Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Atoms For Peace

Side projects are a funny old thing. Sometimes the results of a band taking some time out to work on their individual projects can lead to some genuinely interesting and new original content. In other cases it can seem pointless as a side project becomes so similar to the original project that it ends up being pointless. One side project that has been garnering some massive critical attention is Thom Yorke's new(ish) side project Atoms For Peace. Many in the music press have described this as a supergroup as it features Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nigel Godrich and Joey Waronker of R.E.M and Beck and some other Brazilian guy who I've never heard of. These artists were originally taken on as a live band to back Mr Yorke when he was touring in support of his seminal 2006 solo album The Eraser. Whilst there is always a sense of hero worship and unassailable praise for anything Thom Yorke touches, this is not always fitting. Similarly looking up any of the other musicians in Atoms For Peace you will notice that the majority of them are immune to any serious criticism in the music press, Flea for example is regularly put on a pedestal for his bass work with the dull and California obsessed Red Hot Chili Peppers. So finding a realistic assessment of this album that isn't somewhat biased by the members previous works will probably be relatively difficult to do.
    Overall the album pretty much picks up where The Eraser left off the only differences that are genuinely notable being a slightly warmer and more produced feel to the record. This in itself is by no means a criticism the Eraser was a really great record so more tracks in this vein is not exactly a bad thing. Unfortunately this similarity with Thom's previous solo record does carry over the same negative connotations his solo debut had. The similarity between the material on show here and on more electronica influenced Radiohead releases raising the ugly question whether or not the two things are really worthy of being separate entities in their own right. The feel of the record is so similar in fact that I have forgone labelling this album as an Atoms For Peace record simply because whatever input these other musicians may have had on the record it simply does not have anything regarding an independent identity. The gesture of changing the project to account to acknowledge his contributors, whilst noble, is pretty much bereft of meaning here.
   What the album does do, however is deliver consistent sketchy electronica and it does this very well. The overall flow is good and there is enough variance to make it a worthwhile listen. Rather worryingly Amok is more consistently enjoyable than Radiohead's frankly underwhelming 2011 effort King Of Limbs, an album that was vexed by its patchy and directionless meanderings and out of time drum sections. Still there will be plenty of places to go check this record out for yourself and form your own opinions and I would recommend you do. Providing you go in expecting Thom Yorke you won't leave disappointed, if however you're thinking Atoms For Peace will be a mash up between OK Computer and Californication you'll come away disappointed and rightly so because that mix would sound horrendous.

Strand Of Oaks

Last year was quite a strange year in terms of music for me. Whilst I bought probably just as many cd's and went to tonnes more gigs than usual I wrote practically nothing about music. A lot of this boiled down to a growing diversification in what I was listening to and stumbling across things late, Strand Of Oaks being one of the many artists I came across by pure chance. I first became aware of Strand Of Oaks in the middle of last year when I was scouring youtube for some fresh sounds to wrap my ears around and a track from his second album Pope Killdragon. The track was "Daniel's Blues", a warped lament written from the perspective of Dan Aykroyd that tells the story of him hunting down and murdering John Belushi's drug dealer who supplied him with the gear he overdosed on. It was surreal stuff, the loss and grief of the song was really heartfelt and I was stunned not only by the strange narrative but by the use of distortion and synths that went along with Timothy Showalters devastating vocals. It was enough to hook me and within a week I'd ordered all three of his albums.

Singer songwriters are somewhat of a difficult bunch to characterise and a rather patchy genre in general when it comes to talent. In my opinion this is amplified by the relative ease the musical format provides, I mean all you need is an acoustic guitar and the more rough around the edges the recording sounds the more likely that someone will see it as minimalist genius. Whilst there are more than a few diamonds in the rough for every Bon Iver there are a thousand James Blunts. That being the case I was pleasantly suprised when all three of Strand Of Oaks albums were stunning and different from each other.

Leave Ruin
   Originally released in 2009 Leave Ruin was the first Strand Of Oaks album released by La Société Expéditionnaire and was subsequently re-released with a new cover at a later date. The album is beautifully rich in character and is a great place to start with Strand Of Oaks' back catalogue. There is a great mix of electric and acoustic guitars and the whole album is sumptuously layered and given a more diverse sound with piano and even the occasional banjo. There is a great mix of short and longer songs with some tracks scraping in just short of breaking the ten minute mark. The main highlight would have to be the heart rendering vocal performances that are delicate and poignant whilst also showcasing an incredible range. The album outstrips much of its competition in ways that are hard to imagine and the strange stories put me in mind of a more coherent Mark Linkous, whose surreal dream like poetry whilst utterly devastating at times retains a succint beauty. As far as individual tracks go it's hard to pick a favourite. "End In Flames" as an opener is really a staggeringly beautiful song, delicate and minimalist yet so affecting it's hard not to fall in love with it instantaneously. Similarly the sweet and short "Two Kids" can't help but raise your spirits and put you in mind of those moments in life when you stumble across a love so unconditional you become blind to all negativity in the world.
   From start to finish the album is a joy to listen to. Uplifting in places and desperately longing in others it treads the fine line between happiness and sadness with the grace and poise of a tight rope walker. This album quikly became very special to me last year not only as one of the best debut albums I'd ever heard but because of the instant relatability of the music. I could not recommend this album enough.

Try it and Buy it here:

Pope Killdragon
   Following hot on the heels of 2009's Leave Ruin was Strand Of Oaks sophomore masterpiece the epically titled Pope Killdragon. Of all the Strand Of Oaks record's I bought this was the one I was most looking forward to. This was the point at which my fascination had started and having listened to most of this album through youtube I couldn't wait to have the album on my i-pod and I wasn't disappointed. Pope Killdragon kept many of the key elements that made Leave Ruin such a powerful album but also added a new dimension to the mix with synthesizers and distortion playing a huge role in creating powerful atmospheres often resulting in a much darker overall sound. This experimental shift paid off helping to create an amazingly twisted record filled to the brim with eerie dream like fables. Pope Killdragon is also the most cohesive album in Strand Of Oaks back catalogue running seamlessly from one track into another with synthesizer and distorted guitar interludes holding the record together and complimenting its overall flow. Lyrically the album is more surreal than it's predecessor but so powerful is the all encompassing atmosphere of the record that you are still swept away in the hazey dream like fog.
    Highlights again are difficult to single out as the album runs so strong in its entirety. That said live favourite "Sterling" a heart choking lament about drinking too much and having strange alcohol induced dreams proves particularly poignant with the lyrics "I saw him coming" turning into a madman's mantra building through the track to a death march stomp of such intensity you'd have to be dead not to be moved. Similarly "Alex Kona" and it's synth counterpart "Giant's Despair" paint a powerful picture that is both moving and unsettling. The use of distortion on the guitar work gives the album a loud and quiet dynamic that is totally new and the stark contrasts make the music all the more powerful.
    Again the connection to this album for me was instantaneous and quickly it became one of my most listened to albums of 2012. Whilst the imagery conjured up in the surreal stories may baffle to begin with when the album is taken as a whole it is undeniably brilliant.

Try it and buy it here:

Dark Shores
   After a slightly longer but still incredibly short period of time Strand Of Oaks released it's third and most recent LP Dark Shores in 2012. An album that once again I only found out about a long while after its release (a fact I'm rather sore about because those who pre-ordered the album got a copy of the now out of print Alma EP a collection of Showalter's earliest work). Unlike its fore-runners Dark Shores saw Strand Of Oaks strip back considerably with a mostly acoustic record made up of comparaitively shorter songs. Of all three Strand Of Oaks records released to date this was the hardest one for me to grow into. Being a lover of long sprawling epics I found it difficult at first to adjust to shorter punchier tracks, still after a few play throughs the album began to seep into my subconscious and since then I've lost count how many times I've found myself humming along to the chorus lines that were playing in my head.
   Highlight's include the brilliantly minimalist "Maureen's" which really gives Showalter's vocals a chance to shine unopposed and the insanely catchy "Satellite Moon" with its warped organ stabs. Whilst I confess that of the three album's this was the hardest to get into because of it's shorter and poppier leanings within a few play throughs it grew on me.

Try it and Buy it here:

Darker Shores
   Darker Shores is Strand Of Oaks most recent release and one that has been incredibly hushed up with little to no details being given on its content and nowhere to buy it yet online making it an elusive little record. Darker Shores in actual fact is an EP containing five original versions of tracks from Strand Of Oaks decisively more minimalist album Dark Shores. At the moment the EP is only available at live shows and I myself was lucky enough to snag myself a copy.
   Thanks to an insightful email sent out by a mysterious stranger a little more light has been shed on this intriguing release. The tracks here are actually the original versions of Mr Showalter's material written for Dark Shores that were produced by the same producer he worked on for Pope Killdragon Ben Vehorn. The end result is a more fleshed out synth sound similar to tracks on his Pope Killdragon record with some tracks being greatly expanded. These tracks are by no means worthless scraps as the different style breathes new life into the songs. The reason these versions didn't make it to the final cut is down to Strand Of Oaks being approached by John Vanderslice a musician in his own right and a producer who has worked with bands such as Spoon and The Mountain Goats. Dark Shores was re-recorded and those new recordings were the ones chosen for the final album.
   The tracklisting is as follows:

1. Dark Shores                                      5:58
2. Satellite Moon                                  2:25
3. Last Grain                                         3:25
4. Little Wishes                                     4:34
5. Hard To Be Young                            4:52

 Strand Of Oaks Live @ St. Pancras Old Church 22/2/2013
Every once in a while life will throw a pivotal moment at you, a moment that is scorched into the very fibres of your memory, a moment that encapsulates your thoughts and feelings about life. In my relatively short life I have had a few of these moments. Me being music mad it is no suprise that several of these moments have been at gigs or have had some relation to music. Often all it takes is the opening chords of a track to transport me back to a particular mindset or memory it's all rather amazing. One such moment came about just last week at St. Pancras Old Church.
   After spending the best part of sixth months engaged in an epic Strand Of Oaks binge, jumping from album to album for weeks on end, I saw an advert for a UK headline gig. In a flood of excitement I bought the tickets before realising that I'd double booked myself having bought Bloc Party tickets several months previously. Needless to say I was devastated. As much as I wanted to see Bloc Party after being impressed by last years album "Four" I had no idea when another chance to see Strand Of Oaks would arrive. My disappointment was amplified further upon the realisation that the show was set to take place at St. Pancras Old Church, an ancient site of christian worship believed to date back to 314 A.D. Still with a lot of apologising and pleading I managed to shift my Bloc Party ticket and managed to make it to one of the most obscure gig venues I've ever seen.
   The church itself was beautifully ornate, the stage lit merely by candles and a few lamps, the acoustics inside the old stone hall were sumptuously rich. Getting there early, as I always do in hope of getting a good spot, I managed to secure myself a seat in the front row of the old wooden chairs that were laid out. The atmosphere was reverential and electric with a real sense that something magical was about to unfurl. The night kicked off with charismatic singer songwriter Antonio Lulic playing a range of original tracks on a range of different acoustic guitars accompanied by his friend playing double bass. Lulic's set was punctuated with some interesting background to the personal subject matter behind each song and the odd self effacing joke which the chilly crowd seemed to enjoy warming to him and his music as the stragglers began to arrive.
   Soon after Lulic's set was over the tension in the room was palpable. With the magic still present in the air Timothy Showalter and Chris Ward took to the stage. As far as the setlist went the show they put on was filled to the brim with variety and suprise with tracks spanning all three records being played. As far as live performance goes this tracks werent merely recited clinically more reinvented with entirely new dynamics relying heavily on distortion rather than a range of guitars. The effects were stunning and unlike anything I've ever witnessed. Fan favourites like "Sterling" and "Daniel's Blues" recieved a riotous reception which seemed to physically stun Showalter and Ward, whilst even older material from the debut album like "Sister Evangeline" and "Two Kids" were even more warmly recieved. Those who had turned up seemed really passionate about the music they were hearing and the amazing setting gave the whole nights proceedings an extra sheen of importance. The set was ended on "Bonfire" a stalwart track from Pope Killdragon that Timothy dedicated to his loving wife and the night came to a close as the belltower eerily struck 10pm. After rapturous applause and cheers from those in attendance Timothy came back onto the stage to thank the crowd with a rare encore solo performance of  "Last To Swim".
    After the gig the pair stood out in the lobby to meet and greet the fans who were in attendance, chat and sell merch. Upon meeting them like most bands who I am lucky enough to meet I was amazed by how humbled and kind they were. It was a fantastic night and not one I will forget in a hurry.