Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.

Push The Sky Away.
Bad Seed Ltd.

Reviewer - Ed Woolley.

It's five years on from the Bad Seed's last record Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! and the interceding period has been a prolific one for Nick Cave. Collaborating with fellow Bad Seed and musical foil Warren Ellis, acclaimed soundtracks have been produced for The Road and most recently Lawless. Cave's second novel, The Death of Bunny Munroe, transposed his intense brooding characters to the Brighton Sea front and the priapic, scowling swagger of the Grinderman project has ranged further with a second offering.

But whilst the first Grinderman record provided the Bad Seeds with a lusty infusion, the second seems to have sated their more boisterous urges, with Push The Sky Away possessing a more mournful, delicate sound recalling the balladeering of 'The Boatman's Call' and the gentler moments of the Dirty Three.

'We No Who U R' opens the album with a ballad wrapped in soft pastoral imagery, driven along by an undercurrent of menace. The chattering verse arrangement of 'Wide Lovely Eyes' gives way to chorus chords reminiscent of Johnny Cash. 'Water's Edge' displays Cave's poetic elegance with the culminating lines, "It's the will of love/It's the thrill of love/but the chill of love is coming on", describing the arc of a failing relationship. 'Jubilee Street' continues the melancholia of the album's opening with languid guitars and a rich, grandiloquent string arrangement forming the backdrop for Cave's piquant vocal delivery.

'Mermaids' shifts the mood, showing the lyrical playfulness and brash innuendo of more recent work. The intense thrumming bass line and cinematic melodrama of 'We Real Cool' delivers the atmosphere of recent film scores. It's reference to Wikipedia signposts a rich vein of the inspiration which has seen Cave look ever more broadly across science, religion and the everyday experience of life for his muse. 'Finishing Jubilee Street' exemplifies Cave's often highly narrative approach to songwriting, supported by the sparse and intuitive arrangements of his band. 'Higgs-Boson Blues' inhabits the American Gothic world which Cave has made his own over the last 15 years, as he quips, "Robert Johnson and the Devil man / Dunno who's gonna rip off who?"

Push the Sky Away reflects many of Cave's characters from the last 20 years - the mournful lover, the snotty punk poet and the eerie gothic storyteller. Arguably these portraits have been rendered better elsewhere, but there is plenty here to add to a glittering career. Did I say glittering? Make that one wreathed in seductive, damned shadow.

The Payroll Union.

The Mule & The Elephant.
Backwater Collective.

Reviewer - Tasha Franek.

For anybody who fancies a change from listening to songs about shallow romance or throwing parties at the weekend, I strongly suggest you to give The Payroll Union a whirl. Formed here in Deep South Yorkshire back in '09, this Americana-folk band are an absolute lyrical delight. Their interest in American history is brilliantly refreshing, and gives what would already be stunning music a whole new depth.

The band's debut album, The Mule & The Elephant, released last month, captures the essence of a brilliant folk album - it tells a story in the way that so few genres of music are able to grasp. From the moment you hit play, you are thrown into 19th century America though tales of, in the bands' own words, "profiteering politicians, jealous duels, expansionist opportunists, illegitimate wars, illegitimate children, mourning, betrayal, revenge and poverty".

Switching from indie rock riffs to the more familiar dark folk melodies complementing the murderous lyrics, the album keeps you on your toes, leaving you unaware of what is coming next. A perfect example of this comes as we hit tracks four and five. 'Cawing Cuckoo' has a really playful feel, complete with percussion and cute harmonies, before we slide into 'Mary Lamson', probably the most melancholic song we are treated to. Slow and torturous, the emphasis is entirely on the dark lyrics, which combined with Pete David's grizzly and delicious vocals makes for a real success. I really can't wait to see the band play this track in particular live.

Other highlights include 'Hard Times', an upbeat rockabilly track that you'll find yourself singing along to in an instant, and 'Peggy's Tavern', which has been available to download for free from the boys' Bandcamp page for a while. 'South' is the complete package. It's like a story inside a story, with all of the peaks, troughs, harmonies, tempo changes and guitar solos that you could wish for.

The Mule & The Elephant is a real game changer for Sheffield and folk music in general. Be sure to get your hands on a copy and experience good old fashioned Americana brought into the 21st century.

Beneath.

Duty/Texers.
Tectonic Recordings.

Reviewer - Jack Opus.

Duty/Texers is the Tectonic debut from Sheffield regular Beneath; two cold and deadly pieces released from the depths of his dubplate catalogue.

Beneath has been building up a solid catalogue of releases on his No Symbols label, which last year saw the justified recognition in the form of a release on Blackdown's Keysound imprint, alongside gigs in Europe and performances for Electronic Supper Club and Boiler Room. With work that drifts away from traditional formulas for music, Beneath situates himself in a place that is not yet classified, and the resultant experimentation is a product of the freedom this genre-less position gifts him.

This release acts as a progression of the sound given to us by UK Hardcore, a genre that has given root to so much of the last few decades of the UK's very best dance music. Beneath continues admirably in this quest, stripping away elements to the bare essentials, resulting in refined and driving sub-heavy cuts ready for large sound systems.

'Duty' begins with percussion hits dictating a march into a track which temporarily offers false comfort in its low bassline, before plunging you deep into the producer's imagination with sharp drum hits, hypnotic rhythms and chilling samples. 'Texers' follows suit with equally focused attacks from the low end, restrained tones and a very forward facing arrangement which allows the multitude of percussive elements to take centre stage.

Very strong stuff from Beneath, who should go from strength to strength this year.



Synkro.

Acceptance.
Appolo.

Reviewer - Tom Belshaw.

Paradoxically, minimalism has a lot going for it. We all either went through a period where we thought we liked minimal techno or a period where we had no idea it was around. They're both essentially the same thing.

Mildly tedious electronic fad or no, there's a certain amount of beauty in restraint. The simple act of holding a little back can open up whole new worlds of gratification. It's the same principle that applies to only eating half a tube of Pringles or watching no more than ten minutes of absolutely any Michael Bay movie.

Allowing simple musical motifs to speak volumes is something modern music has been indulging in since the 1960s. The New York Hypnotic School of classical musicians, which included the likes of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, pioneered a style of sonics that modern musicians like Aphex Twin and Fennesz adapted into ambient and drone soundscapes. Take the reconstructed floaty sounds of the 'future garage' scene that reared its head a few years back and welcome to the subject at hand; minimalist, ambient, forward thinking, upfront, future bass music. Before you get any ideas, I'm coining that term so back off.

Manchester's Synkro has been forging his name as a garage and 2-step artist for a good while but it wasn't until 2011's absolutely exquisite 'Look At Yourself' that you could really see his true floaty potential. His latest EP Acceptance is the sound of an artist who has truly grown into their own style. Packed to the gills with lush consonant harmonies, delayed vocals and crisp, expertly mastered beats, everything ambles along at a pace that betrays its true 135BPM roots.

The addition of reverb-heavy guitar strummings on nearly half of the offerings show a brief foray into a depth of new musicality, or just reinforcement of the idea that guitars in electronic music make you seem like more of a credible artist. Pick one.

The production value on Acceptance is so high that it makes speakers sing. Little Burial-esque nuances of rain and traffic slip through unobtrusively and bass lines feel like soft damp cuddles. It's warm and familiar yet current and edgy. Like a kitten smoking crack.

If this lush offering could be described as anything it would be whoopee makin' music for the bass generation. Minimalist, ambient, forward thinking, upfront, future, baby making music. Coined it.

Darkstar.

News From Nowhere.
Warp Records.

Reviewer - Jack Scourfield.

Whilst a large majority of the world's musical opinion outlets were engaged in a back-patting contest at the end of 2012 - with Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar gaining particular praise - US site XLR8R cast a more critical eye over the past twelve months, selecting both the most underwhelming and overrated releases of the year. At the top of both lists were Warp Records products. Squarepusher's Ufabulum was deemed the most disappointing, whilst TNGHT's self-titled debut EP was admonished for garnering the greatest amount of unjust praise.

Now, I've made so many rash decisions in my life that when I recently tried to buy life insurance on a popular comparison website I awoke the next day to find a dead meerkat stapled to my front door with the words 'WE DON'T WANT YOUR CUSTOM - SIMPLES' daubed below it in a veritable Long Island Iced Tea of bodily fluids, so I shan't launch in to an attack on Warp in the pages of a magazine with which it shares a hometown. It did get me thinking, however, about the imprint in this day and age, and this flicker of doubt remained in my mind as I got stuck in to their latest full-length release, Darkstar's News From Nowhere.

The announcement that Darkstar were migrating from Hyperdub to Warp for their second album didn't generate quite as much excitement as it once would have. Upon listening, it's hard to admit that News From Nowhere generates as much excitement as their stellar debut North, but that's not to say that it's a dud. Penned in a West Yorkshire retreat, the album is the first set of material that Darkstar have written as the trio that they became whilst touring North. It's easy to tell that the arrangements are now the work of a 'proper' group, with the beat craft that embodied tracks likes 'Aidy's Girl Is A Computer' replaced with collaboratively constructed instrumentation.

This sense of ensemble works with varying results. 'Timeaway' and 'A Day's Pay For A Day's Work' lose their focus slightly within their own layers, but on the likes of 'Armonica', 'Young Heart's' and 'You Don't Need A Weatherman' each element meshes excellently to remind us why, when they're on form, Darkstar's vision is hard to trump. That said, on 'Amplified Ease' their collective vision sits slightly too close to another Collective, of the Animal variety.

The record closes with two tracks of introspective runmination - seven-minute closer 'Hold Me Down' is a particularly sensuous gem - and leaves us to reflect that, on this evidence, both the label and artist can still fill a valuable place in the world.

Ólöf Arnalds.

Sudden Elevation.
One Little Indian.

Reviewer - Rob Aldam.

Ólöf Arnalds has been honing her craft in her native Iceland for many years now. Following stints as a touring musician with múm, and myriad collaborations with her compatriots, she finally released her debut album Við Og Við in 2007. Her next outing was a more eclectic affair, marking a departure from her minimalistic roots and encompassing a wide array of influences and guest musicians. This month sees the release of Sudden Elevation, marking another adventure in her musical odyssey: it is the first album she's recorded solely in English.

You get the sense of a singer gently probing a foreign language, her tongue tentatively pronouncing every vowel and consonant. Whilst her sound is much more focussed on this record than on her previous album, Innundir Skinni, there is a sense of someone cautiously testing the boundaries of her musical knowledge. Much of the material was recorded with her long time collaborator Skúli Sverrisson in a seaside cabin; adding an organic and earthy feel to the production. Her beautiful crystalline voice is framed by a rugged and sparse backdrop, trickling with purity and feeling as fresh as a Spring morning.

Sudden Elevation is a testimony to the continuing experimentation and evolution in Arnalds's work. Her music is highly intuitive, but she also shows a propensity to absorb events around her and channel them into her writing. The intensely delicate 'Return Again' oozes with a palpable sense of yearning, a song so heartbreakingly fragile and beautiful that you fear it may shatter at any moment. The distinct troubadour style hints at years of classical training, harking back to her early work. It is a song that seems so urgent yet timeless.

First single 'A Little Grim' exemplifies the great diversity of tone at work here, and heralds the distinct folk ethos that flows through beautifully assembled songs. Whilst most of her time may be spent within her homeland, she clearly draws her influences from far and wide. 'German Fields' is a more upbeat song revealing another weapon in her armoury. 'Bright and Still' embodies her more playful and whimsical side.

The result is an album which is beautiful in its simplicity and daring in its omissions. Arnalds really shines when all embellishments are stripped away, allowing her voice to take centre-stage. There is a sense of isolation which runs like a seam through Sudden Elevation, but on occasion her music is let free to take to the air and soar over the volcanic peaks, leaving the shores of her native Eylenda behind.