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By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 25th September 2013 at 12:00 pm
Perhaps it’s just too much thinking on my part – and too many years spent on this side of the Atlantic considering the impact of what us Yanks call from the ’60s the British Invasion – but a war, however cosmetically portrayed by NME or other music magazines, may be waged between two bands very soon in the North East. Reading over the press release for the upcoming EP from China Rats, it seemed to me a mighty fine coincidence that this new release of five songs to be collectively known later this month as ‘Don’t Play with Fire’ was produced in the band’s hometown of Leeds by none other than Matt Peel of Cottage Road Studios.
Peel happens to be the same man whose golden production touch is on both of the Crookes‘ albums ‘Chasing After Ghosts’ and ‘Hold Fast’, and my guess is he’ll also be working on their third later this year. Clearly, Peel lets the bands do what they do best and helps them sound their best, because despite sharing a producer, the bands both sound monumentally good. But different. And the way I see it, the Crookes are the Beatles and China Rats are the Stones in this made-up battle in my head. For those of you Fab Four / Stones scholars, you will recall that the Stones took a bit longer to get rolling on releases and popularity, but rather quickly they found themselves caught up to the Beatles and developed a massive fan base of their own.
China Rats’ most high profile performance at this year’s SXSW was on the Friday night, playing the British Music Embassy’s evening showcase being sponsored by PRS and Kilimanjaro Live, a major UK event promoter. Curiously, they appeared on the bill just before the Crookes. I know, because I was there and I have the promotional poster. I knew a couple of the band’s songs and to be honest, wasn’t all that impressed by them on record. Live, I thought they were good, but not great: they seemed a little tentative, which I suppose should be expected for a bunch of English lads on their first trip to Austin. Fast forward 2 months to Brighton and the Great Escape 2013, where the band played to a rammed Old Ship Paginini Ballroom on Saturday night: the more jaded journalists might say that they were playing to a captive audience who arrived early for the 1975 later, but there was no denying the crush of bodies down the front, fists raised, for the Leeds band.
So does the new EP sink or swim? The best song on here is second track ‘Deadbeat’, with its driving drums and what is to become an instantly recognised banging guitar intro. ‘N.O.M.O.N.E.Y.’ (previous Video of the Moment here) and ‘Get Loose’ both have good, strong whiffs of earlier, less inhibited, less sleepy recent Vaccines, which in my opinion can only be a good thing after that train wreck known as ‘Melody Calling’. You can just see the punters now, throwing their bodies round a circle mosh pit at a festival to these songs. I sort of imagine frontman Graeme Thompson looking at his own image in a mirror, practising his best anti-establishment, Johnny Rotten-type sneer. My guess though is, from his age at least, is that Thompson more likely picked up the sneer from the Gallagher brothers, and now is better at his active bitch face – and growly voice – than either of them.
Track ‘Reeperbahn’ just by the name is a nice nod to the infamous red light district of Hamburg where the Beatles honed their craft and ‘became’ men. Oddly, it’s not the raucous, firing on all cylinders affair I’d expected to be but instead something that might have been in the earlier portions of the Fabs or the Stones’ back catalogues. It’s passable, but it feels like a letdown after the first three very good songs. Luckily, EP closer ‘Green Tears’ brings back the swagger, with psychedelic vocal effects and more boots up the backside. This song also features an absolutely brilliant guitar solo; forget the groups that NME are touting as the next great British rock band, China Rats are the future.
If the Crookes are in line to become the kings of Tramlines very soon, then it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination that China Rats could be the same for Live at Leeds if they can keep their songs up to this level. If a battle between the two actually materialises, it will be us, the music-loving public, who will win. Play on, lads.
‘Don’t Play With Fire’, the second EP from Leeds rockers China Rats, is out the 30th of September on Once Upon a Time Records.
Rise Against are most widely known for being that shouty punk band from Illinois, who are all do goody and support Amnesty, PETA and other organisations like that. Not in an, “ooh, look at me I’m saving an orangutan”, while the TV cameras encircle the terrified primate. They’re more of the understated, we’ll slam the political dialogue in the verses and let our music do the talking, and for the past 14-ish years it has quite comfortably.
Now after releasing six politically charged albums they have released a collection of b-sides and songs that got lost in the ether: ‘Long Forgotten Songs: B-Sides & Covers 2000-2013’. A collection of thrown away half-baked ideas it is not though, compiled to be an extra pay cheque with minimal effort. Instead the record bizarrely has a kind of cohesiveness to it that it really shouldn’t. Not that this reviewer is complaining in the slightest.
Twenty-six songs was always a weighty ask, but when there are changes of pace galore as you race through this goliath of a record you can hardly gripe and moan. There’s some Rise Against token acoustic gold in the shape of the beautifully crafted ‘Everchanging’, where Tim McIlrath does his best to tug on the heartstrings, maybe not to the same ilk as the touching ‘Hero of War’, but still McIlrath is at his sentiment wrenching best.
Then when you reach the conclusion of this bountiful chest of forgotten tracks that have fallen by the wayside, there is a smattering of quite unusual covers. Which are absolutely what you would not expect from a band like Rise Against. However, what a surprise they are with the star studded cover of ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’, proving to be the jewel in the crown and the perfect way to finish the record. While their cover of Boy’s ‘No Good’ is as unexpected as it is majestic.
Altogether, it’s a testament to the musical ability of Tim McIlrath, Zach Blair, Joe Principe and Brandon Barnes that their leftover pizza, after the night out that is dining on their six albums, still tastes as good right now as it would have earlier.
‘Long Forgotten Songs: B-Sides & Covers 2000-2013’, a compilation of Rise Against b-sides and rarities, is available now from Polydor.
Sky Larkin’s third studio album ‘Motto’ is set for release on Monday the 16th of September, just over 3 years after 2010’s ‘Kaleide’. In that time, the band have been touring and playing almost constantly, both as a unit and individually with other groups. Earlier this year, the reformed quartet – having switched Sam Pryor for Doug Adams on bass and adding Nile Marr as a second guitarist – returned to Yorkshire to finish writing the album, which was then recorded in Seattle with producer and collaborator John Goodmanson.
Singer/guitarist Katie Harkin began the writing process for ‘Motto’ while on tour with art rock band Wild Beasts, and her choices of subject matter reflect the wandering, reflective mood of that vagabond existence, including songs about dreaming of home (‘Tarn’), memories of love (‘Treasury’), and artistic quandaries (title track ‘Motto’). Lyrically, the songs are full of imaginative and evocative imagery, such as the opening line of ‘Overgrown’: “In the hills above Bradford, there was a horrid accident.”
But while the album’s themes are eclectically varied, the music itself is almost alarmingly static. Harkin’s singing, while clear in tone quality, is somewhat monotonous, especially given the angular shape of the vocal melodies. Aside from some slick guitar work here and there, the instrumental intensity is overpowering in its lack of technical sensitivity, completely annihilating Harkin’s vocal lines with heavy, screeching guitars and incessantly crashing drums.
One of the lyrics in ‘Newsworthy’ seems ironically apropos, as it declares, “Darling, I’m drowning, the cacophony is coming for me / There is no such thing as disembodied intimacy.” Indeed, the harsh instrumental racket completely destroys the sense of emotional connection to the lyrics, as the subtleties of their elusive imagery and ambiguous poetic structure are lost in relentless surges of noise.
The album’s first single, ‘Motto’, begins with a dirge-like introduction and a driving bass riff before diving headlong into its singsong refrain, “I saw what I saw / Saw what I saw / Did what I did.” If Harkin actually does have a “motto to mutter”, she does it here; these are easily the catchiest lyrics on the album.
‘Que Linda (Wake To Applause)’ is a surprising but welcome reprieve from the blaring urgency of the rest of the album. Placed at the end of the track listing, it is a novel finishing touch. Harkin’s ethereal singing and muted keyboard melody are perfectly illustrative of “music floating down from an open window.” Deftly added guitars and soft percussion bring depth and definition before the gentle fadeout at the end.
Katie Harkin’s stated intent for this third album was to be both “immediate” and “expansive,” to “make something beautiful that wasn’t also permissive”. While ‘Motto’ is both immediate and expansive, it doesn’t quite bridge the dichotomy, creating instead a somewhat belligerent overstatement of their case. Another round of touring with the newly formed line-up might help Sky Larkin find their happy medium.
‘Motto’ is out Monday (the 16th of September) on Wichita Recordings. Listen to the title track in the Soundcloud widget below. Sky Larkin are set to begin their UK tour the day after, on Tuesday the 17th of September at London Lexington; for full details, go here.
By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 4th September 2013 at 12:00 pm
There seems to always be a veiled edge of mystery from every act that comes out of Manchester these days. Everyone from that town seems to be so scared of being pigeonholed by the ghosts of the city’s past and want nothing to do with New Order, the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays or Oasis. Electronic trio NO CEREMONY/// are no exception, having wowed festival and gig crowds over the last 2 years and setting themselves apart with their brand of dance music starring bombastic piano, stretched synths and pounding percussion.
But virtually nothing is known about them and even I didn’t know what they looked like until I caught them on day 2 of this year’s Liverpool Sound City. This week, the band releases their highly anticipated, self-titled debut long player. On their own label even, called NOC///. I should probably state here at the start that in case it is not obvious, I am not shouting throughout this review but all the song titles on this album, just like the band’s name itself, are in all caps. Also, yes, I am an editor and I do know where to put spaces, but all the song titles on this album are words smushed together. Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way…
Track 2 ‘FEELSOLOW’ is the best dance introduction to this band (or so I thought), having become a fan favourite of their live shows as of late. It’s also a good example of what this band does well: driving, pulsating, dark dance music equally appropriate for ravers and shoegazers that happen to enjoy dancing. If you’re not a fan of vocals being manipulated, the singing on here could be grating. But in general, if you’re into dance, you understand that vocals – or even understanding them most of the time – is secondary. It’s how the track makes you feel as it courses through your veins and through your body. (However, if you were paying attention, the lyrics of it are pretty good, touching on the heartbreak of asking “is it wrong to make you love me?” and desolate repeats of “you know my heart is gone / you know my faith is gone / I’ll be waiting, I’ll be waiting / nothing comes”. Yes, dance music can be emotional when done right.)
I bring up previously released ‘FEELSOLOW’ for the newbies. Chances are if you’re a dance fan and you’ve done any sort of following of this band from before they headlined their first headline show in Salford in the summer of 2012, you’ve probably heard many of these songs already online and probably sought them out at a festival. So to me, it’s quite interesting they decided to tap Joey Santiago of Pixies and Irish singer/songwriter James Vincent McMorrow as collaborators on ‘HEARTBREAKER’ and ‘AWAYFROMHERE’, respectively. Santiago provides admirable guitar lines that vie for attention with the vocals and in some cases, surpass them. McMorrow’s contribution to ‘AWAYFROMHERE’ is a soulful yet occasionally painful sounding falsetto that makes the song stick out like a sore thumb from the album overall. So Santiago 1: McMorrow 0.
What I find rather unusual here is that the band – only known to us by their first names of James, Kelly and Victoria – choose to go with more slower numbers than what might expect to hear at a rave. In that respect, the album comes across more like something the xx (or even James Blake, minus the annoying wubs and handclaps) would be produced and not as heavy beat-wise as I would have presumed. Or would liked for a dance album for that matter. I can appreciate the initial synth beats from the intro of ‘HOLDONME’ as it goes onward to about the 1-minute mark are light as a feather. I’m not a fan of words put through a vocoder (I’m talking to you, Kanye), so I’m not feeling the vocals on this track, but I can forgive based on how the tune steadily morphs into something bigger and bolder, culminating in ordered chaos into the third minute.
Conversely though, I find ‘HURTLOVE’ and ‘WARSONGS’ as missteps, lurching along languidly like weird bookends between faster paced, more interesting numbers. At least ‘PARTOFME’, which admittedly is a slow jam, brings attention to itself with percussion that won’t be denied. And then the payoff comes just after minute 2, as the song opens up and bursts like fireworks. No wonder it’s being released as their next single, dropping on the 14th of October. (Watch the promo video, just released in August, below.) So all is not lost.
Clocking in at barely a half-hour (32 minutes if you want to be picky about it), ‘NO CEREMONY///’ is a gentle electronic beast. Sadly, if you want to dance, this isn’t your record. If you’d rather have something to wrap your ears around to expand your mind though, this might just be the ticket.
The self-titled debut album from NO CEREMONY/// is out now on the band’s own label NOC///.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 2nd September 2013 at 12:00 pm
From this initial Bands to Watch I wrote in summer 2012, it’s been a whirlwind 12 months for a particular English band, including more gigs at SXSW 2013 than you can count on one hand, major post-SXSW hype, a major label record deal and oh, what about those screaming fangirls wherever they go, especially if their frontman is removing his jacket onstage? Who am I talking about? The 1975, of course. And now the boys from Manchester are now ready for their close-up. Unless you’re an established band that has been poking around for a while, the current de rigueur is to have an album of around 10 tracks and no more. ‘The 1975’ has 16 tracks: could they not self-edit, or is the album chock full of treasures? The former is a definite possibility, with the band’s singer/guitarist Matthew Healy and drummer George Daniel coproducing the album with Arctic Monkeys‘ collaborator Mike Crossey. But this is the real question on everyone’s minds as the title track, not even a minute and a half and sat at position #1, begins the album in a dreamy fashion.
As in White Lies‘ ‘Big TV’ released in August on Fiction (review here), the 1975 felt the need for two musical interludes, ‘An Encounter’ and ’12’. Besides providing a marker than you’ve passed another third of the album, there seems no particular reason for these and while they sound nice, they are filler. (Also weirdly, ‘Heart Out’ keep mentioning a tv. It always sounds weird to me to hear an Englishman say “tv” and not “telly”, so this was another way the 1975 album reminded me of the latest from White Lies.)
But let’s get to the meat of the album, the songs. The appearance of several songs that are already hit singles for the 1975 should come as no surprise. Given the live reception of ‘The City’, ‘Chocolate’ and ‘Sex’, their placement in the first half of the album causes ‘The 1975’ to a feel a bit top heavy. For people who aren’t familiar with these Mancunians, especially for those who are appreciative of good pop melodies and hooks, it may set you up for a bit of a disappointment, as these are arguably the strongest songs of this set and most accessible to the public. Newer track ‘M.O.N.E.Y.’ (not to be confused with fellow Mancunians M O N E Y) is a slow jam / r&b pastiche that is sat uncomfortably between ‘The City’ and ‘Chocolate’ and breaks up the pop momentum. Unfortunate.
Also, I have to wonder how many kids – and I mean KIDS – are going to be listening to this album, but to have the pretty innocent ‘Chocolate’ to be followed up by the extremely frank ‘Sex’ directly following it, is pretty jarring. (I’m starting to act all motherly and be quite crochety the more years I get in this music reviewing business, eh?) I guess all we can hope is that the wide-eyed innocents aren’t listening that closely to the lyrics. Or watching the new music video for the latter for that matter…
Then you go into the rest of the album, which is pretty much no man’s land unless you’ve actually been lucky enough to see the band in any of their sold out shows or festival appearances this year. Even so, a lot of these haven’t been played live yet or if they have, not very often. The pop formula of the aforementioned singles extends to some but not all of these songs. The start/stop syncopation and the brilliant guitars of ‘Talk!’ are nice enough but sound far too much like they were stolen from their labelmates Little Comets, making you wonder if Mickey Coles was hiding out in their studio and turning some knobs without them knowing while they were asleep.
Better is ‘Heart Out’, which feels very ’80s New Wave. Squint and you can see the long hair from here. Judging from fan reaction in the four times I’ve seen them this year, ‘Settle Down’ (live video from DC in March 2013 below) has come across as a very fun number and fan favourite live, so one hopes it will be the next song seeing a single release. From the spoken breakdown to its building back up, it’s a winner. ‘Girls’ is another possible single contender, with frontman Matthew Healy proffering up the lyrics with a winsome smile as the insistent pop rhythm continues throughout.
But from here on out, you have to wonder if it would have been better if some of these were better off released as B-sides and not included as album tracks, in favour of a shorter, more cohesive album. ‘Robbers’ has an admirable guitar hook that is brilliant live, but it’s too slow on album format and lacks interest to really grab the listener. The melody of ‘She Way Out’ is a bit tired, oddly staying in same general area of the harmonic scale, as if written so it could easily sung without taxing the voice. My theory, anyway. ‘Menswear’, taking advantage of synthesiser (if you could call it that), but the tune lacks punch, and the same fate befalls ‘Pressure’. And instead of ending the album on a high note, the vaguely John Legend-esque ‘Is There Someone Who Can Watch You’ ends the album on a sleepy yet soulful note. Not my thing, but I suppose for their legions of fangirls, this might hit the spot.
I do feel biased because I’ve had the good fortune to be down the front to hear some of these songs by the 1975 live in 2013, and I know those songs are better heard live than on record. On the other hand, based on the brilliance of the previously released singles, I was expecting to be hit in the face with banger after banger of new songs on the debut album, and I just didn’t get that. It’s a good debut album in the sense that they did try to be different from one song to another and didn’t just copy what they knew were successful formulas. But at the same time, I’d advise any band not to come out with a 16-track debut album: unless you’ve got an exceptional album from start to finish, you risk losing listeners who aren’t willing to stay with you for the duration.
The self-titled debut album from Manchester indie rock band the 1975 is out today on Dirty Hit Records. Stream the whole album from this post on TGTF last Friday.
By Mary Chang
on Friday, 30th August 2013 at 5:30 pm
It is time. For what, you ask? For you to wrap your ears round the 1975‘s self-titled debut album. It’s out on Monday the 2nd of September on Dirty Hit / Polydor, but you can get a first taste of the 16 tracks right here. You’ve probably got the weekend on the brain already, so I won’t say anything else but LISTEN.