Tag Archives: 2005

Knifehandchop, Nervous Testpilot and The Nailbomb Cults

The Wheatsheaf, Oxford
13th November 2005

Tonight’s Vacuous Pop night would be a good case study for a scholar of the current state of laptop electronica. Knifehandchop and The Nailbomb Cults are at opposing ends of the spectrum, with Nervous Testpilot slotting somewhere in between.

Birthday boy The Nailbomb Cults is a complete aural onslaught – a disjointed crash of noise, cut-ups, mangled samples, frenetic beats and breaks, and so on. It’s not exactly commercial, and an immediate comparison with Aphex Twin springs to mind. The apparently random nature of the set becomes more cohesive a few tracks in, but it’s still hard to discern any sort of structure. However, the unpolished harsh, edgy sounds make the overall performance more interesting than it could be if it were dominated by drum and bass breaks and relentless gabba.

Knifehandchop is the epitome of smooth dance beats in comparison. Starting with dark hiphop rhythms and heavy vocal samples, he journeys through hard house, rap and drum and bass towards gabba – and back again. It’s a lot more coherent than TNC’s stuff, but seems to suffer from being more like a DJ set than his recorded output; tonight, the emphasis is on the audience rather than the inventiveness and creation he only shows glimpses of. Hooked on Ebonics stands out amongst the plethora of familiar samples.

Nervous Testpilot is tonight playing more from his recent game soundtrack EP Determinance than his earlier stuff. He’s not quite living up to his Venetian Snares and Autechre-influenced billing – the newer stuff is trancey, but amongst the build-ups and sweeps there are still traces of his trademark breaks, cut-ups, glitches and jazzy melodies. Spacetime (from Determinance) and the older Raiders of the Lost Arp demonstrate the development of his style, and in the process encroach into both The Nailbomb Cults and Knifehandchop territory.


From Nightshift, December 2005

Melanie C

The Zodiac, Oxford
2nd May 2005

The most successful and critically-acclaimed former Spice Girl, Melanie Chisholm sold 3 million copies of her first solo album, Northern Star, but was dumped by Virgin after the comparatively poor showing of 2003’s Reason. With true Girl Power, she self-financed the recent Beautiful Intentions. The Zodiac is a relatively lowly venue for the female with the most British number one co-writing credits.

There is no doubt that Melanie can sing. Her voice is immediately recognisable; from the opening number, the title track of the new album, it is clear she can work the microphone. She’s got all the poses – you can tell she was a dancer – and enunciates everything with feeling. The new stuff seems to have very personal and opinionated lyrics; she attacks Pop Idol-type programmes in recent single Next Best Superstar (bitter experience?) and presumably Virgin in next single Better Alone.

The slower Here & Now demonstrates her versatility; she could add her vocals to anything from rock to soul, though at times she lacks the rawness to complement that of her 5-piece band.

It seems as though she has finally found the sound and style to suit her with this album, but the material may just not be strong enough to sustain success in today’s market. She is obviously talented, but just can’t fit herself in: too cheery for rock fans, too rocky for pop fans, and with too much past for those unwilling to forgive her for the Spice Girls.

She is very bubbly and friendly when she talks to the crowd, which somewhat ruins the sexy and sensual persona she takes on during the songs. However, it is clear she has matured. Her past life may forever condemn her to a career of middling success; one hopes she can find the tunes to bring her what she deserves.


From Nightshift, June 2005

The Mission

The Zodiac, Oxford
8th September 2005

The Mission were formed by Wayne Hussey and the now-departed Craig Adams after leaving Sisters of Mercy in 1986; however, unlike the Sisters, they are still around, existing without impinging much on the public consciousness, though still much beloved by the sort who wear old Fields of the Nephilim tour t-shirts. As such, I’m expecting an 80s-style doom-laden dirge with impenetrable amounts of reverb and uninspired new material.

Today, however, new single Breathe Me In has today hit number one in the German alternative charts – not bad for a worldwide limited release of 3000. It appears that Wayne and co aren’t quite relics yet.

The driving rock of Beyond The Pale and Evangeline, with its Big Country tumbling drums, isn’t that interesting – even when the latter segues into Abba’s Gimme Gimme Gimme. The jangly guitar of Sea of Love resembles The Cult’s She Sells Sanctuary, and Hymn (for America) is almost heavy metal.

The Mission appreciate their support; after playing an old B-side, which singer/guitarist Wayne says only real fans will know, they launch into the more recognisable, commercial stuff, like Butterfly on a Wheel, heaped with reverb but stirring rather than melodramatic.

The Mission’s most successful – and most typical – tracks are the anthemic ones; Deliverance, Severina and Wasteland are impassioned, with rousing lyrics (“brother, sister, give me, give me deliverance…”), repetitive guitar riffs, driving basslines and more drums than cymbals. The second encore closes with the remixed version of Tower of Strength – their finest Temple of Love moment, complete with Ofra Haza-like wailing. The guitars layer over the dancey backing track and build to an epic crescendo… and then Wayne walks off and it’s all over.

The Mission are lot more accessible than the image or the legend has led me to expect. I can happily report that, here at least, all is well in Gothland.


From Nightshift, October 2005

King Biscuit Time

The Zodiac, Oxford
25th September 2005

Previously a side project, King Biscuit Time is now the main musical channel of ex-Beta Band frontman Steve Mason. Very much going it alone, he’s set up No Style – a subsidiary of Poptones – with fellow Scot Alan McGee to release his stuff.

King Biscuit Time isn’t a radical departure from the Beta Band’s folk hop; Mason’s soft voice and distinctive half-sung, half-spoken pseudo chanting float above dancehall-, reggae- and psychedelic folk-influenced sparse arrangements of scuzzy bass, crisp percussion and choppy electronica breakbeats. The styles vary, from the decidedly hip hoppy recent single, the political C I Am 15, to I Love You, a mellow layering of piano and syncopated bass. Mason pleases the crowd with acoustic treatments of Beta Band songs like Dr Baker, and finishes with a chilled reggae/calypso cover of Anarchy in the UK – a strange juxtaposition of lyrical intent and execution – before playing C I Am 15 again for no apparent reason.

King Biscuit Time comes across as an act that will divide people. There’s very little to criticise: the performance is accomplished, the beats tight, the repertoire varied and the lyrics aren’t banal. However, I think you either “get” it or you don’t – and I didn’t. Mason will attract enough of an existing Beta Band fanbase to keep him afloat (or at least make gig attendance look healthy), but King Biscuit Time might just be too much of an acquired taste (like the Beta Band often were) to really raise pulses. The music is just so unassuming and understated; if it were particularly emotive it would be far easier to make up your mind, but it just meanders pleasantly and confuses. Perhaps if Mason had more material – only 12 tracks are played tonight – it would be easier to be subjective.


From Nightshift, November 2005

Josh Rouse

The Zodiac, Oxford
17th July 2005

Josh Rouse is a Nebraska-born singer/songwriter who lived in Nashville for ten years (until recently). These things alone could point to a meld of standard country-tinged solo fare: kind of Willie Nelson meets Damien Rice. Happily, tonight Josh has brought his four-strong entourage to the Zodiac to quash any pessimistic expectations.

With Josh, the emphasis is on the song, rather than its constituent parts or sound, yet it’s not hard to pin down particular reference points. The influence of The Smiths and The Cure are as easy to detect as that of Neil Young and Bob Dylan; the results ramble between laid-back Bruce Springsteen (It’s The Nighttime), west-coast The Eagles-like soft rock (Streetlights), British indie (Winter in the Hamptons) and even soul (Come Back) and back again. Songs like Under Cold Blue Stars (the title track of his third album) are blissful and mellow – perfect summer afternoon lounging music – yet still work in the dark confines of the Zodiac.

Some of his more musically upbeat tracks have bittersweet lyrics, and vice versa; Under Your Charms sounds particularly sad, but is lyrically rather winsome and charming. He explores both sides of love; his most recent album, Nashville, followed his divorce, and My Love is Gone is as much a paean to that love of the past as Sad Eyes is to hopeful new beginnings. Both are delivered as personal narratives with full conviction, yet warmly rather than uncomfortably.

Josh certainly has the audience in his thrall; Nashville is his fifth album, and through sympathetic mediums like Radio 2 he has quietly yet steadily inspired much devotion while remaining relatively unknown.

While he may not be everyone’s cup of tea, tonight he works hard to convert the waverers; in Joshworld, it could be any time between now and the 1970s, but he certainly makes it a nice place to be.


From Nightshift, August 2005

I Am Kloot

The Zodiac, Oxford
16th April 2005

I don’t have high expectations of I Am Kloot; the Manchester trio have been around for 6 years and 3 albums, but haven’t significantly impinged on my, or the record-buying public’s, consciousness. They seem to be one of those bands who build up a loyal fanbase but never get big.

Suitably for a band who arrive on stage to a classical fanfare, their sound is larger than the sum of their parts (guitar/vocals, bass and drums, with occasional keyboards by the bassist), even on the more acoustic numbers. They are very much tune- and voice-led; the instruments follow and complement the vocals, rather than try to equal it or compete. Their songs are complex, melancholy stories of relationships and situations – sometimes kitchen-sink, sometimes more opaque, like the slow and sleazy, wry and acerbic Twist, a song, according to singer/guitarist Johnny Bramwell, about “fucking and disaster”. The boozy and bluesy The Stars Look Familiar and Storm Warning could be crooned by disillusioned bar philosophers at closing time.

Their twisted tales stick in the mind; each track never outstays its welcome – the melodies are never overdeveloped or flogged, and the lyrics are succinct and mysterious. Their set is a brisk 23 tracks long, drawing mostly from the current album Gods and Monsters and their first, Natural History.

Most memorable tracks seem to be the ones where something different happens – like cymbal-heavy jazzy drumming (Strange Without You), prominent falsetto (debut single To You) or a prominent keyboard riff (Gods and Monsters).

I Am Kloot’s strength is the fact that they are based around Bramwell, who is also the songwriter; in fact, they come across more like a solo act with a backing band at times. Despite never being upbeat, they’re endearing for their honesty and brevity; but those things may just be what prevents them from becoming big.


From Nightshift, May 2005

Eskimo Disco, Trademark and Script

The Exeter Hall, Oxford
2nd December 2005

Tonight’s Gappy Tooth Winter Warmer weekend warm-up is “electronica” in its broadest sense, as the line-up is decidedly eclectic.

Quintet Script have a female-male vocal dynamic which weaves around epic keyboard parts to produce something rather beautiful. Think The Magic Numbers covering Muse. The guitar leads more than the keyboard, which is a shame, as it makes them sound more folky and obscures some of the winsome tunes and chord progressions. Some of their songs are either too short or end in seemingly inappropriate places, which jars somewhat. It’s all an appealing jumble, though they could maybe do with a little more polish to define their sound.

It’s a mystery that Trademark aren’t more widely known. They are perfect synthpop; the newer stuff they play tonight (especially Where You Went Wrong and Stuck in a Rut) is more poppy and commercial than their earlier darker and moodier stuff, but still an exquisite example of the craft, and still exhibits their early 80s musical roots. Oli is an animated frontman, in contrast to his enigmatic Kraftwerk-esque bandmates, and they have the whole package sorted, from the suits to the plug logo. Lovely.

Eskimo Disco are one of those bands that have the pomp before the fame, but that may not necessarily be a bad thing: their swagger is compelling. They’re heading for the “spacerock” category, evoking Daft Punk, Blondie, Stevie Wonder and even Junior Senior without falling into the Babylon Zoo trap. There’s a hint of Bowie, especially (ironically?) in Japanese Girl, and the whole thing is flamboyant and fun, even the cover of The Final Countdown. Picture Perfect would be a fantastic plaintive pop song if it weren’t for the distracting talking bits and self-indulgent guitar solo, and What is Woman is the best song Giorgio Moroder never wrote. No doubt the Franz Ferdinand fans will discover them soon.


From Nightshift, January 2006

Big Speakers, Flooded Hallways and Capsky

The Cellar, Oxford
3rd June 2005

Opening this hip hop-flavoured Oxfordbands.com relaunch gig is Capsky, whose staccato lyrical patterning is layered over the guitar of Greasy Red and their interesting glitchy electronic Aim-like backing. The contrast works quite well, but the vocals may be suited to something less mellow, and the backing could sound good on its own in an Ulrich Schnauss way. It’s all a little unpolished and the delivery could be more confident, but promising.

Flooded Hallways are similar in composition but differ in style; their looped samples become quite wearing after a while and they sometimes stray into The Streets territory, but tracks like After All and Formulae show off clever rhymes and nice rhythms. The two rappers’ voices work play off each other dynamically, but the whole thing would work better with fewer monotonous loops.

Even though they’re an MC down tonight, Big Speakers still barely squeeze their 7-strong personnel and equipment into the Cellar. The instrumentation blends a wide range of styles – hip hop, soul, jazz, funk and even ska – by way of synth, guitar, bass, scratching and sample sounds, while MCs Tomohawk and Soulface’s aggressive Gravediggaz/Wu Tang Clan-like vocals both meld nicely and contrast sharply with the more laid-back Fragger and soulful yet underused AJ. Always tight despite their size, tracks like Lately, Apologies, Overpaid Slave and Apocolypse Rising are catchy and memorable, though still have heartfelt and provocative lyrics.

In some ways it would be a shame to deny a larger audience the intimacy and immediacy of Big Speakers experiences like tonight’s; however, their conviction, and how much they care about both the music and their message, will be palpable however large the audience is. It’s such a delight and so refreshing to come across an act not frightened to mix genres, be outspoken and experiment.


From Nightshift, July 2005

Thirteen Senses

The Zodiac, Oxford
8th March 2005

Imagine the agony: four Cornwall youngsters meet at college, find common musical ground, form a band, draw their songwriting inspiration from their surroundings, spend years crafting their sound, move to London and get signed – only to find a trio called Keane occupying their space in the MOR indie scene. Those Cornwallians are Thirteen Senses, and this story tells you most of what you need to know about their sound.

However, all this doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed immediately. Their piano-based similarity to Keane may not be deliberate, but an unfortunate coincidence. Their non-piano tracks nod towards Coldplay and Elbow, but again it’s probably not deliberate; just a case of growing up in the same country in the last few decades, drawing on the same influences.

Singer Will South directs proceedings, either from his Korg or guitar – roughly half of the set is driven by each. Will introduces their first top 20 hit, Thru The Glass, as one of their few “jumping around” numbers; it’s also the only one I recognise, and the most memorable – anthemic rather than delicate, positive rather than plaintive. New single The Salt Wound Routine, on the other hand, is string-laden emotion, and best just described as “nice”.

For the four of them, they do manage to make an assured, large sound; nevertheless, it’s evocative, like a soundtrack to a childhood, though any child involved might be a bit bored after the 15 songs played tonight. The way they repeat hooks and layer parts thankfully makes the flat melodies a bit more listenable.

One supposes that their debut album – The Invitation – is a grower, but I don’t know whether I’d be willing to investigate; my initial impression hasn’t really left me hungry for more.


From Nightshift, April 2005


Eskimo Disco, Trademark and Script – The Exeter Hall, Oxford – 2nd December 2005

Knifehandchop, Nervous Testpilot and The Nailbomb Cults – The Wheatsheaf, Oxford – 13th November 2005

King Biscuit Time – The Zodiac, Oxford – 25th September 2005

The Mission – The Zodiac, Oxford – 8th September 2005

Josh Rouse – The Zodiac, Oxford – 17th July 2005

Big Speakers, Flooded Hallways and Capsky – The Cellar, Oxford – 3rd June 2005

Melanie C – The Zodiac, Oxford – 2nd May 2005

I Am Kloot – The Zodiac, Oxford – 16th April 2005

Thirteen Senses – The Zodiac, Oxford – 8th March 2005