| SXSW 2013 | Sound City 2014 | Sound City 2013 | Great Escape 2013
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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.
Yes, you read that right. We may still only be in 2013, but we’re already looking ahead to SXSW 2014, which happens in less than 5 months. In addition to our normal Bands to Watch features, we’ll also be previewing the best bands who have received shouts for the big event. First up are a band from Oxford that Martin will tell you more about…
Glass Animals are experts at downtempo, atmospheric, bass-heavy songs – think Portishead having coffee with Morcheeba – while the coffee’s a tangy roast by James Blake. The Morcheeba comparison is most apt (don’t laugh at the back – Morcheeba survived Britpop, have just released their eighth album, and celebrate their 20th birthday in a couple of years – pretty impressive stuff): recent single ‘Black Mambo’ echoes their lazy drum sound, their melodic approach to a vocal line, and a raft of decent lyrical similes. Things are considerably darker here, however – this isn’t exactly party music, although there is a certain sleaziness in the snaking groove and massed crescendo, which could get a certain type of too-cool-for-school crowd in the mood for a gentle grind.
Fellow AA-side ‘Exxus’ kicks off with a menacing, oily bassline, overlaid with Dave Bayley’s smooth yet gently threatening vocals, electronica ebbing, flowing and bleeping around him. “Wake up with a hatchet over your head,” he warns, before mellifluous mellotron mixes with otherworldly, disembodied voices, as if Gyorgy Ligeti and Edgar Froese were having a bromance right there in one’s Eustachian tube. Recently signed to producer du jour Paul Epworth’s Wolf Tone label, surely a sign of approval in itself, Glass Animals are currently working on their début album, which, if it turns out as well as ‘Black Mambo’/’Exxus’ promise, should be an essential purchase of 2014.
Local troubadour Paul Jeans has had more musical lives than a cat, and opens proceedings tonight with his most recent incarnation, The Shooting Of… featuring just him on acoustic guitar and piano (not at the same time), and drums (at the same time!). There’s a morbid edge to his songwriting, with one song about a serial killer, and another probing the inner workings of a terrorist’s brain. Despite the sometimes uncomfortable subject matter, the music is upbeat and catchy: ‘Captain Of My Soul’ brings things back to a more conventional topic and is the standout song tonight. Jeans is always good value as a superlative songwriter and multi-instrumentalist; one wonders how many more skins he must shed before the world wakes up to his charms.
Cattle and Cane are from the rock metropolis of Middlesbrough, but clearly aspire to sound as if they’ve never left Tennessee. Appropriately enough, they’re all related to each other, further reinforcing their backwoods/backwards credentials. Even though they are capable of radio-friendly country-influenced pop-rock, occasionally they manage to conjure a brew so heady it wouldn’t be out of place on the soundtrack of a remade Deliverance, the stunning vocal pairing of Joe and sister Helen Hammill melt together like two candles on a sunlit porch, there’s twangy Fender action and even an enthusiastically-bowed fiddle at the end. All the appropriate genre boxes are faithfully ticked, and when set highlight ‘The Poacher’ comes to a climactic end, the question on every sensible member of the audience should be – can Goldheart Assembly top that?
To which the answer is – yes, but with a sidestep into more considered, perhaps even self-confidently aloof territory, rather than the genre-led intensity of the previous act. There’s a strong reliance on harmonies, with the vast majority of the lead vocal lines shared in an intimate bromance between James Dale and John Herbert – indeed, the whole performance relies on their rapport. That, and Dale’s habit of standing on one leg, a habit not seen since the glory days of Jethro Tull. This isn’t a performance for those looking for the ultimate in excitement – everything is very civilised, with the occasional whiff of gentleman’s club (and not the raunchy kind either). At one point Dale gently heckles the audience, whilst gently sipping from a cup and saucer – no risk of a G ‘n’ R-style Jack Daniels breakfast for these chaps.
However, what may seem a little tame from a rock ‘n’ roll perspective does suit the easy-going yet complex material. Old favourites like ‘So Long St. Christopher’ still sound fresh; there’s a decent selection from excellent début album ‘Wolves And Thieves’, including ‘Hope Hung High’ and set-climaxing ‘King Of Rome’, along with the expected inclusions from recent release ‘Long Distance Sound Effects’. The sound does roughly belong in the folky-rocky camp, which description could apply to a great number of new acts around at the minute, but the songwriting is top drawer, complex yet supremely listenable and laden with melody and hooks, which makes them stand above the crowd of also-rans. In summary, then, this is a thinking man’s band, perhaps themselves no stranger to the pages of The Chap magazine, who appreciate a lovely melody or two. All washed down with a nice cup of Earl Grey.