The Shamen – Hempton Manor

After many different incarnations, The Shamen‘s penultimate contribution to the world of music was with the entirely instrumental, fundamentally doped out Hempton Manor, released this week two decades ago.

Opening the album is Freya, built around a small warbly synth sequence, and clocking in at almost six minutes. It’s strange to think that this followed so soon after they were last seen chasing the charts with Axis Mutatis, and it’s not difficult to understand why their label One Little Indian found it difficult to promote this release – a fact which ultimately led to The Shamen going off to a small indie label, disappearing into obscurity, and never really being seen again.

Apparently all the titles of tracks on here are inspired by weed in some way, and so Urpflanze (“ancient plant”) is perhaps no surprise. Musically, it’s much more chilled out than its predecessor, although still driven by frenetic beats. Roughly halfway through, you do get a few reminders of some of the duo’s previous work as the countermelodies come together, but it’s still something of a departure.

In many ways, the lack of vocals helps, actually. I’m not sure lyric writing was necessarily ever The Shamen‘s strong point, but by the mid-1990s they had definitely lapsed into semi-mystic (possibly drug-addled?) drivel about crossing the Rubicon, and fun though that is, it does have its limits.

Trying to describe some of these tracks will inevitably make me look stupid. Cannabeo is a sweet drum and bass track full of electronic warblings and churning bass. On they come – after a while, Khat seems to blend into Bememe and already you’re halfway through the album.

Wikipedia, despite not containing any references, does reveal another fascinating fact about the titles on the album – it turns out they’re an acrostic, spelling out “Fuck Birket”, as a reference to their record label boss Derek Birket. The suggestion that the whole thing was intended to release them from their responsibilities therefore seems particularly likely.

Consequently, there was no single from this album – the closest they came was with the beautifully catchy Indica, which appears on their subsequent singles album The Shamen Collection and also led their promo Hemp EP, accompanied by a number of tracks which I’d assume are reworkings. It should have been a huge hit, but that was clearly never going to happen.

But if this whole release was intended as a bit of a joke at their record label’s expense, it’s still far from a waste of time as a listener – proof, were it needed, that The Shamen had a lot going for them in their day. Rausch is another chilled out piece, and Kava is certainly the closest this group had come to an acoustic track since the 1980s (possibly ever). There’s really nothing bad here.

El-Fin is, contrary to the name, the penultimate track on the album, and plods along very nicely, leading us through to the actual closing track, The Monoriff. By the end, you’re left wondering quite what went wrong for The Shamen – Axis Mutatis is great, Hempton Manor is too, UV is… questionable at best, and that was it for their career under that moniker. Or alternatively, you could just enjoy sixty minutes of great instrumental music, and not worry too much about it.

You can still find Hempton Manor through all major retailers.

Chart for stowaways – 29 October 2016

Here are this week’s top ten albums:

  1. Delerium – Mythologie
  2. C Duncan – The Midnight Sun
  3. Air – Twentyears
  4. Yello – Toy
  5. Cicero – Future Boy
  6. Shit Robot – What Follows
  7. Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise
  8. Clarke Hartnoll – 2Square
  9. I Monster – Bright Sparks
  10. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

Q Awards 2016

It may be a little late for this round-up, but I’m afraid that’s the way things go round here these days. The StubHub StubHub Q Awards took place in London on 2nd November, and these were the results. As always, the award names are ridiculously long and corporate and almost all of them were identical, but let’s go with it…

Q Best Act In The World Today, presented by The Cavern Club

  • Biffy Clyro
  • Coldplay
  • Muse
  • The 1975
  • U2

Winner: Muse

Q Best Solo Artist presented by Help Musicians UK

  • James Bay
  • Noel Gallagher
  • PJ Harvey
  • Michael Kiwanuka
  • Skepta

Winner: James Bay

Q Best Breakthrough Act, presented by Red Stripe

  • The Amazons
  • Blossoms
  • Christine and the Queens
  • Gallant
  • Jack Garratt
  • Lady Leshurr
  • Let’s Eat Grandma
  • Nothing But Thieves
  • Rat Boy
  • Spring King

Winner: Jack Garratt

Q Best Track, presented by Jack Daniel’s

  • Bastille – Good Grief
  • Catfish and the Bottlemen – Twice
  • Biffy Clyro – Howl
  • The 1975 – Somebody Else
  • Skepta – Man

Winner: Bastille

Q Best Album, presented by Absolute Radio

  • Bastille – Wild World
  • David Bowie – Blackstar
  • Christine and the Queens – Chaleur Humaine
  • Coldplay – A Head Full of Dreams
  • The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It

Winner: The 1975

Q Best Video, presented by Boxplus

  • Beyoncé – Formation
  • Coldplay – Up & Up
  • PJ Harvey – The Community of Hope
  • The 1975 – A Change of Heart
  • Wolf Alice – Lisbon

Winner: PJ Harvey

Q Best Live Act presented by StubHub

  • Coldplay
  • Muse
  • Savages
  • U2
  • Wolf Alice

Winner: U2

Q Hero, presented by Conker Spirit

Winner: Meat Loaf

Q Classic Songwriter, presented by Pretty Green

Winner: Ray Davies

Q Classic Album

Winner: The Charlatans, for Tellin’ Stories

Q Innovation In Sound

Winner: M.I.A.

Q Gibson Les Paul Award

Winner: The Edge

Q Outstanding Contribution To Music, presented by Buster & Punch

Winner: Blondie

Q Hall Of Fame, presented by StubHub

Winner: Madness

Which just about ends our awards coverage for another couple of months. You can read Q Magazine’s own coverage here.

Enigma – Le Roi est Mort, Vive le Roi!

By 1996, Michael Cretu‘s Enigma project was well established, and was nearing the end of the trilogy that he initially intended. From humble and monastic beginnings, to his mid-1990s human era, and whatever was going to come next.

His third album Le Roi est Mort, Vive le Roi! was released two decades ago this week, and represented something of a change of direction. Primarily, we’re spared a repetition of the opening from both MCMXC a.D. and The Cross of Changes, instead getting a science fiction opener about a biosphere, or something.

Morphing Thru Time, despite the ill-advised spelling, is a beautiful piece of music. You do get the feeling it’s supposed to be timeless, with its combination of choral pieces and samples, and for once Cretu’s rasping rock vocal does actually seem to fit.

The miniature third track, clocking in at just nineteen seconds, is where things get a bit confusing. It’s called Third of Its Kind, and features just the spoken lyrics “The first is the father, the second is the mother, and the third is the child.” Which is surely religious nonsense, sexist and offensive, or just plain wrong, depending on your perspective.

Opening single Beyond the Invisible is next, with Cretu’s then-wife Sandra turning up to deliver a great vocal on a truly magical track. The video which accompanied it is a sight to behold as well. It mixes into the confusingly titled Why!… (which seems to use every form of punctuation except for the right one), a dramatic but very good track. This is the single that amusingly announces, in red, “on this record there are no remixes that violate the original song.” You would almost think that Cretu was trying to make some kind of point.

Just before the halfway point, we get the adorable Shadows in Silence, a melodic and ethereal instrumental which might have benefitted from a lengthy extended version on the back of one of the singles – you can easily see how this might have been drawn out to ten minutes or so without too much pain.

Unusual for the mid-1990s, there was no vinyl release of this album (although there was a cassette, so it would be interesting to know what happened midway through), so sixth and seventh tracks can just merge into one another. The Child in Us, with its intriguing foreign language vocal, is another beautiful moment, although this time Cretu’s own vocal delivery towards the end is a bit out of character.

Arguably the most notable thing about Le Roi est Mort, Vive le Roi! though, is not the music, but the artwork, with its curious images of people with funny hats, printed on translucent material so the whole booklet merges together – it’s really quite intriguing.

Second single T.N.T. for the Brain comes next, with another vocal from Sandra. You get the sense slightly here that this wasn’t quite the sound that Cretu was going for – if this album is supposed to be the futurist one of the series, then surely he would have aimed for something much darker sounding. It’s not a criticism – for me, this album is still far and away his finest hour – but it does feel as though he didn’t quite meet his own intentions.

The spiritual instrumental Almost Full Moon follows, perhaps one of the closest tracks in sound to the Enigma we knew on the preceding two albums, and then the rumoured but unreleased third single The Roundabout, which, despite mainly being made of the lyrics “ah-yay, ah-yah,” is a very competent piece of music.

Closing the album – for the most part, at least – is a gentle choral piece, Prism of Life, which brings some of the threads together nicely. Others seem to have been left hanging – if this release was intended to have a strong overriding theme, I’d suggest it was a little confused. But if you take it purely on face value, and enjoy it for what it is, there’s some extremely good music on here.

I would always argue that Enigma‘s repetitive intro and outro pieces are a little too much for me, although hearing the intro backwards for Odyssey of the Mind is quite pleasing. This album may leave you with a few reservations, but if you close your eyes and enjoy it, it’s one of the best chillout albums that has ever appeared.

You can still find the original release of this album at all major retailers, with its rather wonderful booklet.

Chart for stowaways – 15 October 2016

These are the week’s top albums:

  1. Air – Twentyears
  2. Delerium – Mythologie
  3. Shit Robot – What Follows
  4. Cicero – Future Boy
  5. Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise
  6. Clarke Hartnoll – 2Square
  7. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
  8. I Monster – Bright Sparks
  9. Pet Shop Boys – Super
  10. New Order – Music Complete

Pet Shop Boys – Microsoft Theater, Los Angeles, 29 October 2016

Honestly, I had mixed feelings about Pet Shop Boys‘ latest album Super. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, of course, but somehow it just seems to feel like a difficult second album. 2013’s Electric was such a revitalisation, especially following just nine months after Elysium, and this latest comeback does feel a little bit like more of the same.

So I approached their latest tour with fairly low expectations, but the Halloween atmosphere at the Microsoft Theater at L.A. Live in Los Angeles was pretty upbeat, right from the start. The line for entry included plenty of hilarious costumes, including the girl dressed up as a troll doll, with her hair pretty much vertical in a cone, and, well, it would be difficult not to mention the two grown men dressed as bumblebees.

In fact, it barely took a couple of beats of Inner Sanctum before most if the audience were on their feet. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe appeared, standing in front of the Super circles and looking entirely as though they were about to have knives thrown at them. Second came West End girls, an odd choice for so early in the show, but it sounded exceptional, and getting the extra verse and a bit of a remix towards the end made all the difference.

As the night started to wear on, the party grew ever better. An unexpected rendition of In the night mixed seamlessly into the brilliant new track Burn, before we jumped back to 2013 for Love is a bourgeois construct. There were even a lot of surprises amongst the song choices. Long gone were traditional crowd pleasers such as Paninaro and Being boring – in fact there were no tracks at all from 1990’s Behaviour. But Pet Shop Boys always put on a good party, and so newer classics such as New York City boy and Se a Vida É (That’s the way life is) took their place, and went down astonishingly well.

Twenty-something was next, and the crowd – at least where I was standing – was really into it. The person behind me was enthusiastically attempting to use Shazam to find out what the song was called. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t work.

Highlights of the evening included the excellent new version of Love comes quickly, which deservedly had most of the crowd dancing and singing along, and later the brilliant and very brave quirky glitch acid version of Left to my own devices.

Of course, some moments fell flatter than others. Love etc had everyone bouncing along, just like in the original video from 2009, but somehow Neil’s delivery seemed to be letting the pace of the song down somewhat. The dictator decides, on the new album a dark and dramatic piece, didn’t quite seem to work live, and sadly neither did Inside a dream entirely, despite being one of their finest songs of recent years.

As Neil told the crowd, Pet Shop Boys have a long-held association with Los Angeles, with KROQ DJ Richard Blade having introduced them in the 1980s, and it was here that they recorded their 2012 album Elysium, which has subsequently been forgotten by all but the most die-hard fans. Even those fans bear an inexplicable hatred for the silly but fun Winner, which came next, in its infinitely better remixed form, but here, the audience just seemed to accept it as another great piece of pop.

Then the ambient version of Home and dry, which nobody really remembers any more, and which mixed into the instrumental The enigma, from their largely underperformed work charting the life of Alan Turing. Proceedings picked up again with Vocal, and then The Sodom and Gomorrah show, before excellent renditions of classics It’s a sinLeft to my own devices, and Go West.

Finally, the encores: an explosive version of Domino dancing, and a more traditional take on Always on My Mind to close. But then, somewhat inexplicably, a reprise of The Pop Kids – I think I see what they were doing here, trying to tie everything back to the beginning of the show, but I’m not sure this entirely worked as a closer.

All in all, though, a fantastic show – better than the Electric tour, which, while great, seemed to share a lot with the preceding Yes tour, and that would have been four years earlier.