The Granite Shore : Once More From The Top, released May 2015

The Granite Shore is the project of Occultation Records curator Nick Halliwell. This is a proper concept album, chronicling the life and death of a rock band as a metaphor for the passing of time and the nature of regret.

It is a thoughtful and complex undertaking, starting with the enigmatic castle pictured on the sleeve, the long quote from Chaucer’s Man Of Law’s Prologue balanced against a quote from Ian Hunter(a minor hero of mine since seeing him practically dragged off stage for starting late and over-running at a festival) of Mott The Hoople and a tempting menu of guest players, mostly acoustic.

To the music, it is divided into two 5 song sections ‘In Public’ and ‘Behind The Scenes’. The opening two songs are rich arrangements with buoyant and idealistic lyrics; ‘Nine Days’ Wonder’ is positively jaunty and suggests that ‘I would dance from here to Norwich in the rain, as long as crowds came out to see me in my triumph and my pain’. Notwithstanding the low annual rainfall in East Anglia, the optimistic lyrical sentiment soon starts to go a bit sour as ‘The Management’ gets entwined with the band and there is also tension with the fan/band relationship. All of this sung to a backdrop of pure sonic joy as the carefully balanced instrumentation glides beneath the melancholy vocal.

Side Two delves deeper behind the façade, with ‘Recorded Sound’ an early highlight with guitar arpeggios and achingly beautiful brass textures. The alcoholic drummer dies, to be replaced with a drum machine in ‘Keeping Time’ then legal wrangling and finally a long meditation by the burned out narrator reminiscing, when it is all over.

It is a triumphant and ambitious piece of work, introspective in parts but the vision and musical realisation of the concept has to be admired. Like Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ it cannot be a relentlessly cheery tale but the sombre words deserve study, as repeated plays of the music continue to reward the listener.

Sound Menagerie : Clocks & Towers, released May 2015

In this site’s pursuit of the full range of independent music around Cambridge I’m not sure how this one slipped by, but better late than never!

Sound Menagerie are the vocals of Abi Parker and the songs and guitar/bass of Steven C Wilson, accompanied on this album by a range of guest musicians. It is the follow up to ‘Far Or Through’, released in 2011. They describe their sound as Alternative/Dream Pop and they have plans to perform live with a band at some point.

I could be down the front of the venue for that, or wistfully considering it from further away as the textures of voice and varied instrumentation blend into a timeless concoction. ‘Smile in The Sky’, the opening track is a jaunty piano driven delight, ‘Stay With Me’ an inviting mixture of acoustic yearning. The title track is a darker affair and echoes the multiple coloured images of clocks and towers on the album cover. Sinister waltz ‘Cat In The Mirror’ ends with haunting sound effects leading into intricate up-tempo love song ‘Colour Of The Rose’. ‘The Silver Tree’ is a lovely brittle folk song, especially in the first minute before the main band comes in and takes it in another direction.

Taking us back most obviously to heady late 60s summer days is the restless ‘Agatha Jones’ and especially one of the strongest tracks on the collection ‘Penny Farthing’, possibly a homage to their love of Syd Barrett and his ‘Bike’ and many of the other influences from Pink Floyd’s debut album.

The album ‘clocks’ in at 52 minutes of enigmatic and carefully crafted songs, plenty to get lost in on a summer afternoon or a late evening…

Bouquet Of Dead Crows : Of The Night, released November 2015

After their boisterous double A-side single set the pace, a track by track review of the forthcoming album from the Cambridge four-piece rockers…

1. Everything Is Temporary. A distant wind blows in some pensive guitar notes; like many bands they have opted for a gradually building introductory track. The vocal sounds world-weary to reflect the title and the instruments have a subtle presence until it all steps up a gear, guitar crashes in and we have a fully developed anthem. A sinister electronic insect swarm ends the track and starts the next…

2. Epicentre. This is when the band kick off the earthquake, you can sense the pleasure they get playing this one, plenty of noise but some sophisticated and varied arrangements too.

3. Just A Little More. Released as a single and reviewed on this site, the track slots in nicely here. “…seems to cram a lot into the three minutes, opening with a guitar figure partly reminiscent of classic prog-rock ‘Heart Of The Sunrise’ by Yes (high-praise indeed!) and dominated by Antoinette’s powerful vocals and a strong hook line. A short bass interlude(Graeme Clarke) is some quieter relief then the track rocks to a heavy finish….”

4. Without You. Slower and sad, excellent sharp bass. As is clearly shown on this track the production on this album is excellent, capturing their ‘live’ energy and contrasting dynamics very well.

5. Drownout. Distorted and heavy, the guitar sounds like some stalking creature, threatening to engulf the vocal. Intense stuff, again with some nice bass touches.

6. The Fundamental Flaw Of Solitude. A lovingly crafted epic track, from the title to the bluesy intro and grinding riff. The hookline works into your brain effectively as does thunderous drumming and extra-low bass.

7. The Silent Path (Time Goes By). A gentler meditation on the nature of time. Acoustic guitar (and drum machine?) framework for some thoughtful lyrics and layered instrumentation.

8. Don’t Panic! The second song on the single, from my previous review “…starts with a thunderous guitar riff from Neil Bruce that hardly lets up and I am always pleased to hear dynamic drumming, energetic stuff from Andrew Coxall, especially in the anarchic instrumental break towards the end…”

9. Like A Flower. In full acoustic mode for this subtle but pivotal piece, featuring the album title line and some neat harmonies.

10. Endless. At just over seven minutes you know that this song is going to cover some extensive ground and it doesn’t disappoint. A catchy vocal line and some well developed instrumental passages.

The album will be launched at the Portland Arms on Friday November 6th…

Horse Party : Paydirt EP, released September 2015

Since their bewitching 2014 album ‘Cover Your Eyes’ Horse Party have continued to build their profile, play live and release singles. On this latest set of three new songs the title track ‘Paydirt’ starts with their recognisable sparse indie blues double guitar, with vocal from Ellie Langley coiling around before it all becomes a bit more boisterous, a wall of guitar crashes in and drives the hookline home. Shannon Hope lets loose on the drums and brings it all to a shattering conclusion.

At the moment I slightly prefer the second song ‘Animal’, an unrelenting ascending riff appears in various guises, mostly very noisy. Although there is a brief pause when ‘I’m animal, you’re animal’ is repeated and is definitely not referring to a zoological collection.

Final cut ‘October’ is slow and spare, but tension is maintained throughout and shows that the band’s skill as songwriters continues to develop. This EP is a very good sample of their ‘live’ sound; unprocessed, energetic and straight to the point.

Teleman, Portland Arms, Cambridge, 3 September 2015

A triumphant return to the Portland for Teleman after their last sell-out show in May 2014.

The packed audience were already in place and bubbling for support Oscar Scheller, playing guitar and backed by another three musicians (all called ‘Oscar’ too?!). I really enjoyed his set of deceptively upbeat songs, shades of the Smiths and Edwyn Collins and with a distinctive voice which was deeper than often heard in the Indie world. ‘Beautiful Words’, ‘Daffodil Days’ and ‘Stay’ were the standout tracks and we even had some rarely heard whistling in ‘Forget Me Not’.

Teleman have continued on the up with frequent BBC 6Music airplay, prestigious support slots and festival appearances and the release of their acclaimed debut album ‘Breakfast’. When the set began with the joyous descending runs of ‘Skeleton Dance’, the poptastic dance track from the album, we knew all the elements were reassuringly in place; intricate drumming, sharp bass, the constantly changing keyboard textures and of course the plaintive voice of Thomas Sanders.
More great stuff from the album followed (’23 Floors Up’, ‘Steam Train Girl’) but much of the set was made up of new songs due to be recorded in a few days time for a new album in March next year. These sound fully formed and potential growers, especially ‘Dusseldorf’ and ‘Glory Hallelujah’. Hopefully one-off single ‘Strange Combinations’ will be included too.

Teleman have an addictive sound with many elements mixed in, sometimes electronica or just rocking out, such as the crowd favourite ‘Not In Control’ which was the final track and a fitting end to an excellent evening…

The British IBM : Psychopaths Dream In Black And White, released 4th September 2015

The second album from Cambridge based three piece The British IBM, consolidating their reputation with a new collection of thoughtful and distinctive songs. ‘All the Time’ is a low-key opener, strummed acoustic guitar and plaintive vocal from IBM songwriter Adrian Killens, it hangs in the air full of regret and disappointment. Electric guitar and glockenspiel fade in and out, perfectly setting the tone for the atmosphere of the album.

‘Hey Mikie’ is a favourite of mine; this one rolls along well with an infectious hookline belying acerbic lyrics. As the album proceeds it does not try to emulate some of the rockier dynamics of their debut but there are many more subtle pleasures on offer here.

Strings are used to great effect on the song of resignation ‘Nothing Ever Lasts That Long’ and resurface on many of the later tracks. It is good to hear some political ideas in ‘Evolution’ but it is the next track ‘We Were the Stars’ which is the pivotal summit of the album, a measured stately ballad about decline and ending, featuring massed voices and strings and also the subject of a smart retro animated promotion video. As a companion to ‘the British IBM’ title track on their first album it stands up well.

‘Nothing’ is bass driven with an insistent guitar line, then the final track is ‘What More Can I Say’, just guitar, voice and cello, ending suddenly.

Each of the eleven tracks has been meticulously produced to get the construction just right, although some of the lyrical concerns may seem a bit downbeat, the layers carefully reveal and sink into your consciousness with subsequent listens.

Ryley Walker, Norwich Arts Centre, 27 August 2015

Norwich is full of historic churches; this church of St Swithin was converted into an Arts Centre in 1980 and won the NME award for best small venue in Britain in 2014.

This was a suitably atmospheric venue for US singer/songwriter Ryley Walker, leading his band on acoustic and 12-string guitar, with drums, double bass, electric piano and electric guitar. This enabled them to reproduce the textures of the stunning recent album but the arrangements went way beyond copying the recorded versions. Opening with ‘On The Banks Of The Old Kishwaukee’ it was several minutes before we arrived at the river and Ryley’s mellow vocals. The audience and most of the band seemed rapt as the waves of sound rolled around the old church. Similar delights followed, including the album title track ‘Primrose Green’.

Ryley has an elegant finger picking style, showcased in a solo set part way through which included a cover of Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ and a great version of ‘Cocaine Blues’. He conjures up a similar intimacy and connection as the late John Martyn on these solo tracks and shows the timeless nature of the music.

An evening of excellent songs and performance at a great venue.