Album Review: Gareth JS Thomas – The Incredible Years

Gareth JS Thomas has built a prolific and versatile catalogue in noise rock and post-punk bands, serving in Mayors of Miyazaki, Silent Front, Sly and the Family Drone, Action Beat and USA Nails. (Please note, the latest word from the Ministry of Culture is that we should all start saying people ‘serve in’ rather than ‘play in’ bands, in recognition of the costs musicians bear for the good of us all. I don’t make the rules. Consider yourselves notified.) On the most recent USA Nails record, ‘Life Cinema, in the Thomas-sung track ‘You Wish’ there are two lines that struck me: “In my dreams I am the second best noise artist in Mitcham” and “in my dreams I weep.” At first they sounded very funny to me, then, like all the best jokes, they started to seem deeper and sadder, about having and also being self-conscious about what are ultimately only mid-sized aspirations. Until about two weeks ago I didn’t know Thomas was in fact a noise musician. I’ve never been to Mitcham – I assume it’s somewhere over there in Europe Great Brexland – but having heard ‘The Incredible Years’, Thomas’ new solo EP, out now on Bezirk Tapes, it’s hard to imagine him coming second best in any music scene.

If you know Thomas’ bands, which you should, you might expect this EP to be loud, dissonant, and energetic. You’d be about half right. ‘The Incredible Years’ is dissonant and in a way high energy, but it’s a jittery, pent-up energy rather than the move-fast-destroy-all-obstacles ferocity of his other projects. Thomas trades distorted guitars for piano, making a sound that’s quieter and more introspective. There’s a lot of low chords with tons of sustain, and individual high pitched notes, some of them recorded backward, and with enough tinny reverb that they begin to edge up to shrieky. There are some gorgeous, ghostly tenor swells, like an otherworldly cousin to the cello, and there are mostly incomprehensible vocals – some moaning, some pitch shifted and distorted speech, and some monotone talking recorded so quietly that it’s more like muttering than actual communication.

I think my favourite song here is ‘Bows And Arrows Against The Lightning’, which spends about two minutes on some airy droning – a stretched out recording of a piano, I assume – and a repeated phrase low in the mix “I am healthy” or maybe “I am helpless” or “I am helping.”A percussive bass tone begins to fade in, getting louder and steadily sharper – sharp not in pitch but in the sense of cutting, the way a knife is sharp – as it gets more trebly and mid range for the song’s remaining two and a half minutes. It build and builds, increasing tension, then suddenly stops, with no resolution, allowing a brief moment of silence before the quieter and (only) slightly more at ease next song, ‘Century’.

On ‘Hyphen British’, which might also be my favourite, Thomas adds a drum set. He bangs on it like a proper rock drummer (which he is, having toured recently with Action Beat) but the rhythm is more circular than most rock – dunDUNdundunDUNdundunDUNdundun – with lots of toms and snare. The drumming bring a different energy to the composition but in a way that amplifies rather than conflicts with the droning feel of the EP. Just before the three minute mark the drums drop out, replaced by some distorted and largely unintelligible talking, maybe by a computer. I can pick out something about school and something “I don’t actually like.” I think I hear different and unpleasant bits each time I listen to this part. It’s disconcerting.

Thomas has made a striking video for ‘Hyphen British’ composed of x-rays and CT scans of his own body. In early 2018, he was on tour with his band Silent Front, and their van crashed. Thomas broke his neck. The record is shaped by that harrowing experience. He made it while convalescing, which required him to mostly stay indoors and move around less. That might explain some of the feelings ‘The Incredible Years’ conveys – loneliness, longing, frustration, a sense of being stuck.

In an interview on the Taker Wide podcast Thomas was relatively upbeat about the accident, saying that all things considered he’s lucky. In that interview he referred to the accident as an occupational hazard. That reminded me of a line sung by Freddy Vinehill-Cliffe, who serves in the no wave noise unit Thank: “tied to a chair, I am told that great works of art have come from my suffering, that it is for the greater good, and the future of music.” ‘The Incredible Years’ is a great work of art informed by Thomas’ injuries, and it’s a work of art that’s at least for the good of me personally (which is all I really mean when I say “the greater good” anyway). In the video for ‘Hyphen British’ he shows viewers some of those injuries, through the CT scans. That depiction is simultaneously intimate and only partially comprehensible. That’s a decent metaphor for this record: in some parts of the video I think we literally see Thomas’ heart, but we see it in an abstracted way that adds to rather than resolves ambiguity.

I was playing ‘The Incredible Years’ in my kitchen while making dinner and my six year old walked in, frowned, cocked her head, and asked “is this music creepy?” I said “what do you think, does this sound creepy to you?” “I’m not sure.” I think she’s onto something; she’s tracking onto how the record evokes ambiguous emotional states. ‘The Incredible Years’ often sounds like a film depiction of someone’s internal monologue at a time when they don’t particularly want to be in their own mind and aren’t entirely clear what’s happening to them. The way the occasional vocal parts sound indistinct amplifies that. Not being totally sure what some of the lyrics are makes the EP more troubling, and the parts you miss make you listen harder. To me, this release portrays in sound what it’s like to want – or maybe not want, but really need – to connect with another person, and to carry on in the meantime absent that connection. Thomas takes his heart and shows it to an audience who don’t know how to read it. I find that powerful.

The Incredible Years‘ offers a mix of artificial and organic sounds, craving warmth against a looming cold, offering an uncomfortably intimate closeness – literally inside someone’s head and chest – against a cavernous and impersonal backdrop. Despite, and in some ways because of, its highly expressive abstraction, Thomas’ music ends up feeling very personal and human.

What’s On Michael Portillo’s iPod: Gareth JS Thomas talks inspirations

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What’s On Michael Portillo’s iPod: Gareth JS Thomas

Here at Birthday Cake For Breakfast, we like to get to the heart of what an artist is all about. We feel the music they listen to is just as important as the music they make. With that in mind, we’re chuffed to have Gareth JS Thomas of USA Nails talking us through the releases that helped shape and inspire his latest solo effort ‘The Incredible Years‘!

Glenn Branca’s album The Ascension (1981)

For me ‘The Ascension’ bridges the gap from regular guitar music into experimental noise and ambient things. While there are plenty of other records that also do this too, this one was the first I really got into. Don from Action Beat, who I am a sometime drummer in, reissued this on 12″ about 10 years ago. He met Glenn in NYC to discuss the business bits at the time, and he was a bit of a beatniky type character apparently. Well that’s what I took from Don’s description anyway. Kind of feels right to me. I’ll always regret not applying to play in the symphony for 100 guitars thing he did in London. God bless his cigarette-stained soul.”

Leafcutter John’s album Resurrection (2015)

Burton has this amazing knack for blending the organic with the electronic. I can’t think of anyone who does it more convincingly. Listening to him really helped break down the boundaries I’d imposed on myself, about what is and isn’t possible in electronic music. Nothing feels forced or out of place in his compositions, yet the elements that make them up are often pretty diverse. See also “The Hurting” (below). I’ve considered reaching out to yr man on occasion, to try and blag a support or something, but I’m so easily starstruck, and without a band to hide behind I might actually have to talk to him with my face. Crazy I know.”

Big Lad’s album Pro Rock (2018)

Great album obvs, but this one is a bit of a cheat as it’s not so much the record as the peeps. Wayne is an amazing producer and has done all the USA Nails albums, but his background is in breakcore. He cut his teeth with the Wrong Music folks (DJ Scotch Egg/Shitmat etc) under his “Ladyscraper” moniker back in the day.

I was several weeks deep into putting my album together when I booked a day at the studio with him, in the hope that he could coach me in some of the more technical aspects of electronic music production. At that point it had a load of extremely complex IDM-ish tracks that I’d spent hours crafting. We went through a bunch of them, and with almost every one he was like “oh I see, you’re trying to do an renowned electronica artiste here”, and proceeded to show me how I hadn’t quite done it right, and how to rip them off more convincingly. That day was a real eye-opener. I realised that I was trying to accomplish things that had already been accomplished to a far higher standard by people who are far more talented and much better looking than me. So I kind of started the record again, almost completely from scratch, with the aim of putting something more personal and authentic together.”

Sam Edwards’ Graceland (2015)

Simultaneously one of the most modest and talented ones out there. We’ve floated around in a similar “scene” in London for years now. Her music has moments of real darkness, but also of bright, stunning beauty. Performing solo is kind of nerve-wracking for me, it’s really different to doing stuff in a band, which by comparison, is a piece of piss. But seeing Sam get up there and make this amazing music was really inspiring and really helped encourage me to push forward with my own bits. She has a bunch of great stuff up on bandcamp and such, but I always come back to this record. Fully recommend it as a starting point if you are planning on tucking in, which you should.”

Tears For Fears’ album The Hurting (1983)

“There was a time when I was genuinely considering just playing tracks off ‘The Hurting’ as the 3rd act of my live set. I’d trade all the stroked chin in the universe for the ability to craft a pop record as perfect as this. The lyrics often go pretty deep (Orzabal claims that it’s a concept album based on the work of a psychologist called Arthur Janov), and the arrangements are atypical to say the least, but everything fits together so well. No idea how that works. Brilliant though. I mean, I like getting weird, I like odd music and that, but a really well put-together pop song lifts my soul like nothing else. Now my record, isn’t a pop record. But I try to frame certain aspects of it within a pop sensibility. Ambient noise records can still have hooks right?

The Incredible Years’ is out now via Bezirk – pick it up here!

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Album Review: Deliluh – Beneath The Floors

Toronto band Deliluh pile subtlety onto restraint onto understatement to make a sprawling, excessive heap made entirely of minimalist gestures, like a huge mound of small bits of sea glass. Kyle Knapp’s clean guitar and mostly spoken vocals are the band’s sound. With both instrument and voice, he favours a very simple no frills and highly repetitive style. As a lyricist, on the other hand, he is highly complex and abstract, the songs often an avalanche of words falling too fast to catch them all and intoned with little affect to provide any further point of purchase. The sound is different but the effect is similar to Bristol’s Repo Man. Sometimes his vocals are duplicated, lots of Knapps talking to each other or repeating the same point; again, minimalism compounded until it becomes glorious excess.

Alongside Knapp’s voice and guitar, other sounds fade in and out. There’s typical rock instrumentation like drums and bass, played, like the guitar, simple, clean, and repetitive, as well as the occasional piano, broken and noisy distorted guitar, and what might be synthesizers or found sounds. The repetitive and spare guitar, bass, and drums all work well with the other more sprawling and stranger elements, in that each sets the listener’s ear up to better appreciate the other.

One of my favourite parts of the record is the track ‘Master Keys‘, when the band vamps for a long time on a simple – again, clean, spare – riff that’s mostly guitar and bass, with a bit of pretty synths. This goes on at length as recordings of conversations fade in, unintelligible but familiar – quiet hubbub like the company of strangers in a diner, hushed voices in a library, a stranger walking by talking and laughing into her phone.

It reminded me of Jawbreaker’sCondition Oakland’, where a recording of Jack Kerouac’s voice and Steve Allen’s piano undulate among the band’s music. That recording, however, was one group of artists appreciating other artists, while on ‘Master Keys’ Deliluh sound to me like artists elevating ordinary life to their level, like documentary photography. Those conversational recordings alongside the music were pretty on their own and I took them as an invitation to think about how the sounds all around us can be enjoyable if we think of them that way. Art is in some respects training in aesthetic perception, and we can to some extent apply that perception to objects that are ostensibly not art.

Another standout track is ‘Falcon Scott Trail’, a moody and jittery instrumental that mixes tape manipulation with a mournful-yet-threatening saxophone that would be at home on the last Sly & the Family Drone record (Sly and Deliluh should absolutely tour together. Someone make that happen, I insist; I deserve this.) That song turns over into another instrumental, ‘Con Art Inc’, a similarly uneasy sax writhing atop undulating post-punk bass and drums, with stranger and harsher noises – scraping, reverbed feedback, what sound like animal calls – and tape manipulation.

It’s tempting to call Deliluh art rock – it’s definitely art – but there’s not a lot of rock here, nor is there much pop. There are some energetic parts and some hooks, but mostly there is a lot of repetition and atmosphere. That’s not a criticism. The music reminded me of bleak landscape photography of Midwestern winters. There’s a lot of space to stretch out and in one light all that openness and emptiness is captivating, while in another it’s oppressive.

In the sampling and tape manipulation, Deliluh reminded me a little of Burial. Though they’re playing in very different genres, both artists make sounds that are cold and distant and pair them with sounds that are warm and human. There are unsettling, uneasy parts, and there is a sense of people being together. Maybe it’s no accident that Deliluh recorded this record and an earlier release at a veteran’s hall – I believe in England they’re called working men’s clubs? – a place people go to be with other people, to shelter from literal and metaphorical cold.

In some ways Deliluh is like Leeds art punks Drahla (Add them to that tour with Sly and the Family Drone. Someone needs to get on this right now. Is someone taking notes?) Both bands make music with a strong artistic vision, but Drahla have a confrontational coldness, while Deliluh play music with the warmth of a Weakerthans or John K. Samson record, though far more arty and sonically interesting. ‘Beneath the Floors’ is a record to sit with many times, to take in and mull over. It’s very good, you should go listen to it.

(Photo Credit: Colin Medley)

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What’s On Michael Portillo’s iPod: Sly & The Family Drone

Here at Birthday Cake For Breakfast, we like to get to the heart of what an artist is all about. We feel the music they listen to is just as important as the music they make. With that in mind, we’re delighted to have neo-noise-jazz outfit Sly & The Family Drone in the hot seat, talking us through five releases that have helped shape and inspire their new album.

(Photo Credit: Jose Ramon Caamano)

Liberez’s album All Tense Now Lax (2015)

Ed Dudley (electronics, vocals): “Was listening to this record a lot at the time. They manipulate space and atmosphere so easily. I’ve always tried to bury or twist the vocals/sax to change the feel and create unusual juxtapositions of space. They do it better.”

Vincent Vocoder Voice S/T album (2013)

Kaz Buckland (drums, electronics): “Channelling totally listenable chaos feels like a good direction to take any album in. A second sentence would be nonsense.”

Ingram Marshall – ‘Fog Tropes‘ (Fog Tropes/Gradual Requiem1984)

James Allsopp (baritone saxophone): “I like the idea of texture and sonority being more important than notes or rhythms. Sound becomes a substance to be bashed into shape rather than something detailed. This record is splendidly dense and oppressive – like Sly!”

The Faust/Dälek album Derbe Respect, Alder (2004)

Matt Cargill (electronics, drums): “Still one of my favourite albums, which from what I understand is a collaboration recorded by Faust then manipulated by Dälek. I first saw Dälek the year after this came out at ATP and it was one of the most crushingly heavy sets I’ve ever witnessed. I listened to ‘Derbe Respect, Alder‘ so much after that, even though it’s not particularly like what they were doing live. I think it’s important and inspiring that a band can morph and adapt over time, putting out records that people wouldn’t necessarily expect of them. Going back reading a review of this LP I found this quote, which I think is very reminiscent of how I think about Sly and ‘Gentle Persuaders’ in particular.

‘Best suited for inducing motion sickness and hearing loss, yet it’s fascinating in its disorientating force'”

Frank Sinatra – ‘The World We Knew’ (The World We Knew, 1967) 

All: “We started playing this as an intro to our sets a couple of years ago. We went through a phase of coming on to The Walker Brothers and then occasionally ‘Run With Us’ by Lisa Lougheed. It’s one of the very few tracks that we could all settle on. As a band we all have very different backgrounds and listening habits and our taste in music is very varied so it was difficult for us to all decide upon an album we unanimously love, which is quite telling. It starts with this incredibly heavy baritone guitar line and kicks into a wall of sound and Frank’s crushing lament. Feels appropriate to start our sets with.”

Gentle Persuaders‘ is out now through Love Love Records! Bag a copy (or two) here!

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Album Review: Sly & The Family Drone – Gentle Persuaders

If it’s got saxophones, it’s jazz or easy listening, which no one with any self-respect likes. I have long enjoyed stating that kind of opinion loudly over drinks as part of friendships that consist largely of insulting each others’ tastes. My terrible friends Alex and Robin will gloat, but my honesty compels me. Let the record – specifically Sly & The Family Drone’s new record ‘Gentle Persuaders’ – show that I was wrong in my recreational closed-mindedness. Sly & the Family Drone have made a noisy, sax heavy (and I assume, jazz) record that is very effective and affecting. Each time I got to the end I either wanted to replay it or go look up the rest of the band’s back catalogue.

The first and longest track on ‘Gentle Persuaders’ centres mostly on two or three kinds of motifs on the saxophone, one very brief, low, and melodic, and the other long and shrieking, like a siren or the scrape of metal grinding on metal. That second kind of part is something like watching a friend’s parents have an argument in public: you’re trapped and you have to look away but you also have to stare out of the corner of your eye. Over the course of the track, that tense second kind of motif gets more prominent and goes on longer, punctuated with periodic silence and minimal drumming – a clank here, a boom and thud there, some drum rolls building up to repeated bashing of the cymbals so many times that they sound more like a hiss of steam than a crash.

The track is sparse yet unrelenting: I wanted both more and I wanted out, more rhythmic drumming and melodic sax bits to help me escape the silence, and I wanted to escape that emergency siren/wounded animal shriek of the more frequent sax part. Right at the end there’s more drumming that you can tap your feet to, and it comes as a huge relief after all the tension of the rest of the track. Of course Sly, the sadists, interrupt that part after just a few seconds, saying in effect “you can dance now… for just a moment.

The next track has a lot more drumming, a beat you can tap your foot to, but which is periodically interrupted with extended drum fills. Over the top of the track, the saxophone thrashes around like it’s lashing out or having a spasm and there are some sounds I can’t recognise, hisses and scrapes and squalling. This track lurches and staggers along, menacing and pounding. If the first track felt like being abandoned, this track is coming for you, your credit card debts and the rising ocean levels.

The third track stakes out a musical place between the first two, slower and more spacious like the first track, yet a fair amount of drumming and hissing like the second. This track is genuinely pretty in parts but with an unsettling undercurrent, the pretty parts breaking down and giving way, interrupted by shrieks and drums rattling in and out, off-kilter. There’s a lot of reverb, making this track sound cavernous and wet, like an abandoned warehouse with water leaking in from the ceiling. The drums boom and clank and echo in a way that could be intermittently running industrial machinery, or distant trains.

By the final track I wondered if I was going be abandoned in too much silence and shrieking like the first track or pummelled with noise like the second track, or if it would get both pretty and uneasy like the third. That is to say, the tracks work together as a whole, with one track setting the listener up to really want what the next track will want, or will deliberately refuse to provide. That last track starts off spacious and echoey like the third, short squeaks and shrieks that could be rats, drums clattering infrequently like what might be footsteps and door slams. Then the drums start rolling like thunder, which made me think about the sky, the big cymbals and that weird shrieking sound again like lightning, the saxophones sickly birds flocking together for safety, or to attack.

Since Birthday Cake For Breakfast is based in Britain and Britain is in Europe (at least for a few more weeks, right?) where people know about fancy things like jazz and wine and different kinds of cheese, I assume those over on that side of the Atlantic with your well-heeled ears will notice sounds and catch similarities with records beyond my frame of reference.

Of the things I’ve listened to, ‘Gentle Persuaders’ reminded me of Denison/Kimball Trio, Shellac’sThe Futurist’ and Fugazi’s instrumentals. In that music and even more so on ‘Gentle Persuaders‘, there’s a play of distance and tension, like a camera that is zooming far out sometimes then zooming in very closely. Sometimes what the camera shows is harsh, and sometimes it shows genuine warmth. Sometimes the harshness is in the background while in the foreground people huddle together, and sometimes the warmth and humanity are backgrounded with a sense of creepy foreboding in the foreground, like a flash flood rushing toward a house where people are having a nice family dinner.

I can imagine good friends in an Irvine Welsh novel drinking to this music in a seedy bar in 2030, arguing about who is going to sell a kidney in order to finance their plan to buy guns to use to steal one of the country’s last tankers full of drinkable water. That’s where the world seems headed, so consider ‘Gentle Persuaders your chance to hear tomorrow’s life play out of your headphones today.

(Photo Credit: Jose Ramon Caamano)

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