Snapped Ankles, Portland Arms, Cambridge, 16 October 2019

An evening of three artists pushing musical boundaries at the Portland.
Adrena Adrena are a performing duo using laptop-generated and manipulated sounds with live drumming and visuals to match. In two long-form pieces the electronic washes and pulses flow and morph unpredictably, while the giant globe screen looms like the guardian balloon in ‘The Prisoner’ and shows projected abstract images; from the beauty of ice crystals forming to bass drums on fire and rolling down waterfalls.
In true psychedelic avant-garde style it was definitely a musical ‘happening’.

While I am still processing the experience of Adrena Adrena, Nuha Ruby Ra arrives on stage – then she is soon down into the audience with her striking vocals and electro-industrial backing. Usually playing live with a band as an extra focal point, it is a challenging task to engage the polite and generally static Cambridge crowd by direct interaction, but by the second track with its repeated ‘…Rise!…’ she had succeeded in establishing a rapport.
She has created a futuristic inter-genre musical persona which fits in perfectly with the performance art atmosphere of the whole evening.

This show had been sold-out for a while – a reflection of the substantial cult-following for headliners Snapped Ankles. Taking the stage with their identity-disguising headwear (though they are not that secretive, it didn’t seem to be in place in the bar earlier!) and the keyboard player wearing antlers and a bike-light (to connect with the local crowd?) it takes a while to engage fully with their world. On the surface they produce a conventional rock band sound, interwoven with beats activated by hitting synthesiser tree branches and a build-up of doomy tones. But when ‘Let’s Revel’ goes into overdrive, followed by the B-52s dance flavour of ‘Tailpipe’ and the audience starts to move, their appeal becomes obvious. ‘Drink And Glide’ continues in this vein then the social commentary of ‘Pestisound (Moving Out’) is sparser and percussion led.

There were many forays into the audience by the lead singer during the set, including a trip to the bar for hydration, it must get hot under the headgear. ‘Letter from Hampi Mountain’ is a strange, hypnotic groove, while ‘Rechargeable’ speeds up and pushes all before it. All the tracks have some facet that drives in an unpredictable direction, but even when the band enter relentless Fall-type instrumental poundings there is still something interesting going on in the mix, including some excellent drum fills and brilliant bass sound.

It was an hour of unsettling but satisfying weirdness to bring this top-quality show to an end.

https://www.snappedankles.com/
https://www.facebook.com/nuharubyra/
https://www.adrenaadrena.com/

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Diving Station : Honey Bees, single released October 2019

‘Honey Bees’ is the new single from indie-experimenters Diving Station and is the latest in a string of high-quality releases.

Earlier this year ‘Film’ was a soundscape of scenes and movements; drawn together by a repeating descending vocal figure underscored by a shifting texture of instrumentations, from loud fuzzy guitar to semi-classical acoustic and of course the signature sound of the Celtic harp (or ‘clarsach’).

Starting with a pulsing bass riff, ‘Honey Bees’ takes the sound of the Manchester four-piece in a different direction. On this excellent new track the percussion of electronic sounding handclaps sounds tense and trying to speed up, but the pace is reigned in by the interweaving bass.

The overall dissonant but dreamlike emotion of the song is mainly caused by the imagery of the lyrics, with the literal or metaphorical appearance of the ‘honey bees’ ‘… my grandma used to put them in a jar, those honey bees……they can smell your fear, those honey bees….’ Even the innocuous ‘…the sweetness at the bottom of the cup….’ sounds sinister in the context of these words.

The cryptic ‘….she was a rose, handled by those….’ is a recurring chorus interlude accompanied by harp mini-waves played by singer Anna McLuckie. Guitar effects float in and out and a synthetic(?) string section drifts on the air in this immaculately crafted single, every element contributing to the whole.

Remember, ‘…..you should warn your friends….about honey bees….’

https://www.facebook.com/divingstationmusic/

Chris Fox : From The Shadows, LP released November 2019

A track by track review of ‘From The Shadows’, the third album from Cambridge contemporary folkster Chris Fox.

1. Bird Of Paradise A likeable and catchy song that Chris has been performing live for a while, a relaxing bluegrassy piece featuring contrasting backing vocals and a subtly cool acoustic ensemble driven by upright bass.

2. Tinseltown This current single is a darkly humerous murder ballad about how a US summer job went awry, ending with the consequences from ‘….paid me a couple of grand to bury a body in the sand…the coyote howled and the owl did screech….’. The narrative motors along smoothly, always returning to the inevitable chorus line ‘….now I’m running from the law…I’m running like I never run before…’ . It is a morality tale to relish.

3. You Helped me through A looser, free-form song with just a gently percussive acoustic guitar and a confiding, emotive vocal reminiscent of the late John Martyn. Excellent.

4. Little Brown Sparrow Inspired by an encounter with a homeless woman, pondering the future and the choices involved on both sides. A sparse guitar figure weaves its spell in the background.

5. Annabelle A song of love and loss, with a strong tune and the words cleverly blending multiple exes into the title character, also deconstructing aspects of the creative process into the lyric and featuring some neat couplets ‘…I wrote a hundred songs about you…did you write one about me?…’.The bass stretches and yearn across the words, as it does on the next track too.

6. I’m in Love with you A highlight of the album, with smooth rhythm from the brushed drums and a violin with a counter-melody giving depth to this lovelorn coffee-themed tale. The harmony vocal from Zoe Wren is just right and the atmosphere created reminds me of the whispering folk/blues of J.J. Cale.

7. The Motivator Blues A change to electric guitar (played by album producer and multi-instrumentalist Dan Wilde) for this 12-bar blues, a burst of positivity and statement of intent.

8. Castaway With the 2000 movie as the inspiration for this gently scored acoustic piece, it extends the metaphor into deeper reflections, with fine voice work from Chris and Zoe.

9. Just a Fool From a slow thoughtful start this expands into a folk anthem as the acoustic chords continue to build. With the topic of unrequited love the lyrics are sombre ‘…I’m just a fool left out in the rain, still I pine for you…‘, but there is still an element of moving on despite this.

10. Who Really Loves you Timely pondering of the genuineness of friends and supporters and who really counts. It is built around a catchy hookline and leaves you thinking as it drifts away through the ether accompanied by a sharp guitar solo.

With 42 shows so far in 2019, Chris Fox is a consummate live performer, either as a solo guitarist or with like-minded musicians. This is a collection of songs that deserve an even wider audience…

https://www.chrisfoxmusic.org/

Penguin Cafe, Corn Exchange, Cambridge, 30 September 2019

Rising from the ashes of the late Simon Jeffes’ pioneering ensemble Penguin Cafe Orchestra his son Arthur has now built on the legacy with his own compositions and re-imagined versions of earlier pieces performing as Penguin Cafe. The first half of the show featured the new LP ‘Handfuls of Night’, based on Arthur’s Greenpeace trip to Antarctica, embracing the mysticism of the landscape on tracks like ‘Winter Sun’ as well as the characteristics of four of the penguin species to be found there.

With a rock band lightshow and flanked on stage by two watching Emperor penguin head sculptures, this seven-piece incarnation of the band is a string quartet with added percussion, bass (electric and upright), harmonium and of course those rippling piano figures that drive many of the pieces. ‘Chapter’ is a perfect example of this, a lengthy meditation likened by Arthur to a 70s TV cop show theme (he carefully introduced each of the tracks played) whereas ‘Pythagoras On The Line Again’ is an experiment using beat frequencies, octave resonance and dialling tones.
My favourite is ‘At the Top of the Hill, They Stood’ with gorgeous impressionistic chord changes and a gradually building sound.

The second half was a trip through the Penguin back catalogue, with the familiar ‘Perpetuum Mobile’ and ‘Music For A Found Harmonium’ being very popular with the audience. A cover of Simian Mobile Disco’s ‘Wheels Within Wheels’ was an unexpected excursion and the show ended with the evocative ‘Rescue’, a soundtrack for a film yet to be made.
The Cafe in full flight is an immersive experience but perhaps the most affecting moment in the show was near the end when Arthur Jeffes played ‘Harry Piers’, a solo piano piece simply described as being ‘…written for my Dad…‘. This musical innovator died in 1997 (aged 48) but his musical inspiration is certainly living on.

https://www.penguincafe.com/

Black Country, New Road : Portland Arms, Cambridge, 29 September 2019

Opening the evening at this much-anticipated show were Cambridge’s Culture CT, a no-compromise post-punk quartet. With an instrumental line-up that had the clout of unrelenting drums and the guitar/bass combination somehow sounding like two basses they set up extended grinding Fall-style grooves as a platform for caustic vocals.
The band were on good form but I’m not sure if the audience were quite on the same wavelength tonight, as the reception given to pounding industrial rockers like ‘The Bludgeon’ seemed a bit polite!

Crossing many genres and with much media interest leading to an early sellout for this show Black Country, New Road were destined to make a big impact on a quiet Sunday evening in Cambridge.

The seven-piece band are in their own world and we were soon drawn into it with unpredictable instrumental passages, modern jazz excursions with violin, keys and saxophone alongside the conventional rock band line-up. The bass was blowing the walls down and the fireworks drumming is a performance in itself. Add to all this the strange dissonant vocals that appear on tracks like ‘Athen’s France’ and signature tune ‘Sunglasses’ with its alienation lyric resolving into ‘…I’m modern Scott Walker…I’m a surprisingly smooth talker and I am invincible in these sunglasses…’. The track builds into a two chord industrial pounding that is exhausting in its intensity.

With the declaiming vocals, abstract lyrics and some of the angular music on show comparisons may be made to the ‘Remain In Light’ era Talking Heads but BC,NR doesn’t even copy themselves over their tight forty-five minute set. Like a bar band in an 80s movie of a dystopian sci-fi society this ensemble seem to be simultaneously futuristic and rooted in current sounds. Amazing!

https://www.facebook.com/BlackCountryNewRoad/
https://www.facebook.com/CULTURECT/

‘Pop Level’ Showcase, Blue Moon , Cambridge, 27 September 2019

Curated by composer/performer/producer Hydra Lerna and following a similar evening at The Birdcage in Norwich the night before, this was a showcase for upcoming artists with a spirit of independence in their music and electropop sounds underneath distinctive voices.

It was a Cambridge debut for multi-talented Caii, having travelled down from Manchester. New single ‘Fuel’ was a fine summation of her sound; with big bold beats and haunting synthesiser layers integral to a soaring vocal. It is a dark lyric but the performance lifts it into the positive. With live synth drums to add drama, a new composition performed at the piano and a moving cover of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ this was a strong start to the evening and her likeable personality really shone through.

Currently working on their debut album, Amethysts were last in Cambridge at Strawberry Fair earlier this year, their sonic landscapes floating across the midsummer sunset. The formula works too in the intimate confines of the Blue Moon, as the duo invite you to lose yourself in their unique and haunting tunes. Signature track ‘My Love’ sounded as good as ever and this million-streamed track was one of a succession of high quality single releases that were featured in their set tonight. Echoing guitar weaved between the keyboards as the vocals and harmonies added the magic.

Hydra Lerna
opened with her last single ‘In The Dark’; a statement of musical and lyrical intent with a complex instrumentation never losing sight of the stately rhythm, especially when the full bank of synthesisers arrive in the mix. Her songs are from the heart, with personal themes that sometimes transcend conventional pop territory but always with an ear to a good pulsing groove. She is a talented harp player and it can often take to the stage as a ‘second band member’ but tonight it featured only in samples and unique tones in many of the songs, especially the darkness of ‘Angel V. Psycho’. Early track ‘Clean Like You’ gave her vocal a full range, with 80s analogue synth tones that also appeared in one of my favourites – the sparse but effective ‘Distraction’.

The thoughtful and haunting ‘Reckless’ closed the show, a superb end to an excellent evening which showed the musical talent that is out there waiting to be fully recognised.

https://hydralerna.com/
https://www.weareamethysts.co.uk/
https://www.iamcaii.com/



Caswell, Blue Moon, Cambridge, 22 September 2019

It was the first time in Cambridge for electro-popster Caswell, following on from playing a prestigious support slot at one of Ed Sheeran’s recent homecoming shows.
I missed the first two support bands but was lucky enough to see a fine set by Leicester-based singer Miša. With a relaxed stage presence and a seemingly effortless soulful voice her compositions were enhanced by two empathetic musicians – flowing, sumptuous bass and jazzy, sonorous guitar weaved around the vocal lines. I particularly liked ‘Good Things Are Coming’, based around a reassuring descending chord sequence. Her smooth songs went down well with the chilled-out Blue Moon audience.

I last saw Caswell at her EP launch in Ipswich earlier this year, reviewed at https://cambridgemusicreviews.net/tag/caswell/. Tonight she took to the stage with confidence and flair, her three-piece band on top form and an excellent sound mix in this intimate venue. With these elements in place it is her songs and personality that shine through – each track is a polished gem of soul-infused electronica; with a subtle melancholia pervading some of the up-beat tempos. It is music to lose yourself in when the band kick in with thunderstrikes of sound as Caswell’s vocals soar with power but hints of vulnerability.

The superior pop anthem ‘Dance Sober’ is still one of the highlights of her set – Caswell was pleased to receive audience recognition when it started. The band had a real chance to shine on ‘Hurt Me Bad’ with the contrasting sections of light and dark and having heard a cover of ‘Glory Box’ on the Blue Moon stage the previous night here was another, taking the essence of the song and pushing it to the limits.

It was getting late on a Sunday evening so unfortunately no time for the classy last single ‘Surface’ but on the evidence of these shows there will be plenty more opportunities to hear this talented performer…

https://www.facebook.com/caswellofficial/
https://www.facebook.com/misaband/