Review: Backhand Saloon – Creature

Originally published by Fortitude Magazine. www.


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.


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: Middleman – Counterstep

Originally published by Fortitude Magazine.

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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.