Bent – The Everlasting Blink

Fifteen years ago this week, the brilliant Bent released their second proper album The Everlasting Blink, which took the charts by gentle nudge in early 2003. Since they’re definitely one of your favourite Nottingham-based chillout electronica acts, this seems a worthwhile anniversary to celebrate.

It had been a couple of years since the minor success of debut Programmed to Love, but relatively little seemed to have changed in Bent‘s world, and they were still able to craft beautiful, elegant chillout music, as the lovely opening track King Wisp ably demonstrates. But nothing is ever quite what it seems, as Mozart makes an appearance in this track.

Next is the adorable An Ordinary Day, full of analogue chirps and built around a vocal by Lena Martell, it’s really rather brilliant. This was, of course, the same year that Röyksopp‘s Melody AM broke the charts, and there are definitely certain commonalities between the two albums. This one did not, unfortunately, sell quite as well, but it’s every bit as accomplished.

Next is a Nana Mouskouri sample for the equally adorable Strictly Bongo, which carries the album gently onwards. But track four is the big surprise, and as I recall this was the reason I started listening to Bent in the first place. I was in a little independent record shop (remember them?) just browsing, and suddenly I heard the voice of one of my favourite singers, Jon Marsh of The Beloved. Knowing that they hadn’t released anything new for several years, I was intrigued. I asked the shop assistant what it was, and bought the album then and there.

The thing with Beautiful Otherness isn’t that it was Jon Marsh‘s first vocal performance for a number of years, though – it’s that it’s absolutely fantastic. The rippling piano, drifting lyrics, and generally perfect mood are what set this track apart. I never realised until researching this that Stephen Hague had a hand in it too, which of course helps. It deserved to be a huge hit single, but that was never to be.

After that, anything was going to be a bit anticlimactic, and sure enough, there isn’t really anything wrong with Moonbeams – it’s very pleasant, in fact, with its pedal steel guitar work – but it does suffer by not quite being Beautiful OthernessToo Long Without You gets closer, as it cleverly samples two different songs by Billie Jo Spears, and works very nicely indeed.

Exercise 3 is joyful and fun, if a little silly, and then we get the first of the two singles, Stay the Same, which was actually Bent‘s biggest hit, peaking at number 59 in July 2003, although unfortunately with a vastly inferior single version. It’s a beautiful song, drawing heavily on a David Essex song from 1974, but rather than sticking to his original slightly naff country delivery, it’s been stripped, re-timed, and turned into a great pop vocal. Clever stuff.

Magic Love was the second single, another beautiful track built around something much older, and then we get the gentle title track The Everlasting Blink, with a bit more pedal steel guitar on it. Then the last track is the short Thick Ear, closing the album sweetly and softly.

Except that isn’t the end – here, Bent bring us not one, not two, but three bonus tracks – 12 Bar Fire BluesWendy, and Day-Care Partyline, none of which were ever going to completely  change your world, but it’s nice to have them on here anyway to round things out.

The Everlasting Blink is a great second album, with a number of exquisite songs – but what happened next was better still – the follow-up, Aerials, which appeared the following year, is by far Bent‘s finest hour.

You can still find The Everlasting Blink at all major music retailers.

Why all albums should have two sides

You’ll probably have seen me before referring to albums as having a Side A and Side B. Clearly this is an odd vestige of the days when we had to physically turn vinyl records over for ourselves, or when cassette decks cleverly engaged their auto-reverse function to play continually for up to 120 minutes at a time (if you were foolish enough to buy 120 minute tapes, anyway).

Or is it? I must confess, it does seem strange in the age of downloads to refer to albums as having two sides. But then, in the age of streaming, which we are now infallibly moving towards, it’s also pretty odd to have a concept of “albums”.

Up until the early 1990s, the LP was by far the most popular format for purchasing music, and it was this that made the album what it is. Prior to the existence of the LP, music was listened to in little four-minute snatches, as you flexed your muscles and turned over the extremely heavy 78 which was playing on your gramophone player.

But that’s not quite true. Before that, music had evolved from a profusion of odd individual songs sung around the fireside (probably) to full-length concertos. Richard Wagner was writing epic operas which had to be performed over several days. Mozart was penning whole performances. But these performances would have often been split with an interval or two in the middle, and they all had one thing in common: a structure.

So in a way, it was inevitable that the LP would also have a structure. And this forced artists to work around its limitations in innovative ways. It wouldn’t be long before double album opuses came along, and artists like Yazoo were ending their albums with a repeating groove, making the music go on for ever. Progressive artists like Pink FloydKraftwerk and Jean Michel Jarre put a long track on one side with a selection of shorter ones on the other. Mike Oldfield designed his whole albums around the two-side limitation. There are plenty of other examples.

What started to happen in the early 1990s was that artists pushed the boundaries fairly gently for the most part, and there was still generally a structure, although exceptions did start to appear. But by the mid-1990s, the limitation was only what you could fit on a compact disc – initially 74 minutes, and then later 80, and occasionally even more than that.

This was liberating for many artists – Erasure‘s eponymous 1995 album is a brilliant example of this, but then it is effectively just an extended LP. Dance acts such as The Shamen, The Future Sound of London and The Orb were using the lack of limitations to build a whole sonic environment, free of the shackles of having to turn the disc over half way through. Except that’s not entirely true – all of the above artists put out double albums at some stage, proving that the concept of a Side A and Side B was still living strong.

Less structured albums, such as some of those by Moby or any pop act you care to mention. Which is not to say there’s anything particularly wrong with these albums, although the worst examples are those which appear with different tracks in different territories – to me this only proves that it doesn’t matter what order they’re listened to.

But we now live in an age where there really is no limitation on the length of an album. Live performances in particular have benefitted from the ability to release a full set without having to add a gap halfway through. Although a lot of artists are still self-editing, and sticking to the CD or LP constraints.

The most interesting trend of recent years to me, though, is the fact that albums seem to be getting shorter again. Releases in recent years by Erasure and Goldfrapp, among others,  have lasted as little as half an hour. And that’s a good thing. Of course an album should be allowed to find its natural length, without being cut too short or dragging on for too long.

But it should also have two sides. The constraint that places is a mechanism that forces the   artist to think about building a particular structure, and giving the album a particular shape. A good artist will do this anyway; but I’d maintain that any act would benefit from it. Quite simply, it’s the way things should be. And that is why all albums should have two sides.

Introducing Kyma

Our guest unsigned act this week is Colchester-based solo “hobby musician” Neil Alderson, better known as Kyma. He describes his music as intelligent, mellow electronica, blended with real and organic instruments.

Having started with childhood piano and guitar lessons, Neil started writing songs in an alternative rock band in the late 1990s. His solo work started under the name Karma Police, taking inspiration from the Radiohead song, and kicking off with the album Swept Away (2003). Finding that too many people assumed he was going to be a Radiohead tribute act, he randomly came across the word Kyma (the Greek word for ‘wave’) from a Google search.

The first track we’ll be listening to today is Lost Sands:

It is a great instrumental with a wonderfully chilled out feeling, with gentle pads and strings backed up with soft oriental sounds, and steadily builds to a point half way through where everything breaks down and you realise you’ve just lost a huge throbbing bass as well. Things build again throughout the second half, hitting a point which I can only describe as trippy oriental dub. Fantastic.

Next up is Crystallized:

This one has a bit of an X Files feel for me, with its rippling piano part and a bass line fresh out of the 1990s (that’s a good thing). After Lost Sands this is a great contrast, and proves that Kyma can handle a good range of styles.

Third and last for this set is Angels Breathe, from 2004:

Opening with a distinctly wobbly vinyl effect, this piano-driven track is the only one in this set to include vocals, from a somewhat ethereal sounding lady. I can’t help but feel she’s a little clouded by the effects, but you can hear echoes of Delerium (that’s a very good thing).

Here are some highlights from Kyma‘s answers to my largely daft and unprofessional questions. He was particularly notable, in that his answers were among the best that I received from any of my guests…

What’s your favourite synth, and why?

Well it’s not really an easy thing to pick out an absolute favourite because I am always changing which synths I use and quite often each project will have a completely different rack of synths in the sequencer depending on what sound or theme I’m trying to develop. A number of tracks are born out of me literally randomly picking a synth or trying out something I’ve downloaded and randomly picking another one until I get a layer of sound that I like. I guess I have a few “fallback” synths, namely, FM7, Alchemy, Chimera, Microtonic, If you had asked me 10 years ago I probably would have included Greenoaks Crystal on that list too, not used it much in recent years though. I’m an advocate of freeware synths and I like finding a good freeware synth before resorting to paid for. (That could also be because I’m a cheapskate more than anything though!)

Rearrange the following into the correct order: The Beatles, Justin Bieber, Mozart, Kraftwerk.

Mozart, The Beatles, Kraftwerk.

Mozart has to be top really, a pioneer of his time and technically superior to the rest. The Beatles second, no one can deny the impact The Beatles had on music and they’re just so damn catchy! You probably would have thought being an electronic artist I would pick Kraftwerk as top but in my opinion the other two really made a bigger impact in general, as much as I respect what Kraftwerk did for electronica specifically.

And as for the other one, I’m not even going to sully my keyboard by typing out his name let alone let him onto my list!

Which (existing) movie would have benefitted your music on the soundtrack?

An interesting question… I have no idea! Well I’ve always been inspired by the Blade Runner soundtrack but I think it is already perfect so I would never think I could replace it, not in a million years! But maybe you could slip one or two of my tracks in there to sit alongside Vangelis‘ amazing work? But even then, the quality difference would show (obviously I mean just how bad the quality of Vangelis‘ work is compared to mine… obviously)

Thanks very much to Kyma for agreeing to appear here and for providing such great answers to my daft questions! If you want to hear more, head to his Soundcloud page.