Friday 13 May 2022

Strand of Oaks - Heal

Somehow this is the first Strand of Oaks record I've written about on here, which is surprising (to me) because I've been listening to them for years now. This record feels like an appropriate place to start, but it turns out this wasn't my starting point after all.

In 2018 the Songs: Molina / Memorial Electric Co shows got announced, including a show in London which I instantly bought tickets for. I love Jason Molina's music and was keen to see the songs played live again (I saw Magnolia Electric Co once, but that was the first time I'd heard them). Standing in for Jason was Timothy Showalter, who records under the name Strand of Oaks. At that point in time, I was pretty sure that was how I first heard the name Strand of Oaks. I text my friend Stubbs about the show as he was a big Molina fan too, and he told me that Strand of Oaks had released a beautiful tribute to Jason in the form of the song JM. I tried to find the song online, but struggled and listened to Pope Kildragon instead, which I really enjoyed.

But it turns out that wasn't the beginning, because I eventually noticed that I'd seen Strand of Oaks at Primavera Sound in 2015. They were the first band we saw on the last day of the festival, and I remember my friend's friend encouraging us to get there in good time such that we could see them (well, I remember him encouraging us to get there in time to see a band, and looking at the first band we saw each day it must have been Strand of Oaks). Sadly, for whatever reason, that show wasn't enough to make a lasting impression on me (but we saw a lot of bands that weekend, so the competition was tough).

Some time later I found a bunch of songs on my iPod from the Daytrotter Session Strand of Oaks recorded in 2010. This dates my first discovery of Strand of Oaks even earlier, because I was deeply into listening to and downloading Daytrotter Sessions for a few months in the spring of 2010. There was a short period between me discovering the archive of incredible music there and it becoming a paid service, but in that time I'd been a huge fan, downloading sessions from bands I loved and trying a bunch of new ones. Exactly what caused me to download the Strand of Oaks session I don't know, but it was likely a favourable write-up on the site. The songs he played that day are from Leave Ruin, an album I've never really got into, so maybe that's why they didn’t make a huge impression on me.

So after two failed starts, third time I got lucky and became a big fan of Timothy's music. The first album of his that I bought was this one, a month after the Songs: Molina show. They'd played JM that night and it was lovely. I'm pretty sure I had heard it prior to that, but it really worked well that night. It's the highlight of the album - dark and brooding - but that's not to diminish the other songs - Shut In is an incredible song too - there's something Springsteen-esque to the echo on the vocals and the guitars somehow make the song sound really uplifting. Goshen '97 is a great opener (I love the Smashing Pumpkins reference). Generally though it comes across as quite a dark album - Mirage Year and For Me are even heavier than JM; Plymouth sandwiched between them serves only to minimise the despair. All in all, I have a lot of time for this album, so I'm glad everything finally clicked with Strand of Oaks.

Format: 12", picture sleeve
Tracks: 10
Cost: £15 new
Bought: Norman Records website
When: 26/10/18
Colour: Black
Etching: none
mp3s: Download

Tuesday 26 April 2022

Max Richter - The Blue Notebooks

Max Richter is prolific to a fault. In recent years he has been releasing records faster than anybody could possibly keep up with, particularly film scores and soundtracks. I've forced myself to stop buying so many of his records because I don't feel like I've really even spent enough time with some of the ones I bought years ago, let alone any new ones. Not all of them have been money well spent (more on that another time), but I still seem to keep thinking about buying more. But it wasn't always like that. Not all that long ago he released standalone albums that weren't held together by a narrative or very obvious theme; The Blue Notebooks is one such album.

Compared to his more recent, non-soundtrack releases, The Blue Notebooks feels like an anomaly, but it's the lack of over-bearing theme that makes it so enjoyable. The songs play like just songs that happen to have been written at a similar time and in a similar way; it's something you'd think nothing of from a rock or pop album, but when you think about it alongside Sleep or Voices or Woolf Works or Vivaldi Recomposed it feels a world apart. Without the weight of a theme, it feels light, which is saying something for the album that spawned On the Nature of Daylight, a song that would carve a life outside of Max's career. It's an incredible song, and worthy of all the praise it gets (and the presence of two versions on this album, and countless other slight variations and re-recordings). Shadow Journal shouldn't be overlooked though, as it probably does a better job of representing what Max's early output sounded like - minimal, electronic but with a cutting and memorable violin. Organum is lovely and The Trees is the other highlight - more soaring violins and melancholy pianos. The build up breaks before it has a chance to explode in a Godspeed or Mogwai or EITS manner, which reminds me more of Low, a band who've often pushed songs to that same point just before they explode/implode. I'm sure there's a wealth of classical influences that a more learned person would be able to reel off here, but I'll have to stick with my rock references.

I bought this copy one Saturday afternoon in Truck Store, along with the second Talons album (a post-rock band with two violinists, so two albums with more in common than you'd assume on paper). I'd often stroll down there on a Saturday afternoon and around that time they always had a cracking box of records labelled "post-rock / neo-classical / noise" and some of the best (non-Jason Molina) records I bought in that shop came from there. It was my fifth Richter album in four years, having been introduced to him on Infra. This is the 2015 reissue, so ten years after the original release and not long after Max's huge increase in recorded output. But I didn't know all of that, I just thought it was another nice neo-classical record to play. Whilst the vinyl is 180 grams, there's a huge amount of crackling on my copy during the first recording of On the Nature of Daylight, but it's far from the only version I have of that song, so I'm not too worried.

Format: 12"
Tracks: 12
Cost: £21 new
Bought: Truck Store, Oxford
When: 15/08/15
Colour: Black
Etching: none
mp3s: Download

Saturday 16 April 2022

Nine Inch Nails - Quake

Around 2000 or 2001 I bought a Sega Saturn. By this point, it was already considered a failed console, a slight oddity of the generation between the classic cartridge eras and the huge success of the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. A friend who I'd spent a lot of time playing Goldeneye with had discovered drugs and was already selling off all his possessions to buy weed; he asked if I wanted to buy his Sega Saturn and six games for a fairly measly sum - I can't remember how much, but I want to say £30. I wasn't a huge gamer, but enjoyed my N64 enough to think I should try another console. In amongst the games included were Quake, Alien Trilogy, a futuristic racing game that I didn't enjoy as much as F-Zero X, and Loaded, the game that introduced me to Pop Will Eat Itself (who themselves eventually crossed paths with NIN near the end of their career, and at the start of Clint Mansell's incredible film-scoring era. I wonder if he and Trent ever chatted about the Quake soundtrack).

Anyway, I found almost all of the games on the Sega Saturn incredibly hard to play, and Quake was particularly disappointing since the graphics were so basic compared to what I'd grown up used to on Goldeneye (which I'm sure looks beyond shit to anyone playing games now). I'd heard so much about what a landmark game Quake was that I had very high expectations, but couldn't progress in it very far because I was so bad at it, something I attributed to the crappy graphics, but was much more likely related to my skill level. However, I knew that Trent Reznor had done the soundtrack, and I remember hearing these haunted, sparse but sufficiently industrial soundscapes and thinking they were cool. The great thing about Sega Saturn games was that you could put the cd in your cd player, skip the game data on track 1 and play the rest of the soundtrack as an audio cd - that was how I heard Pop Will Eat Itself, and where I first heard all these songs (I honestly was so bad at the game I probably heard at most three of them whilst actually playing the game).

Fast forward 20 years, and I was stood in my kitchen having just got my children to bed when I saw on Twitter (or possibly an email) that NIN were putting out the Quake soundtrack on vinyl as well as reissuing With Teeth (one of my favourite NIN albums), and The Social Network soundtrack (which I didn't buy - I think collecting all the soundtracks that Trent Reznor has done is a rabbit-hole too far). I immediately ordered Quake and With Teeth and they turned up amazingly soon afterwards. They'd done such a great job with the previous reissues, with such attention to detail and care that I was keen for more.

The Quake soundtrack is no exception to this rule. The ten songs are spread across three sides of vinyl and the fourth is etched with some lines of what I think are C++ relating to the songs in the game code (there's a line that looks like a comment starting with // which I think is C++, although I've never dared to try to use that language myself). It's basically impossible to photograph, so you'll just have to believe me on that. There was due to be a nice booklet containing details of the recording like in their other reissues, but I think a legal dispute meant it couldn't be published, although Trent leaked it on the internet as he is known to do. The Quake logo on the sleeve is embossed, although my favourite detail might be the images of the blocky off-white CRT monitor on the inner sleeves. It's funny how something once so prevalent now looks so dated.

It's probably fair to say that about 20 years passed between me hearing the songs on my Sega Saturn cd and getting this vinyl. I would have played them a few times back in the day, but nowhere near as much as I played The Downward Spiral or Broken or The Fragile. I went off to university and the Sega Saturn spent a good few years sat in a cupboard at my parents' house. Eventually I told my brother he could have it, but I have no idea how much he played it. He is a much better gamer than me, so I like to think he heard more of the soundtrack in its natural habitat than I ever did, but I don't know for sure. When the vinyl got released, I asked him to dig out the cd so I could make a copy of the mp3s, something that had never crossed my mind in the years in between. I still don't listen to these songs often, but when I'm in the mood for instrumental Trent Reznor songs, they often fill the void nicely (it's a very heavily populated genre of music, and the pandemic-released Ghosts albums have become my go-to listens).

Often here very little happens, but the mood is set perfectly. I find it hard to think that people could genuinely have found the gameplay scary, since the graphics were what they were, but I guess expectations were lower. However, this music is thoroughly haunting in isolation, so perhaps it was exactly what the game needed. It's funny to think of 1996-era Nine Inch Nails creating this soundtrack having no idea that Trent would go on to become one of Hollywood's biggest film-score composers. It's nice to hear the beginning of that arc, and how established the style already was.

Format: Double 12", picture sleeves, gatefold
Tracks: 10
Cost: £44
Bought: Nine Inch Nails website
When: 19/09/2020
Colour: Black
Etching: lines of code on side D
mp3s: None

Friday 14 January 2022

Explosions in the Sky - The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place


I think we're all totally in agreement by now that this album is perfect. It's not a term I use lightly, but surely this is the time to use it, if ever. Explosions have released a bunch of other great albums - some that sound a bit like this, others that sound a bit further away - and countless other instrumental bands have released albums that sound broadly similar, but none have done so as wonderfully as Explosions did here. Five songs, each fascinating and emotive and majestic; no messing around, no filler. Perfect.

I suspect it wasn't always that way, but somehow nearly two decades have passed and this album has become even more of a gem. I got into the band just after they'd released All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone and had heard that this album was worth seeking out, so bought a cheap cd copy a few months before going to see them at the All Tomorrow's Parties they curated. I loved it from the outset and seeing the songs thrashed out on the main stage in Minehead that spring was amazing. 

I gradually bought their other albums, but ended up waiting until the pandemic hit to upgrade my cd copy for the vinyl. Record Shops had been shut for only a short period at the time (compared to how long this thing would stretch on for), but it'd been a hard time, so I figured I'd buy some records I was after from a few of my favourite shops (that had a reasonable online presence) and fill some holes in my collection (plus, being at home meant I wasn't really spending any money). Resident Records had this one in, so I was pleased to get a copy. I distinctly remember gasping at the stunning etching on side D - the simplicity of it makes it stand out from most other etched records. Every record collection should have a copy of this masterpiece.

Format: double 12", picture sleeves
Tracks: 5
Cost: £18.49 new
Bought: Resident Records website
When: 30/04/20
Colour: Black
Etching: Etching of birds on side D
mp3s: Download card

Friday 7 January 2022

Various Artists - Tiny Changes: A Celebration of Frightened Rabbit's The Midnight Organ Fight


I was gutted when I heard the news of Scott Hutchison's disappearance and subsequent death. I'd drifted away from Frightened Rabbit's music at the time, but The Midnight Organ Fight remained a firm favourite. I'd bought it at the very start of my PhD having read a review in the university newspaper (which dates the time I read it, as I'm pretty sure no one reads the university newspaper beyond their first few weeks), and the line "While I'm alive, I'll make tiny changes to earth" became something of a mantra for the next three-and-a-half years - the only way to motivate yourself through a PhD is remembering that the very minor thing you're studying is entirely new, and the whole purpose is to say something no one has ever said before; there are mathematical theorems that I discovered and they're mine and forever will be - I was the first one to discover those things and those "tiny changes" are mine (and, trust me, they are tiny). It got me through that period of my life.

But I ended up loving The Winter of Mixed Drinks less, and I somehow missed out on Pedestrian Verse entirely. I picked up a copy of Painting of a Panic Attack in 2017 and really found little in it for me. I'd lost track of Scott's side-projects and didn't discover the excellent Mastersystem album until after his death (more on that another time). I vividly remember scrolling through Twitter one morning at work and seeing the final tweet Scott posted and the ensuing panic from friends and family. It was a (thankfully, so far) unique feeling and one I hope not experience again. Whilst I'd never even met Scott, his music on The Midnight Organ Fight had meant so much to me I was really thrown; I felt particularly helpless, wishing there was something I could but almost certainly being hundreds of miles away from anywhere useful. 

As a big Manics fan, my mind soon drifted onto thoughts of Richey Edwards. When I first heard the Manics, Richey had already been missing for years, but seeing the panic and fear in real time from Scott's loved ones made me think about different it must have been in 1995 without the internet. Two days later, there was a sad ending to Scott's story but it felt like longer - in my mind there was a week between the two events, but maybe that's how time feels like it passes in situations like that. I can't begin to imagine what it was like for Richey's friends and family.

Three paragraphs in and I've not even mentioned this record yet. Before Scott's death, this tribute album was in the works - it's status as a classic album was already established. I wasn't aware how well-loved it was by people other than me, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was universally adored. Perhaps "surprised" is the wrong word - there's no reason to be surprised; it's a huge album. I didn't (and still don't) know most of the names of the artists covering the songs here, but Biffy Clyro, The Twilight Sad and Craig Finn were enough to give me an idea and also draw me in. I remember watching a heart-wrenching video of The Twilight Sad covering Keep Yourself Warm at Primavera Sound shortly after Scott's death (although they cover Floating the Forth here, a song I can only imagine was even harder to manage).

When we first moved into this house, my daughter's room was the only one that we'd decorated and spent much time in, so I kept a record player up there with a small handful of records. This one was up there for a long time and I played it a lot with her, particularly while my wife was in hospital after our second was born. It's not the most appropriate record to play in front of a young child, but I'm pretty sure she wasn't listening to the words. As a result, I have bittersweet memories of these versions of the songs - playing Duplo with my two-year-old, but also thinking about the sad end of Scott's life. The memories felt a world apart from my memories of the original album - academia and going to as many gigs as I could manage in London. A critical but very true statement is that these songs aren't as good as the originals - few add anything to the excellent song-writing of the originals (Craig Finn's cover is one of the better ones, and Biffy's take on The Modern Leper is unusual, but comes together in the end). But I love that I had a chance to reconnect with these songs in a thoroughly different phase of my life and create new memories of them.

Format: Double 12", gatefold sleeve, booklet
Tracks: 17
Cost: £25.50 new
Bought: Resident Records website
When: 05/08/19
Colour: Black
Etching: none
mp3s: none

Thursday 25 November 2021

Attack in Black - The First and Second Efforts of a Band That Died Before You Could Kill Them


I have a strange relationship with eBay these days. I don't use it much, and when I do it's almost entirely buying Manic Street Preachers or Jason Molina records. But sometimes I just browse it a bit when I'm bored, and type in the names of bands that pop into my mind whose records I might like to buy. I still long to own a copy of Attack in Black's Marriages LP on vinyl (any version will do, and there have been some nice reissues since the original that I didn't buy when we saw them blow us away supporting Far in TJ's), so I mindlessly typed their name into the search bar one evening. Somewhere near the top of the results was this LP which I don't think I was even aware of, and for only £8 (£10.35 with postage). I put in a-slightly-over-starting-bid offer and waited until the clock ran out.

The record is, as the title describes, the first two releases from the band pressed onto one (45rpm) record - their 2005 debut, self-titled EP and the 2006 Widows EP that preceded Marriages. Apparently there are 750 copies in total, and only 200 on yellow, so I was lucky to find a copy at all, let alone for just over a tenner.

I have a copy of the debut EP from a trip I took to Canada in the spring after I'd seen them in Newport (they were touring, but the dates didn't work with our trip around the east of the country, which is a shame). I found a record shop in Toronto called Criminal Records and bought a lot of music, including two Attack in Black LPs and the debut EP on cd (the only format it was released on). Later that same day, I found a copy of Hum's You'd Prefer an Astronaut on cd; it was a good day. When I got back to Cardiff I popped the cd in and was amazed to hear five scrappy hardcore punk songs thrashed out in under 15-minutes. In hindsight, the inclusion of a cover of Depression by Black Flag should have been a clue, but I definitely expected them to be doing it more in the style of the band I knew from Marriages (as it turns out, it is very faithful to the original). I'd already been caught off-guard by their change in sound between Marriages and The Curve of the Earth, so hearing their hardcore beginnings added to a ridiculously fast change in style. We saw and listened to a lot of hardcore bands when I was in Cardiff, and this version of Attack in Black sounded like pretty much every band we were into at the time. But there were hints of the melody they'd eventually find in the choruses.

I'd not heard Widows before getting this record, but was very familiar with the songs Broken Things and The Love Between You and I from my over-playing of Marriages over the years. However, these recordings are different, and different enough to make the arc from the debut EP to Marriages more understandable. Broken Things is one of my favourite songs (in general, not just by the band), and this version is a bit looser, a bit thrasher in places and feels less polished (in a good way). The bare drums and group vocals in the chorus are every bit as perfect as they are on the later version. Something about the guitars in The Love Between You and I have much more in common with the debut than the album version. Similarly, there's a hint to the vocals that's a bit more hardcore, despite the fact that Daniel's signing is actually singing now. The link between the two eras is much clearer on the other two songs, Cut and Run and 1950, which both would have been the least hardcore thing on the debut, but not sounded out of place - the hints of melody almost doing battle with the older style within the songs themselves. It's nice when those linking pieces fall into place and you can see better how a band's sound developed. If I'd heard this before the debut, I wouldn't have been quite so surprised putting that cd into my player back in 2009.

Format: 12", numbered (50/200)
Tracks: 9
Cost: £10.35 new
Bought: eBay
When: 16/01/21
Colour: Transparent yellow
Etching: none
mp3s: none

Friday 12 November 2021

Pitch Shifter - The 1990 Demo

I probably didn't need to buy the demos of Pitch Shifter's debut album, but here we are. On one hand, the band meant a huge amount to me for a good and important period of time, and despite not being a fan of their earlier industrial stuff when I first heard it I've found I quite enjoy it now I'm older. On the other hand - and I say this as something of a compliment I guess - I'd honestly struggle to tell you whether I was listening to the demos or the album itself, and I already have that album on vinyl and on cd; this LP feels pretty redundant. I was vaguely aware of the band putting the record out via Kickstarter but I didn't go out of my way to buy it, only picking it up a while later when it found it's way into the Record Culture sale section (where I think there is still at least one copy). I can't turn down a good offer.

Of the eight songs on Industrial, six of them have demos here (Gravid Rage and New Flesh are missing), and we instead have Behemoth, an unreleased song from the era, originally called Mouthscape. Musically, the quality of the demos is on a par with the album itself. I wouldn't necessarily call either "good", in fact part of the charm of Industrial was the bleak, imposing wall of sound and lack of frills. Mark's barked vocals might be different, or they might be exactly the same - there are only a few moments when you can really tell what he's saying anyway. I'm sure someone somewhere would have noticed if they'd just pressed six of the exact same versions of these songs in a different order, but I can't help but wonder if this is just some elaborate prank - that maybe they did just put out the exact same mixes but call them demos (possibly even by accident). Or maybe I should listen to the actual album again to be more sure. The vocals on Landfill do sound different (a bit more echo, perhaps?) but I've not listened to the album in a while, so maybe I'm just mis-remembering. I still love the simplicity of those lyrics. Behemoth is the only thing that really sounds like a demo - it fits perfectly onto the album musically, although the vocals are much cleaner than anything else from the era. It's a nice addition, but not worth the entry cost on it's own.

Thinking about it, it's a rather major criticism of a record - the idea that it really doesn't need to exist because it sounds identical to one that I paid the grand sum of £2.85 for on eBay (including postage!). A bigger criticism is the artwork, which looks like someone bashed together in about 3 minutes in a Word doc. The font is definitely the first one they found in the dropdown menu. It bothers me that there's a white square before the word "Pitch" and one after, but not one after "Shifter" - it makes sense when the two words are written one above the other - as on the Industrial artwork, but makes no sense in one line. Mostly it's one of the least interesting looking record sleeves I own, but that aspect is just infuriating. The italic version of the font on the centre label is even more horrific. I'm no design snob, but it looks terrible.

Some nice things to say about it - it's a really heavy, thick vinyl (but why you'd want the demos (allegedly) to be pressed on nicer vinyl than the album itself I don't know), and it's on clear vinyl which is more interesting than just black vinyl. Etched into the run-out grooves are the coordinates of a location in Bristol, which I think is where they hid a "Pitch Shifter skull", although I remember a tweet that no one had discovered it for a good while; I don't have much time to spare, let alone in Bristol, so even if I had noticed these earlier, I doubt I'd have made the journey. It didn't come with a download code, but I'm pretty sure I could just shuffle around the tracks from Industrial in iTunes and have six-sevenths of the experience digitally. 

Format: 12", numbered (462/500)
Tracks: 7
Cost: £18 new
Bought: Record Culture
When: 26/01/21
Colour: Clear
Etching: Side A: "51°26'33'' N - 2°32'10'' W" Side B: "Seth-Wynn-Seth Forever"
mp3s: no