Mongrels

Low Budget/High Budget
Invisible Spies Records

In the mid 90s, before he became the street art force of nature he is today, Kid Acne was a graffiti and hip hop obsessed teenager living in the Midlands. Around this time, he joined forces with DJ Benjamin to form rap duo Mongrels. After releasing their first single, ‘Slingshots’, in 1996, the pair continued recording until deciding to take a break from music in 2008.

After realising all of his favourite MCs were dead, dying or past it, Acne decided it was time to return to Mongrels. Low Budget/High Concept arrives ahead of their forthcoming album, Attack The Monolith. Abrasive boom-bap beats meet Acne’s conversational, almost comedic raps delivered in a heavy East Midlands accent. Opener ‘Chokehold’ is the perfect introduction to this style - rhymes about champagne dropped in favour of tall tales about drinking Bovril and robbing bungalows.

Tracks like ‘Sky L.A.R.Ping’ and ‘Mic Tyrant’ wouldn’t sound out of place on an MF DOOM album if it wasn’t for Acne’s distinctive style. At a time when PR companies and brands mix so closely with UK hip hop and grime, it’s this style that sets Mongrels apart from many of their contemporaries. Unpolished and raw, Low Budget/High Concept feels like it’s come straight from a dusty South Yorkshire bedroom, more a product of the monotony of everyday life than the extraordinary.

As Mongrels' style grows more familiar, at points it feels like John Cooper Clarke has started spitting. In reality, the pair probably have more in common with the likes of Sleaford Mods and Scorzayzee. The glamour and excess so often associated with the genre don't really translate to market town England as well as piss-taking and stripped-down production do. Most importantly, with an EP this strong and fun, Mongrels’ forthcoming album holds a lot of promise.

George Springthorpe

Synkro

Changes
Apollo

Back in the heyday of dubstep, when everything at 140bpm had a mandatory reggae vocal sample and enough low-end wobble to rattle the fittings in your sitting room, Synkro stood out with a more melodic twist on the genre, blending rhythms with warm harmony and dense texture. This willingness to offer something different to a rapidly stagnating musical movement made certain that, while much of my former dubstep collection has been left to gather dust in the far flung corners of my music folder, Synkro - and his regular collaborator, Indigo - are still on my musical radar.

After nearly 40 releases on a variety of imprints, Apollo Recordings now bring us Synkro’s debut album, Changes. The title of the record seems to imply a turning point and a departure from previous music, but, in a stylistic sense at least, this is certainly not the case. The textures on Changes are as rich as ever and the general tone of the record will be familiar to existing fans.

There is perhaps a little less rhythmic work than I expected, but the ambient pieces, especially the haunting ‘Empty Walls’, help to create a sense of journey, elevating the album from a selection of disparate tunes to something which exceeds the sum of its parts and holds water as a prolonged listen. When the beats are around, such as on the title track, they are well poised and give the music much-needed drive.

There is often a danger that seasoned, single-releasing artists struggle to produce fully fledged albums, instead creating extended releases which lack coherence. Synkro doesn’t fall into this trap, providing variety without losing continuity. Just as my ears were tiring of vast ambience and minimal drums, out pops ‘Midnight Sun’, a classy, melodic piece with a strong lead organ line and hip hop beat. Perhaps the only thing missing from this debut record is a bit more edge at times, but Changes remains a strong release from a great producer.

Fred Oxby

Toucans

Toucans
Self released

The new self-titled release by Sheffield acid folk outfit Toucans opens up with the dark and hypnotic 'Are The Flowers Dead Yet?', the layered vocals bringing a She and Him meets Belle and Sebastian on meth vibe. It’s distant, interesting and slightly endearing. 

The scratchy vinyl tone continues through 'Meet Me By The River' and 'Welcome'. Both tracks hold a certain stoned dreariness to them, culminating in a peaceful drifting away, bringing visions of an impromptu jam by the barely mobile at a house party at 5am - the sound of those who would have slept if they could.

'Open Skin' holds a mysterious Charles Manson-esque charm (check out Lie: The Love and Terror Cult to see what I mean). It’s not clear what percussion is used, but it builds throughout the track in an extremely sinister way, before disappearing completely. 

The chirping nature sounds sampled and looped on 'The Bridge Back Home' are mixed with simple acoustic chords and delicate vocals, delivering a much-needed lighter note to the album, before we dive back into the macabre with 'I Don’t Believe In That'. This one-minute country gem is brief and beautifully bleak: “I went to see my relatives today and they couldn’t talk to me / All that there was left behind was burnt bones and teeth.”

The closing track, 'Beaten to Leather', is the most enthusiastic. Bursting with obscure chimes, a lead bass line and stomping rhythm, it's a fun and rather messy crescendo. Toucans bring the sound of authentic, homemade drug pop, and they do it well.

Lewis Budden

Early Cartographers

LookOut
Self released

After three years in production, Early Cartographer’s debut album has arrived. LookOut is brimming with a consistent sense of jovial camaraderie and not surprisingly, since it employs the talents of the rotating stock of musicians that have at some point all been members of the band or still are. It seems obvious that the band’s mantra - ‘Once a Cartographer, always a Cartographer’ - remains firmly at the centre of the project.

From the start, the album dives into the charming allure that characterises the entire release, given a more immediate sensation due to the interludes of woodland noise and birdsong that interlace the 12 tracks. Both intimate and assured, LookOut is consistently entertaining, bejewelled with sudden bursts of multi-part harmonies, abrupt shifts in tempo and time signature, and fleeting passages of warm melody that fade as quickly as they appear. Intricate marriages of acoustic instrumentation –ukulele, banjo, mandolin, guitar – hover above principal songwriter Ed Cartledge’s yearning vocals, especially on highlights ‘Wormholes’, ‘Safe Place’ and ‘Roundabout’.

It’s the transient moments of gorgeous melody and mature musicianship that help to bridge the gap between the traditional folk sound of the band and a more contemporary aesthetic, with sonic links to outfits like Midlake and Beirut. The complex instrumental arrangements give the album a refined and rich texture without ever sounding overdone or tired.

Aidan Daly

Gaist

Damage EP
Clandestine Recordings

Hailing from the unlikely dance music hub of Chesterfield, duo Gaist offer up two slabs of serious heads-down, eyes-closed techno on Damage, their latest EP. The title track starts off deceptively light, until the deep kick drum enters the fray at the one-minute mark. After that, a burst of handclaps signals a shift into darker territory, with a grinding bass throb underpinning the rest of the mix.

There is no colour or light here. This is dance music at its starkest and coldest, stripped back to its essentials. Occasional metallic, reverb-heavy clangs bounce away from the mix like a penny thrown into vast machinery. It's hard work, but it evokes a mood and an atmosphere that is undoubtedly tied to this region, marking it out from thousands of bedroom producers up and down the UK by tapping into a distinctive local sound.

The second side, ‘Drums’, is as minimal as the first, deploying only the bare essentials to create its industrial sound world. If anything, it's even more nuts-and-bolts than the opener, with a heavier kick drum that dominates and, again, the churning bass sound that coats the track with dehumanised dread. Both tracks are very percussive, with distant synths used as sparingly as possible.

For home listeners, a touch more variety in style and texture would be welcome, as both tunes draw from a very similar pool of sounds. But, let’s face it, this is designed predominantly for the club. The cover – a rusting and abandoned factory interior – ensures that you don't miss the point. This is music from the north of England, its steelworks, the din of its manufacturing districts and the cacophony of now-empty shops.

Sam Gregory

Battles

La Di Da Di
Warp Records

Whilst I am sure that I'm not the only one who noticed something was missing from Battles’ last release, Gloss Drop, I am equally sure they are fed up of people mentioning Tyondai Braxton when discussing them. I was one of those people who would bring up co-founder Braxton, who left the band in 2010, whenever the bandcame up in conversation. Shame on me. Battles don’t need my approval. They have been working mighty hard and have come so far, and La Di Da Di is an incredible showcase of that. Now maybe the comparisons can finally stop.

The first aspect of this album, which grabbed me immediately, was the step away from the more polished approach to songwriting and production on Gloss Drop. La Di Da Diisn't incomplete or flawed, but it sounds much closer to three guys battling (ahem) it out in a sweaty practice room, running their fingers bare and pushing through the hand cramps to get it exactly how they want it. The fire has been stoked and the energy has returned.

Micro loops repeat and repeat, overlapping each other again and again, until the polyrhythms become an easily digestible whole. But above all the complexity, beat counting and chin stroking, by far the best part of this record is the fact that they have, literally and figuratively, got their groove back.

Battleshave always been pushing the digital andanalogue worlds together, but this doesn’t only come across in their sound palette - it’s the interaction between synthesis of sound, the fundamental flaws and perfections of repetition and human performance.

Gordon Barker

Dead Fader

Glass Underworld
Robot Elephant Records

There’s a broad destructiveness to Glass Underworld, the latest full-length outing from Brighton producer Dead Fader, that in one instant evokes a towering, booming fireball and in the next plunges you deep into an impenetrable, subaquatic darkness. It’s like jumping from a blazing oil rig, only to land in a flooded mine. Except that, as you scrape further under the density of the record, it becomes apparent that’s maybe not such a disconcerting experience after all.

Underneath the bonnet is a fundamentally melodic, almost airy record, deftly pieced together with an ear for both rhythm and sensitivity, which then proceeds to be buried under a crushing pallet of distortion and noise until it becomes something altogether more terrifying. With its echoing synths and eerie amphibian flourishes, ‘Glass Cathedral’ is like a sort of beat-less Drexciyan creation,  while you can almost feel the pressure tightening as ‘Not One’ descends further and further away from sea level.

With its dampened  brass section, ‘Mud Underworld’ proves to be chirpily close to a misnomer, while the softly lurching ‘Nine Strokes’ is – by Dead Fader’s standards, at least – positively breezy. The album’s longest track, ‘Thunderstorm’, reflects the balance of ‘Glass Underworld’ nicely in the space of seven and a half minutes, as it entwines an optimistic, steadily wavering synth with increasingly harsh layers of noise, chugged along by an industrial kick and snare beat.

An imposing but rewarding listen.

Jack Scourfield

Jon Gomm

Live at the Acoustic Asylum
Performing Chimp

British guitarist Jon Gomm was catapulted into the limelight in 2012, when a tweet from Stephen Fry sent one of his videos viral. Fry’s message consisted of a single word: “Wow”. Little more needed saying. Three years later, Gomm has released Live at the Acoustic Asylum - his fourth album and ample proof, should more be needed, that he is far more than a one-hit wonder.

From the moment his guitar bursts into life in the opening seconds of ‘Stupid Blues’, his talent is undeniable. Artists hitting their guitars is not a new phenomenon, but few are quite as versatile as Gomm, whose unassisted efforts make Walk Off The Earth look like amateurs.

Once the initial shock of hearing him for the first time wears off, Gomm proves an able singer, too. Like his fingers, his voice wanders, strictly uncontrolled, from a falsetto to a deep growl. It’s most effective on ‘Gloria’, a breathless song about breathless love and the ugly turns it can take.

But, as undeniably pleasing as Gomm is to listen to, the album truly comes alive when he lets his guitar do the talking. There is seemingly no sound he cannot emulate, from the harp-like trills of ‘What’s Left For You?’ or the primal drumbeats of ‘Hey Child’ to the Newton Faulkner-esque arpeggios of the wonderfully titled ‘Orville (The Secret of Learning to Fly is Forgetting To Hit The Ground)’. You can almost hear the little green bastard chirping away on that last one.

Jon Gomm is a supreme talent, but there’s a raw intimacy to Live from the Acoustic Asylum. The little asides at the end of each track are proof that those magic fingers really do belong to a human being.

Phil Bayles