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Album Review and Retrospective: Coldplay – Ghost Stories

 
By on Monday, 19th May 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

2002: a curious time of innocence, and simultaneous loss of innocence. Momentous events occurred, their true consequences hidden in the folded future. The world was still struggling to accept 9/11. Parts of Europe embarked with blind optimism on their slow journey towards economic self-destruction by adopting the Euro. The country celebrated the Queen’s Golden Jubilee – 3 days later her sister died, and 3 months later, so did her mother. Coldplay released ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’ – and while touring the album, Chris Martin would meet his future wife Gwyneth Paltrow. Momentous events all, but arguably only one has had a lasting effect on the popular music catalogue. And now that the Martin-Paltrow marriage has come to the end of its natural life, only one that has a break-up soundtrack all of its own.

Coldplay’s 2000 début ‘Parachutes’, is a modest, wimpy emulation of Nineties guitar-band tropes: gently-strummed acoustic guitars, some elementary guitar effects, clichéd and blissed-out lyrics (“We live in a beautiful world”, etc). But that world needed an album like it – inoffensive music that couples can agree they both can tolerate, with an irrepressibly optimistic worldview to boot. The rock ‘n’ roll operating envelope has at one end sweary, noisy, atonal punk – and for there to be a spectrum, something needs to occupy the other end. Step forward Coldplay.

The production on ‘Parachutes’ is shockingly bad, though: thoroughly over-compressed and lacking in the quirky ambition of something like Athlete’s ‘Vehicles And Animals’. The snare sound on their first mega-hit ‘Yellow’ is embarrassingly bad, a cross between a ping-pong ball being shaken in a jar and a side of ham slapped with a slipper. Chris Martin’s voice is either merely inoffensive or deeply irritating, depending on one’s tolerance for fey white boys moping about existential nonsense. Most of the time he could be mistaken for the sound of a goat stuck down a well. However, ‘Parachutes’ is a half-decent stab at a band attempting that most futile but well-worn endeavour: to recreate Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’ for the mainstream. Many would attempt it – Athlete, Starsailor, Snow Patrol – and many would fail.

2002’s ‘A Rush of Blood to The Head’ is a much more mature piece of work. Everything is more grown-up: most of the tracks are over 5 minutes long; the opening track ‘Politik’ hints as to what’s to come: a far more adventurous arrangement than ever before, a tetchily cynical lyric from Martin, but still retaining the copyrighted Coldplay melodicity and optimistic overtures. That pesky snare drum makes an appearance once again in ‘In My Place’, although this time it sounds like someone popping an empty bag of crisps, with a nasty resonant ring for good measure. Despite this disability, the track reached #2 in the UK, and perhaps characterises the band’s approach to the whole album: an attempt to, if not completely rewrite the melodic rock rulebook, then at least dress it up in a fresh suit and introduce it to a new millenium.

‘God Put a Smile Upon Your Face’ has a nice chromatic chord sequence played on a grubby old acoustic guitar, ‘The Scientist’ is the ubiquitous piano ballad, soppy as ever, buy hey – something’s got to get those lighters in the air. ‘Clocks’ is an interesting one: there’s loads of keyboards, a big, uplifting piano crescendo, and almost completely meaningless lyrics. A sign of things to come, perhaps. The album concludes with a pair of tracks that are amongst Coldplay’s finest work. The title track puts their undoubted ability to deliver a decent crescendo into good use: with talk of firearms and arson, this is Coldplay taking on big themes, and mostly succeeding. ‘Amsterdam’ is similarly morose, the sour to the preceding overload of saccharine optimism. Talk of being “tied to the noose” is uncharacteristically downbeat – and it really suits them.

‘X&Y’ is essentially more of the same: ‘A Rush Of Blood…’, mark two. Despite the nods to orchestration and electronica, it’s still essentially the sound of a guitar band with enormous ideas. With hindsight the entirety sounds a little one-note, but there are standouts – ‘White Shadows’, ‘Talk’, ‘Speed Of Sound’, which confirm their ability to write a stadium-sized tune hadn’t been lost. And then came the inevitable – the concept album. ‘Viva La Vida’ was produced by Brian Eno, and he helped immensely to take Coldplay’s lofty ideas and craft them into something reasonably coherent and credible. The topics are ambitious, and, surprisingly enough, the music actually does them justice. Pertinently, the title track uses a four-to-the-floor synthesised bass drum, but doesn’t fall lazily into dance music tropes. Perhaps Coldplay’s most left-field single, the song tells the story of a deposed monarch mourning his own poor judgement that engineered such a fall from grace. A masterclass in concept songwriting that few could match.

Most importantly, despite the baubles, the album sounds like the work of one band playing real instruments – noisy guitars are still frequently front-and-centre, but even when they’re not, the orchestration sounds familiar, all of a piece. ‘42’ deserves a mention as a three-movement work that manages to glue together string-laden balladry, noisy, almost math-rock riffing, and the inevitable uplifting crescendo. A notable highlight in an already strong album. ‘Viva La Vida’ showcases a band merging populism, concept and the avant-garde – and succeeding. Coldplay’s masterpiece.

It’s in ‘Mylo Xyloto’ that the etiolated shoots of today’s folly were first to be heard. ‘Every Teardrop is a Waterfall’ again uses a dance-inspired kick drum, lead synth stabs, and, mystifyingly, an electric guitar which sounds suspiciously like a set of bagpipes. The lyrics are embarrassing and subtly patronising like a leery uncle at a disco, and none of it holds the credibility of their preceding work. Ri-”autotune”-hanna pops up briefly and rather pointlessly. With lukewarm reviews and their worst sales to date, was this the sound of a band losing their way? What the album couldn’t convey, of course, was the power of the Coldplay live show, the potency of which is in no doubt. The combination of audience-participation wristbands, button-pushingly emotive material, and Chris Martin’s enthusiastic gyrations means very few people felt short-changed from 2011-2012’s worldwide jaunt, including that most prestigious of things – the Glastonbury headline slot. Questions of musical direction aside, in 2012 Coldplay were, and possibly still are, the most effective stadium-rock band in the world. There’s even a feature film of the whole affair, if proof were needed.

It is, then, with a heavy heart that we must turn to ‘Ghost Stories’. Be warned – every song is about losing Gwyneth. Every single one. The first line is “I think of you”, repeated ad nauseum in a number of different pitches and melodies, including that increasingly insufferable falsetto that he’s so keen on. Here’s a representative sample of lyrics – see if you can spot a pattern:

“I don’t want anybody else but you”
“All I know is I love you so much it hurts”
“One last time tell me you love me”

Give us a break. At least throw in a topic or two to change the mood, to get the bile going: perhaps something about tetanus, or Nick Clegg. But no, the whole thing is hewn from the most simpering of sentiment. There’s even a song called ‘True Love’, for fuck’s sake. Interestingly, the album’s only moment that isn’t cloyingly saccharine is the guitar solo in said track, when Jonny Buckland, in a rare moment of disobedience, briefly bends a note out of tune – an act of rebellion that hints at some power struggle going on underneath the surface. But, as quickly as it appears, it’s gone, and the usual bland normality is resumed. In a way it reminds the listener that this isn’t just one man’s folly, it’s four men’s. Five, if you count the otherwise credible Paul Epworth at the desk. Any one of them could have reigned in their depressive singer’s whines, it’s just that they didn’t have the guts, the self-perceived status, to do so. Cowards.

Rather than listening to the album straight, it’s much more fun to look up the track names in advance, and predict which moth-eaten lyrical cliché Martin is going to wheel out next. ‘Oceans’ is a good one for this – think distance, water, loneliness, and you’re on the right track. It really is music by numbers. Who, frankly, cares enough about Martin’s state of mind to wade through this tripe even once? There are far more important things on which to spend one’s time. On this evidence, if Martin is this much of a drip, then Gwyneth made the right call.

One is entitled to feel upset when one’s wife leaves. Such sorrow can be expressed in many different ways: some would choose to drown their sorrows in several tumblers of malt whisky, others in ill-advised trips to age-inappropriate nightclubs, yet more by riding a motorcycle at reckless speed. The obvious choice for catharsis if one is a musician is: make some music. But nowhere is it written that that music should be so obvious, so much of a collection of embarrassing pleas for things to back to the way they were, for the woman to overlook all the flaws and irritants that made her leave in the first place, and to come back just because you wrote a nice little tune about her.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zp7NtW_hKJI[/youtube]

And then we get to the utter dross, the audible sewage, the musical runt that is ‘Sky Full of Stars’. If anyone was wondering if there was any way to really take a Coldplay album into the next league of terrifying banality, the answer has arrived: call in Avicii. The DJ equivalent of Matalan works his ‘magic’ by bringing in some recycled big disco beats and house synth stabs, converting what was already some pungent fromage into a whole over-ripe brie that’s been left in the sun for a week. Someone please take it away and dispose of it carefully. Every single crap house cliché is in there – predictable build-ups, tappy little percussion bits, filters, echoing vocal lines – you can almost hear the lasers. ‘Sky Full of Stars’ is the sound of Coldplay eating themselves, diving headlong into inadvertent self-parody, declaring, as has long been suspected but is at last confirmed, that they have completely abandoned any notion of musical integrity, and are in it for the cheap dollar. Why else would they prostitute themselves, prone on the altar of excruciating Euro-house, essentially simply pretending to be a band, as some young chap from Stockholm does all the hard work for them?

It all could have been so different. The Gwyneth break-up should have been a time of pause and contemplation for Martin, including a period of calm re-evaluation of his past work, of identifying where he’s gone right and where he’s gone wrong in his musical career to date. Perhaps going back to first principles with his band, working as a simple four-piece with basic instrumentation and respect for the song as their guiding ethos. People may have been pleased – impressed, even, to see a revived Coldplay shorn of theatricality, doing what they do best: catchy, mainstream rock tunes. Instead, we have this overblown load of old cobblers – the audible equivalent of a tear-stained handkerchief. An album that makes you cry – for all the wrong reasons.

3/10

‘Ghost Stories’, Coldplay’s sixth album, is out now on Parlophone.

 

This is the Last Time? – A Retrospective on Keane

 
By on Friday, 25th October 2013 at 5:00 pm
 

Last Sunday, through MTV, Gigwise, NME and other media channels, came the news that after 16 years of being together, Keane had decided to call it a day. I feel pretty bad now, having slagged off their latest single here on TGTF and having Steve Lamacq read out during Roundtable this Tweet in which I called it “lacklustre”. Kidding aside, maybe I had foreseen this media firestorm that would take place in 2 weeks’ time. We’ve been told that frontman Tom Chaplin wants to embark on a solo career, and principal band songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley plans to collaborate on songwriting with today’s pop stars, having previously worked with No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani on ‘The Great Escape’ song ‘Early Winter’ and Kylie Minogue on ‘Everything is Beautiful’ from her 2010 album ‘Aphrodite’. Confusingly, a couple days later, Chaplin himself tried to explain that their plans were instead to go on temporary hiatus while band members worked on their own projects. This left me wondering, are there plans to “let’s go out while we’re on top”? This also has made me ponder, artistically, has Keane’s journey run its course?

Sixteen years does seem like a very long time to be together, and in Keane’s case, they haven’t terribly prolific – besides a couple of EPs, the band only put out four full-length albums. But this is right in line with the band that would prove to be their rivals for throughout their career. I am, of course, talking about Coldplay, the other massive English stadium piano rock band. This seems to not be as common knowledge as I thought, but it should be: when Keane’s principal songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley was still at University College of London, he was approached in 1997 by then unknown musician Chris Martin, who asked him to join his new band. Had Rice-Oxley taken him up on the offer, there might never have been a Keane at all. Imagine how different the musical landscape today would be if he’d agreed. Thankfully, he said no, saying he wanted to stay with his then band The Lotus Eaters and in a flurry of subsequent action, Tom Chaplin was drafted to come in as lead vocalist. Thus Keane was born.

As they are for most fledgling bands, the early days for Keane were hard. Founding member Dominic Scott left in 2001, disheartened by the band’s lack of progress. Had it not been for Fierce Panda Records head honcho Simon Williams, who just happened to see the band perform in London the following year, Keane might not have gone anywhere. Williams, having seen promise in Coldplay several years prior, agreed to put out their first commercial single, ‘Everybody’s Changing’, which then caught the ears of one Steve Lamacq, who at the time was still on Radio1. When Keane started getting popular here in America, I avoided them like the plague. What a snooze! ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ seemed to be on the radio every single time I switched it on, and it drove me crazy. ‘Is It Any Wonder?’ got on my nerves. Who is that guy singing? Man, that delivery’s annoying.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oextk-If8HQ[/youtube]

I later ate my words when I fell in love with Chaplin’s voice and Rice-Oxley’s songwriting. And this happened with third album ‘Perfect Symmetry’, which would be the album that made me want to even go near them. Making synthesisers and guitars more prominent in their sound caught my eyes and ears: was this really the same Keane that was putting out that dirge ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ and that annoyance ‘Is It Any Wonder?’ that I couldn’t stand? And yet, surprisingly, it was. It was from there that I went backwards in time, to come to know and love ‘Hopes and Fears’ (and ‘Under the Iron Sea’ to a much lesser extent) and Keane became an important part of my life.

When my heart got broken for the second time, Chaplin sang to me, “this is the last time, the last time I will show my face / one last tender lie, and then I’m out of this place”, and I felt he knew my pain. Like many of the bands I like, I think some of their lyrics have been horribly misunderstood. I interpret ‘This is the Last Time’ as a cry for help from someone contemplating suicide. Some people seem to think that because Keane are a mainstream band, that means their lyrics must be throwaway and aren’t anything important. No. You just haven’t been looking hard enough, people. I know for me and many Keane fans out there, the band and their songs have been there for us when we needed them. We are the people who took to social media immediately on Sunday morning and were taking this break-up news the hardest.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u86VdOc3asA[/youtube]

While in shock from hearing the news Keane were splitting up, I joked on Twitter, why couldn’t it have been Coldplay instead? Don’t ask me why, but except for ‘The Scientist’, Martin’s words don’t do a thing for me. For the better part of the last 2 decades, and rather unfairly in my opinion, Keane and Coldplay have been lumped together because they share that one major, distinguishing characteristic: using a piano as the lead instrument in their songs. It’s my understanding that the two bands are of similar stature in the UK when it comes to fan and mainstream popularity, where their label of stadium piano rock is most appropriate.

Inexplicably, Coldplay is far and away much more massive than Keane is here in America. I really don’t really get it. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Tom Chaplin’s voice can run circles around Chris Martin’s, with the ability to transform chameleon-like from gorgeously tender, to hauntingly emotional, to sweepingly grand in a chorus all in the same song. The existential musings on the digital world offered up in third album title track ‘Perfect Symmetry’ couldn’t have been written by anyone else but Tim Rice-Oxley. For me, Keane was always the complete package: beautifully sung vocals by Chaplin, in the backdrop of Rice-Oxley’s amazing songwriting, with perfectly matched drums and percussion from Richard Hughes and later, guitars from touring band member and Rice-Oxley’s Mt. Desolation compadre Jesse Quin.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRLv6zvyE48[/youtube]

But Keane was not without some career stumbles. The ‘Night Train’ EP of 2010 saw the band try to spread their wings even further beyond their unusual MOR style. Much credit needs to be given for them trying to branch out into rap, collaborating with Somali-Canadian rapper K’Naan on single ‘Stop for a Minute’, the video of which had me spellbound as I watched it off a bar’s television on a street in Copenhagen, and even crossing cultural borders in ‘Ishin Denshin’, working with Japanese rapper Tigarah in what ended up being an embarrassing experiment. Latest album ‘Strangeland’ disappointed critics, only receiving average reviews; even I thought it was an uneven effort, featuring great singles but containing mostly with filler. Still, fans ate it up and bought it in droves. And as always, the same fans saw them in huge numbers on tour.

The last time (no pun intended) I saw them gig was on the Strangeland North American tour of 2012. They sounded brilliant as always. Ever the showman, Chaplin and his charisma grabbed hold quickly to the audience’s attention and never let go of the entire hour and a half they played. Even if their last two studio albums were less than stellar and for some reason they don’t even return to the stage as a live band, the experience of seeing them will always be remembered as something very special. I will always treasure being mere feet away from Keane, down the front for an intimate appearance at Cedar Street Courtyard during my first SXSW in 2012. Never would I imagine a year and a half later, we’d be talking about their potential demise. Whatever happens, guys, we will be missing you.

 

(Deer Shed Festival 2013 flavoured!) The House of Love – A Retrospective

 
By on Thursday, 18th July 2013 at 1:00 pm
 

One of the great mysteries of popular music is exactly why fate chooses a particular band to become legendary – treated with holy reverence by great swathes of the listening public – when the vast majority either tread the boards for years to an enthusiastic but small fanbase, or disappear completely after a promising start, to the notice of, well, nobody. The example that springs to mind is The Stone Roses – only one-and-a-bit decent albums, a singer that couldn’t really sing, but they are quite justifiably worshipped by those whose lives they entered and changed forever, generating countless spin-off books, photography exhibitions, and finally a feature-length documentary.

It has to do with timing, of course, and geographic location – if you wanted to become a legendary band in the mid-‘80s, Manchester was where you had to be from. The story of The Stone Roses is inextricably intertwined with that of James, The Smiths, New Order, The Hacienda – the Manchester musical family tree can be extended almost without end. So were The Stone Roses great and just happened to be Mancunian, or were they Mancunian and therefore automatically revered as part of that zeitgeist-defining scene? Would they have become the legend they have had they been from Swansea?

All of which rumination brings us to The House of Love. By any reading they are contemporaries of The Stone Roses, having formed in 1986 and released their debut album just a year earlier than them in 1988. The Stone Roses even supported them at an early gig. But in comparison with the Roses, their legend has been largely overlooked. Chiefly comprising singer and songwriter Guy Chambers and guitarist Terry Bickers, the story of The House of Love contains all the essential elements for a classic rock ‘n’ roll narrative arc including a promising start with a signing to Creation Records with Alan McGee proclaiming, “One of the great Creation bands… they could have taken on anybody live.”

But then they began to shed peripheral band members like confetti. Heavy drug use was rife, particularly during the mixing of the first album – with everyone high on LSD, band members and friends alike all had a go on the mixing desk, with predictably disastrous (and no doubt expensive) results. The better-than-fiction endgame came with Bickers ranting in the back of the tour bus, setting fire to banknotes (the KLF would later take this incendiary protest to its logical conclusion and burn a million quid). He was unceremoniously dumped at the nearest railway station, and one of the two personalities which made up the marrow of The House of Love was out of the band for the next decade.

The essence of The House of Love’s achievements are crystallised in their first two albums, neither of which has an official title. Both albums are strong in songwriting terms, the debut coming wrapped in a charmingly naive period production style, which is just as well – the effects and recording flaws are part of its charm. ‘Salome’ is an enormous, anthemic thing, with a sneering, supercilious vocal (“I love the way she cries”), ubiquitous driving guitar work and an enormous solo. ‘Love in a Car’ is a mysteriously circular, quiet-loud affair with a whispered, oblique lyric. ‘Man to Child’ proves they were equally as at ease with balladry, delicate acoustic guitar fluttering around a lyric so poignant you can just about taste the tears. And not forgetting ‘Christine’, the song that kicked the whole affair into gear: an anthemic slice of post-punk, proving that the guitar drones of shoegaze could be put to good use in the context of proper songwriting.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHwjxpkGdck[/youtube]

A couple of years later came what has become known as The Butterfly Album, featuring a significant bump in production values whilst keeping the trademark effects-heavy guitars, and a more coherent running order with a proper beginning, middle and end. In the opinion of this writer it represents the pinnacle of THoL’s output. From the moment a couple of minutes in when ‘Hannah’ shifts up from being a wash of slow-burning guitars into its keening vocal refrain, it’s clear that the band have progressed in every area since their first record. ‘Shine On’ should live in the pantheon of perfect pop songs forever – the enormous chorus that emerges before the one minute point yet doesn’t outstay its welcome, the lyric manages to reference the band name yet still make sense, the song itself ends just after three minutes but the band stretch it out into a stunning downtempo outro: unforgettable from the very first listen. ‘Beatles and Stones’ is a beautiful major-chord reminisce about the power of heroes to give one’s life meaning and succour, and even dares to evoke a little Beatles-esque nostalgia with a string-laden middle eight. But before the pastoralism gets too much, there’s a trio of upbeat ditties, including ‘Hedonist’, which neatly summarises Oasis’ whole career in its 3 and a half minutes, down to their penchant for mid-tempo riffing, guitar feedback, and even Liam’s vocal sneer. If Noel Gallagher had realised that someone had released a song that had already set out every decent thing that Oasis would achieve, he could have saved himself a lot of bother. Twelve tracks, and not a duffer amongst them.

Two fine albums then, at a time when the world was eager for a decent British guitar band. So why aren’t they revered for their achievements like their contemporaries? Part of the answer is the band’s implosion into drug use, depression, and personality clashes. But something else pertains: they simply didn’t fit the media narrative of Manchester, or, more accurately, “Madchester”. They were perhaps too good, too competent as musicians and songwriters, too focused on what made good music, to realise, or even care, that what the world and its press wanted was the propagation of a particular scene. Without doubt they must take a great deal of the responsibility for their drawn-out downfall upon themselves. But one cannot escape the conclusion that, despite the internal disagreements, The House of Love still deserve greater credit than that which history has deemed theirs to claim. So there we have it. The House of Love – the best pre-Britpop era band not to come from Manchester.

The House of Love’s latest album ‘She Paints Words In Red’ is available now on Cherry Red Records. The only place to see the band live this summer is at Deer Shed Festival this weekend in North Yorkshire, for which a handful of tickets are still available. The House of Love performs on Saturday.

 

A Retrospective on Suede (Part 2)

 
By on Tuesday, 9th April 2013 at 11:00 am
 

Missed part 1 of this amazing retrospective on Suede by our Martin? Right this way, folks.

Sixteen months after their gloriously successful debut, and by way of a taster for the second album, Suede released their career pinnacle: the faultless trifecta of ‘We Are the Pigs’, ‘Killing of a Flash Boy’ and ‘Whipsnade’. The portentiously-tolling minor-chord intro of ‘We Are The Pigs’ gives way to Brett Anderson in full, finely-fettled flow: flouncing around the soundscape, a figurehead for the dispossessed, disenchanted victims of urban decay, empathising, encouraging, exhorting a beautiful flash of direct action against the oppressors before the attraction of the crack pipe becomes once again irresistible.

Bernard Butler has by this point found the electric guitar incapable of fully expressing his musical ambitions: sections of the orchestra are called on one by one to amplify his concepts: strings sweep through the chorus, brass adds sandpaper edge to the breakdowns, neither of which can compete with Butler’s enormous wall-of-sound guitars – like being trapped in a lift with mirrors on all three sides, he manages to conjure a seemingly infinite number of guitar parts from one source, each in turn a little further away, distant but distinct. The rational brain knows there must be some end to it, but no matter how hard you listen, there’s still something else in the background. The B-sides are just as exhilarating: ‘Killing of A Flash Boy’ is simultaneously ribald and genuinely threatening: a seedy provincial holiday resort imagined, or perhaps documented, descending into vicious jealousy and violence:

Shake your fake tan through aerosol land and you’ll know
That you’ll suffer for your sex by the caravanettes, oh no!
That shitter with a pout won’t be putting it about no more
Oh shaking obscene like a killing machine here we go

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXxOT5h5-xg[/youtube]

This is the zenith of Anderson’s obsession with the twisted side of the humdrum British way of life: like a Martin Parr photograph with the lights out, familiar white working-class settings become arenas of disease and violence. Even though it’s caricatured and embellished, there’s a truth to Anderson’s lyrics that shift them into the realm of genuine social commentary: he’s saying, “this is what happens, this is how people feel and behave when there’s nothing better to do.” And there’s a glamour in the revulsion, an attraction in the dirt that he sees, and he wants us to see it, too.

A month later, in October 1994, ‘Dog Man Star’ was released. From the very first seconds, and perhaps to the slight disappointment of those hoping for ‘Suede’ mark II, it becomes apparent that the short, sharp, three minute arrangements of its predecessor are almost entirely absent: this is very much an orchestrated album, almost conceptual in its execution. There is a proper introduction, a rousing orchestral finale, and arguably a coherent narrative of love, sex, drugs and loss. The atmosphere is one of faded autumnal grandeur, of end-of-the-pier desolation; the soundtrack to a black-and-white film yet to be made. The film might take as its theme that of breakup, and breakdown, given the emotional strain and animosity running through the band at the time of recording.

The tension between Butler and Anderson was so high, neither of them could stand to be in the studio as the same time as the other. Bernard Butler’s increasingly erratic and demanding behaviour culminated in his departure before the album was even finished, giving rise to curious situations like the guitar part of ‘The Power’ being recreated note-for-note from the demo by a session guitarist. Despite, or perhaps because of its problematic gestation, ‘Dog Man Star’ contains many astonishing moments amongst its crumbling artifice: the peerless guitar solo in ‘We Are the Pigs’; the literal car crash of ‘Daddy’s Speeding’; the intertwining banshee howl of vocal and guitar in ‘This Hollywood Life’; Anderson’s falsetto crescendo in ‘The 2 of Us’: defining moments worthy of the high-concept glam-rock pantheon.

One surviving marker of Butler’s increasingly dominating personality is his insistence on length. Latterly-released long versions and demos reveal exactly the scope of Butler’s ambition – if it had been given free rein. The unedited version of ‘The Wild Ones’ is a case in point – the piece considered by the band themselves as the pinnacle of the Butler/Anderson partnership, would, if one of its co-writers had had his way, be no less than 7 minutes long with a tour-de-force instrumental at its heart. The truth is, the extended version is for completists only: the edit works better as a song. No matter how good Butler’s guitar shredding is, the song as a whole is too strong to be distracted by such fripperies. More suited to ego-driven over-indulgence is the extended version of ‘The Asphalt World’, which clocks in at an eye-watering 11-and-a-half minutes. This song represents every excess Suede had partaken of in the previous half-decade, made music. The 5 minutes of song proper serves as just an introduction; the almost-silent breakdown section seethes with threatened violence, sparks of filtered sound and rumblings of sub-bass stalk the background, looking for an excuse to jump from the shadows and reveal themselves in their vulgar glory. And an excuse arrives in Butler’s most audacious guitar solo yet put to tape. The unedited version reveals a scope of ambition cut from the initial release – hard-panned squalls of guitar pour forth from both sides, while a filthy, tremoloed lead part builds to a guilty, orgiastic climax. “Who does she love?”, indeed.

The truth is, if they had disbanded after the release of ‘The Wild Ones’, their last release of the Butler era, Suede would have had as unblemished a career as it’s possible to achieve in pop music – two albums and seven singles, and all arguably perfect. In a pleasingly circular way, their story would have been the perfect subject for a Suede song – a brief glimpse into an intense love affair, stubbed out in a whirlwind of drugs and bitter recrimination, with an absolutely superb soundtrack. But, astonishingly, their most successful years were still ahead of them.

Suede’s newest album ‘Bloodsports’ is available now.

 

A Retrospective on Suede (Part 1)

 
By on Friday, 22nd March 2013 at 11:00 am
 

On the 11th of May this year, anyone born on the day Suede released their debut single will be celebrating their 21st birthday. Widely credited as being one of the earliest and most influential practitioners of Britpop, in truth the Suede story is more complex and enigmatic than that, and the eve of adulthood of their debut release seems as good a time as any to revisit the Suede story. In this retrospective we reassess Suede’s catalogue, critically assessing how their music stands up to the cold light of hindsight, and how latest release ‘Bloodsports’ fits with the rest of their oeuvre.

In chronological debut single order: Blur (27/10/1990), Suede (23/05/1992), Pulp (27/11/1993), Oasis (23/04/1994). That quadruplet, give or take an Echobelly here or a Menswear there, made up the bands who brought to life the monster that was Britpop. Shaking the audience out of their shoegaze stupor, Britpop proved that guitars and songwriting could be sexy in a way that neither the loping stonerism of baggy, the chiming watercolour of shoegaze, nor the neanderthal bludgeoning of grunge could. Before long, it grew into a zeitgeist-defining cultural movement with its own fashions, haircuts, and even art, all soundtracked by a certain type of band.

Of course it wasn’t long before Britpop was disappearing into its own navel; the proliferation of Union Flag guitars and headline news rivalries turned what was once the saviour of British music into a tabloid-fuelled parody of itself. But there have rarely been finer places for a music fan to be than a small British record shop on a Saturday morning in summer 1994: an embarrassment of riches practically jumping off the shelves at you, each from a fresh, exciting British band.

Which Suede undoubtedly were. Although their first couple of efforts at the cusp of the decade were mediocre affairs – ‘Wonderful Sometimes’ is baggy nonsense, ‘Be My God’ a bit better, showing glimpses of Bernard Butler’s future guitarscapes – by 1992 the chrysalis had split open and Suede as we know them emerged with ‘The Drowners’. Which neatly summarised the band’s virtues, but, cleverly, was in no hurry to reveal them. It takes four bars before the floor toms finally give way to several layered, fizzy guitars; the band love the intro so much they repeat it again, finally unleashing Brett Anderson’s teasingly camp vocal well over half a minute in. The chorus is simultaneously dreamy and aggressive, and it all crescendos with a mountain of guitars and a singalong handclap as catchy as any pantomime finale. As debut singles go, there’s few finer examples.

Four months later, the more assertive ‘Metal Mickey’ was thrust upon an unsuspecting public, proving that the first single wasn’t just a fluke. Again, there’s loads of fuzzy guitars, all tonally different but with a unifying underlying backbone – my guess is that of a Gibson ES-335. The tempo is quicker, Anderson revealing for the first time lyrical themes he would return to again and again – that of night-lurkers out for mischief and sin, femme fatales more than eager to lead one astray, and curious, telling references to a shadowy father figure. The first chorus winds up around the minute mark, and more handclaps signal the whole sordid affair is over in three. This is perfect pop arrangement.

By the time ‘Animal Nitrate’ hit the shelves, it was becoming apparent that Suede were a superb singles band. And not just because they were good at picking the best songs from their albums. The B-sides were famously as good as anything they released on an album, and in some cases the equal of the A-sides. In any case, single purchasers were treated to great value throughout, and not just because of the two extra songs. The first four singles hang together as a collection of art objects, with thematically consistent artwork and typography, proudly proclaiming their allegiance to the sadly defunct Nude records. The four artifacts demonstrate an admirable sense of direction, of a band who aspired to express themselves in something more than just their music; that their physical output looks and feels intuitively “Suede” is testament to their attention to detail and ability to define their sense of self, attributes which would never leave them.

Whichever way one looks at it, ‘Suede’ by Suede is an astonishing album. Commercially, it debuted at the top of the UK charts as the fastest-selling debut album in history, won the Mercury music prize, and remains the band’s biggest selling album in America. Artistically, it’s the sound of two room-size egos finding succour, trusting the other to deliver the bombast they themselves aspire to, safe in the knowledge that neither could overstep – there are no boundaries. Both Anderson and Butler deliver their most concise work, Anderson particularly excelling in the depth of his lyrics, delivering a consistency which was to elude him at times in the future. Single lines such as “In the car he couldn’t afford they found his made up name on her ankle chain” from ‘She’s Not Dead’ perfectly express the mood he was attempting to capture – details of lives lived perpetually on the periphery; of fleeting pleasures snatched between grey skies and the dole queue. Whether or not Anderson truly lived the life he strived so hard to reproduce in song is debatable – 1980s Haywards Heath appears the very epitome of middle class suburban banality – although his subsequent move to London qualifies him at the very least as a first-hand observer. There’s proper poetry here too, in the skewed feminism of ‘Breakdown’:

Where still life bleeds the concrete white
Where the tame star limps an endless mile
Where the canine in the A-line stole your time
You can only go so far
For womankind

Although such eloquence is somewhat brought back down to Earth by the punchline “does he only come in a Volvo?”. Final single ‘So Young’ serves as a perfect summary of the previous three singles with its ambiguous drug references and tireless electric guitars; tantalisingly, its more considered arrangement featuring acoustic guitar, piano and organ hints at the wider sound which was to come.

 

Ruling with an Iron Fist – The Legacy of Motörhead

 
By on Thursday, 28th June 2012 at 11:00 am
 

They’re a band that have stood the test of time and brought their balls-out, not-a-single-fuck-given attitude to the mainstream music scene at a time that needed it most. They are Motörhead. And they have been levelling venues across the world for almost 40 years with front man Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister steering the band toward global domination since the band’s inception.

The purveyors of the heavy metal umlaut formed after Lemmy was booted out of the infamous space-rockers Hawkwind for cocaine possession at the Canadian border whilst on tour – or as he put it in the book ‘White Line Fever’, for “doing the wrong drugs”. Lemmy has been no stranger to controversy over the years, having been accused of Nazism due to his extensive collection of paraphernalia and his often vocal positive stance on drink and drugs. But Motörhead’s fans (or Motörheadbangers, if you will) take it in their stride, as Lemmy is nothing short of a metal legend – warts and all.

Motörhead are a juxtaposition to the music Lemmy made with Hawkwind, in fact the band name comes from the last track he recorded with the psychedelic five-piece. But that was in the past, and Motörhead became a force to be reckoned with in a relatively short period of time. Enlisting what would be dubbed the ‘classic’ line-up, it was Lemmy, ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke and ‘Philthy’ Phil Taylor that made up the band who would spearhead both speed metal but also be a forerunner for the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the late ’70s/early ’80s.

After being named the ‘Best Worst Band in the World’ by the NME in the early days, Motörhead went on to defy all naysayers with a string of seminal albums and singles that are still pumped out at rock clubs today. Their breakthrough album ‘Overkill’ in 1979 reached number 24 in the UK albums charts and features the thrash fests of ‘No Class’ and ‘Metropolis’ that still work their way into the trio’s set lists today.

It’s often the case for a band to have a hit album early in their career, but to release two big-hitters in the same year is now almost unheard of. But ‘Bomber’ came crashing into stereos in autumn 1979, reaching number 12 in the charts. The title track has become synonymous with the band worldwide and has featured on no less than four live albums.

One year later (after countless shows across the world) the band released what would be their most famous record: ‘Ace of Spades’. It’s an all-out brawl of noise and snarling from the terrible trio who crammed 12 tracks into 37 minutes of snaggletooth snarls and brash, visceral sound clashes. As well as ‘Love Me Like a Reptile’ and ‘Fast and Loose’, it’s the title track that everyone still knows and adores to this day. A song that is ramped up at every sweatbox dive, every karaoke bar, every music festival and every house party across the world for over 30 years. That is metal. That is Motörhead.

Although ‘Ace of Spades’ reached number four in the charts and achieved gold status, it’s 1981’s ‘No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith’ that gained them a number one spot and firmly established themselves as one of Britain’s best heavy metal acts, although metal isn’t a scene that Motörhead find themselves fully connected to. Lemmy has often stated he feels most at home with punks rather than metalheads, and you can hear that influence in the music. If it wasn’t for the brief solos and chuggier riffs, Motörhead could have become synonymous with the rise of British punk rather than metal. But they’re a band who bridged the gap, which was no easy task.

In 1982 the band released their last album as the ‘classic’ line-up. That record was ‘Iron Fist’ and as well as the pit-starting title track, ‘Speedfreak’ and ‘(Don’t Let ‘Em) Grind You Down’ became fan favourites and have remained a part of the Motörhead show. Following the release of the record, though, Eddie Clarke left the band due to an argument about the band’s principles. A few years later Phil Taylor left the band shortly after recording ‘Ace Of Spades’ for ‘The Young Ones’. In between these two unfortunate occurrences, though, the band enlisted Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson to record ‘Another Perfect Day’ that reached number 20 in the album charts and it was the last time Motörhead reached the top 20 in the UK.

Down but not out, Motörhead underwent numerous line-up changes over the next ten years including a brief reunion with Phil Taylor, before settling on the eleventh incarnation that is touring today of Lemmy, Phil Campbell and former King Diamond sticksman Mikkey Dee.

Despite all the member changes, though, the band are still metal as fuck. They have been credited with being the loudest band on Earth for a gig in the ’80s that reached an ear-popping 130dB (this has since been beaten by KISS), and they closed their 1986 Monsters of Rock performance with a flyover from World War II fighter planes – that sentence alone can’t get much more metal. Lemmy himself is one of the meanest but coolest guys alive, with hundreds of rumours and stories making him a piece of music folklore. One of the best has to be: because of his constant smoking and Jack Daniel’s drinking, Lemmy cannot give blood as his own blood will kill a regular human being – and vice versa. Whether this is true or not, we don’t want to know, but it’s one of the most badass qualities a man can possess.

The band might not be topping the album chart any more, but they’re still bashing out an LP every 2 years (the most recent being 2010’s ‘The Wörld is Yours’) and playing some of the biggest stages in the world. Last year they laid waste to the main stage at Sonisphere festival to tens of thousands of Motörheadbangers who still admire the band for both not giving up but for continuing to kick major arse. And for dedicated metalheads to embrace their love for Lemmy and the gang, a new box set has been released containing the six most iconic Motörhead albums – ‘Overkill’, ‘Bomber’, ‘Ace of Spades’, ‘No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith’, ‘Iron Fist’ and ‘Another Perfect Day’. Not only that, but the speed freaks are on tour with thrash legends Anthrax in November across the UK. If you love it loud, live and lary, then this album collection and a gig ticket may be in order, so you can pay tribute to the band that have been dedicated to the cause since 1975.

‘Motörhead: the Classic Album Selection’ is available now from Universal.

 
 
 

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

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 was edited by Mary Chang, based in Washington, DC.

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