Fun. That is what it's supposed to be, is it not? Being in a band as a young adult. Meeting new people, going to new places, playing music because you just damn well enjoy doing that? And you know what? People can smell that. They often have a good sense of what is real, and what is not. Being able to tell the difference between what is too earnest, and what is just having a bit of a laugh. Even the most muso lunatics such as Yes or Gentle Giant were having a laugh back in the days of bombastic prog-rock. Even the most epic and earnest sounding like Radiohead, are just having a bit of a laugh amidst all the heavy sentiments and chord progressions.
They’ve done it again. Albeit perhaps not quite as consistently impressive as their first two albums, alt-J still hit new peaks on Relaxer, an album that continues their foray into that weird and wonderful mix of prog, folk, garage and electro, but which is more spacious and at times punchier. It’s epitomised by the stunning lead track ‘3WW’ (three worn words), a song that, according to the band, “Traces the adventures of a wayward lad on England’s northeast coast, culminating in the whispering of three worn words." It's full of sexual awakening and adventure, and features the voices of alt-J's Gus Unger-Hamilton and Joe Newman, as well as Wolf Alice's Ellie Roswell. "I just want to love you in my own language", they sing against a background of beguiling alt-folk, with distorted waves of electronica, shakers, minimal keys, dubby bass and much else besides. It’s one of their best ever songs.
It’s kind of the same as a festival in a field, minus the camping, and the mud. There are more than 450 performances on over 30 stages, played out to an overall audience of 20,000. Like a traditional festival, there is plenty of schlepping from one stage to the next, re-fuelling at various points, staying up too late and getting up too early. Crucially though, almost everyone is here to actually watch and listen to music, and everyone has a real bed to head to, and a solid roof over their heads. It is knackering, but in the best kind of way.
Goldie has announced a new album entitled The Journey Man, coming out June 16 via Cooking Vinyl and Goldie’s Metalheadz label, which he set up in 1993 along with Kemistry and Storm. There is much anticipation that it might be right up there with Timeless, his debut album of 1995 that set the world of music and drum'n'bass alight with its near-perfect combination of innovative production techniques and spacious, expansive musicality that could loosely be defined as orchestral drum’n’bass jazz. A groundbreaking release in the history of drum and bass music, Timeless blended the complex, chopped and layered breakbeats and deep basslines of jungle and drum and bass with expansive, symphonic strings and atmospherics and female vocals, creating a crossover hit. For Timeless Goldie was joined in the studio by engineer/producer Rob Playford, founder of the Moving Shadow label, who did most of the programming and production, with Goldie generating the musical ideas, rhythms and arrangements. It's this directorial system that Goldie has employed on the eagerly awaited The Journey Man, set for release in June, accompanied by Goldie & The Heritage Orchestra Ensemble headlining the Funk The Format Festival on Saturday 17th June in Hove Park.
Legend goes that Record Store Day was sparked by a comment that something could be done along the lines of Free Comic Book Day, and following a brainstorming session during a record store owner’s meeting in Baltimore, Record Store Day (RSD) was officially founded in 2007 with the first event the following year. That year there were just ten special RSD releases from the likes of R.E.M, Stephen Malkmus and Vampire Weekend, while Billy Bragg kicked off RSD in the UK with a live appearance.
This all happened in the nick of time as 2006 represented the nadir for vinyl sales. Only an estimated $36m was generated worldwide, a derisory amount, with many records not even getting a vinyl release. By 2014, that figure had jumped to $416m, and continues to rise fast. Vinyl has now enjoyed nine consecutive years of growth since facing near extinction. In fact, vinyl sales topped three million in the UK alone last year, a rise of 53% on the previous year. David Bowie’s Blackstar was the most popular, selling more than double the number of copies of 2015’s biggest seller, Adele’s 25. The last time vinyl fared so well in the UK back in 1991 when Simply Red's Stars was the year's biggest-selling record.
Why the revival? Some fans prefer the "warmth" of the sound compared with digital files, while others buy LPs as souvenirs and as works of art (In that respect, CDs have rarely been loved in the way a vinyl record has been). And then there's been the marketing efforts of RSD which have helped to propel vinyl back into the forefront of the music buying public, buoyed by a general zeitgeist in all things 'retro', and helping to keep many independent stores alive. Moreover, the inexorable rise of streaming has, according to a BBC/ICM poll, seen increasing numbers purchasing vinyl on the back of what they have heard via streaming. Sometimes as a goodwill gesture, but also simply because they want to properly own the recording as a physical product, rather than simply as a virtual entity. But, despite all this good news, vinyl still only accounts for less than 3% of the overall music market, so it still has a long way to go to come even close to its 60s-80s heyday, when vinyl (and to a lesser extent cassettes and a myriad of other, long defunct, formats) was the only way to 'own' music. Moreover, that same survey found that almost half of those questioned said they did not play the vinyl they bought, while 7% said they did not even own a turntable!
"We're a gang of friends and musicians. It manifests itself directly in the sound we create together. It's the ace up our sleeves." So says Stella Mozgawa, drummer, programmer and keyboardist for Warpaint. Their gang mentality is still here and still seemingly strong. It's a sometimes under-appreciated asset. It was once said of The Beatles that they communicated with each other in a way that made others feel sidelined, that they acted like a gang which was difficult to penetrate, forged from years of being in each other’s pockets before they had even hit the big time. Similarly, Warpaint had played and worked with each other for several years before they became properly known beyond their Los Angeles base. Accordingly, they have created a super tight bond that few other bands can match, and which is reflected in their music.
As Stella says, Warpaint are in essence a gang of friends, who enjoy making music. A music that is democratic in nature (all four members are equal shareholders, as it were), which relies on a lot of spontaneity, but also telepathy. It's a telepathy that only really comes from jamming constantly in the studio, and via genuine friendships, where egos and leadership ambitions are left at the door. If they weren't, Warpaint would surely live up to their name, whether via its meaning as the ‘paint’ applied by North American natives in getting ready for battle, or indeed the make up applied by women when preparing for the coming ‘social’ battles!
I hate to say it, but British Sea Power are a little bit of a national treasure. A band who encapsulate what indie music is all about: an independent guitar-based band who have done things their own way over the years. Some of you may remember their infamous Club Sea Power gigs of yore, which encapsulated their cultural eclecticism and inclusiveness. Born at a time when Britpop had run out of fuel, British Sea Power's club do's combined the likes of noise garage-punks The Eighties Matchbox B-line Disaster with Sussex’ first family of folk, The Copper Family, with added attractions such as a retro fashion show, featuring men and women in vintage war-time outfits. They have been trailblazers in many other respects; from organising gigs in very unusual locations (the Lido in Saltdean, Newhaven Fort, Natural History Museum, various village halls, the Czech Embassy in London, hosting their own festival at Britain’s highest pub, the Tan Hill Inn etc), to live soundtracking films such as Man of Arran, and composing the music for the brilliantly evocative documentary From the Sea to the Land Beyond, a film that explored a century of life along Britain’s coastline. It was a perfect match for British Sea Power, a band who have readily incorporated history – not just British but European, cultural, and natural history, too – into their music and image; from the wearing of retro cycling tops to spreading their live stages with foliage, from using grid references with which to meet journalists to showcasing obscure Cumbrian wrestling, and from releasing a joint single with Somerset’s finest The Wurzels, playing with various brass bands under the moniker Sea of Brass.
Despite the huge popularity of the BBC comedy sitcom Steptoe and Son in the 1960s and 70s, which helped maintain the rag and bone man’s status in English folklore, by the 80s they were mostly gone, consigned to the, er, scrapheap of history. But, as is the way with much of the 21st century so far, with the peculiar British tendency to view the past through rose-tinted glasses and give it new life, there has been a revival, albeit a minuscule one. You are extremely unlikely to see a rag and bone man with a horse and cart any more (they will now usually use a van) but, as poverty conditions continue to deepen for many in the UK, as always an opportunity is always being sniffed out for those looking to scratch out a living, however meagre.
There's this fantastic collage going round that parodies Peter Blake's Sgt Pepper's album sleeve, replacing the iconic stars (dead or alive) of 1967 with just the dead of 2016. It kept getting updated, right up to the end of 2016, with the untimely deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher sealing the perceived deal that we were dealt a bummer of a hand last year. There's no doubt that many bloggers, commentators and reviewers have, or will report, that 2016 was a bit of a bitch.
It's all hogwash, of course. Social media has made us all commentators now, and amongst many of my Facebook friends, it has been the death of famous musicians that has in particular exercised their tear ducts and pseudo-theorising. But rather than mourning, we should be celebrating. As they do with such life-affirming style in Mexico. Indeed, the theme of 2016 should be about celebrating in the face of adversity, be it emanating from politics and world affairs, or that of art and entertainment.
And how do we celebrate? By revisiting the incredible music that the likes of David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael et al produced, of course. Indeed, there was even more excuses for further celebration in the cases of Bowie and Cohen, by dint of the fact they both produced some of their finest ever work in their dying days. And for that we should be thankful.
We should also be thankful that the increasingly justifiably maligned format, The Music Download, continued its freefall into the grave, shortly to permanently snuggle up against phonograph cylinders, minidiscs, 8-tracks, laserdiscs and DAT. Vinyl, meanwhile, after itself flirting with extinction, has been resurrected and, most impressively, overtaken downloads in sales. This is another genuine cause for celebration, as it was only nine years ago – 2007 – that vinyl reached its nadir, when a paltry 200,000 albums were sold in total. Then, many major and independent artists and labels opted not to bother with the format at all. Death seemed likely.