no-man, Tim Bowness and Love You To Bits

(Originally published in Issue 60 of Electronic Sound magazine, December 2019)

no-man

MAN ALIVE

Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson are back with the first no-man album since 2008… and it’s a return to their electronic roots, soundtracking a tale of tragic, fractured romance

Words: Bob Fischer

“In some ways, it’s the Star Trek mirror universe version of a traditional electropop love song,” says Tim Bowness, no-man‘s frontman. “With me as the evil Kirk, obviously.”

He’s talking about the opening section to Love You to Bits, the first no-man album in eleven years, and perhaps their most intensely conceptual to date: it consists of two, side-long suites (‘Love You to Bits’ and ‘Love You to Pieces’) that explore the tragic aftermath of a broken relationship from both parties’ perspectives, with a musical palette that leans heavily towards their synth-pop roots, albeit with typically eclectic diversions: there are strong nods to classic disco, 1990s dance and Eno-esque ambient pop, and even an elegiac brass band workout. It’s an album that has been seemingly nagging at the affable, thoughtful Bowness and his long-term musical partner Steven Wilson for decades.

“This album has its origins in that opening electropop piece, and that was written in 1994,” he explains. “Just as [second album] Flowermouth had been released, we were in a very optimistic state of mind, and we wrote two pieces. One of them was the beginnings of ‘Love You to Bits’, and the other was a track that eventually ended up on [2001 album] Returning Jesus, called ‘Lighthouse’. Both of them were in their infancy at that stage, short song fragments really, but in both cases we had quite ambitious ideas. So when we’d written Love You to Bits, immediately both of us thought… actually, this could be developed along the lines of something like the Georgio Moroder/Donna Summer disco epics of the 1970s. If you like, an electropop song with ideas above its station.”

Love You to Bits was then developed over probably a period of 20 years, when we’d occasionally add to it, occasionally subtract from it, and there’d be various versions that would last anywhere between four and twelve minutes. The idea emerged again when Steven was mixing my last solo album, Flowers at the Scene… suddenly we had the appetite for it. And we thought – why don’t we finally make it what we always wanted it to be?”

no-man-band

The 30-year story of no-man, and the parallel individual careers of both Bowness and Wilson, makes for one of the most fascinatingly esoteric journeys in recent British musical history. Initially signed by One Little Indian, their 1993 debut album Loveblows & Lovecries – A Confession combined synth-heavy dream-pop and proto trip-hop to critical acclaim (Melody Maker described them as “conceivably the music important English group since The Smiths”), but its more experimental follow-up Flowermouth – despite improved sales and further plaudits – led to them being dropped from the label. “We opened the album with a ten-and-a-half minute rhythmless piece, and within the minute, the budget for our video had gone,” chuckles Tim.

Since then, Wild Opera [1996], Returning Jesus [2001], Together We’re Stranger [2003] and the sublime Schoolyard Ghosts [2008] have combined elements of jazz, prog, chamber-pop, electronica and various musical equivalents of the proverbial kitchen sink with immaculately seamless aplomb; and Bowness’ wistful lyricism and seductive vocals have provided a consistent touchstone. Both partners have enjoyed acclaim and success in their own right – Wilson as leader of prog goliaths Porcupine Tree, Bowness with the similarly experimental Henry Fool – as well as boasting a combined total of ten solo albums, again with a dizzying array of eclectic musical influences.

So an ambitious sense of scope is a quality that has never been lacking in their output, and if the music of Love You to Bits takes a cinematic approach – and the haunting, hymnal motif and spiralling string arrangements that recur throughout the album certainly evoke the work of the duo’s beloved John Barry – then the storyline too, detailing that devastating break-up in heartbreaking detail (“Leaving the lights on / Playing the old songs / Take midnight refuge in the past”) has similarly filmic origins.

“I quite liked the idea of looking at a relationship from… actually, three perspectives in a way,” explains Tim. “The two people who are involved in the relationship, plus that one perspective that’s shared. Where you can’t communicate, but you feel the same thing. And certainly during the time that the original songs were conceived, I was nearing the end of what had been quite a long-term relationship, so there’d have been elements of that feeding into the lyric. I’d also seen a film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor [Divorce; His, Divorce; Hers, a 1973 TV movie] that was quite fascinating, in that it looked at the collapse of a marriage from both sides.”

“There was a line that I read in a Marguerite Duras book years ago…. I’m not even sure whether it’s true, but its supposedly a French aphorism: ‘In all relationships, there is the lover and the loved’. And in some ways I find that profoundly depressing. That was also some source of inspiration… that maybe, when we’re in the midst of extraordinarily deep, vivid feelings, perhaps it’s more one-sided than we think. Because you can never fully know how the mind of your partner works. So there was an aspect of that as well, attempting to crawl inside both minds. One of the characters is the lover, and the other is the loved… and is far more casually involved in the relationship. But there are shared feelings despite that.”

divorce-his

The album’s title is subtly and succinctly representative of the touching nature of this lyrical journey. “I love you to bits / I love you to pieces / I love like I don’t love you at all,” sings Bowness, and a phrase commonly used as a glib reassurance of affection suddenly takes on alarmingly destructive qualities. “It’s a banal title, but I liked its potentially cruel dual meaning,” he explains. “I’d like to think that both the lyrics and music have developed something unexpected and distinctive out of very simple and ordinary starting points. Finding personal meaning and creative possibilities in the seemingly trivial…”

It’s a starkly emotional approach that seems to have its roots in the similarly raw solo work of one of his earliest musical heroes; Van Der Graaf Generator‘s Peter Hammill.

“Peter Hammill’s work got to me at a certain stage in my life,” confirms Tim. “I had a fairly miserable adolescence, and music, film and literature very much became a comfort to me. And one of the albums at that stage that really spoke to me was Peter Hammill’s Over [1977], which was all about the ending of certain relationships. He’d ended a long-term relationship with somebody called Alice, so half of the songs seemed to relate to that, but it was also about parents whose children leave home, about dealing with death… everything on the album was about something being over. And when I was 15, it was one of the most played albums in my collection, because it was so unflinchingly open.”

“And I guess in some ways it gave me the freedom to express intense emotions musically, because there had been so much honesty and openness in his work. So that was how I got into it… that album, and Van Der Graaf Generator’s Pawn Hearts [1971]. I found them both incredibly cheap one Saturday in Manchester and took them home, and by the time Match of the Day was on, I was a committed fan of them both.”

no-man are a band with curious origins; formed in 1987 when teenage musical entrepreneur Wilson read, in the pages of a fanzine, about Bowness’ work with Liverpool art-pop band Plenty, and wrote to his future musical partner, requesting a contribution to a DIY compilation album he was assembling. The ensuing phone call provided the basis for an enduring friendship. “We had a four-hour conversation on the phone,” remembers Tim. “I was based in Cheshire, he was based in Hemel Hempstead, and in the conversation we assassinated what we hated about contemporary music, eulogised what we loved, and then decided to meet up. And for one weekend in every month, we would meet at his studio in his parents’ house. He was still about 17 or 18 at this stage, and I would travel from Cheshire to Hemel Hempstead, and we would just write material.”

“From the off, it was a fantastic relationship. Again, that first time we met, we talked for about four hours. It could be anything – books, music and films that inspired us – and then we set about writing. And I think because both of us had extraordinarily eclectic tastes, anything went. And so within the first hour of meeting Steven, we wrote a seven-minute epic ballad that set a certain template for no-man, and we wrote a two-and-a-half-minute, extremely vicious – almost punk – funk piece. And then, over the next year and a half, I went there every month and we built up 30 or 40 songs.”

“The one thing that was always great about Steven – and still is – was that we could talk about anything without embarrassment, in terms of our musical taste. Donna Summer being a great example. Both of us would have loved the Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder productions of the 1970s. These were things that we thought we were fantastic pieces of art, and still do.”

Summer’s purple patch of late 1970s concept albums are a recurring feature of our conversation, and it’s easy to imagine how works like 1976’s Four Seasons of Love – detailing the year-long progression of a relationship that blossoms, blooms and ultimately fades – went into the melting pot of inspiration for Love You to Bits, both conceptually and musically. At one stage, the opening suite of no-man’s album clicks into a delicious, old school disco groove, all hi-hat and strutting bass, the very epitome of what Mark Ronson recently pithily described as “sad bangers”. The combination of the boldly creative and the unashamedly commercial, arguably at its peak during this particular mid-1970s sweet spot, is one that the duo have always seemed keen to explore.

“The mid-1970s to mid-1980s were our formative pop-loving years, and I think it was an exciting time to be brought up, because what you had was what I always refer to as the ‘creative mainstream’,” says Tim. “You had mainstream artists, whether it was Roxy Music, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Prince, Chic, even Fleetwood Mac… who were extraordinarily gifted and they were making music that communicated to millions: immaculately produced and beautifully written, but also heartfelt and creative. There were a lot of examples of truly groundbreaking music that was commercially communicative and quite experimental at the same time.”

“I think that’s always been a driving force in the music Steven and I have created, however old-fashioned that idea might be. Because I do think that since that point, you’ve had a far greater division between experimental music and commercial music. I suppose for us we always wanted to make music that managed to communicate in a big way, but also had genuine heart and a genuine sense of adventure.”

Love You to Bits succeeds spectacularly in both respects; the album is an affecting emotional journey as well as a focused, eminently accessible distillation of the diverse musical influences that the duo are always proud to acknowledge: in a subsequent e-mail, Tim is keen to namecheck Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Ashra, Jean-Michel Jarre, The Orb, Massive Attack and Underworld as further inspirations during the album’s gestation.

But, perhaps most importantly of all, it transcends these influences to sound specifically, and affectingly, like no-man.

“The writing was very spontaneous and organic and I genuinely hope that we’ve managed to create something uniquely no-man out of a collection of myriad disparate inspirations,” concludes Tim. “When it comes down to it, we always go with what feels right, and the writing and recording process is about realising our ideas and fulfilling our particular emotional needs.”

You have to love them. Although perhaps go easy on the bits and pieces.

Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” – is published monthly, and available here:

https://electronicsound.co.uk/

Electronic Sound: Reviews (Issue 60)

Reviews originally published in Issue 60 of Electronic Sound magazine, December 2019:

VARIOUS ARTISTS
Scarred For Life
(Castles In Space)

In 2017, square-eyed writers Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence published Scarred For Life, a doorstep-sized paperback detailing the terrifying TV shows, films, comics, and – indeed – ice lollies that had blighted their 1970s childhoods. Count Dracula’s Secret, anyone? Now, musician and fellow telly addict Kev ‘Soulless Party’ Oyston has assembled luminaries from the hauntological world to produce material inspired by their own jumbled memories of the era, for an accompanying album whose proceeds are laudably heading to Cancer Research UK.

So Cult of Wedge contribute ‘The Gamma Children’, clearly the theme to some long-lost, spooky HTV series, almost certainly starring Simon Gipps-Kent; Pulselovers’ wistful ‘Nice View From Up Here’ is an homage to legendary Public Information Film stalwarts Joe and Petunia; and The Twelve Hour Foundation’s ‘Belmont’ is so redolent of some godforsaken daytime BBC Schools and Colleges module that it should, by rights, only be heard through the tinny speaker of a Rediffusion TV in a wooden cabinet. For extra verisimilitude, follow it up with ‘Programmes For Sick Days’ by The Bentley Emerald Learning Resource, which may be the finest-ever musical evocation of staring through a rain-soaked window while applying calamine lotion to chickenpox blisters.

Meanwhile, Vic Mars’ ‘The Time Menders’ is a bombastic, Farfisa-drenched nod to Sapphire and Steel; and The Central Office of Information contribute ‘Puzzled’, which sounds for all the world like the theme to some forgotten, pre-teatime BBC1 quiz show: I defy anyone over the age of forty to hear it without picturing cheering cub scouts, BBC Micro graphics, and Richard Stilgoe in a pastel-shaded sweatshirt.

There’s a poignant contribution too, from early synth enthusiast Carl Matthews, whose 1984 track ‘Be Like A Child’ rounds off the album. Carl’s life was tragically cut short by cancer, but he leaves an impressive body of work, including this wonderfully wistful piece; a delightfully analogue-sounding recording from a man who blazed a trail as a pioneer of the original era of cassette-based DIY electronica.

Elsewhere, Keith Seatman, Polypores, The Home Current and The Heartwood Institute join the fun… and terrific fun it is, too. To be listened to with a slight temperature, and a note from your mum excusing you from games.

Available here:

https://scarredforlife.bandcamp.com/album/scarred-for-life

Interview with Kev Oyston here:

https://hauntedgeneration.co.uk/2019/11/30/scarred-for-life-kev-oyston-and-memories-of-1970s-tv/

THE HOME CURRENT
An Evening With The Home Current
(Castles In Space)


Can there be any more prolific and versatile composer of electronica than Martin Jensen? Danish-born, but now resident in Luxembourg, Jensen has produced four full-length albums and one mini-album in the last six months alone; running the gamut from the spiky 80s electropop of Civilian Leather to the poignant, wartime reflections of The Ardennes. This latest release, however, is a heartfelt homage to the late 1980s and early 1990s dance music that soundtracked his youthful adventures as a club DJ.

Composed from scratch as a seamless, hour-long mix, it acts as a companion piece to November’s Palermo Traxx Vol 2; both records evoking an era of throbbing, minimalist house music; of mysterious white labels and scrawled DJ feedback sheets. Jensen cites short-lived Copenhagen club night The Candy Jungle as a seismic influence on his musical tastes, and his clear love for this halcyon period of inventive dancefloor-fillers pervades every (delightfully old school) beat.

Available here:

https://thehomecurrent-cis.bandcamp.com/

NEIL SCRIVIN
This Has No Longer Been The Future
(Fonolith)


Neil Scrivin has previously made haunted electronica (literally – previous album ‘This House Is Haunted’ was a radiophonic exploration of the 1977 Enfield Poltergeist case) under the nom-de-plumes of Phono Ghosts and The Night Monitor, but this more personal album is released under his own name; perhaps fittingly for what is clearly a heartfelt evocation of his 1980s childhood. Recorded in 2010 but unreleased until now, it continues themes explored on Scrivin’s 2007 album ‘Tomorrow’s World’.

So clattering Boards of Canada beats and woozy synths conjure fuzzy memories of both concrete new towns and summery daytrips to Jodrell Bank, and opening track ‘Back in 1980’ manages to be both wistful and joyous; its chanted mantra of “Disco, Bowie clones, Blitz kids” sitting atop a pulsating Frankie Goes to Hollywood bassline. Although the menacing, head-pounding ‘Roentgens’ – named, as owners of the Chernobyl box set will testify, after units of radiation exposure – hints at a more sinister side to the decade.  

Available here:

https://neilscrivin.bandcamp.com/album/this-has-no-longer-been-the-future

PAUL K
Reconstructed Memories
(Paul K)


Paul Kirkpatrick‘s fourth studio album is a touching examination of the nature of memory, whose utilitarian titles (‘Memory One’, ‘Memory Two’, ‘Reconstruction One’, ‘Memory Three’) belie beautifully nuanced ambient explorations of childhood remembrance, regression therapy, fake memories, and dementia. Cellist Rachael Dawson also recites moving verses of poetry by Mary Oliver, Derek Walcott and Sandeep Kishore; in particular, her recitation of Oliver’s ‘In Blackwater Woods’, accompanied by Kirkpatrick’s immaculately arranged electronica, is both haunting and heartbreaking. 

Available here:

https://open.spotify.com/album/3y2SeDQvNipYlYVyvMt838?si=7XcGRCVFSsG95MsORwzOVg

REPEATED VIEWING
Nature’s Revenge
(Spun Out Of Control)


The opening sounds of birdsong, subsumed by an ominous, orchestral swell, create the perfect tone for this meditation on a “woodland walk gone sour”. Since 2009, Glasgow’s Alan Sinclair has produced “synth terror” (his words) inspired by 1980s horror flicks, but Nature’s Revenge is brooding rather than horrifying; with ‘Magic Is All Around You’ even evoking images of playful tree spirits… until ‘Fell Runners Embrace The Void’ arrives to darken the mood somewhat. A hugely enjoyable and typically cinematic collection, with a glorious fantasy art cover.  

Available here:

https://spunoutofcontrol.bandcamp.com/album/natures-revenge


Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” – is published monthly, and available here:

https://electronicsound.co.uk/

Electronic Sound: Reviews (Issue 59)

Reviews originally published in Issue 59 of Electronic Sound magazine, November 2019:

ANTONI MAIOVVI’S TIME PRECINCT
British Interrail
(
Castles In Space)

In which everyone’s favourite fictional Italian disco producer provides a high-tempo soundtrack to… discounted British rail journeys for EU residents? The alter ego of Bristol-born, Berlin-based Anton Maiof, Maiovvi is a Dario Argento-obsessed playboy with a penchant for spooky film scores, but this is a joyously upbeat collection: the eminently danceable ‘Stable Mirror’, in particular, is a New Order-style banger that may yet have grizzled Haçienda veterans reaching for their dusty glow sticks.

Those of us marooned in the provinces during the late 1980s club explosion might find retro, beat-laden workouts like ‘Post Modern Morals’ evoking hazy memories of Sol lager and The Hit Man and Her rather than the Manchester superclubs, but – regardless of where your dancefloor mojo was honed – this is a giddy concoction, liable to make anyone whose teenage years involved the occasional smiley-faced T-shirt feel decidedly misty-eyed.

Available here:

https://timeprecinct-cis.bandcamp.com/album/british-interrail-ep

HATTIE COOKE
The Sleepers
(Spun Out Of Control)


This Brighton singer-songwriter has peppered her delightfully downbeat vignettes of everyday melancholy with the occasional vintage synth, but here throws herself into full John Carpenter soundtrack mode, with an instrumental concept album whose premise – that of a worldwide sleeping sickness, and a dangerous cult seeking out the victims – sets the tone for an enjoyably dark and suitably woozy musical journey. ‘Run’ even hints at Mark Snow’s X-Files theme; perfect for a case that Mulder and Scully would surely relish.

Available here:

https://spunoutofcontrol.bandcamp.com/album/the-sleepers

Interview with Hattie Cooke here:

https://hauntedgeneration.co.uk/2019/12/09/hattie-cooke-the-sleepers-and-spun-out-of-control/

VARIOUS ARTISTS
The Quietened Journey
(A Year In The Country)


Stephen Prince’s multi-media project A Year In The Country explores the links between folk, electronica and a rather otherworldly pastoralism, this new compilation tasking its contributors with creating musical explorations of abandoned roads and railway lines. The likes of Field Lines Cartographer and Grey Frequency evoke heartbreaking radiophonic dreams of overgrown sidings and crumbling platforms, and Pulselovers‘ ‘Woodford Halse To Fenny Compton in Five Minutes’ somehow contrives to make a hypnotic, Krautrock synth anthem the perfect celebration of pre-Beeching steam travel. Joyous.

Available here:

https://ayearinthecountry.bandcamp.com/album/the-quietened-journey

Interview with Stephen Prince here:

https://hauntedgeneration.co.uk/2019/09/21/a-year-in-the-country-stephen-prince-and-echoes-reverberations/

DREW MULHOLLAND
A Clockwork Orange
(Bibliotapes)


The irrepressible Mulholland – whose 1999 Mount Vernon Arts Lab album The Séance at Hobs Lane helped define 21st century hauntology – is in prolific form, and his third album of 2019 soundtracks Anthony Burgess’ novel in suitably sinister style. Trademark sound manipulations expertly create ominous slabs of music concrète, the eight-minute ’84F’ perfectly evoking the draughty menace of chief Droog Alex’s teenage prison cell. A limited cassette release on this perfectly-formed micro-label, laudably dedicated to electronica with a literary inspiration.

Available here:

https://drewmulholland.bandcamp.com/album/a-clockwork-orange

Interviews with Drew Mulholland here:

https://hauntedgeneration.co.uk/2019/08/31/the-wicker-man-the-wicker-tapes-drew-mulholland-and-john-dees-angels/

https://hauntedgeneration.co.uk/2019/05/17/delia-derbyshire-drew-mulholland-and-three-antennas-in-a-quarry/

Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” – is published monthly, and available here:

https://electronicsound.co.uk/

Electronic Sound: Reviews (Issue 58)

Reviews originally published in Issue 58 of Electronic Sound magazine, October 2019:

PULSELOVERS
Cotswold Stone
(Castles In Space
)

For an album inspired by an idyllic upbringing in the medieval town of Burford, Cotswold Stone has a curiously transatlantic feel: the evocative schoolroom sounds of maracas and recorders are entwined around clipped synth-funk rhythms and sensuous, yacht rock saxophones. Never have impressions of Bourton-on-the-Water sounded more cinematic. But it’s a delightful confection, suggesting that main man Mat Handley’s 1970s Famous Five-style exploits in the Oxfordshire countryside were the perfect aperitif for an evening of John Carpenter films on BBC2.

Now based in South Yorkshire, Handley even seems to be harking back to his own childhood electronica experiments; he has spoken of sitting “in the cupboard under the stairs, with my Jen SX1000.” The album expertly juggles this musical and personal nostalgia; my stand-out track being the wistful ‘Autumn Arrives Again’, where gently-plucked guitars and a wash of reflective, analogue synths evoke perfectly the dreadful moment when the ‘Back to School’ displays appeared in your local Woolworths.

https://pulselovers.bandcamp.com/album/cotswold-stone

(Interview with Mat Handley here…)

JAN BORRÉ
Grayson
(Spun Out Of Control)


Is everyone familiar with the contribution of Amanda Grayson to 20th century popular culture? She was, as any self-respecting Star Trek fan will tell you, the human mother of Mr Spock, who followed her heart to live on the desert planet of Vulcan after falling in love with the planet’s ambassador to Earth. Jan Borré ‘s album – released for Cassette Store Day – eschews any temptation towards sci-fi kitsch, instead using her story as the basis for a downbeat and moving instrumental exploration of alienation and disconnect.

Young Belgian composer Borré has worked with Spun Out Of Control before, on the soundtrack to horror film Where The Skin Lies, and his cinematic style is evident here, too. He has a striking gift for melody, with memorable, melancholic synth lines rising frequently from the ambience, and – as in the case of magnificent Side 2 opener ‘The Northern Claw’ – occasionally precipitating an explosion into celebratory, beat-laden ‘banger’ territory.

https://spunoutofcontrol.bandcamp.com/album/grayson

HERON & CRANE
Firesides
(Hibernator Gigs)


Hailing from Ohio, Dave Gibson and Travis Kokas have previous form as garage rockers, but Firesides finds the sweet spot between that very pastoral school of Canterbury prog (they happily admit the album’s sleeve is an homage to Caravan’s 1971 opus ‘In the Land of Grey and Pink’), and British library music with a whiff of long-forgotten Open University modules. Tracks like ‘Electron Waltz’ and ‘Space Junk’ are awash with vintage Moogs, and sometimes even find a delicious Krautrock groove.

https://heronandcranemusic.bandcamp.com/album/firesides

VARIOUS ARTISTS
Cold War on The Rocks – Disco and Electronic Music from Finland 1980-1991
(Svart Records)

The legacy of synth pioneer Jori Sivonen – who died in July – sets the tone for this hugely enjoyable collection, with the opening three tracks (including ‘Jupiter’, purportedly named after his beloved Roland Jupiter 8) all bearing his melodic handiwork. Elsewhere, Mika Sundqvist and Jokke Sepp explore galactic synth sounds, and Visual’s ‘Big & Beautiful’ was sequenced on a Commodore 64. The upbeat, disco-fuelled schlager feel occasionally evokes memories of 1980s Eurovisions, but some of us are rather partial to that.

https://svartrecords.com/product/cold-war-on-the-rocks-disco-and-electronic-music-from-finland-1980-1991-3/

PULSE: Fariña

Who they?

Mark Brend, Matt Gale and Cliff Glanfield formed Fariña in 1995, gaining acclaim for their albums ‘Three People’ and ‘Allotments’; epic collections of filmic, bittersweet chamber pop redolent of peak-era Scott Walker and Ennio Morricone. There were, quite frankly, trumpets. After splitting in 2005, the trio have reunited to record a soundtrack EP to Mark’s debut novel Undercliff, a gently beguiling tale set amid the post-hippy fall-out of 1972, in which a listless divorcee finds himself drawn into the world of sinister religious cult The Olive Grove.

Why Fariña?

It means ‘flour’ in Spanish, I believe,” says Mark. “We just liked the sound of the word.” Unlike their two albums, The Undercliff Suite EP is entirely instrumental, with a more experimental, post-rock feel, perhaps suggesting a bold new direction for a band who seem warmly receptive to longer-term collaborations. “Reforming Fariña just seemed like a natural, logical step,” adds Mark. “I don’t recall us even discussing it that much. We just started writing together and it was if the intervening years hadn’t happened.”

Tell us more…

As Mark is keen to stress: “The music is an attempt to capture the atmosphere of aspects of the book, rather than soundtrack them in a literal sense.” Appropriate then, that the EP is quietly unsettling, with soothing, jazz-tinged brass and folk club accordion floating elegantly across beds of vintage synths provided, perhaps predictably, by Electronic Sound contributor Mark. And it culminates in the beautiful, hymn-like ‘Resurgam’, evoking images of Sir Hubert Parry let loose upon a MicroKORG.

http://hankypankyrecords.blogspot.com/2019/09/farina-undercliff-suite-ep-hpr-044.html

(Interview with Mark Brend here)

Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” – is published monthly, and available here:

https://electronicsound.co.uk/

Electronic Sound: Buried Treasure – Dark Circles by The Devils

(First published in Electronic Sound magazine #59, November 2019)

Unearthing Electronic Gold

Somewhere, out there in the infinite multiverse, is a parallel reality version of Duran Duran. An incarnation where original frontman Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy, rather than quitting the band in 1979 on the brink of their commercial breakthrough, stayed the course and found himself strapped to a cyberpunk windmill and dunked headfirst into a vat of fiery water, surrounded by bare-chested Mad Max extras at the height of 1980s MTV-fuelled excess.

However, for those of us with a distinct admiration for Duffy’s wilfully eclectic career, our version of events is infinitely preferable. Chart hits ‘Kiss Me’ and the sublime ‘Icing on the Cake’ were the sound of my 1985, and he’s since made a virtue of his seemingly boundless musical curiosity. There’s the delicate folk-rock of The Lilac Time; the experimental proto-house of the enigmatic Dr Calculus, and – most  improbably – Me Me Me‘s ‘Hanging Around’, a cheery Britpop anthem with a post-Parklife Alex James along for the ride, rubbing chartbound shoulders with the Spice Girls in the beery summer of 1996.     

In 1999, however, it was the unfinished business of his early Duran Duran adventures – and a chance encounter with Nick Rhodes – that sparked inspiration. The former bandmates bumped into each other shortly after Duffy’s discovery of a long-lost cassette of their pre-fame songs, and set to work on a heroically selfless feat of musical archaeology. With a manifesto of using only the synthesisers available to them in 1979, and not changing a single gauche teenage lyric, they finally recorded the album that might have been.

The resulting 2002 record, Dark Circles, is magnificent. Duffy and Rhodes – recording as The Devils – joyously re-create their adolescent awkwardness with supremely deadpan dedication. “I like going shopping / Shopping in the big store / Shopping in the large store / Any store that’s big,” sings the 42-year-old Duffy, accompanied by dystopian synths and soulful backing vocals. I laughed out loud when I first heard it, and fell in love with the whole glorious caper.

Elsewhere, ‘Come Alive’ has a whiff of Berlin-era Bowie’s poppier moments; ‘Newhaven-Dieppe’ sounds like Nick Drake fronting Soft Cell, and the throbbing title track is a genuine dark-synth classic: “You’re Stockhausen with pictures / Ulysses in ugly shoes” spits Duffy, as Rhodes whips up a whirlwind of tight synth-funk rhythms.

Shortly afterwards, Duffy was visited by Robbie Williams, sounding out potential writing partners. Spying the vintage synths still piled high from the Dark Circles sessions, Williams clocked a new direction. Their resulting co-written single, ‘Radio’, went to No 1, and Duffy found himself playing to international stadiums as Williams’ new musical director. Rhodes, meanwhile, rejoined Duran Duran, and was equally no stranger to a larger-than-average crowd.

The songs of Dark Circles were arguably lost in the slipstream of the commercial pop juggernaut once again. But you’ll never find a more touching – and superbly realised – paean to the giddy rush of wide-eyed teenage ambition.

Bob Fischer

Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” – is published monthly, and available here:

https://electronicsound.co.uk/

Ritual & Resistance, the Delaware Road, Concretism and Imber village

We’d driven along the winding, narrow roads of Salisbury Plain for at least two miles; a convoy of civilian family cars packed with camping equipment, passing countless “Unexploded Military Debris” warning signs in troubled, late summer sunshine, all of us drawn to the cluster of grey concrete bunkers that perodically peered, surreptitiously, from behind a pockmarked horizon.

This was New Zealand Farm Camp, location for the latest extraordinary Delaware Road event, and – when not playing host to a prestigious assembly of artists sharing DNA based loosely in the electronic avant-garde – a site used by the Ministry of Defence to simulate urban combat, the clump of army boots and the rattle of live ammunition echoing around its muddy trackways and fordibbing, brutalist architecture.

“What’s the book?” asked the guard at the main gate, poking diligently through the travel bag on the back seat of my car.

“It’s Suggs’ autobiography,” I replied.

“Very nice. I’ve just started Kenneth Williams’ memoirs.”

Alison Cotton began proceedings, performing a beautifully ethereal and haunting suite to an attentive crowd in the Nissen Hut that housed the event’s main stage. Stephen ‘Polypores’ Buckley and Chris ‘Concretism’ Sharp were amongst the friendly faces I spotted in attendance, and warm greetings were exchanged at the end of the set before I followed them to Bunker B1, where Colin Morrison’s Castles in Space label – home to recent releases by both – had set up camp for the evening. Stephen performed a throbbing, mesmerising Polypores set of seamless, pulsing ambience to a bustling crowd, tightly packed into this shadowy, concrete hideaway. Including Portsmouth’s own psychedelic troubador Keith Seatman, who cheerfully introduced himself and gleefully briefed me on the history of the 19th century sea forts heavily featured in the 1972 Doctor Who adventure, The Sea Devils.

The evening became a blur of music, conversation, cider and the occasional occult ritual. I paid a visit to Frances Castle, whose Clay Pipe stall was ensconced in Bunker 3, and boasted tantalising first glimpses of the artwork for two forthcoming albums: Vic Mars‘ intriguing Edgelands-influenced project Inner Roads and Outer Paths, and Alison Cotton’s Halloween release The Girl I Left Behind Me, inspired by two Muriel Spark ghost stories, and originally composed for Gideon Coe’s BBC 6 Music show. I swapped genial greetings with Push and Neil from Electronic Sound magazine, dishing out freebies from a towering pile of stylish back issues in the basement of a building where, upstairs, the ever-welcoming Robin The Fog was warmly greeting interested snoopers in the midst of a Howlround soundcheck.

It was a delight to catch the professorial figure of Sarah Angliss performing live; her album Air Loom has been one of my highlights of 2019, and she makes for an extremely engaging live performer; funny and self-deprecating, but an expert in building beguiling symphonies from samples, theramin and an ancient clavicymbalum… a medieval precursor of the harpsichord, apparently; these disparate sounds all perfectly entwined around Sarah’s soaring, crystal-clear vocals. I then squashed back into the crowds of tiny B1 to catch Jez and Polly of The Twelve Hour Foundation present a magnificent. feelgood set of John Baker-inspired radiophonica; transporting a bunker filled with grinning fortysomethings back to childhoods soundtracked by the themes to long-forgotten Open University modules and John Craven’s Newsround.

Amongst their number was the effusive Alex Cargill, whose epic debut album as The Central Office of Information is set to become Castles In Space’s debut CD release. It was a delight to meet Alex, who repaid my insistence on playing his tracks on my BBC Tees show with another pint of cider from the impromptu stall outside the main hut. The evening was becoming slightly blurry…

I enjoyed Crass founder Penny Rimbaud‘s spoken word performance on the main stage, accompanied by a plaintive, mournful cello; then found myself caught in the midst of a procession to the woods, where a circle of bemused participants were anointed with oil to the lower lips and encouraged to worship “The Spirits of Place” with a spiralling chorus of animal howls. I imagined the noise my beloved border collie, Megan, would make when I returned home the following day, and threw myself into the maelstrom accordingly. The green-faced Chris Lambert – accomplished mummer and long-term resident of The Black Meadow – was a constant presence in the series of ritual events that sparked up throughout the evening; whenever, that is, he wasn’t leaning against a bunker wall and discussing the finer points of Krull with Stephen Buckley, the pair of them entirely oblivious to the extroardinary double rainbow forming outside, seemingly bestowing its radiant, benevolent blessing on the whole, strange shebang.

Howlround’s performance – in cahoots with audio-visual artist and Psyché Tropes supremo Merkaba Macabre – was typically hypnotic, and equally typically packed, the audience nestling shoulder-to-shoulder. I had to watch from the stairs, while a succcession of vintage washing powder and detergent advertisements flickered on the bare wall behind me. And then it was back to the Castles in Space hut, where Chris Sharp presented an hour-long Concretism set, a mesmeric evocation of delicious Cold War austerity, to another attentive gathering.

Back in May, Chris spoke live on my BBC Tees show to both myself and the show’s resident electronica wizard, Kev Oyston. This seems like an appropriate moment as any to transcribe it…

Tell us a little bit about your background… when did you start making music as Concretism?  

It was around 2010. If I remember, about a year before, I’d discovered Boards of Canada, and they were a massive influence on me. I’d always written music, but I got bored and despondent with it. But I remember hearing Boards of Canada, and they absolutely blew me away, and I thought… I want to make music like that. What really fascinated me was how they can evoke and create the feeling that you’ve gone back in time. That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s kind of how it started, but Concretism – when it began – was quite different to how it is now. It was more of a drone project, and it wasn’t as Cold War-influenced. For the first few years, it was more inspired by things like Public Information Films, and a lot of 1970s documentaries. But for the last few years it’s gone in that Cold War direction, which is only a good thing!

As a kid, and then a teenager, in the 1980s, the Cold War seemed to permeate every aspect of my childhood, and the prospect of nuclear armageddon was something I thought about every single day. Was it the same for you?
 

Absolutely, yeah. I remember the Star Wars programme… that’s what I think made the 1980s such a scary time, with regards to nuclear confrontation; Reagan’s stance against the Sovet Union, with the Star Wars programme being a big part of that. And then obviously Chernobyl, in 1986… and although that wasn’t nuclear war, it was still nuclear. I used to watch the news as a kid, because I was a strange child, and I remember seeing all the Chernobyl stuff and thinking “Oh my God, that’s terrifying… what if the radiation gets over here?”

And the other thing… when I was about nine or ten, my dad took me to the cinema to see When The Wind Blows, which I’m sure is not a film you should really take a nine-year-old to see.

No! I can’t believe you saw it at the cinema!

I did, and I was so depressed and upset. And to this day, I haven’t seen it since. I’ve only seen it that once. Even as an adult, I refuse to watch When The Wind Blows. I will not watch that film. It upset me so much.

I bet your dad thought he was doing a really good thing… come on Chris, it’s by the same guy who made The Snowman!

Yeah! And it’s funny, I can watch Threads… I can watch Threads a million times. I never saw it as a kid, only as an adult. And I just think it’s quite a funny film…

Oh, come ON!

No! Because the characters in Threads are a bit two-dimensional, aren’t they? You don’t really care about the characters in Threads, whereas if you watch When The Wind Blows, you really care about this old couple.

I care about the characters in Threads so much that the last time I watched it, I got half an hour in, and the feeling of impending doom was so much I had to turn it off. I didn’t want to see Reece Dinsdale die! I like Reece Dinsdale!

We all like Reece Dinsdale, honestly! But no, I can watch Threads and it doesn’t bother me at all.

Did you have any sirens close to your house? Anything that might – for example – have been mistaken for the four-minute warning? 

I live quite close to the Thames, in the south of Essex. I live in the house I grew up in, I bought it from my dad, and I’ve lived here forever. And we still, to this day, have flood sirens down on the Thames, which are basically just repurposed World War Two air raid sirens. And every Thursday morning at 11 o’clock, they test them… they give them one blast for about thirty seconds. So quite often, if I’m working at home and I have the window open, I’ll hear “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm….” and it’s not rising or falling, it just rises then drops down again. But it’s pretty scary. Luckily I know what it is, but if anyone was in the town and didn’t know that they test the flood sirens every week… they would soil themselves, I think!

Have I seen somewhere that there are no nuclear sirens in the UK any more? They’ve all been decommissioned?

I think, during the Cold War, a lot of stuff was repurposed. So they just used air raid sirens that had been left over from World War Two, and also bunkers… generally, they didn’t really build a lot of nuclear bunkers, they just used old World War Two bunkers, and reclaimed spaces. So there must be some kind of attack warning now, but it’s probably a text message! They had that thing in Hawaii didn’t they, about a year ago? I think it would be that. Or a WhatsApp message. Or a tweet.

I saw you in 2017, performing at the Delaware Road event in Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex, the underground facility that would have housed the British government in the event of a nuclear attack. What did you make of the place? 

It was pretty cool. I didn’t actually get to see much of the bunker, because it took me about an hour to set my gear up, and then I did my gig and played for just over three hours, and then my mate – who is my roadie – had to catch an early flight in the morning. So as soon as I finished, I packed all my gear up, got in the car and left! But I briefly had a very quick look around the bunker, just after I soundchecked, and what I saw of it was really impressive, and really big. And creepy… I found it very creepy. There’s something very unsettling about it, even though it was never used for real. Not helped by the fact that there are mannequins and dummies all over it!

Talk us through your album, For Concrete And Country. There are some interesting references amidst the track titles… Microwave Relay was the one that really fascinated me. Can you explain that?  

It’s a reference to the Microwave Tower Network, which was codenamed “Backbone” during the Cold War. They built a lot of these big wire mesh towers, and many of them are still standing now… and some of them are concrete, too. Part of the Backbone Network was the Post Office Tower. But again, I think a lot of it was repurposed, or even used at the same time for TV and radio broadcasts. So BBC Tees might well be using mouldy old Backbone masts!

It’s more than likely…

So Microwave Relay is a reference to that Backbone Network, which would have been resilient to nuclear attack… far more so than other systems.

There’s a track called Pye Green Tower on the album too, was that part of the same network?

That was one of the towers, yeah. That one was concrete, and it’s in Staffordshire. I’ve never been to the Pye Green Tower, but it looks pretty impressive!

Given that all of this stuff traumatised us so much as a kids, why are we looking back on it with a sense of almost rose-tinted nostalgia? We’re like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen…

I think it could be the fact that nuclear war never actually happened. There’s a sort of relief, isn’t there? We can look back at these horrific things like Threads and When The Wind Blows – well not me, obviously, because I won’t watch it – with a kind of relief, as adults, that the war never happened. It would have been absolutely horrific. And it could still happen, but I think what we need to worry about more in the 21st century, going forward, is Artificial Intelligence. Which I think a lot of people are saying is a bigger threat to the future of humanity than nuclear weapons. But it doesn’t have the same cool factor, does it…?

In twenty years time, when nothing has happened, the musicians that were teenagers in 2019 can make albums about that…

Yes, there’ll be a hauntology movement about Artificial Intelligence!

From midnight onwards, Ritual and Resistance took on increasingly surreal (well, more surreal) proportions… I watched Natalie Sharp, in her Lone Taxidermist persona, perform a disturbing but captivating set, accompanied by what appeared to be two suspended human spines. And then, outside the camp’s Water Tower, I bumped into Jez and Polly of the Twelve Hour Foundation for a final time, and we whiled away the early hours by discussing the alluring qualities of their home towns; Cleethorpes and Scarborough respectively. I then capped off the evening by dancing (alongside journalist and Modern Aviation owner Will Salmon, who has some sensational moves) to a pounding DJ set by former World Snooker Champion Steve Davis, who had been an affable preseence throughout the day, and who spoke passionately to a small, assembled throng of us afterwards about his love of the Delaware Road project, and his lifelong passion for underground music and electronica.

It was 3.40am before I collapsed into my spider-infested tent beneath a rustling oak tree, but not before I’d grabbed the picture below…

As a wonderful addendum to an incredible evening… on the Sunday morning, as fragile heads were being soothed by gentle conversation and coffee, it became apparent that a fleet of vintage Routemaster buses were transporting campers to the nearby abandoned village of Imber, requisitioned by the MOD in 1943 for wartime training, and uninhabited ever since. With a long journey back to the North-East ahead of me, I uncharacteristically decided to forsake its haunted pleasures, and set off in the car… but, as three double-decker buses bobbed on the horizon ahead of me, I couldn’t resist. I followed them, and spent an hour poking around Imber’s deserted buildings and (surprisingly busy) 16th century village church, joined by blog-reader Richard – who records as Caveat Auditor – and ever-genial electronica and Early Music enthusiast Rolf, who I’d last seen in June, at 3am in Shoreditch High Street, at the climax of the State 51 Conspiracy/Ghost Box/Trunk Records Midsummer Night’s Happening.

As Steve Davis had emotionally proclaimed at the end of his wee-hours DJ set, “It’s like a big family, isn’t it?” He’s right, and I look forward – as ever – to the next gleefully dysfunctional reunion.

Thanks to Delaware Road and Buried Treasure supremo Alan Gubby for all his extraordinary efforts in making Ritual and Resistance such a memorable event… and to Alison Cotton, Colin Morrison and Andy Collins for their photos.