Monday, 19 March 2018

Nils Frahm - Spaces

A few years ago, in November, I was visiting my friend Hugh in Cardiff. I hadn't been to Cardiff in a while, and that weekend Mclusky and Jarcrew were playing a reunion show and we'd got tickets (I was never a huge fan of either band, but both were hugely important to a lot of people I knew who'd been at university in Cardiff before I moved there). It was shortly after my birthday, so after a few beers in town, we returned to Hugh's flat and he presented me with this record as a birthday present. Afterwards we watched Alan Partridge on TV.

I'd started to hear the name Nils Frahm around the place, but really knew little about him. I'd certainly never listened to any of his music before the needle hit the record. From the off I was enjoying what I heard. I'd been listening to post-rock bands for a number of years and had not long been listening to Max Richter, having been introduced through his excellent Infra record. In short, I was perfectly primed for Nils Frahm's post-classical piano works.

Spaces is a collection of live recordings, and contains some text explaining that it came to life because his live shows and his studio recordings often feel very different. Having seen him live twice and listened to a few of his studio albums I can say that the studio albums only capture a fraction of the enjoyment I got out of seeing him live; they're great albums, but I was astounded by his live show (the first time I saw him was in the Roundhouse in May 2015, when he opened the show with a 45-minute long piece over three pianos; I didn't want it to end. The second time was at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall with a £5 ticket, quite the bargain).

It's not often I'd recommend a live album as a starting point for someone wanting to get into an artist (or a best-of for that matter - both feel a bit like cheating), but I'd 100% recommend Spaces to anyone wanting to get into Nils Frahm's music. It's got a bit of everything - on the first side alone you have post-rock with Says and classical with Said and Done. The real star of the show is side 3 featuring just one track made up of four songs seamlessly strung together - For, Peter, Toilet Brushes (where he literally plays the stings inside his grand piano with toilet brushes) and More. In terms of getting close to the live experience, this is excellent - both the way the songs flow fluidly from one to another and the length of song that creates is very much how I remember his live show. Hammers is also worth a mention for being instantly fun and a more concise highlight.

Format: Double 12", die-cut sleeve, two inserts
Tracks: 11
Cost: £0 new
Bought: Gift
When: 14/11/14
Colour: Black
Etching: none
mp3s: Download code

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels

I should have been much quicker off the mark with Run the Jewels; I’ve been a big fan of El-P for a while and have an awful lot of time for his I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead record. I was aware he was working on something called Run the Jewels from his regular stoned tweeting, but neglected checking it out for far too long (I think for a little while, I wasn't even sure what it was, let alone that it was music I should definitely have been excited about). Then I remember there being a video for A Christmas Fucking Miracle that appeared on Pitchfork one morning near Christmas in 2013, which I watched and was instantly floored. I cursed myself for being so lazy.

I looked into getting their album, but ended up putting it off for a few weeks. Then it sold out and I was gutted. A few months later it went back on sale through Ninja Tune’s UK store and I took the opportunity to order a copy as soon as possible. It's now very readily available, but I'm glad I didn't sleep on it for any longer.

I was very excited to hear the rest of the record and had a great time on the first listen. My initial thoughts were very similar to how I feel about the album now - it is a really great album, but A Christmas Fucking Miracle takes it up a notch or two. Little did I know that they'd then take the greatness of that song and turn it into two albums of songs of equal or greater brilliance. RTJ was the first time I heard Killer Mike, but had been a bit aware that El had produced his album not long beforehand. The combination of the two of them is one of the main things that makes RTJ so special, but everybody knows that. It's hard to say positive things about RTJ that haven't already been said, because over the last five years they've established themselves as one of the best rap acts around; everybody loves them, as everybody should.

One thing I can't recommend enough is sitting down with the album and reading the lyrics. I know it seems a remarkably boring thing to do, but I eventually did that with both RTJ1 and RTJ2 and it added so much to my experience. I started with RTJ2, as I'd had the mp3s for a little while before getting the vinyl - I knew the songs well, but reading the lyrics meant I had a far greater enjoyment. I then went back and did the same with RTJ1. I try to listen to what people are singing/rapping about in music, but sometimes it's hard not to just take it line-to-line - it's nice every now and again to make a conscious effort to take in the whole song and see what it's really about. Again, this has been said many a time, but these guys write some of the best raps I've ever heard.

Speaking of which, Banana Clipper has one of my favourite RTJ lyrics - "Producer gave me a beat / Said it's the beat of the year / I said El-P didn't do it / Get the fuck out of here". I distinctly remember them playing that one the first time I saw them at Primavera Sound and being relieved to find that everyone else thought it was worthy of shouting back (side note, both times I've seen RTJ have been so, so much fun). Other highlights on RTJ1 are 36" ChainSea Legs and, of course, A Christmas Fucking Miracle; the line "Still spell America with the triple K" is proving scarily true. As a huge fan of Lovage, it's nice to see Prince Paul revive his Chest Rockwell alter-ego on Twin Hype Back too.

The album is generally available with the same bonus disc as here (I think) featuring an extra song (Pew Pew Pew), a couple of remixes and the same again as instrumentals (but the mp3 download only includes the vocal versions) - I think initially there was a version with instrumentals of the whole album too. The remix of Sea Legs is particularly pleasing - the bassline is brought to the front to the point where it sounds like the horn of a large ship, appropriately given the song. On top of that, both discs are on a lovely clear vinyl with green splatter. I know it's a silly thing to get excited about, but I also like that it's a double LP so that it looks consistent alongside the following two album which are themselves double albums - it looks great in the racks.

At some point soon I'll have to learn some better adjectives to write appropriately about RTJ2 and RTJ3; I definitely can't describe them with sufficient praise with the words I currently know.

Format: Double 12", insert
Tracks: 16
Cost: £22 new
Bought: Ninja Tunes website
When: 18/05/14
Colour: Clear with green splatter
Etching: none
mp3s: Download code

Monday, 5 March 2018

Rise Against - Revolutions Per Minute

In 2003 I was at college and introduced to Rise Against by my friend Steve. He'd got into them via some other bands from that scene and lent me their first album, The Unravelling. I enjoyed it, so was pleased to see they were touring with The Mad Caddies as part of the Fat Wreck Tour. A lot of my friends were into ska punk back then, and a few were into more regular punk, with a healthy overlap between the two - that meant that the Fat Wreck Tour was big news. I'd been to a ska punk gig on the first day of college (Save Ferris, as my friend Thom had a spare ticket and I had nothing better to do) and had a great time. I've never had much time for ska on record at any point in my life, but that night introduced me to the fun you can have seeing it live. I learnt to move my legs when I dance that night, something which has caused much embarrassment to many people around me for many years since.

Anyway, the same friend had bought four tickets to see Mad Caddies and Rise Against down in Brighton, and had borrowed his parents' car to drive down there. However, my invitation was not entirely for the best reasons. Thom wanted Olly to come, but not Olly's girlfriend at the time so invited me instead to fill up the car and use the last ticket. I was aware of this, but wanted to see Rise Against, so wasn't too offended. We drove down early (listening to 2 Many DJs most of the way - an album I strongly associate with that road trip and one other down to Cornwall) and explored Brighton. Olly had to spend a lot of the day on the phone to his rather pissed off girlfriend - I have a grainy, 2003-quality picture of us hanging out on Brighton beach with Olly in the distance, on the phone. I remember it well.

The gig was in the Concorde 2, the only time I ever got to go to that venue. It was sweaty, packed and great fun. Flipsides and Lawrence Arms played first and second, Rise Against third and then The Mad Caddies. Rise Against had just released Revolutions Per Minute and I'd heard a few songs on Thom's minidisc player in the library. It was clearly a catchy record, and both the songs I knew from the first album and the new ones sounded great. Just after their set I saw Thom come back from the merch table with a copy of LP, so went over to grab a copy for myself. I regretted buying it early as it was a pain to keep hold of during the mayhem that ensued for The Mad Caddies, but it survived perfectly, and I was still able to enjoy the band. I've since learnt to keep my record buying to the end of the night, something blindingly obvious in hindsight.

Before I write about the music, the most notable thing about this record is that it has the smoothest edge of any record I've ever touched. I know that's a very strange thing to mention, but it's like butter. Some records, as you flip them over you feel like they're trying to carve away your fingerprints with their sharp edges; not here, the edge flows so neatly between your fingers I can never just turn it over once - going from side A to side B usually involves a few times back and forth just to make the most of it. I wish all records were on such round-edged vinyl. Like I said, a strange thing to care about, but if you felt it, you'd know.

Revolutions per Minute is a great record - fast, energetic and raw-enough vocals to make it sound way more edgy that it might do otherwise. In the years since then, I listened to a lot of other punk, and my time in Cardiff was particularly dominated by bands like Hot Water Music (and local bands who tried to sound like HWM), Small Brown Bike and other gruff-punk bands; it's a genre I have a lot of time for still. I've not listened to Rise Against much in the last 10 years, so it's funny playing it now having listened to so much other punk music. One thing is that it sounds like one of the guitars is missing pretty much all the time. I remember thinking Black Masks and Gosoline was a great song, and it's still incredibly catchy, but I can't help but think the whole thing needs another guitar. I'm not sure I've ever thought that about a song before, but here we are. Same is true of Blood-Red, White & Blue. At first I thought maybe I just had it on too quietly, but no matter how loud something sounds missing. They're perfectly good songs and enjoyable despite that. Voices Off Camera:, Torches and Last Chance Blueprint are great songs too - choruses that are instantly familiar. It would be a year before I'd see American Beauty and hear where the samples came from in the latter. Amber Changing closes the album-proper with a huge chorus before the band, inexplicably, go into a cover of Any Way You Want It by Journey, which is a very strange way to finish the album.

The fact that I've not really listened to Rise Against much in the last 10 years is worth dwelling on a bit. I only own their first two albums and have vague memories of hearing some singles from the third that were very clean, polished and just a bit annoying (or should that last word be "preachy"? If I'm being honest, that was what made them annoying). I know my brother remained a fan, so maybe I should borrow his copies and have a listen to the later stuff the band did. Anyway, between all that and going to university (in the first term I was introduced to Black Eyes and Hum), Rise Against didn't seem so interesting anymore. After that I had my ATP-years and gruff-punk-years (I've never exclusively listened to one genre, but I can sum up most of my life in broad waves of genre-focused discoveries) and whatever genre-years I'm in now (I think a gradual transition from post-rock into neo-classical/noise (all of which are neatly covered in one section in my local record store)).

I've had more fun listening to this album than I thought I would (and more fun that all that criticism implies), so I'm looking forward to digging out The Unravelling for its blog post sometime in the future.

Format: 12", insert
Tracks: 13
Cost: £10 new
Bought: Gig
When: 23/04/03
Colour: black
Etching: none
mp3s: no

Friday, 2 March 2018

Electric Wizard - Time to Die

Time to Die, Electric Wizard's eighth album, was the fourth of theirs I heard. I'd started strong on Dopethrone, then got Let Us Prey and Black Masses. I was really enjoying what I'd heard and had a great time seeing them live. I'm not a huge metal fan, but every now and again a band has a huge impact on me. Electric Wizard is one of those bands.

A few months after it came out I found this copy of Time to Die in Spillers Records when I was back in Cardiff for the weekend. I think I knew they'd released a new one, but hadn't had a chance to pick up a copy. At that point I was more of a casual fan gradually buying albums as-and-when. I was certainly pleased to have a chance to buy it without needing to order it, although knowing there were probably more exciting colours out there was a bit of a shame (I think it got reissued for Record Store Day shortly afterwards too).

A month and a half later I placed Time to Die as my third favourite album that year (behind Thee Silver Mt. Zion and Shellac - it was a strong year). A month and a half isn't a long time, but I knew two things: it was a truly great Electric Wizard album and a truly great album in general. I don't know the generally accepted ranking of Electric Wizard's albums (beyond Dopethrone and Come My Fanatics competing for the top places) but I certainly consider this one of their best and would recommend it, along with those two, to anyone getting into the band.

The opening duo that make up side 1 are incredible - both amazingly memorable, slow and brutal. The riff on the title track is great and carries the song out brilliantly. It captures everything I want from the band in one go and Jus's vocal are perfect. I'm listening to it pretty loud, but I keep wanting it to be louder - it's the sort of song that needs to take over everything. I Am Nothing is a huge slab of bleakness (which isn't a criticism) and the instrumental Destroy Those Who Love God isn't just filler, as you might expect it to be. We Love the Dead also has some incredible guitars that really make the song and effects on Lucifer's Slaves are brilliantly psychedelic.

I've listened to Time to Die a lot over the last few years and I still love it. I've over-played Dopethrone a bit so it's become a go-to Electric Wizard album on my iPod (I'm missing mp3s for a lot of their albums). Every now and again you want an album to pummel you into despair, and Time to Die will certainly do that in the best possible way.

Format: Double 12", gatefold, picture sleeves, poster
Tracks: 9
Cost: £21 new
Bought: Spillers Records, Cardiff
When: 15/11/14
Colour: Black
Etching: none
mp3s: Download code

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Manic Street Preachers - The Holy Bible [UK RSD picture disc]

Back in the early 2000's my love of the Manic Street Preachers and discovery of eBay collided with excellent consequences; I bought so many strange releases in an early attempt to hear as many of their songs as possible and have a complete collection. In my browsing of eBay, I heard about the "US mix" of The Holy Bible for the first time - a guy was selling bootleg copies and I was kinda tempted. I decided not to buy one - the bootlegs were still quite pricey and I didn't like the idea of buying something that wasn't real. With that decision, it ended up being another couple of years before I'd hear the US mix of the The Holy Bible.

In 2004, it was announced that the Manics were releasing a 10th anniversary edition of The Holy Bible with the US mix on a second disc. I had a flyer about it from somewhere (possibly after seeing them on the Lifeblood tour?) and remember texting a friend about it. I was excited, not just for the the bonus tracks (some of which I had, some I didn't) and the dvd, but mostly to finally hear the US mix that I'd read about.

I remember being slightly underwhelmed by the mix when I first heard it. I think I expected it to be more different - I imagine a couple of years of wondering what it might sound like didn't help keep my expectations in check. The differences were there, but rarely make a material difference to the album as a whole. I'm not remotely an expert on music production (I'm far less than a novice) so to the (very) untrained ear it is very hard to say what has been mixed differently. As a result, the following paragraph about how the songs sound different is painfully vague and has an over-reliance on the word "different".

From the off, Yes just sounds different - not better or worse necessarily, just different. The guitars are quieter (I think) and it somehow sounds slower. I think I prefer the the original mix here, but maybe that's just my memories of listening to a murky cassette copy when I was 15 kicking in - there's something brilliant about the opening song sounding so intentionally off-putting, and I love that. Ifwhiteamerica... also sounds cleaner, but it works for that song. Funny how subtle differences can work in different ways. Of Walking Abortion barely sounds different, whilst She is Suffering is one of the most notably different versions - there's almost a wash over the whole song that adds a certain dreaminess. Achieves of Pain is far less dark and the guitars just before the chorus have hair-metal feel to them - it's only brief, but makes a difference to the song nonetheless. The verses of Revol are definitely worse - it feels like everything has been swept away and covered in cotton wool. As a result, the choruses lack the punch. It's not until This is Yesterday on the second side that I can hear that anything has changed (so much so, you almost wonder for a while if they pressed the wrong side B). The difference on This is Yesterday appears to mostly be extra echo on James' vocals; again, I couldn't say if it's better or worse, just different. The intro to Die in the Summertime is all over the shop; The Intense Humming of Evil is also pretty similar whilst P.C.P. was something strange done to the vocals that I'm not keen on.

Having never been musical, I do find it fascinating to see the effect of a new mix. You always assume the songs are the sole creation of the musicians in the band, but the relationship with the producer becomes apparent quite quickly; how that then translates to the mixing and mastering is another thing altogether. I can't begin to imagine what it's like to hear the song you wrote as countless slightly different versions and choose the one that fits the best - a bit more reverb here, an echo there - the lifecycle of a song is something I'll probably never fully understand unless my musical abilities take a dramatic change for the better (they'd have to exist first). I'm not actively working on this, so I very doubt I'll ever know.

Anyway, for Record Store Day 2015 they repressed The Holy Bible on picture disc - the UK getting the US mix and the US getting the original mix. I was lucky enough to find a copy of the US release on holiday a year and a half later (on sale too). I love the artwork they used for the US mix - a close up of the boy from the Faster single faintly overlaid with the image of Jesus that appears on the cd picture disc and in the booklet - it's so subtle I didn't notice it until recently. I love the original artwort, but I think this would also have made for a striking album cover the first time around. The reverse is disappointingly plain, but no one is looking at that.

Format: 12", picture disc
Tracks: 13
Cost: £25 new
Bought: Truck Store, Oxford
When: 18/04/15
Colour: picture disc
Etching: none
mp3s: no

Monday, 19 February 2018

The Cat Empire - Two Shoes

Twelve years ago I spent a month driving through the Australian outback with a group of ten friends. We flew to Darwin, hired three cars and started driving south, all the way to Kangaroo Island, just off the coast, south of Adelaide. It was an incredible experience. I couldn't drive at the time, so made myself useful by bringing along a bunch of mix cds for the journey (it was on that trip that I made a bunch of people fall in love with 57 by Biffy Clyro). After about three weeks, the cds were scratched from being in heavy rotation and even I was beginning to tire of my mixes. Luckily, we were passing through Adelaide where Seb's girlfriend was studying, so she gave us some new music. A short while beforehand she'd mentioned an Australian band that she and Seb had both been enjoying called The Cat Empire. I'd not heard of them, and for a few days, until we got cd in the car, I thought they were called "The Cat On Fire" (clearly confused by Seb and Vio's French accents), a much less pleasant band name. I remember it vividly, driving through the rolling green hills of the south of Australia, pondering the band name, The Cat On Fire.

When we got in the cars to continue south to Kangaroo Island, Vio popped Two Shoes by The Cat Empire in the cd player and I was introduced to the band's music for the first time (and their correct name). I didn't really know what to expect, the couple had a varied music taste, but I enjoyed what I heard. It was upbeat, fun and the perfect music to drive through Australia with the windows down to. They sample from so many genres it's impossible to pin them down, and (mostly) tread the thin line between pop and rock with such enthusiasm you don't mind when they cross over into full-on pop.

A short while after getting back to Canberra after the new term had started, I found a cd copy of Two Shoes in the second-hand cd store in town (along with a Boysetsfire cd, K by Kula Shaker, an album I'd had a strange craving for for a couple of years, and The Acoustic EP by The Early November, the latter of which was $1 and I only found because there was a person in the queue so I had a quick browse of the bargain rack by the counter. They were generally a terrible band (I'd go on to find out) but that EP was brilliant and became a hit among some of my friends that term). It was about £4, which was pretty cheap and I had greatly enjoyed it, so was very pleased to add it to my little collection of cds and records over there.

Popping the cd onto my hifi, I was finally able to listen to it properly - although some might say that the noise of a road-trip and friends chatting over it is the correct way to hear this album. Two Shoes is a solid record - the opening trio set the scene brilliantly, but the songs that make up Side B on this LP release are the gems for me - The Car Song and Two Shoes are amongst the most quintessential Cat Empire songs. The latter has a slower moment of reflection that makes the surprisingly sombre Miserere less out of place (although it never returns to the carnival like Two Shoes does). Miserere is another song I have a huge amount of time for, partly for how different it is, but also for how good it is - the lyrics reach a great intensity whilst the music keeps things calm - it's something I've not seen much of since Dub War's Silencer. Side C features some of the shamelessly upbeat songs (which actually plays out as the weaker part of the album) but The Night That Never End closes it off perfectly (with it's miniature waltz-break), along with the "hidden track" 1001.

A few years ago I saw that the band were releasing all their albums on vinyl and I thought to myself it'd be pretty neat to have them all on vinyl. On top of that, there was a boxset version of all of them that I spent a while eyeing up on the internet. The postage from Australia was obviously off-putting and it eventually disappeared from the website (either sold out or never made). I didn't jump on it because I only had their first two albums when I was in Australia and hadn't bought any more of them since returning (but had liked what I heard of So Many Nights from the live album). I wasn't sure if they were a band I still cared deeply about or whether it was just nostalgia; in the latter case, I only really needed the first two. I was pretty pleased then, three or four years later, I found the individual reissues in my local record shop. I bought both the first two on the spot.

In the years since, The Cat Empire have become a go-to band when my wife and I have people over for dinner - I'm in my thirties now, so it's fine to admit that. It's in that rare cross-section of music that we both enjoy, so they've had something of a resurgence for me. It's nice, because every time (without fail) I'm taken back to those times cruising through the Australian countryside.

Format: Double 12", gatefold sleeve, picture sleeves
Tracks: 13
Cost: £21 new
Bought: Truck Store, Oxford
When: 07/11/16
Colour: Black
Etching: none
mp3s: no

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Hot Water Music - Exister

Hot Water Music have released a lot of albums, and I have a copy of most of them. In fact, they've released so many and I have so many I struggle to think which ones I'm missing. As much as I like the band, I'd say that you could live quite happily only owning Fuel For the Hate Game, Caution and A Flight And a Crash, but such a statement is bound to piss some people off. The first time I saw the band was in 2010 (with Leatherface and Solutions in Newport, a gig I travelled back to Wales for) and a friend commented afterwards that he didn't think they should have played songs from The New What Next (their most recent album at the time) as it wasn't worth "trying to get them to work"; he wasn't a fan of that record, I can't begin to imagine what he made of the two that have since followed.

For what it's worth, I thought The New What Next had one really great song (Poison, the opening song. That said, I have the cd, which doesn't include Kill the Night, another song I really like). Similarly, this long-awaited comeback album from 2012 also has one truly great song - Drag My Body. Anyone who read my last post on Chuck Ragan's Live at Skaters' Palace will know I have a lot of time for that song. I strongly suspect that it's actually a song he wrote himself and ended up on a HWM album rather than a solo one - that's no criticism of the rest of the band, it just works incredibly well solo whereas a lot of others don't.

Exister isn't a bad record by any stretch - Mainline, State of Grace and Paid In Full are all solid songs. Is it a vital album for anyone getting into the band? No. Is it an enjoyable listen? Yes. You can't really complain about that. I picked my copy up in Banquet Records along with a handful of other new releases I was catching up on. The vinyl is lovely - the brown and blue swirl, although looks better on side 1 than side 2.

Format: 12", insert
Tracks: 13
Cost: £15 new
Bought: Banquet Records, Kingston
When: 09/07/12
Colour: Blue and brown swirl
Etching: none
mp3s: Download code