Preview – Fuck Buttons

Here – have a special bonus preview! This week is so overflowing with excellent and intriguing new releases that we’ve slotted in an extra one for you!

Fuck Buttons are particularly fascinating, making regular EPs of experimental grimy electronica for several years now. From their latest album Slow Focus, this is The Red Wing. Out this week:

Preview – Front Line Assembly

It’s never a huge surprise when Front Line Assembly or a related act turn up with a new album – it must happen pretty much every week. That’s no reason not to get excited though. You can never have too much dark industrial electronica, and here’s Killing Grounds from the album Echogenetic as proof:

Apollo 440 – Dude Descending a Staircase

Time for a little debate: double albums – good or bad?

What we’ll probably end up agreeing is that sometimes they’re great; other times not so much. And this one is an equally mixed bag – ten years ago this week saw the release of Apollo 440‘s fourth album Dude Descending a Staircase. A 95-minute collection of collaborations with a wide range of artists, including rappers and rock legends, it’s certainly got a lot going for it – perhaps it just lost its way somewhere?

Four albums in, Apollo 440 had seen their moment in the limelight a couple of years earlier with the huge hits Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Dub (1997), Lost in Space (1999), Stop the Rock (1999) and Charlie’s Angels (2000). Clearly looking for something new, they then spent three years locked away before Dude Descending a Staircase (2003) turned up. It’s completely different and unexpected, which is to be applauded – I think the trouble is, it just isn’t particularly good.

The first track is also the title track, a collaboration with hip hop group The Beatnuts, which has some of Apollo 440‘s signature production sounds and some brilliant lyrics, making it pretty good all round. As with what follows, it’s pretty good, but it isn’t particularly amazing unfortunately.

The second track is one of several pleasant but unremarkable moments, Hustler’s Groove,  and as with its companions Electronic Civil Disobedience and Time is Running Out, it’s OK, but just doesn’t have anything particular to grab you and make you remember it for more than a few minutes.

Disco Sucks is better, but still not quite as exceptional as anything on the three preceding albums. You can hear some of the energy and attitude which made the group famous, but somehow not quite all of it.

The artwork is worth a special mention – as with the album as a whole it’s completely unlike anything they had done before. Also as with the album, and also the lead single, it takes inspiration from a 1912 painting by Marcel Duchamp called Nude Descending a Staircase, but instead of a psychedelic lady, it shows a cartoon cat. It’s certainly unusual.

A lot of tracks are certainly OK, and it might even be easier to like them on a more compact, better formed album. N’existe Pas and 1, 2, 3, 4 are both good tracks which fall into this category. As with roughly half of the tracks on the album, the former is actually credited to The Stealth Sonic Orchestra rather than Apollo 440, a distinction which they had never quite made to this degree. It’s difficult to know what happened here – is this album in fact a combination of what should have been two releases?

Escape to Beyond the Planet of the Super Ape originally appeared as the b-side to Charlie’s Angels 2000 three years previously, and it still had some of the energy that they seemed to have lost in the intervening period, putting it among the best of the tracks on the album. It’s an instrumental driven by dramatic pad / brass sounds, which almost sounds like a modern remix of something from the 1960s, and it’s also a lot better than any of its neighbours.

By the time the first disc closes with Children of the Future with its pleasant backing but entirely incomprehensible vocal, you could be wondering why you had actually bothered with this album in the first place, but fortunately the second disc is generally better. The opening track, Diamonds in the Sidewalk, a collaboration with, of all people, deceased author Jack Kerouac is an interesting novelty, but sadly nothing special, but after that things really kick off properly.

Something’s Got to Give is probably the best track on the album. It’s admittedly not too easy to say why, but the energy which surrounds it is considerably stronger than some of the other tracks we’ve heard up to now. The series which follow it – ChristianeExisteBulletproof Blues, and Suitcase ’88 are all strong too, showcasing a kind of progressive opera nightmare, piano and string driven reggae-pop, and harmonica and saxophone driven electro-blues, among other styles.

The final trio of tracks – Check Your EgoRope, Rapture and the Rising Sun, and Bad Chemistry are less exciting. In general, you can’t help but feel slightly that with a little selective editing (say, dropping roughly half of the album), this could have been a much better release. It’s all too easy to get a bit bored halfway through, and stop giving it your full attention.

It would be the best part of a decade before Apollo 440 would return with their near-return-to-form The Future’s What it Used to Be, and unfortunately Dude Descending a Staircase did little to cover that gap. It’s good – it just isn’t all that good.

You can find Dude Descending a Staircase here. You can also read my earlier review of their most recent album The Future’s What it Used to Be here.

Chart for stowaways – 6 July 2013

Let’s catch up with the top 10 albums:

  1. Marsheaux – Inhale
  2. Various Artists – Electric 80s
  3. Blur – The Best Of
  4. Blur – Think Tank
  5. Pet Shop Boys – Elysium
  6. Kevin Pearce – Pocket Handkerchief Lane
  7. Skywatchers – The Skywatchers Handbook
  8. Various Artists – A Just Music Sampler
  9. Various Artists – The Original Electro Album 2
  10. I Monster – Swarf

The Beloved – Late 1980s Demos

Gradually between 1987 and 1990, The Beloved made the transition from dark and gloomy eighties indie rock to a more contemporary electronic sound. This transition is marked by a number of things: an unreleased album; the single Loving Feeling; and a set of eight demos which were unexpectedly released on their official website a few years back.

Taking these in the order they appear on my iTunes playlist, because that works as well as anything else, the first is I Love You More, a demo from January 1988, complete with lots of extra cheesy synth sounds. It’s one of two tracks on their subsequent album Happiness to feature the production talents of Paul Staveley O’Duffy, later criticised by The Beloved singer Jon Marsh for his technique. It’s one of the weaker tracks on the album, but it’s extremely weak in its demo form – not a bad song, but just very badly dated now.

Much better is the next track, the never released Jackie. The style is curious, quite unlike anything The Beloved would ever release, but it also has the beginnings of a rather brilliant track. Driven by a constant piano sound and with some fairly subtle pop stylings, it really is quite unique. Honestly there’s no way it could have ever fitted on any of their later albums, but as a b-side it could have been quite excellent.

Next up is My Heart’s Desire, which really does straddle the gap between their 1987 album Where It Is and 1990’s Happiness. As a song it’s not unduly exciting, but in sound it’s much gentler than anything on the previous album, and is an extremely worthwhile exploration.

Jennifer Smiles isn’t much more exhilarating either, but the 1988 version of Your Love Takes Me Higher makes for an interesting listen. It’s clearly a work in progress, but you can hear a lot of the elements which would make up the final version, initially released the following year. The ending in particular clearly needed work.

The bright and sparkly digital synth sounds of Sally come next, with a bass line very like the one on the previous track. It’s another fairly unremarkable song, this time unusually improved by the limited production, so perhaps it could have been turned into a reasonable song.

The single biggest change of this period was that The Beloved ‘went pop’ – some of these demos have pretty introspective lyrics, an area where a lot of later songs, particularly by 1993’s Conscience, are definitely lacking.

Two Happiness demos close the collection out, both early versions from 1988. Wake Up Soon is, of course, less developed than the album version. It’s much emptier and more repetitive, so it does drag rather over its six minute duration, but many of the ingredients are there.

Finally, my favourite track from HappinessTime After Time. Like the album version, it’s the bass part which drives it onwards, although this time the slightly out-of-sync drums can be a bit distracting. But as with all demo versions, it’s fun to listen and hear the evolution of the track. If you know The Beloved, this little set of demos is definitely worth a listen.

You can find all of these on the downloads page of their official website. Specifically you need to be looking out for I Love You More, Jackie, My Heart’s Desire, Jennifer Smiles, Your Love Takes Me Higher, Sally, Wake Up Soon, and Time After Time.

Keep Shelly in Athens – Our Own Dream

You may not have come across them before, but the curiously named Keep Shelly in Athens are a Greek two-piece at the forefront of what cool people like to cool “chillwave”. Our Own Dream was the second of three EPs to date, but as always I’m a bit behind so that’s what we’ll look at today.

Lazy Noon is the first track, washing in with the sound of waves breaking on the shoreline, and building into a gentle chilled out track with plenty in common with the likes of Air and Zero 7. It’s soft, beautiful, and really a rather excellent track.

Second is the title track Our Own Dream, still very soft, but this time with a slightly harsher, more electronic edge, plodding on rather wonderfully like some kind of musical elephant. The middle section, where it arrives, is a total triumph.

The third track is a remix, not of Keep Shelly in Athens, but by them, remixing a track called California Birds by ABADABAD. It lacks the abstract beauty of the first couple of tracks, but it’s still pretty strong. A seeming trademark of throwing the whole thing into disarray at the end of the track is particularly noticeable on this one, ending as it does with what sounds like a nasty bit of skipping.

Apparently their name comes from a mispronunciation of a district in Athens, and they gathered a bit of a cult following thanks to the internet a couple of years ago. I was lucky enough to see them live last year too, and they were really very good indeed.

Track four is a piano-sample-driven track entitled DIY, which throbs along very nicely, but it’s Fairytale which really grabs your attention with its somewhat electro-Tomorrow’s World introduction and enormous snares. The vocal is particularly beautiful on this one, although as with many artists of this kind it’s buried well amongst the music, so you’d be hard pushed to work out what she’s singing about.

For the final track you get two for the price of one, the pairing of The Rogue Superhero and Ready to Pay the Price. Together, they make for a great pop track, opening with some hip hop scratching, and building into the much harsher guitar-driven second track towards the end.

If you’ve got 25 minutes to spare, listening to Our Own Dream is a very pleasant way to spend it. Browse the band’s back catalogue on iTunes and make your own mind up – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Our Own Dream EP can be found on iTunes here.