Thursday, 24 November 2016

Death Disco

VICTORIES AT SEA - Birmingham Sunflower Lounge

When you go to a gig, what do you expect from it? Do you just want the band to replicate the sound of the record note for note? Many fans would be perplexed if they saw a band live for the first time and got something different from what they're used to. But to a regular gig-goer it can seem pointless if the live show is totally predictable. However, I admit that I sometimes find myself in the reverse situation - coming away from a gig with a record only to discover that it doesn't capture the live sound. This was the case with Birmingham band Victories At Sea and their album "Everything Forever", released on Static Caravan in 2015. I bought the album after seeing them support Moon Duo back in July and on first listen it seemed to be dominated by synths, its polished production a million miles from the intensity of the live shows I'd seen from them up to that point.

Closer inspection revealed that live and on record, the same influences prevail - most notably early Factory Records bands and other electronic post-punk acts. It's just that Victories Of Sea use different aspects of those influences depending on the situation. Most reviews I've seen of the record make reference to New Order and if asked which album in particular springs to mind when I hear "Everything Forever", it would have to be the disco hedonism of "Technique". But there is nothing about Victories At Sea's live set that comes anywhere close to disco. Occasional nods to New Order can still be spotted but it's to their earlier, more introverted work. There are also hints at Section 25's debut LP and even abrasive textures reminiscent of early Cabaret Voltaire.

I've recently written about how the style in which a song is delivered can change the listener's interpretation. Although the lyrics could relate to a recent heartbreak, the overall feel of the album is one of optimism. Many of the songs suggest picking yourself up, making the most of the good things in life to help you move on. The lead track "Bloom", with its refrain of "So hold on..." and advice to "bury yourself in good times", could be played while getting ready for a night out with a group of friends who have convinced you that a spot of clubbing is what you need to lift your spirits. But when heard live, secondary lyrics such as "Keeping up appearances but falling down" dominate, highlighting the distinctions between expectation and reality - in relationships or life in general.

This theme crops up again on the Depeche Mode-like "Up". Opening line "Just give me air, the rush, the beat, the sound" suggests the joys of clubbing, but live there is something more menacing about it. I suddenly notice the "cruelty, despair, with no one else around", a reminder of how claustrophobic the nightclub experience can actually be. Everyone seems to be having a good time except you, it's too loud to have a meaningful conversation and you wish you'd stayed at home to work on your blog instead. This outsider feeling, the reluctance to conform with what is considered a "good night out" radiates from the band's onstage demeanour. It's clear that a lot of planning went into the record to get all the components to fit together neatly but free of the confines of the studio, the band members all seem keen to do their own thing. They barely acknowledge each other during the set and it seems that just by sheer chance the three elements coalesce to form a glorious chaotic whole. It's difficult for the audience to decide which of the musicians to focus on but at first, all attention is on frontman John-Paul White. For the majority of the set he is thrashing all flavours of hell out of his guitar, a guitar that barely gets a look-in under the slick production of the record. It also becomes clear what a powerful voice he has, sometimes hitting high notes that suggest traumas a man of his youthful age should not have experienced. His melodious delivery on the album reminds me of Stockholm Monsters' early singles on Factory but on stage there is more than a hint of Mark Burgess of The Chameleons.

The credits on the album don't make it clear who plays what and you could be forgiven for thinking that the beats are from a drum machine, or whatever the equivalent technology is called these days. But extra intensity is generated by having live percussion alongside programmed rhythms. With their regular drummer on holiday, Martin Cleveley has been drafted in from a band called Repeat Of Last Week, another act I clearly need to check out. Martin's energy reminds me of a young Stephen Morris and his performance in the classic "Transmission" video in particular.

Steven Edgehill's simultaneous handling of bass and synths has a feel of other current post-punk/disco hybrids such as Factory Floor, but also recalls much earlier innovators. This is most apparent in the pulsing krautrock rhythms of "Swim", the song on the album that has always struck me as coming closest to the live sound. Up to this point the lyrical themes could be linked to personal relationships, but there is now a realisation that much worse things are happening to the world as a whole. Although written two years ago, "We are the people lost at sea, we are the people who have lost our way" seems to have foretold the current state of both the UK and US. With society itself falling apart, attempts at either repairing or moving on from a failed relationship seem trivial and I suspect Victories At Sea may soon move into this darker territory on record as well as live.

After seven songs from "Everything Forever" and two from the EP "In Memory Of..." JP announces that this will be the band's last show for a while as they are heading back to the studio. They close the set with a new number, shown as "Aldous" on the set list. This is, I'm sure, a reference to "Brave New World" - a book I imagine to have a very bleak outlook but I must confess to never having read it. It's always a bold move to end on a new song, doubly so in this case when it's different from everything that has preceded it. "Aldous" sounds as desolate as anything on Joy Division's final album but with another 36 years of suffering thrown in.

Having seen the band live several times then listened closely to the lyrics on the album, the live set makes more sense this time around. When I mention this to JP after the show, he thanks me for reading the words as many people don't bother to do this. I know this should not come as a surprise and I realise that everyone appreciates music in their own way but with a band such as Victories At Sea, it's vital to become familiar with their many facets to get the full effect of the songs. With downloads and streaming making music so disposable, many consumers don't take the time to find the full story and I feel they are missing out. Things come full circle when I get home and play the album again, and notice that some of the anger witnessed tonight is actually present within its grooves and the guitars are actually there if you listen out for them. I only see this now the optimistic bubble has been burst. With 2016 having been such a terrible year for us all, I'm eager to see how this will inspire Victories At Sea's next set of recordings. Based on tonight's performance and the tone of the new song, I'm not expecting their second album to be a cheery affair but I'm sure it will be stunning nevertheless.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

In My Motorcycle Mirror I Think About The Life I've Led


I've been a little slow off the mark writing about this album. I've had it for a month and by now, those of you with any interest in the Pixies will have played it to death and formed your own opinions. Then there are those who have made a conscious decision to avoid it. I understand your reasons for doing that and I doubt that anything I say will persuade you otherwise.

For a lot of music fans, once they hit their mid-30s their listening will be based around nostalgia to a greater or lesser extent. Even for those such as myself who still consume a huge amount of new music, we often claim that the most important bands are those we listened to in our formative years. We all have songs that are tied in with key moments in our past and as we get older we experience fewer life changes, making it harder to find something in our minds to attach the music to. So if a favourite band reforms, we approach with trepidation, especially if there is new material that's likely to trample all over their legacy. But if we're honest, maybe we also want to leave the classic songs in the past. If we hear them played live now, we might have to admit that we're in a different place in our lives and the music will lose the meaning it once held.

There are also acts who have what is considered a classic line-up and if a reformation is lacking just one original member then fans will not think of it as the same band. The 21st century version of the Pixies has fallen foul of all the issues described here, with many listeners turned off by the awkward mess found on the three EPs that made up 2014's "Indie Cindy". Add to that the departure of iconic bassist Kim Deal and the result is apathy from much of their original fan base. "No Kim, no deal" as one friend put it when I asked if he would be going to any of the forthcoming live shows.

It will take a lot to win back my faith after "Indie Cindy" but as this is the Pixies, I'm willing to give them a chance. It's clear from the outset that they've learnt from recent mistakes. Black Francis opens the album with his trademark barked vocals, reminiscent of 1989's "Tame", and new bassist Paz Lenchantin proves that she's a more than adequate replacement for Kim Deal. This might lose me a few friends but I don't agree with those who say that the bass is an integral part of the Pixies' style. Although Deal undoubtedly provided a solid backbone for the songs, I've always felt that their classic sound was built around a contrast of melody and ferocity, with the savage vocals set against Joey Santiago's surf guitar. That balance was lacking on "Indie Cindy" and it took its cues from "Trompe Le Monde", their last and weakest album of the '90s. But with the guitar back at the forefront, this album has the feel of summer that I always associated with the band. Something else that the last album lacked was memorable songs, but here we see a return to the accessible yet still edgy style of "Doolittle" and after just one play, "Oona", "Classic Masher" and "Might As Well Be Gone" are already stuck in my head. Although the overall vibe picks up where "Doolittle" left off, there are also hints at the first mini-LP "Come On Pilgrim". The standout track is ‘Um Chagga Lagga’, effortlessly tearing the last 20-odd years to shreds and coming across like the bastard son of "Nimrod's Son". (Which I guess makes it "Nimrod's Grandson".)

When listening to a record for the first time, I pay great attention to the lyrics. Those who have read my album reviews might say that I put too much effort into finding meanings that were not intended by the artist or twisting the lyrical themes to fit whichever personal trauma I'm having on the day of writing. But with the Pixies' songs, I've never been able to do this. In my mind, the band have always been inextricably linked with David Lynch although as far as I'm aware the only connection is that they once covered the song "In Heaven" from "Eraserhead". I like to think that their albums have several stories going on beneath the surface, interlocked in a way that we can never hope to understand. The back cover artwork of "Head Carrier" includes a list of characters and places, most of which feature in the lyrics although some are only referred to obliquely. This could easily be the cast list of a Lynch movie. Be honest, can anyone really explain the plot of "Mulholland Drive"? This record is equally unfathomable and much of the enjoyment is based around convincing yourself that there is something happening just out of sight. I imagine the "head carrier" or "cephalaphore" of the title to be something like the otherworldly Bob in "Twin Peaks" and with a new series of that show imminent, the timing couldn't have been better for this release.

Despite the Lynchian mystery, there are some moments of personal reflection and self-analysis, more so than on any previous Pixies release. I see these as being like the romantic relationships that attempt to add some semblance of normality to a Lynch film. I can't be alone in thinking that Francis is referring to the whole of the previous album when he sings the line "What a waste of talent", and this is emphasised by Santiago letting rip immediately afterwards with possibly his greatest solo ever, just to highlight what was missing. Not surprisingly, there is some reminiscing about the original incarnation of the band. "Might As Well Be Gone" seems to lament a failed attempt to recreate past glories, while the most unsettling moment comes in the form of "All I Think About Now", a song which seems somehow out of place with the rest of the album. I can't quite get to grips with Paz Lenchantin singing words that were apparently written by Black Francis as a thank you/apology to Kim Deal. Up to this point everything has seemed natural but suddenly they seem to be trying too hard to sound like the "old" Pixies, and the result is a bit too close to "Where Is My Mind?" for comfort. The song, particularly the line "I try to think about tomorrow but I always think about the past", leaves a feeling of intense sadness. I can't decide whether this is simply disappointment at the song's blatant attempt to ape past triumphs, or because it reminds me of my own past - leaving school and the life decisions I had to make at the time "Doolittle" came out. Despite being in two minds over whether the album would be better without it, I find myself going back to this song more than the others, in the same way that I churn over past events in my head. "If I could go to the beginning, then for sure I would be another way."
I imagine that at some point in the near future there will be more new material but I actually feel that "Head Carrier" would be the ideal point to put the Pixies into retirement and leave their legacy intact. Apart from the minor misgivings over one or two songs, on the whole I feel they have produced a worthy follow-up to "Doolittle", finally paid off the 25-year debt. In early December I will keep my side of the bargain and finally see them live for the first time. Then maybe we can all move on with our lives.