Notes from the Keybed – This Month In Synths [November/December 2014]

Merry Synthmas, y’all!

It’s the countdown to Christmas and you’ll all be writing your lists for the big man in red, I’m sure. Stuck for ideas? Well, aside from Moog branded mugs and Roland 808 socks, there are some fantastic records on the horizon to fill a hole in your stocking or plug your own holes whilst the family murders another rendition of Deck The Halls…

Kicking off December comes a (sort of) brand new EP from personal favourites, Issues! I say only sort of brand new as it primarily consists of stripped-back versions of the biggest tunes from their self-titled album, as well as a couple of oldies such as the fantastic ‘Hooligans’. The RnB-core boys were responsible for one of my records of the year, combining ripping synths with pop hooks and metulz chugs. Whilst Diamond Dreams is set to be a more sedate affair, there are still plenty of jazzy keyboards, chilled electronic beats and, of course, those songs that won us all over at the start of the year.

Speaking of records of the year, topping my list alongside Issues would be Heartsrevolution’s electro punk odyssey Ride Or Die, Death From Above 1979’s long-awaited return on The Physical World, the quite frankly mental debut from Emperor Yes on An Island Called Earth, and Get Cape Wear Cape Fly’s delightful swan song London Royal. All of these would make perfect presents for synth-hungry music fans.

Next year is already shaping up to be a good one for music, with a new album from synth pop pioneers Ok Go! Lead single ‘I Won’t Let You Down’ packs in some tasty disco strings alongside the quartet’s penchant for catchy choruses and retro guitar and synth sounds. In typical Ok Go style, there is also an utterly bizarre video that is well worth watching. Expect single wheeled scooter dancing, a troupe of Japanese girls twirling umbrellas, and some unbelievable choreography. Standard ‘band playing in a room’ videos have never been their modus operandi but this one goes even further with a HTML5-based interactive version… as long as you’re using Chrome. Hungry Ghosts is available on download sites here in the UK from February but you can get it now if you’re over in the US.

Another early contender for 2015’s record of the year will certainly be the new offering from rave-rock crossover kings Enter Shikari. Singles from The Mindsweep are already suggesting a continuation of 2012’s monumental album A Flash Flood Of Colour, with the radio-friendly chorus in ‘The Last Garrison’ sitting alongside the bass-heavy tribal rhythms of ‘Anaesthetist’ and ambient intro into surprise hardcore beatdown on ‘Never Let Go Of The Microscope’! It’s set to be another mix of intelligent songwriting and boundary-breaking soundscapes from the genre-hopping foursome.

We said a lot of goodbyes to some established synth bands in 2014, it was clearly the year that new rave finally gave up the ghost (sob). Klaxons returned with their pleasant, if a bit bland, third album before playing a final run of shows, grindie kids Hadouken went on indefinite hiatus, and even hip-hop heroes Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip went their separate ways following a triumphant farewell tour. In addition, we lost noisy electro duo Crystal Castles, with frontwoman Alice Glass departing with the tantalising promise of a solo career for her and a separate continuation from producer Ethan Kath.

With so many great acts throwing in the towel it seemed a perfect time to salute a much missed Keytar Hero, Pete Cafarella from Shy Child. Technically, the synth and drums duo are still a going concern, but having not heard anything from them since 2010, any hopes of a new album have fast dwindled. However at the height of electro indie, Shy Child stood proudly aside from their competitors fronted by the keytar-totting Cafarella’s dancey riffs and New York drawl. Although he hung up the keytar in 2010 to concentrate on being a ‘serious band’ with regular horizontal ‘boards he remains a true hero of the instrument and an influence to shy nerdy synthesists across the globe. Stand up and step out y’all!

Top 10 Punk Rock Beards – The Band Edition

It’s time. Our punk rock beard list finally returns. Some of you may or may not remember a piece that I wrote in 2008, compiling some of my favourite dudes and their super rad beards. I didn’t expect it to be a big thing, but somehow now, when you search ‘punk beard’, we’re the first thing on Google. It’s been a big year for facial hair, so it’s time to get serious. Get ready for the band edition.

DISCLAIMER: this might just be a list of sweet bands who have a couple of members with beards, either currently or just ‘tour beards’. But who gives a shit, there’s beards involved!

10) Summerslam 88
Summerslam 88 very rarely have facial hair but when they do, they look like skeezy 80s dudes. They also do sweet skatepunk that sounds like the Offspring when they were good.

9) North Lincoln
Beard punk. What a genre. Were North Lincoln ever really ‘beard punk’? Probably not, but they were kind of brilliant. And look at that full beardage going on there.

8) Fights and Fires
Worcester ‘geekcore’ lads like sitting on cannons, apparently. They also like beards a lot because their current logo is a guy with a massive beard. And most of them have one in some way or another!

7) Every Time I Die
Do you remember that time when all of Every Time I Die thought ‘fuck it, we’re all gonna grow beards and look kinda dirty?’ I sure as hell do. It was awesome. And if nothing else, Andy Williams has enough beard for everyone.

6) The Menzingers
Quintessentially rugged and responsible for some of the finest punk records of the 21st Century. You know it.

5) The Lawrence Arms
I don’t care if they’re not real moustaches. Nobody cares if they’re not real moustaches. And now these dudes have signed to Epitaph, which is not the home of the beard, but, along with another band further down on our list, they’re making it a classier place.

4) Darko
Darko’s beards were unexpected and highly surprising. But excellent. Skatepunk probably shouldn’t involve beards but I’m very glad it does.

3) Bike Tuff
We did a feature on these guys a few months ago, and while Into Shore is probably my favourite emo-revival-esque record right now (and possibly forever), these dudes all have pretty sweet beards.

2) letlive.
Jason Aalon Butler’s beard is a thing of beauty. Furious, furious beauty. Nothing else needs to be said.

1) Arliss Nancy
LOOK AT THE MAJESTY OF THOSE BEARDS. Arliss Nancy probably couldn’t function without said beards. Americana blended with punk aesthetic to create something kind of beautiful, Wild American Runners is deep and heartfelt with a touch of jaded gruffness that can only come from beards that excellent.

Honorable mention: Enter Shikari
Can one class Shikari as punk? I suppose that imposing trance on post-hardcore and trying to make people more aware of the broken society we live in through their lyrics is pretty punk. Not usually known for the beard, this new video reveals a different side to them…

Reading Festival 2012 [Richmond Avenue, Reading]

Reading Festival has long been a staple of my summer. This was my fourth year running with a full weekend ticket and about my seventh year attending overall. Somehow, the summer just doesn’t feel the same without a trip down to Reading – usually, my dad drives us down and dumps us at the river, then we slog down to the campsite, set up shop and collapse with drinks in hand (or a Coke Zero for me, let’s be honest) until the bands start on Friday. This year, with the formula slightly altered – sister’s friends drove, all my friends bailed on me – I could just tell that things would be… different somehow. Well, apart from not having a real shower for five days – that’s always going to stay the same.

I kicked off my Friday with Deaf Havana (4/5) on the main stage. Despite already hitting the ciders, the band were on top form to open the festival. With a set comprised almost completely of songs from crowd-friendly but brilliant Fools And Worthless Liars, it was a tuneful, optimistic beginning to the weekend. Finally fulfilling one of their ambitions, as James Veck-Gilodi explained, it was great to see one of Britain’s most up and coming bands play to so many people that early on. Over in the NME/Radio 1 Tent, Hadouken! (4/5) set a completely different precedent to Deaf Havana. Ramping up the intensity to 11, Hadouken! came to party hard and didn’t disappoint. While I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of their recorded material, they’re simply exhilarating to behold on a live platform and the tent was packed – clearly an indicator of their well deserved status.

Back on the main stage, Coheed and Cambria (3.5/5) didn’t live up to the usual expectations. Of course, Claudio is a majestic beast on stage and with the original line-up back in place, it’s clear to see that Coheed are in a better place than they have been in a long time. And yet, the set they chose just wasn’t festival friendly and the crowd stood there for most of the time bored and listless. Nevertheless, when Claudio whacked out the double neck SG for Welcome Home, the energy that Coheed are certainly capable of when they’re in the right place was more than obvious.

A brief segway to the Alternative Stage saw us in the company of Adam Hills (4.5/5), that dead funny Australian bloke off Mock The Week. He was certainly onto a winner with his set at Reading, containing a few new gags that had me and my companions almost crying with laughter. With that new show on Channel 4, plus more TV appearances here, he deserves to be enormous.

The Blackout (4.5/5) simply never disappoint. Merthyr Tydfil’s finest delivered an absolutely phenomenal set, picking the biggest anthems from their back catalogue. Sean Smith and Gavin Butler are a joy to watch as they jump across the stage, chucking mics and screaming loud and proud. The Blackout display a passion that’s sadly lacking from so many performers, as well as a professionalism that’s nearly unparalleled. Don’t ever miss them if you have the opportunity to see them – it’s worth it for Higher And Higher alone. In comparison, You Me At Six (3/5) were suitably tepid. Josh Franceschi demonstrated some pretty killer screams, but the band have taken too much from the school of American bands, thanking the audience after every song. While the sound couldn’t be faulted and they certainly played their particular brand of pop-rock adequately, the performance just felt flat. You Me At Six aren’t exactly known for being risk takers and there was certainly nothing unsafe about their set.

The disappointments continued thick and fast with Paramore (2/5). There’s been a lot of drama following the band over the past year. The shock departure of the Farro brothers left them in a bit of a rut and they’re only just getting out of it. Despite Hayley’s protestations that the show was all about the band as a whole though, it was clearly the Hayley Williams show and very little more. Hayley herself is still struggling to strike the right balance between singing properly and shouting weirdly, which is a terrible shame considering the incredible quality of her live performance pre-Riot!. Of course, Paramore have come along a great deal since that time in one way or another, but for a musician so highly praised for her vocal ability, she just doesn’t cut it live. The rest of the band are background characters – what’s left of them, anyway. A completely safe and predictable performance, apart from bringing on a fan for the final chorus of Misery Business and truly, the final nail in the coffin for my interest in Paramore.

The Cure (3/5) didn’t exactly stop the disappointment train in its tracks. A firm favourite of mine since my teen goth days, The Cure are a British institution. They don’t know how to pick a setlist though. When they played the songs we all knew – Lovecats, Inbetween Days, Friday I’m In Love – we were enthralled. The Cure, even after all these years, are still breathtaking, but only when they’re playing the classics. Most of their set was comprised of stuff that I didn’t recognise or didn’t like because despite being able to write anthems, they also know how to create boring background tracks all too well and too many of those made an appearance in their set. The encore was the best part overall, with the crowd and the band really coming alive for songs like Let’s Go To Bed and Close To Me. It’s comforting to know that after all these years, The Cure can still play very well. It’s less so to realise that their idea of timeless and ours no longer correspond.

Saturday’s start was more than a little unorthodox, to say the least. Sat around the campsite, waiting for people to get ready, I get a text from a friend that says “Green Day are on NOW if you wanted to watch them”, so cue a lot of running, potential abandonment of dignity and plenty of swearing. When we finally get into the arena, they’d blocked off access to the NME tent anyway so we stood watching from the big screen. Green Day (5/5) themselves though were completely unforgettable. All the rumours about a Dookie-only set had gone totally out of the window, instead leading to something more along the lines of every single they’ve ever released, meaning some gems like Hitchin’ A Ride and When I Come Around got to make an appearance. Billie Joe Armstrong is as excitable as a toddler in a toy shop, darting around the stage with water guns and tissue cannons, picking up the cameras and exceeds every expectation. Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool are no less enigmatic and quite simply, Green Day’s refusal to grow up lead to one of the most exciting live performances of the weekend, even without us making it into the tent itself.

Mystery Jets (4/5) are always a pleasure. Their lovely indie-pop floated its way through the crowds during the one little bit of sunshine we had, making for a nice, chilled out set. Fan favourite Girl Next Door had virtually the whole field singing along. OFWGKTA (2.5/5) proved a lot more divisive. Odd is definitely the right word for the rap collective. While at times, Odd Future’s material can be insightful, intelligent and highly original, the set at Reading just displayed some badly timed raps and the weaker parts of their back catalogue. Far more impressive were Don Broco (4/5). The Bedford quartet had the Festival Republic stage completely rammed as they threw out anthem after anthem. The band are born performers and their catchy brand of alt-rock will take them far.

Enter Shikari (4.5/5) have been at Reading for the past four years running and every time, are met with adoration and total devotion to the art form that is the human pyramid. Even after the phenomenal success of A Flash Flood Of Colour, Enter Shikari still perform with the chaotic energy and style that they’ve been renowned for and though an ethical message was prevalent within the set, it was ultimately overridden by the biggest party vibe of the festival. The Vaccines (3.5/5) are not really party people, nor do they have a sense of humour quite like Enter Shikari. Nevertheless, their catchy indie rock is perfectly inoffensive and provided some good clean fun.

The final set of the day for me was that of the truly mighty Young Guns (4.5/5). With second album, Bones, the quintet have leapt from strength to strength and this is perfectly demonstrated in their live show. Gustav and co are charismatic and energetic, their songs emotionally charged and completely explosive. Young Guns truly are going to go atmospheric.

Sunday is generally the best day of Reading Festival. Well known for being the festival’s “rock” day on the main stage, the line up on offer this year was second to none on paper. Band Of Skulls (3/5), new purveyors of grungey garage rock, were fairly samey in places, although it is difficult to sound particularly innovative in that genre. Their too-cool-for-school look seeped through into their performance, which worked on a few levels (Effortlessly fashionable? Check. That kind of despondent movement you can only do with grunge? Check) but on others, was just a vague flashback to the 90s. Frank Turner’s new hardcore band, Mongol Horde (5/5) proved to be far more entertaining and diverse, despite the obvious draw from 80s hardcore. It’s hard to think that Frank Turner can be anything but the folk-punk troubadour he’s become these days, but as he leapt onto stage wearing nothing but a pair of cargo shorts, all and any expectations of what Frank Turner is or was can be safely tossed out of the window. He’s got some of the best damn hardcore growls in the business at the moment, his vocals perfectly fitting songs that owe a great deal to the 80s hardcore scene, as well as harking back to the melodic post-hardcore of Million Dead. More complex than the average hardcore outfit and yet gloriously brutal in places, Mongol Horde are really, really good.

Eagles Of Death Metal (4/5) were fun, plain and simple. Rock and roll, no questions asked. Even though I’m not well versed in their back catalogue at all, I still found myself singing along stupidly loud. They’re just that catchy. And yes – Jesse still has that handlebar moustache. Because that’s rock. So is high fiving everyone on the front row, stealing bandanas and trucker caps and causing mayhem before three o’clock in the afternoon. The Gaslight Anthem (4/5) were just as involving but in a completely different way. The success of American Slang and now Handwritten has made them household names and their place on the main stage has been assured. There’s never anything fancy about a Gaslight performance – just great songs played with passion. The Skints (4/5) are hardly strangers to passionate live shows and had the Lock Up tent fit to burst. Equal parts laid back reggae beats and furious ska punk, a large part of the set came from the stunning new album Part And Parcel. In particular, Ratatat sounded insane.

Until this weekend, I’d pretty much forgotten that Bullet For My Valentine (3.5/5) still existed. Fever was just so shocking, it was easy to forget that they’d written some blazing tunes in the past. Their set this year was a good run through of all the classics – ultimately a crowd pleaser. It was a little bit cheesy in places – can British heavy metal ever not be? – but they’re a good laugh all the same. Kaiser Chiefs (4.5/5) lived up to their reputation of being one of Britain’s best live bands in the past ten years. They know what the audience wants and they blasted through all the singles at lightning speed, ignoring any album tracks for the most part. Ricky Wilson is fearless in his approach, launching himself at cameras and diving off of railings. He makes for compelling viewing, but the rest of the band are just as cheeky and full of Northern charm. It’s impossible to walk away from a Kaiser Chiefs set without a substantial grin. The Black Keys (4/5) possess an entirely different kind of charisma, effortlessly leading the crowd through their catchy bluesy rock. While I think that the Kaiser Chiefs should have had a higher billing than them (but alas, the Kaisers have been featured in far less adverts), it’s hard to see how The Black Keys have slid under the radar for so long as they have. Nevertheless, a UK arena tour is happening and they’re finally getting the adoration they deserve.

Finally, after a long weekend, the Foo Fighters (5/5) took to the stage. Dave Grohl instantly holds the crowd in the palm of his hand with a “What’s up England?” and we stay there until the closing bars of Everlong. Even after almost twenty years as a band, the banter is still strong, the enthusiasm is high and everything is note perfect. The Foos are great songwriters, but also highly competent musicians and guitar and drum solos reign throughout the show. And it really is a show – there’s fireworks and paper cannons punctuating the set, but a balance is struck between arena rock posturing and a more intimate feel. Grohl dedicates songs to his mum and his adorable daughters, who are watching from the side and when he tells the story of his first Reading encounter before Times Like These, the thousands of people watching them that night feel closer to any band than they have all weekend, especially when joined in song. A few covers add some fun as well as some old gems like Generator and whether you’re a fan or not, it’s impossible not to be taken in by the sheer brilliance of the Foo Fighters. For rock fans everywhere, for music fans everywhere, the Foo Fighters are an essential part of your live repetoire.

And thus ended yet another Reading, on what we thought was an absolute high. We weren’t counting on the horrific six hour wait to get out of White car park. And as such, the experience was tarnished for me. Usually, Reading is the highlight of my summer and what was an incredible weekend was ruined by shoddy management. Only in England, eh? I think I’ll be giving another festival a shot next year.