Review: Backhand Saloon – Creature

Originally published by Fortitude Magazine. www. fortitudemagazine.co.uk.

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Recorded during a period of some upheaval and ascendancy, Backhand Saloon’s second release takes the template laid down by Crooks & Curses and forces it through a fine mesh screen. The quintet’s southern-flecked hardcore has evolved into a more formidable creation.

Creature is a bolder, more expansive record than its predecessor, setting the band up for a more aggressive, powerful ride. Cassiopeia blurts into life with singer Harry’s declaration “In the beginning, there was nothing”. Far from a rehash of old glory, this is manly step forward.

As the record presses on, it becomes clear that there are two Backhands at work; the more delicate side(Thorns, most of Creature, the opening bars of Prometheus), new to this record, and the rough, all savage beatdowns and roaring. These two entities exist side by side on Creature, with the bands ability to inject tenderness and into their brick-hard riff work showing a maturity uncommon in many hardcore bands.

In many ways Creature is more of a suite than an EP; each track stands alone perfectly, but the band’s evolving songcraft is as clear as open water. Mora and Prometheus are crushing, the band trying to power out of the speakers with force alone. Taken as a snapshot in time, Backhand sound tense but determined, the youthful joie de vivre of Crooks & Cursesreplaced by the grown up, self-aware beast of Creature. Taking the title track through to the end of Prometheus alone would have made a great EP, but having Cassiopeia as a opener shows how far they’ve come. 

At the end of all this is Acid Fang, which sounds great live, but on record sounds like an afterthought; having the record end with Mora would have been a true cliffhanger. Backhand have a well-deserved live reputation, and as they are currently out on tour this can only improve. Having released the single Hollow Heart with their new lineup, the band has tightened, grown more aggressive, more confident.

This is a good record by a good band, who are evolving into a great band. The next record should be a genuine game-changer, and I await it with baited breath. Ace.

Review: Avante Black – Make A Mess

Originally published by Fortitude Magazine. http://www.fortitudemagazine.co.uk.

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Over the last ten years, my faith in music has been alternately eroded, bouyed, crippled, and rebuilt, as I watched the charts devolve into a revolting parody of the true cultural battleground that they were, even into the early 00’s.

However, following the collapse of the old industry, and the adaption of bands to new mediums, something fantastic happened; unless you were another boyband/girlband type or the flavour of the month, you were underground. Forcing bands to develop in the old ways, but to communicate with each other in a more direct and global manner, has yielded some great results, and so it is with Avante Black.

‘Make A Mess’ is a change of pace from this globally-fed outfit. Two Swedes, and Italian, and a London bloke on drums, Avante Black have produced a series of singles that made even jaded old me take notice. While songs like ‘Drug Money’ and ‘Imaginary Love’ are by turns informed by shoegaze, splinters of Joy Division, and what souds like a less-than-ideal fiscal circumstance, ‘Make A Mess’ feels more mature, full-figured, and direct. Ottilia’s voice is less sorrowful than previous efforts, especially ‘Drug Money’, and while there’s plenty of hints of shoegaze and that most apalling of epithets, dreampop, I believe Avante Black to be harder than that.

Beginning with electronics that immediately made me think of the Pet Shop Boys, ‘Make A Mess’ then decides to head to a righteous crossroads where the most serious aspects of the Cardigans, Unforgettable-Fire-era U2 and early Sneaker Pimps meet to discuss their extreme genuine-ness. So often with bands of this nature, much is made of the beautiful frontwoman, something exacerbated by videos and live performances being sexualized in some manner, but that is not the case here. I watched a live Sofar rendition of ‘Drug Money’, and it is my belief that the band genuinely and truly want to sound like this, something for which I have true respect. Ottilia both looks and sounds like she’s telling real stories, recounting events that truly took place, something that is in too short a supply in pop music.

There’s a dark edge to this single, which made me listen to it a number of times, with enough going on between the guitar and electro-bits to hear different things each time. I’ve got to give Avante Black props for balancing these two elements, so often at war, with poise and understanding, and for ensuring that neither is a lead instrument, which gives the song greater mass. While the band will no doubt be offered the opportunity to have their songs sell things like phones or perfume – such is the way in this time period – they are a proper band, no messing, and everything I’ve listened to so far firmly raises my thumbs in approval.

Top job.

Review: Bad Sign – Square 1

Originally published by Fortitude Magazine. http://www.fortitudemagazine.co.uk.

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Basick Records is home to a number of progressively-minded heavy bands, and is a home-grown, UK label. It’s been home to acts like Enter Shikari, the sky-tearing Ion Dissonance, Blotted Science, The Algorithm, and in this instance, Bad Sign.

‘Square 1’, their new single, is a more temperate, though no less meaty, extension of the bands’ own sound. While it is not unheard of for bands to wane in aggression as they age, here that is not the case. Watching their older material like ‘Rebuild’, ‘Confession’, ‘Intermission’ and ‘Closure’, it seems like Bad Sign are becoming what they desire to be. While earlier material reminded me of Tool – and their guitar tone of Pelican – those big, hooky vocals and allusions to faith-orientated matters gave the whole thing a different feeling.

I can imagine this going down especially well live, heavy as it is without being crushing. I have to mention the close-harmony singing as the song closes in on its third minute, which in itself points to an interesting and possible direction for the band. It would be nice to see them running further with their template, which, while hardly orthodox, feels like it is in a constant state of development. It is almost as though the band have written their material to suit their ability, something that sells them a little bit short.

Listening to this single in the company of its older brothers and sisters, I get the feeling that there’s so much more to come out of Bad Sign, and that in time, they will produce a truly killer record. No faint praise or wishy-washiness here; if they stick to their guns and hone what’s here, they will naturally blossom into a serious, brick-hard contender, something I would love to see.

Review: Blood Command – Cult Drugs

Originally published by Fortitude Magazine. http://www.fortitudemagazine.co.uk.

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Norway is a place with a defiant, intriguing musical history. Home to some intense conduct in the shape of Kvelertak, Darkthrone, and Tiger Fysisk Format labelmates Jagged Vision, as well as pop alumni A-ha, it seems both meet and right that a band such as Blood Command would rise from this forest-y, frozen land.

Building on a serious number of road miles, healthy reviews, end-of-year-list placings and more besides, ‘Cult Drugs’ comes out of the blocks with both arms swinging, and immediately there is a problem. Everywhere I went online there were statements that this is a punk band, a melodic hardcore band, and so on. The superb production on this record, and, I would add, on songs of theirs going all the way back to 2010, is, if anything, more industrial than anything else. There is something deeply European about the feel of it all, from the way the band present themselves live to the urgency, the welcome lack of sunshine that abounds on this single; the Distillers wish they were this forceful.

I must stress that besides the labelling issue, I’m into this. In one of those unusual situations, Blood Command sound infinitely heavier than they look, something that was comfortingly confirmed in the live footage I saw. Though it would be incredibly lazy to compare them to Blondie, whom they sound absolutely nothing like, it would be fair to compare them to Paramore, though Hayley’s lot have never sounded like grown-ups, and this is a far cry from the slightly-wounded bubblegum conduct for which that band is known.

‘Cult Drugs’ is a big, well-written single from a band who both acknowledge their sound but are not bound by it. There’s plenty going on in here and very little let-up, and the acoustic versions of their material have the same revved-up edge and gravitas, even with 9/10th’s of the sound missing. If you were into the harder side of pop-punk as a teenager but life has knocked some lumps out of you, check this out; it’s perfect.

Bra gjort.

Review: Jet Rewind – Someone Else

Originally published by Fortitude Magazine. http://www.fortitudemagazine.co.uk.

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The other day I was waiting for a bus. I didn’t have my headphones with me, and I had no data left to gawp at the internet, so I was left to experience the grey sky, fresh drizzle, and indeterminate timespan that would pass before the juddering, clown-filled vehicle that I needed arrived.

At the end of this excrutiating nothingness, there awaited the warm company of a good friend, a few beers, laughter and chat, and though I knew that this time would draw to a close, the peaks outweighed the troughs, and I forgot all about the dull beginning.

The point here is that it’s perfectly fine to wait as long as something is going to happen. As I hung my laundry on this uninspiring Saturday afternoon, I listened with a keen, expectant ear to Jet Rewind’s first single, issued through Admirable Trait Records. Alright, I thought, this is sunny enough; I bet the chorus is sweet and shimmery, saccharine and swell, and will enthuse me to ride my bike to the beach house where my girlfriend lives, where we will laugh about sad songs and drink cocktails and dance with our shoes off.

This was not to be. Nothing happens. There’s a line in here that says ‘Running away like you don’t really care ’bout nothing/but nothing is something to someone else’. I wish I was someone else, someone who could have their sonic requirements fulfilled by the luke-warm, tepid, water-cooler smile that is this song. It’s not a lot to ask – even an ‘ahhh’ harmony over the chorus would have done, something to lift it up; there are times when it sounds as though the drummer wants to hit a big cymbal for some punctuation, and damn it all if I don’t hear him holding back. Madness!

If I were trying to advertise the mature clothing line for Marks & Spencers, this wouldn’t be extreme enough. Jet Rewind are pleasant, but not very pleasant, exciting, diverting, or comforting; by the same token they are not depressing, enervating, irritating or vexing, they are mild. I’m sure time will grant perspective for the band, and they’ll hear how ineffectual this record is, but in the meantime, I hope they take this review as a kick in the pants and understand that their songs don’t have to burn heaven, or kill the rich, or fix the economy, but they have to do something!

Hnnnnghghghhh!

Review: A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

Originally published by Fortitude Magazine. http://www.fortitudemagazine.co.uk.

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Back in 1985 two friends from Queens chose to make new rap by unconventional means. Yes, A Tribe Called Quest were unlike other rappers, they had conscience and class and sly beats like hammers, with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White, they would lay down the line for what would be new life, for the art of Hip Hop had begun to evolve then, while reporting the problems it would try to solve them.

Positivity compounded in the Native Tongues with De La Soul, Black Sheep and Jungle Brothers as one, they took Hip Hop to places it had never been, and gave hope to all the people who were tired of the scene. In 1990 it would come to pass, their first album would drop and it would move some ass, and by “The Low End Theory” in ’91, with their legendary status only just begun, they could have no idea in 20 16 what a new ‘Quest’ record could possibly mean to those raised on Lil’ Wayne, Eminem and Drake, or what direction that the record could possibly take. As it turned out the album would go number one; after all this time they’re still tons of fun, the flows were just as deft and the beats still flex, even Enough!! (which ruminates on the trials of sex).

Opener “The Space Program” is a storm of layers, taking immediate charge and answering your prayers, a reinvigorated Tribe for the present day, fluid thoughts moving fast with their rhyme display that doesn’t seem to have diminished with the passage of time, Q-Tipall on the off beat, tougher than crime; a precedent set in production and sound and boy, do Quest like to throw the beats around. There’s an approach that reminds me of Robert Johnson, once he was done with riffs, he decided to toss them. Just bits they needed remain on track, and as the record progressed I thought they’d dial it back, but ATCQ know just what to do, not dallying or fannying, just smashing through. Tracks like “We The People” and “Whatever Will Be” would give Gil Scott Heron a smile or three, as their depiction of the life of people of colour paints a very dim view of how we see each other; how the media wants a black man to be a criminal, an idiot, a cheat, nothing covert or subliminal, how the way white America looks at its own is something that humanity can’t possibly condone. The Killing Season shows how the country sees veterans, or how someone’s only crime can be possession of melanin, which in this day and age shouldn’t be at all, as we’re all born human, after all.

Review: The Devil Wears Prada – 8:18

Originally published by Fortitude Magazine. http://www.fortitudemagazine.co.uk.

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Christian metalcore, as a genre, has no shortage of detractors. Many source its fundamental unlikeability to its implied, often third-tier piety and identikit nature. Today, let’s put all that to one side and look at the music exclusively.

After reading the hype about ‘darkness’, ‘relentlessness’, lyrical misery and so on, one can be forgiven for expecting, at the very least, a properly heavy record. Production wise, there’s lots of chunks, chest-out ambience and plunging bass, with the ubiquitous backwards cymbals during empty moments in the beatdowns. Adam K, of gurning warriors Killswitch Engage, acted as executive producer with Matt Goldman, who worked with The Chariot, giving the whole record a dense, modern feel. That was a good omen; initially, at least.

Hereafter, my tolerance for this album evaporated. 13 tracks of overly plaintive, hope-withering bluster was too much, and by the half-way point of Sailor’s Prayer I was considering a future without sight or hearing. In an attempt to find something to like, I forced myself to listen to 8:18 over and over again. Of all the tracks contained therein, War’s chorus stood out, as did some of the quieter moments, the saccharine jubilation in squeals that is In Heart managing to pull itself from the wreckage.

The vocals, however, were agony. The brattish, unlikeable, sputtering yelps of a slackjawed shrieker boiled every drop of my blood. In the hope that this was a new, ill-advised direction, I consumed TDWP’s back catalogue, only to find the same material, with even more hateful vocals. Dangerously toxic even if coming from a teenager, these are the worst kind of look-at-me screams, the sound of someone professing brutality without any of the danger.

8:18 is a record TDWP fans will love, delivering as it does a toothless stream of single-minded, unimaginative, cro-magnon melody, an abundance of empty lyricism and a total absence of new material.

Not great.

Review: Miley Cyrus – Bangerz

Originally published by Fortitude Magazine. http://www.fortitudemagazine.co.uk.

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As a hate figure for the easily outraged, Destiny Hope Cyrus has excelled.

Number 1 album and singles on both sides of the pond, with every foul husk in the slavering, morbid tabloid press baying for her every utterance. Many are asking what price this has all come at; the twerking, the drugs, the dressing in half a condom – to the outsider, she is a free-wheeling, miasmic firework, no longer tethered to the everyday.

This unyielding shamelessness manifests on Bangerz. Discomforting in the extreme for those who pine for the days of Hannah Montana, Bangerz is a harrowing litany of borderline sadism and genuine heartache; a schizophrenic, skeletal hydra, putting the lions’ share of weight on two opposing styles. Why this defiantly minimal record required 12 producers is beyond me – even more baffling are the 35 writers credited with its creation. 35!

Opener ‘dore You is a grand piece. Sweeping, elegant even, pointedly equipped with a simple, two part harmony, auto-tuned to illicit maximum emotional yield. This rather morose piece sets a dark, painful tone to the album; following track and recent single We Can’t Stop sounds as though it is seen through the eyes of the party-goer who’s been partying too long. With a slower pace than is common for the style, it is the regretful dawn, when everyone is burnt out, cursing their sniffing and headaches.

Unlike Ke$ha, whose records ooze brazen raunch and carefree energy, Cyrus’ party numbers sound like a girl trying very hard to upset The Man. SMS(Bangerz), Love Money Party and the idiotic half-country of 4×4 are shudderingly embarrassing, our protagonists’ truly moronic lyricism giving glorified corner-thug Nelly a run for his money.

The more balladeering work, the pinnacle of which being Wrecking Ball, is much stronger. My Darlin’ and Drive are strong tracks, and though that slow-motion kick seems to permeate everything, Cyrus’ wounded, straining voice soars in these powerful frames. She sounds believable and angry, not pitiful and young.

At the album’s midway point is a track called #Getitright, the most uncomfortable, desperate song in history. Framed in the context of the painful, one-sided relationships, derided public metamorphosis and punitive partying elsewhere on the album, this song paints the common picture of a girl trying to be something for a boy, being taken for granted and pushed to one side. Echoed in part on the I’ve-been-through-the-mill of Someone Else, what seems to radiate from this experience is genuine teenage pain, rather than a marketing team pulling heart strings.

Bangerz is a record that makes me sad. Not because it’s the product of increasingly dignity-crushing music engine, but because it’s a tough record to listen to. Taken as a commentary on the life of the artist at its core, Cyrus is a scared little girl, trying to be a woman, with as much pressure on her to deliver and satisfy her investors and hangers-on as anyone else.

Truth be told, this album is far too long; pruning some of the worst material, it would be a heartfelt, modern album with some dance on it. As it is, this is two distinct creations – the child in agony and her brave-face alter – scrabbling for space on one disc. I honestly believe there is scope for Cyrus to advance and be valid, but she needs to be mature rather than just sounding it.

Miss Cyrus, in case you’re reading – give in for a bit. Stop trying to be a dominant, sexual woman and let yourself grow into a person first. Too many are lost because they believe they knew better, and were found wanting. Learn from those who went before.

Review: Middleman – Counterstep

Originally published by Fortitude Magazine. http://www.fortitudemagazine.co.uk.

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Leeds-based quartet Middleman are a bit dangerous. Having every track on your new album licensed out to adverts is rare, especially an album that’s an amalgam of electrock, rapcore, dubstep and anthemia.

Reading their press release and seeing names like Blur, The Streets and Rage Against The Machine is a touch misleading; the toil involved in creating an album this wide reaching must have been significant, as the boys tear through genres like petrol station loo roll. Seldom is such cross-pollination administered so well, and points must be awarded for covering so much ground.

Opening with recent single Helpless, the bands’ intent of getting everyone involved is clear. Gang chorale not withstanding, the floor-burning, stuttering electronics that greet the listener are made to get you out and on it. Andy Craven-Griffiths’ vocals have come a long way from the perfunctory proclamations of previous album Spinning Plates, which, in retrospect, laid the foundations beautifully for Counterstep. Now a truly confident, heart-on-sleeve frontman, the final pieces of the puzzle align.

The glorious, star-caressing melodic work in Blindspot and Keep Breathing, and a desire to constantly push their envelope is both endearing and, in their lyricism, quite affecting. It is rare indeed for a band sprung from the historical markers of hip hop, dance and hardcore to be able to move with such delicacy, and yet Counterstep understands itself. This is an album – a record with a full and constant narrative. Even in dealing with that most common of topics – relationships gone wrong – the band are concise, direct and utterly believable; see Lifeline for proof.

Tempting though it would be to compare this record endlessly to their previous work, their contemporaries and touring buddies in The Streets and so on, to do so would be to do Middleman a disservice. A well-thought out, custom-wound, participatory record, and great on cans, this is an album worth taking on its own merits.

When the band choose to toughen matters, it is done so with great conscience. The punishing strength of Tunnel Vision, and the carefully off-kilter drum work and bewildering vocal overlay on Youth Is Wasted On The Young are well-realised and deftly executed, the production always giving the bigger picture.

Presented with the prospect of reviewing an English-voiced, dance-informed rap quartet, I will freely admit to expecting stilted flow, embarrassing lyricism and camera-on-the-floor council estate posturing. What I got instead was a wholly convincing, enthralling and human album that gave more and more with repeated listens. For a record to start off bouncing but end with the magnificent widescreen of Deny It All, with its strings and plaintive restraint, and to be bereft of a single cynical moment, was truly eye-opening.

Go and buy this record. Dance to it, cry to it, scream its words from the top of your lungs. A full five without hesitancy.

Excellent.

Review: Jahmene Douglas – Love Never Fails

Originally published by Fortitude Magazine – http://www.fortitudemagazine.co.uk.

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X-Factor runner up (second is first after first!) Jahmene Douglas has overcome confidence issues, himself and his detractors to release this albums of covers. In keeping with the tradition of this heinous, dream-shattering enterprise, future I’m A Celebrity I Really Am I Promise entrant Jahmeme has enlisted the help of a couple of guests – the first being panel judge and mentor Nicole Scherzinger, and the second being non-sighted iconoclast and hallowed gift to the music realm, Stevie Wonder.

With each track on this record being someone else’s, one must look to Douglas’ interpretations of the source material. An able singer in the gospel/soul style, Douglas is more than capable of taking on this project. The production is very good, mastering the digital emptiness so essential for this sort of release. Everything is as it was intended, with every plugin doing the job for which it was designed.

Effortlessly taking the only good Coldplay song, Fix You, and rendering its deeply affecting, human construct utterly inert with his plunging/soaring Whitney exertions, my soul was prepped for an ever-widening spiral of sterility, and this record did not disappoint. The version of Beyonce’s Halo was completely dead, with the choral backing giving nothing other than the agony of a false smile.

Nothing, however, compares to the anguish of experiencing our shelf-stacking protagonist spending five minutes burying his mentor during their thursday-night-karaoke rendition of Houstons’ The Greatest Love Of All. A truly mind-blowing schmaltz excursion in the much missed hands of Whitney, listening to Scherzinger fumbling in her charges’ shadow was agonising, serving only to highlight Douglas’ prowess. If this was the intention, smashing.

I’d spent the whole record, teeth clenched, waiting for Stevie Wonder’s appearance on Christian traditional Give Us This Day, only to find that he limits his input to harmonica.  This was a crushing, saddening moment.

What makes this record such a harrowing listen, is it’s intention. This isn’t about Jahmene Douglas, it’s not about the artists he covers, it’s not about the music – it’s about someone, somewhere, making money from someone elses’ story. In the months or weeks to come, when Douglas is scrabbling around for panto work, those involved in this facile, heartless business will be circling the herd, smacking their lips at the prospect of twisting the heart strings of those who tune in for a bit of hope.

Because what a man like Douglas brings to the world is hope; hope that the ordinary man can rise from nothing to be a star, and that his hardships were not for nothing. This album will be bought exclusively by those who tune in religiously to the X-Factor, leaving the rest of us to get on with our lives. Though this almost negates the necessity of a rating, a five for the singing and a hard zero for the renditions grants it a 2.5.

Pity.