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March of the Great Unknowns

Starring :

Andrew Phillips / Grasscut, Balmorhea, David Paton, Elegiac, Pierrejean Gaucher, Royal Blood, Silver Synthetic, Tortusa

This Week's Music

There's an emphasis this week on acts that were new to me. That's one of the absolute joys of having time to catch up on music that you've chosen yourself, free from the taste tyrannies of radio playlists and themed playlists. Brothers and sisters, the revolution starts here!

As ever this week's playlist can be accessed at or via the Spotify link on the Home Page. The link to the Youtube playlist is

I've changed the format from this week, From now on I'll identify one, occasionally a couple, album that I particularly want to share but not rank the rest. That feels a less leading and simpler way of presenting the reviews!

Here goes!

Sharing Platters

Overwinter : Andrew Phillips / Grasscut

This is an engrossing record that needs to be listened to in its entirety to appreciate its quiet but undeniable impact.

It’s one of the albums that has had the strongest impact on me over the last few weeks. Its backstory is informative. Andrew Phillips is from Brighton and over the lockdown period has walked regularly around the local area. The music is inspired by what he has seen and heard. It feels like a record in tune with the countryside, yet it also looks out to sea and responds to the plight of the city homeless.

I’ve made fewer notes on this recording than on any other since starting this blog. It’s power comes from letting the music flow over you like the tide. The structure feels quite classical with a suite of movements building their power cumulatively. It touches deep chords associated with lockdown and Winter - metaphorically as well as literally and tells a story gently and with optimism.

‘Return of the Sun’ captures the mix of folk, electronica and soft dance rhythms that characterise the album as a whole. I’ve chosen it as the taster track because it’s the entry point to the album and I hope that some will follow the album through to the end.

Taster Track : Return of the Sun

And the Rest...

The Wind : Balmorhea

This falls slap in the middle of the “Is it classical or is it not?” conundrum. It’s a restrained, occasionally mournful collection from a six piece ensemble featuring piano, cello, guitars, vibraphone, drums and violin.

I have a question. Why have they made it so difficult to appreciate this record? The mere fact that it’s come out on Deutsche Grammophon, an out and out classical label, will be enough to deter some. The French that features in ‘Day Dawns In Your Right Eye’ and ‘Night Falls In Your Left’ seems random from an outfit from Texas. The French continues into the titles including ‘La Vagabonde’, ‘Ne Plus Ultra’ and ‘Vent Pontian’. And with titles such as ‘Rose In Abstract’ the connection between the title and the music is vague at best. All these little things add another layer of barriers to get past.

It’s a shame, because if hushed reverence is your thing there is a lot here to enjoy. The tunes are lovely. The textures such as squeaking violin strings add an arty sophistication. What it lacks in overt melodies it makes up for with its tone. There’s a fine line between this kind of music and new age music that doesn’t go anywhere except in the direction of the newest meaningful travelogue. Balmorhea fall firmly on to the right side.

‘La Vagabonde’, ‘Landlessness’ and ‘The Crush’ are highlights but you’ll know within a few bars if this is your cup of tea or not. Just bear in mind that it’s very much Earl Grey rather than Yorkshire Builders’!

Taster Track : Landlessness

2020 : David Paton

This collection of melodic, radio friendly pop is full of strong songwriting that is both unfashionable and timeless.

If you have followed pop at all over the last 50 years you’ll have heard David Paton, even if you haven’t heard of him. He’s the bass guitarist who also took lead vocals with 70s group Pilot - number one with ‘January’ in February 1975. I know. He’s been a man slightly out of time from then until now. He was also a founding member of the Alan Parsons Project, played on the first two Kate Bush albums, contributed to a number of prog pop acts that met with chart success and played bass on Elton John’s ‘Nikita’.

With that background it’s not surprising that this album is filled with an effortless and reassuring sense that he knows what he’s doing. He’s a very good pop songwriter producing songs that any new, balladeering kid on the block would receive gratefully. It’s undeniably soft, but each song contains shafts of musical colour that keep it interesting.

I had a surprising reaction to this album. I’ve never come away from an album before with such a strong sense of the artist being such a likeable and, well, nice man. At 71 he seems more than content with his lot and that comes through in his music. He’s quite happy to give one of the songs to his daughter to sing ‘Love Song’, and the YouTube video clip for this is a selection of family photographs. In truth, the album is probably a couple of tracks too long but I suspect he didn’t have the heart to exclude any of his musical children.

The bouncy sound of Pilot is still evident across this album, particularly on ‘Beautiful Thing’ but also in ‘Watching You’ and ‘ Don’t Know What To Say’. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more tender and sentimental song than ‘You Still Love Me’, a song that could turn your insides to a mush of melted ice cream. And there’s a nod to continental and international flavours in the rhythm of ‘Here Without You’ and ‘Ver El Mundo Pasar.

Everyone needs a little magic in their lives (or at least a little Magic Radio). This album is a warm and gentle musical massage that will help you to find it.

Taster Track : Beautiful Thing

Elegiac : Elegiac

And now for something completely different. This highly stylised poetry to a jazz, bass loaded, beat driven backing is a long way ‘out there’. It’s Jupiter in relation to our moon.

When I was at university, the course covered T S Eliot. There’s much to like in his poetry on the page. The trouble was that we were asked to listen to recordings of him reading his poems to enhance our understanding and appreciation of them. That finished me off. It simply sounded wrong. I think he may have approved of this collection.

Vocally, this is a weird mix of tastes and styles. There’s more than a little creepiness in the mix. I can best describe it as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings imitating Harry Enfield providing the voiceover to a 1960s public information film. And I’m afraid that’s not a mix that works for me after a couple of tracks. It prevented me focusing on the jumble of words in the poem which strikes me as a self defeating own goal. Where the vocals are relatively restrained, as on ‘Ian’s Gone’, it’s less of a challenge.

Musically it’s a mix of styles too. ‘Vous Et Ici’ is a rhythmic blast of squawking and squally sax, and a deep, dubby, rhythmic bass line. Rhythm is this record’s saving grace, tying the tracks to something recognisable, something more in our musical world. I’d like to hear some of these tracks, for example ‘Vous Et Ici’, ‘Boat’, ‘So Far’ and ‘He Folds’ recast as instrumentals.

Taking the music and vocals together it’s almost disturbingly weird in places. ‘Pelican House’ is the stuff of nightmares and ‘The Daffodil Women’ is simply too much.

I can appreciate the thought, style and technical skill that’s gone into making these tracks. As a collection of music though, it’s not for me.

Taster Track : So Far

Zappe Satie : Pierrejean Gaucher

This collection of jazz instrumentals, based on the music of Frank Zappa and Erik Satie, is surprisingly light and celebratory.

Pierrejean Gaucher is a French jazz guitarist who draws inspiration from the less mainstream elements of rock and avant garde classical. Fortunately he doesn’t use this as an excuse to experiment further. Instead he draws back from the weird and wonderful and polishes tunes to highlight their melodies. There’s actually a call out - “That’s the melody’ - on ‘En Forme de Prune’. He renders the avant garde music of Satie and the non-conformity of Zappa accessible and palatable. In the generosity of jazz music, this sounds like an ensemble piece with frills added on Gaucher’s guitar where they are needed.

He’s certainly not clowning around on this album, but clowns and their sad fun could be taken as the key musical theme. The sense of fun raises its head throughout on tracks such as ‘Ecriture Totomatique’ and ‘Gymnopedie No 8’. There’s an emphasis on traditional dance too, both in titles such as ‘Les Clowns Dansant’ and ‘Danse de Travers No 4’, and in the rhythms that drive through the album. ‘Service Coupe’ stands out as the strongest example of this.

Occasionally the music can fade into the background, as on ‘L’Office des Etoiles’. What Gaucher does particularly well though is to show how pop can expand its reach into the most unexpected places. ‘Le Croisiere Ca Use / Le Depart’ is anchored by a melodic bass line, echoed on keyboards which makes the bleepiness of what’s going on above easier to accept. And ‘Satie’s Blues’ sounds more like the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ than anything else.

This is jazz that should appeal to aficionados with its interplay and virtuosity, without frightening the casual listener. It’s a celebratory and uplifting collection.

Taster Track : Le Croisiere de Use / Le Depart

Typhoons : Royal Blood

Royal Blood’s new album is a blast of furious guitar and drumming which will work as well on the dance floor as it will for the air guitarist. It positions them nicely for the return of festivals.

One image came to mind on listening to this, and I could not shake it. It’s an image of The Thing from the Fantastic Four. (Image below - just in case you thought that was an inadvertent self portrait!)

This music is the sound of something tough and dirty, of flailing fists and whirling rotor blades. It’s the soundtrack for everyone who has fantasised being the champion of their own superhero movie.

If it’s subtlety, nuance and tenderness you want you’ll need to look to the final track ‘All We Have Is Now’ which is a simple blend of piano and reverb. To be honest, it sounds misplaced. There’s no need for these guys to show they have a sensitive side and it’s completely at odds with the rest of the album. This album delivers forceful and furious drumming, crunchy guitar, desperate vocals and falsetto backing vocals to add a heightened sense of danger. Try ‘Boilermaker’ for its typical effect. They make full and glorious use of the effects pedal. It sounds as if a teenager on a sugar high has been let loose on it, and I mean that in a good way. Nothing is off limits, and I’ve not heard a fuzzier sound for a while.

If there’s a criticism it’s that by midway you realise that whilst each song individually does a great job of blowing away the cobwebs, it does start to feel relentless and sound a little samey. I’m guessing though that most people who come to this record will be quite happy with that. You can take your pick from any number of tracks as an album highlight. My personal choices would include ‘Oblivion’, ‘Typhoons’ and ‘Limbo.’

This is an album that won’t draw in new fans, but certainly won’t alienate those who have followed them in the past. It’s a good, loud album with mass appeal.

Taster Track : Limbo

Silver Synthetic : Silver Synthetic

This album ignores the last 50 years and provides a dash of classic 70s country rock with no variation.

Sometimes it’s a relief to listen to highly conventional songwriting that can be easily appreciated for what it is. This album is a homage to ‘classic’ songwriting. Its problem is the lack of any distinctive personality. They are 100% generic.

Silver Synthetic are the local band that their locality has taken to its hearts. They’re the one of a thousand competent bands but they are the one that got the break of a recording contract. And they have a future as the band destined for the 3 o’clock afternoon slot of a medium sized festival towards the end of the season. Disliking this band would be like disliking your child’s performance in the school play. By any critical standards the performance is lacking something, but in that part of your heart that appreciates effort, competence and a desire to please it’s beyond criticism.

‘In The Beginning’ trundles down its chosen path ignoring all opportunities for diversion, until a guitar solo kicks in towards the end. ‘Unchain Your Heart’ channels their inner Status Quo or Creedence Clearwater Revival. ‘Chasm Killer’ is simply flat throughout. A common feature is that the lyrics fit a fixed metre. They’re enslaved by it and that sounds unnatural, but it shows the well meaning effort the band have gone to in crafting their songs.

‘Out of the Darkness’ is more interesting as it reverses the album’s standard template. The soloing comes in at the beginning as a free flowing jam. The vocals don’t join the song for a couple of minutes or so. This song hints that a looser, more expressive sound is within their grasp.

For all its shortcomings, this is a pleasant enough throwback to an era of simpler tunes, well played and reassuringly safe. We don’t always want state of the nation, avant garde cynicism, do we?

Taster Track : Out of the Darkness

Bre : Tortusa

This collection of Norwegian ambient tracks does exactly what ambient music is supposed to do, and it does it well.

So what exactly is ambient music supposed to do? Well, according to Brian Eno, who coined the genre back in 1978, ambient music should be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” It was probably good that he focused on music rather than marketing but, at the same time, I can see what he means. Ambient music is as much about atmosphere working surreptitiously as it is about engaging the ears, heart and brains. The interest comes from unpicking the textures, layers and sounds that float by like an astronaut on a space walk.

The thing is though, that creating ignorable music makes it difficult to review. The tracks drift by like smoke and are as difficult to grip. At various stages of having these random electronic, saxophone and natural sounds filtering through my headphones I found myself searching Google to translate the titles, planning the trip we’d decided on for the day and musing on all kinds of trivial thoughts. I did, however, temporarily zone in pleasantly throughout and after 45 minutes or so I felt soothed, calm and ready to face the day.

Ambient music is also big on atmosphere at the expense of tunes. The atmosphere here is one of being alone, but not of loneliness. It’s the musical equivalent of the Northern Lights flickering - pretty, out of this world and something that people will pay to enjoy.

There’s much about ambient music that baffles me. I’m not even sure it’s music for a start, although the lonely saxophone on title track ‘Bre’ and the hypnotic meandering of ‘Ga Na’ snag the attention and offer something that might be played on middle of the night radio.

In the end this worked for me on its own, niche terms.

Taster Track : Ga Na

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