How’s everyone doing? We’re almost a third of the way through the year now and it’s about time to look at how things are shaping up and to give you some news about the direction we’re taking here at MusicRiot. Over the years we’ve evolved from reviewing everything that popped through the letterbox (and now it pops in to the inbox) to our current approach of only reviewing things that we really believe in and want you to hear (and there’s plenty of that to keep everyone busy at Riot Towers). And we don’t like negativity; you can get enough of that in the NME or letters/comments pages of the specialist music magazines and websites. So, if you think there aren’t many one or two star reviews, that’s the reason. There’s so much good music out there that we want to focus on, whatever the genre.
And we’re having a pretty good year so far. Of the 2017 predictions, Ags Connolly has released a very good and critically-acclaimed second album, Stone Foundation signed to 100 Per Cent records and charted nationally at 25 with their “Street Rituals” album, Sound Of The Sirens have their album “For All Our Sins” released at the end of May on DMF Records and they’re playing the Fields of Avalon stage at Glastonbury. Hannah Aldridge’s stunning second album “Gold Rush” is out on June 16, and Dean Owens has delayed the release of his latest album “Southern Wind” until (probably) early 2018 to focus on yet another side project named Redwood Mountain with traditional fiddle player Amy Geddes. Watch this space for more on that one.
As for MusicRiot, we’re going to launch a new review feature very soon called “Sound Bites”, where we take a brief look at albums and singles that are interesting and worth listening to but don’t quite get the full review treatment. No star ratings, no judgements, just a recommendation to give it a listen.
That’s about it for now. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open and check out our Facebook page to find out what we’re up to.
The last two years have been a bit of a whirlwind for Sound of The Sirens. Over that period, Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood have risen irresistibly out of the local and support slot circuit to playing major festivals and headlining their own tours. They’ve won many supporters along the way with their superbly-crafted songs, beautiful harmonies and exhilarating live performances. All that’s missing so far is the chance to convert that to national airplay. “For All Our Sins” should be the chance to put that right.
The opening of the first song, the lead track “Smokescreen” is a good indicator of the new approach with the addition of bass and drums and some Spanish style nylon-strung guitar and percussion giving the song an added dimension. It’s not so much a move away from their live sound as a subtle augmentation. The arrangement reminds me of the way Al Stewart was produced in the mid-seventies, an he’s still being played on commercial radio forty years later. Hannah and Abbe’s voices and instruments are still right up there in the mix, but the addition of some more daytime radio-friendly instruments and a few hooks have certainly worked. Jeremy Vine thinks so; he was at the album launch a couple of weeks ago and played the song on his Radio 2 show the following day. That’s a pretty impressive flash-to-bang time.
There are a couple of songs that have been reworked for the album, and it’s interesting to compare the originals with the new versions. Both “Together Alone” and “In This Time” have been smoothed out a little, with the vocals coming down a couple of notches to blend better with the other instruments, and some slight structural changes. Using a drummer has made the transitions between sections smoother, particularly when the tempo changes, and the production team has introduced some studio effects (some dub echo in “Together Alone”) and even created a psychedelic vibe with the ambient sounds, echo, and reverb of “The Circus”.
But all of the studio wizardry’s just window dressing if the raw material isn’t right. Abbe and Hannah’s songwriting is a huge part of their appeal. They write with a darkly poetic romanticism about subjects that are important; mental health in “The Voices”, the impermanence of relationships in “In This Time” and maybe even embittered journalists (amongst other things) in “Smokescreen”. They often explore the elemental side of human experience (“Chaos”) but there’s usually a message of empowerment in there as well. They care passionately about what they do.
With “For All Our Sins”, Sound of the Sirens have succeeded in creating studio versions of their powerful and dynamic songs for mainstream consumption without losing the creative fire in the process. The songs will be there on their upcoming tour and during the festival season in all their dynamic and noisy glory but, for now, this sounds like the next step up the ladder.
“For All Our Sins” is released on DMF on 26 May 2017.
Meanwhile, you can have a look at this:
Remember the High Fives feature we run throughout December each year? Come on, it’s only a few weeks ago. Well, when we got in touch with Sound of the Sirens, they were really busy (as they were for most of the year) and promised to get back with something in the New Year, and they did. This came through in a series of messages yesterday and all we had to do was reconstruct it. Abbe and Hannah have had another great year and 2017’s looking pretty good as well. Got to say I love the way they seamlessly slipped in that plug for the new album in the second paragraph.
We are doing our top 5’s with pictures of our year. In March 2016 we were given the opportunity to go on tour with the nicest man in Pop. He and his team were so welcoming and friendly and we learnt so much on the road with them all. Every night we got to play to an audience of a 1000+ in some of the UK’s most beautiful and prestigious venues. Rick Astley’s crowd are super loyal and have followed him for decades and yet they welcomed us as his support. We sold tons of CDs every night and talked to the fans and met some lovely, lovely people. It was the perfect opportunity to try out new material to a friendly and big crowd every night for weeks. We loved every minute of it. We also met our new best mate Dave ….Rick Astley’s Stage Manager who adopted us and looked after us. Thanks Rick x
In June we set out to record our new album which is out on May 5th 2017. We are now under the watchful eye of DMF records and they put us in touch with a great producer called Mark Tucker. We’ve written many new songs but have taken 3 old songs and tweaked them with a bit of production. It’s been a brand new way of working for us and has really helped us to grow as artists. For one song we invited friends, students and general Siren support round to ours to create a choir. This has been included on the new album and we love that our friends are in on the act. Thank you to the Sirens choir!!!
In July we were asked to play at The House Festival in Twickenham. It was unbelievable to say the least. We were invited to play a small set in the Ebay corporation tent and when we had finished we were let loose into the most extravagant playground. We could help ourselves to cocktails, play on the carousel, eat olives and cheese until it was coming out your ears, have your hair done, glitter your face, make a music video and hang out with giant people on stilts …..and then Kylie arrived along with Tinie Tempah. It was a surreal day.
In August we were invited to play on the main stage at the very popular Cropredy Festival. We weren’t quite sure what to expect and whether we would be received well. Upon arrival we were given a dressing room, given drinks, they took our pictures, we did interviews, they wouldn’t let us carry a thing. The set went so well and we enjoyed every second. Afterwards we did our first signing in a tent and it was such a great experience. For an hour solidly we spoke to people, had pictures, heard stories and we laughed alot. We sold all of our merchandise (a first for us) and we felt euphoric. Cropredy …..pleeeease have us back . It was our first whole day of ‘working’ at a festival. If we can call this work then we are lucky girls.
In August we played at Carfest to another big and exciting crowd. It’s been an incredible year for us. We knew Bryan Adams was playing and we couldn’t wait to see his set. After our set we were asked if we would like to join our friend for a tequila in one the backstage rooms. Whilst we were sat about swapping stories and sharing drinks in walked the one and only Bryan Adams. Our jaws dropped and we both hugged him. This is definitely one for the album. 2016 you were a right cracker ……roll on 2017. Let’s fill the rest of our album x x x.
2016 brought more than its fair share of challenges but also a respectable amount of great music, live and recorded. With 2017 knocking on the door, this is probably a good time to start looking forward again. I’m not making any rash predictions this year; I’m just going to highlight a few things that you should look out for.
Ags Connolly has his second album, “Nothin’ Unexpected”, out in February and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. It’s produced once again by Riot Towers favourite Dean Owens (more about him later) and it should capture Ags in fine form, delivering his fine Ameripolitan songs in his rich, smooth baritone voice. Since his debut “How About Now”, Ags has been touring extensively in the UK and across the pond, including a high profile support slot for Rosanne Cash in 2014 and he’s never been on better form. We should be reviewing this one very soon.
These guys have been working their butts off for years now pursuing their new soul vision with a combination of hard work on the gig circuit to build up a devoted following and release some quality albums. They’ve raised their profile year on year and been rewarded with a record deal for their upcoming album. Each of their albums has been a progression from the previous one, so this one should be a bit special. They also have a reputation for attracting some interesting special guests, so we’re eagerly anticipating this one.
I know, this starting to sound like a broken record (whatever that is), but you really should be listening to Hannah Aldridge. Like many artists, she’s gone down the crowdfunding route to get her new album made. It’s her second, following her superb debut “Razor Wire” and Hannah tells me that the style has shifted towards a more rock sound (she did a lot of the writing using a Telecaster rather than an acoustic) and from the songs she’s played live already, it sounds like another outstanding album’s on the way, with an eta of June 2017.
Dean Owens – “Southern Wind”
Another example of 2016 crowdfunding; Dean Owens wrote most of the album before raising the money to record it in Nashville with his dream team, including producer and guitar player extraordinaire Will Kimbrough. Dean’s been working incredibly hard, over the last couple of years particularly, to get some attention for his songs and he’s been rewarded by national exposure from Bob Harris and a support slot for Rosanne Cash. Here’s hoping “Southern Wind” pushes him into the mainstream.
Sound of the Sirens second album
Oh god, he’s not still going on about Sound of the Sirens, is he? I am, and like everyone else featured here, the reason is that they’re very good. Despite playing just about every festival in the UK this summer, Abbe and Hannah still found time to record an album. I’ve tried to get some details, but the Sirens are staying schtum, apart from the fact that it’s a bit different. If the new songs I’ve heard live are any indication, it’s going to be very good. Onwards and upwards. 2017 here we come.
Even when a gig’s going really well, there’s sometimes a very special moment when all the stars align to produce a musical epiphany (as the NME described Thin Lizzy’s seamless shift into “The Boys are Back in Town” on “Live and Dangerous”). These perfect moments can have many forms and they aren’t always strictly about the music. Let me explain.
Wade Bowen and Willy Braun @The Borderline
Towards the end of a great set where Wade and Willy took turns to perform their own songs and a few covers, Wade started to play the audience a little by asking who had travelled furthest to see the gig. The audience managed to cover a fair chunk of England, but then Wade stopped in his tracks and repeated the question to someone right at the front of the stage who confirmed that, yes, he did say Spain. Luis, and his son (also Luis) had flown from Spain that day and were flying back straight after the gig. Wade made sure that they got a huge ovation and, judging by the beaming grins, topped off a perfect night for father and son. Next time I think that I can’t be bothered to go all the way to Camden or Shepherds Bush for a gig, I’ll remember Luis and what dedication to live music really means.
Hannah Aldridge @The AMA UK Showcase, Hackney
The acoustic room at this showcase was truly acoustic; no amplification at all for vocals or instruments. All the artists, including Dean Owens and Danni Nicholls rose to the occasion, and Hannah Aldridge played a flawless set to a spellbound and appreciative audience. The night peaked when Hannah introduced a new song from her upcoming second album. The song was “Gold Rush”, a haunting tale of growing up and growing old in small-town America that transfixed the audience from start to finish; not a whisper and barely a breath until the song was over. Hannah’s the real deal: singer, player and superb songwriter.
Sound of the Sirens@ Bush Hall
This was a big deal for Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood, headlining their own show at the prestigious Bush Hall in Shepherds Bush. Following great performances from Sadie Horler and Wildflowers, Abbe and Hannah soon hit their stride and demonstrated their dynamic range and exquisite harmonies. They featured a cover that I’ve heard them play before, the Simon and Garfunkel song “Sound of Silence”. Something about the ambience of the room, the pure and perfect harmonies and the way song highlights Abbe and Hannah’s vocal and instrumental power created a moment of magic in west London on an October night.
The Mighty Wah! @Water Rats
Start to finish, all killer no filler. Pete Wylie still has it and his fans still adore him. The band didn’t need to win over the crowd but they still gave it the beans. Pete joked about hoping that musicians would stop dying soon, because Wah! were constantly adding songs to the set as tributes. All of the anthems appeared in all the right places, but just as “Sinful” was simmering away nicely something almost mystical happened; fans looked at each other in disbelief as the song morphed seamlessly into “Heroes” as a tribute to the Thin White Duke. No big fanfare, just an effortless transition from one anthem to another.
Underhill Rose @Green Note
This was already a memorable occasion. A local power cut in Camden, the room lit by candles and tea lights and a completely unplugged set by Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose Reed and Salley Williamson meant that no-one would forget this gig in a hurry, but the most surreal part was still to come, with a cover of “These Boots Were Made for Walking” featuring a lead vocal from bass player Salley Williamson and a spontaneous eruption of clapping, singing and whooping all through the room. This was a band and a crowd that were determined to have a good time whatever it took.
Here’s the second set of my photos of female artists, taken in widely differing venues with one thing in common; live music. It’s fair to say there were that conditions were challenging in some of the venues, but if it was easy all the time it would be no fun and photographers wouldn’t have use creativity to get killer shots. It’s just a matter of attitude. So here are the shots.
Kit Bennett (Wildflowers) @Bush Hall (14/10/16)
I saw Wildflowers a couple of times this year, once at an AMA UK showcase and once supporting Sound of the Sirens at Bush Hall and the obvious subject seems to be Siddy Bennett, centre stage and lead vocal, but we don’t like obvious do we? To one side of the stage is Siddy’s sister Kit, effortlessly cool keyboard player and if you want extra photographic wow factor, she plays accordion as well, and you don’t see that every day. I got some decent shots of Siddy but, at both gigs, I loved the photos of Kit, particularly at Bush Hall where the lighting was spot on for subject and background. As a bonus, Kit can look quite intent when she plays, but this pic caught a bit of a twinkle in her eye. See the full gallery here.
Hannah Wood (Sound of the Sirens) @Bush Hall (14/10/16)
The very same gig. I admit it, I’m a fan and I’ll take every chance I can get to see Sound of the Sirens; my photos tend to be 40% Abbe, 40% Hannah and 20% both together. One of my fellow photographers, Richard Bolwell, likes to catch Hannah when she’s at her most animated (and very successfully too) but there’s a peaceful, serene side to Hannah that shines through when she’s totally immersed in the music and that’s what I was trying to catch here by wedging myself against a wall to try to get the right angle to frame the shot. I’m pleased to say Hannah then created the perfect image for me. See the full gallery here.
Lux Lyall of Sister Witch @The Unicorn, Camden Road (30/07/16)
One of those gigs where anything could happen, and a bit off the beaten track for me (at least half a mile away from Camden Parkway). I’d gone along to see Anna Christina and Belle Star from Lilygun playing in David Ryder Prangley’s band, Sister Witch and I was looking forward to photographing all of them again, although I had no idea what the light would be like (not too bad, as it happens). Turns out that, despite the undoubted photogenic qualities of that trio, I had overlooked a true star. Sister Witch singer Lux Lyall has that bit of mystique and theatricality that the camera can’t resist. There were a few good shots on the night, but this one seemed to capture her cool, almost disdainful stage persona perfectly and with only a bit of colour correction at the processing stage. See the two galleries here and here.
Carina Round @The Lexington (05/08/16)
You know, of course, that all gig photographers always play by the rules and would never cheat (unless it meant getting a really cracking shot), don’t you? Well, I was puzzled when the three songs rule was applied to a gig in a room above a pub (admittedly a great live music room, but three songs?). I spent the first three songs down at the front of the stage in almost pitch darkness trying to get anything usable. I even blocked the view of someone in a wheelchair (it’s ok, I asked her and she very kindly allowed me to stand in front of her for a few seconds and we had a lovely chat). After three songs, I wasn’t really happy with anything that I’d shot, but I could see that the projection Carina was using was warming up and would create some interesting effects later. Towards the end of the set, I could see an incredible image starting to appear and, without realising how it happened, I had a camera pointing at the stage to record this. I’m saying now, I have no regrets whatsoever about not playing by the rules. Sorry Carina, but it is a stunning image, particularly with the black and white treatment. See the full gallery here.
Elisa Zoot (Black Casino and the Ghost) @Camden Roundhouse (17/02/16)
Elisa’s another one of these people that I’ve photographed a few times now (and a serial offender in my photos of the year) in various venues, but this was something else. Black Casino and the Ghost had landed a support slot with Kula Shaker for a European tour and the London gig was at The Roundhouse. The photo pit was really busy and most of the pros gravitated to centre stage where the action usually happens. I sloped off to stand in front of Elisa’s keyboard on my own and waited for the band to start. Before the end of the first song, I was surrounded as everyone realised where the focal point was. Elisa’s a bit like Mollie Marriott in that it’s quite difficult to take a bad picture of her; there were probably three from this particular night that could have been in this selection, but the action and the lighting made this my favourite. See the full gallery here.