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First impressions can be deceptive. When Irish alt-rock trio Bell X1 released the first single from their new album ‘Arms’, a gentle, optimistic ballad called ‘The Upswing’, way back in March of this year, the song’s warm lyrical tone and organic sonic timbre seemed to refer even farther backward to the band’s 2013 album ‘Chop Chop’. Indeed, around the release of ‘Chop Chop’, Bell X1 frontman Paul Noonan had toyed with the idea of creating a pair of mini-albums, so it seemed fair to assume that ‘Arms’ might be a delayed realisation of that concept.
However, the second single from ‘Arms’, a quirky and upbeat number called ‘Out of Love’, immediately turned that idea on its metaphorical head. Laden with strident synths and jarring percussion, the song is musically more experimental and thematically much more cynical, with lyrics like “there’s no D minor telling us how to feel” only adding to the contextual confusion. And as an introduction to the album proper, opening track ‘Fail Again, Fail Better’ makes a deliberately disarming (pun intended) initial statement, with choppy lyrics and fragmented melodies spliced together seemingly without pattern or purpose. But like the very first glimpse of the album, these second and third impressions of ‘Arms’ are gradually revealed to be a bit misleading as well.
The true character of ‘Arms’ is elusive, fluctuating constantly over the course of its tracklisting. Even the individual songs feel indecisive at times, as in ‘Bring Me a Fire King’. The song’s catchy chorus and groovy guitar riff are thrown off kilter by a piercing synth line and an oddly placed sax solo, and Noonan delivers his sarcastic political commentary (“let’s ask what the markets would do / ‘cos markets have feelings too”) in a mild vocal tone that belies the depth of his meaning.
On the flip side of the thematic coin, multi-instrumentalist David Geraghty contributes something of a more personal nature in ‘I Go Where You Go’. His quiet reflection on life away from home is brightened by a shuffling rhythm and a piano melody that shines through the arrangement like the “glint of fool’s gold” in his own opening lines. Nestled between verses, the song’s bridge section cuts to the heart of Geraghty’s internal conflict: “the engines roar / the ground slips away / our children stir in their beds / we leave it all in our wake”.
On every previous Bell X1 album, there has been one song in particular that is so exquisitely poignant that it moves me to tears. ‘Arms’ is no exception to that precedent, ticking off the box with ‘Take Your Sweet Time’. Inspired by a video of a profoundly deaf woman hearing speech for the first time, Noonan has composed an incredibly sensitive musical interpretation, with distortions in the sonic arrangement representing the synthetic quality of electric hearing via cochlear implants, while a lyrical and melodic reference to classic Glen Campbell track ‘Wichita Lineman’ suggests the breathless emotional anticipation of eventually being able to hear music. Have a handkerchief handy when you listen to this one.
Late album tracks ‘Sons & Daughters’ and ‘Fake Memory’ return to a central thematic concern about Western culture and society, observed from a slight distance and framed within the familiarity of personal details. Noonan offers a kind of pre-emptive apology in ‘Sons & Daughters’, which situates his oddly astute pop-culture references (“there were too many distractions and too much good TV . . . there were too many cute pictures and too much in my feed”) in a call-and-response vocal pattern over a bright piano melody and tribal percussion. Recent single ‘Fake Memory’ reflects on our disingenuous tendency to use social media to portray ourselves in a positive light, asking pointedly “where’s me asleep on the table or her not kissing me back?” and warning that “if memory serves you badly, it’s right here on my phone”.
The title ‘Arms’ initially evoked the idea of emotional distance in my mind, especially after hearing the first several songs released discretely and out of context. But several considered listens to the album in its entirety brought me back around to Noonan’s observation from its press release: “As the world feels like it’s becoming a harsher place (maybe there’s just more damn noise?), we seek out the comfort of the familiar and familial . . . arms.” The album’s dual nature is about more than just the band experimenting with their own musical style. There are moments of noise and moments of comfort here, moments of awkward confusion and moments of crystalline clarity, but above all else, an always astonishing sense of musical and emotional authenticity.
Bell X1’s seventh studio album ‘Arms’ is available now via BellyUp Records. The Irish trio have a series of Irish and Northern Irish dates at the end of October into early November. They are also scheduled to play two shows at London’s Islington Assembly Hall on the 11th and 12th of November before heading down under for a tour of Australia in December. A full listing of Bell X1’s upcoming live shows can be found on their official Facebook.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 17th October 2016 at 6:00 pm
Stockport band Blossoms are currently in America, playing at the Bardot in Hollywood tonight after a sold out show at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn and another at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop. While they’ve been in America, the new promo video for ‘Blown Rose’ has been revealed to the world. It follows a different, shall we say more whimsical video for the song when it was released as a single last year.
In this new video version of ‘Blown Rose’, there’s loads of imagery – lit candles, Catholicism (?) – and I guess naturally for a group of lads, a vampy model-type woman. Is she a femme fatale or a woman scorned? Find out by watching the promo below. Blossoms’ self-titled debut album is out now on Virgin EMI, and you can read my review of it through here. While I was away in Ireland, the band announced a four-pack of shows on the Emerald Isle, stopping in Belfast, Galway, Limerick and Dublin in March 2017, which are on sale now. They’ll be supported by Derry’s Touts, who you can read about in my review of Friday night at Hard Working Class Heroes 2016 tomorrow afternoon. To read more of TGTF’s coverage on the band from Stockport, go here.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 17th October 2016 at 4:00 pm
I’m still catching up on bits I missed while I was in Ireland, including this video that Gavin James (who’s Irish, remember) released while he was touring in England. Two Fridays ago on the 7th of October, he played to a sold-out Shepherds Bush Empire in London. He has a few dates in England and Scotland this week before he leaves for the Continent, and you can view his touring schedule here on his official Web site.
So what is today’s live gig video about? Well, the Dublin singer/songwriter took it upon himself to re-envision Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry’ in an acoustic form. You can watch the magic unfold in the recorded filming of the cover in the studio in the monochromatic video below. We’ve been following Gavin for a while now, having supported fellow Irishman Kodaline in DC last year, and his appearance alongside them 3 years ago at the Great Escape 2013.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 17th October 2016 at 3:00 pm
It’s a good thing that at this year’s Hard Working Class Heroes, the venues were relatively close together. Well, at least Tengu Yamamori and Wigwam were. It also helped that like the Chocolate Factory on King Inn’s Street, Tengu had two stages, which meant easy passing from upstairs to downstairs easily and catching more bands in an evening at the emerging music festival.
New Pope (Galway) @ Tengu Downstairs
Following the unintentionally humourous set by David Boland earlier at the Gutter bookshop after he’d run from the coach station (yes, so rock ‘n’ roll!), I was curious to see what he’d be like live and with a backing band. The gruff but strangely lovable Boland is the kind of guy you would expect would be laughing over traded shots of whiskey with Dylan, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen.
I generally doesn’t like the sad, miserable singer plus acoustic guitar setup. Usually, I find this way too boring. Oddly, I actually preferred Boland’s stripped back session back in the bookshop. Maybe it was because the downstairs Tengu venue was full of alarming Japanese décor to match the food and drink on offer (for one, the huge, big-nosed wooden face of a demon came out of the back of the bar), or the continuous red lighting that shaded the artists performing there and made me think I was on the set of The Hunt for Red October? Just goes to show that sometimes simplest is best.
R.S.A.G. (France via Kilkenny) @ Chocolate Factory Stage 2
It was time for some electronic, even if it was for a short time. Damn you, Hard Working Class Heroes clashes! R.S.A.G. (“rarely seen above ground”, real name Jeremy Hickey) was playing the ground level stage 2 at the Chocolate Factory. Hickey is a celebrated drummer, and he wasted no time during his moment at HWCH to show off his frenetic drumming style. Of course, being a multi-instrumentalist, he had all kind of electronics running while he was stuck at his kit. Behind him projected on a screen were fast action videos of traffic in cities, matching perfectly to the sexy high energy of his beats. It was unfortunate I could not stay longer to absorb more of his set so I could go on to another venue, but my interest in his music is certainly piqued and should interest electronic fans.
Orchid Collective (all over Ireland) @ Wigwam
Wigwam is the new name of the refurbished former Twisted Pepper, where I attended a reggae night last year put on TGTF friends Meltybrains? Okay, so I’m going to put it out there, it’s a little weird coming into a Latin themed bar in Ireland. But the venue downstairs used during Hard Working Class Heroes provided a nice, intimate setting for folk acts during the festival. Like downstairs at Tengu, the only problem was the distracting red lighting focused on the acts that performed there.
Orchid Collective, who wowed coffee enthusiasts at Accents Lounge earlier in the day, closed out Wigwam’s performances for the night. Similar too to New Pope’s evening performance, the band’s set here didn’t wow me as much as I had expected it to. I think it’s testament to the power and tightness of their combined harmonies and the strength of the songwriting that the music can stand in a stripped back fashion.
They were the band on many folks’ lips the next day, especially people who had arrived late and missed the first day of programming. While I had to disappoint them and tell them they had already left for a show in Waterford Friday night, that word of mouth is proof that they’re ones to watch in the coming months.
Exiles (Carlow / Kilkenny) @ Tengu Upstairs
If I had a time machine and I could revisit a decade, I’d either go back to the ‘60s or the ‘80s. For my love of new wave and the birth of mainstream electronic pop, there’s no contest that the ‘80s were the place to be. As previously discussed, the stereotype I think most people have about Irish music involves sad songs, guitars and fiddles. However, Exiles, a three-piece comprised of producer/musicians Darragh O’Connor (guitar and synths), Johnny Smee (keyboards and electronic drums) and Jack O’Flaherty (lead vocals and guitar), do their part to turn that stereotype on its head.
I felt Exiles ‘won’ Tengu Thursday night with their catchy tunes, taking us back in time when every man was wearing a pastel suit ala Sonny Crockett or, I suppose, getting on the dance floor to New Order. While there are so many acts these days who have a token synth player onstage with them because it’s assumed you will have one if you’re ‘with it’ in terms of technology, this is a band who use electronics adeptly and smartly and in a way that is entirely accessible and has the potential to go mainstream. I recommend you checking out their ‘Red Lights’ EP that came out last month, especially the title track.
Tablets (County Waterford) @ Tengu Upstairs
Poor Tablets. The crunches and squealing of feedback while the duo were setting up sounded like some of their equipment might be suffering from a power surge. Hopefully not. After what seemed like an eternity of setting up and testing out and replacing their leads, the weird was about to begin.
What a stark contrast from Exiles just before them. This is an industrial, experimental electronic sound that proves challenging to people who run from electronic. There is a purposeful darkness to their music, too, that makes it sound like what you’d hear at an alien goth dance night.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 17th October 2016 at 1:00 pm
With my first afternoon at Hard Working Class Heroes out of the way – feel free to catch up with part 1 and part 2 – it was time for my first evening at the emerging Irish artist music festival. The Chocolate Factory was a good shout for all 3 days, as it was pretty much one-stop shopping: two stages of music, with acts taking turns to grab the crowd’s attention.
Yonen (Dublin) @ Chocolate Factory Stage 2
Interested in an instrumental rock onslaught reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai? Then locals Yonen will be your poison. They say on their Bandcamp “we want to tell you a story by making noise.” If we are to take them on their word, a book written by Yonen would be filled with both epic tales and considered, softer, slower numbers. I appreciated the latter, as it was proof that they’re not entirely about beating your brain into a bloody pulp. Thinkers are they.
aYIA (Reykjavik, Iceland) @ Chocolate Factory Stage 1
2016 is the first year of a 3-year project Hard Working Class Heroes is working on to bridge the big physical distance between Ireland and Iceland by helping build audiences each other’s acts. aYia was one of two acts from the volcano-laden country to play at the Dublin festival, raring to go following the exit of Yonen. The stage was weirdly well above our heads, requiring punters to crane their necks upwards to watch.
This strange position of the stage caused their female leader singer to crouch down and as close to the ground of the stage as possible. In a breathy singing style like her famous countrywoman Bjork, she was the focal point of their performance. With a sinister electro edge full of buzzing and darkness, it’s a foreboding sound, especially considering the long evenings only lit by twilight from where this music was made. There’s a lot of competition in this genre, so only time will tell whether they’ll be able to break out of the pack.
Search Party Animal (Dublin) @ Workman’s Club
Formerly known under the name Bagels, Search Party Animal have rechristened themselves after a song by Belfast band And So I Watch You From Afar to prevent any confusion with the New York food specialty. A band name with the word ‘animal’ in it is appropriate for this group: crazy, loud, raucous – all members banging on drums at one point – and a whole lot of fun. At home, they sounded tighter than I witnessed at CMW 2016, which suggests they’ll be a force to be reckoned with as they go forward and the day comes that they break out of Ireland.
Hawk (London via Ireland) @ Workman’s Club
Post punks Hawk have already made a name for themselves in their base of London, as well as in Dublin, if the fans assembled for their appearance at Hard Working Class Heroes Thursday night was any indication. Frontwoman Julie Hawk has a deceptively sweet voice than can turn into a wailing scream at a moment’s notice. Premiered recently on The Line of Best Fit, who describes them as a “gothic pop” group, she describes their newest single ‘Mirror Maze’ as their attempt to bring attention to female body image issues and destructive societal pressures.
Video Blue (London via Dublin and Dundalk) @ Tengu Upstairs
Coming to Ireland, I think I had an entirely reasonable expectation that many of the acts I’d be faced with at Hard Working Class Heroes would be a single man or woman playing a guitar. Irish born and raised but now London transplant Jim O’Donoghue Martin went beyond that conventional mould. He played early at Tengu Yamamori, just north of the river, where the upstairs stage was used to host to a host of interesting electronic acts and Martin was no exception.
I feel like his music isn’t compelling enough to grab your attention in a dark club but you can hear it soundtracking a tv advert or film. Maybe it has to do with him having to be so busy on his various controllers while also singing and playing guitar, so maybe this would work better if he had a band behind him?
Australian pop-punk duo Hockey Dad has created the perfect soundtrack for the endless summer you’ve always dreamed about with their debut album. It follows their first EP ‘Dreamin’, which received tremendous success in 2014. With a strong following in their homeland, ‘Boronia’ should prepare them for equal successes in the UK.
The album title ‘Boronia’ takes its name from the street that singer Zach Stephenson and drummer Billy Fleming spent infinite days just a few houses apart. Friends for over 15 years, the duo have taken many of the life experiences that drew them together and put them all on the one album. With an Australian invasion going on at the moment with acts such as Tame Impala, Sia and Iggy Azaelia making waves in the UK, it seems to be the right time for Hockey Dad’s moment in the spotlight.
The album begins with the track ‘Can’t Have Them ‘and instantly impresses with its distorted guitars and grabs your attention from the get-go. A build-up of teenage hormones, the song is effortless in reminding us of the longing and angst of first love, while retaining its irreverent vibe and attitude. As we go through the album, there are many recurring themes that seem to epitomise the teenage experience such staying out late, partying and falling in love.
Hockey Dad are a band that exudes youthful enthusiasm, especially on tracks such as ‘Jump the Gun’ with its pop punk vibe. Catchy lyrics such as “I don’t want to go home, I’m having too much fun” reiterate the carefree nature of the duo. With its dynamic drums and lively guitars, the song blends together to create the perfect summer sound. Even the music video pays homage to the duo’s favourite pastime with the pair seen catching some waves and hanging by the beach.
Although throughout the album there isn’t many moments of lyrical triumph, “Two Forever” hears Stephenson deliver a heartfelt message with dreamy and poignant vocals. There’s no mistaking the duo’s relationship as the ultimate bromance, and Stephenson’s honest admission of this affection to Fleming is warm and sincere. Dismissing all other women for his friend with the words “I don’t need love, I don’t need no woman, I don’t need that shit, because I got you, man“ is a lovely ode and one of the album highlights. Other tracks on the album revel in the feeling of summer love and are just as irresistible and infectious as your first summer fling. The seductive bassline of ‘Hunny Bunny’ will have this song in your head long after it has finished playing.
While generally a good album throughout, there is a distinct lack of experimentation with the duo sticking rigidly to what they know. With little progression since their EP ‘Dreamin’’ there is a monotonous feel to the album. Lacking originality, there is a possibility that the album may just be thrown to the side with many other bands coming through with a similar sound. However, Hockey Dad have never pretended to be anything other than what they are. With their enticing dose of summer nostalgia could very well see the band exceed expectations.
Australian duo Hockey Dad’s album ‘Boronia’ is out now on Kanine Records.