Courage, creativity and connection

The sad news that the body of Scott Hutchison had been found at a marina on the banks of the Forth on Thursday evening got me thinking about two things: what it takes to write songs that forge profound, often unbreakable connections, and what it means to endure such inescapable turmoil that there is no alternative but to take your own life.

Although I’ve never earned much as a musician I’ve served time in the trenches and worked behind the scenes for long enough to speak with a little authority about the difficulties and tensions that come with choosing to make something out of nothing and thereafter being fair game for criticism, often from people who know less than fuck-all about what it involves. It might be creatively fulfilling and it can work wonders for your social life but in almost every other respect being a musician is not an easy gig.

I quit writing lyrics and singing to focus on playing guitar and simply creating sound not far short of 20 years ago. I had got to a point where my confidence in my ability to articulate what it means to be me was shot. I didn’t think my efforts could add to the sum of human experience, and still don’t.

(Unsurprisingly, my lyrical productivity hit a peak when, at the age of 21, I discovered I had a young half-brother and my father had established an extra-marital relationship with the boy’s mother. After composing too many verses and choruses clumsily describing my subsequent emotional state I zipped across the spectrum and embraced obfuscation and smart-arsery before concluding I had nothing to say within the limits of the pop song.)

Fortunately there are plenty of others who aren’t so encumbered. Or perhaps it’s more the case that they endure the same doubts but are strong or bloodyminded enough to overcome them. Stronger than I was and am, at any rate.

I wasn’t anything other than peripherally acquainted with Scott’s songs – it would be impossible for anyone living in Scotland with a passion for music to be unaware of the music of Frightened Rabbit – but from the mountain of words I’ve read in the wake of his death they spoke profoundly to a great many people. This, despite – or because of – him openly warring with anguish and its army of debilitating belligerents over the course of a decade and a half of making music. That’s an accomplishment on which you can’t put a price.

It takes a lot to conjure – from nothing – words and music that make people feel less alone. It requires courage, empathy and eloquence just to get started. That there are musicians who overcome anxieties and self-doubt to chronicle their experiences, whether to help themselves make sense of what often appears to be chaos or to help others do the same, is a blessing. From industry (and often compulsion) they create magic.

If you’re reading this then you’ll likely agree that music is eternal. It’s our church. It’s always there when you need it and complements any mood the human heart has ever witnessed more effectively than any other art form. I cannot imagine life without playing and devouring music; incredibly I even get paid to criticise it in a newspaper, The Herald.

Making no apologies for patriotic bias and in the interests of brevity, to my fellow Scots and Scotland-based musicians Kathryn Joseph, Teenage Fanclub, Karine Polwart, James Yorkston, Ela Orleans, Tracyanne Campbell, RM Hubbert, Mogwai, Emma Pollock, Kenny Anderson and dozens of others, all of whom help me and others make sense of life, I salute you. You are treasured; your work will outlive you and sustain future generations. Keep the magic coming.

Lastly, a few thoughts on the black dog.

Few of us go through life without sometimes feeling it’s a losing battle, and for most the feeling passes. In my own experience, the death of my father three years after my mother’s was the trigger for a period of sporadically dizzying anxiety and generally low mood. Not for me the loss of appetite, insomnia and lack of drive more typically associated with depression, but when my mind broke free from its anchor I could see little else than danger, pain and despair looming on the horizon, and at first I had no means of turning back to safe harbour.

I liken the grief over my dad – a more complex and nuanced grief than I’d experienced when Mum passed away – to Cato from the Pink Panther films. One minute I’d be nonchalantly going about my daily business and the next it would spring out from a wardrobe and pin me to the floor, a solid knot of dread turning my stomach to stone.

I was fortunate enough to get help – a short course of antidepressants then, after a four-month wait, CBT counselling – within a time frame that prevented me from spiralling. Thanks in particular to the counselling, the next time Mr Fong leaps out from behind a rack of coats I hope to be ready for him.

For others a sense of hopelessness comes and goes over years and years, rising and falling in intensity, and like the common cold it can develop at a pace health professionals can’t keep up with. I imagine Scott had tired of feeling worthless, even – especially? – when things were going well. My sincere condolences go to his family and friends, whose pain I am unable to imagine.

This weekend I’m on the outskirts of Newcastle with my partner Katherine, staying at her mum’s terraced house in a former mining village. Security, love, warmth: this home has them all in spades. It’s a good place to be. When Katherine and her dad, David, returned this afternoon from a craft show at which she’s running a stall I gave her a long hug as soon as she crossed the threshold.

Earlier tonight, when I was sitting outside smoking a cheeky fag (relapse number 4008), I thought to myself: this is all good. The piece of grass mottled with dead patches caused by my brother-in-law’s staffy and his acidic wee. The coloured solar lights I wouldn’t have anywhere near my garden but which speak here of a deep sense of home. The rusting basketball hoop on the wall, unused for decades. The quiet of a village peopled by folk tired after a week’s work. Enjoy it, I thought. This is more than enough. You are the luckiest man alive.

Almost midnight. Everyone has gone to bed. I pour a tiny dram, barely enough to cover the bottom of the glass, add a few drops of water and pad outside for one last smoke, tiptoeing past the cockatiel, his cage cloaked in a sheet. Sleep well, Scott.

Extended review – Family In Mourning featuring Lydia Lunch: Eulogy (Galtta)

Family in Mourning featuring Lydia Lunch: Eulogy (Galtta)

As concept albums go, it barely needs saying that Eulogy is among the less whimsical of its kind. But that is not to suggest it is a collection of songs burdened by the weight of their subject matter. With no wave poet Lydia Lunch, an ordained minister with the multi-faith Universal Life Church, fronting the most potent of the 10 tracks that make up this record, the overall mood is not so much sombre as reflective and feline, unafraid of allusions to the carnal impulses that can remain once a loving relationship is severed for ever.

Family In Mourning themselves are a funeral collective among whose ranks are an undertaker, a funeral director and a psychic adviser. They proudly tout their services for pre and post-mortem events starting at $5000, with prices for the higher end of their performances available on request. If you’re wondering how much of this is tongue-in-cheek, time spent with Eulogy should provide you with the answer.

It will also acquaint you with a sporadically devastating suite of songs that speak tenderly and eloquently to and about an experience common to every human being who ever walked the earth ­– loss – while making such sublime musical strides that it leads you to question why nobody has ever attempted such an undertaking before (sorry). This is music touched by echoes of Miles Davis, Swans, Johnny Cash and even glam rock. You might argue it is gothic in spirit, but sonically it is in a world of its own.

For an illustration of the sensitivity and acuity of Eulogy’s approach to death and mourning it is hard to see past Lunch’s lyrics on Dust And Shadows.

“What would you say to somebody who only had 30 days to live?” she purrs. “What could you say?/ That in this land of illusion/ We’re all just transitional creatures/ Peeping toms at the keyhole of all eternity/ That the past is only the present cloaked by invisibility/ And that the future is a murmur of a memory we will never possess.”

Thus she begins the 11-minute finale of Eulogy, a track fuelled by David Lackner’s keening saxophone, humid bass and jazz drums that builds in parallel with Lunch’s increasing distress, culminating in her promise to a departed loved one: “I won’t forget/ I won’t forget.” Questions of irrelevance, the cosmic hierarchy, purpose: all these and more are intrinsic to the grieving process and thus fair game for Lunch to mull over.

While Dust And Shadows is the highlight and emotional climax of Eulogy, the tracks that precede it only fall short by a whisker. Last Time We Met, a two-chord threnody garlanded by circling sax and ambient tones redolent of Oren Ambarchi’s sumptuously minimal In The Pendulum’s Embrace, gives Lunch’s mantra – “I’m making love to his ghost” – a suitably coital warmth, the introduction of queasy, off-axis drums merely adding to the low-level giddiness of the song.

Prey, which follows, finds Ben Lord posing as the Angel of Death armed with an acoustic guitar: “Come into the promised land/ Come into the promised land for you/ You are the prey that I have come for/ I wanna take your soul right now/ Push it in the fires that burn below.” Soon Lunch is repeating this reaper blues in a snarl Michael Gira would be proud of, psychedelic flute soaring and flipping like a leaf above a blazing pyre.

There’s also a poetry of sound at play within Eulogy that it would be remiss not to applaud, not least the opening Bell Tone, 19 seconds of crisp plangency that serves as the curtain raiser. The vignette Broken Glass pairs the sound of a broom on shards with portentous drone bass, while the apex of non-verbal grief therapy comes in the short intro to I Fell From Grace, wherein a disembodied choir emerges from heavily modulated noise and insistent organ, the cumulative effect being no less than euphoric, albeit at odds with the glam-rock ballad cum gospel of the song itself.

“Death is just a shadow,” Lunch repeats over and over as Eulogy arrives at its final resting place. If you find yourself in need of light, there could be no better place to start than this peculiarly therapeutic offering.

Click here to buy Eulogy from the Galtta Bandcamp page.

Review – Family in Mourning featuring Lydia Lunch: Eulogy (Galtta)

Family in Mourning featuring Lydia Lunch: Eulogy (Galtta)

As concept albums go, Eulogy is among the less whimsical of its kind. With no wave poet Lydia Lunch, a minister with the multi-faith Universal Life Church, fronting the bulk of the 10 tracks the mood is not so much sombre as reflective.

Family in Mourning describe themselves as a funeral collective, and number among them an undertaker, a funeral director and a psychic adviser, and they have authored a debut LP that speaks tenderly to and about an experience common to every human being who ever lived while making such a sublime noise you wonder why nobody has ever attempted such an undertaking (sorry) before.

Besides such hypnotic songs as Dust and Shadows and Last Time We Met, a two-chord threnody garlanded by circling sax and ambient tones, Eulogy finds space for poetry of sound, climaxing in the intro to I Fell from Grace, wherein a disembodied choir emerges from noise and insistent organ, the cumulative effect one of rhapsody.

“Death is just a shadow,” Lunch repeats over and over as this record arrives at its final resting place. If you find yourself in need of light, there could be no better place to start than this peculiarly therapeutic offering.

Watch the video for Last Time We Met below:

Buy Eulogy from the Galtta Bandcamp page here.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Review – Mt Doubt: Moon Landings EP (Scottish Fiction)

Mt Doubt – Moon Landings EP (Scottish Fiction)

Mt Doubt are an Edinburgh-based quintet that have mushroomed from the original one-man line-up of Leo Bargery, who since launching under the Mt Doubt monicker in early 2015 has issued a brace of albums alongside a handful of singles and EPs.

Such industry would be merely laudable were it not for the quality of output, which on the bulk of this latest EP shows Mt Doubt are on a similar page to Sparklehorse. To the fore in the elegantly messy and layered soundscape – Caledonian pop with a good slug of guitar, in short – is Bargery’s muggy baritone, a chocolate mousse of a voice that sets his band apart from their peers.

On Teeming Mt Doubt take the bones of a standard King Creosote-style anthem into a side room inhabited by a glam rock outfit with synthpop sympathies and crown it with a mighty coda, exhibiting a knack for melody that also gilds the wide-eyed pop of Conduits. Mouthwash, meanwhile, brings power-pop into the 21st century before decelerating into a chorus Mark Linkous would have been proud of. After setting such a high bar Moon Landings loses its way but it’s forgivable in light of what’s come before.

Visit Mt Doubt’s Bandcamp page here.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Review – Watter: History of the Future (Temporary Residence)

Watter: History of the Future (Temporary Residence)

Epic titles deserve epic music, and this foray into a musical cosmos loosely mapped by Krautrock, the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone and the electronic creations of Bob Moog more than justifies its heading.

For Watter’s second album the core trio of Zak Riles from instrumental psychonauts Grails, Slint drummer Britt Walford and multi-instrumentalist Tyler Trotter is augmented by a sprinkling of the finest musicians from their base in Louisville, Kentucky (including members of Tortoise, Rachel’s and The For Carnation). The resulting 10 tracks demonstrate what is possible when you corral like-minded collaborators with a common geography, a masterful grasp of their instruments and a collective ambition to soundtrack the movies in your mind.

Not for Watter tilting at mere sadness; instead they conjure unfathomable sorrow on the opening Telos, while on the closing Final Sunrise they restore equilibrium by invoking nothing less than rapture through the marriage of spectral acoustic guitar and Rachel Grimes’s gambolling piano. In between lies an enriching journey through the spectrum of instrumental rock, variously recalling Vangelis, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk with a few Middle Eastern flavours thrown in for good measure.

Unfailingly lush and consistently extraordinary, History of the Future more than lives up to its grandiose title, eclipsing all but the cream of its creators’ previous work.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Extended review – Iron & Wine: Beast Epic (Sub Pop)

Iron & Wine: Beast Epic (Sub Pop, 2017)

Clad in an electric-blue jacket and brown trousers, a blindfolded man with flecks of grey invading his otherwise cocoa-coloured hair and generous beard cradles an acoustic guitar. The cover of Sam Beam’s sixth studio album under the moniker Iron & Wine is a fine piece of embroidery that chimes with the immaculately executed folk rock he has been purveying since the early 2000s.

Turn the album over, however, and an altogether more distressed image meets your eye – the mess that lies behind the needlework, all loose threads, disharmony and confusion.

Whether it is Beam’s intention or not, the aptness of the above as a possible metaphor for the human condition as the fortysomething songwriter perceives it is hard to resist. After all, Beam is on record as saying Beast Epic continues his fascination with time, and in contrast to the youthful inquiries of his early releases the new record – following an arc that began around 10 years ago with The Shepherd’s Dog – is a distinctly adult affair, both in theme and in execution. We are outwardly civilised, he might be saying, but remove the mask and we are frayed and fragile.

There’s every chance, though, that Beam simply likes to see himself represented in needlework, just as he acknowledges he chose the title of the album because it sounded good. The case for such a view is only strengthened by the absence of anything related to the beast epic narrative genre within Beam’s sparkling lyrics, which, as per each and every previous Iron & Wine release, seem to come to him as easily – almost too easily – as sleep does to a cat.

If the jury’s out on the depth of meaning behind the title and the artwork, what, then, of the 11 songs that make up Beast Epic?

The album is unlikely to win Beam new followers, a conclusion that has less to do with the standard of songwriting than the lack of creative development. If anything, Beast Epic represents the first retrogressive step in Beam’s 15-year career in music, the likes of Song In Stone and About A Bruise shying away from the vigorous soul and jazz flavours of Beast Epic’s immediate predecessors Ghost On Ghost and Kiss Each Other Clean. Instead they cleave to the more intimate, less embellished palette of Iron & Wine’s debut The Creek Drank The Cradle and its follow-up Our Endless Numbered Days, albeit with a settled line-up of additional musicians fleshing out Beam’s creations.

But despite seemingly reverting to the methods that first brought him attention and making no effort whatsoever to pretend it’s anything other than 1974, with Beast Epic Beam has delivered a suite of songs that is equal to anything he’s done before. There’s a consistency that won’t surprise long-term fans, though they might be disappointed by the lack of a standout song to rival Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me (from Kiss Each Other Clean), the Woman King EP’s Evening On The Ground (Lilith’s Song) or Burn That Broken Bed from In The Reins, Beam’s 2005 collaboration with Calexico.

This record is snug, unthreatening and comforting, which means anyone looking for rage and catharsis ought to give it a wide berth. But for many of those preoccupied by the kind of concerns that trouble Sam Beam – chiefly thoughts of mortality and fallibility – Beast Epic will be a long, warm, healing embrace.

Watch the video for Call It Dreaming from Beast Epic below:

This article was originally published by The Quietus.

Fettle the devil you know – motorcycle ownership just gets better

Those who know me if not intimately then at least well enough to keep their distance will be aware that given half a chance I will toss a day or three (and two weeks’ wages) on the pyre of executing cosmetic automotive improvements, or in other words fettling my cars.

Absolutely none of these vehicles has been anywhere near showroom condition, which ought to underline quite how distracted I can become when handed a bottle of trim gel, a hairdryer (for removing unwanted stickers) or a clay bar and detailing spray. In these circumstances my hands are the equivalent of the TARDIS for a faded window seal or a battle-scarred front spoiler, and such accomplishments deliver a hit no drug can rival (you’ll have to trust me on that).

The recent introduction of not just a Suzuki SV650S motorcycle but also a 22-year-old VW Corrado 16V to the family has upset the normal rhythm of my fettling regime, which for a couple of years until last December primarily involved keeping my Saab 9-3 Viggen clean but not so clean that the small patches of tinworm on the rear arches and bootlid would cause sections of the bodywork to break away from the mothership.

No eye-rolling highs there, then. For those I had to turn to cleaning her nibs’ feisty VW Lupo GTI, a fine example whose nick belies its 16 years but which, sadly, isn’t mine. There’s only so much elbow grease you can throw at somebody else’s toy, and I found myself unfulfilled.

Enter the SV and the Corrado. Being a more substantial not to mention older beast with the complex history any vehicle of its age has inevitably accrued, the latter requires the greatest attention. And one day soon I shall bore you witless about that.

Not today. What I want to celebrate is the discovery of yet another gratifying aspect of motorcycle ownership which I hadn’t been prepared for: ease and speed of fettling.

To keep the machine looking its best, on a weekly basis I need do little more than hose it down and give it a wash – the two-bucket method (email me for instructions) using regular car shampoo – before rinsing it and drying the most visible bits with a shammy. Ten minutes and it’s done. The wheels, which are nothing special, get a good wipe with WD40 now and then – a three-minute job. In periods of prolonged bad weather I wash the bike more often and apply ACF-50 regularly during the colder months, but that’s it.

In fact the longest I’ve spent titivating the SV was last weekend, when I borrowed my good lady’s hairdryer (as you can see I have no need for such an apparatus) and finally removed from the frame the original stickers advising me not to wash the bike using turps, to inflate the tyres to the correct pressure and so on. It looks better dirty now than it did than when it was clean beforehand.

Cleaning the SV is a buzz, then, though not half as efficient at ridding the mind of cerebral knots as riding the machine. This malarkey just gets better and better.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Extended review – Lal and Mike Waterson: Bright Phoebus (Domino)

Of late it has been easier to source cover versions of many of the 12 songs on Bright Phoebus than the originals, a fact that has done nothing to hinder the growth in influence of an album that was available for only a short time before the demise of the label that released it in 1972.

Champions of the record include Arcade Fire, Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley, while the Waterson clan’s spiritual heirs number among them James Yorkston, King Creosote, Adrian Crowley, Trembling Bells and Alasdair Roberts. For them and many others it will be all their Christmases and birthdays rolled into one finally to see the album granted a conscientiously directed remaster (part-overseen by Lal Waterson’s daughter Marry) and reissue, with the deluxe CD and vinyl editions also featuring demos of songs written for Bright Phoebus besides extensive and engrossing sleeve notes from Pete Paphides.

Bright Phoebus emerged after the demise of the first iteration of vocal group the Watersons – siblings Elaine (known as Lal), Mike and Norma and family friend John Harrison, a quartet from Hull whose singing style exhibited what Rob Young in his history of modern folk music Electric Eden deftly called “polyphonic austerity”. Three albums in two years and a Stakhanovite commitment to live performance had brought them a measure of success but insufficient financial security to compensate for the vagaries of touring the British folk circuit in the mid to late 1960s.

Norma moved to Montserrat with her boyfriend while Lal and Mike fell into the humdrum rhythm of everyday life, both siblings becoming parents and Mike working as a painter and decorator. Though living in separate cities Lal in Leeds with her husband George Knight and Mike in Hull – both separately began to compose songs, having only sung traditional songs or music written by other people until this point.

Lal was a poet first and a songwriter second, her godhead being the 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and had what guitarist Martin Carthy, a key figure in the birth of Bright Phoebus, describes as an “idiosyncratic way of playing the guitar”. Her brother, in contrast, was more comfortable on the instrument and at least once composed the bones of a song – the title track, unconnected to the 18th-century hunting song of the same name – while up a ladder with a brush in his hand, dashing home to work out the chords before returning to his job.

In due course the songs Lal was writing came to the attention of Carthy, then playing with Steeleye Span, who alerted bandmate and ex-Fairport Convention bass player Ashley Hutchings to Lal’s gift. Hutchings in turn corralled two of his fellow ex-Fairport colleagues Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks as well as folk stalwart Bill Leader, producer and owner of the Leader and Trailer record labels, the goal being to commit these songs to tape. A homesick Norma returned to the UK in late 1971, further bolstering the potential for the recordings to come.

Mike and Lal Waterson

For one week in May 1972, a temporary studio in the basement of Cecil Sharp House in London became the crucible in which Leader oversaw the successful commingling of the core elements of Bright Phoebus – unearthly songs that frequently followed singular structural paths from beginning to end; Lal’s dynamically unwavering yet irresistible voice; the Waterson siblings’ densely plotted harmonies; the juxtaposition of Mike’s sprightly compositions and Lal’s eerie, mesmeric ballads; adroit acoustic guitar performances from Carthy and Thompson (often with each panned hard to separate channels of the stereo picture); and an unsettling sense of otherworldliness, rapture and sorrow.

Although chapters of Bright Phoebus are palpably downbeat (death is a recurring theme), the sessions were anything but, an open-door policy seeing the core group augmented variously by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span, jazz clarinettist Sammy Rimington, Geordie singer Bob Davenport and others.

That convivial atmosphere is most apparent from the off, with Rubber Band – the sole single to be released from Bright Phoebus, sung with gusto by its writer, Mike Waterson – waddling out of the blocks with a whimsy redolent of Sgt Pepper that, if not initially then later, sits uncomfortably with the bulk of its parent record. Perhaps its placement as the opening song was a sop to commercial objectives. Whatever the truth, it is a feeble start to a record that deserved better.

In cahoots with his sister, however, Mike Waterson redeems himself in a matter of seconds, making a strong case for the highlight of the album in The Scarecrow, an ominous inquiry into how far mankind is willing to go to appease nature for the sake of a good harvest, at its core a “bag of rags in an overall” tied to a pole. It isn’t until the third verse that the song’s most chilling lines are delivered over spidery guitar work from Carthy and Thompson: “As I rode out one fine spring day/ I saw 12 jolly dons dressed out in the blue and the gold so gay/ And to a stake they tied a child newborn/ And the songs were sung, the bells was rung, and they sowed the corn.”

Having skirted psychedelia and pagan folk, Mike later takes the listener down the road of rock ’n’ roll with Danny Rose, a Brylcreemed picaresque which ends with the car thief of the title perishing in a ball of flames. Later, he leads a six-strong chorus line through the folk-meets-country rock pastoral Shady Lady – the voices so thick they blur the joins – before the closing title track, in which the two siblings inhabit familiarly folky territory before the band and ad-hoc choir kick in for the climax of a rudimentary but bewitching paean to the mood-enhancing power of the sun, its optimism long overdue.

While Mike Waterson’s role in Bright Phoebus is nothing less than central, what sustained this album during its four and a half decades in the shadows – and will ensure its endurance for years to come – is the contribution of Lal Waterson, both as a songwriter and a singer. Twine the two skills around each other and you have in your hands something unbreakable, something permanent.

On Bright Phoebus Lal’s lead vocal parts are free from fuss or dynamic complexity: the words and melodies were so acute there was no need for them. Her shortcomings as a guitar player were irrelevant – her harmonic sense, as Martin Carthy noted while helping develop her songs in Hull during the album’s gestation, was astonishing.

Lal was also blessed with an instinct for song structure that bucked convention, guiding her often mournful but never maudlin narratives and melodies down untrodden paths to their conclusion. She sidestepped a linear method of uncovering the truths at the heart of her songs in favour of abstract or impressionistic approaches.

Such is their consistently high quality it would be folly to choose between Fine Horseman, Never the Same, Winifer Odd, Red Wine Promises (sung by Norma Waterson), Child Among the Weeds and To Make You Stay. Within these six songs are expressions of fantasy, despair – at losses past and future – and unapologetically drunken contentment, while there is also a strand of storytelling as succinctly poetic as the melodies that carry it, Winifer Odd taking all of four short verses to deliver a compressed chronicle of the titular character’s 34 years on Earth.

While not an unqualified success, particularly in its sequencing, the overwhelming majority of Bright Phoebus warrants every ounce of the reputation the record has spawned during its absence from the world at large. Where it sags, it recovers quickly, and where it rises, it rides upon thermal after thermal, scornful of gravity.

Given the cross-pollination of music genres in the 21st century it seems ludicrous that Bright Phoebus was hobbled upon its initial release by being neither rock enough for one potential audience nor sufficiently folk for another, but it’s as incongruous now as it was then, albeit for different reasons – namely the heft and spirit of these songs in an age where music is as ephemeral as the latest viral phenomenon.

While its creators didn’t live to enjoy the plaudits the remastered edition of their masterly work will undoubtedly attract, the rest of us can give thanks for the efforts of those who kept the flame alive.

This article originally appeared on The Quietus. A shorter review of Bright Phoebus was published in The Herald here.

Is motorcycling really more dangerous than golf?

For the past week or so I have been on less than top form, being the victim of a pincer attack by a nuclear-powered cold and a bad back. The cold caused my nose to become a Mount Etna of snot and my lungs a pulmonary Smith & Wesson firing bullets of phlegm as I attempted to immerse myself in the Open Championship from the depths of the sofa. I’ve had colds before, obv, but none like this.

The spinal aches, however, are a recurring niggle that can be traced back to my lifelong yen for the sport Jordan Speith mastered at Royal Birkdale last weekend. Twelve years ago I was still sufficiently robust to carry my golf bats in a bag, and while sauntering blithely down a muddy slope at Littlehill in Glasgow I took a tumble, the weight of the clubs and my torso coming down with an almighty thud upon my coccyx. The resulting herniated disc and associated spinal issues have given me gyp ever since.

What does this have to do with motoring? Simple. I have, you see, been thinking about risk.

Golf, or at least the variant in which most amateurs such as myself participate, is not perceived to be a dangerous pastime, whereas motorcycling is widely seen as colossally treacherous, both by those in the know and those, er, out the know.

A question I have been asked more than once since becoming a rider is: why do something so potentially disastrous to my capacity to walk/talk/breathe, besides for fun? And while it’s tempting to drone on about how my appetite for golf – not alpinism; golf, for God’s sake – has seen me temporarily unable to stand upright, and what could motorcycling possibly do that would be worse, the truth as I see it is that the regular navigation of perilous circumstances is a central pillar of what it means to be alive. And the more you do it, the better you get at it.

Unlike the so-called dangers that governments and corporations insist lurk in every cranny of daily life, on a bike the risks are slap-bang front of you, in darkest black and brightest white. In seven months of riding I have been forced into an emergency stop when a car cut me up (wobble factor on a scale of one to five = one; I was doing 15mph) and watched, powerless, as a VW Polo lurched across my path to reach a motorway exit at the very last moment (WF = three). Most recently, where the M77 merges with the eastbound M8, I was forced prematurely into lane one of the M8 to avoid being crushed by a straying HGV (WF = five).

What I’ve learned from these experiences is this: if you’re going to ride a motorcycle, never forget your vulnerability to even the slightest hazard. Drivers of cars, buses, vans and lorries will always carry out manoeuvres that endanger you, and occupying the moral high ground doesn’t speed up the fusion of bones or the healing of wounds. Assume the worst and always, always have an out.

Oh – and install an action camera on your handlebars or helmet. The chances of remembering a registration number to provide the police with when facing oblivion are nil.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Extended review – Boris: Dear (Sargent House)

For a record its creators started work on in the belief it might be their swansong, this album doesn’t half seethe with energy, rippling with a vigour more typical of a group in their infancy rather than in decline.

The sessions that yielded Dear – whittled down from three albums’ worth to this set of 10 cuts, which still weighs in at more than an hour and occupies four sides of vinyl – also resulted in a renewed conviction that there are galaxies in the heavy music universe that Boris, a group currently celebrating their 25th year, have yet to fully explore.

And while Dear pulses with long-established characteristics such as bombast, abrupt shifts in EQ, extreme sonic juxtapositions and abysmal sustain, all of which underpin the Japanese trio’s tribal affiliation with Melvins, Sunn O))) and Sub Pop-era Earth, there are new stars being born here, new bridges to rock absurdity being built.

Perhaps the defining factors that single out the album from more recent predecessors such as Heavy Rocks and Präparat are an emphasis on the rudiments of rock music composition – the chord, the drum fill, the strained vocal – which elevates their importance almost above the music itself, and the adherence to a pace that, while nimble by the standards of Sunn O))), remains extraordinarily slow for the most part.

The vocal performances, which are significantly greater in number here than on previous releases, come mainly from guitar and bass player Takeshi Ohtani and drummer Atsuo Mizuno, with a brief, fragile contribution from guitarist Wata on the benumbed and deconstructed pop of Beyond, a second cousin of The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep) from Altar, the high-water mark collaboration with Sunn O))) from 2006.

The bulk of these songs emerge from a simmering broth of guitar so titanically mangled that the notes almost play second fiddle to the sizzle of the valves the signal is fed through, after it’s gone through a fuzz circuit so cranked it ought to come with a health warning.

Opening track DOWN -Domination of Waiting Noise- sets the (lack of) tempo from the off, with an immolated power-chord shaking the life out of the speakers for what feels like an eternity, the accompanying metallic rattle hinting at serious technical damage. On Kagero, as he does on DOWN and elsewhere on the album, Atsuo enters the fray with spasms of percussion and washes of orchestral gong as downtuned guitars throw control to the four winds and spiral chaotically into space.

Amid the haar of drone and bug-eyed metal excess, on Biotope Boris’s affinity for a peculiarly skewiff variant of shoegazing surfaces, bringing with it welcome contrast. The song unashamedly follows a template outlined by My Bloody Valentine but lathers on a degree of guitar noise that even Kevin Shields might have stopped short of.

The 12-minute Dystopia -Vanishing Point- starts from a queasy lullaby played out on melodica and accordion before Takeshi sings a trippy ballad over Space Echo-hazed guitar meanderings. Peace at last, you might think. But seven minutes in, the band unleash a berserk vision of power rock gilded by a caustically bonkers guitar solo that Prince would surely have approved of, the notes cocooned in a batter of fuzz before being plunged into foaming oil. It’s exhausting – which, you suspect, is largely the point.

After this, the title track sucks the air out of the room with a crunching, dismal riff topped by a malevolent vocal, fluttering drum fills doing little to puncture the gloom. Eventually the group begins to lurch as one amid crashing gong and sickening feedback, the overall effect being that of a purgative ritual, ridding the listener of any bloat brought on by the preceding hour of excess. Ideologically it’s at one with the sonic code the band perhaps inadvertently christened on the earlier sturm und drang of The Power, a paean to the riff that rivals the very best excursions into maxed-out heaviness.

Dear could have been the end of the trip. But a quarter of a century in, Boris remain alert at the controls as they pilot their craft into uncharted galaxies, boldly going where no group has gone before.

Watch the official live video of The Power below:

This article first appeared on The Quietus website.

Thoughts from the periphery