The Beat Escape

Long before they were a band, Montreal duo The Beat Escape took a small first step towards a longer journey at a university video class. “We made a short oddball work; a video piece that followed two characters through a psychedelic waking dream,” say Beat escapists Addy Weitzman and Patrick A Boivin of their founding collaboration. Many other projects and outside collaborations later, the duo have crafted a debut album their younger selves would be proud of: released through Bella Union on 27th April, the sublimely immersive Life Is Short the Answer’s Long plays like a waking dream of near-psychedelic electronic pop, moving to its own beat in the push-pull of forward motion and submerged reflection.

That sense of propulsion ushers opener “Sign of Age” into rising view, its sparse drums, hypnotic sequence and melancholic chords resembling house music as reimagined by Angelo Badalamenti. The enveloping mood holds as “Moon in Aquarius” unfurls like a night-time road ahead, ghosted by narcotic harmonies. “Limestone Alps” lingers meditatively, hymnal vocals reverberating; “Where Water Ends” and “More Dreams”, meanwhile, navigate the porous boundary-lines between krautrock, Factory Records and obscure minimal wave records of the 80s.

If this is pop music, it’s pop that maps a singular route through electronic territory. “We’re drawn to the type of songs that were almost hits but there’s something slightly off about them, so they were never discovered” explain the duo. “Then I Drift Away” fulfils that intent, evoking a kind of dislocated psychedelia via Screamedelica; ditto “Seeing Is Forgetting”, where warm synth chords, a buoyant bass melody and deep vocal chorales merge hypnotically. “Thousand Pound Shoes” pauses for reflection before “Nemo Propheta”s pellucid synths and insistent beats evoke a sense of surfacing, closing the album on a note of glinting release.

For The Beat Escape, Life… marks a rapturous new beginning after their work in visual arts (Boivin) and synth-pop duo Footprintz (Weitzman). Building on their experience DJ-ing together in a Montreal bar, the duo gained momentum when Bella Union’s Simon Raymonde heard “Seeing Is Forgetting”. Duly signed, Weitzman and Boivin wrote and recorded the album in their studio above said Montreal bar and at a country house in the Laurentians. It was mixed by Finland house DJ/producer Jori Hulkkonen, who, the duo say, helped realise its “driving, expansive and painterly sound”.

As for the lyrics, they mostly explore The Love Song, though the duo invite you to linger over their mysteries: “We both enjoy the process of uncovering, whereby meaning develops and reveals itself over time.” And time spent following The Beat Escape through their waking dream-world is, we’d wager, time well spent.

Xylouris White

When Xylouris White recorded their second album, this most intuitive and inquisitive of duos did what comes naturally to them: expanded their horizons. For George Xylouris, the Cretan lute player who partners here with the Dirty Three’s preternaturally fluent Australian drummer Jim White, one aim was to extend a core metaphor of their ruggedly visionary debut album, 2014’s Goats. “Like goats walking in the mountain” is Xylouris’s poetic analogy for their approach: “They may not know the place, but they can walk easily and take risks and feel comfortable. Really, the goats inspired us.”

That exploratory pitch is matched by the majestic Black Peak, named after a mountain top in Crete and, says Xylouris, “recorded everywhere”. A peak in both artists’ careers, the album testifies to their determination to stretch the scope of their instruments and forge something vigorously questing from more traditional roots. Where Goats was mostly instrumental, Black Peak gives Xylouris’s full-force baritone a lead role. And where Goats was often frisky, its tumultuous, tender and terrifically expressive follow-up drives harder and dives deeper.

“As we work together we can see the horizon is always open,” says Xylouris, “because that’s how we work. We give each other space, and that comes from the space we always try to give the bands and the people who we work with in the past.”

Partly, Black Peak pays testimony to both men’s remarkable histories. One of Crete’s best-loved artists, Xylouris is a scion of Greek musical royalty, a family from a mountain village near the Cave of Zeus. His father is revered singer / lyra player Psarandonis. A child when he began playing the lute, Xylouris would accompany his father in a backing role. Yet just as Psarandonis stretched the lyra’s range (“If music is measured in meter,” Psarandonis said, “I play in kilometre!”), so Xylouris elevated his eight-string laouto to the lead role in his Xylouris Ensemble.

Jim White has commanded international attention for more than two decades as part of Australia’s Dirty Three, storm’s-eye instrumental diviners whose emotionally choppy soundscapes brim with elemental force. Now New York-based, White is often found collaborating with alt-A-listers (including: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, PJ Harvey, Nina Nastasia, Cat Power and Smog,) where his playing redeploys the rolling momentum of free-jazz to supple ends, from sensitive to seismic.

PJ Harvey has likened White’s playing to dancing. Yet if dancers need partners, Black Peak also pays testimony to a friendship forged over 25-plus years. Xylouris was touring with his Ensemble when he met White in Melbourne in the early 1990s, when the drummer was in his pre-Dirty Three avant-rock outfit Venom P Stinger. In retrospect, a cycle of influence emerges: Xylouris’s 1990s live contributions to the Dirty Three seem to set a blueprint for Xylouris White, yet the Dirty Three were themselves inspired by Xylouris and Psarandonis.

That mutual admiration shapes the way the duo operate on Black Peak, always listening, encouraging, accommodating. “Each one has different roles at the same time, accompaniment and lead role,” explains Xylouris. “It’s very fluid.”

This fluidity is clear from the rolling explosion of the title-track, where White’s thunderous rhythm seems to urge, and be urged along in turn, by Xylouris’s chugging lute-rock riff, pirouetting melody and soaring vocal. “Forging” maintains the momentum, Xylouris’s thrashing, thrilling lute melody circling the rock of White’s pulsing drum. Elsewhere, Xylouris White re-write their route map. “Hey, Musicians” is rich and sonorous. The skin-tingling crawl of “Erotokritos (Opening)” draws on romantic renaissance verse; “Short Rhapsody” is a joyous jam of slashing laouto and coiled percussion; “Pretty Kondilies” is dancing and declamatory. Finally, “The Feast” sprawls gorgeously between tradition and invention, its sombre, sighing spaces shared with guest star Psarandonis’s stunning lyra and voice.

It took until 2013 for Xylouris and White to form as a duo, a process accelerated when White played with Xylouris and Psarantonis at a Nick Cave-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Australia. Just as other parties helped unite them, so the path to Black Peak was trod with support. The producer is Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, as on Goats (Xylouris: “His enthusiasm and aesthetic bring richness to the proceedings.”); the ghostly harmonies on “Erotokritos” come from Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.

“All these things together, Jim from Australia, me from Crete, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy from Kentucky, Psarantonis from Crete, Guy Picciotto from Washington give us the inspiration of the horizon,” says Xylouris. “Jim and I travel a great deal and we like to do so. We have been doing that together the past three years, which is what inspired us to think of the horizon.

“We’re still goats,” he adds, “now on the horizon.” On the spectacular Black Peak, Xylouris White show just how far their horizons can stretch.

 

exmagician

EXMAGICIAN is the collaboration between longtime friends Danny Todd and James Smith. The Belfast duo released their self-titled debut EP ‘exmagician’ on Friday 20th November via Bella Union, a multifaceted, sonic adventure that provides a perfect introduction to the band.

Danny and James last broke cover as the songwriters behind Cashier No.9, whose lush, David Holmes-produced album To The Death Of Fun (Bella Union) brought them critical acclaim (Best Album at the NI Music Awards, shortlisted for Best Album of 2011 by the Irish Times), strong radio support from BBC 6 Music, Radio 1 and Radio 2 and a string of sold-out club dates and major festival appearances across the UK and Ireland.

Since then the pair have moved on and returned with something new. Self-written and produced with the help of Rocky O’Reilly (And So I Watch You From Afar, General Fiasco, Mojo Fury), their first EP as exmagician leaves behind the Laurel Canyon sheen of Cashier No.9 in favour of something louder, fuzzier and grittier, born of a playful attitude, greater confidence and a load of new pedals and synths. “It’s the dirt under the fingernails,” says Danny with a smile.

The musical reinvention is apparent from the very first seconds of opening track Kiss That Wealth Goodbye, which steams in with a filthy riff, the product of a guitar and a synth melding together so you can’t tell which is which – a feature of the album. “It’s like early Beefheart meets Add N To X,” says Danny – a measure of just how broad the duo’s influences are. “David [Holmes] lent me a Korg MS-20 and then I bought one myself. That synth shaped a lot of the record.”

 

Promise & The Monster

Billie Lindahl, the woman behind the name Promise & The Monster, brings a vivid landscape to life on Feed The Fire, her first album for Bella Union, due for release 22nd January and available to order now from itunes. It’s a wondrous and haunting world, mixing light and dark, birth and death, mystery and imagination, awesome vistas and intimate detail. Lindahl builds an analogue and digital soundscape around her enchanting voice, luring you deeper into her wild world than ever before. The first taste of the album can be heard with the track ‘Time Of The Season’ which is streaming below.

Feed The Fire was recorded in Stockholm, where Lindahl lives, at Labyrint, a small basement studio run by her friend Love Martinsen who produced the album and shares most of the instrumentation with Lindahl. “We aimed at combining the elegance of old Sixties recordings with something darker and more mechanical,” she recalls. “Like you would play a Lee Hazlewood song on top of Nico’s late Eighties records.”

The opening / title track sets the scene with the immediate confession “I’m already too involved / I’m forced into the core.” ‘Hunter’ expands the dreamy yet eerie mood with an echo of girl-group drama filtered through a remote Swedish forest, featuring the Erhu, a Chinese violin. “It’s a great instrument,” Lindahl says. “It sounds a bit like somebody is weeping, and I think we managed to make it weep.”

The view keeps changing: ‘Time Of The Season’ is a more urgent rush of blood, with chiming guitar, ‘Hammering the Nails’ is gentler despite the image, “this taste of blood in metal”, and the tremelo guitar twang and an exquisite coda of Mariachi horns in ‘Machines’ resemble a slice of vintage Americana. Images of skin, flesh, bone and rust create a clash between humanity and the natural world, while the album finale, a cover of the traditional British folk song ‘Fine Horseman’, taps the same motherlode.

Duality sits at the core of Feed The Fire, likewise the name Promise & The Monster. “To feed the fire can be seen as both constructive and destructive,” Lindahl concludes. “You keep the fire burning, the spark alive. But fire can kill you. Like life and death, it’s not really a contradiction. I think it’s necessary to be open to destructive forces if you want to live a life where strong emotions are present. To see, listen and feel is quite a violent and confusing experience, and I think my lyrics often evolve around that, blurring boundaries between dream and reality, and between sanity and insanity. To me, Feed The Fire is a concept album that explores those kinds of themes, from certain places and real happenings.”

Feed The Fire will be released 22nd January on Bella Union.

Holly Macve

A heavenly voice couched in spellbinding country & western ballads, with a devastating emotional delivery: Holly Macve is a fantastic addition to the Bella Union family, and her album Golden Eagle is one of the most remarkably assured debuts of this or any other year, especially given she’s though only 21 years old.

Despite her youth, Golden Eagle reveals she’s experienced enough strife to last a lifetime: parental splits, heartbreak, early career pitfalls…. Born in Galway in western Ireland, Macve and her sister were whisked away “in the night” by her mother from their errant father, to live with her grandparents in Yorkshire. Once in their own house, near the town of Holmfirth, Holly quickly responded to music: “My Grandad was a classical composer, and my mum sang, and she said I was singing before I was talking,” she recalls. Her mother’s record collection – lots of old blues and Bob Dylan – shaped Holly’s impressionable mind, before she herself discovered the likes of Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch.

“Words are my main love,” she declares. “I love songs that tell stories and take you somewhere else. I’ve always been drawn to that old country sound with it’s simple and memorable melodies. I enjoy music that feels timeless, that you don’t know quite when it was recorded.”

On Golden Eagle, roses wilt, fires die out, skies darken and love, ‘was a mystery that I’d been known to doubt / A puzzle that no one could ever figure out.’ Tracks like ‘White Bridge’, ‘Timbuktu’ and ‘Sycamore Tree’ all refer to a wish to return to a state of innocence.

“For some reason, I didn’t want to grow up. I was fearful of responsibilities and change,” she says. “I was scared of death, because I was always aware that the older I got, the less time I had. Childhood was good times, easy times.” The passing of her beloved grandad, in 2015, was her first experience of death, inspiring the album’s title track: ‘fly away, golden eagle, before you feel the pain / There’s a sky waiting for you, so let your feet escape the chain.”

“Songwriting is like therapy for me, it’s a way of turning a bad situation in to something positive”, she states.

At the age of 18 Holly moved down south. She worked in a café, while singing on open mic nights. Bella Union boss Simon Raymonde was a regular customer at the café, and had just set up his studio in the basement when he caught wind of this astonishing young talent, with her vocals notes of Welch, Patsy Cline and Paula Frazer (Tarnation), and the timeless melodies, altogether evoking the Appalachian Mountains and the Wyoming prairie rather than the Brighton seafront.

Holly has always been most interested in her own songwriting, despite the efforts of her first music publishers. “They wanted me to co write, but writing has always been a personal and solitary thing for me. I didn’t want to be moulded into anything I wasn’t, I wanted my music to be honest.”

Holly subsequently fled back to Yorkshire after a lost love and sense of direction, and wrote the songs that became Golden Eagle. “I was depressed, lost and lonely, in a dark place,” she recalls. “So the songs are a bit fatalistic.”

Hiding away in Yorkshire, “isolated, surrounded by countryside”, her imagination took flight. “All Of Its Glory” evokes her great-grandad, serving in WWI, writing impassioned letters (which the family still own, bound in a book) to his wife at home. Other songs describe ‘blood red fields’ and ‘burning skies’, and ‘a man standing by the river bank / His eyes were blue and his hair was jet black….’

“I’m fascinated and drawn to that kind of romantic imagery,” she says. ‘I went to America for the first time last year, to play South By Southwest in Texas, and I really felt a connection with the landscapes over there’.

The bulk of Golden Eagle was recorded in Newcastle at the home studio of producer Paul Gregory (of Bella Union label-mates Lanterns On The Lake), with extra recording in Brighton and London. Throughout, Golden Eagle remains beautifully spare and delicate, putting Holly’s goosebump-raising voice centre stage, beautifully controlled yet riven with feeling.

On stage, she’s a magnetic presence; it’s not just voice and songs. Audiences who caught her supporting the likes of John Grant, Villagers and Benjamin Clementine – incredible company to keep at this early stage – were doubtless stopped in their tracks. Golden Eagle is surely going to have the same effect. Time to fly.

Latest Release…

“Exquisite… Her voice echoes the Appalachian-tinged old-timers Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells, all framed by the pared-down boniness of Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch.”  MOJO – 4 Stars ****

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DOOMSQUAD

Even this far into the 21st century, the recent social media furore surrounding US congresswoman and free-style dancer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez illustrated that the spectacle of someone dancing without compunction can still ruffle the right (and alt-right) feathers. In which case, all hail the third album from Toronto’s ardent, art-dance sibling trio DOOMSQUAD. Due for release on Bella Union on May 10th, Let Yourself Be Seen is the most assertive, ambitious, groove-sodden declaration of intent yet from Trevor, Jaclyn and Allie Blumas: the sound of dance floor believers and thinkers firing on all personal and political fronts, at a time when we need it most.

Even if DOOMSQUAD never lacked the courage of their convictions, Let Yourself Be Seen ups the stakes. On 2016’s Total Time, the trio issued invitations to free your mind, body and spirit over dirty bass-lines and hypnotic disco jams. And yet, their reliance on unspoken sibling intuition left them fearing that much of its “message and meaning” had gone unheard. Thus, the trio took a more forthright approach for their third album, aiming to “crystallise what DOOMSQUAD is and what it means to us. What we always knew but put at the forefront of this record is that DOOMSQUAD is a project of protest, catharsis and emotional and spiritual reconnection through music and, especially, through dance-music culture. It’s about activating the body on the most fundamental level, into states of change, release and reunion.”

Richly steeped in the influences of acid house, West African disco, spiritual jazz, NYC no-wave and new-age ambient music, Let Yourself Be Seen hums with a sense of vigorous, invigorating purpose. After the overture of ‘Spandrel’, ‘The General Hum’ sends out a buoyant new-wave rallying cry for maximised engagement just when the world seems intent on stifling it. “Is there a place for spirit anymore?” it asks. Kicking in with a percussive bustle that all but defies you to try and stand still, ‘Aimless’ answers in the affirmative.

Elsewhere on the album, DOOMSQUAD’s own dynamic thematic engagement alights on subjects ranging from formative influences to modern societal struggles and eco-crises. ‘Let It Go’ grapples with the challenges of social change at 140BPM, climaxing with a scalding guitar solo to match the heat of its questioning thrust. The mellifluous ‘Emma’ reflects on early-20th-century anarchist and activist Emma Goldman; ‘Dorian’s Closet’, meanwhile, honours New York drag queen Dorian Corey. “Let Yourself Be Seen was fuelled by the inspiration of outsider artists and thinkers before us,” say the band. “Through these songs, we get to glorify some of our heroes.”

DOOMSQUAD’S intent to carry their heroes’ “messages of empowerment, release and spiritual self-determination” to new audiences peaks on the title-track, where the album’s disparate parts build to a disco inferno with a call to “Let yourself be seen!” “The Last Two Palm Trees in LA” offers an empathetic take on a similar theme, based on the acceptance of ageing, before “Weather Patterns” steers a reflection on unity in the face of global crisis to a buffeting crescendo with a thrilling urgency.

The result is an album for fraught political times, charged by the impetus to bring “music back to the body”. Close-to-home influences on that score include Tanya Tagaq and Peaches, both of whom DOOMSQUAD have toured with; further afield, Peter Gabriel, Diamanda Galás, Genesis P-Orridge and Underworld numbered among inspirations. Meanwhile, as the trio’s creative process took them from a lakeside cabin to a studio in Toronto, they benefited from the input of kindred spirits such as Ejji Smith, whose virtuoso guitar-shredding propels ‘Let It Go’. Israeli jazz composer Itamar Erez adds watery synths to ‘Emma’, while a key studio collaborator was producer/artist Sandro Perri, whose credits include Barzin.

As for the future, DOOMSQUAD will soon take Let Yourself Be Seen to the live stage, an environment in which their convictions blaze with exhilarating life. “The dancefloor is our temple – the idea of the dancefloor as a utopian/protest space is the exact belief we carry with us. As much as we love making records, we love performing. The music we make is meant to be heard on a large sound-system. As performers, we are fuelled by the need to be in a live atmosphere.” And thrive in the live atmosphere they will, dates slated both in the US for SXSW and also a run of dates in Europe in May.

And if that need inspires others to voice their shared beliefs, such is DOOMSQUAD’s hope. “People change, ideas grow,” the band say. “And entropy is all around us. The fear that lies in the hearts of the elite patriarchy will soon die off, and the rest of us will be working together to repair what’s broken. And that is worth every bit of positive energy.” An album that honours its forebears by reaching towards a future worth fighting for, worth dancing for, Let Yourself Be Seen has positive energy in bright, sparking, forward-thinking abundance.