Cowboys, Brollies and Krautpunk

There has been a lot of commentary about Manchester Music resting on its laurels recently. Supposedly bathing in some sort of fuzzy nostalgia as ongoing  bands from the late 70s and early 8os continue to plough a well known furrow, or their contemporaries reappear looking somewhat weathered due to inevitable catabasis but deliver more or less what they were doing 40 years ago. Or perhaps it is that new and emerging bands don’t quite cut it or tend to sound like what has gone before.  Maybe it’s a symptom of the predilection for tribute bands and promoters who know they can turn a fast buck with the latest iteration of musicians who have turned to copying rather than creating. However do not despair dear reader as beneath the veneer of that supposed nostalgia fest or perceived lack of forward momentum is a vibrant scene which demands but rarely gets a larger audience.  Two parts Salford and one part Manchester  (The) Sandells offer hope in a city that perhaps needs a kick up its musical fundament. Their album is called “Forwards!” and never was an album more aptly named.

Turn the clock back some seven years and venture into studio 2 at Salford City Radio on a Saturday afternoon and you will see a station manager pulling his hair out because I have crammed a live band into a very small room to record a radio session. The Sandells viz Johann Kloos (guitar) Tim Lyons (bass, vocals) and Brian Benson (heavily muffled drums) deliver a set of songs – with Dave Thom on guest keyboards. I was on a steep learning curve at the time and I thought I could record a four piece band with three microphones – foolish I know.  I just about managed to capture something and spent three or four days trying to craft something for broadcast that the band were happy with it. That band were and are (The) Sandells and at long last they have released an album which properly captures what I was attempting to record.

The music business is a fickle thing – Sandells recorded the album  a while back but matters conspired to delay the release until now. In that time Lyons has pursued the return of The Things with some success, Kloos has continued his remarkable solo career with a veritable deluge of albums and Benson has pursued his artistic endeavours. It was inevitable though at some point that the three of them would get back together to deliver this album, the quality of the music was obvious back in 2010 and has not lost any of its attraction in that extended period of delay. It needed to be heard.

The musical pedigree of the three protagonists is such that something new was going to emerge once they combined and began exploring what they could achieve. The result is described by the band as “Kraut-Punk” which to some degree reflects the content but also tends to underplay what is a remarkable distillation of various genres. Bensons’ polyrhythmic approach is at the heart of the successful delivery of remarkable music. Anchoring the pulse is Lyons enormous bass sound which serves as the punk end of the mix. His vocal dexterity is known of course from The Things and latterly the wonderful Harvey’s Rabbit and with The Sandells he reaches a new level of quality, especially lyrically,  taking a unique set of ideas into the rock idiom. Kloos is of course a master guitarist and great tune-smith and freed of the responsibilities of being the sole front man his delivery and execution are parless.

Two of the tunes from that aforementioned session make it onto the album – the hypnotic “No Way Out”,  and the exceptional “Cowboys Don’t Have Brollies” a title derived from an off hand remark from producer Joe Meek. Missing is the rather marvellous “Girl from Iphigenia” and perhaps the final track of the session “Glissando” finds itself somewhere in between closing tracks “Reach” and “NAC”.

At at time when so called “psychedelic” music is nothing more than watered down AOR copies of things that came out of Haight-Ashbury in the mid 60s how good it is to hear a band that deliver the essence of what that music should be about. Driven, intense and complex it sets an agenda for those who would wish to properly evoke the spirit of  what that music should be but adds that mid 70s punk drive which sets it apart and brings the unique element that hopeful audiophiles wait in anticipation for. I hesitate to bring Space-Rock into the conversation but there are elements of that beast of a genre in here as well but with a relative degree of restraint which means it does not descend into the pomposity that corner of the music world is want to engage in. Both more than all of that all of those elements and more have combined to create a fresh and exciting sound.

An album I have waited a long time for – well worth the wait and more than highly recommended.

The Sandells will be performing ‘Forwards!’ live at Gullivers, Oldham Street, Manchester on Saturday 29th July 2017 with support from Factory Acts and Shaking Chains. Doors open 7.30pm. Entry £5. I shall be there.

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Top Ten Albums of 2017, so far

Seems like everyone else is doing half year lists so I may as well have a go…..it helps to remind me when I’m totting these things up at the end of the year as well….there’s no one in the list from our record label as it’s taken as read that they are top notch anyway and it would be a tad self indulgent to include them so I’ll deal with them at the end of the year…anyhow as for the rest here they are  in no particular order

IGUANA LOVERS – SURFING CAOS

Strictly speaking this came out in 2016 but it’s only made its way over here recently from Buenos Aires. A sublime mixture of rock in a shoegaze kitchen. Scuzzy guitars, howling and gurgling synths and bubbling drums however add a space rock vibe. It’s relentless and fun filled and I would imagine quite exciting live.

THE BLACKEYED SUSANS – CLOSE YOUR EYES AND SEE

Delicious and lush music which hovers between country, blues, and rock. Snarski’s velvet voice is delightful,  the words observational and compelling. A band at their peak, delivering quality material.

TOTAL VICTORY – ENGLISH MARTYRS

A much anticipated  third album . They have a unique sound and they remain steadfast in their delivery of their music.  We were kept happy with an EP compilation last year but its been a long while since National Service. They are big in France but no so much in their own back yard which is bleedin’ typical of the scene in general around hereabouts. Dan Brookes vocals and words are as usual unique and outstanding and the band create mesmerising post-punk vistas.

DAVE GRANEY AND CLARE MOORE – LET’S GET TIGHT

This emerged as a series of singles over twelve months so it’s a bit hard to regard it as an album from 2017, but it is. A playful collection, a mixed bag of styles, with DG and CM exploring new angles and options. Dave’s observations on the music world and the wider world at large are always apposite and often give pause for thought.  They can do no wrong.

THE SEXUAL OBJECTS – MARSHMALLOW

Seems odd that a band this talented only manages an album release once every seven years. Anything with Davey Henderson’s name associated with if is guaranteed to be good and this is no exception.  A rich sound which matches Henderson’s unique vocal delivery with superior guitar music.

KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD – FLYING MICROTONAL BANANA

Extremely difficult to keep up with these chaps who appear to be as prolific as Acid Mothers Temple with three albums so far this year, this being the first, and two more planned. The motorik repetition of Rattlesnake sets the tone and demonstrates a band that seem to be totally attuned and in sync. The important thing is that they continue to develop and explore.

SANDELLS – FORWARDS

Long delayed debut from the recently reformed trio. Self described as Kraut-Punk the sound is refreshingly unique driven by Brian Benson polyrhymic drums. Some of Tim Lyons best work lyrically and with the signature sound of Dr Johann Kloos’s hypnotic guitar this beats the so called psychedelic bands out there back into their Haight-Ashbury contrived miasma. Forwards is the correct title, it explores new territories and does not dwell in the past.

LUSTERLIT – LIST OF EQUIPMENT

OK i’m pushing my luck here as it’s really an EP but it’s so damn good I’m including it. Susan and Charlie exceed at writing and delivering exceptional tunes with a literary angle. It blew me away when Charlie sent it my way and it still provides intense listening pleasure never losing its power to please.

DANNY SHORT – FORM YOUR OPINION

He seems to be constantly busy with the Transmitters these days so It’s a wonder he has managed to find the time to record and release this album. A mix of powerful pop punkery interspersed with more languid pastoral pieces. Another Boltonian who deserves wider exposure of his considerable talent. Some fantastic tunes in this collection.

THE STEVENSON RANCH DAVIDIANS – AMERIKANA

Impressive stuff. In which I learned the difference between Psych and Psyche. Vignettes of American life merging an abstracted country sound nestling in a mesh of guitars and vocal washes – the best music defies genre conventions and this does that very well.

 

 

 

A Wing Dissolved In Light

I readily accept, and am cognizant, that “free” jazz, and improvised music in general, is not to everyone’s taste. “When does the tune start” is the clarion call from those of my colleagues and friends who are not pre-disposed to this particular form of aural delight. However. it has been a major part of my listening for many years and I often feel the need to proselytize in a, possibly, vain attempt to convert, at least, some hardy souls to the “dark side”. Put it this way there are scant few of my chums that “get” this music, and to some of them it is not even music.

Anyhow……

Anenome is the collective name for Peter Evans piccolo trumpet ; John Butcher tenor, soprano saxophones ; Frederic Blondy piano ; Clayton Thomas double bass, and Paul Lovens selected and unselected (sic) drums, and cymbal. They all got together at Tampere Jazz Happening, in Finland, on November 2nd, 2013 to create the music on the March release on NoBusiness Records called “A Wing Dissolved In Light”. The album comprises one long piece, Une Aile Dissoute Dans La Lumiere (the french translation of the title), which is split into two 25 minutes sections to cope with the limited edition vinyl format.

Writing about improvised music is often a challenge, the key problem being that it is difficult to capture the myriad occurrences five musicians, on top of their game, can create in a fifty minute session. Suffice to say it moves from manic, often guttural utterances from Evans and Butcher, via abstract but sometimes melodic melancholic piano interventions from Blondy and alien and ambient sounds from Thomas, and is all underpinned by restless percussive deconstruction from Lovens, who is the go-to percussionist for these sorts of experiences.

It has always fascinated me how musicians can achieve the mindset to be able create pieces like this. Technique is clearly an important issue but there must be a capacity to let go of all the training and descend into the maelstrom that emerges from the speakers.  It is always a positive thing for me when you can’t discern which instrument is creating which sound in this sort of environment. It is mostly impressionistic of course, there is no tangible hook or melody to latch onto and it moves organically through various phases over the 50 minute time frame. No doubt most of my friends will turn off after a few minutes but for me it grabs the attention for the full duration.

This is impossible to dissect for radio programming unless one had a long form show of around five hours to allow the breathing space to include the whole of  music like this Editing it down into a reasonable size for a shorter broadcast seems somewhat sacrilegious, so you don’t get to hear it on World of Jazz, you will just have to take my word for it, or indeed purchase it yourself , but there are only 500 copies so you’ll need to be quick.

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New York Stories

I’ve been reacquainting myself with the prose of Paul Auster recently.  Always an obsession, I even named one of my musical projects after him, he is one of a handful of authors I can definitively say has had a major influence on me. His initial work centered around New York City, and his rich and complex prose always conjured up detailed images of that metropolis in my head. I’ve still not managed to pluck up the courage to read his latest 700+ page opus “4321” mind you.

Coincidentally, other Brooklyn connections also emerged recently, firstly with Jesse “Cannonball” Statman.  When over here for a gig in Salford he revealed he had shared the same apartment complex as Auster. Jesse’s performance at the Eagle, Salford, on April 8th,  had broadly smiling  punters using the word genius as they left the gig room. He wasn’t to everyone’s taste but for the majority of the audience the admiration for his performance was huge, with some of the best praise I have heard for gigs we have promoted. I’m also pleased he is allowing us to release more of his material soon on German Shepherd records. His set was a whirling dervish of words and a completely unique guitar style,  unconventional and mesmerising. Some people have compared him Daniel Johnston, and I can see that, but Jesse works at a much faster pace and his use of language is more complex, and conjures up literary comparisons like Auster, Thomas Pynchon and Bill Burroughs.

Check out his sizeable catalogue of work at http://www.cannonballstatman.bandcamp.com/

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Cannonball Statman (Photograph courtesy of John Montague)

The other Brookyln connection is a duo called Lusterlit. And they have literary association also. With their songs created for Bushwick Book Club,  whose founder, Susan Hwang and contributor and producer, Charlie Nieland, have joined forces to perform as a new, literature-inspired duo. Both vocalists and multi-instrumentalists, Charlie and Susan alternate lead vocals and harmonies while supporting each other on guitar, bass, synth, traditional Korean drum and accordion.  Charlie sent me their most recent release “List of Equipment” a couple of days back and I was  utterly blown away by the quality and richness of their songs. Inspired by authors  Cormac McCarthy, Julia Child, John Wyndham, and Johnathon Lethem, the five songs on the EP are mature musical explorations which immediately stand out as superior quality material in the context of the other music that gets sent my way on daily basis. Both artists are clearly hugely talented  and their song-craft and production is exceptional, offering atmospheric, cinematic, aural journeys. Both soulful and sexy, this is an EP you can listen to on repeat and uncover multiple levels of delight from. The duo says there is a hint of Polly Jean and Melbourne Nick in what they do, I’d venture that this music is as exciting to me as the first time I heard “Countdown To Ecstasy” – it’s that damn good. I commend it to you without reservation.

 

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Charlie and Susan – Photo by Lisa Barnstone

 

The duo also released two previous albums last year as “solo” offerings but Charlie advises that material is also part of the current  Lusterlit live experience. Both are also excellent song collections and, as a whole, the three releases combined are a fantastic introduction to some great music.

LINKS

https://www.facebook.com/lusterlit/
https://twitter.com/lusterlitnyc
https://www.instagram.com/lusterlit/
https://lusterlit.bandcamp.com/
https://soundcloud.com/lusterlit

No Lampshades Sold Here

A new album from the utterly fabulous Monkeys in Love.

Joy abounds.

It’s called “Live In New Stoke Newington” and to quote the band “It’s a non-linear concept LP about gentrification and that sort of thing”. It comprises nine tracks in total, all of them corkers. It’s not a live album, to make things clear.

The twin vocal line up of Laura and Steve, as usual, are the focus of matters. It’s relentless, enjoyable “alternative pop”, crammed with hooks and ear-worms, no doubt influenced, in part, by the bands’ love of library music. The easy narrative style is backed by  rolling and tumbling rhythms and jangling guitars topped off by cheeky little synths. It feels like all those great tunes that came with pre-millennial TV adverts mixed with superior song craft.

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This is the Monkeys in Love sound growing into something new and reaching a maturity that was promised by their previous releases. The attention to detail and the honing of their music into quality product makes this their best work to date.

We kick off with the excellent “Infantalised Man” which puts a strong marker down for what is to follow, Laura pulls you in a with lovely melody, and Steve grabs you by the ears and shakes you around with his trademark  biting rap/rant vocalising.  “In Stoke Newington” is all 70s rhythms, think Norman Greenbaum backing Adam the Ants, fronted by The Carpenters, but fed through a blender to take it to a different time continuum

“Validate Me” is pure Monkeys, with Laura cracking up over the lyrics half way through, and sexy little synth arpeggiating in the background, with some beautifully placed drum drops. Pure pop heaven. “At New Vortex” is a tale of experiences in music/art venues which should be recognisable to those who have experienced the worst excesses of some performance spaces, a close neighbour, sonically, to Curved Airs seminal”Back Street Luv” the track is rich with lots of little musical tricks. Indifference and lack of wages is the bane of some of the best bands out there, this tune captures that sense of despair admirably.

The exceptional “Cocaine Radius” is the high point for me and feels like something from the 60s, dreamed up by Bert Bacharach, that would fit in with a hip road movie. Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, or someone of that ilk, driving around L.A. in fancy car, with the Mamas and Papas singing in the back seat, in a glorious sunset, came to mind as I was listening. The perfect placement of Danielle’s flute and Steve and Laura’s  vocals is simply glorious. At their best Monkeys in Love make me smile, and their very best they bring tears of joy to my eyes. This is one of the latter. Steely Dan were nearly as good as this once.

“Bar Furniture Solutions” allows Eamonn’s full guitar sound to take the lead, lyrically clearly the influence of listening to hours of corporate advertising music have had some influence, with the rolling narrative taking you on a journey around eponymous subject matter, and yes you can make a tale about bar furniture interesting. They don’t sell lampshades in this particular emporium apparently. Only this band can do this and make it something special.

Things get more serious with the heavier sound of “How The Scene Was Blown” which is insistent and the one track on the album which takes a little longer to get into, but once you are there it works. The sumptuous “Stasi Broke The Hive Mind” is back to Bacharach country, easy on the ear, and gentle on the mind.

Matters conclude with “New Stoke Newington Has Been Transformed” clocking in at just under six minutes it’s a memorable epic piece which requires a lot of attention to absorb the detailed narrative. The thing that captivates me about this album is the use of the vocals as instrumentation. Yes the lyrics, and there are plenty of them, are important, but just as vital is the placement of the vocals as part of the overall musical palette.  With no overall discernible lead instrument they take on a unique, non-traditional role in a rock ‘n’ roll context, which could be compared with the use of voices in classical operatic works as both vehicles of the narrative but also part of the complex interplay of instruments.

2016 has proved to be a year of excellent music and this is one of the high points. There was one front runner for album of the year before this arrived. There are now two.

If you get it before the release date on 25th November you can get it at a reduced price with some goodies thrown in – go here

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Previous writing on this band can be found here and here and here

 

Of Mice, Men and Lumps

In this modern world where the bland and the safe seem to be more commercially acceptable than the cutting edge, and thought provoking work gets little traction, it’s hard to maintain a positive perspective on the music industry. Operating outside of the norms of that industry is one action which gives blessed relief from the mundane. Self releasing and self promoting is hard work, it will cost you money, and time, and it may not reap the financial results that might be deserved, but you will at least get your music out there. When we set up German Shepherd records nearly three years ago now we had no real plan, we had some ground rules, and some small objectives, but we didn’t have an end game. Perhaps that was a good thing. Expectations might have been too high. There is frustration in this. A sense of disappointment that music we genuinely feel deserves to be heard and enjoyed isn’t getting the sort of exposure that others are. But we carry on.  By Christmas we will have released 53 albums, EPs and singles this year. Some will say that is too much, they might be right, but it came in, we liked it and so we sent it out into the world.

The 49th of those releases is from Moss Skellington. Those who know what we do will realise that this is a partnership between Ian “Moet” Moss (aka House Mouse) and Moff Skellington. The two have collaborated on two previous singles, and two live events, in the last 18 months. The time was right for an album.

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The methodology is fairly simple. Ian writes some words, and sometimes narrates them into a sound file. Moff builds a musical world around them with his battery of unique instruments. The component parts are then sent over to me for a degree of cutting, pasting, and fettling, and then Ian and Moff may add more vocals. The resulting whole is then mixed and mastered for sending out into the world. This eschews the need for expensive recording studios and other such trammels of the music industry. Most of it is done on a home studio, a phone, and a lap-top. These things are possible nowadays.

The album is called “The Lump” and comprises seven tracks. It represents two artists at their creative peak who are both cutting edge and thought provoking. The music is grounded in traditional folk forms but don’t be put off by that genre description. This is the folk of Comus and that ilk, not some chap in a woolly jumper with a finger in his ear. it is folk with bits added, a hint of Tom Waits, a smattering of Pere Ubu, a dusting of Fripp and Eno, an echo of Faust, a whimsy of Kevin Ayers, and nod towards modern urban forms like grime.  Moss’s well renowned vocals and lyrics are of course the centre piece, but the added value is Moff’s particular use of music to create new and vivid backdrops for the words.

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The subject matter is intriguing, the title track appears to be medical in it’s nature but on closer examination is revealed to have much deeper meaning. The combination of dark urban synth sounds, blues harmonica and squeeze box is utterly unique. “Chalk and Cheese”, which has a great call and response between the two protagonists, describes relationships in a honest way. “Look at the Fool”, with african rhythms from Moff,  is a piece of Moss biting wit which requires close hearing. “Posh Nosh” derides the current obsession with food in the “Masterchef” era. “Serial Killing” is a dark tale of murder and mayhem on the underground. The 17 minute “The Mouse Engine” is a magnum opus which takes you through a word-scape which Lewis Carroll would have been proud off, rich with imagery, and utterly marvellous. The album closes with the plaintive waltz “The Other Side of the Looking Glass” which offers a glimmer of hope for the future.

Exceptional , unique and stunning. It should be listened to and is a primer for outsider music. it is released via German Shepherd Records on 25th November 2016.

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The Last Fall : perfect Agit-Pop

“This is social commentary in rock at it’s very best. You can dance to it and it makes you think.”

The ascension bow out with a posthumous album called “Hierarchy” on 28th November via German Shepherd Records. The duo have crowned an eight year career with an excellent final statement of their work.

As one of the first bands I interviewed on Salford City Radio the pair have always had a special place in my music collection both for the quality of their musical output but for their political/polemical approach to the lyrical content of their releases. I described them as “brutally frank, angry, and politically astute” some years back and things have not changed with this final set of songs.

Mining their back  catalogue to some degree with reworkings of earlier songs the album is an apposite articulation of the Cameron/May era with commentary about Zero Hours contracts, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and an acerbic look at modern urban planning via New Town Utopias.

photo by Craige Barker
photo by Craige Barker

The album kicks off with Neil’s pungent bass riff grabbing the ears on the excellent “Last Fall”, originally on the debut single of the same name from 2009. The circular piano riff and the call and response vocals mark this out as one of the band’s signature tunes. Venomous, driven, and wholly enjoyable, and yes, you can dance to it.

“Precipice” from the 2nd EP Blood Upon The Rose is up next and demonstrates the more measured side of their work, well I say measured, it’s still pretty in your face with layers of synths and guitars carrying the tune to an epic conclusion. There’s post punk, electronica, dance music, industrial music and post-rock all working together in a heady mix.

The excellent “Modern Life Crisis” melds a Jamaican beat with excellent descending picking and chorus which catches the ear. Back to the post punk world for “New Town Utopia” which describes accurately the despair of forgotten communities in modern Britain. Doug’s plaintive piano figures and organic synth sounds are excellent.

“Illusory Nights” is simply beautiful, a testament to their writing ability, with surging synths and a moreish piano riff which is almost Barryesque. The reverb is turned up to ten for a classic tune. “Positivity”, from the bands last release, is all arpeggiators and dance beats, and begs the listener to get up and throw some serious shapes, with a cheeky acid house synth squelch breakdown in the middle for good measure. It’s back to the Jamaican beats for the rather wonderful “Zero Hours” – the stand out line on the album “people who spend more on a bottle of wine than the money I get to live off for one month” sticks in my head given, as I was listening the album I saw the news that Buck House is going to get a £370m make over, at a time when people are sleeping rough on the streets of Salford. People need to listen to these lyrics and start thinking about mobilising to get some changes in this country. Probably the stand out track on the album for me with the boys coalescing what they are about into a perfect piece of agit-pop.

“PTSD” is something different with a fractured counterpoint between vocals/drums and guitar morphing into a wall of sound with a hypnotic industrial feel, perhaps Bauhaus would have sounded like this if they had come from Macclesfield. An exciting music development perhaps indicating where Doug and Neil are going next with  tumbling bass and drums anchoring shards of guitar.

“Tomorrow’s A Conspiracy” feels like a mutant waltz but soon jumps Zappa-like into a different structure and then goes back again to the waltz. Like “PTSD” this is developing new angles and elements to the bands’ work. It gets quite proggy in places and the highest compliment I can give is that I was reminded of Van Der Graaf Generator at their best. The differentiated structure doesn’t cause the momentum to be lost. A triumph.

The lengthy “Captives” concludes this chapter of Doug and Neil’s career. They always say you should close the album on a high and they certainly achieve that with an epic piece which contains all of the best elements of their work.

The album will be available from 28th November at German Shepherd Records Bandcamp page.  All proceeds from the sale of the release will go towards supporting coffee4craig homelessness charity.

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I asked Doug  a few questions about this final release and the way ahead

Why did you decide to end the band?

The time was right to end on a high after the success of our European tour with Mr Heart. The ascension had existed for 8 years and creatively me and Neil felt the need to move on from this format and these songs, the history attached to it, baggage etc. As most people out there making any kind of art will know you live with your endeavours every day and they are a part of your being, your existence, or whatever. We’d changed as people and our music is changing so here ‘The ascension’ ends…….next chapter now!

Will you be working together in the future?

Yes work is in progress as we speak!

Are you planning any other projects in the future individually?

Yes Neil has an acoustic track out under the name ‘The Sombre Watcher’ which I have recorded and mixed. It’s up on Soundcloud . I personally have a lot of heavily electronic experimental dance material I did before The ascension which may be remixed and put out at a later date.

The album is a mixture of older and newer tracks – what was the thinking behind that?

We thought it should reflect our entire catalogue as it’s a posthumous release. Also as the line-up changed from trio to duo the songs and our approach to them changed. The new recordings reflect this. For anyone who’s interested the original versions of songs like ‘Last Fall and ‘Precipice’ are available to download via our bandcamp page. Physical copies (CDs with artwork, lyrics etc) still exist but stocks are running low and we have no intention of pressing anymore.

I heartily recommend you check out this excellent album and contribute to a worthwhile cause at the same time. For my part i’m anticipating what Doug and Neil will come up with next.

PREVIOUS ARTICLES ON THE BAND

Review of the Positivity release

Review of Drowning In The Drought

Interview – 2013

Article in Salford Advertiser

Review of Blood Upon The Rose

Unfortunately my early articles on the band have been lost due to computer malfunction.

LINKS

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