=  April 2024 =  
 The Phoenix Cube
Kitchen Cynics / Margery Daw / Grey Malkin
V/A - Sacred Songs of Mary Devotion
Betty
The Utopia Strong
Donovan's Brain










 
 
 
 
 
 

THE PHOENIX CUBE - CAREFULLY PLACED STONES

Available on Apple Tree Lament

Terrascope regulars will recognise Simon Lewis from his numerous reviews and dozen years as our reviews editor dating back to January 2004 (PT34). Lewis also runs the Apple Tree Lament label to make his various musical projects and collaborations available to the public. He has released nearly three dozen recordings to date, including the TEA-1 Compilation commemorating the first Terrastock TEA Party in Oxford on the 10th anniversary of the original Terrastock in Providence, RI. Other projects include fun(d)-raising efforts for the Terrascopaedia, 25 years of good clean fun and Pressing Matters featuring a host of Terrascopic performers. The Phoenix Cube is one of Lewis’s aforementioned pseudonyms and here he explores the electronic and drone side of his fertile musical mind.

     The title track opens with a hypnotic spoken-word intro about playing in the sandbox, carefully placing stones into works of art - “think about that” is the repeated mantra that weaves around bells, gongs, and percussive effects. The vibe reflects Hawkwind’s ‘You Shouldn’t Do That’ vocal groove that becomes more than just a lyric, but a vital component of the music. A gentle rainfall battles arcade electronic bursts as the song fades into the cosmos.

     ‘Nothing New’ is a more traditional folk tune with a druggy Stonesy vibe a la ‘No Expectations’ with waves and sea gulls adding a nostalgic cloak, and the epic 14-minute ‘Awake The Sleeper’ is an ambient collection of soothing sounds, atmospheric tinkles, and swirling electronics bleeps and bloops that are rather contraindicative to a good night’s sleep but may assist those late night after-party come downs. A 21st century update to the KLF’s Chill Out sessions (with a Giorgio Moroder chaser)!

     ‘Alone’ is as paranoid as it’s title suggests, with alien encounters (“We are not alone” is a recurring warning) and electronic madness run amok, but the birdsong and gentle organ flourishes that welcome ‘Stillness’ is a comfort, like revisiting Roger Waters’s ‘Grantchester Meadows’ in the summertime.

(Jeff Penczak)



KITCHEN CYNICS / MARGERY DAW / GREY MALKIN - WEEPING STONES

Available on Cruel Nature

So what have we here? A faery cat and (to be polite) an “untidy woman” discussing politics in the kitchen at parties? Nae, it’s three of Scotland’s most enigmatic multidimensional folk artists armed with a psychedelic brush to paint images and sounds with ambient textures, magical conjurings, and a wee venture into other-wierdly forests populated with ravens, rams, ghosts, and lynching ladies for good measure. All in the “spirit” of good clean fun, of course! There’s a cornucopia of instruments producing these beautiful sounds, including chimes, phonofiddles, zithers (Daw), acoustic guitars, pianets, and whistles (Alan “Kitchen Cynics” Davidson), and electric guitars, mandolin, synths, and xylophones (Malkin), so the room is constantly filled with a joyful noise.

     By way of an introduction, Kitchen Cynics is, of course Terrastock veteran Alan Davidson whose ever-expanding discography exceeds three figures (and those are just the ones he released on his own Les Enfants Du Paradiddle imprint!) This is the trio’s first collaborative release for the Newcastle tape label Cruel Nature, although they have issued several of Davidson’s previous releases. Malkin may be familiar to readers from his numerous projects, including The Hare And The Moon, The Black Swan Triad, Meadowsilver, and currently Widows Weeds. Davidson and Malkin actually met at a Shirley Collins’ comeback concert and have since collaborated on a half dozen albums. Their series of ghost-themed lathe-cut 7” singles on the wonderful Reverb Worship label is particularly noteworthy and have just (2 February) been reissued on CD (with bonus tracks) as We Are All Ghosts by Woodford Halse offshoot Fenny Compton. This is where the trio first performed together, as Daw added spoken word and theremin to several of the Davidson/Malkin ghost tracks.

     Daw, a veteran of the ’70s Notting Hill scene predominantly sets spoken-word pieces to sound collages. Davidson and Daw met at our Woolf 2 festival and her work has also been issued on Reverb Worship. The duo also collaborated several times and last year’s No Bigger Fools, originally a streaming-only release on Shambotic has been reissued on CD by the Norwegian label Aaraas Platemakar, which was specifically formed for this release. Now that’s a dedicated fan!

     And now to the music at hand. ‘Changeling’’s haunting, weeping synths, tinkling bells, and Daw’s delicately recited lyrics (from the viewpoint of a mother who suspects that her baby is a changeling left by the fairies) combine for an eerie introduction to the collection which smoothly segues into the perfectly titled ‘Autumn Melancholy’, an evocative tale from Daw backed by soft whistles, chimes, and Davidson’s forlorn whistles adding a fine, Gaelic touch. There’s a bit of a Wicker Man aura hovering over ‘The Black Ram Of Dunoon’, imbuing the album with a hint of a Hauntological atmosphere combined with a love of Scottish folk mysteries and mythologies.

     Elements of the work of Alison O’Donnell (Mellow Candle, et. al.) float into my mind during tracks like ‘An Ancient Ghost’, and fans of The Owl Service, Dodson and Fogg, and United Bible Studies will likewise feel at home amidst these comfortable, alt-folk surroundings. Nasty goings-on precipitate a hasty retreat from the evil that lurks within the ‘Lammas Fayre’ and the ‘Ladies Who Lynch’ - a veritable horror show of Hammer-like proportions, based on Malkin’s recent visit to the annual August Fayre festivities in St. Andrews!

     ‘Margery In Union Terrace Gardens’ feels like a field recording accompanied by ambient atmospherics that add up to a perfect walk in the recently reopened regenerated sunken Victorian gardens in Aberdeen. In fact, some of the sounds you hear are Daw “playing” the large chime bars that children use to create improvised tunes. ‘The Earl Of Moray’ is a bit of history revived from the the old Scottish ballad ‘The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray’ dating back to the early 17th century. Who says you can’t pepper your musical endeavours with a wee bit of education, particularly as an antidote to the eerie sound effects-laden philosophical wanderings of ‘The More I Think The Worse It Gets.’ The gentle traditional lullaby ‘Sweet Primroses’ holds its head high among previous versions from the likes of Shirley Collins, Fairport Convention, June Tabor, and The Dubliners.

     This extraordinary listening experience comes to an end with ‘Red’ which combines all that has come before - spoken word, hallucinatory ambient sound collages, whistles, tinkles, acoustic guitar, etc. in a hypnotic wyrd folktronica sandwich which will surely feed (and fill) your head with the sounds of yesterday combined with the atmosphere of today’s experimental adventurousness that’s perfect fodder for the Terrascope faithful!
(Jeff Penczak)



VARIOUS ARTISTS – SACRED SONGS OF MARY DEVOTION

(CD, Digital on Valley Entertainment)

 

This is a collection of mostly choral works in the sacred space, sung, as the title implies, in devotion to Mary.  Its release was timed for the arrival of Easter, though with our apologies, this review just missed the holiday. 

 

Here comes another apology – your scribe is perhaps the least qualified person ‘round these parts to review this album; wrong language, wrong religion, no familiarity with the liturgical basis, etc.  And yet, I found these works moved me to my core.

 

So, I’m afraid I can only go on feel.  But what a warm feeling it is.  Just as simply walking into a majestic cathedral and taking in all the surroundings can instantly fill one with its holiness, these ten beautiful pieces grip the listener with a sacred spirit, one which does not abate for its 52 minutes.  In fact, that air of sanctification can swell and envelop the listener in its embrace.

 

The album is part of a Sacred Songs series, and was compiled by Ellen Holmes.  Performed mostly by choirs gathered from around Europe, some of the works are performed a capella, others have a low drone in the background, while others include a small string section.  They fill you with peace in their stirring performances.  Some are even secular, such as David Darling’s instrumental “The Beauty of All Things” performed by a string quartet.

 

Trying to choose favorites completely misses the point, as, despite coming from ‘various artists,’ it’s a holistic work, unified by its devotional subject.  But if I must, “Hymn of the Cherubim from Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” performed by Norway’s Kammerkoret Aurum, is especially stirring, as is Renaissance composer Alonso Lobo’s “Versa est in Luctum,” performed by England’s Monteverdi Choir.  “Caritas Abundat in Omnia,” originally a text written by German Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen around 900 years ago, is performed with reverence and grace by Spanish husband and wife Maite Itoiz and John Kelly.  She sings in her gorgeous soprano, while he provides a light drone accompaniment.  It’s one of those tracks resounding with the deep echo of a cavernous cathedral.

 

The only track I was familiar with coming in was “Ave Maria,” and despite it being an all-time personal favorite, ironically, it’s the track here I least enjoyed.  I felt the vocalist was trying to sound too beautiful; this is a piece where Schubert’s timeless composition and its hallowed subject should be the focus, not the vocalist drawing attention to themselves.  Or maybe I’m being too hard.

 

Sacred Songs of Mary Devotion is a digital release according to its BandCamp page.  However, I was able to spy a CD version available on some sites.  The collection is soul-cleansing and its compelling performances leave the listener in a state of deep peace and piety.  Rock and Roll can wait for a minute.


(scroll down! Rock 'n' roll is thankfully much less than a minute away! - Phil)

 

(Mark Feingold)



BETTY - HANDFUL

(RidingEasy Records)

 

Betty was a band out of Pasadena, California, who played biker bars and dive joints.  This is a re-release of their lone recording, a 1971 private press record of which 200 copies were made, and 13 original copies remain in circulation.  They played a greasy brand of beer swilling hard boogie rock, somewhat reminiscent of Canned Heat and others.

 

Lead singer and guitarist Anthon Davis sounds like he’d downed a few pints on the way to the studio, plus a few more in it, and we’re all the better for it.  The guitars are drenched in the kind of fuzz, distortion and wah-wah they seem to have perfected in ’71 and never bettered, and the rollicking piano and Hammond rounds out the boogified sound.  While some of the songs are straight-ahead hard rock, others are in almost a singalong form, dressed in distortion and fuzz.  And it’s all about good times.

 

The subject matter within is, shall we say, of its time.  The impossibly male chauvinist cover tells you all you need to know what was on these dudes’ minds, frequently with song lyrics to match.  Hey, #MeToo was safely at least 45 years in the future.  On lead track “Boogie With You,” Anthon Davis sings “You’re the best woman that I’ve ever seen…or at least that I’ve had.”  And on “Handful (Of Love),” he emotes “Your woman’s cryin’?  Give ‘er a shove.  And get yourself a handful of love.”  Good grief, any minute now, I fear the management might come shut me down and confiscate my Smith-Corona...

 

On “Harley Perdoo,” he comes to the bar (where else) with vengeance on his mind in search of the titular character, who runs a sawmill on up the road, for chewing him out.  And on a record like this, you just have to a song about rolling on down the highway, don’t you?, because well, that’s the law.  “High Rollin’ on the Freeway” more than suffices.

 

Closer “Lights Gonna Shine” is about as distant an outlier from the other tracks as I’ve ever heard on an any album.  It’s almost like it’s a different band and a different album.  The singer sounds like late ‘60s comeback Elvis doing a piano-led power ballad.  But no, that’s actually the band’s other guitarist Mike McMahon giving it his all.

 

I can imagine more than a few beer bottles crashing over heads while Betty performed in their barreling style on a makeshift stage in the back of the bar, with a clutch of hogs parked out front.  Handful ain’t the best album of 2024, or 1971 either.  But it’s damn fun, and thank goodness we’ve got it.

 

(Mark Feingold)



THE UTOPIA STRONG – THE BBC SESSIONS
(LP/CD/DL from Rocket Recordings)

Cast your mind back, if you can be bothered, to the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and the end of those seemingly interminable on-off lockdowns. One of my reintroductions to indoor gigs was a fantastic evening at a (shamefully) sparsely attended Ludlow Assembly Rooms and which provided a prime example of just how powerful and moving The Utopia Strong sound in an intimate concert environment. Recorded for BBC Radio 6’s Marc Riley programme (and cheekily spoofing the design of the Peel Session covers of yore) these five tracks capture The Utopia Strong in a quasi-live environment and which extends their musical parameters beyond even that which they have thus far delivered.

Many will be familiar with the names of bandmembers Steve Davis and Kavus Torabi, the latter being the one-man cottage industry who has served with Knifeworld, The Cardiacs, The Holy Family, Guapo, as a solo artist and DJ of distinction and who leads the current iteration of Gong. Quite what he does with his afternoons is anyone’s guess. It is, though, the comparatively unsung ‘Third Man’, Michael York (Coil, Teleplasmiste) who often shines most brightly here, particularly when deploying his hand-made pipes such as on ‘Lamp of Glory’, where he lends a folksy edge occasionally elevating to a whirligig, and transforming what might otherwise have been a pleasant enough if workaday ‘wee-boing’ workout. It follows neatly from the Harmonia-style, signal pulses and mini arpeggios of ‘Miniature Citadels’ which serves as the foundation on which yet more intricate and edifying structures will be constructed.

‘Disaster 2’ is the only recognisable title from either of their two studio albums to feature here, and on which organ drones and pipes envelop Davis’ playful modular synth beeps. It’s longer though no less stately or bucolic than on ‘International Times’, and just as gratifying. The floating ‘The Tower is Locked’ glows faintly at first before shimmering into an eerie twilight (or dawn, if you prefer your glass half full), replete with moaning chants that build gradually to vie for centre stage. York’s intervention on percussion at just after halfway prevents this from being wholly mediative sit-in around the flickering candle, as he not only introduces a further note of dramatic tension but coaxes the rest of the band into a canter. Finally, there’s ‘Weather All’ (notice what they did there, reader) referencing both the late, great producer, and is ultimately posthumous Conveanza festival which they played in September 2022 amidst a biblical downpour. Here, wordless vocals and ambient drones bleed into dark edginess made flesh with skittery synths, guitar and glissando. It’s a stirring 12 minutes or so and a fabulous way to play out.

All too often these archive/session recordings feature comfortable, familiar selections and serve as stopgaps pending the release of new material leases or simply as a means of papering over prolonged periods of inactivity. This is something altogether different and special, too – non-album selections, a live sound and craftsmanship to marvel at. Summer will surely beckon at some stage as will the prospect of another The Utopia Strong appearance at Kozfest, to which I eagerly look forward. As the old song goes, feed me ‘til I want no more. And then some.

(Ian Fraser)



DONOVAN’S BRAIN - FIRE PRINTING

(Available on Career Records)

A true sign of a dedicated band is its ability to soldier on in the face of adversity. Never is this more apparent than our Terrastock friends from Montana, Donovan’s Brain. In the past three years, not one, not two,  but three key elements of the band’s history passed away, bassist Tom Stevens, drummer Ric Parnell, and songwriter/guitarist Bobby Sutliff. Never ones to rest on past laurels, mainstays Ron Sanchez and Scott Sutherland picked up the pieces and, with the aid of friends old (fellow Terrastock performer Scott McCaughey from Minus Five and Young Fresh Fellows) and new (drummer Joe Adragna) stepped up to fill the enormous gap. The result is their sixteenth album. Utilising previous recording sessions, Parnell appears on more than half the tracks (Donovan’s Brain are well-known for their recording techniques and often have albums’ worth of material to choose from when preparing new releases). Sutliff’s presence is felt throughout, particularly on Beatlesque tribute ‘Hey Bobby!’

     The latest offering is a three-part suite of sorts, but don’t think “prog” and head for the eject button. The Brain’s music has always been built around melodies and Sanchez and Sutherland’s guitar interplay, so that’s your blueprint to build upon. Deniz Tek (Radio Birdman) drives the bus on ‘Paper Pilots Pushing’ with a screaming solo - tasteful, sinewy, and just the right amount of “dirty ass rock and roll” to prevent watch-checking. Sutherland’s own guitar pyrotechnics wend their way through ‘Scram The Reactor’ like Hendrix and Neil Young throwing down the gauntlet and challenging each other to a little string bending contest. Sanchez’s heartfelt lyrical tribute to Sutliff is a melancholic sendoff with vocals and piano just this side of one of Ian Hunter’s romantic ballads we love so much. ‘Unreal’ is another Sutherland pop classic, head nodding and toe tapping, with one-man rhythm section Adragna driving it home with his walking bass lines and snappy drum work.

     Adragna’s vocals are a little overshadowed by Sanchez’s 12-string on ‘Sunset Heart’ but there’s a soft undertow to the dreamy vibe that imbues a nice Church-like glow, Marty Willson-Piper’s jangly groove sets a signpost and Sanchez delivers the goods. ‘How To Leave Connecticut’ is one of those lazy, hazy bluesy drunken swaggers the Stones excelled at  Parnell’s jackhammer drumming has never been more powerful than on ‘Mirror Pieces’, featuring words and vocals by Tony Miller dropping by from Kentucky rockers Ideal Free Distribution. ‘Stay Strong’, Sutherland’s tribute to his Llama bandmate Jim Hunnicutt who died last year is a dirgy funereal march with Sanchez’s mourning mellotron and Scott’s weeping delivery standing strong in the face of adversity and unbearable sorrow. I might want this one played at my funeral.

     There’s an expansive vibe to ‘Spent All Her Time’, a golden oldie written about 20 years ago. It still retains the ghost of its original formulation as part of a suite that was to include ‘After The Main Sequence’ (which ultimately landed on 2009’s Fires Which Burn Brightly.) It’s rebirth in 2009 with Parnell was updated with Adragna’s vocals and it works perfectly in its current surroundings. The newest track just mixed a few months ago is Sanchez’s eerie, avant garde solo experimentation ‘An Echo Of Apology.’ Sleepy, drawn out vocals body swerve elastic synths, fx-laden guitars, and headswirling histrionics that are the perfect embodiment of that old studio banter on Tommy James and The Shondells’ ‘Sugar On Sunday’: “Don’t worry about it guys, it’s all in the mix.” Coming full circle, the album ends on another string-shedding incident, ‘The Drumshanbo’ from Adragna, with Joe and Ron trading firebreathing shards of metallic crunch, distorted vocals, and proto metal shenanigans that add a little punky spunk to the proceedings and open up new vistas for future endeavours.

     So despite all the heavy emotional traffic that weaves through the album, the new lineup comes through with shining colours, delivering a strong album in spite of its birthing pains. The band seems stronger than ever with Sanchez stepping aside for more input and songwriting from Sutherland and Adragna, establishing the blueprint for future albums which they are already planning and recording.

(Jeff Penczak)