Notes from the Keybed – This Month In Synths [April 2015]

Crystal Castles, everyone’s favourite experimental noise-wave band, are back! Well, sort of anyway. Last year singer Alice Glass announced her departure from the duo followed by a rather public fall-out with songwriter/producer Ethan Kath. At the time it was claimed that the group would carry on as a solo project from Kath, the first results of which have recently been uploaded to SoundCloud.

New song ‘Frail’ has the classic Crystal Castles sound of lo-fi synths cascading over waves of pounding electronic drums, topped off the sort of pumping sidechain compression that would make Daft Punk cringe. Vocals are provided by a singer identified only as ‘Edith’ who, whether intentional or not, does a near identical impression of Glass with the band’s indecipherable lyrics and screechy outbursts intact as ever. It is unclear whether ‘Edith’ is a permanent singer, or if Kath will have guests on different tracks, or stick with it as a solo project only. Regardless of what happens a new album will be most welcome and if we get an Alice Glass solo record too (pleeeeaasse) then no one can complain!

Nothing quite brightens up a dreary Monday morning than an email promising Swedish ‘outspoken feminist pop/electro’, which is exactly what landed in my inbox at the start of April. Tikkle Me deal in glorious harmonies and lovingly crafted synthesiser-based pop songs, much in the vein of Eisley, Imogen Heap or fellow Scandinavian electro popper Robyn. New album What Is Real is a joy to listen to, with a perfect balance of upbeat electro productions such as ‘Six Senses Screaming’ and gentler vocal-led songs ‘Niagara’ and ‘Under The Bridge’ (no, not THAT ‘Under The Bridge’!). A lot of time and effort has clearly gone into the recording process as the seemingly contradictory elements of chiptune synths, classical strings, processed drum beats, and layered near-operatic vocals fit perfectly together. Lyrically, the album is mostly based on feminist themes of empowerment and independence, yet it is never overwhelming or pretentious. A few lyrics are somewhat lost in translation such as on ‘Time To Act’ where ‘deep in the jungle they play hardcore’, raising a smile at the mental image of lions shredding some HXC! But I never fail to be depressed at my own country’s laziness that everyone needs to sing in English to be commercially recognised, and the overall message is an important one that will no doubt resonate with anyone who has felt under-appreciated or segregated, regardless of their location or gender. My personal highlight of the record ‘Rebels’ features the sort of huge half-time chorus that Ellie Goulding has been plying her trade with in recent times, but with lyrics about being a strong leader unafraid of people’s expectations and preconceptions. ‘What Is Real’ is available now through the Gaphals record label and comes highly recommended for fans of intelligent and beautifully crafted pop music.

Here at TwoBeatsOff, I pretty much get free reign to write what I like (ta editor) as long as it is vaguely on topic and introduces people to rad new music but I did have to grapple with my conscience over this next one because my absolute favourite song of the month is as far from cool and underground as it gets. Carly Rae Jepsen… no come back, honest it’s a cracker… dropped a new tune this month called ‘All That’ produced by former Test Icicle and Lightspeed Champion mainman Dev Hynes along with songwriter Ariel Rechtshaid. Predictably enough, it sounds nothing like ‘Circle. Square. Triangle’ or ‘Call Me Maybe’ but is actually a slow burning slice of 80s balladry, complete with twinkling arpeggios and guilt-free slap bass. With an irresistible R&B chorus building alongside clipped guitar, big reverbed drums and dramatic piano chords, it is equal parts catchy pop song and hipster-friendly pastiche and all the better for it. Not available to download in the UK currently – if anyone knows otherwise tweet us – ‘All That’ will appear on Jepsen’s third album E-Mo-Tion, whilst Hynes’ Blood Orange project has just released a new remix bundle of single ‘Uncle Ace’ – check out the Kindness remix for more Prince inspired 80’s goodness.

I’ve been fairly slow on the uptake of new radio darlings PVRIS, who have been plugging away at their brand of synth-infused modern rock anthems since 2012. This month the band released a new video for ‘White Noise’, one of the highlights of their debut album of the same name. Boasting luscious keyboards, heavy as hell drums, and an incredibly strong vocal from frontwoman Lyndsey Gunnulfsen it is set to dominate the summer. PVRIS are appearing at Slam Dunk Festival and Reading and Leeds, as well as gig dates across the US and Europe. Don’t miss them!

Close your eyes and picture the coolest band in the world, what would they be like? How about a Swedish garage rock band with post-punk guitar riffs, fuzzy bass, and a Debbie Harry lookalike who sings in French whilst rocking the keytar? Well that’s exactly what CIKATRI$ are, and new record The Texas EP, released to support their appearance at SXSW, is packed with indie rock hooks and keyboard/guitar showdowns. It’s terrific stuff and reason enough to make Aurélie our this month’s Keytar Hero! …and that’s before we get onto her stylophone and theremin playing as well as their merch options of tote bags and temporary tattoos, which are all kinds of awesome. Check out all four CIKATRI$ EPs on Bandcamp now before they outgrow the underground.

Live: Creeper, The Marr’s Bar, 19/4/15

Worcester’s scene has never been dead, but it’s certainly been slowing down in recent years. Except for the excellent but sporadic Surprise Attacks series, a couple of stalwarts booking the odd shows at the Firefly and the annual Worcester Music Festival (or WuMu, for shits and giggles), there wasn’t really a hell of a lot to get excited about.

However, Fights and Fires sticksman Lee Jackson decided that wasn’t good enough so along with some other likeminded punx, he set up Faithful City Shows in a bid to bring bands properly back to the Wu. Ashamedly, it took me until show number four to actually pitch up in The Marr’s Bar, but the goth-punk lure of Creeper was more than enough to set the wheels in motion.

First to hit the stage were Worcester youngsters Chase The Deer (2.5/5). They’re the new kids on the block, formed just under a year ago, and it shows. They’re nervous on stage, unpracticed with crowds, and half of their set is poorly performed covers. However, there’s also some real potential shining through. Latest single ‘Bad Date’ is a great slice of pure pop with a chorus that’s pure gold, and debut single ‘Think’ is a hell of a lot of fun. If they can perform their own songs with the same confidence and conviction that they do the covers, they might be onto a winner.

It’s obvious how much we love Lanterns (4.5/5). The debut record This Is Not My Home is magnificent, and the live show equally so. Despite a few teething problems with new equipment, the band themselves were positively charming, and the songs just sounded fantastic. ‘Safe With Me’ has so much power since being reinvented as an electric anthem, and the band teased a new track that is certain to be an absolute banger. Definitely one to watch.

Vault of Eagles (4/5) are not typically the sort of band that I’d rush out to listen to. Truth be told, I was secretly hoping for a bit of riot grrl when they stepped on the stage, but rather than being disappointed, I was enthralled by their stoner grunge fusion. You can tell that all the songs have been developed with a live show in mind – everything from the bass tone to the guitar set-up was bang on perfect. Their psychedelic grooves were a welcome addition to the evening, and definitely a new addition to my iPod.

However, if there was one thing to take away from the show that night, it was that Creeper (5/5) will never play in a venue this small again. Recently hailed by Kerrang! as ‘new grave’ heroes, their goth-punk anthems sound even better live than on their outstanding self-titled EP. Their set was full of energy, incredibly tight without feeling too practiced and polished, and truly unmissable. The band have got an absolute gem of a frontman in Will Gould – equal parts Davey Havok and Gerard Way, his performance is captivating and filled with a flair for the dramatic. He’s learned well from his predecessors, not just in how to run the stage (or hold a microphone just like Davey), but in that he’s humble – genuinely thankful for the opportunity to play and the support of the scene – and it’s truly heartwarming to see.

The second thing to take away from the show was that Creeper are now the only band allowed to cover AFI, because their cover of ‘Sacrifice Theory’ was spot on, and probably the closest I’ll ever get to see AFI play anything off The Art of Drowning that isn’t ‘Days of the Phoenix’. However, even if a highlight for a Despair Faction loser like myself, their own songs stood just as tall as that classic and have the potential to become just as timeless. So pick up the EP, learn all the words and get yourself to a Creeper show before they start selling out club tours, because it’s only a matter of time before they explode.

The next Faithful City Shows coming up are:
FCS #5 – Sweet Empire/HOLY/Irish Handcuffs/Horror on the High Seas
Wednesday 20 May, Drummonds, 7.30pm
Buy tickets here

FCS #6 – Lock and Key/Boxkite/Carving a Giant/Fractures
Sunday 31 May, The Marr’s Bar, 7.30pm
Buy tickets here

FCS #7 – Funeral for a Friend + Support
Sunday 7 June, The Marr’s Bar, 7.30pm
Sold out!

FCS #8 – Off With Their Heads/Brassick + Support
Thursday 6 August, The Marr’s Bar, 7.30pm
Buy tickets here

FCS #9 – Random Hand/Fights and Fires + Support
Friday 21 August, The Marr’s Bar, 7.30pm
Buy tickets here

Review: Howls – No Living [EP]

It’s almost become ironic how in Britain’s musical landscape, at least over the last 5-10 years, most (I stress, most, not all) hardcore punk bands all conform to the same tried and tested method of a 4/5-piece with an overly-aggressive frontman. Howls break away from that mould. Brighton’s own Howls consists of only three, Will Richards (guitar), Ollie Shead (bass), and Sam Barnes (drums). Only having one guitarist could seem surprising for a band like this, but it is the sharing of the vocal duties between the trio that is the real surprise. But don’t worry, the burden doesn’t soften them, as Howls prove in their latest EP, the coarse and at times volatile No Living.

The EP reminds me a little of Gallows, especially when the riffs kick in, but the overall sound seems a little more murky. The vocals are often more reminiscent of good ol’ fashioned punk – they’ve been described as larynx-lacerating hardcore, I think that’s fair – but they still manage to fit in some of the more catchy shouted lyrics, which should be a great bonus for crowd involvement. With only the one guitarist, the bass plays a more prominent role than in a lot of modern punk and hardcore as well, which helps Howls carve out more of an individual sound, mixing up traditional punk and modern hardcore with tracks flowing from explosive riffs to slow but crunching heavy grooves.

Opening track ‘Rest Well’ screams to life with an example of the aforementioned ferocious riffs paired with some head-slamming drum-pounding. When the vocals screech in, the song really comes together. It’s fast, there’s intricacy, but more importantly it’s completely fucking brutal. Lovely.

Title track ‘No Living’ also houses a peach of a riff, but it is a touch simpler and noticeable slower. That’s no criticism, it’s still ‘fast’; besides, a bit of variety is appreciated. The track shows a bit more artistry with some decipherable structure and varied sections of sound. The vocals, particularly nicely done across the chorus, gain a lot from being threefold. Whereas it could easily sound confused, jumbled, and chaotic, it provides complexity and a layered texture of sound. Pretty neat stuff.

The third and penultimate track ‘Black Dust’ brings with it an eruption of raw emotion which flares-up to form a corrosive wall of anger and vigour to slam against. The energy is ruthless and infectious; it’ll be a pleasure to experience live, that’s for sure. Final track ‘Ides’ almost made me think that Howls had forgotten the winning formula evident in the former three tracks, but they were just being a tricky bunch. ‘Ides’ doesn’t explode like the grenade on your face that the first three tracks form, but they haven’t lost their touch, the slower start allows the upsurge of sound to creep up on you, before destroying you one last time.

Howls combine threefold throat shredding vocals, raw riffs, and destructive drumming into an EP overflowing with aggression and potential. One of the best compliments I can give them is that they definitely sound like more than three guys. Seriously impressive stuff.

4.5 out of 5 high fives!

Review: Resuscitators – Make It Through Another Night [EP]

In the age of the emo revival, it’s getting more and more difficult to just find straight-up punk rock. You know what I mean – just plain ol’ rowdy guitars, frantic vocals and wicked basslines, with more lyrics about getting drunk and going to a show rather than just crywanking in your bedroom. So in some ways, Resuscitators are a breath of fresh air. In others, they’re little more than a whisper of nostalgia, refusing to accept the fact that times have indeed moved on.

Make It Through Another Night is messy. It’s difficult to tell whether this is a good or a bad thing at times, but on the whole, I’ve considered it to be more on the good side. After all, punk was not created to fit into a box, but to tear the box apart and spit on it when you’re done. I imagine most of the songs on the record would sound fantastic live, but on record, there’s a certain lack of cohesion that occasionally frustrates. Take ‘Stronger Drinks’, for example – there’s a hell of a lot of energy, but hardly any of the parts are in time with each other. In a time where you can effectively make an album on your iPad, it seems bizarre. The backing vocals often overshadow the lead – towards the end of ‘Jaws of Life’, it all becomes a bit shambolic and while that may be part of the charm in a live show, it seems very out of place on a record.

However, there are plenty of great moments peppered throughout. The bass is fantastic – it’s got that classic punk tone and absolutely storms through every track with Matt Freeman-esque bravado. ‘Little Victories’ starts with some triumphant gang vocals and shows the most potential out of all – it’s exactly the kind of track you’d imagine on a Tony Hawk game, with loads of Bouncing Souls-inspired licks. Final track ‘WWPD’ sounds incredible – it’s the only acoustic track on the record, and the vocals are amazing. However, it’s let down by an invasive electric solo that sounds totally out of place, ruining what could potentially be a really poignant end to the EP. It’s too typical a cliché – sometimes, this results in some pretty fun moments, like the “one two, fuck you” in ‘The Ataris Ruined My Sex Live’, but at other times, it’s damaging and too irritating to let go.

Make It Through Another Night has the potential to make for a really fun experience, but putting it all down on record makes it seem like something’s been lost somewhere. On the plus side, the songs all have a solid foundation, but a lack of control stops them from reaching their full potential. However, there’s no doubt that Resuscitators would be an absolute joy to see perform, and hopefully on the next record, they’ll have worked out a few of the kinks.

3 out of 5 high fives!

Review: Luke Leighfield – V

Ten years after he started and with his fifth studio album, Luke Leighfield is back in business. It hasn’t all been smooth-sailing, but with the fan-funded album V, Leighfield returns packing a pop-rock punch. Just three years ago, in mid-2012, it looked as though Leighfield’s musical dream was over. Sure, he’d had a good run, playing hundreds of shows across the globe, but four albums on he had become tired of music – or tired of touring – and found himself a day job instead (albeit one in the lights and sounds of Berlin). Luckily for his loyal fan-base, this wasn’t the end.

That loyal fan-base rallied around Leighfield and pledged £13,000 on Kickstarter towards the production of a new album. With their financial backing, it was off Ohio to record V with none-other than much-admired producer Jim Wirt (Jack’s Mannequin, Incubus). After falling in and out of love, as much as in his personal life as with music itself, Leighfield has used his wealth of experience to create 12 anthemic pop-rock tunes custom made for summer – almost making it ironic that he’s British.

As soon as the snare hits introducing album opener ‘Begin Again’ reaches your ears, the production quality sounds crisp and clear, the perfect delivery method for Leighfield’s brand of pop-rock. As a song it is simple but effective, there isn’t too much going on but what you can hear starts to get stuck inside your head. ‘Fading Fast’ does anything but fade, carrying on from where the opener left off with another perfectly package piece of pop. The range of instrumentals is a big bonus, as Leighfield doesn’t follow some solo acts in depending far too much on their preferred instrument and their vocals. ‘Fading Fast’ doesn’t cling to acoustic guitars, but pushes beyond with the introduction of keys and even a catchy electric guitar solo. The song structure is still simple, but the melodies are catchy, it is exactly what pop-rock is all about.

‘Fool for Love’, the lead single from V, sums up Leighfield’s sound perfectly. It brings with it a subtle backing of keys and sweeping melodies from an electric guitar, the perfect stage for vocals to come out front and centre. As well as the insatiable melodies, there also seems to be an emo-tinge to some parts of the album, particularly evident on ‘Oh, Canada’; a simple song of heartbreak (which, it should be added, features a horn section and somehow still comes off sounding sincere – bravo!)

I was worried that the album would drift away into a mire of pop sameness, but final and aptly-named track ‘Something Different’ leaves a lasting impression with a little more rock introduced to the pop. The sighs, regrets and heart-felt longing that can be found in other parts of the album are banished. I can only think that this must be the song that came into Leighfield’s head as he started to wonder whether he had left all of the music behind him, pondering life from an office in Berlin. The songs depth seems to come from ridding one’s self of the worries of the past and moving on, to something bigger and better. “I know that I was made for something different”, sings Leighfield, perhaps reflecting on all of that time sat behind a computer instead of sitting behind a piano in a recording studio.

Granted, V is nothing new. Leighfield’s pop-rock isn’t unique – I couldn’t help but hear elements of later Dashboard Confessional, and perhaps even a sprinkling of Hellogoodbye’s pop-monster for good measure – but it is really well done. There is simple songwriting, catchy melodies aplenty, and the expert production you would expect from Jim Wirt. If you like your pop with a large helping of rock, or you like your rock infected to the core with catchy pop melodies, V is for you.

4 out of 5 high fives!