This combined effort from singer Kirsty Mac, multi-instrumentalists Paul Ayre and Tony Draper, known collectively as Alive in Theory, has a lot going for it. There’s some great playing, the vocal performances are pretty powerful and the songs are mostly pretty strong, so where do we start? At the very beginning, it’s a very good place apparently. Actually the opening song “Alive in Theory” isn’t a bad summary of the album; it’s full of drama, it has a wide dynamic range and a sense of menace. The intro has a feel of “Radio Gaga” and, strangely enough, there’s a little guitar fill which is pure early seventies Brian May. The vocals across the album hint at a Gothic Kate Bush, with maybe a little hint of Kim Carnes in there as well (the eighties drums and brooding synths of “Lightning” have a strong feel of “Bette Davis Eyes”). Now that wasn’t too bad for you was it? But it’s not the whole story because there are a few reservations.
Musically, “Unconditional”, isn’t bad but it demonstrates a few of the album’s downsides. The lyric has a feel of a rhyming exercise that doesn’t convey too much meaning, the vocal is a bit melodramatic and it follows a format that’s repeated through the album of a gradual layer-by-layer build-up of songs. It’s not that any of these things make it a bad album, more that without them, it could have been a better album. Glad we got that out of the way.
On the upside, the driving power of “Bethany” and the combination of distorted guitars and synth sequences works well and would fit in well in a vampire TV series while using an apocalypse as metaphor for a broken relationship in “We Are All Alone” is fairly effective. The album’s closer “The Other Side” stays just the right side of the bombastic line with channel-hopping synths, pumping bass, some Doors-style piano and a final dramatic held vocal note. If you like a bit of drama, musically and lyrically, you’re in the right place.
“Abandon” is released on Friday March 3 on Ultraviolet Records (ULTRA001-2017).
We haven’t heard too much from our very own Grinch this year; I suppose that means the restraining order worked. Unfortunately, he’s just reminded us that we have a contractual obligation to publish his annual High Five contribution. Feel free to read this, but please bear in mind that it contains bad attitude from the outset.
Why does every performer these days want to use a loop pedal? It was a challenge in the seventies when John Martyn and Brian May used WEM Copicats with real tape loops (well, where did you think the name came from?) to beef up their guitar noodlings. It was proper difficult then because you never knew when the tape would wear out or jam. Then KT Tunstall went on “Later” and suddenly every cheapskate player and singer wants to ditch the rhythm section and everyone sounds like everyone else. It’s a nice gimmick but it’s not a substitute for real players. Just leave the looper at home; it’s not big and it’s not clever.
What’s going on with festivals now? When I was a lad, you only had Reading (Jazz and Blues) Festival to contend with; Glastonbury was just a couple of hundred comatose stoners looking for ley lines and T in the Park wasn’t even in the horizon for Stuart Clumpas. Festivals only happened in the British summer month(s) and featured bands that everyone knew. And now there are mainstream festivals, corporate festivals, boutique festivals and bonkers local festivals with tribute bands, has-beens and newcomers. But watch your step; if you buy a ticket for a festival, buy it with a credit card, because there’s a pretty good chance it won’t actually happen – your choice.
I know, it’s a shocker; Madonna has a diva strop. Who would have predicted that? Ms Ciccone gets on stage just under an hour late in Manchester and what does she do? Well, most of us would apologise, wouldn’t we, but not Madonna Veronica Louise. No she rips into the booing audience and calls them diva bitches. There’s a lesson to learn here; if you have all of your light show (and your backup vocals and Autotune settings) stored electronically, then back the fecking things up, and not just once. Don’t use data loss as an excuse, because it’s no excuse, especially if you offer it up two days later. We all screw up; apologise and get over it. Your audience are paying your wages; never, ever forget that.
Well, we were all blown away by the stupendous Tidal launch this year, weren’t we? A motley bunch of rich musicians (and isn’t that Ms Ciccone again?) investing in a scheme to make themselves even more money, that’s just what we need isn’t it? The launch event looked like a failed PowerPoint training exercise, proving that musicians should stick to what they do best. It’s been pitched as an attempt to generate decent loyalties for writers, but it smells of elitism and the music-buying public have ignored it in their droves. If you still believe that music has any value, you can ignore streaming services completely and buy physical copies of your music.
So we’re all supposed to be streaming now and no-one wants to buy physical copies of music any more. Well it’s a bit confusing, but I’ll do my best to make it simple and use small words. CDs: apparently they’re on the way out at the same time as they’re on the way back in again. If you believe the insiders, CDs are about to become a premium product, for the second time as a medium for ultra-high quality sound, while vinyl sales (and record deck sales) are still on the rise in 2015. If the public are showing signs of paying to actually own musical artefacts, then I’m well chuffed, but my inner cynic starts to get twitchy when Tesco are selling vinyl again and ‘classic’ albums that were originally released on vinyl, then cassette, then CD, then online as MP3s and streamed versions are back to vinyl again. I’m just pleased I kept hold of all my old 8-tracks.
There’s a link between all of the members of Space Elevator , apart from the fact that they’re all very good musicians (and I always include singers in that category); all of them have, at some time, been involved the Ben Elton/Queen musical, “We Will Rock You” which played for twelve years at London’s Dominion Theatre before closing in May of this year. I know that some music fans are pretty sniffy about musical theatre, but the fact is that you have to be a very, very good (and consistent) musician to play in such a high-profile production as this. So, what I’m saying is that the five members of Space Elevator are musicians of the highest order and, putting “We Will Rock You” aside, they have worked with some of the biggest names in modern music.
Space Elevator comprises The Duchess (vocals), David Young (guitar), Neil Murray (bass), Elliott Ware (keyboards) and Brian Greene (drums) and their first album “Space Elevator” is out now and, in the best possible way, it’s what you would expect from a group of musicians with their background and experience. The songs are well constructed, the performances are all faultless and the whole album is underpinned by sense of theatricality and fun that’s so often missing from serious (or po-faced and pretentious) rock albums. And, there are quite a few segues from one song to the next, so don’t even think about listening to it on shuffle.
It’s not too difficult to pick out reference points either, musical and lyrical; “We Are the Losers” features layered Brian May-style guitars, massed vocals and changes of tempo and instrumentation before the music hall piano leads into the anthemic finale and straight out into “I Will Find You (Gallifrey Dreams)”. This epic pop ballad provides a musical setting for the Dr Who/Rose love story, opening with gently picked acoustic guitar and close-miked vocal and building up to a chorus with a great guitar hook and The Duchess’s vocal cords set to stun. The album’s first song “Elevator” and “More Than Enough” both use highly processed spoken intros representing an automated lift voice and radio announcer respectively, while “Little White Lies” and “We Can Fly” rely on tempo changes to keep the attention focussed. Lyrically, the album is shot through with the theme of looking to the future, which forms the basis of “Move On” and “Really Don’t Care” and also pops up elsewhere. The Duchess even has a “Killer Queen”-style Freddie Mercury moment with “Oils and Bubbles”, featuring the memorable lines: ˊI’m so clean, scrubbed to a sheen, I’m a total hygiene queen; it’s the only way I’ll be bedded, to cleanliness I’m totally weddedˋ, which wouldn’t sound out of place in “The Rocky Horror Show”, but fits perfectly with the high camp of the piano backing, the guitar solo and the layered backing vocals in the chorus.
“Space Elevator” isn’t an album that will allow your attention to wander; you’re never more than eight bars from another surprise, whether it’s a tempo change, a guitar fill, a breakdown or an unexpected segue into the next song. The rock purists will object to the theatrical elements and the production, but if that bothers you, then stick to Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts. Throughout the album, The Duchess’s dynamic range is matched by superb playing and arrangements full of hooks which just won’t quit. Go on, you know you want to.
Normally the Riot Squad wouldn’t be having much to do with sporting events, but we’re willing to make an exception in this case because of the cultural significance of this event (and its sibling the opening ceremony). This was billed as an event with a playlist which was more Heart FM than Radio 1 and that description was pretty much on the money. We got performances from British pop legends Ray Davies, Madness, Pet Shop Boys, Annie Lennox (in a piece which was a bit like a live version of a bad Duran Duran video), Queen (half of them in person, Freddie on film), Take That (with one notable exception), the Spice Girls (all of them) and The Who (well, Daltrey and Townshend).
We also got a pretty varied selection of newer artists covering a pretty wide spectrum of current British popular music. How about Emeli Sandé, One Direction, Elbow, George Michael, Kaiser Chiefs, Ed Sheeran, Fatboy Slim, Jessie J, Tinie Tempah, Taio Cruz, Beady Eye and Muse? It’s not comprehensive, but it did give a pretty good snapshot of the contemporary British music scene.
Any attempt to summarise British popular culture over the last fifty years in three hours is pretty much doomed to failure from the start, but this was a brave attempt. And it wasn’t just about the music; we had fashion, comedy, dance and drama as well. We also had the unsavoury spectacle of politicians trying to hijack the event for their own ends, and we really don’t need to see the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London idiot-dancing to the Spice Girls to boost their credibility with the voting public. Honestly, we’re not as stupid as you seem to think we are (and we didn’t see you strutting your stuff to the bhangra or disco material either, so not so inclusive at all really). And we had Matt Bellamy fronting Muse in his usual quiet style with keyboard and guitar virtuosity only to be trumped by Brian May with a routine which he’s been doing for the best part of 40 years (although not always with Jessie J to front it).
The event ended with a Who medley (you can make up your own punchlines about growing old here) and it was all over for another four years; apart from the online feedback and some of that was pretty horrific, particularly the posts about Gary Barlow. We can all have our own opinions about the worth of someone’s work (and for what it’s worth, I think Gary Barlow’s a really gifted songwriter) but it’s never acceptable, under any circumstances, to attack a performer because they’ve suffered a personal tragedy. I’m not going to attempt to communicate my disgust to you because Jason Manford has already done that in a way that won’t be bettered. Those personal attacks left a bitter taste after a hugely celebratory event.
It’s interesting to look at the Beatles influence on the opening and closing ceremonies; the opening ceremony was influenced by McCartney, while the closing ceremony was influenced by Lennon, but we didn’t hear the best work of either songwriter (apart from fleeting references to “A Day in the Life” in the closing ceremony).
It seems quite fitting to bookend the London Olympic Games with those two British pop legendOn balance, the closing ceremony was a brave attempt to capture fifty years of British of British popular culture which worked most of the time and, when it didn’t, it failed heroically. And as an added bonus, most of the artists involved in the ceremony performed really well in this week’s singles charts, even those that didn’t appear personally. It seems that there are some things that we Brits are really quite good at.