Album Review: Blanket – How To Let Go

Review from Ben Forrester

Blanket pretty much exploded onto the alt-rock scene at the start of last year with their debut EP ‘Our Brief Encounters‘. The Blackpool based outfit are made up of four musicians who had been playing in bands of varying styles for years, finally combining forces for their most ambitious project. To be fair, Blanket have not fucked around since their formation. Last year saw the quartet tour hard in support of the EP, ink a deal with Music For Nations and finish work on this here debut full length.

How To Let Go‘ is an album that tugs at your heart strings from the word go. Its title track opens up with a sky scraping piece of post-rock; dramatic piano chords and soaring guitar work fill up your ears, sounding like the musical equivalent of standing at the edge of the biggest mountain with your arms aloft. It’s that sense of euphoria that runs through the record, coupled with theatrical twists and shimmering melodic motifs that pack an emotional punch. If you enjoy the orchestral like majesty of Maybeshewill or possibly the more considered, electronic pulse of later day 65daysofstatic, you’ll get a real buzz from this.

There’s quite a few reference points on this album I’ve picked up on, but it’s when Blanket start combining sounds together that this piece really starts to shine. ‘Worlds Collide‘ brings vocoders into the mix for some purely stunning harmonic results, ‘This Moment Right Here‘ really lets rip with more building vocal work punctuated by a colossal riff, while ‘Let The Sleepers Awake‘ starts with a melodic hardcore inspired melody. It’s these little glimpses into different sonic pallets that keeps it varied and interesting.

Probably the most striking moment in the tracklist is penultimate track ‘A Sky Filled With Ghosts’. It’s reminiscent of alt-rock weirdos Mew in places, especially in the sweet falsetto vocal delivery, while its instrumental flickers from subtly textured indie-rock to hard hitting alt-rock. But it’s the return of the vocoded vocals that make for an extremely climatic conclusion that is nothing short of hair raising. I remember seeing the band play this live last year and was hoping that it would sound just as eventful as I remembered.

Many have called Blanket a cinematic rock act and you can clearly tell that a lot of these songs have been composed with either imagery in mind or inspired by film. I think that’s part of its charm, it’s a very widescreen sounding piece and each track paints a vivid picture. I read that the band formed ideas for the album by jamming in their home conservatory, inspired by watching life go by, concentrating on the skyline. It’s that visual that sells this album to me – it might not have the most original sound, but feelings of ambition and emotion flow thick and fast through it.

The stronger moments on ‘How To Let Go’ come from when Blanket are either rocking out or letting the vocals come through, but I do think they tend to let the post-rock rule book get in the way at times. However, in the same breath, it’s the restraint into these neat little alt-rock nudges coupled with truly stunning production that makes for a genuinely compelling and effective debut.

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Album Review: Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel

Review from Ben Forrester

The sound of a guitar being down tuned acts as the opening moments of ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel‘, the second album from song writing maverick Courtney Barnett. In complete seriousness, I got a total doom-rock vibe in these first five seconds; it’s an instant scene setter for something dark and gloomy. But as a slacker style guitar melody comes in, we are immediately thrown back into the hazy indie-pop world we’ve come to adore from Courtney. There is a tension and an atmosphere to ‘Hopefulessness‘ however that puts an edge to her usual wry demeanour. With self-assuring lines like “you know it’s okay to have a bad day”, this track comes from a personal place, making me think that the album’s title could play a big part in its lyrical narrative.

This assumption seems correct as the album progresses, thematically centred around Courtney’s inner thoughts and feelings on both a personal and world wide level. As expected, it’s the more politically charged moments that pack the biggest punch. First single ‘Nameless, Faceless’ leads the way, calmly calling out internet trolls in the verses before elevating into a fuzz-rock slap of a chorus as CB waxes lyrical on gender equality. Then there’s ‘I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’, a straight up punk-rock banger that spits in the face of misogyny, matching the sarcastic snarl of debut album hit ‘Pedestrian At Best‘.

There is an undeniably fierce energy that runs alongside this record that we saw only glimpses of on its predecessor. This isn’t a Courtney Barnett punk record per say, but it feels a lot more jacked up and direct. It reminds me somewhat of that latest Spook School record in places; although it’s covered in breezy indie-punk instrumentals, its subject matter is somewhat more serious.

Crippling Self Doubt And A General Lack Of Self Confidence‘ acts as the best example of this, making a sprightly, punked up pop song out of mental health issues. But personally, I think this is the right approach to address something that so many people struggle with; it should be a pop song, it needs to be sang out and we all need to sing the cheery chorus refrain of “I don’t know anything” together! ‘City Looks Pretty‘ is similar in its execution, starting off with an up tempo indie pop groove, shakers going mad, but with a reflective chorus and a slowed down outro, with Courtney the most open and honest she’s ever been, but never overbearing. It’s actually extremely comforting.

But as I say, this isn’t just punk melancholia and Courtney does take it down a notch for some really beautiful, affecting moments. ‘Need A Little Time‘ is a bittersweet pop ballad about trying to cut yourself some slack and provides a gorgeous chorus sprinkled with warm organ chords. Closing track ‘Sunday Roast‘ leads a laid back yet positive conclusion to the album, floor toms rumbling with electric guitar leads lightly soaked in reverb as it closes on the harmonious refrain of “Keep on keeping on, you know you’re not alone‘”. I’ve always enjoyed CB’s mellow moments, but with this added up-front edge, these are the moments that really take a hold on the listener, feeling like a friend wrapping a blanket around you on a cold evening.

My first thoughts on Tell Me How You Really Feel were that it’s got bigger tunes, punchier lyrics and some lovely little dynamic shifts. Although this is all true after several more listens, it completely opens itself up to you the more you listen. It gives you a kick up the arse when you need it, but it also gives you a sincere cuddle. The fact that it manages to be so fluid in its structure is the mark of its talented creator, thanks to Courtney’s almost candid charm. The levels are just right here, it’s got the perfect amount of all the emotions we feel in this current climate, from the content to the aggressive. Wrap this in a delicious layer of catchy guitar pop melodies and you’ve got another flawless set from Courtney Barnett.

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Album Review: Now, Now – Saved

Review from Ben Forrester

It’s been six years since the last Now, Now album ‘Threads‘ and it seems like the path to the Minnesota duo’s latest chapter hasn’t been as smooth as they may have hoped for. KC and Brad have overcome line up changes and writers block to create their third LP ‘Saved‘. Although there are nods to their low key indie past, there’s a push into new sonic territories here that brings Now, Now welcomingly into present day.

The simplistic acoustic strums of opening track ‘SGL‘ may seem familiar to their earnest rock past, but it’s as the track progresses that you notice a different tone to its delivery. The production is glossier, the vocals are right up front and it’s got a right ear worm of a vocal hook. From the off, it’s clear that Now, Now are onto something bigger.

Tracks like ‘AZ‘ and ‘Set It Free‘ have got that indie swagger going on, with muted electric guitars and a stomping drum beat, but as far as instrumentation goes, the college rock tones of yore are fairly subtle. This record is all about luscious synth pads and 808’s. It’s not a total reinvention as those textures were present on Threads, but they’ve been brought to the front on this record for a fresh, sparkly synth-pop spin on their sound. ‘Yours‘ is a fine example of this and sounds like the bubble gum ballad that should have been on the last Haim record.

This is a huge pop record, make no mistake, but what I find so interesting is how the band still manage to keep that understated, fragile tone that we’re used to hearing. Take ‘Window‘ and ‘Holy Water‘; both beautiful, dreamy pieces of electro-pop but both featuring these massive choruses that sound like the equivalent of jumping into a cool pool on a scorching day. There is a really interesting dynamic present throughout the record of writing catchy pop songs, but at the same time keeping their delivery luscious and sensual.

Now, Now have always carried an atmosphere in their sound and this record puts you right in the middle of KC’s diary, as she reflects on simpler times and delves deep into relationship anxieties; “If I’m so perfect baby, then how come you don’t want me?” is a heartbreaking extract to dramatic closer ‘Powder‘. KC has always written from personal experience, but with her vocals so up front, it feels like she’s really pouring her heart out here. It never feels too intrusive though, thanks to the gorgeous, sun soaked instrumentals that back them up.

This is very much an updated look on the Now, Now sound, still full of melody and melancholy, but with a tighter grip on hooks and completed with a shinier sonic coating. In short, ‘Saved‘ is a beautifully shimmering piece of modern electro pop and is bound to be the soundtrack to your summer road trip.

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EP Review: I Feel Fine – Long Distance Celebration

Review from Ben Forrester

What’s cool about the UK alt-rock scene at the moment is the amount of independent record labels that are so eager to champion new bands and give them the push needed to obtain a wider appeal. Failure By Design Records are one of those labels and put a lot of faith in brand new music, wanting to be there from the very beginning.

I Feel Fine are Failure By Design’s latest signing and are ready to explode into your lug holes with their debut EP ‘Long Distance Celebration‘. The Brighton based twiddle-punk quartet have only been a band for a couple of years and this record is their very first set of recordings (to our knowledge, at least).

Long Distance‘ serves as the intro track to the record, swirling in atmospheric, lavish chords and cymbal splashes. Intertwining guitar twiddles saunter in before we hear an impending pool of feedback that leads us straight into ‘Beached Community’. This is where the band’s nostalgic sound really comes into play, with a sprightly drum track, sharp guitar twiddles and passionate gang vocals. The gang vocals stay throughout the rest of the record and I love the sense of unity they bring, it’s very reminiscent of Leeds heroes Crash Of Rhinos and adds to this rather anthemic stature of the songs.

Everyday Safari‘ and ‘Lifer‘ follow suit in bringing the emo-punk energy in full force. The former is all about its muscular drum track and sharp intertwining guitar melodies, while the latter has this post-hardcore tinge that comes emotionally charged and full of fun little twiddles. Compositionally, I Feel Fine inject a lot of twists and turns into their tunes and melodically there is so much to take on here. It never feels overbearing though and each section is well thought out, helping to launch these frantic, bursting sonics into the stratosphere.

Pan For Gold‘ closes the record in your classic sprawling, epic fashion! It brings us in softly, which actually acts as a nice respite from the raucous noise that has come before it. But midway through, a momentum starts to build as gang vocals are screamed louder while the drums are hit harder, which then explode into this gloriously uplifting melodic section. The band then bring it back down to finish the record as it began, with a distant yet beautiful guitar passage. Although I Feel Fine are noisy buggers, they do know how to do the pretty, twinkly emo thing really well and in places there are some really beautiful melodic ideas.

Long Distance Celebration‘ is a debut fizzing with passion and energy, with well thought out tunes delivered with on point musical references. The four members in the band seem in sync with each other as a group and again, the word unity really springs to mind when hearing this record. Basically, I Feel Fine are a gang I wanna be in and with a set this well executed and heart wrenching, you’ll soon want to be too!

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Live Review: Mastersystem + PAWS at Deaf Institute in Manchester 25 April 2018

Review from Ben Forrester

Despite being just over a quarter of the way through 2018, I can tell you that Mastersystem have already made one of the best albums this year. The super-group quartet, consisting of members of Frightened Rabbit, Editors and Minor Victories, exploded into our ears with debut effort ‘Dance Music‘ just a few weeks back, a furiously fuzzy rock record packed with soaring melodies and heartfelt lyrics. To celebrate the release of this triumphant release, the band are embarking on a short headline tour, playing some stages that most members haven’t set foot on in an extremely long time.

I get to the Deaf Institute nice and early in order to catch tonight’s support, PAWS. It acts as a super nice addition to have the Glaswegian trio playing tonight, as I’ve followed them since their 2012 debut ‘Cokefloat!‘ and haven’t seen them play live in a good few years! It’s been two years since their last effort, third album ‘No Grace‘, and naturally the three-piece have been working hard on its follow up.

Tonight’s set is mainly made up of new material which harks back to the fuzzy indie-punk of earlier material, moving slightly away from the punk-pop pomp of their latest LP. The new songs are fast, catchy and a whole heap of fun – I think it was the track ‘No One Knows‘ that pricked up my ears the most, with a super cool little guitar melody driving it home!

To our delight, PAWS smash out a few hits from all three records. We get the super anthemic pop of ‘Tongues‘, the mile-a-minute indie-rock rush of ‘Sore Tummy‘ and they close on ‘N/A’ and ‘No Grace‘, which are played loud and proud as all three members head bang in unison. I’d nearly forgotten how fun PAWS are as a live band and with a set as tight and vibrant as this, I am very excited to hear album number four and eager to see them smash up sweaty live rooms in its support!

The Mastersystem boys set up promptly, frontman Scott shaking his head with a wry smile as he enters the stage to set up whilst a Frightened Rabbit tune blares from the PA. He later confirms that wasn’t his intention and doesn’t want the crowd to think he is that egocentric. In fact, Scott keeps up the witty patter throughout the band’s set tonight as he jokes, “We’ve only the one album, so I’ve got to pad it out”.

The in-between song chat is well received tonight, as Scott introduces the band and announces that founding member Justin has a replacement for this tour as he has “better things to do”. Someone from the crowd quickly shouts “He’s a fucking wanker” to which Scott quickly replies “He is a fucking wanker!”, which is greeted by guffaws across the room. It’s clear that tonight is all about not taking things too seriously and simply having the best time.

Musically, the band sound HUGE! Tracks like ‘The Enlightenment’ and ‘Old Team‘ are scuzz-pop anthems, the guitars covered in this deliciously warm fuzz, while drummer Grant smashes the fuck out of his drum kit; it really is a glorious noise. To everyone’s delight, the band play the album front to back in the right order and it’s amazing to hear that it works just as well in a live setting as it does on the album.

The longer tunes like ‘Teething‘ and ‘Bird Is Bored Of Flying‘ both build to these incredibly uplifting passages, the latter making some of the crowd pump their fists and shout the words back – Scott, I’m included in this! There is something so affecting about these songs, I think it’s the mix of ferocious yet melodic instrumentals, mixed with sincere vocals and lyrics on mid 30’s anxieties that really hits home with a lot of tonight’s audience.

My only issue with Mastersystem is that they’re not a fully fledged band and this is just a side project. I really want to see them perform live more and release more music, because their live show is as stunning as their record. They play loudly, with passion and a real sense of lightheartedness and camaraderie between its members. With a show like tonight, it feels like Mastersystem have more to give and I hope they don’t leave it too long to indulge once again on record or live, with a masterclass in how to write and play the most honest rock music going.

Read our review of ‘Dance Music‘ here!

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Album Review: We Are Scientists – Megaplex

Review from Ben Forrester

Unlike the rest of the mid-naughties indie scene they originated from, We Are Scientists have steered away from the cash-in’s of reunions, reissues and anniversaries and have kept on delivering the goods. You can always count on the New York based duo to emerge every couple of years with a new record, usually boasting an arsenal of indie hits. It’s this consistency that has made them modern indie treasures and is why each new release is always awaited in anticipation.

It’s been a whole decade since the band released second album ‘Brain Thrust Mastery‘, which was quite a step up in sound from their floor filling debut. Although it still packed an indie-rock punch, sonically it was covered in this 80’s inspired glittery sheen, which the band have brought back for their sixth album ‘Megaplex‘.

The main difference with this new opus is the distinct influence of modern pop. Opening track ‘One In, One Out’ brings a charming electro pulse right up front, while ‘Heart Is a Weapon‘ takes on the 80’s synth sass that currently dominates the radio. It’s a welcome homage and doesn’t feel contrived or cringey, thanks to the band’s excellent song craftsmanship and knack for a catchy as hell earworm.

The main idea for this record is to either sink into a catchy hook, like on the sprightly ‘Not Another Word‘, or simply soak into a huge chorus like on ‘No Wait At Five Leaves‘. Although all the tracks are varied in sound, they’re all tied together with this glossy pop tone, all destined to be sang out loud with arms aloft, whether it’s at a show or in the shower.

It’s not all glitz and gloss however, as We Are Scientists do add some indie-rock bite with tracks ‘Your Light Has Changed‘ and ‘Now Or Never‘, bringing back the guitar driven crunch of earlier material. The former is probably one of the best rock songs they’ve written, complete with a driving chorus, while ‘Now Or Never‘ has this grungy opening that soars into a chunky chorus that recalls a deep cut from the ‘TV En Francais‘ record.

We Are Scientists have a reputation for being funny dudes, but they tend to keep their comic tendencies away from their song writing. ‘Megaplex‘ does see the band injecting some humour into proceedings however, whether it’s a tongue-in-cheek lyric, an over the top guitar solo or a cheeky synth line, there is an underlying sense of fun that runs throughout it. The band seem pretty unashamed in bringing the pop to the forefront here and sonically this is their most plush sounding set to date.

My thoughts on ‘Megaplex‘ are not too dissimilar from what I thought of its predecessor ‘Helter Seltzer‘; it carries some massive tunes, but some land better than others. But despite it not being straight bangers, it must be said that when it’s good, it’s great! We Are Scientists have written some of their catchiest hooks yet and the fact that they’ve pushed their sonic boundaries further whilst still trying to bring the party makes for a genuinely enjoyable return. It might not be for all fans, but if you’re ready to embrace some sparkly pop vibes, this record is sure to bring a big old summer sized grin to your mush.

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EP Review: The Hyena Kill – Spun

Review from Ben Forrester

I think it’s fair to say that The Hyena Kill are one of the hardest working rock acts in the UK. The Manchester based two piece are always up to something, whether it’s on the road or off it. Last year saw the duo beavering away on new material with the release of three new tracks, to give us a flavour of what to expect from the follow up of their explosive mini-album ‘Atomised‘. Having debuted some new songs at live shows towards the end of 2017, the band are finally ready to share with us their latest studio effort ‘Spun‘.

It was gonna take something pretty monstrous to follow up previous record opener ‘Crosses‘, but ‘Exit Mask‘ is a more than worthy opponent. With a huge riff and a pummelling drum track, this is the glass shattering opening we were hoping for. Although this is a fully raging track throughout, it’s when it climaxes to an even bigger, spikier riff towards its end that makes it clear that The Hyena Kill are taking absolutely no prisoners.

This idea is backed up with the utterly ferocious noise-rock assault of ‘Panic Womb’. Despite this being one of the tracks the band released last year, it is still the gnarliest tune they’ve penned, with guitarist/vocalist Steve giving his most terrifying vocal performance to date.

Pound Of Flesh‘ darts between about three or four different genres, from sassy blues rock to foot stomping hardcore and is a flamboyant beast of a track. Like ‘Exit Mask‘, it’s the end of the track that really drives home the brutality of The Kill’s new and improved heavier tone, as drummer Lorna beats the living shit out of her cymbals, whilst Steve is trying to cut his fingers open with another blistering riff.

What will probably blow away long term followers the most is the record’s centrepiece ‘Dare To Swim‘. Featuring the haunting yet beautiful vocal talents of Brutus drummer/vocalist Stefanie, ‘Dare To Swim’ is The Hyena Kill at their most epic. It starts with a post-rock inspired guitar refrain, with distant vocal coo’s, before it all comes tumbling down with crashing drums and the chunkiest guitar tone. After years of idolising Deftones, this is their sincerest homage to the Californian outfit and the results are simply stunning.

The Hyena Kill have never been ones to do things by halves, which is why ‘Spun‘ is an extremely hard hitting record. You can tell that the band have put every ounce of energy into its making and melodically, this composition is their strongest set. It’s all about the theatrics of the record that I love the most, its brooding, emotive and aggressive all at once; it’s fearless but also fearful. In short, The Hyena Kill have outdone themselves with an an absolutely massive EP that’s ready to give you the most satisfying sucker punch right in yer ear hole.

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