top of page

Legends and Leg Ends


Ammonite, Apostille, Cult Figures, James, Kirk Barley, Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band, Sheer Mag

The Show Horse

Loophole : Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band

Michael Head’s new album is gentle and reflective, crafted so that his love of making music shines through.

There was a time that it seemed unlikely that Head would hang around long enough to make albums at all. He’s had his troubles, addictions and mishaps that could, many times, have derailed him. Now he can cover things that would have angered him in the past in the same quiet, understated way he delivers his love songs. 

The tone is all. What would have come across as rage and anger in the past is now mellowed and tempered with understanding, but not forgiveness. He’s crystal clear in ‘Merry-Go-round’ when he reflects

“I didn’t realise Thatcher was insane”

He’s 62 years old now and he’s ageing well. His voice has matured into Autumn gold. Melodies have calmed down. They don’t shout in your face but swirl around quietly, like an attentive waiter lingering out of sight until he senses you need him.’Ambrosia’ is the song to turn to for that. Most of all he sounds contented in his music. His great strength is to communicate that, so we feel it too.

This is an album that is true to his English and Irish roots. He’s dived into the deep waters of traditional pop. Scuzzy guitar plays alongside lush strings in ‘Shirl’s Ghost’. Indie lounge is the flavour of ‘You Smiled At Me’ Michael Head a crooner? Who’d have thought it? ‘Connemara’ casts its spell to have you unconsciously tapping your foot. ‘You’re A Long Time Dead’ describes characters from the snug of your country local, using a style imported from New Orleans. It’s a softly intoxicating mix of an album.

Michael Head has become a figure who is revered in the music press. This album shows why.

Taster Track : Ambrosia

The Front Runners

Blueprints : Ammonite

There’s layered electronic music, and then there’s Ammonite. This is a 22 minute journey into beautiful electronic sound.

So much of this album sounds broken and composed of fragments but, put together, it makes something special. On the page, it’s an interlocking mesh of vocals, echoes, drones and electronica. In the heart it speaks to something core, something fundamental.

‘ARP’ is both hypnotic and intangible. It feels like music for the moment just before you faint and the world dissolves around you. This is ethereal, music for the deepest levels of sleep or even the last moments of life.

The disorienting, stuttery effects of ‘You Don’t Know Me’ seem to bleed into the broken samples of ‘What If I Knew Me’. The density of ‘Forgive Me, Forget’ means that its 1’36 contains more desperate emotion than a song three times its length.

This is music that is completely unhurried, wallowing in the luxury of sound. I’m reminded of artists like Imogen Heap or Laurie Anderson, but they’re only a starting point that Ammonite takes further and deeper. Despite its undeniable artiness, there is plenty to latch onto here if you love sound, and melody too in the vocals of ‘You Don’t Know Me’ and elsewhere.

It’s a startling and deeply affecting record that taps into something truly essential. It’s compelling, moving and truly original.


Taster Track : ARP

Yummy : James

James have returned with an album that is excellent, even by their lofty standards.

This is an album filled with colour and drama, with Tim Booth serving as ringmaster. As with all great James’ songs there are terrific choruses. They take singalong qualities as a starting point but grow them into immense pieces of glorious defiance. They also have a knack of bringing people together in a community to sing them. Listen to ‘Way Over Your Head’. At this precise moment you want and need songs that encourage people to bond together and rise up to be heard.

This is emphatically a band album but, inevitably, it reflects Tim Booth’s preoccupations as band leader. Here they include the environment (‘One World’), ageing (‘Rogue’) and death (‘Folks’). These are songs fuelled by indignation as much as anger. 

They’re also fuelled by their trademark contrariness. As anyone with a guitar and a laptop can croon their way to the top, it’s refreshing for James to take huge steps in the opposite direction and head for a big, big full band sound. And if contrariness draws you to James, look no further than ‘Life’s A Fucking Miracle’. Who else would release a lead single that can’t be played on the radio?

There are no half measures in this album. James commit wholeheartedly to everything they release. ‘Is This Love’ sounds glorious and euphoric even as it’s undercut by dollops of acid cynicism. At the other end of their spectrum ‘Better With You’ embraces sweetness with tender sincerity, the sound of someone letting their guard down.

Lyrics tumble forth is a stream of consciousness free-form torrent. That makes for some great lines. They come as chants and poetry, but it’s the simplicity of “Wow, wow, wow wow,” in ‘Shadow of a Giant’ that captures the open eyed sense of wonder that stays with you.

Bizarrely, you would never have thought that the anthemic James would end up sharing a similar space to the gentle giant that is Belle and Sebastian, but that’s what their latest albums and incarnations suggests.

The best thing you can say about this album is that, after 42 years, James haven’t become parodies of themselves. They’re as good as their best and their best is very good indeed.

Taster Track : Life’s A Fucking Miracle

The Chasing Pack

Prisoners of Love and Hate : Apostille

Apostille offers a strain of electropop club music that doesn’t foretell of a good night out.

This is for the exhausting nights when common sense tells you that you really need to go home and have a few quiet nights in. These are songs to summon up energy when you’re running on empty, a running mixtape for the 30th uphill mile.

The album is a tribute to overactive, barely suppressed mania. There’s not a lot of warmth, softness or unalloyed pleasure to be heard. It’s for clubbing in a fever dream, a busy album made with genetically modified big beats, halogen bright, flashing lights and too many zinging effects. You might call it mutant disco if that term hadn’t already been claimed elsewhere..

‘Saturday Night, Still Breathing’ opens the album with a truly terrible scream . That’s ‘terrible’ in the sense of ‘filled with terror’, rather than the sense of being very good. It’s a wake up and welcome to chill the bones. It’s a distorted nightmare of a Saturday night out good time floorfiller, fizzing with energy like an Alka Seltzer tablet. Search hard enough and you will find that its foundations rest on Whigfield and Black Eyed Peas. ‘Disease To Please’ is typical in feeling like an enforced pleasure. The closest thing to a mainstream song is ‘Natural Angel’. If Meatloaf had written for clubs, this is what it might have sounded like. And it’s coming to something when you’re holding up Meatloaf as the most restrained element of an album!

Let’s not forget that I listen to the music I review early in the morning. That’s not the right setting for this. I can hear its distorted appeal to others but it’s not for me.

Taster Track : Natural Angel

Between Us and Heaven : Cult Figures

Take a trip back to the joys of genuine indie C86 music with Cult Figures.

Cult Figures released music at the end of the 70s through The Swell Maps’ record label and Rough Trade. They disappeared from view only to reappear in 2016 with their love of clanging, jangling pop undimmed. If you look at recent photos of the band online, you see a band that has rediscovered the dream. They evince boyish charm in the bodies of middle aged men. You can’t help but find the photos happy and mildly intoxicating.

They’re the band to drag you into the Summer Festival mood, whipping up the crowd for the headline acts to come. You’ll sense excitement in the growing crowd as they edge forward for a better view.

Don't come to this looking for subtlety or glossy production. You’ll find that in countless bands who have bagged time in sophisticated, state of the art studios. Come to Cult Figures for energy, which they have in abundance. ‘Sitting Target’ erupts like a firework clustering in the sky. It may be too much to take in all at once, but it’s undeniably spectacular.

Songs such as ‘Mr Producer’, ‘Unburdened’ and ‘Devotion’ share a sense of humour with Half Man Half Biscuit. There’s an almost nursery rhyme feel to their choruses, and you listen to them knowing that they will plague your waking hours. 

Some of this is quite daft. (I’m listening to you ‘Battle of the Beefcakes 1+2’) Elsewhere, in ‘Never Take The Bus’ they take a leaf out of Arab Strap’s book of dark narration. It’s likely to be tongue in cheek. Overall, think of bands like The Freshies or The Supernaturals, bands that specialise in three minute songs that leave a tune in your brain and a smile in your heart.

Cult Figures - may they never go mainstream and may they never truly grow up.

Taster Track : Devotion

Marionette : Kirk Barley

Kirk Barley’s 2023 album ‘Marionette’ is as ambient as you’ll find anywhere.

There’s a tension at the heart of this album between, the musical elements that are intentionally jerky like the movements of a marionette, and the natural sounds of wind, water, thunder and rain. Nothing pulls their strings. It makes for an interesting, ambient experience.

It’s appealingly awkward. Rhythms are one note from comfortable (‘Nectar’). The instruments don’t quite fit together (“Courtyard’), then relax into the natural sounds of rain or water dripping on an upturned wheelbarrow.

It’s an album that almost disproves Brian Eno’s observation that ambient music is not intended to be noticed. There are details like the buzzing insects of ‘Lake of Gold that creep into your attention and make the piece. (Quick diversion : It’s ironic that the type of music that is supposed to be unnoticed can only be made by people who notice the sounds and rhythms hidden around us!)

There’s a vague oriental feel to some of the pieces that conjure up walks through a Japanese bonsai garden. That lends the album an exotic flavour, almost creating a new sub division of ambient we could call ‘water music’.

This is an album that is immersive, certainly. It’s musical, but not melodic. For the most part, any half melodies sound accidental - replicating the happy accident of found sounds. ‘Kites’ has, perhaps, the most composed melody.

‘Marionette’ is as ambient an album as I’ve stumbled across. And it’s an ambience that helps you to feel ok with the world.

Taster Track : Kites

Playing Favourites : Sheer Mag

This set of American rock radio, featuring all you’d expect from a 70s classic rock band, is hamstrung by its production.

Sheer Mag play the kind of music that should sound huge. Here it sounds flat and muddy. It sounds raw, but like an underdone steak. Something has deadened the atmosphere. It lacks the power you’d expect and that they have aimed for. With these songs they should be playing stadiums. Instead they’re downstairs at the Hope and Anchor fighting the sound of buses passing by outside. Too often it sounds as if you’re listening to it from the wrong place. The vocals sound lost in the mix, even though they clearly belong to a Janis Joplin like power house. Or maybe you’re too far from the stage, say in a housing estate a few hundred yards from the festival site.

It’s unfortunate. I have a soft spot for some 70s classic rock, but it’s not a fashionable genre. Take it on,and, like a last minute substitute in the FA Cup final brought on for their penalty kick skills, you have to get it right. This is the equivalent of tripping over your own feet as you try a panenka.

It’s a shame. It’s not as if they’re not trying. They incorporate a wide range of 70s influences. The American new wave of ‘All Lined Up’ sounds as if it could have been a gem. ‘Mechanical Garden’ aims for something different and, to an extent it succeeds but it can’t rise above its suffocating production.

The album as a whole sounds like filler for a sub ‘Now ….’ compilation. It pains me to write this review, because I don’t think it’s the fault of the band but I can only write about what I hear. For all its potential strengths - Tina Halladay’s voice, the wholehearted commitment to their chosen genre, the ideas that are evident in the songs, it falls flatter than a steamrollered cartoon character.

As always I like to provide an alternative review where I haven’t enjoyed a listening experience. Here’s one from Swim Into The Sound.

Taster Track : I Gotta Go


As ever this week's Taster Track playlists can be accessed at or via the Spotify link on the Home Page.


bottom of page