Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Subways - Money and Celebrity Preview

One thing that the UK can still be proud of is our ability to turn out a hard-rockin' power trio or two. From Ireland, we have Ash, Wales has Feeder, Scotland has Biffy Clyro, and England? Take your pick from any down the years of The Jam, Muse, Reuben, or The Subways, a humble trio who have managed to scoot under the radar for most of their career, despite being signed to one of the biggest (and most hateful) record labels in the world. Maybe it's just not cool to be in a rock 'n' roll band these days. They're also rather nice guys, and not the type you can picture them turning up unconscious in a puddle of vomit and cocaine. So that pretty much guarantees they'll never top the NME Cool List. Nevermind, say they, we've got a party going on over at our place, wanna come down? Well since you asked, yeah, why not?

This is largely the central theme behind the Welwyn Garden City boys (and girl)'s upcoming third record, Money and Celebrity. Yeah, that innovative and not-at-all clichéd topic for a rock 'n' roll album. Unoriginal though it may be, I've never critiscised bands who just want to get people (slam) dancing and having fun with no further ambitions. After all, they got all the heavy emotional stuff out of the way on their last album, All Or Nothing, where the lyrics dealt with the tough breakup of frontman Billy Lunn and bassist Charlotte Cooper. Despite this difficult birth, it was a punchy and powerful record, and rocked hard when it wanted to. So the trio have a fair bit to live up to, although it's obvious quickly that this will not be All Or Nothing Part 2. In one respect that's a shame, as there were patches where Lunn was showing signs that he can pen a strong rhyming couplet or two. Now though, on the evidence of the new tracks that are available to listen to he's lapsed into lazy, hackneyed lines about having fun, having a good time and...well, you get the idea. They attempt a bit of social commentary on 'Celebrity', but even then it's riddled in cliché, and worse than that, the lyric sheet bears a suspicious resemblance to the Queen & Paul Rogers song of the same name from a couple of years ago. Stealing clichés from other bands? I'll have to ask you to step outside, Mr Lunn, I'll be speaking to you after class about this.

But as I said earlier, it's hard to be churlish when a band are having the time of their lives and are openly inviting everyone to join them, and any deficiencies in the lyrics are instantly masked by some excellent trademark riffs and guitar hooks. Lunn can write lyrics in about the same way as I can do complex algebra, but he has an undeniable ear for a hook, and with Cooper and his drumming brother Josh Morgan alongside him as sidekicks in the mischief, fun and great tunes are guaranteed. The free-download lead single 'It's A Party' is outrageously catchy, with it's sinewy lead riff and gratuitous usage of cowbell in the verses. The same goes for 'We Don't Need Money To Have A Good Time', which sounds like a hyperactive cousin to 'Turnaround' from the last record. Both tracks, as well as 'Celebrity', come packed with powerchords and bouncing gang vocals from Lunn and Cooper, and if this is how the record will sound as a whole, I cannot wait for early September to come around. As for any of you reading this who haven't really kept up with The Subways in recent years, now seems like an excellent time to get aquainted - they may never achieve million-selling, stadium-filling stardom, but they remain one of the UK's best-kept secrets, and Money and Celebrity looks all set to continue that in some style.

Lead-off single 'It's A Party', which you can download from their website here.

'We Don't Need Money To Have A Good Time' Live at the Hurricane Festival 2011, complete with a German version of the chorus for the home crowd. Nice touch.

'Celebrity' Live at the Hurricane Festival.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London's Burning With Boredom Now?

It's not often that my overly verbose and rambling mind is lost for words, but as I type I'm genuinely struggling to put words onto the computer screen in any sense of logic or order. Over the last few days, the capital city I love, and live on the outskirts of, has descended into the kind of near-future post-apocalyptic carnage that we're used to chuckling about in films. Ever seen Mad Max? Or The Warriors? Or Assault on Precinct 13? Escape from New York? We thought the mob-ridden utopias in those films were spooky, but never could we have envisaged, or wanted to envisage, that it'd be playing out live for us on the streets outside our houses, in what's supposed to be a civilised country. For the first time in perhaps my whole life, I was scared of what would happen outside. Fortunately, the roaming gangs of incomprehensibly thick primates gave up around Bromley and Orpington, and went home for the night, heading no further out of the capital than that. Say what you like about humble Swanley - and I've often said some rather mean stuff about it - but one thing it doesn't have is roving gangs of youths utterly disconnected from society. Thankfully. But the same cannot be said of many friends of mine in Erith, Croydon, Lewisham, Enfield, Camden and other parts of London that descended into mob rule for several shocking hours.

Twitter was alive with terror, panic and rumour. I have plenty of friends from the punk scene and further afield, including members of the very bands I go and see and you read about on here and see for yourself, caught up in the troubles. Looking out of their windows and seeing buses and shops on fire, mobs of proto-humans chanting and running off with swag. Videos have emerged of a boy taking cover with facial injuries before getting robbed by a group of thugs. We saw pathetically under-manned pockets of police try vainly to stand around looking tough, whilst the lunatics gleefully took over the asylum. A Sky reporter who dared to question their behaviour was attacked, and managed to escape. Parts of London are basically being declared no-go zones, and normally peaceful people are now advocating (rightly I'd say) curfews and military presence on the streets to stop the creatures of the night returning once again. And literally as I type, I'm hearing news that a man has died in hospital after being shot by rioters. All of these images, and the threats of more destruction edging ever closer to my neighbourhood, sicken me to my stomach. What we're seeing is the horrifying realisation that these scumbag kids have worked out that if they bandy together, they can literally do whatever the fuck they like.

As inevitable as the fucking tides comes the earnest hand-wringing from those on TV who claim to know better than us. We've got politicians (mainly everyone's favourite ex-mayor Ken Livingstone) using it as an opportunity to score points from the opposition parties and turn it into a party political issue, we've got the odious types at the BBC asking whether this was a 'cry of rage' as a result of 'Tory cuts' (it was neither), and we have several people trying to blame unemployment, lack of prospects and other such right-on topics to moan about. Let's get one thing clear before we go on - this was no protest. It's beginning to really piss me off for people to keep suggesting this was some sort of uprising from oppressed youth to fight for their future; bringing down the man, one burnt-out bus and trashed Nando's at a time. Don't believe the hype, folks. We can romanticise until the cows come home and find their farm has been burnt to the ground, but there is nothing fucking romantic or poetic about this. Nothing at all.

I don't pretend to have the answers, but at best, my two-cent summation of it all would be that these stains on the copybook of humanity are the product of a splintered society, with no unity or respect for their fellow person. Love thy neighbour? Burn down his shop and nab some of his tellys, more fuckin' like. And the divides between communities and people just deepen. No wonder racist feeling is so high, with paranoia and misinformation being spread.

(Oh, and if you were thinking about doing a BNP and blaming this on immigrants, I advise you to hunt down a fantastic picture of Dalston being defended from thugs by groups of people - of Turkish origin. And then slapping yourself round the face several times for even considering pledging allegiance with those bastards.)

Anyway, for whatever reason (and I'll be here all week if I even try to go into explaining it all), we now have a situation where there are hundreds of kids growing up in utterly shitty circumstances, with no discipline, self-respect or knowledge of right and wrong, and feeling completely disconnected from the rest of society. When you couple that to the gradual undermining of the police force through cuts and accusations of being heavy-handed (sometimes justified, sometimes not) and successions of weak governments who have not had the courage to stand up and actually punish little shits rather than just give them a slap on the wrist and send the little ragamuffins on their way, and we arrive at this scenario. The kids have basically had their own Warriors moment: there's x amount of us, and only y amount of police...we can do what the fuck we want. Because we're 'badmanz'.

It's ironic in a way to see a lot of my buddies in the punk scene advocating heavy-handed policing and even martial law in some cases. You'd assume, wouldn't you, that us police-hating, protest-loving punkers would be relishing a chance at fighting the man via the medium of civil unrest. But we're not. Because that's just the point. This isn't a protest at all. This has nothing to do with the power of youth bringing about change. And I'll bet you any money that if you were to go up to a group of these shitstains and tell them how proud you are of them 'sticking it to the man', they'd probably laugh and mug you. Remember folks, don't try and reason with an idiot. And especially don't try and reason with an idiot who's also a lowlife, scummy, malicious, brain-dead, cunt.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

More New Blink-182 Music - And It's Good

Something I learnt today: It's quite difficult to type out a review whilst simultaneously eating a large humble pie. Yes, not for the first time, I've gone and made a bold claim which has been almost immediately made to look utterly stupid. This time it was with Blink-182 re: their future. In my review (well, more an assassination) of their comeback single Up All Night, I speculated that, if the band continued to follow the confused and tedious path they appeared to be forging, they were in danger of desecrating their back catalogue and tainting their legacy. I'd like to think that Mark Hoppus stumbled upon this humble fanzine, looked at my words with dismay and immediately demanded his bandmates go back to the drawing board, but whatever the case, the second new song leaked since their comeback is a much marked improvement.

The track is 'Hearts All Gone', and it was initially open to listen to by heading to and pressing CTRL+A together to reveal the widget that played the song. The site's down now, but there's plenty of copies doing the rounds on Youtube. Go on, give it a listen right now, I'll wait.

Good, isn't it? It wins plenty of plus points from me right out of the gate by being a fast, hard-hitting, straight-up punk tune, with pounding, dexterous drumbeats and a trademark Mark Hoppus vocal line. It's a pretty simple tune, all told, but after their previous effort's clumsy stabs at epicness and confused song structure, perhaps this back-to-basics route is the way to go. And yet, despite it's stripped-back production and stripped-down format, every part of it is light years stronger than Up All Night, mainly because it has the sound of a band with a clear focus.

Many people have said that this could easily slot into canon back in the Dude Ranch days, and that's certainly true, but the big giveaway that this is latter-day Blink is the lyrics, which are
very strong, and light years ahead of the piece of used toilet paper that constituted the lyric sheet for Up All Night. Whilst the fast drumbeats and raucous guitars of old are present here, there's a little refinement and nous present that gives away the maturity of it's creators. In fact, continuing on with the theme of comparing new Blink songs to the band member's side-projects, Hearts All Gone has the feel of a track Hoppus had written up for the next +44 album, just with a harder edge and no electronic elements in the mix. So what with '...Night' sounding all AvA, that just leaves you Mr Barker - you got any Transplants b-sides lying around? But on a serious point, this track shows a much more natural progression into this mature angle they have now, and forms a nice bridge between the dick-waving histrionics of their younger days and the more subtle, grown-up leanings of now. More importantly, however, the song also bears the hallmarks of a band walking into a studio and recording whatever happened to come into their heads, and by that I mean it doesn't sound forced or constrained by desires to be something that it isn't. Ironically, this is one of the most out-and-out 'punk' songs they've written in years, so maybe that's the key here - simply go back to where it all began, and take it from the top, but this time, as 30-something men rather than teenagers sniggering at dick jokes.

Words by Adam Johnson

Friday, 15 July 2011

Blink-182 - 'Up All Night' Single Review

It's a point so obvious that it barely needs to be made, but for the sake of this article, I'll make it anyway - nearly anybody into rock or 'alternative' music in the mid-to-late 1990s dug Blink-182. How could you not? Outrageously catchy punk-pop tunes about girls, teenage relationships, parties, drinking, dick jokes, and dog fucking. What's not to love? They turned out classic album after classic album through the late 90s - in fact, three consecutive ones from 1997 through 2001, including their greatest moment, 1999's 'Enema of the State', but things started to go wrong when they decided to stop dicking around and actually starting writing serious songs. 2003's self-titled album was supposed to be a definitive statement that they could be taken seriously, but there was just one problem - it was mostly shite. Unsurprisingly, it transpired that the band themselves were hardly happy with their efforts, and the band split under a cloud in early 2005.

That was expected to be the end of the story, but in early 2009, the band reunited to go again, and this, their first new recorded output in nearly eight years was revealed last night on KROQ. Here it is, kids - after all the bickering and public spats, this is the first new song in the glorious new era of Blink-182, and the first step on the road to their return to stardom. Exciting? You bet. Or at least it was, until everyone actually heard the new song. And then sat in silence for a few minutes, before slowly muttering 'is that it?' There's no other way of saying it.

It's just not very good.

I can already hear the clamorous buzz of the fanboys, blinded by nostalgia and the 'blink me Travis!' posters, gurgling out the standard excuses - they've grown up, they've moved on, they're not the same band as before, blah blah blahdy blah. All fair points, and I would never condone bands for doing those things, except that none of those arguments actually apply here. Because what blink-182 have done is something far more heinous than merely growing old - they're now sounding like a bad rip-off of the many bands that followed in their wake. 'Up All Night' sounds like the product of a recording session where David Geffen demanded that the band Frankenstein together elements from the last five years of pop-punk and pop-rock into a three-minute single guaranteed to get airplay and do well on iTunes. It's bad enough that they bare-facedly rip-off their own side-projects, but the fact that it all comes across as a muddled mess that Simple Plan or 30 Seconds To Mars could've probably shat out in half an hour before knocking off for lunch is even worse.

One of the biggest criticisms a band can get is that they sound like a cheap imitation of themselves, but in this case, Blink sound like a cheap imitation of a band that were merely a cheap imitation of Blink in the first place. It's odd that Blink have lost their identity so badly, because during their hiatus, the two sideprojects that spawned at least had some character to them, even if AvA sounded at times like Bono shitting a hole right through our eardrums. But they and +44 at least had their own sound and style. Blink, on the other hand, still haven't found this mature voice they've been looking for since 2003. Even back then, their attempts at maturity felt forced and confused; they've made it very clear that there won't be any more songs about teenage crushes and masturbation, but having consigned the dick jokes to history, they've struggled to move forward.

But perhaps worst of all is the fact that the band seem to know they don't have much of an identity left, and don't seem to give a shit about it. This track bares the stink of shoddy and lacklustre songwriting, as it meanders around, desperately looking for a big, epic chorus and failing to find one, before finishing, then tacking on an entirely pointless outro in one of the clumsiest attempts at creating a big finale I've ever heard. There's absolutely no spark, verve, or soul to this whatsoever, just a boring wannabe-epic drone that fails to raise a response from the listener even at the points where they throw in that lame Box Car Racer-esque riff to try and raise the energy levels. The lyrics are utterly generic and are on a par with a fifth-grader's angsty Twilight fan-fiction poem, and whilst the vocals occasionally show potential, they're fighting a loosing cause; there's just no saving this song from the dustbin of mediocrity.

Perhaps that's the most depressing aspect of all of this; part of the happy memories of Blink come because they were from a time when pop-punk wasn't about floppy fringes, faux angst and woeful attempts at epicness. Maybe we were hoping that Blink's return would lead to them showing the current crop of whining dickwads how it should be done. But instead they've fallen into line, heads bowed under the cloud of tedium that's settled over mainstream rock 'n' roll like a sweaty ballsack. And what's worrying about 'Up All Night' is that it poses the question: will the entire upcoming album be like this? Or even worse? Because if it is, Blink 182 are in danger of shitting all over their proud history and tainting the happy nostalgia many of us have for them. We were prepared to forgive them for the thoroughly boring Reading 2010 headlining set, but maybe things are starting to combine together to tell us that this whole glorious comeback wasn't such a good idea after all. Only time, and the new album, will tell.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Frank Turner - England Keep My Bones

Frank Turner is many things to many people. He advertises himself as simply ‘one of you’, nothing more than the guitar playing one in a vast, all-encompassing group of friends. He is adored by his fans as a ‘beardy god’ and lauded by the media as a ‘Folk-Rock troubadour’. One thing that nobody can argue, however, is that he is one of the hardest working men in modern music. In 5 short years he has released 3 studio albums and 3 EP’s and clocked up well over 1,000 shows. This fourth effort is his most anticipated so far.

The album is, if nothing else, quintessentially English. The title itself is taken from Shakespeare’s ‘History of King John’ (although Turner admits he is yet to read the play itself). Looking at the quote itself it’s quite clear why the record is named thusly:

‘O me! My Uncle’s spirit is in these stones!/Heaven take my soul but England keep my bones!’

It speaks of heritage and religion and above all else; good old Englishness. The traditional nature of the album resounds from the very first, warbly, trumpet-produced note. Turner leads us through a throwback to music from Coronation Street and old bread adverts. The track; ‘Eulogy’ is a fitting introduction if ever there was one. It rises from it’s traditional opening into a rousing, thunderous mid-section and a familiar sounding folk/acoustic ending. The lyrics encourage listeners that it’s OK to be normal, and un-extraordinary, as long as you make the most of the time you’ve got, stating ‘not everyone can be Freddy Mercury, but everyone can raise a glass and sing’. Mr Turner lays down the entire premise of his album in that first minute and a half.

The first full length track (and first single) is an ode to Frank’s grandmother, Peggy. He tells the story of how his Grandmother visited him in his sleep, and played cards and drank whisky with him. But, as is often the case in his work, there’s message behind it all. Peggy believes that all that matters is what you do with your life, and not where your life started.

The record continues on to fan-favourite ‘I Still Believe’, his anthemic tribute to the importance of a good sing-song before moving on to the first of the unheard tracks, entitled ‘Rivers’. The old Patrick James Eggle guitar rings with a very ‘Turner-y’ familiarity from the off and the lyrics speak about travelling through the English countrysides and cities. In my opinion, these kind of songs are Frank’s strength and he’s created another belter here. With a lyrical shout to, and in fact, vocal support from another folk-rock troubadour, Chris T-T, all of the stops are pulled out to create a good healthy Frank Turner acoustic anthem.

Next up is another track already released to the public, ‘I Am Disappeared’. More of a tribute to Bob Dylan than anything the song is already hugely popular among Turner’s (rapidly increasing) fan base. However, next is another demonstration of strength. ‘English Curse’ is an entirely a capella tale of medieval Wessex. The fact that a track like this features at all on the album is demonstrative of the sheer intrepidity of the artist. You’ll look a long way before you find another artist with the balls to do anything like that, and his courage is rewarded as the song is a real high point of the record.

Before taking to the road as a travelling Acoustic-Folk minstrel, Turner was the frontman of Hardcore Punks ‘Million Dead’. On the next track ‘One Foot Before the Other’, Turner hearkens back to those days with a heavier, more raw-sounding composition. The lyrics are exemplary of the album, with themes of death and tradition. But the track is obviously so much more geared towards the sound of the backing, and Ben Lloyd’s rasping guitar comes into it’s own. The sad fact is, despite the obvious quality of the track, this just isn’t the Frank that his fans have grown to know and love.

The album returns to it’s chirpy manner and English theme over the next two tracks. ‘If Ever I Stray’ also touches on a religious theme as Turner questions his morals and his punishment. He begs to be thrown into the English channel should he ever wander from the path he’s taken. ‘Wessex Boy’ is none other than a solid tribute to the land of his fathers, with which he clearly feels a strong affinity. His acoustic guitar riffs over lyrics speaking of specific Winchester landmarks, a treat perhaps for his Hampshire-based followers. Both tracks are good, strong, standard Turner pieces and it’s hard to fault their brilliance.

It’s the last three tracks where the album comes into it’s own. ‘Nights Become Days’ is reminiscent of earlier tracks such as ‘Worse Things Happen At Sea’ or ‘A Decent Cup of Tea’, both in their sound and their obvious emotion. The track itself is a message to a friend of Turner’s who went off the rails under the influence of drugs; ’everyone stumbles on cheap cocaine, it burns up the best and burdens the brain’. His sadness and concern reverberate through every note and the chorus is haunting and sombre as anything Turner has done before. The end of the song is a mix of relief as Turner delivers his final message to this lost soul; You’re getting there, your friends are here, just keep strong.

The penultimate track is perhaps the strongest on the album but also is arguably the most personal that Frank has ever written. Entitled ‘Redemption’ it apologises for, explains and laments some of his biggest regrets. He realises that he’s unfairly treated some people who ‘deserve better’. He quite clearly questions his own moral fibre and standing. It makes for another haunting track but one which demonstrates his own formidable talent, musically and lyrically. The poetic nature of the song combines flawlessly with the impressive keyboard work of Mr Matt Nasir to give the album it’s highest point musically.

And so we come to the final track. It has been described as an ‘Atheistic Gospel Song’ or an ‘Agnostic Anthem’ and again shows the real ballsiness of the man. An anthem is the best way to describe but the church organ and the gospel-like choir definitely give a religious feel. The choir may sing ‘there is no god!’ but there is a deeper message to it than that. Rather than being an anti-religious hate song, it’s more of an explanation of Turner’s own take on life’s big question of what happens after death. He believes that there is simply nothing, so we shouldn’t spend our lives making sacrifices to appease a higher power, and we should just make the most of the time we have. Despite being controversial in nature, it’s very representative of modern culture and beliefs. It makes for a great song and a fantastic finale to the album.

In production this album had much to live up to. The fanbase had built it up exponentially and the anticipation was intense. However, England Keep My Bones passes all tests with flying colours and is clearly Turner’s finest effort to date. His musical variety, lyrical genius and harmony with his band has really matured from the last album. It has a feel that seems to be the truest representation of Frank Turner in himself. He expresses himself the only way he knows how: with fine music.

With a main stage slot at this year’s Reading and Leeds festivals and shows at Wembley and Brixton under his belt, things are heading solidly up for Turner. It could well be that this is the album which finally propels him to the next level. It would be exactly what he deserves.

Rating: 85%

Standout Tracks: One Foot Before The Other, Redempton

Record Label: Xtra Mile Recordings/Epitaph Records

Release Date: 7th June 2011

Words by Alex Wood

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Live: The Submission w/guests - The Beer Cart Arms, Canterbury 3/4/11

Overpriced train tickets for a lengthy train journey into the heartlands of Kent for a show in a quaint pub in Canterbury involving a set by a punk rock band from Deal? Talk about a stonking case of deja vu. As homes away from home go for a band, The Beer Cart Arms isn't a bad place to set up shop at; indeed, this was the venue in which The Submission made their return from exile to the live circuit. Their much-vanted comeback is still gathering pace, although it stuttered slightly in Gravesend a month or so ago, so tonight wouldn't be a bad night to see how that things are progressing. Oh, and they're introducing a new member tonight. Who plays Hammond organ. Intrigued? My eyebrow didn't so much raise as fly off into the sky when I first heard the idea, so this show is worth checking out for curiosity value alone.

Before then, though, we have two relatively un-punk support bands to tide us over. Things get started with alt-rockers Left of the Right Side (68%) who are on the verge of leaving a great first impression on this reviewer - right up until the vocalist Rich (no, not that one) starts singing/screaming/choking on a dead insect. Or maybe the choking and screaming were actually the same thing? My mistake. Suffice to say, the vocals are not a strong point - clunky, forced, and as subtle and well-placed as a chainsaw in a knitting convention, and whilst they aren't totally terrible, a bit of restraint may not go amiss - too many times inadequate splurges of screamo get splattered over the music when it would've paid to just shut up for a few seconds. It's a shame that they are hamstrung in this way, because it detracts from the music. And in this area, the band are strong. It's often the case that bands with one guitarist often have more flair and creativity to their guitar playing then bands with twice as many six-stringers, and that's definitely the case with Shaun. He flits from spidery leads and imaginative spirals and crackles of notes in the verses and bridges to the prerequisite big crunching chords at the choruses with reckless abandon, with the rest of the band following suit. Overall, the band are a bit hit-and-miss - whilst the creative guitar riffs are often well-placed and welcome, the vocals, as already discussed, are not, and some songs get tugged down by their own ambition. However, having so much ambition that it sometimes chokes the songs is preferable to having none at all, and their prog-pop-rock mix has the potential to be something hitherto unheard of around these parts. Stick at it, fellas - with a bit of tinkering (and maybe a bit less screaming), you've got the potential to move up the gears and become a strong band to be admired.

Which is more than can be said for our next band, We Cry Hero (24%). It constantly amazes me just how richly rewarded mediocrity is in the general music scene currently, with vacuous tripe infesting the charts and radio stations. Who are this invisible majority constantly putting God-awful crap like The Vaccines at the top of the charts and catapulting them to stardom? Well whoever you are, I hope you're proud; this is the sort of garbage you've created. A band whom think it's acceptable to have a singer doing an atrocious Patrick Stump/Caleb Followill vocal impression and intentionally having the stage presence of a Gerry Anderson puppet of Peter Crouch. Or to have a guitarist (with a white Telecaster up round his shoulders, natch) ironically wearing kiddies socks and neon yellow plastic sunglasses, whilst intentionally standing around looking bored. Or to infest our ears with a set full of mediocre wannabe-epic musical earnesty, then unironically throw in a Justin Timberlake cover. Or to have horribly out-of-place Hellogoodbye keyboards and knock-off U2 guitar lines pollute every song whilst shunning the bass and drums to make room for the frontman's self-inflated fucking ego. This is a band riding the shirttails of the very worst excesses of modern rock 'n' roll music - hipster fashions and behavior, unfulfilled ambitions of epicness, mediocre lyrics that manage to be both arrogant, cloying and pathetically earnest at the same time, awkward clashes of generic indie guitars, beige pianos and turgid electonica, aloofness disguised under the paper-thin veneer of irony - all mixed into one horrible gelatinous mass. They're not the worst band I've ever seen; Dr Goon still take that coveted award. But they were a pile of rotten giblets and tube station toilet runoff with comically awful musical quality. At least WCH can fucking play their instruments. And they're not quite as bad as Brokencyde, a band so unbelievably atrocious as to lead you to question your faith in humanity. What they are, though, is an indictment of rock music of this era - bland, uninspiring dross with no depth, imagination, spark or creativity, just happy to wallow in it's own mediocrity, content in the knowledge that that will be enough to elevate them to popularity. The last time popular rock 'n' roll music got this bad was the fag-end of the 1970s, and that time, punk rock was the explosive counter-blast that formed as a result. Fucking hell, do we need something similar now. There's plenty of bands around in the scene who could lead the charge - who fancies taking the mantle?

If we're talking specifically about a punk rock revival to kick mainstream rock squarely in the bollocks, The Submission (86%) would likely be one of the bands at the forefront of the rebellion. They start their set with something of an ambush - newie 'Sunkissed Paradise' catches everyone by surprise when it suddenly snarls into life, but from there on it's full steam ahead as frontman Richard Harris once again leads the troops into battle. The last time I saw the trio was back in Gravesend, and I speculated there that perhaps they were struggling to recapture some of the magic of old, and while tonight still isn't quite as stellar as previous classic 'Mission nights of yore, it's definitely a step in the right direction as they turn in a spirited performance. Drummer Matt Browne is continuing his baptism of fire, and tonight he is reliable if unspectacular behind the kit. Some songs suffer a little from being just a half-beat too slow, and the intensity of the hits don't quite match the snarl of the songs. It's simply a case of fine-tuning, that's all; now that the songs are learnt and can be reeled off without a problem, perhaps now is the time to start hitting harder and faster to help bolster the attack. Anyone who can blast their way through the rocket-speed 'Revolution' without a hitch is clearly up to the task, and I'm sure this will come with time either way. Whilst I'm riding the nit-pick train, I still believe bassist Sadie Williams' backing vocals are a smidge too quiet in a live setting; the promise is there to add an extra dimension and trade off Rich's growlin' and howlin', but has not yet been taken fully. None of the above points are really deal-breakers, and when you have songs as strong as 'I'm Lazy', 'Stay in Action' and 'You Just Don't Know' up your sleeve, it's all rendered moot anyway. Sadie's still comfortably out on her own as one of the very best bassists in the scene, and it's frightening how Rich can be so boundlessly energetic and passionate on such a consistent basis. The usual electric leg-stomps, head-spins, guitar-swings, searing solos, and spastic jerks and flails are all present and correct, and he still remains an example to all up-and-coming rock 'n' roll bands as to exactly how to be a rock 'n' roll frontman.

Well, we've waited long enough, so here comes the big selling point for tonight - the addition of Sadie's father Cliff onto a spectacular Hammond organ at stage right midway throughout the set. I have to be honest, I had absolutely no idea how the bubbling warmth of an organ would fit with the firestorm guitar riffs, but I'm happy to once again say my cynicism was ill-founded, as it normally is. In the same way Simon Beck's classical Wurlitzer piano bursts add a sprinkling of refinement to The Skanx's sound, Cliff's classy organ riffs flow effortlessly into the mix and bring something hitherto unheard of to the party without blunting the trademark razor edge. Not only does it bolster already existing anthems, with 'Reggae Rock Rebels' probably being the biggest beneficiary, but it opens the path up for experimentation, and we get a glimpse of that when the band roll into an impromptu jam of Little Richard's 'Long Tail Sally' with gleeful grins on faces. Its in these four minutes or so that the band seem to have the most fun they've had since returning to the circuit.

Perhaps this is what they've been missing? Possibly so, but it's heartening to see them genuinely enjoying themselves again, and whilst I was premature in declaring them back to their former glories, they're on the right track, and making steady progress. And when there's bands like We Cry Hero polluting the circuit like a wet fart in an elevator, bands like The Submission are needed more than ever.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Chapter Eleven - Death Is Far Away E.P. Preview

Can someone say 'spoiled for choice'? Acoustic punk two-pieces suddenly appear to be rather en vogue of late, or maybe I've just not been paying attention. Anyway, fresh off of reviewing the excellent Torn Out/Limited Means split E.P. comes news of another acoustic punk two-piece, this one forming out of the ashes of the sadly deceased Four Letter Cure. I may be wrong, but I might be able to legitimately claim that I was there for Chapter Eleven's debut show, back at the Comedy Pub in Piccadilly Circus last October. Whether you can call it an official debut is questionable - at the time, it was simply a stop-gap to fill the slots originally booked for Four Letter Cure, with their frontman Hassan Afaneh roping in his buddy Asher Baker, slinging acoustics round their necks and making the best of the situation. At this show, they mainly focused on hastily rehearsed FLC songs and covers (including a heroic but doomed attempt at Rise Against's 'Like The Angel'), but they closed their ramshackle set with an original, 'This Ship', a vitriolic polemic sung entirely by Asher denouncing an old friend whom has slid into the clutches of the BNP/EDL 'bloody foreign bastards' mentality. These four minutes or so were a glimpse to what was to come, and so, in the same way My Third Leg rose from the wreckage of The Constant G's, here Chapter Eleven was born.

One of the useful things about acoustic acts is that you can literally play anywhere you like, and that's exactly what C-11 have done; from pubs and bars in Kent and London to parks, beer gardens and friend's living rooms, you name it, C-11 have probably played there. And having linked up with Martin Savale of Asian Dub Foundation, no less, their debut recorded output is ready for release on Pornography for Cowards records in a matter of weeks. By way of a preview, the band have posted up two tracks to stream on their Bandcamp page, a link to which will be posted at the bottom of the page. One of the two tracks is actually the aforementioned 'This Ship', and it's good to know that my memory wasn't playing tricks on me - it's still as furious and impassioned as ever, wiith Asher delivering his low-key vocals through sharply gritted teeth. An ace card the band possesses over some of their peers are the dual vocals, and Asher's more subtle and soulful tones compliment Hassan's gravelly barks, and the two trade off vocals very effectively on the other preview track, 'Night Bus', where Hassan ends up doing his best Justin Sane impression in the verses to great effect. These neat vocal lines go hand-in-hand with unquestionably the band's greatest strength; excellent lyrics.

I actually read through the lyric sheets before listening to the tracks, and they're probably the best I've read all year, if in a long time. Swap the structure around a bit and these could easily stand on their own as pieces of literature, such is the strength of the prose on display. Both songs are strong on imagery, with '...Ship' describing how '
it really is a shame, they paved the ground we used to play/ And when you walk down past the skate park, you’ll see there’s no one there', and how the narrator 'can still remember all the games we used to talk about/ When that Chinese shop in Peckham sold you Final Fantasy' before decrying how 'since those days, we haven't spoken, and the TV says Britain's broken/ I guess I’ll never be the same, and I’ll say the same for you.' 'Night Bus' is even more starkly poetic, with the disallusioned youth theme reaching a zenith at the lines 'Can't help but feel like my life passed me by/ My friends and I made history tonight/ Society gave up on us this time/ But try as we might, we’re not ready for the sky'. To the many generic punk bands that exist nowadays; I hope you're busy taking notes on how exactly to write powerful and evocative lyrics, rather than a series of clichéd slogans held together with twigs and chewing gum spat from the mouth of a paranoid anarchist.

Musically, the band cannot quite match the strength of their words, although as already mentioned, their vocals are very good. Their biggest problem is the fact that their lyrics evoke a classic paradox with acoustic punk acts - whilst the fact that they are performed acoustic adds a special charm to them, lyrics with such emotional punch as this almost deserve a full electric backing. They have the opposite problem to many electric bands, who have the crashing drums and muscular riffs sorted but only end up producing 'Tomy's My First Protest Song' quality lyrics. However, they have expressed ambitions to potentially go electric in the future, so they already have the luxury of choice in place - will it be electric carnage or acoustic campfire soul tonight, sir? Also, the recent addition of a semi-permenant third member, Stuart Sim on bass, adds another dimension to the acoustic chords, with his neat and unfussy basslines running underneath the guitars like undersoil heating. All promising stuff, then, and I'll happily join the que of those waiting in anticipation for the full E.P. release.

Chapter Eleven on Facebook

Chapter Eleven's Bandcamp Page

Top photo by Dominic White.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Van Susans - We Could Be Scenary E.P.

Note: This review is a little shorter than my normal rambling diatribes due to the fact that it was written for publication in the excellent Wasted! magazine, a monthly online magazine/webzine based in Kent covering alternative music and culture. Find them at

Normally, I get cynical when a band has critics buzzing around it and a rapid ascend to stardom is beckoning, like a magical stairway to heaven descending from the ether. Often there's the stink of label promotion about it; either that or the NME trying to tell the kids what's hip today and trying to disguise the fact that what we're actually listening to is vapid dross with all the depth of a teaspoon. But the Van Susans, who are on such a steady rise to prominence as we speak, are a bit of an oddity in today's rock music scene. The fact that they're not a metalcore band with floppy fringes, or an indie band with chequered shirts and ironic lyrics, would probably be enough anyway to guarantee them unique status. In fact, as one spin of their 'We Could Be Scenary' E.P. proves, they are a fascinating cocktail of well-crafted, folksy roots-rock that's very different to what you're likely to hear doing the rounds on the circuit. It's not often a band disarms my cynicism so deftly and swiftly, but the Van Susans are one such band.

Opener 'Cha Cha Bang' is a curveball, as it's the most rocking and intense of the five tracks, with buzzing guitars bolted to an emphatic chorus. Nevertheless, in amongst the crunching electric chords, the organic, emotive heart of this band beats strongly, and is allowed free reign on the remaining tracks. It's rare in modern rock music that reviewers get to talk about such things as layers and textures, but the Van Susans work hard to craft a multi-layered music-scape, with pianos, strings, harmonised vocals and acoustic and electric guitars all flitting in and out, and sometimes all combining at once. More impressively, no matter how many instruments are in play at any one time, subtlety and balance is retained, and the sound is never overwhelming to listen to, which makes a change from the often over-produced fare we are more used to. Penultimate track 'Plans' is the zenith, a glorious celebration of their powers of warmth, melody and craft, coming off sounding like a anglicised version of Nell Bryden - and considering how much I love Nell Bryden, folks, that's a monster complement.

In conclusion, on this evidence, the Van Susans are one of the first bands in years to fully deserve the hype that they're receiving. They're a refreshing blast of imagination and soul in a music landscape gone stale, and a band to really believe in.

Rating: 85%

Standout Tracks: 'Cha Cha Bang', 'Plans'.

Record Label: Beatnik Geek Records

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Live: Teenage Bottlerocket - New Cross Inn, New Cross 26/4/11

Picture the scene: legendary punk rockers The Descendants arrive in London for a two-date tour. First night doesn't go to plan - actually, it nosedives into embarrassing farce the very second lead singer Milo Augermann's voice decides it doesn't want to work anymore half a song into the set. After shambling through the show using whoever happened to be standing near the stage at the time as impromptu singers, the band inevitably postpone the second date the following night. So what do you do if you're the highly-rated support band on such a tour and you suddenly have nothing to do on a Tuesday night in London? Obvious, really - head over to a tiny South London bar, gatecrash an open-mic night and have a big ol' punk rock party. As you do. And when the announcement was made that a certain band called Teenage Bottlerocket would be making their debut London headlining show in a venue with a stage roughly the same size as a council house bathtub, I knew immediately that this was not to be missed; this show had legendary 'I was there' status written all over it.

And boy, was I right.

You have to pity the bands playing the open-mic night as already planned - they were treated to the bizarre scenario of playing to the largest, but probably the most apathetic, audience they will ever face. A room packed high with be-mohawked punkers and leather jacket-sporting rockers foaming at the mouth for punk rock action and being treated to the sight of, in order: an awkward-looking emo band (whom anxiously thank the masses for not throwing things at them), followed by a petit woman covering Mariah Carey (complete with window-shattering wails) and some random experimental metal jams that serve only to bemuse even the band themselves. An utterly weird spectacle that only serves to emphasise the last-minute, underground feel of the show.

But finally, at 9:30pm sharp, the rather clueless MC introduces some band called 'Teenage Rocket-Bottle', who proceed to squeeze onto the stage and fly into action for their set, speeding out of the starting gates at 100mph with 'Skate or Die'.

And from there they never look back; roaring at top speed through a non-stop, runaway rollercoaster of pure, old-fashioned punk rock fun, while the baying mob go, frankly, absolutely insane. Frenzied pogoing, frantic slam-dancing, spectacular stagedives and chaotic crowdsurfs, all present and correct for every minute of every song. The manic energy is unrelenting, crashing back and forth between the band and the crowd like tsunami waves. It's an incredible spectacle to behold, with the guitar-toting frontmen of Ray Carlisle and Kody Templeman unable to stop grinning like hyperactive teenagers as they merrily orchestrate the carnage, tossing out one glorious singalong anthem after another. Seriously, I've never been to a show where EVERY SINGLE SONG has people rabidly hollering the choruses back at the band. Rise Against, AFI, Cancer Bats, Billy Talent? Forget it. None of them could manage it. But these four punkers from Wyoming make it look effortless.

Make no mistake, folks, this is not particularly complicated stuff. Pretty much every song has at least one chord sequence that could've been lifted from the Ramones' or Green Day's back catalogue, and a large amount of the songs seem to blur together under the same four-to-the-floor drumbeat and four-chord hooks, with a couple of exceptions; 'Fatso Goes Nutzoid' in particular cranks the slam-dancing up to hyperspeed levels for ninety out-of-control seconds. So yeah, it's simple, not particularly original, and not particularly deep either. What it is, is energetic, passionate, emphatic, and absolutely brilliant fun from start to finish.

And you know what? In the largely stale musical landscape of today, that may be enough to stand out. Too many bands nowadays seem to view 'fun' as either something that's somehow beneath them and their fringes, or an excuse to goof around and make penis jokes like we're all 11 years old. And similarly, too many bands view 'punk rock' as an excuse to splurge out some clichéd slogans and be deliberately shit. Tonight, TBR provide a timely reminder as to how fantastic punk rock music can be, with a stinging cocktail of pop hooks, melodies big singalong choruses infused with raucous, driving energy. And that reminder turns out to be one of the greatest gigs this author has ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

Rating: 94%

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Skanx - S/T E.P.

In today's scene, a lot of bands focus on crossover; the art of cramming multiple genres together. Some manage to Frankenstein these component parts together into a cohesive entity, but most seem content to fling genres at a wall and stick together whatever mess remains with bits of sellotape and used chewing gum. It's getting more difficult to find bands happy to walk an already-trodden path, focused not on gluing on unnecessary extra bits to a basic concept, but honing it, then battering it half to death in the live arena, all in the name of having fun. An example of such a band would be the Calico Street Riots: so what if most of their recorded output sounds like an unreleased Flogging Molly album? When it's delivered with such energy, passion and fun, its difficult to work up the effort to give a fuck about such trivialities, not when you're too busy grinning like a cretin and dancing manically. That's the view The Skanx subscribe to, although instead of folk-punk, they play...actually, do I really need to say what music they play? The clue's in the name really, isn't it?

Yes, well done, ten points to Sherlock at the back; ska is the order of the day here, a genre that often suffers from being the meat in a clumsily put-together sandwich of other genres. But as already described, the Skanx skirt round innovation and instead sing religiously from their copy of the book 'Rules of Ska, Volume 1 (1981 Edition)'. Seriously, the sound being purveyed on this E.P. couldn't get more 1980s if it had lyrics slagging off Margaret Thatcher. So if you're one of those nit-pickers whom hates anything that isn't 'avant-garde' and 'progressive', then go and be a bitter old sack of bollocks somewhere else. But if you're the kind of person who's reading this review and listening to Bad Manners, The Specials and Madness on shuffle on the stereo, then welcome aboard the 10:30 train to Skaville. Toot toot!

Actually, that last paragraph is a little unfair, as it paints The Skanx as nothing more than a bunch of revisionist copycats plundering the ska history books with no original ideas of their own, which isn't strictly true. In the same way The Submission's update on 1970s punk rock sounds fresh and vital, The Skanx's take on 1980s ska is so wonderfully effervescent and full of joy de vivre that one can't help but enjoy it. They nab Captain Bastard and the Scallywags' crown of 'band with most members' by going one extra with nine, and all of them have their chance to shine across the five sampler tracks here. Like Jakal and The Skints (Christ, this is becoming a good review for name-dropping, isn't it?), they have multiple, male and female vocalists, in this case the hyperactive Wayne Jazzlin and zesty Lori May Spear. They bounce off each other nicely, trading vocal lines and styles, with Lori reminding me in particular of an early No Doubt-era Gwen Stefani, with the way her voice bounces around and flits undisciplined from delicate soul to powerful wails and yelps. They also have Tyrannosaurus Alan's horn hooks courtesy of the three-piece horn section, and some classic piano stylings from...actually, that's a good point, where the fuck did they come from?! Yeah, seems I was being facetious earlier when saying this was straight up ska - while they do stick to this for a foundation, other myriad influences do subtly work their way into the sound. Well, with so many instruments, it's sort of inevitable, right? Along with those already established, other instruments in play include a Wurlitzer piano/organ/stylophone triumvirate courtesy of Simon Beck and some additional bongo-based percussion stylings from trumpeteer Stuart McCrossan.

And yet, despite having a veritable orchestra of instrumentation, the songs they produce between the nine of them are well-crafted and polished. There's a danger with so many members that songs can meander as they try to cram everything in, but here everything effortlessly clicks into place, like a big pile of multi-coloured Lego bricks (or should that be Airfix parts, eh?). There really isn't a bad song on here, and it's the sort of E.P. that'll warrant many repeated listens. My personal highlight is the excellent 'Moneygrabber', the most energetic song on the disc, maintaining a high pace and an infectious melody all the way through, with Simon's bubbling organ riffs flitting through the mix. 'Czechmate' exhibits a strong funk flavour, so much so that there are parts where you can imagine Jake and Elwood from the Blues Brothers singing it with a trope of gospel backing singers. Lyrically there might not be much in the way of depth, with topics ranging from partying and drinking ('Party Party') and the morning after said partying and drinking (the imaginatively titled 'The Morning After'), so anyone expecting deep polemics on world economics and the meaning of life itself will be disappointed, but as I said earlier, that's not what The Skanx are about.

What they are about is having a tonne of fun, something many bands seem to think is below them now in the more pious quarters of the music scene. We need bands like The Skanx to remind us just how joyous and uplifting music can be; this is true feelgood music, designed solely for summer nights, cold beers, and grooving the night away. This is exactly what you'll be doing when you see them live over the next few months, but if they don't happen to be playing tonight, whack this on the headphones and let The Skanx brighten up the day - although don't blame them when you get funny looks for skanking on the bus.

Rating: 88%

Standout Tracks: 'Moneygrabber', 'Czechmate'.

Label: 208 Records

Release Date: November 2009

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Live: Captain Bastard and the Scallywags w/guests - The Beacon Court Tavern, Gillingham 24/4/11

They say every cloud has a silver lining, right? Who 'they' are I don't know, and I'd like to meet them once they've just lost their job, had their house burn down and been dumped by their girlfriend who also revealed she was HIV-positive and see what they say then, but in Gillingham's case, they may be right. I used to live here, and in the ten years or more that have passed, I've been in no rush to get back. But I will say this: although you could still swap out the large amount of run-down houses for caravans and pretend you're on the set of My Big Fat Gypsy Weddings without anyone noticing anything, the silver lining in Gillingham's case is the location of an excellent venue, the Beacon Court Tavern, in it's midst. Tonight, it's being taken over by Medway's travelling band of pirates and misfits, Captain Bastard and the Scallywags, and they're throwing a big Easter Sunday party for everyone.

As to which bands will be joining them for tonight's escapade? Your guess is about as good as mine - I think I've counted approximately 7,096 different lineups for tonight's bill, with names like My Third Leg and Melchett being bandied around, so maybe it's a bit of an anti-climax that the responsibility of opening proceedings falls to a local music shop employee with a guitar and some light-hearted covers of recent pop songs. Actually, it's not at all, and Manny's amusing ramblings and jammings are charming and hella funny. He reminded me of Team Harry, and in a good way; it's useless trying to review this sort of thing critically, because it's not trying to be anything other than good fun. I happened to be grabbing a bite to eat when he hit the stage and only caught the final song (a stop-start and snigger-inducing version of the Black Eyed Peas' 'I Gotta Feeling'), hence no rating, but as I said already, trying to give this a serious rating is like trying to analyse a performance of Les Miserables done by an entirely drunk cast wearing silly hats and bunny slippers, or trying to argue intelligently with some 12-year-old redneck troll on Youtube.

So with everyone firmly in good spirits, it's time to welcome an actual proper band onto the stage! Wait, sorry, my mistake, it's only Mexican Wave (70%). More cover-based shenanigans ahoy then, with half-a-tablespoon of goofs and a liberal sprinkling of self-deprecating banter in a standard cover-band recipe. But amidst more hoots and guffaws of laughter, there's actually some pretty decent musicianship, and the songs the trio roll out are executed pretty well, all told. Considering we're talking about a band that practices about as often as Boris Johnson has sex, the competent musicianship and energy on display is enough to put some serious original bands to shame. It helps that the songs themselves are entertaining, with a setlist ranging from Nirvana and Kerbdog to Reuben and Green Day, and that the people playing them are capable musicians in their own right - Capt. Bastard's own Jordan Harris (guitar) and Ben Gower (drums), plus The Plan bassman Wayne Tully form a tight unit and underpin the goofball fun with some fine chops. A covers band that can actually play - a novel concept I know, but it makes for good entertainment and great fun this evening.

And so here we go, on a stage that can actually fit the whole band with space to spare, Captain Bastard and the Scallywags (85%) hit the stage, set up, completely bemuse the soundman, look at each other, shrug, say 'fuck it' and race into action for their headlining set of folk-punk carnage. Magners and Guinness's at the ready everyone, this is gonna be chaos. And so it proves, as the gang give the best performance I've yet seen from them, even surpassing their excellent set in the confines of the 12 Bar Club in London several months back. Ironically, they played there only last night - maybe the aura's rubbed off on them? Or perhaps they just seem to raise their game when placed as headliners on a bill? Either way, long may it continue. Execution and timing issues are no longer a problem, as the 8-piece ensemble have gelled nicely as a unit in the previous six months or so since their inception, and tonight the sound quality is very strong, with all the instruments nicely balanced (note this day down in your diaries folks, because believe me, it's a rarity). So we have Jordan's mandolin karate-chopping over the top of Lucas Razzell's crunching electric guitar and Tom Gardener's jangling, clanging acoustic guitar, placed on a bed of Bill Gower's solid bass runs and Keith Sargent's haphazardly chaotic drums, with a dusting of Ben Gower's neat accordion lines and Kayla Harlow's elegant pennywhistle melodies and topped off with a dash of hollered vocals provided courtesy of Andrew Keech. All in all, the perfect folk-punk recipe, and with these high-quality ingredients, fun and great songs are guaranteed. The standard one-two opening of 'Along Came a Spider' and the Dropkick Murphy's 'I'm Shipping Up to Boston' is shifted a few songs into the set tonight, and newies 'Scream' and 'Soyouwannabeapirate?' slot in alongside already established anthems like 'Nine Layers of Hell' (complete with Keech starting a three-man circle pit in the intro) and my personal favourite, 'Getting Out Of This Town'. Obviously, a folk-punk gig (or indeed, tonight's gig) wouldn't be complete without a raft of traditional covers, and they don't disappoint; an entire medley of them rolls out as always, and their brilliant version of 'La Bamba' is ridiculously good fun.

As the final notes of set closer and Flogging Molly cover '7 Deadly Sins' fade away and the band say their goodnights, the realisation hits that these guys have, through hard graft and a great ear for a tune, grown in stature to truly become a player on the Kent punk circuit. Their rise has been steady rather than meteoric, but a rise it has been nonetheless, and provided they keep everything together, they're only going to continue to grow stronger. That prospect I had of necking Magners and dancing like a tit on hot summer evenings to the Scallywags remains an enticing proposition, and it's looking more and more attractive by the day.

Headliner's Setlist:
  1. You, Me and the Devil
  2. Scream
  3. Along Came A Spider
  4. I'm Shipping Up To Boston (Dropkick Murphy's cover)
  5. Soyouwannabeapirate?
  6. Nine Layers of Hell
  7. Covers Medley (including Whiskey in a Jar and The Wild Rover)
  8. Gettin' Out Of This Town
  9. La Bamba (traditional)
  10. 7 Deadly Sins (Flogging Molly cover)

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Torn Out & Limited Means - Loyalties Split E/P

Split EPs are generally a win-win situation. You'll often hear about them because you like one of the bands featured on the EP, in which case, it's a chance to hear a bunch more tracks from a band you rather like. And it's usually the case that the other band featured are fairly similar to the band you like, so it's a chance to check out something new for yourself. Unless you already know and like both bands on the EP, in which case, happy days for you.

I was in the former category when I picked up this particular split. Torn Out were one of the first bands I saw and reviewed in the scene, not only proving to me that punk rock can work without walls of amps and distortion pedals, but that acoustic, folk-style music can still be timeless, catchy and powerful in a world where corduroy trousers, grey cloudy skies and maudlin tripe have become the norms. Seriously, anyone who thinks Adele's asinine he-dumped-you-will-you-just-get-over-it whining is worthy of the inexplicable amount of hype, praise and sales she receives needs a copy of Torn Out's self-titled EP played to them very loudly on repeat until they get the point. After a heavy bout of touring and gigging in 2009, 2010 was a quiet year for the Essex boys, but this disc rings in a new era for the band in 2011. Their three tracks start the EP, so after witnessing their return to Gravesend and the circuit a few weeks ago, this looks like a good place to start.

You could make a convincing argument that the three tracks are up there as some of the best work the pair have done. This is the work of a band refusing to sit on it's laurels - they've done the hard work in crafting a sound for themselves, so now comes the even harder part of refining and honing it, taking it in subtly new directions, and keeping it fresh - all of which they've done here. The Torn Out of 2011 remains a passionate, outrageously melodic and socially conscious beast, just like old times, with frontman Smith's gruff, accented vocals driving home his lyrics with the same strength of conviction, but there's a maturity and subtlety to their methods now, and in the place of the blunt directness and hollering of piss-stained streets of yore, there's gorgeous, flowing guitar hooks, campfire singalongs, soulful and emotive lyrical lines just asking to be sang back to the band at gigs, and a few new musical ideas in the mix - for example, the slow-building bridge of 'This Town', and the multi-layered vocals at the climax of 'Slow Down'. Overall, these three tracks are the ideal study of how a band should go about progressing musically - no radical revolution or gimmicky back-to-basics approach, and by the same token, no simple if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it revisionism. This is the sound of a band totally comfortable in their own skin and where they are at this point in time, and it shows.

So now we come to Limited Means, a band I confess to not knowing a whole lot about, but on the face of it they share a lot of similarities with Torn Out: an acoustic duo with a guitarist lead singer and a bassist backing vocalist, singing socially-conscious acoustic punk. Christ, anyone else getting deja vu yet? Well, be silent, nay-sayers, because not only are Limited Means another fine proponent of acoustic punk music, but they stare down Torn Out in head-on competition to be the best band on this split - and you know something? I'm calling it a draw. Their three tracks are that strong. There's a more direct, political bent to their lyrics, especially on 'Detroit', which takes swipes at unemployment levels and inner-city degradation, but it would be unfair to just dismiss them as a pair of politicos with guitars, a sort of new-generation Billy Bragg, because when you have hooks and beautiful melodies as strong as those featured on 'Honest Much', augmented by female backing vocals that send the hairs on the back of one's neck standing to attention, it's easy to see that we're dealing with a truly talented, soulful and strong band, no matter what their emotive lyrics are about.

As I said earlier, split EPs are win-win situations most of the time, and so this EP has proved - not only have we got the strongest material yet from one of the finest bands on the circuit, but we also have a rival for their crown and a new favourite band here at NFTF.

Rating: 89%

Standout Tracks: 'Slow Down', 'This Town', 'Honest Much'.

Label: None (Unsigned)

Release Date: 1st January 2011.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Live: Castles in the Air Launch Show - The Red Lion, Gravesend 1/4/11

Okay, so you've just started a promotions company setting up gigs in an area of the country which is notoriously difficult to actually persuade anyone to get off their Xbox-inflated arses to come out to gigs. You're determined to get the name out there, and to kick off your operation with a bang. How best do you do that, d'ya suppose? Well, booking in five of the best and most well-known bands in the Kent underground scene would be a pretty good place to start, and a half-decent second step would be to put them on at a well-known and much-loved venue. Obviously Castles in the Air attended that particular school of gig logic, as that's exactly what they've done, with this show containing a lineup of scene favourites from far and wide, all of slight variation, and all ready to celebrate the launch of a new promo company by giving the familar settings of The Red Lion in Gravesend a sound maiming.

First up, it's a warm welcome back to the circuit for everyone's favourite acoustic punk duo, Torn Out (77%), and it only took a few bars of opener 'Chasing Lost Nights' for it to feel like 2009 all over again. Yes folks, that really was the last time this author actually saw the Essex boys play live, and in all fairness, not a whole lot has changed. Guitarist and singer Ben Smith still barks his lines with that trademark whiplash shout, and bassist Steve Knight is still all relaxed wit and smooth, fluid basslines. There's a bit of ring rust around the edges, with a couple of messed-up chord progressions and 'oh, it's that bit now?' glances across between the two, normally descending into good-natured giggles and banter. The experiance is still as charming as ever, and the songs remain the band's ace card. The newer songs, from their recent split EPs with other groups, show a marked emphasis on melody and pop hooks compared to the street grit of their first EP, but Smith's lyrics have lost none of their gut-punch brutal honesty. Overall then, like an old friend whom you've just invited out to the pub for a pint and a catch up, Torn Out are still as enjoyable as ever, and it's good to see them back.

From one variant of punk to another, acoustic punk gives way to pop punk, with everyone's favourites A Boy Named Girl (85%) up next. It doesn't really matter when you last saw the Dartford five-piece, or how many times you've seen them full stop; they'll still sound the same, still look the same, and still kick just as much arse. They've developed a back catalogue that can happily urinate all over many bands in the pop-punk stable, and while it doesn't bring anything new to the table, their sound and style is so well-executed and so damn fun that you'll wonder why you gave two shits when Fall Out Boy went on hiatus - who needs 'em and their preening when you've got a band writing stuff on a par with their 'Take This To Your Grave' record playing venues like this? And what's more, they can nail their tunes live - Christian Swaisland (drums) and Andy Sargent (bass) hold the others together on a monstrously tight leash, and Steve Wilde and Craig McCall throw catchy, razor-sharp guitar riffs and chords around like they're going out of fashion. Phil Harrison nails every single high-pitched and wavering vocal line, and is refreshingly unpretentious as a pop-punk frontman. Brilliant fun, and an experience I'd recommend to anyone with even a hint of liking for rock 'n' roll.

From pop-punk to ska-punk, it's
My Third Leg (79%) playing their home venue, and my, how times have changed since their debut on this exact stage in December 2009. Paul Smith is actually becoming a half-decent drummer, for one thing. I'll just pause for a second so you can clean up the drink you just spat on your screen in shock. In all seriousness, he's matching the endeavour he's always shown with some hard-hitting chops nowadays, and it's improved wholesale from those early days. The same can be said for the rest of the band - while the songs have remained largely the same, their execution live has tightened up immeasurably, with the band growing steadily in stature with every gig. Guitarist Mike Smith embodies this progress rather nicely - from unassuming rhythm guitarist, he's now fleshing out the songs with backing flourishes of chords and arpeggios, leaving frontman Will Woodrow to handle the skanking riffs and leads. Will himself has developed a a distinctive vocal style, growing into the frontman role with confidence and great gusto. Bassist Dave Ja Vu is...well, he's Dave: bouncing around, grinning, yelping excitably, all that we've come to expect and enjoy. M3L are an example of a band sticking to their guns and relentlessly honing their sound, steadily growing in stature until you turn around and realise that, actually, they've become a really good band, without anyone ever particularly noticing when or where this transition to greatness ever happened. Tracks like 'Going for A Drive' and 'Yes Please' are growing into fan favourites, with the former in particular getting bodies moving with ease, and their delivery is sharp, assured and confident. Job well done lads, and the recording sessions for the rumoured upcoming album cannot come soon enough.

From ska-punk to...well, just punk, in the form of this author's personal favourites The Submission (83%), as they like Torn Out make their long-overdue return to the Red Lion stage. And there's no other way of saying this without spoiling my opinion somewhat, but my inevitable enjoyment of their set was tempered by a tinge of disappointment, and a cold realisation. The punk rockers from Deal are battle-hardened veterans now, with rookie drummer Matt Browne having to hit the ground running or risk going under. I speculated in my review of their Canterbury comeback show that Browne would improve on his impressive debut showing, and indeed that was the case, with a much more assured and powerful performance. But whilst the tunes remain as strong and muscular as ever, there's just something a bit cold about them tonight that I can't entirely put my finger on. Frontman Rich Harris was terse between songs, and granted, he's never been the most verbose of frontmen, but this calculating bluntness sat awkwardly at odds for me with the warmth and relaxed front of Submission gigs past. He also seemed to phone in the trademark madcap bombast of his live persona, although a fair bit of this may be attributed to sound problems involving him unable to hear himself play. Compensating for this unnatural dip in energy, though, was bassist Sadie Williams, whom seems to be getting more and more energetic by the show. Despite the ceaseless bounding around and grooving, however, she still remains an absolute professional, never missing a beat or run. What this show does prove to me, however, is that The Submission do miss having an extra guitarist to call on as backup. Expecting Harris to carry all the guitar work on his own, strong as he is in this area, is too much to ask, and I still remain to be convinced that 'I'm Lazy' works with large chunks of the song missing the rhythm guitar. Don't get me wrong, folks - The Submission remain a blazing live proposition, and with tunes like 'Number One Sensation', 'Get Up' (which makes a welcome comeback tonight), 'Reggae Rock Rebels' and 'You Just Don't Know', plus covers of The Clash's 'Career Oppurtunities' and The Ramones' timeless 'Blitzkrieg Bop', you have a set packed of blistering anthems and barnstorming action. But tonight, the realisation occurs that the band have perhaps moved on from past glories, and are a different beast now. More clinical, more ruthless and hard-edged, and perhaps more cynical. For better or for worse, this is the Submission of 2011.

It would probably be harsh of me to give a full review on headliners One Day Elliot, as I spent most of their set either outside at the burger trailer or out in the beer garden. That probably tells you all you needed to know about what I thought of them, and the few minutes or so I did catch only confirmed these impressions. Maybe they're beginning to suffer from jaded fatigue after countless years on the circuit, but for me their set lacked spark, and felt crushingly flat and lacking in joy de vivre. As I say, maybe the good bits of their set passed me by, but unlike the other bands on the bill, they failed to captivate my attention. The fact that a fair amount of people were also outside for their set makes me think that maybe others had the same idea.

So in conclusion, despite faltering just past halfway and the evening staggering to a lethargic and disappointing climax (insert 'this is how my girlfriend feels' jokes here), Castles in the Air's launch was a definite success. With a lineup that strong, even with one or two bands misfiring, you were still guaranteed by simple law of averages a great show, and indeed that was the case. Nice job.

All photography by Ian Castle.

The Submission - No Man's Land E.P.

It is often said that sometimes the very best in people comes out in times of adversity. If that's the case, then one would expect this EP to be a gold-plated, sparkling diamond of musical genius and genre-defining mastery that reconfigures your very perceptions of music as an art form. Or at least to have some pretty ace tunes on it. Now that The Submission are back on the circuit, it's easy to forget that it wasn't long ago that the very existance of the band was in doubt, and this EP is a product of those sour sessions. Produced just over a year ago, it's the last recorded output featuring drummer Stu Cavell, who departed in acrimonious circumstances a few months later. Tensions were high, gigs were sparse and the future was uncertain. So, is this a record that gathers that ill-feeling together into a titanic super-record bursting with epic catharsis?

Erm, no.

In fact, the more I listen to it, the more it becomes clear to me that, rather than being a medium to vent the frustration hanging in the air, it's more just a snapshot of a rather negative moment in time. The recordings feel flat and jaded, as if reflecting the circumstances; rather than rising above the negativity, the EP tends to drag it's heels and wallow in it instead. The production values aren't quite up to Rich Harris' stellar standards, with the drums in particular sounding flakey and insubstantial, like a toy drumkit or some chocolate box tins. Rich's vocals themselves also suffer, with some of the trademark livewire crackle and spark missing from the vocal lines, and choruses that were intended to soar majestically just end up sputtering pathetically off the ground.

What stops this record from being anything other than an unnessecerily well-packaged drinks coaster are the songs themselves, which are very good. They eschew the familiar classic punk rock template and take on a distinctly folksy approach, as if Rich spent most of the sessions listening to old Flogging Molly and Pogues records. So there's plenty of chaotically fast drumbeats and gang-vocal choruses, and when this is married to Rich's strong ear for melody and chord progressions, you have a matrimony to last a lifetime. 'Wake Up' in particular sounds like an early Flogging Molly demo with less instrumentation. The highlight of the E.P. is the title track, which opens with a haunting solo ballad section piped through what sounds like an old gramaphone record, with Rich's yearning vocal lines sounding particularly effective. However, this is The Submission we're talking about, so it should be no surprise that the lighters-in-the-air balladry doesn't last that long, before the whole song takes a nitrous oxide bottle up the sphincter and roars into chaotically fast folk-punk mayhem, but the fact that it never looses it's soul alleviates it above other attempts at this style of music - yup, turns out these punk rockers can turn out a half-decent love song, too. A decent version of Eddy Grant's 'Police on my Back' done in Clash style bookends the disc, with bassist and unsung heroine of the piece Sadie Williams particularly enjoying herself on the chorus runs.

Overall, there's just something a bit disappointing about the record - it's not bad, just let down by the fact we know that they can do better, and have done since then. It's a product of it's environment, and now that the band have moved on from those days, it serves as a signpost of where they were at that particular point in time. The fact that the two originals on here are still worthy of your attention just prooves their strength as songwriters, and if you can find a copy, it's still worth a look.

Rating: 71%
Standout Track: 'No Man's Land'.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Follly - S/T E.P.

This article is another one of my departures from the township of punk rock, venturing beyond the barbed wire-covered city limits to explore and write about my travellings from the neighbouring musical planes. In all fairness, this particular band reside in a county much closer to punk rock than Nell Bryden - garage rock after all is pretty close to punk rock, except with some extra fuzz pedals, some attitude, and bellowing. And curiously enough, not many actual garages.

Anyway, enough torturing of poor defenceless metaphors, let's discuss the band in question - a three-piece from Enfield by the name of Follly. Presumably someone else had already called themselves Folly, so they decided to forgo the effort of thinking of another name altogether and just crowbar another letter into the title, which I don't condemn, although it does mean I'm in the bizarre scenario of being chastised for spelling a word correctly. Anyway, as you probably guessed from my ramblings in the first paragraph, their shtick is hard-edged, fuzzy garage-rock, a genre with a lot of appeal to me but which finds itself often populated by arrogant prats too busy fanning their self-inflated ego with pretentious guitar solos and wannabe Kurt Cobain lyrics to actually give two tosses about their music. Time to dive in and find out if Follly manage to avoid this particular trapping.

The first thing one notices about the EP is the production, or rather lack of it. This is low-fi to the power of low-res multiplied by fuzzy divided by severe distortion, all to the square root of weedy-sounding drums. Seriously, it's hard to tell if the snare drum on the record is a snare drum or just a pile of old fruit boxes from the Asda warehouse. But still, as I've said before, nice shiny production on such DIY recordings as this are a luxury not many people are afforded, so criticising them for that is like criticising a tramp for wearing the same clothes everyday.

The songs themselves seem happy to wallow around in this festival of fuzz, with frontman Jack Cooney's guitar emitting guttaral growls of scuzzy noise over the cardboard-box-snare-drums and Leo Palmer's rumbling bass. These are the sort of songs that don't suit a glossy production anyway, so a middle finger is raised to the mixing desk and the band rock the fuck out instead. The four songs on the CD are a proud display of their sound - crunching riffs followed by more crunching riffs, with crashing drumbeats and the odd howled vocal line. In fact, Cooney's vocals put me in mind of early Tim Wheeler of Ash, as they flit from quasi-Matt Bellamy whines and groans to high-pitched histrionics. They work particularly well on opener 'Riff Rawr', which is probably the strongest song on the EP, with a nice quiet-loud dynamic going on amongst the Nirvana-aping chords and downpours of cymbals. Mr Palmer is everything you'd ask for in a power trio bassist - tight and restrained but capable of a bit of complexity when the situation calls for it. The same is also true for drummer Anthony White, who is powerful without ever being overbearing or domineering. Both lay a rock-solid foundation for Cooney to spray scuzzy guitar chords and wailing solos all over everything, and as a unit they work rather nicely - it's still a fair few live shows and rehersals away from the finished article, but it's a good starting point.

The disc isn't perfect, and suffers from a sudden case of schitzophrenia just past halfway - after the nicely heavy, QOTSA-aping 'Urb the Bird', 'Moth to Flame' feels inconsistant and unsure of a direction as it mines Feeder's debut album for inspiration, and ends up going on for about a minute too long, and 'AAAAAAH!!' suffers from the opposite problem - it only lasts long enough for your mind to reach the the second W in 'wow, this is pretty good'. Nevertheless, as previews of a band's sound go, there's enough highlights and hard-rocking fun on this disc to give promise for the future. They're a hard-rock band without the pretentious twatsmith ego, and with some decent tunes to boot too. Definitely one to watch.

Rating: 73%
Standout Tracks: 'Riff Rawr', 'Urb the Bird'.