Eccentronic Research Council.

Magpie Billy & The Egg That Yolked
Desolate Spools

Following on from 2012’s conceptual debut 1612 Underture, which took the 17th Century case of the Pendle Witches trial as its basis, this curious electronica project uses more familiar themes of suburban alienation and paranoia for the follow-up.

Subtitled ‘A Study of the Northern Ape in Love’, “resident broken hearted, bitter and spiteful ape on the verge of a nervous breakdown” Adrian Flanagan (Kings Have Long Arms) and “synth Yoda” Dean Honer (I Monster) have this time blended kitchen-sink commentary with dark satire to tell the story of Magpie Billy, a social drinker whose main pastime is “getting into arguments down the local after a few pints”. A perpetual “shed dweller”, Billy’s growing alienation from his wife is not helped by the constant presence of a formidable magpie perched outside their house, who gradually begins to impose on his life in ways he never thought possible (“Magpie, magpie, bird of my nightmares...”)

Narrated by Maxine Peake, this Edgar Allen Poe meets John Cooper Clarke tale is married to whirring wonky pop and stark electronic rhythms, with Peake’s Lancashire vowels drawing comparisons with mid 90s synthpop black comedians Dubstar. ‘R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (This Bird Has Flown)’ and ‘M.B. Motorcycle Enthusiast’ border on horror soundtrack territory with eerily disquieting keyboards and ‘First Foot On The Misery Ladder’ will leave you feeling queasy with its fairground organ.

But the album ultimately emerges as a story of triumph over adversity – real or imagined, it’s never quite clear – and the baroque musical theatre retains a hint of levity throughout. Flanagan himself says the album “touches upon the universal need to be loved but simultaneously left alone”, and the final result is oddly touching, with the emphasis on ‘odd’. You’re unlikely to hear a more eccentric and engrossing album this year.

Jordan Cullen

Sieben.

Each Divine Spark
Redroom

Never shy of a little hard work, Matt Howden – the finest violinist and melody looper in South Yorkshire – kicks off his 2014 with his eleventh recording album. Under his stage-name Sieben, Howden’s latest 12-track was recorded live in analogue at his favourite underground venue Club 60, bringing each track to life in a way which can be lost on a studio album. With several other projects absorbing much of his time, including recent venture RASP with cellist Jo Quail, the steadfast workaholic has assured friends and fans that his personal project and life-blood Sieben would never be left behind. The release of Each Divine Spark proves that Howden is truly a man of his word as this could well be his best music to date.

Opening track ‘Born from the Ashes’ immediately draws interest with a slow build of tension as the looping layers of delicate strings come to a passionate climax in the dying moments of the track, ready for a more haunting use of vocal looping to swoop in during track two, ‘She Is There’. The harmony of the backing vocals adds to the charm and theatrics of the song. A little further through the album the tempo picks up, with some stronger beats and catchy rhythms. ‘The National Anthem of Somewhere’ and ‘Jigsaw Chainsaw’ are both tracks that get you moving, whilst retaining the signature lingering essence of Sieben.

Another completely engrossing and absorbing record from this incredible artist. Matt manages to tell stories and produce a theatre from every aspect of every track. The raw and organic energy captured in the removal of over-editing is an admirable change of direction and I hope to see him continue in this vein. I highly recommend eyes are also kept peeled for the release of RASP’s live album in the not-too-distant future.

Tasha Franek

Perc.

The Power and The Glory
Perc Trax

Anyone got the number for a good small claims lawyer? My laptop’s completely ruined from water damage, I’m soaked to the bone and on the brink of hypothermia, I’ve developed intense agoraphobia and am afraid to step outside my house, and it’s all Perc’s fault.

What’s more, I’d wager I’m not the only such victim out there. For, as I type this, I’m huddled up in a foetal position in the shower, blasts of purging cold water crashing down on my bowed head as the sound of ‘Rotting Sound’, the opening track to London-based Ali Wells’ second full-length The Power & The Glory, drills its brutally unforgiving burden of paranoid terror in to my all-too-human brain tissue. Think you’d fare any better upon plugging Perc’s monolithic dystopian nightmare into your unsuspecting ears? No, you’re wrong.

Even if you manage to navigate the first track without dropping to your knees and raising your despairing palms towards a clearly merciless god, by the time album closer ‘A Living End’ breathes its last, fretful breath, there’ll be a part of your soul that will forever be a dense layer of black – the colour of Nina Simone’s true love’s hair – but don’t worry, because after this you won’t be experiencing true love any time soon.

Most troubling is that, while in any normal circumstances no sentient being would subject themselves to such torment, it’s nigh-on impossible to tear yourself away. Perc guides us through a bitterly clinical factory, where they presumably specialise in crushing hopes and dreams on an industrial scale, and the resulting record is a brilliant example of techno at its most captivatingly brutal. Now someone please pass me a towel, and Perc, I’ll see you in court.

Jack Scourfield

Wild Beasts.

Present Tense
Domino

Wild Beasts’ entrance in 2008 with their charismatically ostentatious debut Limbo, Panto reminded the country that there was still musical life outside the hackneyed stock of the last decade’s landfill indie scene.

Innovative and idiosyncratic, the Kendal four-piece’s intricately woven guitar parts lay comfortably between polyrhythmic percussion and vocalist Hayden Thorpe’s thespian delivery. Widely acclaimed follow-ups Two Dancers and Smother toned down the extravagance but maintained a modern and enduring quality, acknowledged by the former’s nomination for the Mercury Music Prize in 2010.

They return this month with Present Tense. The trademark quality still remains. Thorpe’s falsetto is effortlessly complemented by partner vocalist Tom Fleming’s deeper and more restrained register on ‘Nature Boy’, while unique drum patterns that sound like they’ve been taken apart and rearranged appear on ‘A Dog’s Life’ and ‘Daughters’.

After taking a year out from touring to conceive the album and replacing long-time producer Richard Formby, the result is much more electronic. Synthesizers replace guitars on many tracks, working efficiently on ‘Simple, Beautiful Truth’. But this shift in production doesn’t have the same appeal on others, particularly opener and lead single ‘Wanderlust’, which lacks the depth the band are clearly capable of achieving.

Those moments that do provoke an emotional response, such as ‘Sweet Spot’ and the melancholy ‘Pregnant Pause’, remind the listener that while some of the quality may have been compromised by the turn towards a more electronic sound, this band are still definitely worth investing time in. The resurgence of innovative British bands over the past couple of years has marked a shift away from tired, post-Libertines indie rock, and Wild Beasts look set to continue this trend.

Aidan Daly

Untold.

Black Light Spiral
Hemlock Recordings

Jack Dunning, talented DJ, innovative producer and highly influential figure in electronic music, is also the owner of two exceptional record labels. Established in 2008, Hemlock Recordings has acted as a stepping stone for some big name DJs and producers, including James Blake and Fantastic Mr Fox, whilst his new label Pennyroyal has recently released work by techno superstars Ben Sims and Paul Mac.

Due to be unleashed to the public through Hemlock on 24 February, Black Light Spiral will be Untold’s first full-length LP and is consequently highly anticipated.

Forty minutes long and comprising of eight tracks of seriously dark and disturbing soundscapes and loops, I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as ‘easy listening’. Having heard it on three separate occasions in different environments and situations, each time I was left searching for some contrast to the harshness, just a touch of melody or warmth to detract from the heavy machine-like repetitions, sirens, stabs and shouts. 

The music is certainly well produced, and I wouldn’t go as far as to say this is not a good album. It’s all subjective and this is only one man’s opinion. I imagine some folk will love this and I definitely don’t want this review to put anyone off from listening to it. Anybody who knows Untold’s work knows how he likes to distort boundaries and this is, as expected, completely original work, unlike anything else out there right now.

I’ll continue to be a fan of Untold and will be eagerly awaiting future releases with an open mind. In the meanwhile, however, it’ll be tracks like ‘Targa’ and ‘Glare’ out on 50 Weapons and ‘Motion the Dance’ (Hemlock) that I’ll be listening to rather than this particular LP.

John Gillett

Illum Sphere.

Ghosts of Then and Now
Ninja Tune

A few years back, when Illum Sphere, aka Manc club night Hoya Hoya co-founder Ryan Hunn, had only a couple of releases under his belt, I remember discussing the variation in his musical styles with Daedelus, who was over in Manchester to play. “Ryan is still searching for his sound,” he said affectionately.

Ghosts of Then and Now is the culmination of Ryan’s sonic ascension so far, his first album proper following a bevy of EPs and singles for Fat City, 3024, Tectonic and Young Turks. None of his music so far has been easily classifiable for those that feel the need, but the murky hip hop of his earliest forays have here been superseded by a resounding landscape of synth work conducted with a definite narrative in mind. Vocals, from New York's Shadowbox on three numbers and Mai Nestor on the epic 'At Night', don't overpower proceedings, but provide a sweet contrast to the potential darkness of an extremely layered piece of work.

‘Sleeprunner’ (the most aggressive and immediate track), ‘Near The End’ (sci-fi party jazz with soul, all mesmerising keys, tribal drive and chord build-up) and ‘Embryonic’ (the closer, a memorably-hummable Shadowbox lullaby) are standout tracks for me. Tempo varies and percussion hits hard, but those synth lines are killer throughout. Illum remains steadfast in tone and demonstrates admirable restraint and subtlety – ‘Near The End’ and ‘Liquesce’ with Shigeto end way too soon – over thirteen tracks which in less skilled hands could have been a stylistic mess, and the underpinnings of live musicianship on such an 'electronic' album make it a warm affair which rewards repeated attention.

Ironically for someone identified with a pioneering club night, Ghosts... is unconcerned with scenes or what you think is a la mode. Illum has found his sound.

Jamie Groovement