Monday, September 29, 2014

Album Review - the new North Atlantic Oscillation album

The Third Day by North Atlantic Oscillation (Kscope)

The arrival of The Fog Electric elevated NAO up there with my favourite bands. Grappling Hooks was a good debut, but it only hinted at the brilliance to come. The final track on the debut album, Ritual, became one of my favourite songs of all time and whet my appetite for future recordings; I must have liked the album, I bought it.

The follow-up, also with a slightly nautical theme, was a delicate blend of ambience, rock and harmonies likened to Grandaddy and the Flaming Lips, but I saw them as an eloquent purveyor of their influences – Beach Boys merged effortlessly with Sugar, but with so much more than just a band to label by its inspirations. Each song was a thing of beauty, understated and poignant. The Fog Electric became one of my favourite albums of all time and Mirador joined Ritual on a growing list of great songs.

My biggest complaint with both albums was that they were too short. I wanted more and unlike some of their contemporaries, these guys were not going to pump stuff out for the sake of it. That’s why I like to think of NAO albums as bespoke pieces of work, designed to be an entire thing and not just a collection of songs – hence why they have many ‘bridging’ tracks. Sounds to savour and songs to last a long time – my label, not theirs. And that’s why I like this band; time and trend isn’t a factor with them; they do what they think is right and by God have they got it right!

Then came Sand – Sam Healy’s solo project; except, you know, he’s the voice of NAO, so his solo album was drenched in sumptuous vocals, twisting songs and bags of influences you do and don’t see on his band’s stuff. Sand is possibly the best album I’ve heard in the 21st century. I’ve said this since it came out and some albums wane with the passage of time, but after purposefully not playing the album for a couple of months, I dug it out to again whet my appetite for The Third Day. Sand has stood the test of a short time at least; it still has me acting like it’s the first time I’ve heard it.

NAO have done some cover versions; their first being I Only Have Eyes For You is a song from 1934 by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, it was made famous in the last 30 years by the Art Garfunkle cover, which I think, without checking, came from his Bright Eyes album, which made him more money than anything else he did after Paul Simon went solo. You can see in Healy’s voice that there are similarities with Garfunkel’s velvet tones, but with One Good Reason, a cover of a Bob Mould solo track, you can see why Mould has been a huge influence on NAO. They can do silky smooth and gutsy neo-grunge and it’s all got an ethereal quality.

The latest cover is Sisters of Mercy, the give away for people who pre-ordered The Third Day. It came with August, the single from the new album. August sets the scene brilliantly; from the moment I heard its on-rushing opening and the 60s merged with the 2010s I knew my wait was almost over. But Sisters of Mercy, a gentle song, which perfectly shows that this band have no convention; they don’t play by the rules; they do things their way and their way is a thing of beauty – Sisters of Mercy warrants a place on the album.

So, The Third Day...

I hated it. I put the advanced stream on ( the moment it went live and was worried. Where was the immediacy? Where were the heavenly tunes? Why did the first track sound like Phil Collins?

Except... As the album crept out of the speakers, I started to hear things. I was listening for familiarity; I was searching for NAO. They warned this would be different; I expected something different from what I got. Then it started to click. Oh, did it start.

Ten plays later...

There are stand-out tracks; like all their albums, solo or as a band, there are songs that immediately hook you in; if prog had a band that understood the sensibilities of a good pop song, this is them. Yet, it’s a track drenched in Scott Walker and again that Garfunkle fellow, A Nice Little Place that is the first song to grab you and make your knees go wobbly and that shiver down your spine. It’s just a thing of haunting beauty and falls halfway through the album. Then other tracks started to shine; I started to notice all manner of odd things, orchestras possibly, a distinct lack of anything like a heavy bass, subtlety is something these guys have many shares in. A gentle swing met with whirling crescendos – a moment of quiet met by an onrushing storm. The sea is in their bones and you can’t help wondering if they sit and watch the rhythm of the ocean, to get inspiration, to craft the way some of their sounds, like the tide, catch you unawares.

Drums, organs and synths, noodling guitars mixed with a understated thrashing – this borders more on post rock pop than anything else. I’m of the opinion that calling this band prog is totally wrong; progressive yes, but you can never pigeonhole this band with some of the dross currently masquerading as ‘prog’.

Anyhow, more gushing. The album opens with Great Plains II and as I said my first impression was they were channelling Phil Collins during his Hugh Padgham-produced days, but the song is more than just its opening notes, as Elsewhere proves conclusively; it’s not so much a song as a bunch of pieces of music strung together – it follows no convention and yet it works totally.

The tracks do tend to merge into each other for the first part and Do Something Useful slides into view very quietly and then bounces into a drums and synth hook that has you smiling and then the harmonies... oh the harmonies. I judge music by the amount of shivers it gives me and the shiver quota I get from NAO product is exponentially higher than any other band I can remember. The thing about Do Something Useful is it’s probably the most prog song on the album; odd time signatures, and a drum pattern that actually sounds like it belongs to another song, but fits in; and then it becomes the Velvet Underground...

If I had a weak track to choose (at the moment), it would probably be Wires, but saying that, it’s probably the best song on the album to drive to and it reminds me a little of Porcupine Tree, more in the way its constructed. Healy’s vocal are both ethereal and gruff, showing that he has a good range. It’s a strange track, because it feels almost on the wrong album, which is probably why I think of it as weak, but it leads into A Nice Little Place and that, with its gothic 1920s build up and mesmerising lyrics. The moment Sam sings, ‘It reminds me of a broken sun dial’ you can’t help but fall in love with this song, clarinets and all. It’s possibly the most brilliantly constructed piece of music this band has ever done. This is worth the admission price alone and it’s less than 3 minutes long.

Penrose is a jaunty little instrumental. It starts off with a simple drum-machine beat, is then joined by a snare and then a bippy-boppy keyboard. It’s actually quite a slight song and it builds up into something of a marching song, new instruments being added to the wall of sound and is a great little bit of music. Nice little twists – the kind of music you could see being used in an advert or film.

One thing I noticed about the Sand album was the great ending it had – the final three tracks really make that album into something more than just great. The Third Day does the same and perhaps the reason for Penrose is to wrong-foot you, because Pines of Eden, Dust and When to Stop combine to create a finale to perfectly compliment the 7 songs that come before them.

Pines of Eden is a monster; no crashing or banging; a simple song, constructed like a mini-opus that does the shivers down the spine thing again in spades, especially during all the little mini-crescendos. The thing is, the songs aren’t simple – they are wonderful art installations. Yes, the melodies are simple, but they’re combined in such a unique way that I’m of the opinion that NAO are as important to 21st Century music as Talk Talk was to the creation of Post Rock in the late 1980s. There is nothing quite like NAO out there, for all the comparisons and Pines of Eden is the perfect example.

Dust is a intricate construction song; it starts with a deep rhythm and Healy’s haunting voice and just builds and builds, like a snowball on a slope and then takes itself in a completely different direction while keeping the same melody. It darts about like a demented dog, yet never loses its focus. 7½ minutes of very clever song and one to get the prog fans chin stroking.

When To Stop is the appropriately titled final track and it’s essentially the title track. You’d imagine they’d go for something bombastic and big, because they’re a rock band, but this is almost folky in its structure and for the first couple of minutes you’re actually fooled into thinking this is going to be a nice pleasant and soft ending. Then something happens. From about 2 minutes the song becomes Phil Spector meets whale song with Brian Wilson on harmonies. The way the key changes come into play actually gives me an emotional response; it’s pretty much the most unexpected and perfect ending to an album I’ve heard in decades

Apparently this band is better live than they are on CD; I had the chance to find that out a few years ago and opted for beer instead. In October I’ll get the chance to see if their songs can be done better; as for The Third Day; my gut instinct tells me this is it, this is the best thing this band has ever done and if they continue to grow at the rate they have I can die a happy man, because I’ll know there’s more to come.


Monday, September 08, 2014

That There Scotland

Evidence that I pick up dog shit, even on a beach

During my week in Scotland, I kept a diary...

Day 1:

A lot of the summer has been spent trying to get my head around my mental state. Many things have happened, that I could talk about but haven't and won't (friends and family understand why) that have impacted on other areas of life; with the most obvious being the almost seemingly endless delay to my good friend Terry Wiley's graphic novel over in my professional capacity as 'go-getting new publisher'... As hinted at, it's been family and friends rather than anything else that has intruded upon normal shit.

I've been in Scotland about 30 hours and I already feel like I'm home, again. I was almost restless today because I was eager to go and do nothing in different places. I wanted to revisit places where I'd done nothing two years ago, except sit and stare into the beautiful oblivion... doing nothing.

Jesus, I needed a holiday and if it had only been today I wouldn't have picked a much better day for it. Two years ago, we met an 'ex-pat' from the East End, she said in 30 years she'd lived there the weather forecast had been right about 10% of the time and it tended to be more like the south coast of England than the south coast of Scotland. Today was a perfect example of that; 20 degrees might not sound much, but out of the wind, on a deserted beach, it's just about perfect. Monreith, or specifically Back Bay, is pretty much my idea of heaven on a perfect late summer's day like August 31st was.

I am convinced that this part of the country is one of the best kept secrets in the UK and frankly I've said enough about this obviously shit place that looks like Wisbech on a stagnant canal with dead badgers and 400 million cubic tons of plastic waste, littered with nuclear power plants, radioactive deer and psychopathic children with chainsaws, to know a dodgy place when I see one. Shit, this place is so dangerous I'm not sure I'll make it home with all my limbs in place, there are locals counting my teeth as I type this. Therefore, you, your friends, their friends and their friends' friends should avoid this place like it is a zombie apocalypse site - which, to be fair, it is.

While dodging the undead, I paddled in the sea and. Got. Swept. Away...

Day 2:

Did I capture a planet?
The night we got here the sky was full of stars. I mean, unbelievably full of stars - you could see the Milky Way (or Mulky Wee as it is known here) as clearly as you can see Katie Price has had boob enhancements. Today saw the mycological equivalent of the stars - a forest so strewn with a cornucopia of mushrooms and thus enhancing my holiday so much I'm surprised I'm not in a permanent state of priapic discomfort.

Newton Stewart is the closest town to Blackcraig - not a West Indian of Glaswegian descent but a forest that heralds the start of the Galloway Forest Park. Mother of gods it is one of the most beautiful places you will ever see...
Or maybe it was a comet?

The rain that fell over night seemed to give everything a fresher feel and as a result just about every photo I took, every direction I looked, every step I took - there were mushrooms. It awakened ideas in me that I haven't had for many years. I estimated in one hour, I found enough edible boletus (ceps and bay boletes) to get top quality restaurants salivating over the contents of my basket. I reckon I saw nearly £1000 worth of fungal gold up there in one section of woods alone and that section of woods represented less than 1% of the entire Galloway Forest Park!

The skies in Scotland ignited my desire to
learn how to take this kind of photography
But, of course, the woodland is running alive with decaying zombie corpses and mutant children running amok on the landscape, you must all be glad you're not me (more than usually).

Day 3:

I think today was one of those 'plans go awry' days, but, fortunately, not in such a bad way. We headed down to Back Bay - the best and most deserted (radioactive) beach in the world, spent two hours there searching caves and coves and meeting a woman from Cumbernauld who had been to where our afternoon soiree was to be. "Och, it's full of sheep and you have to walk along the edge of the cliffs..." Therefore the dogs and the wife were unlikely to be unleashed on this small excursion and I would not get an unexpected revisit to the Steam Packet Inn.

So we decided to head to Newton Stewart and discovered road closures and roadworks everywhere making our plans go further awry. In many respects today was the day we needed to chill on and circumstances made it so.

Plus the forecast wall-to-wall sunshine didn't materialise until nearly 4pm.

In 2012, there were at least three
accessible caves at Back Bay. Two
years later and there is only one
and gaining access is a chore... 
One thing did 'happen' which was a wee bit odd. Two years ago, I took a lot of photos of the interior of a cave on Back Bay's wall of impressive rocks. It isn't there anymore...

Don't get me wrong, today has been a good day. However I have had my opinions, the first one was our ignorance towards cultural and religious peculiarities. Highlighted this week by the Ashya King business and the CPS and various others butting their noses in where they weren't required. Eventually, I hope the family can sue as many people as they can  (and I think JWs are a scourge).

The other thing is the invasion of the cloud and the stealing of rude pictures. Can I say 'storm in a D cup'? Probably not, but the point is and I'll argue with whoever fancies it (Hadley fucking rubbish writer Freeman in the Guardian for starters) DON'T KEEP PICTURES YOU DON'T WANT THE WORLD TO SEE IN A PLACE THAT CAN BE HACKED OR STOLEN! Or as the guy on Richard Bacon's show said, "Use Polaroids, keep them in your house," which was met by universal derision by everyone on Bacon's show who was under 50.

Jennifer Lawrence claims she will never appear topless in a film; well, she's done some pretty pornographic selfies that leads the prude in me to ask ... why?

I don't a shit about all the benefits of the Cloud, if it can be hacked or hijacked then don't keep anything there you might regret. Simple really.

Day 4:

The big day out. Well... more of a day out than had been had so far. We did the Kirkcudbright area - possibly one of the most picturesque parts of this 'radioactive wasteland of Picts and demons...

Kirkcudbright or Kur-Koo-Bree as the locals call it, is the Beverly Hills of the Solway Firth. House prices are more expensive here (ish) and the area is surrounded by coves, beaches, woods, hills and ex-pats. From there we went all Rastrick... Brighouse Bay is long and thin - oo-er missus - and sandy and almost completely deserted - like most other beaches. Do the Scots have an aversion to seawater?

The pub was closed. Borgue (pronounced, presumably, Borg) did not assimilate us in any way; nice place, seemed to shut on September 1st, almost a month before anyone else.

As there are no usable roads in Scotland, everyone
travels on beaches in horse-drawn buggies
The Gatehouse of Fleet is another one of those ... ahem... 7 stages of hell places; it's vile, nasty and full of pubs run by mad Spaniards, shit-filled walks, insipid ice cream and uzi-wielding local grannies and if there was a decent house here I'd only consider buying it if I was convinced I'd convinced all of you of how horrid this entire country is. Give Scotland their independence I say, then cut it off and tow it out into the Atlantic.

Five days into this holiday and I feel great. I had an asthma attack last night that lasted seconds rather than minutes and while my legs ache (from all the walking) and my back (from all the shagging and poor beds) is screaming at me there's nout much else to complain about; oh and gods, my feet are in good nick again - all that seawater and sand.

And I met a man in a churchyard with a bag of limes; he was eating one...

Day 5:

The penultimate day and a day of revisiting things and searching out the house that the wife has fallen in love with... Except, the best laid plans and all that. We decided to go back to Back Bay as I wanted to find the missing cave and the wife wanted to take the wee hoonds down to the sea for the last time this week.

The tide was in. Well, in reality it was going out, but it goes out at the rate of about 1 foot every minute and as the place I wanted to go to was about 300 feet away ...

Instead we ended up spending a lot of time talking to the hordes of tourists that were there - a couple from Alnwick and the mid-wife lady from Cumbernauld and her hubby. All the dogs - 8 of them - got on well and the sun came out, the wind died down and by 11am the temperature was up to 20 again. We all agreed that independence might be a disaster and the two Englishmen agreed it would be interesting from a politically anthropological POV; Scots hubby, I think, wasn't that deeply into it.

The Isle of Whithorn - glows green at night when
the night creatures come out and steal all the fish...
From there we went back to Isle of Whithorn to a disgusting pub in a smelly location and not at all extraordinary except in its awfulness and mutated fisherman-banshee hybrids. Drank more locally brewed ale, chatted to people and met a miserable Englishman on holiday who was disappointed that the place wasn't in the slightest bit 21st century. Hey, it's a bit like how I imagine 1950 (with 2014 prices) would be.

From there we went to Whithorn. Past memories were not wrong and seriously, if you want to experience everything that is ... ... good about this part of Scotland, book a week's holiday there and then allow your car to be stolen. No, honestly, Whithorn is the turd in the peninsula's massive jewel of wonderfulness. It's a grubby, grey and dead looking place and up to this point the least salubrious place we've been through was Kirkinner and that was because the pub looked like it belonged in Glasgee, but this village is still considerably nicer than Whithorn. Architecturally, the 'town' is quite remarkable and the road layout is worth seeing, but the quicker you get out the less time the three-headed sabretooth children have to ... no, no, no. Honest, Whithorn is worth missing.

Then back home to base; the wife went book shopping and checked out the local church, I cooked a curry and planned our final day. Tomorrow is return to the best day we had two years ago. House O' the Hill is a wonderful pub on the outskirts of Bargrennan and on the road to Glentrool. There is rain forecast tomorrow, so the woods will be interesting and I hope to find more mushrooms - but, you know, if I don't it won't be the end of the world. Then after lunch at the pub, we're heading back to the Wood of Cree for an hour there in the woods and waterfalls.

Day 6:

Our final day was pretty much everything we hoped for. Superb food at the pub - House O' Hill in Bargrennan, which also had good local beer. The woods and loch was as spectacular and this time we found a magnificent house that we were less than 100 feet away from last time we came here and didn't see.

vegetable croquets with a goat cheese sprinkled salad,
with a pint of IPA from an Ayr brewer, at the House O' Hill
on the Glen Trool road near Bargrennan - the best pub I have
found in Scotland, bar none.
We stopped off at the otter pool on the way back to Newton Stewart; I found a couple of monster boletus and fell in love with the entire area all over again...

The journey home was pretty much uneventful. It took a tad over 5½ hours and that included a 15 minute stop at Teebay services in the Lake District.

And then home and grinding of teeth and gnashing of jaws at fuckwit drivers, impatient arseholes and a growing desire to find a home and a job in this god-forsaken hell-hole. Apparently there is a demand for social care workers in Dumfries and should I decide to call an end to this publishing lark then that's where I'll lay my hat. I also think I'll increase my life expectancy by five years, even if I get eaten alive by sabre-tooth midges...

Now, before I get back to the bump and grind, a final word from the happiest animal on the face of the planet last week...

I promised her we'd move there before she couldn't appreciate it anymore...