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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.
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight: tonight, Marc Martel *was* Freddie Mercury. He moved like him, sang like him; even, to my eyes, *looked* like him. And that simple point is what elevates The Queen Extravaganza way above a run-of-the-mill covers outfit – the band are superb, note-perfect, but Martel is a spellbinding performer, perfectly at ease with the enormous task he has been given, and through subtle body language cues and a world-class voice, astonishingly evocative of Mercury himself. The second coming of Freddie is secretly what all Queen fans pine for, and the Queen Extravaganza is surely as close as anyone could hope to just that.
The band come with the blessing of Brian May and particularly Roger Taylor, who masterminded putting the band together; a risky business, when one thinks about it – the extensive Queen back catalogue is deeply revered by millions of fans worldwide, and the disaster of a subpar band ruining it doesn’t bear thinking about. But Taylor has performed his due diligence well, and picked a great band, often musicians from relative obscurity. Take guitarist Brian Gresh, who was working as a mechanical engineer before being picked – he’s capable of reproducing May’s virtuoso guitar lines note-for-note; thankfully the Extravaganza has come along to give him an outlet for his talents. Sadly, tonight he didn’t perform one of his famous spectacular backflips, but surely he will at some point on the tour.
The band strike a perfect note of humble reverence for the Queen material – every now and again Martel explains a bit about why the next song has been chosen, and what significance that particular piece has for the young performers, but mostly they let the music do the talking. Martel admits that Wayne’s World was his introduction to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, before launching into an extraordinary rendition of that very piece, ably assisted with the famous Queen “heads” on the video screens behind. Just to attempt that most famous and ambitious of Queen songs deserves respect, and when it becomes clear that not only is this an attempt but a version of such passion and skill worthy of the original band themselves… well, it’s enough to bring a tear to the eye.
No phase of Queen’s career is off-limits tonight. There’s the cod-vaudeville of ‘Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon’, a quick spin through the almost-thrash metal of ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ (kudos to drummer Tyler Warren for taking vocal duties on that one); ‘Love Of My Life’ is as beautiful and fragile as a Fabergé egg, and 80s synth-rock anthem ‘Radio Gaga’ gives everyone an excuse to practise their overhead handclaps. The final dénouement brings out the big guns – Queen could do pomp and circumstance like nobody else, a fact not lost on the Extravaganza. I’m sure the reader can imagine for themselves the sort of songs that might climax a Queen show, and they’re all present and correct tonight, in a crescendo of noise, power and emotion that few bands could emulate. For anyone who didn’t see Queen the first time round, or did see them and want to remind themselves how great they were – The Queen Extravaganza will not disappoint. They’ve got a kind of magic.
See Martin’s full set of photos from the night in all their high-res glory on his Flickr.
We continue our SXSW 2014 preview with Martin’s thoughts on a man who reinvented himself, to us music lovers’ delight…
To Be Frank is the pseudonym of multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Frank Pescod, who, after a period writing contract music for TV and film, and brands as prestigious as Louis Vuitton, found the desire for the limelight was too strong; To Be Frank was created as a platform to spread his music to a wider audience. Things kicked off with single ‘If You Love Her’, a tender piece of whimsical electronica that showcased Pescod’s delicate, soulful voice and neat way with a minimalist arrangement, but didn’t really go much further. Sophomore release ‘Nothing’ introduced glitchy beats and a more insistent groove, playing on urban r‘n’b stylings but still remaining resolutely downtempo.
Third single ‘Half the Man’ (video at the end of this post), out today, is the sound of Frank really hitting his stride. A more pacey number than previously, with jumpy synth stabs and handclaps keeping things moving, Frank’s dreamy vocal remains the primary attraction, along with a further helping of romantic, almost saccharine, lyrical sentiment. All in all, a tasteful slice of electronic soul. But all this synth-centricity belies a sneaking suspicion that, at heart, Frank is essentially a traditional songwriter, and some of his lesser-known pieces pay testament to his love of simpler instrumentation. ‘Big Frank’, in particular, is a delicate confection of distant acoustic piano and sombre violin, adorned with the just the lightest touches of ambient electronica; in many ways a more interesting listen than his more mainstream efforts.
It’s clear that this is a project in its early stages; the benefit of which is that every release tells us something new about the artist concerned. And with such an intriguing combination of chartbait and esoterica at his fingertips, To Be Frank really is one to keep an eye on.