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Album Review: Hilang Child – Years

 
By on Friday, 10th August 2018 at 12:00 pm
 

Header photo by Thomas Harrison

Hilang Child Years coverLondon-based singer/songwriter Ed Riman, known professionally as Hilang Child, captured my attention earlier this year at SXSW 2018, with his memorable performance at the official showcase of his record label, Bella Union. While the lighting and atmosphere at the Parish that night contributed to the brilliance of his show, it was the vivid soundscapes he created on stage that echoed in my mind long after the evening was over. Riman’s solo performance at SXSW was a natural precursor to the release of his upcoming debut album, titled ‘Years’.

Thematically, this LP is a prolonged introspection on reaching adulthood and the ephemerality of youth. As with many such intropective albums, ‘Years’ is sonically atmopheric and suggestive of moods rather than specific storylines. To label its music as “impressionistic” would be accurate but might call to mind the wrong ideas: Riman paints here with broad, sweeping brushstrokes and vivid colors rather than the soft, misty haze that term generally implies. The most immediate example of that bold sonic quality is in the album’s opening track ‘I Wrote a Letter Home’.

The main focus throughout ‘Years’ is on Hilang Child’s overarching sonic textures. In this regard, Riman says that he has learned through experience to trust his instincts in writing and self-producing these unique soundscapes. Speaking of his early recordings, he remembers, “I was always more excited about my home demos, recorded on a laptop, than the final recordings. I learnt that the only way I could convey the sound I wanted was by producing it myself, despite having little knowledge or ability in production.”

This is not to say that Riman completely ignores lyrics or melody; it’s simply that he uses them in service to the overall sound. His song forms don’t always follow the predictable verse/chorus/verse pattern, though his lyrics and do contain fragments of refrain, and his light, flexible vocal tone blends seamlessly into the instrumental backdrop. His piano melodies are bright and well-defined, standing out against the instrumentation in a way that his singing voice doesn’t, but they are not designed as catchy hooks or motifs. He enriches his textures with interesting percussion throughout the album, adding a distinctive rhythmic quality and sense of motion to the pensive, slow-moving harmonic progressions.

Riman allows his vocals to come to the forefront on ‘Sleepwalk’, arguably the album’s centerpiece, where Riman wonders, rhetorically, “what’s it all for, what can I show? / for 25 years alive, don’t know if I’ve ever tried, I’m sleepwalking tonight”. His hazy instrumental backdrop is propelled toward self-absolution by a shuffling rhythm, and his lilting vocals are powerfully emotive as he sings the final lyric, “this darkening down inside ends tonight’.

Following a brief instrumental interlude titled ‘Boy’, Riman makes another bold statement in ‘Starlight, Tender Blue’, which features layered synths and vocal lines over brooding guitar lines and heart-pounding drums. ‘Rot’ returns to the more pensive side of things, with the permeating warmth of its musical arrangement illustrating the sentiment behind its opening lyric, “even after everything I know, I’m not the bitter one”. ‘Endless String’ is similarly muted and self-reflective, its whispered vocals anchored into a rhythmic and tonal context by strong underlying piano chords.

Riman rounds out ‘Years’ with a flourish, or rather two of them. The anthemic recent single ‘Crow’, which is perhaps the most easily accessible individual track on the album, outside its full context. The song’s emphatic rhythm and and melodic piano lines are among the album’s most memorable moments, and Riman’s vocals reach their peak intensity in its swelling chorus. The album’s elusively-titled final track ‘Lissohr’ is deliberately more evasive, with an amorphous instrumental underlying vocal layers that echo as if from a great distance.

In the press release for ‘Years’, Riman mentions that his stage name, Hilang Child, translates from Malay as “missing child”. Certainly the thematic material on this album reflects a young adult’s struggle to find identity, but in terms of Riman’s musicality, the name Hilang Child might be something of a misnomer. Ambitious in its scope and brave in its sonic exploration, ‘Years’ presents Hilang Child as a composer who is clearly finding his place, with confidence in his own skill and a keen sense of clarity about his sonic vision.

8/10

Hilang Child’s debut LP ‘Years’ is out today, the 10th of August, on Bella Union. TGTF’s coverage of this intriguing artist at SXSW 2018 can be found through here.

 

SXSW 2018: Wrapping up with a final conference session and Saturday evening showcases – 17th March 2018

 
By on Thursday, 3rd May 2018 at 2:00 pm
 

Editor Mary and I started our final day at SXSW 2018 with a leisurely brunch, but we both had a full schedule of options for Saturday afternoon and evening. (You can read Mary’s Saturday recaps here and here.) I decided in the moment to play the day by ear, and my rather uncharacteristic spontaneity paid off in the form of several new-to-me acts, which I very much enjoyed.

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Before I set out to hear any live music, I did attend one last conference session at the Austin Convention Center. As a connoisseur of the singer/songwriter genre, I couldn’t pass up University of British Columbia musicologist David Metzer‘s discussion titled ‘Ballads: A History of Emotions in Popular Culture’. Here, Metzer explored the ballad’s changing role in popular music from the 1950s to the present, highlighting listeners’ growing desire “to experience feelings in bigger and bolder ways” and performers’ stylistic tendency to emote in increasingly virtuosic fashion. The presentation was necessarily brief, and Metzer used a simple but effective comparison between Whitney Houston’s iconic performance of ‘I Will Always Love You’ and Dolly Parton’s original version to make his point. True music nerds like myself can find a more expanded discussion in Metzer’s book, ‘The Ballad in American Popular Music: From Elvis to Beyoncé’, which I promptly ordered when I returned home from Austin the next day.

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After a quick walk around the Trade Expo and a celebratory green cocktail for St. Patrick’s Day, Mary and I both had time to check out SXSW’s Second Play Stages, which feature official Showcasing Artists playing acoustic “happy hour” shows in the lounges of downtown Austin hotels. These shows are casual and quite intimate, with small crowds gathered in close and passersby stopping to listen at the fringes. I chose the Hilton’s Cannon & Bell lounge, where English singer/songwriter Harry Pane was playing his final set of the week. Pane was both relaxed and engaging on the small stage, and his songs were candidly emotional in this stripped back setting. His performance of ‘Fletcher Bay’, written after a trip to New Zealand with his late father, was particularly moving. You can have a listen to a similar live performance courtesy of London Live Sessions just below.

After a quick post-show interview with Pane (which will publish on TGTF in the coming days), I headed to Barracuda, whose two stages were hosting the combined Artist Group International and Xtra Mile Recordings showcase. While there would undoubtedly be a larger crowd later in the evening, when British folk-punk artists Skinny Lister and Frank Turner were slated to play the outdoor stage, the mood was mellow in both venues when I arrived for the beginning of the night’s set list.

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First on the outdoor stage was Houston singer/songwriter Brianna Hunt, performing under the moniker Many Rooms. The audience was thin at this point in the evening, and Hunt’s muted demeanor on stage didn’t attract the punters’ attention straightaway, but as her set continued, the fragile beauty of her songs gradually drew focus to the stage. Many Rooms’ debut album ‘There is a Presence Here’ is available now on Other People Records; you can listen to album track ‘which is to say, everything’ just through here.

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Between sets on the outdoor stage, I peeked inside to catch a couple of songs from Allman Brown, who had caught my attention earlier in the week, while I waited to hear English folk singer Non Canon. Non Canon is the mildly pretentious stage name of singer/songwriter Barry Dolan, who describes the term as “anything [that] exists apart from the story we know and love”. His music is true to that description, pairing obscure literary allusions with pop culture references in an odd, but ultimately thought-provoking way. Though his set here was stripped back to voice and guitar, his recordings feature a fuller array of instrumental sounds and unusual harmonic variations, as evidenced in ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’.

The remainder of the Barracuda lineup included The RPMs (who Mary saw the previous afternoon) and Will Varley, as well as the aforementioned Skinny Lister and Frank Turner. As I had seen the latter three recently (Varley and Skinny Lister in February at Phoenix’s Valley Bar, and Turner on Thursday evening), I decided to head to the Parish, which was hosting British indie label Bella Union.

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As we’ve mentioned in the past, Bella Union is a sure bet for high quality songwriting and musicianship, but also for music that is a bit off-the-beaten-path. Their Saturday night showcase at the Parish was no different. I missed indie pop songwriter Ari Roar, but arrived in time to catch American folk duo Field Division. On the surface, this pair, comprised of Evelyn Taylor and Nicholas Frampton, is yet another in a long string of Laurel Canyon-influenced artists, but on closer listening, their powerful lyrics and sharp instrumental arrangements create a deeper and more tangible sonic presence. Keep an eye out for their debut LP ‘Dark Matter Dreams’, which is due for release on the 22nd of June and features the propulsive motion of ‘River in Reverse’.

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More subdued but nonetheless hypnotic, electronic dream pop artist Hilang Child (aka Ed Riman) took the stage next and dazzled the growing audience with his effortless vocals and deftly textured instrumental layers. His carefully crafted soundscapes are replete with splendid dynamic and harmonic colour, which fill in and expand beautifully upon his delicately poetic lyrics. Hilang Child’s standout track ‘Growing Things’ will feature on his upcoming debut LP, which is due out later this year.

Tiny Ruins

New Zealand folk band Tiny Ruins has evolved from the solo work of frontwoman Hollie Fullbrook into a full four-piece ensemble, though they were represented in Austin by only two of their number, Fullbrook and bassist Cass Basil. Their thoughtful folk songs were mesmerising with just the pair of them, but they added another dimension of rhythmic interest when drummer Jim White joined them on stage midway through their set. Tiny Ruins’ third album is due out on Bella Union later this year; in the meantime, take a listen to the subtle yet exquisite ‘Me at the Museum, You in the Wintergardens’, courtesy of Flying Nun Records.

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Jim White took only a brief hiatus from the stage after Tiny Ruins’ set before returning for his main show as part of avante garde folk-rock duo Xylouris White. Xylouris White finds the virtuosic Australian drummer joining forces with equally skilled Cretan lute player and singer George Xylouris to create a musical experience that is best described as “intense”. Any words I write here will undoubtedly fail to convey the awesome power of their live performance. The unlikely but fluidly-synchronised pair released their third LP ‘Mother’ back in January, and it’s not to be missed for anyone excited by the idea of dynamic jazz-rock-folk fusion.

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The final act on the Bella Union bill, and the final act for me at SXSW 2018 was Ezra Furman, whom I’d seen on Thursday at the Luck Reunion. The late night atmosphere of the Parish on Saturday night was an entirely different context for Furman and his band The Visions, and the dark drama of songs like ‘Suck the Blood from My Wound’ took on a new level of depth and potency in this set. Here, Furman combined his intellectual, heavily metaphorical lyricism with a visceral musicality to create a full gestalt that was somehow greater than the simple sum of its parts. In this regard, he fits in nicely with his Bella Union colleagues, who all made a positive impression on this showcase, and who made my last night in Austin a uniquely memorable one.

 

SXSW 2017: Thursday night ups and downs at the British Music Embassy, Elysium and St. David’s Bethell Hall – 16th March 2017

 
By on Thursday, 13th April 2017 at 2:00 pm
 

I’ve often said that you can’t go wrong in Austin during SXSW, because there’s good music going on literally everywhere you turn. On the Thursday night of SXSW 2017, however, my general enthusiasm was dampened ever so slightly. I saw some amazing performances that night, mind you, but I also saw, for the first time in my SXSW experience, some performances that fell below my expectations.

Happily, the first performance of the evening wasn’t one of those. I started off at Latitude 30, where Holly Macve played the British Music Embassy stage with a full band in attendance and a subtle air of self-assurance about her. Like Northern Irish act Silences, who I covered earlier in the week, Macve’s previous experience at SXSW 2016 was clearly a valuable one for her in terms of confidence and exposure. (If you missed out on our earlier coverage of Holly Macve, you can catch up right back here.) She had clearly built a reputation that preceded her, as her set at Latitude 30 drew a full crowd on the Thursday night, and the lovelorn songs from her excellent debut LP ‘Golden Eagle’ made a strong impact, especially the uptempo ‘Heartbreak Blues’.

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You might recall from our earlier review that Macve’s album was released on indie label Bella Union, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Label boss Simon Raymonde was in attendance at Macve’s show on Thursday evening, but it’s his commentary at Friday afternoon’s panel session Bella Union at 20 that comes back to my mind as I write this review. In choosing acts to sign to his label, Raymonde’s guiding motto has been, in his own words, “Don’t be a dick.” In other words, there’s no need to go out of your way to harshly criticise or publicly disparage music you don’t like; just politely decline and move on.

How does Raymonde’s comment relate to my Thursday evening review, you ask? Well, several of the acts I saw later in the evening were . . . less than stellar, in my opinion. While I don’t necessarily feel the need to insult these artists by writing scathing recaps of their performances, I will give my honest opinions, as gently and genuinely as I can.

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Leaving the British Music Embassy, I headed to Elysium, which was hosting the Anti- Records showcase. In sharp contrast to the full-capacity Wednesday night crowd, Elysium was nearly empty at 9 PM on Thursday. This was unfortunate for Brooklyn folk singer Christopher Paul Stelling. He’s a songwriter I’ve enjoyed on record in the past, and I was eager to see him play live. However, his demeanour on stage was an immediate indication that this might not be his best night. I honestly think he might have been drunk, which I realise wouldn’t be unusual at SXSW. But if he was, it didn’t seem to enhance his performance. His comments to the small audience were a bit snide, and he apparently had some kind of disagreement with his bass player. It must be said here, though, that the bassist and the violinist accompanying Stelling provided some lovely tone color behind Stelling’s aggressive guitar playing and intensely passionate vocals. Expect to hear more of that savage sound on Stelling’s forthcoming LP ‘Itinerant Arias’, which is due for release on the 5th of May. Check out the video for the latest album track ‘The Cost of Doing Business’ just below.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/OMTdQVK7Jzk[/youtube]

The crowd at Elysium grew exponentially between sets in anticipation of New Jersey native and guitar virtuoso Delicate Steve. We featured his delightful album ‘This is Steve’ just before SXSW, and I was very happy indeed that his live show leaned heavily on songs from that LP. However, Delicate Steve did have a fair number of dedicated, longtime fans in the audience that night, and they were equally pleased when he threw in a couple of older favourites. His set was a visual and sonic spectacle, truly a joy to behold, and though I’m not always much of an instrumental music fan, I left Elysium with a grin on my face after seeing Delicate Steve play.

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I debated about leaving Elysium, as Australian songwriter Cameron Avery was next on the bill. But I made the fateful decision to take a chance instead on a handful of Los Angeles area songwriters, in an effort to follow up the preview of L.A. artists I’d written just before SXSW.

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One of the songwriters mentioned in that very brief preview was Mark Eitzel. I walked into St. David’s Bethell Hall as Eitzel was preparing to play, and it quickly became clear that he didn’t particularly want to be there. In fact, he flatly said as much at one point during the set. His continued grousing during the set was off-putting, and I found it rather hard to believe his defensive statement “I’m usually very funny”. However, his songs did have a certain wit about them. Their lyrics were actually quite charming, in a French art song kind of way: elegant and romantic, understated and delicate, plainly sentimental. If you’re on the fence about giving Eitzel a listen, I’d still recommend him, in spite of his rough showing here. His new album ‘Hey Mr Ferryman” is out now on Merge Records (U.S.) / Decor records (UK/EU), and he’s just wrapping up a tour in North America.

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British ex-pat Karen Elson, who now calls Nashville home, was next on at Bethell Hall, and I was intrigued straightaway when her stage setup included a harp alongside the acoustic and electric guitars. She played stripped back versions of songs from her new album ‘Double Roses’, including recent single ‘Call My Name’, and for my money, the gentle sound of the harp was just the right accompaniment for her delicate singing voice. It was a bit unfortunate that Elson played for such a small gathering here, but the audience did include her friend and fellow songstress Allison Pierce, whom I’d covered at Lambert’s the night before. (Small world.) ICYMI, Elson very graciously answered TGTF’s Quickfire Questions in the days leading up to the festival; you can read her responses right here.

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Even from the vantage point of 4 weeks’ distance, I’m still not sure what to make of the final performer I saw on Thursday night, chamber pop songwriter Alex Izenberg. Though he is based in Los Angeles, the songs Izenberg played from his 2016 album ‘Harlequin’ were very 1970s’ New York-sounding to me: jazzy, sophisticated, vaguely cinematic. The potential was evident in tracks like ‘To Move On’, but Izenberg’s performance on the night fell completely flat. Like Eitzel, he wasn’t very personable, barely looking up from the keyboard to make a connection with his audience, and his between-songs banter was mumbled and perfunctory. Technically the performance was a bit stilted, possibly due to the stark solo keyboard arrangement of the songs, but Izenberg seemed almost like a child in a piano recital who has to pause between chords to remember where to put his hands. I’m sure this wasn’t the case — it couldn’t have been, right? — but it was impossible not to notice it. In his situation, I might have been tempted to improvise, to take advantage of Bethell Hall’s lovely grand piano for a virtuosic flourish or two, but Izenberg kept his head down and stuck to the figurative script. Then again, he was playing to a mostly empty room in the dreaded 1 AM time slot, which I’ve already mentioned many times as a difficult one.

I think we sometimes forget, as fans and listeners, and even as music journalists, that festivals like SXSW can be incredibly stressful for musicians. Rushing from gig to gig, handling press commitments, and the constant pressure to put on a good show despite less than ideal conditions is undoubtedly exhausting. A few of the musicians I saw on the Thursday night of SXSW might have been a little worse for the wear, and I hope their experience improved from that point forward. My lasting impressions of the night, though, were of brilliant performances from Holly Macve, Delicate Steve and Karen Elson, who definitively stood out among the evening’s offerings.

 

SXSW 2017: summary of SXSW Conference session Bella Union at 20

 
By on Monday, 3rd April 2017 at 11:00 am
 

In the course of its 20-year history, British independent record label Bella Union has become what you might call a “household name”, if your household were made up of musicians, music journalists, promoters, or other industry types. Headed by former Cocteau Twins member Simon Raymonde, Bella Union was originally founded as a vehicle for releasing Cocteau Twins’ own work, but it expanded to new ventures when the band broke up in 1997. Bella Union’s most acclaimed signees include artists like Fleet Foxes, The Flaming Lips, and Father John Misty, as well as TGTF alums The Trouble With Templeton, Midlake, Emmy the Great, and exmagician.

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In celebration of Bella Union’s 20th anniversary, Raymonde was featured as a session panelist at SXSW 2017, along with Midlake frontman Eric Pulido (who also showcased in Austin with supergroup BNQT) and actor Jason Lee. Pulido’s appearance on the panel wasn’t surprising, but Lee was a bit of a question mark in my mind going into the Friday afternoon session. As it turned out, we had to wait a bit to find out what Lee’s role would be in the discussion, because he was delayed trying to find a parking space. Even featured speakers aren’t immune to busy downtown Austin SXSW traffic!

In Lee’s absence, Pulido took on the role of session faciliator, and he led a spontaneous conversation with Raymonde about the guiding philosophy behind Bella Union. As an experienced and successful musician himself, Raymonde emphasised the “gut instinct” aspect of his label’s work, saying that he strives to release music that genuinely strikes a chord with him on first listen. Pulido remarked that Raymonde’s diplomatic criticism often begins with the phrase “I don’t love it”, but doesn’t necessarily shut the door to future endeavours from promising artists. In fact, much of Raymonde’s success with Bella Union hinges on his openness to his artists’ perseverance. Midlake’s 2006 album ‘The Trials of Van Occupanther’ garnered critical accolades, despite Raymonde’s initial reticence about its unwieldy title.

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When Lee arrived to take part in the discussion, he revealed that it was Raymonde who turned him onto Midlake back in 2004, around the band’s also oddly-titled debut LP ‘Bamnan and Silvercork’. Lee was immediately hooked and eventually directed a video for a single from that album called ‘Balloon Maker.’ The video, and Lee’s continuing enthusiasm for promoting the band, led to a more expansive collaboration, the documentary film ‘Midlake: Live in Denton TX.’

[youtube]https://youtu.be/JfFMPY72k_g[/youtube]

Raymonde highlighted the role of artist interaction and fortuitous timing in his discussion of Bella Union’s continued success. He named Midlake’s collaboration with American singer/songwriter John Grant as a prime example. Grant, who was a longtime fan of the Cocteau Twins, had initially contacted Raymonde during his time with The Czars, and though it took some convincing, Raymonde was eventually persuaded to take the production helm on the band’s second album ‘Before…But Longer.’ Raymonde’s dedication kept The Czars afloat until they broke up in 2004, but his relationship with Grant didn’t end there. Midlake’s artistic collaboration on Grant’s debut solo album, 2010’s ‘Queen of Denmark’ brought Grant back to Raymonde’s attention, and Grant’s fruitful partnership with Bella Union was renewed, continuing through 2013 album ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ and 2015 release ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’.

One of Bella Union’s more recent protégés, singer/songwriter Holly Macve, also started with stroke of luck on Raymonde’s part. Macve had taken a job in a café in Brighton where Raymonde had set up a basement studio, and he happened to hear her sing at an open mic night. His ear for talent and the aforementioned “gut instinct” immediately drew him to sign her to the label. Macve made her American debut last year at SXSW 2016, garnering accolades from NPR among others, and she returned this year with a stunning debut album, ‘Golden Eagle’, under her belt.

Bella Union co-hosted a 20th Anniversary showcase with TuneIn Studios on the Wednesday night of SXSW, featuring current artists BNQT, Holly Macve, Mammut, Pavo Pavo, Will Stratton and Horse Thief. High-calibre artists like these represent the future of Bella Union as the label moves into its third decade of excellence among independent record labels. Stay tuned to TGTF for our coverage of Holly Macve at the British Music Embassy in our roundup of Thursday night at SXSW 2017.

 

Beach House / UK Tour

 
By on Thursday, 4th October 2007 at 8:35 pm
 

Beach House - press shotOkay, I’ll admit it – I didn’t know about Beach House until Drowned in Sound bought them to my attention, but they sound pretty amazing. That, or remarkably shite. I can’t decide.

Nonetheless, they’re on tour in mid November, so pop along and give them a go. They’re signed to Bella Union Records, who are a pretty good record label, so give them a whirl at the following dates. The London date is on sale through Ticketmaster, and the others, well, I’m guessing the local venues.

Saturday 10th November – Cambridge Graduate
Sunday 11th November – Leeds Faversham
Monday 12th November – Manchester Night & Day
Tuesday 13th November – Glasgow The Admiral
Thursday 15th November – Birmingham Glee Club
Friday 16th November – London Water Rats

 
 
 

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We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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