Over the past few years, Fear of Men have very quietly but confidently become one of Brighton’s biggest musical exports. Their 2014 debut Loom received international attention for its chilly indie pop and impressionistic and abstract lyrics. They now return to capitalise on that album’s initial promise with their follow up Fall Forever, which arrives in June.
There is no support tonight, just Ukrainian born, maverick classical pianist Lubomyr Melynk playing for nearly two hours. Luckily tables and chairs are provided, something of a necessity when attempting to absorb this kind of music.
It’s a strange world when it takes a music blog from the other side of the Atlantic to help you discover a band practically on your doorstep. But so it is in 2016 and that’s exactly how I found the excellent debut album of Muncie Girls. From Caplan to Belsize is a collection of expertly constructed pop punk numbers. In these oversaturated times, a hook and three chords is all well and good but what really sets Muncie Girls above their peers is lead singer Lande Hekt’s lyrics. She touches on subject matters both broad and societal, such as patriarchy, but also the achingly acute and specific, like personal relationships.
When Brightonsfinest sat down to talk to Yonaka about their upcoming headline tour, their understandable excitement also carried with it a small amount of apprehension. Is it maybe too soon, with only one release under their belt? Clearly they shouldn’t have worried, as tonight’s show at The Prince Albert is a sold out affair and deservedly so.
When Sunflower Bean last played at Bleach during last year’s Great Escape, they were riding a wave of hype with their vivacious take on psych rock. However their début, at the time of the show merely weeks old, saw the band keen to prove themselves to be more than just a one-trick pony, and Human Ceremony is an altogether subtler affair.
Marching Church’s début despite having some numerous moments of inspiration, felt a little bit like a collection of genre exercises that had been twisted beyond recognition. I had interpreted the tour Marching Church are currently in the middle of as a way of capping off the project for the time being, so that the group's members can go back to their respective day jobs. What I got was something entirely different.
I have gripes about electronic music being sold as a ‘live’ show, finding the idea of a guy fiddling with his laptop for forty minutes described as performing live as somewhat misleading. But tonight's show promises something a little different, before Shigeto even touched any production tools he was a traditionally trained jazz drummer, and the incorporation of that into his live show leaves me hopeful for something more dynamic.
Animal Collective’s music, but also Animal Collective as an entity, has always been about play. But its regression to a more simple, child-like state is also a form of subversion against an increasingly globalised and commoditised dreariness of modern existence. Animal Collective don’t just want you to see how weird they are, they also want to help you to see just how weird everything else is as well. Progression seems an inapt term to refer to Animal Collective. The band has never had a fixed point from which progress could be measured against, often alternating between the four members depending on who is available. Instead Animal Collective morphs and it always feels like the fundamental change in the chemistry of the band is the result of outside forces acting upon them.
But it is starting to feel like maybe playtime is over. All of the group’s members are approaching forty, have children and are displaced around different cities.
Painting With could be considered Animal Collective growing up. It is their most considered and laboured sounding effort to date and their first album written entirely in the studio. It’s also their shortest record, with many of the songs coming in at under four minutes.
This is Animal Collective however and the compression of time hasn’t resulted in fewer ideas, instead they just end up cramming everything into smaller spaces.
Sometimes it can feel a bit of a mess, like the splurge of paint in a Jackson Pollock painting, but slowly the record reveals itself to contain astounding intricacy and detail. ‘Floridada’ initially sounds as antagonistically obtuse as the art movement the title is a pun on, but it's not long before it's firmly embedded into your skull with its bizarre sing-song melody.
The vocals in particular are laid out with dizzying detail. Avery Tare and Panda Bear create a delay effect between their two voices on songs such as ‘Hocus Pocus’ by singing the same melody but just a fraction of a beat separating them. A swirling disorientation is the result, meaning the pop sensibilities are never allowed to settle, and are left in a state of constant flux. The vocals are right at the front of the mix, just as pop music warrants, but it’s difficult to understand their words more than ever. When they are intelligible, they’re approaching topical subjects such as ‘Recycling’ in a typically round about way.
This is easily the busiest and most dense the group have ever sounded and at times it can induce a kind of sonic exhaustion at having to try to process so much information in each song. On initial listens I found myself getting fatigued and having to take breaks, as if I had absorbed as much as was physically possible. Another word some might choose for this experience is irritating. But this depends largely on whether or not the very idea of Animal Collective is irritating to you. The absurdity and silliness can be grating to some, but to me this comes across as simply being uncomfortable with the total lack of self-consciousness in the group's music.
‘Golden Gal’ remains one of the strongest moments on the album because of its directness, and involves the least amount of mediation between your ears and you brains as you try and figure out what exactly it is you are listening to. They’ve never given it to us as straightforward as they have here: with its soaring harmonies ‘Golden Gals’ is unabashedly a pop song of the highest pedigree, and a reminder that to do it properly, and to do it well, is an art form. It doesn’t always reach these dizzying heights and some of the tracks such as ‘Bagels in Kiev’ don’t ever give the pay off your concentration and commitment to them demands.
A bit like how on the album cover the band's faces merge into fractal shapes. The line between organic and electronic is constantly being blurred on Painting With. Voices such as the croaky opening of ‘Vertical’ often sound like the product of synthesisers and the relentless squelching and bubbling synths do their best to try and trick you they’re the product of vocal chords. On ‘Hocus Pocus’ the pitch of the voice is manipulated, so as to sound like a robot being unplugged or powering down, while on ‘Recycling’ the melody is broken up so that each syllable sounds like a separate note being played on a keyboard. On ‘Lying on the Grass’ the synth lets out a pleasant sigh, like it's taking off its shoes and feeling the soil between its toes.
I’m not the first person to take a leap and make the connection that this was recorded at the same place as arguably the greatest pop album of all time: The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Both albums also have an obsession with complex and unconventional harmonies and trying to re-invent what popular music can be.
But in all honestly this isn’t, and never could be Animal Collective’s Pet Sounds; that album was significant in more ways than just its content. A bubble-gum pop band coming out with an album that demanded to be taken seriously as a piece of art shifted the entire course of popular music. But both share the ambition of elevating pop to a lofty ideal. Animal Collective are still probably a bit too odd for their own good in order to pull it off convincingly, and Painting With will never make such an impact on the broader culture. But it is an admirable effort either way.
As far as personal projects go, they don’t get more personal than Jack Tatum’s work under his Wild Nothing guise. The music featured on his 2010 debut Gemini was never intended for anyone’s ears other than his own and the project only developed into an actual band once internet hype brought with it a demand for live shows. His sound has always been the product of his specific vision. 2012’s Nocturne dealt with a particular set of sounds and styles, and rigorously applied these limitations to his songs. The result was an album not only nostalgic of 80’s indie-pop but also felt like the sensation of nostalgia itself, its wistfulness intertwined with a lingering melancholy.
But with each successive release, Jack Tatum has invited more people into his parochial realm, and with Life of Pause, the addition of a producer and live drummer seems to mark the transition of Wild Nothing from being a conception that exists only inside Tatum’s head to belonging to the outside world. Tatum wanted the new record to have a looser feel, more like musicians playing together rather than a single bedroom artist laboriously working producing everything. He’s certainly achieved that in his sound, only it would occasionally do him good to kick a few people out of the imaginary recording booth.
Some moments on the album feel too dense with sound, as if Wild Nothing is overwhelmed with the newly introduced freedom he’s giving himself. ‘Adore’ is one of the album's best moments because it is also one of its most stripped back and uncluttered. Opening with a simple piano refrain playing single notes and strummed acoustic guitar chords, it moves with ease into a tightly knit, grooving bass line that drives the momentum for the remainder of the song. In fact it’s the bass lines that generally keep everything moving on Life of Pause, providing the record with buoyancy which stops it from becoming submerged under its own washed-out walls of sound.
The key reference points in the music is still there, the jangle guitars of Felt and 80’s indie and the dream pop of 4AD bands. The sounds expanded to include other things but we’re still very much in the same decade. Whether it’s the futurism of Japanese synth pop, or on the rhythm section especially, the appearance of funk and soul grooves replaces the more rigid and programmed feel of his first two records.
His vocals still maintain their now almost trademark reverb saturation and impalpable aura. In terms of melody the vocals often play second fiddle to the synths in carrying the songs; the melodies are smart but unassuming and remain for the most part another layer of texture in the dense sound-scape. Although there are some killer synth hooks, and they add moments of kinetic friction when everything is at a risk of becoming too soft or out of focus. ‘Lady Blue’ has the feel of sleek futuristic funk, while on ‘TV Queen’ the woodwind sounding synth is satisfyingly catchy whereas the rest of the record deals in subtlety and slightness.
While many of the songs make for pleasant listens on their own, some of them are perhaps a bit too long. When approached as a whole, the album is weary of leaving any vivid impressions or bold statements, nor does it convey any intense emotion. Wild Nothing’s music has an admiration for the form of the classic pop song. Many of these tracks are striving for that tradition but end being up buried under their own length and struggling to justify stretching out what could be done in three minutes over five.
Its delicate sensibility makes it difficult to remain fully engaged for its whole duration. But perhaps that’s the point. The opening xylophone arpeggio notes of ‘Reichpop’ bring to mind the work of minimalist modern composers. In particular Philip Glass’ ‘Koyaanisqatsi’, which sound tracked images of thriving movement and people moving through urban space like a harmonised eco system. “We are just above the earth / witnessing our birth”, Jack sings on ‘Alien’, and it has the same sense of distance but also wonderment. Life isn’t something experienced, but witnessed from the position of a passive receptor. This is the main sensation you’re left with: the sense of drifting through a landscape as an anonymous individual among many and allowing yourself to be carried by the ebbs and flow without offering any resistance. Life of Pause feels purposefully unobtrusive, content to take a back seat and allow itself to become integrated into your other sensory experiences. Tatum has said film music was a major influence on the album and maybe that’s the intention, to make music that informs and colours.
Hype can be a useful, but also very dangerous thing for a young new band. It can stroke egos, build complacency and produce disappointment if their releases don’t live up to all the hyperbole. Luckily Sunflower Bean have navigated all the craziness with astounding focus and maturity for their young age. They’ve worked hard, toured relentlessly and taken the whole 'being in a band' business very serious indeed. The result is a début that might feels confident in its own craft, but not about very much else going on in the world.
Tame Impala have always been a continuous reference point, something the band themselves have done nothing to diminish, after all, an early single was even titled ‘Tame Impala’. The melodic psych-rock of Kevin Parker is still in there, especially in the single ‘Wall Watcher’, which is constructed from a solid riff and swirling flange effect. But generally these are the record's most straightforward moments, and they’ve expanded their sound to occupy a more ambivalent space.
Human Ceremony is an album characterised by the uncertainty of youth and trying to find your identity. Many of these songs are in a dialogue with themselves and each other and this back and forth is mirrored in the interplay of bassist Julia Cumming and guitarist Nick Kivlen’s vocals. ‘I Was Home’, the most propulsive song on the album up to that point, despite the fact it's about long periods of being totally immobile, is an example of this. “What did you do today?” Kivlen asks and Cummings sheepishly replies “Didn’t do much today”. But then idleness becomes an opportunity of self-reflection: “I had a dream I saw myself on TV / and I viewed myself many different ways”. The album as a whole is doing the same thing, weighing up different perspectives but never really coming to a conclusion. That doesn’t matter though, the journey of questioning is more important than arriving at an answer. On the opening title track they even pull a bit of a Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood. Cummings is the light, intangible presence while Kivlen’s contrasting unsubtle baritone feels grounded. The song operates less as a verse/chorus and more as a capricious backwards and forwards between these two tones and atmospheres. “I want you to stay here / I feel so much better on my own” Cummings muses on ‘Human Ceremony’ but she sees no problem in this obvious confliction. As the transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman observed: “I am large / I contain multitudes”. Human nature itself is contradictory.
‘Easier Said’ is a deceptively simple bit of dream pop that has a hidden bite under all the shimmering guitars. “Don’t be afraid to see it through” mimics Julia as someone advising her, but she’s quick to retort. “Easier said than done / I heard you right the first”. As if reality was really ever that simple.
‘Creation Myth’ seems to be a retelling of the biblical version of the birth of everything, but Sunflower Bean's is considerably less eventful, “On the first day it was good / On the second day it was good…” and so on, until there’s an abrupt pause before a monstrous fuzzed up riff erupts. The storm quickly clears however, and we return to the clear skies of the song's first half. Is this a sonic interpretation of everything coming into existence in one elemental cacophony? Religious imagery comes up yet again on ‘I Just Don’t Know’ with Julia reassuring herself that “Jesus has a place for me” but yet again it seems more like a dismissal of such easy solutions.
When you're nineteen years old ‘2013’ probably feels like an aeon ago and on the track name after the year, Sunflower Bean make it sound like a distant dystopian future. Its an obvious send up to the 60’s one-hit-wonder ‘In the Year 2525’ by Zager and Evans which documents a pessimistic prediction of humanity's future. The reference rears its head in the album closer ‘Space Exploration Disaster’ mixed in with a bit of ‘Space Oddity’ for good measure. We’re now in the (at the time the song was written) present: “In the year 2015 / No one can hear you scream” but it also describes drifting away from the planet, and perhaps gaining a broader perspective and seeing the relative irrelevancy of all the grievances happening on this small blue dot.
At times the album wears its influences a little too prominently on its sleeves, and the seams where all these sounds have been stitched together are a bit too visible. But that’s to be expected from such a young band, and it’s imbued with the energy of newfound discoveries. The various shifts in mood and genre capture something of what it is to discover that the world is malleable, and nothing is fixed, least of all yourself.