Category Archives: reviews

Crystal Antlers, Times New Viking, Dupec @ Sneaky Pete’s, 18 May

Live review for The Skinny

Crystal Antlers

The unifying theme of this gig was always going to be volume – as in, lots of it. But Edinburgh band Dupec (****) refuse to be blown off the stage by their raucous American successors tonight. The trio pour their all into this their most high profile show to date, crashing every cymbal and straining every sinew of songs that are by turns intricately melodic and searingly intense.

After a rather random visual interlude by an American ‘video jockey’, Ohio punks Times New Viking (***) stumble into vision with their shambolic racket, taking some time to hit their stride; their short, sharp opening songs melting into an unwieldy gloop that leaves the audience uncertain where to clap. But this simple guitar-drums-keys trio finally shift into a wilfully discordant gear, and the reticent onlookers gradually become slightly more animate.

No chance of indifference in the face of Crystal Antlers (****). Led by grizzly frontman Jonny Bell, the Californian sextet inject a not unwelcome shot of trippy psychedelica into proceedings. Bolstered by incessant organ and latin percussion, it’s an overwhelming spectacle, but they reign it all in with robust blues riffs on Andrew and A Thousand Eyes. There’s a lasting buzz in our ears, but this was well worth the damage.

Dupec support We Were Promised Jetpacks at Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh on 9 June.

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Sparrow and the Workshop – Sleight of Hand

EP review for The Skinny

Sparrow and the Workshop - Sleight of Hand

The current Scottish music scene is healthily diverse, and now Sparrow and the Workshop bring another genre to the mix: country and western. Having only formed last year, the Scottish-Welsh-American trio’s debut EP opens with a brooding vocal harmony between singer Jill O’Sullivan (formerly known as Dead Sparrow) and drummer Gregor Donaldson, before Devil Song kicks into life with a Rawhide scuffle. That dustbowl-Americana sound is pervasive: O’Sullivan twists her vocals with a Tennessee twang, and tracks like The Gun and I Will Break You revel in olde world, hard-livin’ romanticism. But don’t dismiss this band as a dug-up musical time capsule; with this first release they have woven their unique strand into the fabric of the sound of Scotland in 2009.

Rating: 4/5

Sparrow and the Workshop play the Captain’s Rest, Glasgow on 14 May

Sleight of Hand EP is released on 25 May via Distiller Records

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The Horrors – Primary Colours

Album review for The Skinny

The Horrors - Primary Colours

Evidently tiring of the black-fringed cartoon band they had become in the wake of the B-movie pastiche of Strange House, The Horrors shift focus to the music with album number two – even if the title Primary Colours is irony of the highest order. And they don’t hang about: the 90-second intro to opener ‘Mirror’s Image’ is astounding, starting so serenely with washes of tidal synth and a subdued beat before a truly disturbing, key-shifting descent into MBV-aping tremolo drones and staccato snare. The disused-funfair-at-night vibe remains in the use of garish organ throughout, but this time producer Geoff Barrow (instrumental brain of Portishead) bolts down their excessive theatricality with elements of ’60s psych (‘Who Can Say’), leftfield post-punk (‘Scarlet Fields’) and motorik rhythm (‘Sea Within A Sea’). The Horrors may still look like a noxious gang of Camden attention-seekers, but the thrilling bombast of Primary Colours will ensure we listen as well.

Rating: 4/5

Released on 4 May via XL Records.

The Horrors play King Tut’s, Glasgow on 29 May.

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Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Album review for The Skinny

Bat For Lashes

Anyone acquainted with Bat For Lashes’ highly regarded debut Fur and Gold will know that the Brighton singer-songwriter (real name Natasha Khan) is something of a New Age siren. On this highly anticipated follow-up, she ups the mystic ante, harnessing the tribal energy of kindred spirits Yeasayer (most noticeably on thrilling opener Glass) and poses on the cover in body paint against a desert-at-night backdrop. So far, so cosmic. But there are also less predictable developments: Peace of Mind boasts an “all-black, all-gay” gospel choir, and legendary crooner Scott Walker makes a rare guest appearance on the vaudevillian finale that is The Big Sleep.

Conceptually, Two Suns is an album of opposites, an exploration of contrasting perspectives that Khan takes as far as the alter-ego ‘Pearl’, a character who acts as her more brazen, provocative self. While this can lead to occasional moments of lyrical indulgence, of more import is the fact that it only furthers her chameleon ability to flit between styles, from the menacing electro of Sleep Alone to the polyphonic vocals of Pearl’s Dream to the synth-pop gloss of current single Daniel. In less able hands such divergent ambitions would clash horribly; in Khan’s they gel to form another measured, consistently excellent album.

Rating: 4/5

Out 6 April on Parlophone
Bat For Lashes play QMU, Glasgow on 8 Apr

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Live review: David Byrne, Glasgow Concert Hall, 31 March

David Byrne at Glasgow Concert Hall

[A very poor photograph from my balcony seat]

When David Byrne sings “This ain’t no Mudd Clubb, or CBGB” in Life During Wartime tonight, the lyric has never seemed so true. The formal, seated auditorium of Glasgow Concert Hall is the antithesis of the dirty Lower East Side punk clubs in which Byrne began his musical career.

But punk was never Byrne’s style anyway, and as soon as his ambitions grew too wide-ranging he left the scene behind, moving on to experiments with African rhythms and found sounds with studio boffin Brian Eno. And it’s this 30-year mutual admiration that forms the crux of this tour: Byrne is focussing solely on the three Talking Heads albums he made with Eno, their groundbreaking 1981 LP My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, and last year’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today – ignoring “the massive gap in between”, as he puts it.

So no matter how many times they shout it, the audience will not get to hear Psycho Killer. But they do manage to remind the Dumbarton-born Byrne of his Scottish connections with greetings of “Welcome home David”, and, when he’s jabbering on about Bush of Ghosts, stopping him short with “What’s yer point Davie?”, which the silver-haired icon greets with a wry smile, as if reminded of the blunt Scottish humour he left behind all those years ago. At one point he even raises the lights and picks out some extended family members.

But Byrne was never going to bow down to the brash, Glaswegian gig-going mentality. On this tour he has enlisted three modern ballet dancers, who perform behind him throughout most of a loose yet imaginatively staged two-hour set. This non-musical element is the talking point of the night, and although there are early whispers of derision, it all begins to click when we see that they’re really just having fun with it, whirling like windmills, gliding over the stage in office chairs and even leapfrogging over Byrne’s shoulders.

After a respectful early reaction, there is a burst of dancing in the aisles when Byrne and his superb band blaze through the complex grooves of Crosseyed and Painless. Despite Bush of Ghosts tracks like Help Me Somebody getting a rousing reception and the new material given an interesting treatment, it’s inevitably the Talking Heads songs that inspire that frenzied, I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this excitement among the fans. It’s spine-tingling to watch Byrne perform Heaven, Take Me To The River and Burning Down the House. Were it not for the change in hair colour, it really could be Stop Making Sense again, as he jogs on the spot in his white flannel suit.

There were high expectations for this concert, but the performative imagination and youthful energy shown by a middle aged rock legend sailed beyond anyone’s preconceptions. Byrne has come a long way from CBGB’s, and his artistic journey shows no sign of ending.

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Crystal Antlers – Tentacles

Album review for The Skinny

Crystal Antlers - Tentacles

In the endlessly cyclical history of popular music, psychedelic rock has mostly been left to gather dust in record shops. There have been isolated attempts to revive the genre from bands like Comets on Fire and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, but nothing like a concerted revival. Crystal Antlers could well be the band to trigger it. Continuing where their acclaimed EP left off, Tentacles is a blistering onslaught of splashy organ, tangential guitar solos and Jonny Bell’s howling vocals. Despite their adoption of late-60s modes, the latest ‘crystal’-prefixed band do more than perform CPR on a half-dead musical corpse. Andrew, for instance, begins on a Van Morrison-style blues refrain before plunging into a double-speed punk frenzy, while Memorized is a pained, exhilarating track that encroaches on the far-out territory of the Mars Volta. Unlike their indulgent forebears, Crystal Antlers refract psychedelic rock through the prism of punk, adding plenty of soul in the process.

Rating: 4/5

Crystal Antlers play Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh on 18 May and Stereo, Glasgow on 19 May.

Stay tuned for an interview with Crystal Antlers frontman Jonny Bell next week.

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Chimes & Bells – Into Pieces of Wood

EP review for The Line of Best Fit

Chimes & Bells - Into Pieces of Wood

In these hyper-connected times we’re living in, it’s rare for a band to emerge from seemingly nowhere, with no biographical baggage, no superficial hype and no expectation – and yet utterly astound you with their music. This much I know about Chimes & Bells: they’re a Danish quartet, and their debut EP Into Pieces of Wood marks them out as the best new band I’ve heard this year.

It may be that Scandinavians are more adept at sidestepping the public parade of the music business, or it may just be that Chimes & Bells are still undiscovered. At the time of writing they had a mere ten listeners on Last.FM, there were only a few, non-descript photos on their MySpace, and on Google the band itself is buried beneath an impenetrable layer of tacky e-commerce sites for wind chimes and door bells.

So that leaves the music and the music alone. Not to discourage anyone from the start, but it’s unremittingly slow, brooding and bleak; the four tracks that constitute this EP all last more than five minutes, and are all dirge-like in quality. But there’s an allure to Chimes & Bells; a ghostly glint that illuminates the darkness of their sound world, best captured in a line they borrow from Leonard Cohen on opener ‘Stand Still’: “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

They follow this with the title track ‘Into Pieces of Wood’, and with its dragging, clanging, adagio-paced guitar track, it’s what Mogwai and Death in Vegas would sound like if they had ever collaborated. ‘Golden Sweater’ meanwhile is a haunting amalgam of lazy cello, Velvet Underground drone, and the keynote feature of their sound: vocal harmonies that don’t quite square up, leaving a phantom echo hanging in the air. The tone changes on ‘You Shall Not Pass’, with its line “I will plaster you to the floor.” Thus it could quite conceivably be the tale of a brutish doorman’s aggression, were it not for the song itself, which is like an especially downbeat Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

Despite everything I’ve said, this isn’t a depressing record. Instead it possesses the kind of grim beauty and far-flung ambition that surpasses all the half-baked hype in the world. For now, Chimes & Bells are a mirage, both in reputation and style. Enjoy the mystique while you can.

Rating: 85%

Since writing this piece I’ve been informed that Chimes & Bells are on the verge of signing with Bella Union, the label that hosts Fleet Foxes and Andrew Bird in the UK. So expect to hear more of them in months to come.

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