Monthly Archives: July 2013

Embrace – Drawn From Memory / Out of Nothing (2000 / 2004)

embracegif“Bands, those funny little plans, that never turn out right.” So sang Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donohue in 1998, presumably about his own relationship with his band, their problems over the years, and then their ascent to critical and crossover success at the close of a tumultuous decade. Danny from Embrace once said, of Deserter’s Songs, that he couldn’t work out if it was genius or not, but that he was obsessed with “Holes”, the song that lyric comes from. 15 years on, with the benefit of hindsight, it could very easily be about his own band.

In case you don’t know, I have a relationship with Embrace. I wrote about them in my fanzine back in 1997, and their reciprocation, and my affection for them and their music, soon made that fanzine predominantly about them. In 2000 I followed them around the country as they toured, partying backstage and getting my name on the guestlist. In 2001 I was ‘Nick Southall, Embrace fan’ on a Channel 4 documentary about the recording and release of their third album. In 2005 I wrote the sleevenotes to their b-sides compilation. In 2006 I was thanked in the sleeve of their fourth album, not for anything specific, just for being enthusiastic and helping out and emailing them a bootleg MP3 of a song they’d performed live but forgotten how to play in the studio.

In that documentary I described Drawn From Memory as “schizophrenically eclectic”, and it is, from the cartoon Technicolor of the sleeve to the kazoo solo on “Hooligan” to the spiralling riffs of “New Adam New Eve” and the crazy keyboards lashed across almost every track like Day-Glo graffiti.

For a band often maligned as Oasis-lite or lumped in with Coldplay and Snow Patrol there’s a hell of a lot of love for a hell of a lot of music evident in this record (and it’s accompanying b-sides, where many of my favourite songs by them lived); when you’ve listened as closely as I have, read the interviews, conducted the interviews, spoken with band members in depth about what they were listening to in the studio, then it seems obvious, but for some reason the press and public never quite seemed to give them the credit for the eclecticism that seemed so obvious to me. “The Love It Takes” takes moves and ideas from Frank Zappa and David Axelrod; “Hooligan” tried to tie up Jimi Hendrix to Delakota; “Yeah You” is aiming for Shudder To Think; “Save Me” wants to be Happy Mondays playing Sly & The Family Stone. There is a pair of b-sides, called “Brothers And Sisters” and “Come On And Smile”, which somehow crunch up “Gratitude” by Beastie Boys. “I Wouldn’t Wanna Happen To You” pitches itself at the same weightless pop territory as “The Only Living Boy In New York” by Simon & Garfunkel. There’s another b-side (“With The One Who Got Me Here”) which completely deconstructs its own sound-palette and ends up feeling like “Kangaroo” by Big Star as recreated with Pro Tools and a Casio. This album and its next of kin are all over the shop. Psychedelic, you could say.

Out of Nothing is a more straightforward, linear rock beast by far, but no other record has ever made me cry like it. Granted, I was in odd emotional territory for a bunch of reasons in 2004, but songs like “Keeping”, as much as I’ve barely listened to them in the last six or more years, would have me in floods of tears on a regular basis during my train commute that summer, it seemed. I recognise a little, after last year’s Olympics, that the sensation is partly one of seeing people who have struggled to follow their passion suddenly, emphatically knock it out of the park, so to speak. These days I have issues with the mixing, the sequencing, the choices that got left off (b-sides that ripped from Manitoba, Fugazi, “Thriller”, Eno), but the huge emotional resonance this record had at the time was extraordinary. I’ll never forget the comeback gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, which I watched mostly from the wings where I could see the crowd’s reaction as much as the band’s. I’ve never really experienced anything else quite like that euphoria.

I had expectations, and ambitions, and dreams, for Embrace when I was 18. I wanted them to somehow both conquer the world, and be the most exciting, innovative, expressive band there had ever been. That weight of unrealistic adolescent fantasy can never, ever be brought to life, not really. Embrace had plans, too. They wanted to be My Bloody Valentine with strings, Ride playing Curtis Mayfield songs, Al Green and Pixies and Otis Redding and Screamadelica and PJ Harvey and The Beach Boys. The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band on acid. Why wouldn’t you?

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Holden – The Inheritors

holden-inheritorsBorder Community, 2013.

Let’s write something about Holden, shall we? Wikipedia says he was born in Exeter in June 1979, which means he was almost certainly born in the same hospital as me, and which makes him three weeks younger than me. I’ve only, knowingly, heard his music for the first time about three weeks ago, despite being aware of him – as a name dropped by both musicians and critics I respect – for a decade, if not more. You can’t investigate everything at the time.

The Inheritors is an enormous record. Massive. Huge. Tectonic. Holden has talked about holidaying in the Scottish Highlands as a kid and wanting to make music that would work in that environment, and, even though this record is made almost exclusively on a gigantic modular synthesiser, that makes sense to me. I’ve connected techno or electronica or whatever you want to call it to massive landscapes since I was 17 and listening to Orbital on clifftops. I want to take this record and play it in the middle of Dartmoor. Ideally through a massive soundsystem, but just via a pair of Koss Portapros will do, at a push.

When Dan Snaith released Andorra in 2007 (one of my favourite records ever) he talked about the influence of James Holden’s production on the final two tracks, which spectacularly departed the 60s-tinged psychedelic laptop pop of the rest of the record. Specifically he talked about the idea of dance music that teetered on the edge of chaos and collapse, which pushed patterns and systems to the very threshold of tolerance. The Inheritors feels, at points, as if it goes ever so slightly beyond that threshold. I’m obsessed by it.

This modular synthesiser, which Holden played as part of the Caribou Vibration Ensemble at All Tomorrow’s Parties in December 2011, and which is the size of a garden shed, produces a sound so massive and rich and full of reverberation, so compelling and overwhelming at the same time, that it threatens to break your head open from the inside with the sheer, unnatural weight of sound. At times it is on the absolute cusp of being unbearable to me sonically, especially when Holden is pumping weird sub-percussion alongside it via a massive dose of side-chaining, and the entire sound, like some throbbing beast, pulses in and out of itself (see, or rather hear, “Sky Burial” for evidence of what I mean). But other moments, like the opening bodhran percussion of “The Caterpillar’s Intervention”, are, by contrast, incredibly tangible and real, rendered with bizarre naturalism. Add then torn apart by streams of semi-chaotic jazz saxophone. Astonishingly.

On headphones, especially very good Austrian ones running off a dedicated headphone amplifier, it sounds absolutely extraordinary, the soundstage moving in subtle ways that you’d barely perceive if it was pumping through speakers. The dappling repetitions of “The Illuminations” disintegrate at the edges, the aural equivalent of bokeh in a photograph, when you deliberately throw lights out of focus to get that beautiful, evocative blur of colour. The sound smears itself through your skull the same way.

At 75 minutes and 15 songs, The Inheritors isn’t just big sonically, it’s also a monolith of a record to get to grips with. I could maybe do without the middle passage, from “Sky Burial” through “Delabole”, where Holden seems to let his synthesiser experimentations meander just that touch too far away from melody and rhythm, but the likes of “Renata” and “Gone Feral” and the title track are so good, so compelling, so exciting, that I’ll let his playfulness pass. Especially when it also results in tracks like “Some Respite”, which does indeed offer some respite after monolithic, physically tiring synth excursions, and “Self-Playing Schmaltz”, which has melodies played, Eno-like, by a “quantizied 3-LFO Chaotic System” rather than by a human being.

And then there is “Blackpool Late Eighties”, which is a gargantuan, crepuscular flight through trailing taillights and memories, huge rolling synthesiser arpeggios tapestried with beatific xylophone melodies and driven forward on linear, mechanised rhythms. It’s about the best thing I’ve heard all year.

James Holden seems to be, to steal an idea from Kurt Vonnegut, part of a musical karass that also contains Kieron Hebden and Dan Snaith and maybe Jon Hopkins and probably loads of other people too. It’s too disparate to call a ‘scene’, too diverse to call a ‘genre’. It amuses me that these four are all about the same age as me. I’m not sure why.