| SXSW 2014
| SXSW 2013 | Sound City 2014 | Sound City 2013 | Great Escape 2013
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Of all the cultural detritus left behind by the 1970s – flared trousers, tank tops, Alan Freeman – surely one of the most noted musical aberrations is the drum solo. Still popular with hair metal bands throughout the 1980s, rock (in common with the rest of civil society) underwent an enlightenment-style moment of humble clarity from the ‘90s onwards, meaning the drummer was for many years denied their one moment literally in the spotlight. Crystal Fighters, however, in their quest to visit as many genres of popular music as possible in one night, give drummer Andrea Marongiu as much time as he needs in which to demonstrate his tub-thumping chops unsullied by the indignity of overlaid melodic instrumentation. Much like Dennis Potter’s single cigarette in a glass display case, the very rarity of a decent drum solo gives it an intoxicating, illicit air. A moment which traditionally was a decent excuse to nip to the bar is transformed into a set highlight.
Crystal Fighters are perhaps the perfect Euro-band. They look far and wide for inspiration, both stylistically and geographically, eschewing the shrugged-off cool of many acts in favour of extroversion and even an occasional affinity for the cheesier side of Europop. Despite being a Londoner, singer Sebastian Pringle emerges clad in sequinned Arabesque robes, his head entirely covered in sparkling chiffon, brandishing what can only be described as two bunches of gourds, looking for all the world as if he’s just escaped from a north African souk, and has somehow managed to swap a life peddling overpriced tat to naïve tourists for one where he’s the frontman of a successful dance-rock combo.
It’s no coincidence that in this context he appears a shamanic figure, exhorting the crowd to uplift themselves, transcend their earthly cares and spread the love. This well-refreshed university crowd need little encouragement to join the love-in; the gig is effectively a soundtrack to their journey of spiritual enlightenment. And Crystal Fighters are well-placed to supply it – what they lack in mental challenge they make up for in euphoria-inducing melodies and arrangements. Let’s start with the hits. ‘Plage’ is almost childlike in its content and delivery, having only a handful of lyrics and based around a simple ukulele riff, heavy with references to hearts and love. ‘At Home’ is a fascinating lunge for the Mediterranean beach-bar market – five minutes of nailed-on Euro-chill-out-pop which attempts to transcend language barriers by making most of its vocal content: either “oh-oh”s, “yeah-yeah”s, or other nonsensical (but not necessarily meaningless) vowel sounds. The question is, not how well it’s done – very – but whether an English-speaking audience might ask for a bit more insight with their cheese.
As the evening wears on, the tempo increases. The tone of ‘Love Is All I Got’ is self-explanatory from the title – the platitudes “wake your soul with love in the morning / feed your soul with love in the evening / expand your soul with love on the weekend” are set to the classic euro-house instrumentation of kick drum, white-noise snare and filtered synth lines; this is band-as-Ibiza-DJ-set-climax. And whilst that might be the final crescendo of most bands’ sets, Crystal Fighters have yet another level to reach for. ‘Follow’ is nothing less than an ambitious blend of Omar Souleyman’s techno-dabke, eastern European klezmer and western drum and bass. The room likes it – a lot. And after almost two hours, and countless genres, they’re gone.
Jungle are purveyors of sun-drenched downtempo electro-soul, a facsimile of which can often be heard playing on the radio of, say, a 1965 Chevy Malibu SS whilst cruising the vice-ridden streets of a simulated Los Angeles. Title track of recent EP ‘The Heat’ comes complete with a brief straight-faced spoken-word introduction and even some police siren action towards the end, all adding up to a cinematic production style which sounds very west coast indeed (and we’re not talking Cumbria here). It’s smooth, sleazy, and very, very, cool. The Heat has just been released to much fanfare on B3SCI records in North America, comprising all four tracks previously recorded in the UK.
‘Lucky I Got What I Want’ is a soundalike to ‘The Heat'; although more atmospheric and downtempo, it carries the same instrumentation and tone, much as B-sides of old. All blissed-out vocals, detuned, mellow synth, and the tiniest of percussion ticks – this is music to watch the sun come up to. ‘Platoon’ and ‘Drops’, are even more downtempo and inscrutable – is this the first example of glitch-soul? To be honest, the recent fanfare around Jungle appears to be more to do with their carefully-crafted image, rather than the pure excellence of these tracks. They may end up huge, but is there really enough to go on in this first, determinedly downtempo, collection? Anyway, it’s enough to land them a spot on both the BBC’s Sound Of 2014 *and* This Is Fake DIY’s Class of 2014’s list, which has to count for something. We await their SXSW performance with interest…
And so we come to the number one spot on TGTF’s run-down of the acts to watch for 2014. And the winner of that coveted honour is… Findlay, the dirty-rock outfit fronted by the eponymous Natalie. Their 2013 was momentous, from a raucous set at Liverpool Sound City (photos here, Sound City coverage here), being picked by fashion designer L’Wren Scott (Mick Jagger’s better half) to play the prestigious Serpentine Ball in front of the great and the good of the fashion world, to finishing the year with their very first headline UK tour, the trajectory has been steadily upwards. And even though Findlay is the name of the band, it’s really their lead singer who gets all the attention, and with good reason: it’s her sassy, grungy, sexy delivery that give Findlay their appeal, both live and on record.
2012’s début single ‘Your Sister’ really does start as they mean to go on. Unashamedly pilfering a T-Rex riff, Findlay smoulders and growls something about kissing, through a distorted, reverbed microphone, before things reach such a pitch that all she can manage are a few primordial groans. Well done her. If anything, its follow-up ‘Off & On’ turns every knob a bit further towards 11. There’s a little less smoulder, but a lot more urgency and an almost cod-horror feel to the vestigial chorus – the soundtrack to a zombie car-chase. It’s over before it’s even begun, a crazy, sub-three-minute vignette of vamp-rock.
For latest single ‘Greasy Love’ production duties are taken on by legendary rock producer Flood – a sure sign, if any were needed, that Findlay are mixing it in the big time now. The results are clear to hear – if anything, the drama is brought to even more dizzying heights. The vocal is distorted almost beyond recognition, and the narrative abstraction is on another level – undoubtedly she’s talking about something very naughty indeed, over a swampy guitar groove and thudding drums. The result is neatly summarised by the visual tone of the accompanying video – tinted blood-red, Findlay stalks through a desolate urban landscape, caterwauling about all manner of behind-closed-doors shenanigans.
The involvement of Flood is even more significant when one considers the body of work he’s produced with PJ Harvey, perhaps something of an influence on the nascent Findlay. One could also mention as influences well-known punky females such as Patti Smith and Courtney Love. Findlay isn’t quite a Riot Grrrl yet, though – there’s little in the way of strident feminism, although there may be a glimmer hidden under the abstraction, and her stage persona is, frankly, a little more raunchy than the Grrrls of old would condone – but perhaps that makes her all the more balanced a performer. Either way, there’s plenty of star quality to Natalie Findlay, and there’s no doubt at all that 2014 should be the year she makes the jump into the mainstream consciousness. Greasy or not.
Flyte are a four-piece, arch guitar-pop band from Hackney, and, in common with most of our 10 for 2014 bands, are early in their career and as such have recorded only a handful of songs. However, one of those songs is ‘Over And Out’, a piece of guitar pop so perfect that it could be the pinnacle of many a band’s career. That it’s the first track on their first EP speaks volumes about Flyte’s potential. For 3 minutes, it sits cross-legged in your eardrums, tickling them with jauntily-twanged guitars, Will Taylor’s characteristically piping, crisply-enunciated voice, and one of the finest chord shifts in music – minor IV to major VII. Stylistically, we’re talking crisp, white-boy funk, straight outta 1983, perhaps with a bit of ’90s college radio blended in there for good measure. As an example of just how well these boys can play, check out this Portobello Road video. ‘Over And Out’ starts 6 minutes in, and if anything the song sounds better stripped down, the live close harmony vocals shining through. An impeccable, thrilling performance.
Elsewhere on their ‘Live’ EP, Flyte are still quite happy in ’80s-land but this time, the synths are out, washing and squelching away as if played by Kavinsky himself. There’s a pre-chorus which could justifiably be called epic, and a brilliantly understated chorus. The recording is a delicious mixture of subtle detail and an ambitious, soaring arrangement: these guys really can play. And they’ve genuinely only just got started on their musical career, with only a handful of gigs to their name, a handful of recorded songs, and enormous untapped potential. Without doubt, one to watch for 2014.
Why are there so many guitar-drums duos these days? Is it an admirable commitment to minimalism? A greed-seated desire to share the gig fee with as few people as possible? Is the typical combination of overweening egotism and middling talent of bassists offputting? Or is it a desire to tour the country in nothing bigger than a Mazda MX-5? Whatever the motivation, the popularity of the axe ‘n’ smacks combo shows no sign of abating. The latest in this rather brutal genre is South London’s Crushed Beaks. Matthew Poile and Alex Morris confess to a modestly maudlin sense of propriety, which has escaped in the videos to their earlier work.
‘Grim’ comes in at under two minutes long (a very good thing) and its video describes a brief, uncomfortable séance in a photo booth, complete with boiled sheep’s head, ritual corn dolly, white blood, and locusts (also, all very good things). ‘Breakdown’ is less manic on all counts, slower, calmer, with an admirably retro feel – Poile makes a good fist of pretending to be a ‘50s crooner, the band makes up for the lack of instrumentation via swathes of reverb, but there’s still a vicious, disturbing undercurrent.
2013’s ‘Tropes’ EP is superficially far heavier than the previous single, but still accessible, with a massive, trans-Atlantic power-pop chorus in opener ‘Feelers’; the title track continues in the same vein: guitar riffs not far off grunge; stabbed, punky vocals; lashings of attitude whilst still retaining some semblance of melody. But finest moment of the four-track EP goes to the excellently-named ‘Day Residue’. Despite wishing that Poile would bump his enunciation and his vocal mix just a bit, the melody is lovely, and the sound is widened by an FM synth and multi-layered guitars. If one track had to sum up Crushed Beaks, it’s this: punky yet very pop, disturbing yet friendly, a perfectly 3-minute blast of young energy.
Everything points to a band finding their feet, experimenting with different styles, whilst maintaining a consistent voice and mood. Their ability with melody is what stands out from these early collections, along with that mildly sinister undercurrent – a winning combination. If anyone needed evidence that the guitar band is in fine fettle, even if it features just one guitar helped along with a ton of attitude, then Crushed Beaks is it.
The Hundredth Anniversary are a Brighton-based four-piece whose female-fronted, gently keening material is for the most part downtempo and ethereal, merging the shoegaze revival and the recent feminist punk of PINS. Intriguingly, according to Song, by Toad they’re allegedly a much more aggressive affair live, which is exactly as it should be. Recent limited-edition (and fully sold-out, we might add) 7″ single ‘The Jump’ is a superb demonstration of just how beautiful a few overdriven guitars and a whole bunch of reverb can sound, particularly when overlaid by the lazy voice of Eleanor Rudge, which hangs cirrus-like over the soundscape.
Their most recent relese, ‘Last Drive’, is somewhat more sombre, with great washes of guitar dominating; it could be an outtake from R.E.M.’s last great album ‘New Adventures In Hi-fi’. But possibly their most accessible track is last year’s ‘Caroline’, their most up-tempo work, with jangly guitars and Rudge’s vocal reminiscent of ‘90s favourites The Cranberries. Indeed, all things considered, there might be a bit revivalism at work here, albeit probably unconsciously. But there’s enough in The Hundredth Anniversary’s small-but-perfectly formed oeuvre to make us optimistic about their potential for great things for 2014, thus their presence here, opening our 10 for 2014 list.