Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Rediscovering The Zephyrs

Many years ago - I reckon it must have been sometime in 2006 - I purchased Rock Action Presents Vol. 1,  a compilation featuring artists signed to Mogwai's Rock Action label.

That CD introduced me to a lot of great bands, including Kling Klang, Part Chimp and Papa M. For some reason, though, I never bothered to investigate any of them any further - as much as I enjoyed listening to Radium and B1 and I of Mine, I must confess that my fondness for those tracks never motivated me to go out and buy the albums from whence they had been torn.

One of my favourite tracks from Rock Action Presents was Stargazer by a band called The Zephyrs. Stargazer was a gorgeous, blissed-out track about lying on the ground and watching the night sky; it's not exactly what you'd expect from a label called 'Rock Action', but a lot of the time, neither are Mogwai themselves. Listen to Stargazer below:

Nice, isn't it? A bit folksier and more earthy-sounding than Mogwai, but beautiful and ethereal nonetheless. Still, as much as I loved that song, I'm afraid The Zephyrs suffered exactly the same fate as Papa M and Part Chimp and the others: I played their contribution to Rock Action Presents again and again and again, but I never did get around to listening to any of their other stuff...

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Backchat: Mathias Kom on The Burning Hell's Back Catalogue

I love discovering great new bands, but I love it even more when those great new bands turn out to have been making music for years, giving me a whole backlog of albums to dive into. Exploring an artist's back catalogue is a thrill that can last for months if not years, and it's even better when that artist is still recording new material that's up to the same high standard as their older stuff.

Backchat is a new feature for The Album Wall. Every so often, I'll be asking an artist to walk us through their discography to date, opening up a deep pocket of ace music that you may not have ever discovered otherwise. And even if you're already familiar with the albums being discussed, I'm hoping that you'll find the artist's insights interesting nevertheless!

Today, we're looking at the back catalogue of The Burning Hell, a Canadian outfit led by verbose, beard-toting songwriter Mathias Kom.

Photo by Jonathan Briggins. Mathias is the guy on the right.

Name for a religious pamphlet that Kom was handed on the streets of Toronto, The Burning Hell have released six albums (not including EPs, singles, side projects, live albums, etc.) over the last ten years. A seventh, Public Library, is due out next month, but before we get to that, here's Mathias to take us through the story so far:

Tick Tock (2007)

Mathias Kom: I made this record ten years ago in my friend Jill Staveley's bedroom, with a whole cast of wonderful Peterborough folks, long before I ever thought that I would end up playing my songs for living human beings. It's certainly a bit lo-fi and rough around the edges, but it also contains some songs that I still think are okay, and one or two that people actually seem to like. Overall the songs on Tick Tock are simple things, and I think they retain some of that special aura that only comes with writing and recording material without ever imagining it might one day have an audience.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Requiem for the Klaxons

I revisited Myths of the Near Future by the Klaxons over the weekend. There I was, driving around town in my little black Volkswagen, drumming on my steering wheel while listening to Magick at far too high a volume. It was amazing.

Myths of the Near Future turned nine years old in January, and in hindsight, it's a pretty easy album to criticise. Many of its tracks - especially Totem on the Timeline, Atlantis to Interzone, and Isle of Her - are very simplistic in terms of musical content, with very little progression to speak of. The lyrics deploy a lot of weird imagery and arcane literary references, but none of them seem to mean anything; sure, lines like "come ride with me through ruined lipglock" and "gravity's rainbow, the axis here is still unknown" make the Klaxons sound very clever and well-read, but like the cut-up photographs on the cover, they amount to little more than a jumbled collage that bears only the slightest resemblance to anything you can relate to.

In spite of this, though, I *love* Myths of the Near Future. The gibberish lyrics and the repetitive minor-key riffs evoke a kind of doomy, apocalyptic feeling, like you're attending a rave at the end of the world and there's some crazed doomsday prophet rocking the mic. And while the Klaxons may not know how to write a symphony, they know how to deploy the tools they've got to maximum effect - just check out the drop at 1:39 in the video above (and be sure to crank up the volume when everything kicks back in!)

Friday, March 18, 2016

My Favourite Album: That's Your Fire by Aloha (Guest Post)

Today's guest is Ben Gallivan (@Benlikesmusic), who's here to tell you all about his favourite album and how he discovered it. Take it away, Ben...

It's often the case that you come across some of the best music entirely by accident. My accident took place in the Music & Video Exchange in Notting Hill in 2001. I'd been pestered by friends to go and check out the various incarnations of the store, and so - armed with around £100 - I planned a day of wandering around, digging in crates, and flicking through the CD racks.

I ended up seemingly disappointed, clutching a sole CD entitled ReDirection - a sampler from Polyvinyl Records - on the tube journey back home to Putney Bridge. After a couple of listens, however, I had parted with the remainder of the wad I'd taken out shopping via the Polyvinyl site. Albums from artists such as Rainer Maria, The Ivory Coast, and American Football were all purchased, as well as Aloha's That’s Your Fire - my favourite album of all time.

The two Aloha tracks on that sampler were a real game of two halves. A Hundred Stories was breathtaking; a crazy hybrid of pop, jazz and college rock crammed into three minutes. I'd never heard anything like it before.

Warsaw, on the other hand, was much harder work, but I took the punt and added the album to my basket regardless.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Thank You, PR People

Last week, a link materialised on my Twitter feed from a fellow (albeit far more popular) music blog called Just Music I Like. It was a link to this blog post, which featured the following statement:
"I have taken a decision to stop accepting submissions from PR's and label representatives with immediate effect and I shall be unsubscribing from every list I have found myself on."
Why? Because:
"I have a very limited time to listen to, let alone write about music for this blog (a lot my blog posts are written after midnight and during lunchtime) and I want to start to discover music organically again and not through perceived bias or constant communication through emails."
Now, upon reading this, my immediate reaction was one of empathy. I know what it is to have an inbox filled with music I don't care about from people I've never met, and again, The Album Wall's following is pretty small compared to JMIL's, so I can only imagine the levels of inundation this person has experienced.

I also understand that urge to "discover music organically again". Music is more meaningful when it's recommended by a friend, or by that hip-looking sage behind the counter at your local record shop. When you start listening to music because some PR person asked you for a write-up - when it's not fate but marketing that dictates what you'll listen to next - then being a music fan ceases to feel like an adventure. Instead, it becomes a series of assignments.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Is The Is Are

My first impressions of Is The Is Are by DIIV (or 'DIV', as my girlfriend Vicky calls them) were uncertain. There were clearly some very strong tunes in there somewhere, but the album's washy, reverb-heavy production initially made it hard for me to really enjoy those cool riffs and insistent motorik beats. I longed for a rawer, more live-sounding version of the album, with fewer guitar effects and a more rough 'n' ready mix that might allow me to hear Zachary Cole Smith's lyrics properly.

That title is rubbish, too. A nonsensical string of stopwords with an awkward glottal stop wodged uncomfortably in the middle doesn't exactly endear me to your creative vision, Mr Smith.

I was almost ready to give up on ITIA, but last night, I read the album's Wikipedia entry and it gave those 17 tracks a bit of context. DIIV, and Smith in particular, seemingly had a hell of a time whilst making this record; tour dates were cancelled due to exhaustion, sessions in San Francisco were abandoned, and Smith was arrested for possession of a controlled substance, which led to a stint in rehab. The bassist briefly found himself at the centre of a minor maelstrom after allegedly posting an assortment of bigoted messages on 4chan. Oh, and the drummer quit the band.

Friday, March 11, 2016

On Pinegrove's Album Artwork

Pinegrove are a band from New Jersey. Their debut album, Cardinal, came out about a month ago, and it seems to have gone down rather well; Pitchfork gave it an 8.0, and according to Metacritic, that's the lowest score the album has yet received.

I purchased Cardinal from Pinegrove's Bandcamp page last week, and I've found that it largely lives up to the hype. I do have one complaint, however, and that complaint concerns the atrociously bland cover design:

Granted, it has a nice, detailed texture if you look close enough, but if that's the most interesting thing about your album artwork then I'm afraid something is quite awry. The design itself - two red squares on a solid grey background - drastically undersells the music underneath the cover, which is actually interesting and nuanced, with tunes and dynamics and lots of good lyrical titbits. Cardinal's songs sound like an autumn afternoon spent scrunching through leaves and contemplating the future; Cardinal's artwork looks like it belongs to a below-average Spandau Ballet album.

If I saw Cardinal on the racks at my local HMV, I would ignore it completely. "I don't need that album," I would think; "it's probably some middling 1980s synthpop record that's just been reissued for its thirtieth anniversary. I imagine this Pinegrove outfit sound like Depeche Mode with the parts that ended up influencing Trent Reznor surgically removed."

They don't sound like Depeche Mode at all, of course. Pinegrove actually sound like Hallelujah the Hills feat. Ryan Adams, but you'd never guess that from the artwork, the brief for which was presumably thus:

"If someone gets bored of this album and donates it to a charity shop, under no circumstances should it catch the eye of anyone perusing that charity shop's CD rack."

I'm glad that I didn't buy a physical copy of Cardinal, because that cover design positively begs you to spill a mug of tea on it and I'm not sure I'd be able to ignore the urge to do so. Seriously, this LP is well worth your time, but I am utterly baffled by Pinegrove's decision to use that dishwatery dullness to represent eight actually good songs. Maybe the intersecting squares are supposed to represent the singer's connection with the Old Friends and the New Friends that bookend this album, but I'm sure he could have thought of a more appealing visual metaphor for friendship than that underwhelming travesty. It looks like it belongs on the wall of Patrick Bateman's apartment, not on the CD that contains ace music like this:

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Should Concept Albums Come With Explanations?

I was listening to All Hail West Texas by The Mountain Goats the other day when my eyes came to rest on the album's intriguing subtitle:

Leaning closer to the speakers, I tried to identify each item on that list within the lyrics of those fourteen songs. The motorcycle is obviously the one mentioned in Jenny ("900 cubic centimetres of raw, whining power"), and I guess the locked treatment facility is the one in Utah that Cyrus (one-half of The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton) gets sent to. Cyrus and his friend Jeff are two of the seven people; The Mess Inside features several references to one of the two houses.

Beyond that, though, I struggled. I fished out the inlay booklet in the hope that John Darnielle's liner notes would shed some light on the matter, but alas, the information contained therein mostly concerned itself with the recording process rather than with characters and stuff.

Monday, March 7, 2016


Later this year, Vicky and I will be attending a Low gig in Cardiff. Low are the sort of somewhat-large American indie band who, in my experience, very rarely play in Wales; maybe their record labels aren't willing to pay £6.60 for the bridge, but whatever the reason, us Cardiff folk usually have to travel to Bristol (or further) to see the best bands in action.

For this reason, the news that Low had been booked to play a show in a converted tramshed in Grangetown this August was ecstatically received by myself and other like-minded locals. I picked up a pair of tickets on Saturday, and to celebrate this fact, I thought I'd share my thoughts on C'mon, my favourite Low album and a set of songs that I sincerely hope will be represented in the band's setlist on the 2nd of August.

C'mon is the sort of album that makes more sense in the dark. Listening to it is like lying in bed at night, watching as familiar objects - the wardrobe, the doorknob, the clothes piled in the corner of the room - assume unfamiliar forms. Things start to look like things they're not; monstrous faces appear in the condensation on the window.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Do We Still Need Album Reviews?

Earlier this week, there was an article doing the rounds entitled 'Is the Album Review Dead?' The piece was a lengthy one, and the points it made were many, but the main thrust of writer Dan Ozzi's argument can be summarised thus:

Album reviews no longer serve a purpose because anyone with an internet connection can listen to any album they like and form their own opinion instead of relying on somebody else's.

Or, to quote the article itself:

"A music critic’s greatest competitor has always been a listener’s own damned ears. Why take the word of some greasy snob hiding behind a byline when your brain can tell you whether or not a song is any good? [...] With every new album available at our fingertips completely for free at the instant of its release for our own personal judgement, you've got to wonder: Do we still need the album review?"

Ozzi makes a strong case: why should you, the listener, waste your precious time reading a review? You don't need a professional critic to tell you whether or not that hot new album is any good - you can just fire up Spotify, have a listen, and find out for yourself!

As valid as that point is, though, it does seem to assume that the only reason anyone ever read reviews was to help them to make a decision. And that just isn't true; I can only speak for myself, of course, but when I read an album review, the CD being evaluated is very often one that I already own.

The best reviews search for meaning, rather than merely assessing quality.

The question of whether or not album reviews are still relevant hinges entirely on what you think a review is for. If reviews are merely the preamble you skip past when you're looking for a star rating or a mark out of ten - if you think that a reviewer's job is simply to give a thumbs-up, a thumbs-down, or a wiggly hand gesture indicating something in between - then I'd agree that you no longer need reviews. In fact, I'd argue that those type of reviews were obsolete from the very beginning, what with music being subjective and one man's favourite album being another's unlistenable garbage. A review that ends in a rating merely tells you whether or not that particular writer liked the record in question, and given the overwhelming prevalence of straight-down-the-middle three-star reviews, many don't even tell you that much.

However, I believe that reviews can still serve a purpose if we stop trying to assess the quality of the albums we review and start using those paragraphs to search for the meaning in the music. My all-time favourite album review is Drowned in Sound's take on Last of the Country Gentlemen by Josh T. Pearson (read it here). Yes, David Edwards' writing can be a little purple in places, and yes, he does conclude by assigning the album yet another meaningless rating. But the points he makes in that review really changed my perception of the LP, and even enhanced my enjoyment of it.

For example, part of Edwards' review focuses on the long, drawn-out codas with which Pearson apparently can't help but conclude his songs. During my first couple of listens, these overlong outros really bugged me, and the subsequent ending fatigue threatened to completely blight my experience of Country Gentlemen. But then I read this:

"On first listen, it’s tempting to find issue with the prolonged codas of certain songs, as vocals and guitars re-emerge to echo lines and motifs unexpectedly from nowhere. But they seem to exist almost as metaphors for sorrow, a musical representation of how ancient memories and regrets creep upon you when you’re least expecting it, haunting you even when you’ve convinced yourself that you’ve exorcised the ghost."

And just like that, those interminable endings started to sound good. Some may roll their eyes and mock 'pretentious' reviewers like Edwards who try to find meaning in everything, but that's the sort of thing I love doing - hence The Album Wall, I suppose - and reading Edwards' interpretation of Last of the Country Gentlemen gave me a fresh angle from which to approach the album and a new appreciation for its structure and for Pearson's idiosyncratic, ultra-miserable approach to lonesome country music. Last of the Country Gentlemen, incidentally, now numbers among my 10 favourite albums of all time.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

February Playlist: What Kind of Monster

Another month, another month-end playlist. Here's what I spent my extra-long February listening to:

1. T.I.W.Y.G. - Savages
(from Adore Life)
Don't mess with love. Or Savages, for that matter. Click here to read my review of their new album, Adore Life.