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My musical ramblings – gig and album reviews, music news and views

The Golden Filter: Voluspa – album review

The Golden Filter - Voluspa

There’s a lot to appreciate about this electronic-disco pairing from across the pond. The Golden Filter already has a strong word-of-mouth network of support from the blogosphere and is a big-hitting name on Hype Machine thanks to remixes of Cut Copy, Peter Bjorn & John and Empire of the Sun.

Thankfully the debut, Voluspa, has more of those mystic vocals and looping synthesizers from the remixes. New Yorkers, Penelope Trappes and Stephen Hindman, have already released three singles from the album; Solid Gold, whose pulsating beat deftly weaves a mythical tale of a journey through golden landscapes behind a dancefloor backdrop, the disco-happy Thunderbird and Hide Me – a track with popstrel echoes of Kylie at her best.

These aren’t the only tracks of note from the Aussie-American duo, who cleverly walk a tightrope of influences ranging from new wave 80s-synth, French-electro, pure pop and other-wordly Scandinavian folk sounds.

Dance Around The Fire’s quivering violins and ethereal vocals build in suspense to a pounding folktronica close, whilst the coquettish Look Me In The Eye and Moonlight Fantasy have all the staccato beats and imprints of Goldfrapp in Number One.

Trappes’ sentimental, half-whispered Australian accent is coupled with nostalgic memories on The Underdogs, as she muses, “Please don’t take this to the grave, we drift apart again.” Looping melody and bubbling beat layer over each other and swap roles on Frejya’s Ghost, fighting in your ear drum to be the most audible at the crescendo.

Despite the seductive whispering vocals and transfixing disco-electronica, there’s a nagging unoriginality that The Golden Filter never really manage to shake across the 11 tracks. In fairness, Voluspa has no stinkers and there is nothing on the album you would classify as padding.

The duo have self-produced a debut that is so full of identity and is so cohesive and measured that it ends up being a little too formulaic, so much so that on many occasions you just wish they’d have broken from the steady-synth beat and ‘lost it’ in giddy excitement. Similarities to other artists and restraint aside, it is an accomplished debut with musical dips and layers, hinting that The Golden Filter might just be exhilarating live.

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The Futureheads: The Chaos – album review

The Futureheads: The Chaos

Don’t be fooled by the title, there’s nothing truly chaotic about this fourth album from everyone’s choice for band-I’d-most-like-to-have-a-beer-with, The Futureheads. Underneath these 13 blood vessel-bursting tracks, there is order; and it’s mathematically precise and energetic.

It’s as if the band knew a bit about Chaos Theory before recording this album. After all, in lamens terms, it’s about studying the behaviour of dynamic systems – four Mackem lads – that are highly sensitive to the initial conditions they are placed in – also known as their former record deal where they felt restricted from taking the creative direction they really desired. In short, according to this particular theory, the rocky past The Futureheads experienced at their outset has made them into the band they are now. And that’s no bad thing.

Even if The Chaos is not actually an album that spirals out of control, initially, it has all the aural appearance of doing so. Only each of its tracks is tightly constrained by metaphorical reigns which consistently have to claw its breakneck drums and fierce riffs back from the brink.

“5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Let’s go!” announces the album with title track, The Chaos, as guitars vigorously explore the scales– ‘pay attention,’ say The Futureheads, ‘we’re doing it our way now’.

Latest single, Struck Dumb offers neatly packaged social comment and has, perhaps purposefully, an air of ‘better the devil you know’ reminiscing irony about the presence of 679 Recordings standing over their shoulders.

The Futureheads really do feel like a band whose history should be divided into two volumes. News and Tributes and their self-titled debut were packed full of stop-start dizzying hits and tight, boyish harmonies. Whether they enjoyed those times or not, musically, they stood streets ahead of This Is Not The World.

The Chaos brings them right back up to speed. Momentum is piqued in the mid-section with Stop The Noise, The Connector and I Can Do That – three tracks which are a deft combination of hook-happy, dense, energetic riffs and exhausting drums, with more than a touch of creative, arty oddness that the band has always had a penchant for. On The Connector there’s even a place for shouty, rolled Rs punctuating the chorus with a ‘boo!’.

Terrified vocals shared amongst Barry, Ross and Jaff pave the way for the horror house, Sun Goes Down. With sinking realisation they declare, “The sun goes down and the double life begins, it’s a one way ticket to the city of sin,” before fleeing from the fright night with screams, crashing drum rhythms and out-of-control guitars.

Impossible harmonies are cradled by silence at the start of Jupiter – easily the album’s most unusual track with a mix of other worldliness, a touch of Queen a la Bohemian Rhapsody and that lyrical wit and musical inventiveness you’ve waited for since Back to the Sea on News and Tributes, or Decent Days and Nights on the debut.

It’s an emphatic end. Everything stops. And with all the theatrical effect you’d expect from The Futureheads, Jupiter is repeated, louder and louder until one last blast before a chance to catch breath. The recovery is quick and leaves you wanting to start again.

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O2 Academy to open in Leicester

Leicester has been firmly placed back on the musical map as a touring destination for big bands with the announcement today that three new music venues will open in the city.

From September, Leicester University Students’ Union will play host to a new O2 Academy, opened by the Academy Music Group (AMG).

It will be the first East Midlands city to host the AMG O2 venues, with a large 1,450-capacity venue as the main Academy, 500 at Academy 2 and a smaller, 250-capacity venu as Academy 3.

This announcement boosts a city which has, in recent times, struggled to make its musical mark following the closure of The Charlotte and financial trouble at the Council-owned De Montfort Hall.

Plan-B will be the first act to play on October 28.

The original announcement can be found here.

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The Futureheads: Birmingham Academy 2 – Tuesday 4 May

The Futureheads

The Futureheads are a band with a serious tendency for music dished out at breakneck speed – their gig at Birmingham Academy 2 did nothing to refute that.

On Tuesday 4 May, Brummies had a choice of two bands for their aural pleasures. The Temper Trap were the buzz band who had, in true hyped fashion, managed to bagsy a near sell out crowd in the larger of the Academy venues after just one album. Four records into their musical career and The Futureheads settled for the smaller venue; but with a setlist as long as your arm they were perhaps the safer bet on the night.

Though the Mackem foursome look like and proclaim that they are currently having the time of their lives, their recent road to success has been rocky since breaking from 679 Recordings in 2006. Yet on this gig’s evidence, if it is bothering them, it does not show.

Introducing the first track, Barry tells the room, “Prepare to meet your doom” and the band launch, almost literally, into the title track from their latest album, The Chaos.

Decent Days and Nights gets a rapturous reception, answering the bands request for people to “Put on your dancing shoes you Brummie bastards.” And whether down to pure popularity or real quality, it surpasses the new material.

From the third album, This Is Not The World, we get the pick of the bunch from the first half of the record. The Beginning of the Twist and Walking Backwards both have an infectious sing-a-long-ability injected with note-perfect tightness.

Much of the gig is made up of tracks from the new album – a fact which issues a slight bug bearing moan from these lips to which my plus one answers, “Well they’ve got to promote the new stuff somehow haven’t they?” It’s a fair point duly noted.

The Chaos’ highlights are the blistering, The Connector, Stop The Noise, and latest single, Struck Dumb, which bears the hallmarks of barnstorming guitars and perfect male harmonies.

From the debut, a carrot is dangled in the form of Meantime and the band later perform Hounds of Love – a track that did what Sweet Disposition has done for the band that are playing just a couple of walls away in the same building. The Kate Bush cover still has longevity and the crowd are duly split into two halves to sing the signature intro with the gusto of a football chant.

Throwing open the encore for requests, the band answer with an anthem for relationship quandaries, Skip to the End and the jealousy-tinged Man Ray, which ensues a frenzy.

At times, The Futureheads do have a similar effect to overdosing on coffee – everything gets a little bit too dizzying and fast paced, meaning you long for the occasional Back To The Sea-style change of pace to break up the rush.

That said they are also well-versed on their strengths and personal favourites – heavy, drumstick-breaking fast-paced indie tunes with easily memorised crowd participation-friendly choruses that are unfailingly punctuated by strum-perfect guitar riffs. Barry, Ross and Jaff also use their warmth and charm of Sunderland wit to involve the crowd with banter between each song. On the night, this factor actually meant they had more leeway for playing a larger portion of unfamiliar material than some other bands would maybe risk, having released The Chaos just a week before the gig.

The thing about The Futureheads is that their infectiousness makes up for each of their faults. Another ‘safe’ indie band might find their audience slightly perturbed by a maelstrom of a setlist that lacks variety, but in the case of these four laddish musicians from the North East, it just makes them more honest and likeable.

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Foals: Total Life Forever – album review

Foals - Total Life Forever

To put Foals’ new album, Total Life Forever into context with Antidotes – sonically, it’s akin to the effect of Ritalin on an angsty personality – the world becomes a calmer place.

The debut offered heaps of staccato drum beats, chanted lyrics and fiercely plucked guitars, all at their now signature low chest height. Some of those elements are still audible, but this new album is an exercise in melody, singing riffs and changes in pace which expose a softer side to the Oxford quintet. If Antidotes was a new and brilliant yet at times, anxious debut, Total Life Forever is beautiful, measured and ingenious.

Foals obviously don’t like being so firmly wrapped around the math rock clothes peg anymore. That said this offering still has elements of taughtly-picked riffs – Blue Blood, After Glow and The Orient to name a few, the latter making a ‘Western feeling’ sound like something to strive for.

The band has also still kept some really complex, classical, math rock experimental rhythms at the heart of what they do. This intricacy is bolstered by the fact the band still have that knack of using repeated lyrics not just as lyrics intrinsically in themselves, but as extra instruments and rhythmic tools to layer up their sound. Here, it’s done rather more deftly across the board than on Antidotes, perhaps to best effect on title-track, Total Life Forever, where a sung element weaves itself in and out of guitars to enchanting effect.

You can almost picture lead singer, Yannis Pilippakis, Walter Gervers and Jimmy Smith loosening the grip of their whitened fingertips around the fingerboards of their guitars, allowing the notes to ring out and pack the album full of melody. And if the band’s lyrics had previously sounded cold, this album puts them out of that line of fire. For starters, Miami – one of the most recognisably mainstream of the album’s tracks – asks in a pigeon-toed fashion, “Would you, be there, be there for me?” whilst managing to maintain the angular template.

At times, it feels like the five sank themselves into a peaceful REM state to write the new material. Floating, Windowlicker Aphex Twin rhythms surface on Black Gold with high-pitched tinkling plucked riffs, whilst 2 Trees has lulling In Rainbows Radiohead-esque drums, as “Don’t give up, let go” is just audible over the top with devastatingly sad, soaring guitars. Then there is the majestic Spanish Sahara, which builds and builds to a glorious, euphoric release.

In a typically self-deprecating but oddly charming interview, Foals recently declared that their intention for the second album was that it would be better than the first. Some might argue Total Life Forever is a departure from Antidotes’ enigmatic brilliance that offered something different to its peers. In truth, the second still has all this, but thankfully the band chose not remain static with their sound. Instead, like all the best upgrades, they’ve kept what is integral to music they love, whilst adding in so much more that makes it exactly the kind of progress you would hope for from a band of their original promise.

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LCD Soundsystem gig review – Birmingham Academy, Monday 26 April

LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy

If ever there were an equation for the necessary balance of pretentiousness and perfectionism to create musical chemistry, tests would show LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy had the ideal measures of both.

The 40-year-old, in his capacity as the man at the helm of this vital New York group, seems to exist out of a careful tension between three basic ingredients making up his ego. He has taken on a relentless pursuit to uncover the basic ingredients of coolness so he can adopt and become them himself. Another essential part of the Murphy mix is a broad and all-encompassing knowledge of musical styles and influences. But perhaps the most integral of these three elements is his ability to introspect on himself, his band and the world around him. This is the LCD Soundsystem James Murphy. In fact, the likelihood is that this is the actual James Murphy.

Following an ever-present hype machine about this being the tour which would pre-empt the release of This Is Happening – a swan song of albums for the seven-some – James Murphy appeared even more enigmatic on stage at the Birmingham Academy on Monday 26 April.

All three aforementioned elements of the man are transparent on stage. He holds a vintage hand-held mic, wears white and alludes to a wry, dry wit which is also present in the rest of the band. He makes tiny sonic changes to each track to make sure everything sounds exactly how he imagines it. He reacts to his audience, his band and his own approval and desires each of those groups’ approval in themselves. After all, his crowd had had waited since 2007 for the band to return to the West Midlands.

Prior to the gig – through carelessness or a clever PR stunt – the band’s third album already been leaked and then streamed on the website, which meant a large portion of the crowd had already had their appetite whetted for the new material. But he serves only a modest portion from the album, because he admits to being frustrated by bands that reel off a list of new tracks their crowd is not yet familiar with.

Prior to their entry on stage, a familiar vibrating heartbeat signals the opening bars of Get Innocuous – the band enter shrouded in red light and James Murphy sings this techno-meets-Bowie homage to druggy highs.

Us V Them dishes out helpings of danceable cowbell and the repeated mantra, “The time has come, the time has come, the time has come today”, begins to sound prophetic. Murphy and co. also play an up-tempo version of the disco funk Daft Punk Is Playing at My House, before the acidic Yr City’s a Sucker from the self-titled first album.

From This Is Happening, we’re gifted the punchy, disco Pow Pow, as well as I Can Change – a track with more than a shade of Human League for a new decade. New single, Drunk Girls also makes an appearance; it’s easily the poppiest, most throwaway offering of the new material and is delivered to the ears like a microwave meal. Casting aspersions on the embarrassingly wasted and with a rhythm not dissimilar to North American Scum, it has a sing-a-long chorus, “Oh, Oh, Ooohh, I believe in waking up together, so, so, sooo, that means making eyes across the room,” with ‘hit’ written all over it.

As soon as first bars of the off-beat piano play, All My Friends receives an ecstatic reaction. It’s as nostalgic for Murphy to sing as it is for the crowd to hear and the dancing Academy is a mass of smiles.

Welcome, if not surprising additions to a surprisingly long set list are Movement, and the deep funky bass of Tribulations, together with 2004 single, Yeah, which is unleashed with heavy smoke machine puffs and rave-esque green lights, paving the way for the encore.

An industrial sounding bass loop signals Someone Great has finally arrived, but what surprises most is that Murphy does not seem nearly as affected as you would expect by singing his words that so acutely describe loss. On the record, you half imagine him finding it difficult to get the words out whilst tears roll down his cheeks. Perhaps on the live stage he is just too conscious of cool and accuracy, or maybe he’s become more detached from the sentiment that the song had three years ago.

Highlight, Losing My Edge, exposes a style of our lead singer/speaker which is not at all dissimilar to The Fall’s Mark E Smith. Some lyrics are very audible, others are almost hurried – all to positive effect. But it does make you wonder whether Murphy could be slightly embarrassed about the fact he once cared and maybe still does care too much about being ‘the first’ to experience the things his songs are about. Surprising passion is injected when “I WAS THERE” is half triumphantly, half frustratedly belted out to the room.

All I Want from This Is Happening has a notable inclusion as the penultimate track. It’s a beautiful Bowie, Heroes-esque heart wrenching ballad which sees James Murphy ask for pity and tears. The begging vocal, “take me home” fills just about every inch of space in the Academy as the flowing keyboard melody starts to turn from sugar coated to sickly and twisted.

Murphy’s perfectionist, slightly pedantic side surfaces again on the closer, New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. He delays the delivery of lines to create suspense and plays conductor to his band, forcing clever pauses to emphasise the poignancy of their final few minutes on stage.

On the night, his intense efforts to make sure songs were perfect and ‘just so’ hinted at a self-depreciative side of James Murphy lurking underneath the cool exterior. It wouldn’t be surprising if this side of him is part of the underlying reason he is proclaiming the end is nigh for LCD Soundsystem. He certainly may feel that after three albums sitting as one of the most, if not the most creative of this genre, the aptitude for writing fresh electronic-funk will wane and the appreciation ebb away. This is, after all, something he has confessed is of crucial importance to his existence as a musical artist.

Then there’s the fact that LCD Soundsystem’s endless pursuit has been for ‘cool’, amongst their partying, gigging and drug-addled self examination. But in a recent a Guardian interview, James declared, “I suppose what happened is that I spent my whole life wanting to be cool, but eventually came to recognise the mechanism of how coolness works. So it’s not really that I don’t want to be cool any more – it’s more like I’ve come to realise that coolness doesn’t exist the way I once assumed.”

It’s a nice tautology really – the band hunts for the elements of coolness, they are seen as cool, but having matured, realise the parameters they originally set for what they thought was cool have changed.

A worthless pursuit? Emphatically no.

At Birmingham’s Academy, whether he and the band were or weren’t conscious of ‘cool’ being a present entity was beside the point – that’s never been what is really attractive about LCD Soundsystem’s music. There will always be people who like them because of what they represent, but in reality, no academic search for the holy grail of coolness has ever been the reason why they have sustained the intrigue and hype.

That was obvious at Birmingham’s Academy, because it was the effortless tightness and creativity which made them so sublime. They also have a knack for knowing in advance the ebb and fall of a crowd’s musical desires, so that no track which is played disappoints – on Monday that was no mean feat considering the already acute sense of occasion about the tour. But with a final album title declaring, This Is Happening, James Murphy must have known he was creating an amphitheatre-sized wave of expectation on which to ride LCD Soundsystem home on.

On Monday’s evidence, I hope for one of two things. Either that it has all been a cynical ploy to create hype in order to give them a shot at matching the success of Sound of Silver, which many will still believe can never be beaten. Or, Murphy will take a u-turn on his decision and begin again in 2011 following his recent conclusions about ‘cool’ and the proof a year of gigs will have given that there’s so much more left in that vintage Sennheiser mic of his.

1. Get Innocuous!
2. Us v Them
3. Daft Punk Is Playing At My House
4. Yr City’s a Sucker
5. Pow Pow
6. Drunk Girls
7. All My Friends
8. I Can Change
9. Tribulations
10. Movement
11. Yeah Play

Encore:
12. Someone Great
13. Losing My Edge
14. All I Want
15. New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

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