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 clich├ęd 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'.