969 Sly and the Family Stone song ‘I Want to Take You Higher’.
Since Rafferty is no longer on a joy trip, he simply switched the boom for a bit of doom.
As a result, this is an album that doesn’t reach out. But with repeated listens, the tunes grow on you and you start noticing all the devilishly nice details. Quite a lovely thing.
Massimo Giuntoli – Tender Buttons
Massimo Giuntoli often combines classical and popular music in a way that remains accessible while clearly being avant-garde. On his latest album, he has set poems from American Paris expatriate Gertrude Stein’s 1914 collection ‘Tender Buttons’ to music. Or maybe I should say: to piano. There is really not much else here than a rather harsh sounding piano (although there are a few other keyboard sounds) and Massimo’s voice, sometimes in splendid solitude; sometimes in dialogue with itself.
As I listen my head fills with modernistic images from silent movies. The melodies are quite varied and capture the strange juxtapositions in Stein’s words to great effect.
I believe Massimo would prefer to be compared to Robert Wyatt, but as far as I am concerned this is more akin to what Peter Hammill might experiment with.
Magic Bus – The Earth Years
Even the first few drum beats of the brilliant new Magic Bus album ‘The Earth Years’ capture the hard-to-define propulsive lightness of touch that so very much defines ‘In the Land of Grey and Pink’ era Caravan. Although that inspirational connection remains very much alive throughout the album, the music certainly isn’t just all Canterbury flavoured; another obvious spiritual companion from that era is Mighty Baby.
The songwriting quality is consistently high throughout, but the standout for me is nevertheless the fourth track; titled ‘The Road to La Mezquita’, it seemingly describes an imaginary journey to the great mosque-cathedral of Cordoba in Spain. The track resonates very much with our current state of isolation and inspires me to participate in my mind; a true head trip for the year 2020.
Once and Future Band – Deleted Scenes
The Once and Future Band are from Oakland and you can somehow hear that. Close to the West Coast but less frivolous and harder working. Their second album continues on the path that the first staked out, and we are still very much in a 1970s world where Paul McCartney sets the rules and Steely Dan pulls the punches.
Although the sound is rather maximalist, there is a genuine attention to detail that just puts a big smile on my face, although listening to the dramatic vocals almost can feel like a guilty pleasure at times. Thankfully, they have thrown in a few less enticing instrumentals so that I can catch my breath.
OTEME – Un Saluto alle Nuvole
Although I absolutely love their first two albums, OTEMEs 2018 release ‘Il Corpo nel Sogno’ for some reason slipped under my radar. That is something I will have to remedy, as their new album ‘Un Saluto alle Nuvole’ is absolutely gorgeous. It would be too easy to just slot OTEME into the Canterbury genre; instead, I think they are inspired by a similarly broad musical history as the original Canterbury bands were.
Since I don’t speak Italian, I am afraid the impact of the words are lost on me, but they are first person accounts by those who care for the terminally ill at the Hospice of San Cataldo in Lucca.
As always a fairly large cast of musicians participate on the album, but I am nevertheless a bit surprised to find Tuxedomoon’s Blaine L Reininger on violin.
Revolutionary Army of The Infant Jesus – Songs Of Yearning
If there is one thing my dear departed father told me was how to be an atheist. But what he didn’t manage to teach me was to listen to religious music, which he loved. It wasn’t until I discovered the Revolutionary Army of The Infant Jesus that I understood how to do that. ‘Songs of Yearning’ certainly is their most consistent and haunting album since their reformation and release of ‘Beauty Will Save The World’ in 2015, after having been in hibernation since 1987.
The new album has a gorgeous pan-European feel despite being British. Songs are sung in multiple languages and there is a strong sense of centuries deep cultural grounding. Don’t miss the companion album ‘Nocturnes’ either!
Kavus Torabi – Hip To The Jag
Knifeworld and Gong band leader, member of a handful of other bands, record label owner and now also solo artist. Kavus certainly keeps busy. But luckily, it is all done with inspiration and attention to detail. If you, like me are a sucker for his signature songwriting style, you will get it in its purest form here.
And just like on the latest Gong album ‘The Universe Also Collapses’ Kavus is on a journey that is as spiritual as it is lysergic. On ‘Hip To The Jag’ the lyrics become more personal as he tries to reconcile life with death and searches for mystic revelation.
The album ends with an over 9 minutes long drone where the music seemingly aims for a universal resonance point, like an interstellar standing wave.
A strange and beautiful album.
Zopp – Zopp
If you love Canterbury music like I do, then you will immediately warm to the self-titled Zopp debut album, which not only includes contributions from people like Theo Travis but also unashamedly states its Kentish intent from the get-go.
Did I say I am Swedish? Hope I won’t spoil it all by saying that the first track, ‘Swedish Love’, is a well-chosen opener. It is pretty smart to start with such a short and whimsical thing that lures me in – and then to pull my ears further in with the longer and more complex ‘Before The Light’.
Zopp’s debut ticks the right boxes in the right way. While sounding very familiar, it remains in control of its own destiny and stands tall with its own compositions.
Best mini album of Q2 2020
Modern Nature – Annual
Almost a year after their brilliant debut LP, Modern Nature are back with a follow-up mini album. The silence has grown even further and reminds even more of ‘Laughing Stock’ era Talk Talk. However, the music here is less dramatic and more free-flowing, focused on capturing an atmosphere of annual recurrence.
The instruments include cello and saxophone; they are beautifully recorded and given space to breath in their analogue splendour. Jack Cooper’s voice is an ever present companion, whispering softly in your ear. On ‘Harvest’ Kayla Cohen of Itasca takes over lead vocals, but the softness remains the same.
Finally, on ‘Wynter’ we are back to the theme from the opening track, making the stillness and lack of motion complete. Breathtaking.
Best single of Q2 2020
Dullards – Unlucky 4 U / Grand Pier
Those (few) of you who are following my posts know that I have turned into quite a Roger Heathers fan. Well here he is back again in a new constellation as one half of the Dullards, an “experimental melodic glam rock power pop band” according to their Bandcamp page.
‘Unlucky 4 U’ is a 50s pop pastiche mixed up with bits and pieces of power chords. Worthy of Roy Wood, it also features vocals that sound as if they have been recorded in a room on top of a helium factory.
‘Grand Pier’ on the other hand is a sweet ditty that hops and skips along on a summery melody while being contrasted by a panicky lyric.