Matt Skiba & the Sekrets
Skies of America
Serena-Maneesh (2005, 58.10) **
Selina's Melodie Fountain
Her Name is Suicide
Sapphire Eyes High
Don't Come Down Here
Your Blood in Mine
#2: Abyss in B Minor (2010, 37.40) *½Ayisha Abyss
I Just Want to See Your Face
Melody for Jaana
Blow Yr Brains in the Mourning Rain
Magdalena (Symphony #8)
Serena-Maneesh are a Norwegian shoegaze outfit, whose eponymous 2005 debut is, sadly, as dull as they come, Sapphire Eyes High and lengthy closer Your Blood In Mine being the only points at which the band's influences come together properly. Emil Nikolaisen allegedly plays Mellotron, but unless I'm very much mistaken, the background strings and flutes on Selina's Melodie Fountain, cellos on Candlelighted and strings on Don't Come Down Here are samples and not especially good ones at that. (Cue anguished e-mail from someone to do with the band to tell me it's real).
They took five years to follow-up with #2: Abyss in B Minor, released on their obvious spiritual home: 4AD. Somehow or other, it actually manages to be not only duller, but also more irritating than its predecessor, Lina Wallinder's vocals on several tracks redefining the word 'boring'. Nikolaisen on 'Mellotron' again, with flutes on opener Ayisha Abyss, Honeyjinx and closer Magdalena (Symphony #8), but I'm not convinced they're any more genuine than last time.
One day, maybe someone can try to explain to me what they like about this stuff. I know I'm an old fart, but the sheer boredom of this stuff makes me want to beat my head against a wall so I know I'm still alive. Serena-Maneesh is bad, but Abyss in B Minor is awful.
Ride Satan Ride (2007, 40.10) ***½Ride Satan Ride
Wheels of Satan
Veil of the Black Witch
Satan Will Guide Us
L.S.D. (Lawless Soldiers of the Devil)
The Battle of Old Crow (2009, 43.37) ***½
|The Battle of Old Crow
Red Moon Harvest
Led By Vultures
As the Serpent Descends
After the untimely death of their singer, Randall "Snake Eyes" McDoogan (you couldn't make this stuff up, could you?), Philadelphia's Serpent Throne elected to carry on as an instrumental quartet, releasing a 'soundtrack', Ride Satan Ride, in 2007. As various online reviews have fairly needlessly pointed out, aside from the instrumental approach, this lot cut Black Sabbath so close that Tony Iommi could shave with them, although, given some of the pretenders to the Sabs' crown, I'd rather give it to Serpent Throne, myself. They've got the guitar tone (in duplicate) down pat, the percentile mix of grindingly slow and uptempo boogie (it's often forgotten that Sabbath were a killer boogie band when the fancy took them) and just the right amount of bottom string bending, not to mention a sense of humour: Back Stabbeth, anyone?. Co-guitarist Don Argott is credited with Mellotron, with strings on Veil Of The Black Witch and strings and solo flute on Blood Rites, although something about them tells me they're not real, so until/unless I'm told otherwise...
The band followed up two years later with The Battle of Old Crow, about which it would be fair to utilise the old maxim, 'if it ain't broke...' Stylistically identical to its predecessor, it's every bit as good, assuming instrumental stoner doom is your bag; I have to admit, in smallish doses, this stuff really isn't 'alf bad... It's sort of futile to try to isolate 'best tracks'; the album's strength lies in its overall effect, sensibly limited to 'vinyl length' (I believe both of these are also available on that format). Fakeotron again on closer Thirteen Mountains, with an excellent flute part opening the track plus strings later on.
Serpent Throne are, of course, a little bit silly, but isn't most music, or at least, most rock rather silly, when it comes down to it? This lot are searingly honest in their approach; there's absolutely no artifice here, they do exactly what it says on the tin. I'm pretty sure the 'Mellotron' isn't, but if anyone knows better... Recommended for Sabbath fans who think most 'doom' stuff is a load of old cock.
Twilight Canvas (2012, 56.48) **½
|3 a.m. Forever
Shadowlight are clearly aiming for the progressive market, such as it is, although I struggle to find anything particularly 'progressive' about their 2012 debut, Twilight Canvas. Of course there isn't anything genuinely 'progressive' here, but nor is it particularly 'genre prog', the overall sound being more Dream Theater-lite (OK, perhaps that counts as 'genre prog'), reprehensible AOR influence intact. Better moments? Scattered across the album, while refusing to bunch together into a single track, although opener Dreaming Awake fooled me into thinking this was going to be half-decent.
Keys man Mark Wilson's string and choir sounds are largely generic, only really sounding distinctly (pseudo-)Mellotronic on Cutting Room. Sorry, chaps - I hate to stick the knife in, but this really isn't 'progressive rock', more slightly proggy hard rock/AOR, for those who like that kind of thing.
The Last Summer (2002, 50.25) ***Different Placces
The Play of My Life
Sparkles in the Dark
Love Warchild of 64
Two Days Left
Dreaming in L.A.
Well, Shakary's second album, The Last Summer, is more concise than Alya, but carries on ploughing their 'modern'/neo-prog furrow, with what appears to be a concept album about a doomed holiday romance from some years earlier. Not typical prog fare, to be honest, but a brave move, making a welcome change from the 'I'm so miserable' brigade, or the prog-metal 'dwarves and hobbits' approach (see: the ludicrous Rhapsody et al.). My regular readers will know that I'm not especially a fan of this style, but it seems to be done well enough here, certainly far better than some I could name.
The playing's good all round, and is that a real piano I hear? The Hammond is quite clearly a synth approximation, and although I'm assured there are Mellotron sounds used, there's little in the string department that sounds anything other than generic samples, presumably from Giovanni Galfetti's Kurzweil. Maybe the 'Tron sounds are mixed with 'real' strings? The occasional lead synth sound is very obviously digital, too, although the band assure me they're going to track down some genuine vintage gear next time.
So; one for the neo-proggers out there, but don't buy this even hoping for sampled 'Tron.
More B.S. (2002, 37.26) **½
Everything Feels Wrong
The Last of Me
The Boys of Summer
Sunday School & Cigarettes
The Ballad of Grim and Lily
|Morning in a Bar
Bree Sharp seems to be running her career in reverse, releasing three solo albums before joining Beautiful Small Machines. The second of her own efforts, 2002's More B.S., starts acceptably enough, in 'girly singer-songwriter' mode, but the quality of her material drops as the record progresses, until tracks like Sunday School & Cigarettes and Dirty Magazine make me want to reach for the 'next' button.
Don DiLego's Mellotron on Galaxy Song seems to consist of a generic string sound played in a 'Mellotronic' manner, although the strings on The Last Of Me and flutes on Morning In A Bar sound slightly more realistic. But only slightly. Maybe not, then.
Sonic Crayons (2007, 42.43) ****
The Man Who Couldn't Be Wrong
Better Every Day
So Simple Radio
|Get Yourself Together
Why Girls Cry
I Got Lost
Ken Sharp was originally known as an author, penning a respected Raspberries bio in the early '90s, followed by titles on other bands, not least the-powerpop-band-who-aren't-(yet-are), Cheap Trick. Given that he was (and is) such an aficionado of the genre, it apparently came as little surprise when he released his first album, 1301 Highland Avenue, in 1994, following it with 2000's apparently Mellotron-containing Happy Accidents.
2007's excellent Sonic Crayons carries on in similar vein, unsurprisingly, melody-packed powerpop (is there any other kind?), top tracks including brief-yet-perfect opener Hello Hello (very Cheap Trick, sir!), The Man Who Couldn't Be Wrong (spot the sublime chord change a few seconds in), the Beatles-esque Melody Hill and Orange Cellophane, although, truth be told, there isn't a bad track here. Ritchie Rubini is credited with Mellotron, but the strings on several tracks and flutes on So Simple Radio are, at least to my ears, too smooth to be genuine, not to mention the well-over-eight-second string note on Rush Rush and non-Mellotronic pitchbends on Why Girls Cry. Frankly, the presence or otherwise of a real Mellotron is sort of incidental; this is a great album, full of genuine love for the genre. Buy.
Silver Sunshine (2004, 42.10) ****
I See the Silver Sunshine
Way Up in the Big Sky
If I Had the Time
|When She Wakes Tomorrow
Merry Go Round
A Small Pocket of Pure Spirit (2005, 26.59) ****144,000
Waiting for the Sun
She's the Reason
Hiroshima Never Again
Winter Witch (home demo)]
Silver Sunshine are a new psych outfit from San Diego, with a day-glo time machine set for 'back', although their retro textures occasionally sound more like previous '60s-influenced bands than the real thing. Who cares, though, when they make a noise as glorious as Silver Sunshine? Despite being Californians, they freely mix the US and UK wings, so the Strawberry Alarm Clock rub shoulders with Love, then Pink Floyd and the Kinks take a bath together. Backwards cymbals, backwards entire mixes, phasing, voice-through-Leslie, you name it, they do it. The lyrics are, of course, ridiculous, but isn't that the point? Conor Riley and Kayo Mitsuishi play the samplotron (confirmed by the band), with occasional strings and high-in-the-mix cello on opener (and best song?) Velvet Skies, a more obvious string part on their 'theme' song, I See The Silver Sunshine and major flutes and cellos on the balladic Nightmares, although I can't hear anything obvious on Miranda May.
The following year's A Small Pocket of Pure Spirit is a worthy successor to their album, although I'm not sure why they didn't wait until they had an album's-worth of material. While the songs are uniformly excellent, Another Day is an awful lot too White Album for its own good, although Hiroshima Never Again ups the ante with its instrumental intensity. Samplotron from Conor Riley and Richard Vaughan this time round, with flutes and strings on Waiting For The Sun and, surprisingly, flutes on the 'bonus track', a home demo of Winter Witch, alongside a real one.
So, a thoroughly derivative and bloody brilliant album, with an equally good and marginally less derivative EP. Not bad (fake) 'Tron, either. Buy. n.b. Silver Sunshine have now morphed into the vastly more rocking Astra, a truly essential listen.
Discovering the Waterfront (2005, 39.08) **½
|Your Sword vs. My Dagger
Smile in Your Sleep
The Ides of March
Fist Wrapped in Blood
Discovering the Waterfront
Always and Never
Three Hours Back
Call it Karma
I've seen Silverstein (named for children's author Shel Silverstein) described as 'post-hardcore', but their second album, 2005's Discovering the Waterfront, sounds like a punk Queensrÿche to my ears, copping their trademark duelling riffs, then sticking shouty vocals on top. I'm afraid I can't name any 'best tracks'; the album's best moments are the occasional bursts of inventive riffing on several tracks, invariably spoiled by the vocals.
Although Curtis Mathewson is credited with Mellotron, the vague background strings on My Heroine could be almost anything, frankly and are most unlikely to emanate from anything involving tapes. So; punk/prog/metal, no real Mellotron. Your choice.
Excalibur II: The Celtic Ring (2007, 55.15) **½
|The Celtic Ring (Alan Parsons)
Lugh (John Wetton)
Tuatha de Danann (Flook)
Circle of Life (Jon Anderson)
The Girl & the Demon (Karan Casey)
Dragon Breath (Fairport Convention)
Secret Garden (Maddy Prior)
Pilgrims (Fairport Convention)
|Brennan Mac Finn (Flook)
Sacrifice (Andreas Vollenweider, Jacqui McShee's Pentangle)
Earth & Sky (Justin Hayward)
Shadow and Light (Carlos Núñez, Dan Ar Braz)
Call (Les Holroyd's Barclay James Harvest)
Anwynn (Didier Squiban)
Celtic Heart (Kelc'h Unan & Daou) (Justin Hayward)
Celtic Heart (Kelc'h Tri) (Le Bagad de St-Nazaire)
I might have approached Alan Simon's Excalibur II: The Celtic Ring with a slightly more open mind had I not been subjected to the bulk of the album at Fairport Convention's annual Cropredy bash in 2010. Fairport invariably bring on a handful of special guests during their headlining set, but to be given such a large, indigestible lump of new music in one go was, at the very least, rather unwise.
Listening to the album in full in the comfort of my own home has confirmed my view that it's essentially your typical faux-Celtic stuff, a million miles away from Alan Stivell or Dan Ar Bras' work in the '70s (although Ar Bras guests here), while any number of guest artists aren't going to polish this particular turd. OK, I'm being slightly unfair; any single track taken in isolation is passable enough, but nearly an hour of it in one fell swoop is enough to make you want to track down Michael Flatley and kill him. Slowly. No, America, we're not all 'a little bit Irish', even when we actually are. The names in parentheses after the track titles above refer to the relevant special guests; as you can see, aside from Fairport and Ar Bras, the highly distinctive Jon Anderson, John Wetton, Justin Hayward, Steeleye Span's Maddy Prior and Jacqui McShee's current version of Pentangle are all involved, for better or (mostly) worse.
Marco Canepa is credited with Mellotron, but the only obvious part on the whole album is the strings on Call, special guests, Les Holroyd's Barclay James Harvest. Cut and dried, you might be thinking. But... Les' version of the band (the AOR one, tragically) have never used a Mellotron, that being the province of Woolly Wolstenholme, whose departure triggered the band's change of direction originally (or, more likely, vice versa). It doesn't sound especially authentic, either, so unless I get an outraged e-mail from someone involved with the project to tell me otherwise, this stays in samples for the indefinite future.
So; do you want to hear this? Well, how to you feel about cheesy 'Celtic' folk-rock with loads of powerchording guitar? That's the question you need to ask yourself before shelling out your hard-earned on this overblown load of old nonsense. He said, provocatively.
See: John Wetton | Jon Anderson | Justin Hayward | Dan Ar Bras | Barclay James Harvest
Paradise Square (2002, 63.28) ***½And By the Water
Striking Out a Single Note for Love
Fly in a Bottle
Tardigrade (2008, 74.04) ***
|Suddenly the Rain
The Chosen One
As the River Runs
|Brother Where You Bound
Beautiful New Day
After their 1995 debut, Ceinwen, Simon Says effectively disappeared for seven years. After working on an electronic project, bassist/keyboard player Stefan Renström realised he'd written enough Simon Says-style material for a new album, and after tracking vocalist Daniel Fäldt down, reformed the band, releasing Paradise Square in 2002. It falls into the 'reasonably good' category, probably as good as its predecessor, in fact, although like that album it's never going to match Änglagård/Anekdoten et al. I've had it confirmed that they use Mellotron samples here, provided by Johan Wallén from Paatos, possibly from Änglagård's machine. It carries on (fake Mellotronically, at least) in a similar vein to Ceinwen, with some very full-on strings in places, although nothing you can't live without, really.
Another six years and the exceedingly overlong Tardigrade (named for a form of microscopic life) appears, constantly shifting gear between a Genesis-style symphonic sound (spot the Entangled rip on Circles End) and a rather less interesting neo- approach, with hints of fusion, notably on Strawberry Jam. I'm not sure what persuaded the band that they could write a coherent 26-minute epic, but here it is anyway, in the shape of Brother Where You Bound. Fakeotron all over the place, from the rapidly-becoming-tedious M-Tron, with the usual string, flute and choir parts, but nothing you haven't heard before. So; two decent enough albums, OK sampled Mellotron, that's about it.
See: Simon Says
The Joy of Sing-Sing (2001, 53.14) **½
Me and My Friend
Far Away From Love
|Feels Like Summer
You Don't Know
I Can See You
I've seen Sing-Sing described as 'dream pop', which seems as good a description as any for their rather fey indie stylings. Essentially the duo of vocalist Lisa O'Neill and ex-Lush vocalist/guitarist Emma Anderson, they recorded a mere two albums in their decade together, the first being 2001's The Joy of Sing-Sing. It is, frankly, pretty wet, although I'm sure it sounds exactly as it's meant to; I think you've really got to be into the limper end of British indie to get anything much out of this... Producer Mark Van Hoen supposedly plays Mellotron, along with stacks of great synths (and a DX-7), with many excellent synthpop-era sounds cropping up. Unfortunately, the Mellotron is essentially inaudible; I thought I spotted some strings on Underage, but they turned out to be real. So; despite a couple of better tracks (notably closer I Can See You), this is a rather drab album, although indie fans probably love it to bits.
Confine (1995, 54.38) ****
|Albi di Spagna
Pentole Sullo Scaffale
...un Altro Momento...
|Ultimo a Stare in Porta
Alla Corte del Gran Khan
Sithonia are a relative rarity: an Italian progressive band from the '90s who don't worship at the altar of Marillion et al., which has to be a bonus. Confine, their third release, is actually a pretty adventurous Italian symphonic prog album, combining the best of the genre's past and (then) present, making for a cohesive and inventive whole. As with so many progressive albums, praising individual tracks is almost pointless; it's more about the overall effect, which is up there with, say, Montefeltro or Consorzio Acqua Potabile. We could probably have done without the sub-90125-isms of Ultimo A Stare In Porta, mind, but nothing's perfect.
Oriano Dasasso and Paolo Nannetti both play keys, but there's no way of knowing which of them contribute the Mellotron-sounding strings on Porto D'Inghilterra. 1995 was fairly early for 'Tron samples, but these (along with most of the album's older sounds) are more than likely from eMu's Classic Keys module, I'd guess. Anyway, a decent modern(-ish) prog album, despite some dodgy keyboard sounds. Worth hearing.
Hardt Regn (2009, 40.19) ***
Det Tar Tid
Slukk Meg (for Eg Brenner)
Når du Ber Din Nød
Tanker Som Mareritt
Skambankt apparently started out as a muck-about kind of band, taking a decade to decide to make a proper go of it. 2009's Hardt Regn is their third album, in a solid '70s hard rock (note: not heavy metal) vein, albeit sung in Norwegian; while perfectly acceptable (and vastly better than the hordes of modern metal drivel), it's disappointing in comparison to the '70s greats, but then, what isn't? Christer Knutsen supposedly plays Mellotron on O Desverre, but it's anyone's guess as to what he's playing, as the 'choirs' seem to be no more than the band singing 'aahs' in unison.
Kuts (2015, 31.57) **½
|Lonely and Kold
I Just Killed to Say I Love You
Way Bakk When
Matt Skiba joined Blink-182 in 2015, the same year he released his first full solo album, Kuts, so it won't come as any great surprise to hear that, in many ways, it's a typical pop-punk record. Material like opener Lonely And Kold, She Wolf and She Said all fit that mould, although, towards the end of the album, Skiba slips into a kind of mainstream singer-songwriter pop area, notably on Krashing, the cheesy Never Believe and Vienna (not that one).
Rob Schnapf supposedly plays Mellotron. Er... Surely not the background strings on the amusingly-titled I Just Killed To Say I Love You? Or the faint background flutes on Never Believe? I think not. Which poses the question: if you're not using anything obviously connected to a Mellotron, even its sounds, why credit one?
Shine (2006, 50.55) ***
She's the Kind of Girl
The Darkest Night
Come and Get it
Save the Day
Get Up, Get on
Here We Are
Named for an Ornette Coleman album, The Skies of America are yet another powerpop outfit, which sounds more cynical than intended. What I believe is their sole album to date, 2006's Shine, is chock-full of songs of the quality of the marvellous She's The Kind Of Girl, You Belong and Get Up, Get On, but... Why do I feel unfulfilled as the album ends? Q. Is it too long? A. Probably. Q. Do they spread their talents a little too thinly? A. Almost certainly. A good trimming, to thirty-five minutes or so, would do this record a world of good, but don't let a little excess fat put you off.
Robert Bonfiglio is credited with Mellotron, but the high-speed strings all over opener Move! sound most suspect to these ears, ditto the flutes on You Belong, about the best sample use here being the upfront strings on Save The Day. All in all, a good album, though somehow lacking a certain something, which might be how the title track found itself on the soundtrack to the following year's Music From & Inspired By Bridge to Terabithia. Never trust a Hollywood soundtrack, kids...
Farther in This Fairy Tale (2010, 46.00) ****Hide & Seek
Marker 25, 27
Universal Mind Decoder
Abbie's Bike Ride
Going Mad in Cambridge
Farther in This Fairy Tale
White Plane (Reprise)
|CDS (2010, 10.32) ***½
Lost is Found
Strange Things Are Afoot
Sky Picnic are a new, NYC-based psych outfit, dedicated to taking the British model (particularly Syd's Floyd) and giving it a good seeing-to, to the point where if you didn't know they weren't Brits, you, er, wouldn't know. I won't pretend the album's perfect; some of its more psychedelic moments (notably Universal Mind Decoder) drag slightly and the drum solo (also Universal Mind Decoder) is a little unnecessary, but I suppose if you want to run the full gamut of psych styles, you gotta take the trippy with the tuneful... The rest of the album falls into the latter category, thankfully, with top tracks including killer opener Hide & Seek, the acoustic Seven and bass-led closer White Plane (Reprise). Guitarist/vocalist Chris Sherman has owned up to using the M-Tron, with some great string pitchbends in Hide & Seek, flutes, choirs and strings on Marker 25, 27 and strings on about half the remainder. Before his admission, I wasn't convinced by the sounds' veracity, anyway; too murky and too smooth, which is an odd, but accurate combination.
The band followed up later in the year with the Lost Is Found single, a surprisingly 'normal' sounding track, only going all weird on us towards the end, although the flip, the six-minute Strange Things Are Afoot, lives up to its title rather well. 'Mellotronically' speaking, we get discordant stings towards the end of the 'A' and muted choirs throughout the flip, but they're hardly central to its sound.
All in all, then, two damn' good psych releases, both of their and entirely out of time, in the kind of way only psych releases can be. Recommended.
Moonlit Behavior (2009, 28.08) *½I Just Need You
Your Hazy Mind
I Know/You Know
The Fake Make Believe
I've seen Los Angelinos Skyscraper Frontier's debut mini-album, 2009's Moonlit Behavior described as 'uncategorisable'. Let me try: Radiohead-lite-lite for the most undemanding of listeners who haven't noticed vocalist Russ Martin's inability to carry a tune in a bucket. There, does that help? No, it has no best tracks.
Raymond Richards supposedly plays Mellotron, but the flutes on Your Hazy Mind sound much too clean for comfort, at least to my ears. Y'know what? It barely even matters, as I'm never going to listen to this again and I can only urge you not to in the first place.
Many Hands Should Throw Stones (2006, 66.17) **½
|The Broken City Yawns
I Failed You
God or Whatever
The Broken City Rests
The Library of Babel
All Bridges Look Better
The Broken City Sleeps
Sleeping Pictures are the London-based duo of Marc Blackie and Gary Parsons, whose second album, 2006's Many Hands Should Throw Stones, throws genres together with abandon, although it's more neo-folk than anything. It might be a lot more palatable were the lyrics sung, rather than intoned. Much as I prefer to hear British as against American accents (sorry, Americans), I find this trick profoundly irritating, for no readily apparent reason. Some of the material would be pretty good were it sung (or instrumental); incidentally and amusingly, The Library Of Babel accidentally rips off Rush's classic Xanadu, doubtless to the duo's chagrin were they to find out.
Parsons plays what are ostensibly upfront Mellotron strings on brief opener The Broken City Yawns to good effect, although their sheer regularity makes me think 'samples'. So; one for folk/electronica types who don't mind a bit (or a lot) of spoken poetry, as against sung lyrics. Not my bag, though and that Mellotron doesn't convince.
The Double Cross (2011, 34.03) ***½
|Follow the Leader
The Answer Was You
Shadow of Love
She's Slowing Down Again
Green Gardens, Cold Montreal
It's Plain to See
Your Daddy Will Do
|I've Gotta Know
Laying So Low
Commonwealth (2014, 58.29) ***
|We've Come This Far
You've Got a Lot on Your Mind
Neither Here Nor There
So Far So Good
|Misty's Beside Herself
You Don't Need Excuses to Be Good
13 (Under a Bad Sign)
Take it Easy
Keep Swinging (Downtown)
It seems Nova Scotians Sloan have been around since the early '90s and are considered to be 'one of the most popular Canadian bands of all time', so I'm not sure how I've managed to miss them. 2011's The Double Cross is apparently a pun on the year being their twentieth anniversary (XX), a fine powerpop effort, if slightly lacking in hungrier outfits' joie de vivre. Highlights include The Answer Was You, Unkind, the acoustic Green Gardens, Cold Montreal and closer Laying So Low, but I can't imagine powerpop fans will find much to carp at here. Someone adds sampled Mellotron to a handful of tracks, with flute and string parts on The Answer Was You, Your Daddy Will Do and at the end of Traces; good to hear, but nothing startling.
2014's Commonwealth is a good album, if overlong, its seventeen-minute prog/powerpop crossover (there's a first) Forty-Eight Portraits dragging proceedings out to an unfeasible length. Highlights? Three Sisters, the superb Carried Away and the punky 13 (Under A Bad Sign), but it doesn't all work well; What's Inside bangs on for a while to no great effect and, as previously stated, Forty-Eight Portraits does go on a bit. Should've stopped at a dozen, I reckon. Hard to tell how much samplotron, too; we get strings opening, er, opener We've Come This Far, but with a real string section on the album, it's possible that all other string parts are real.
Chobotnica (2012, 42.48) **½
Zachvela Sa Zem
Káva a Nikotín
I'm having trouble finding any English-language biographical details about Slovakia's Tomáš Sloboda; I know he released an album (Sounds Like This) in 2007, but I've no idea whether or not 2012's Chobotnica is only his second. Although he seems to be most commonly categorised as 'psychedelia', this album is, sad to say, far closer to indie in its execution, the end result being well-meaning yet rather dull, with nowhere near enough sonic or compositional experimentation to be all that interesting to the seasoned listener.
Peter "Ďud'o" Dudák is credited with Mellotron on Liliana, but... the sustained string note at the end of the track gives the game away, although it was fairly certain already. This looks like it should be a lot more interesting than it is; perhaps he's better live.
Slow Electric (2011, 41.51) ***Towards the Shore/Towards an Ending
Criminal Caught in the Crime
Days Turn Into Years
Slow Electric Hum/Also Out of Air
Between the Silent Worlds
Slow Electric consist of Brits Tim Bowness and Peter Chilvers and Estonians Robert Jurjendal and Aleksei Saks, with the inimitable Tony Levin (Crimson, Gabriel) cropping up on a couple of tracks. Given Bowness' involvement, it'll come as no surprise to you to hear that their eponymous 2001 debut is best described as 'atmospheric', be it in the form of almost rhythmless opener Towards The Shore/Towards An Ending or the subtly rhythmic Criminal Caught In The Crime.
Although Bowness is credited with Mellotron on closer Between The Silent Worlds, not only is it certain to be sampled, but it's also inaudible, making this a double-whammy in the 'no Mellotron' stakes. If you like Bowness' other works, chances are you'll like this. Conversely...
See: Tim Bowness
Pointless Journey (2009, 29.35) ***
|Welcome to My Room
(Fell in Love With a) Potted Plant
Bars & Tone
Someone Trying to Sell Me Something
|Australia (Land of Magnets)
Paul D. Millar's Slugbug (presumably named for an American nickname for the humble VW Beetle) have a sound, at least on 2009's Pointless Journey (originally a highly limited CDR, now a free download), that is strongly reminiscent of Devo, all wacky vocals and angular synths; I've never heard Danny Elfman's Oingo Boingo, but I suspect they, too, are a major influence. I'll freely admit that I'm not a huge fan of this stuff, while acknowledging that it has plenty of musical credibility, unlike the vast majority of recent music I've been unlucky enough to hear. High points? I actually quite like noo wave-ish opener Welcome To My Room, (Fell In Love With A) Potted Plant and the electronica of Someone Trying To Sell Me Something, although I'm afraid Millar's low-fi aesthetic ends up merely grinding me down.
Samplotron? Fairly obvious choirs on the title track, although that would appear to be it. Well, this isn't going to cost you anything, so if 'Devo played on Casios' (er, did Devo actually use Casios themselves?) sounds like your bag, go for it.
Slychosis (2006, 53.32) **½
Wild Night in Calcutta
Frosted Mini Suite
Glass ½ Full
Slychosis metamorphosed out of Karma-Kannix, releasing their eponymous debut in late 2006. The band's website details their various travails; Slychosis's recording was not so much low- as no-budget, the end result sounding surprisingly professional, all things considered. Style-wise, the band sit firmly in the 'modern neo-prog' bracket, mixing vaguely symphonic sections with elements of various eras of hard rock, albeit not in an especially original manner (note the very Yes feel on Innerspace, amongst others, not to mention the straight Floyd copy/tribute on Until Then). Better tracks include Galactic Wormhole, with its early '70s-inspired guitar work, the ethnic influences on Wild Night In Calcutta and the acoustic instrumental Glass ½ Full, but the deletion of several others might have actually improved the album's overall feel.
Gregg Johns is credited with Mellotron, but the muted choir and string parts heard on most tracks (notably the strings on Cyber-Evil and flutes on Glass ½ Full) clearly have zilch to do with a real machine (see: no-budget, above), which at least makes them easy to identify and quarantine. I'm sorry to be so harsh on this album, as the band have clearly put a huge amount of effort into it, but it's only really going to appeal to fans of contemporary prog who haven't delved too far into the genre's history, I suspect. And that album sleeve? The band freely admit it was an 'ill-advised' attempt at humour: the butterfly is comprised of manipulated photos of the band members' heads, which works about as well as you might expect.
Smashing Pumpkins (US) see:
The Cricket's Orchestra (2009, 37.24) ***
If You Asked Me
A Little Love
Take Me Dancing
A Piece for You
You Got Out
5 More Minutes
Meaghan Smith is a young Canadian singer-songwriter, whose 2009 debut, The Cricket's Orchestra, is an adventurous effort, combining a huge pre-war jazz influence with modern touches, not least the turntablism on A Little Love. The album's default position, though, is swing-era brushed drums, accordions, upright bass and muted brass, all overlaid with Smith's vocals, which somehow manage to portray a combination of freshness and world-weariness, usually at the same time. No, I don't know how, either.
According to Smith's website, I Know 'is made almost entirely from a Mellotron sample': MkII rhythms, for what it's worth, with 'moving strings' later on, more left-hand manual flute phrases in A Little Love and a flute part on A Piece For You. It's fairly obviously sampled, chiefly due to there being so few unmodified MkIIs still in existence, let alone easily available, but it's good to hear those lesser-known sounds crop up on a modern album. So; a very listenable record, a (thankful) world away from your typical manufactured 'modern singer-songwriter' guff. More, please.
This Town (2008, 51.40) **½
Hit Me Up
Sleep Like a Lover
|Better Off That Way
Late Nights and Street Fights
Days Go By (Steve Osbourne mix)
Steve Smith is already a veteran of two successful bands, Higher Ground and Dirty Vegas, producing his first solo release, This Town, in 2008, after moving to the States. It's pretty much what you'd expect from his background: a singer-songwriter record with a distinct influence from whichever part of the dance scene he considered home. The actual material is fairly generic indie, to be honest, although the programmed beats only intrude occasionally. Smith's musical collaborator, Cornershop's Anthony Saffery, is credited with Mellotron, but I'd love to know where, as it's completely inaudible right across the album.
|7" (2009) ***½
When You Grow Old
Blood Speaks (2012, 44.05) ***½
|Let Me Know
The Three of Us
Take Me Down When You Go
Feel it Coming Near
|Version of the Future
Smoke Fairies (2014, 45.04) ***
|We've Seen Birds
Eclipse Them All
Hope is Religion
Waiting for Something to Begin
Your Own Silent Movie
Drinks and Dancing
Want it Forever
The Very Last Time
Are You Crazy?
The Smoke Fairies (who actually sound like their name) are the duo of Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies, who met at school and have worked together ever since. After a now-disowned 2006 album, Strange the Things, the first release they'll admit to was 2008's Living With Ghosts 7", followed by Sunshine, a fittingly ghostly folk/blues. To look at the twosome, you'd expect them to have a fey, English sound, but they're actually more acoustic American blues than anything. Leo Abrahams is credited with Mellotron on the flip, When You Grow Old, but the only thing it even might be is a background cello line that could, frankly, come from almost anything, so into samples it goes. This is available on 2010's US-only Ghosts singles compilation, although for some reason, both sides of 2009's Jack White-produced Gastown are missing.
2012's Blood Speaks, their second album (ignoring that debut), continues the haunted Americana/British folk vibe of their early singles, highlights including Awake, Feel It Coming Near and bonus track The Wireless, although I have trouble warming to their more electric side, notably The Three Of Us. Blamire is credited with Mellotron, but if the best she can do is the most un-Mellotronic strings on the title track, this is barely even worthy of the samples section. Although 2014's Smoke Fairies utilises all the same elements as its predecessor, somehow, it fails to combine them so successfully, although the rhythmic, dreamlike Waiting For Something To Begin and Drinks And Dancing are both more than worthy of your attention. The 'Mellotron' is credited simply to 'The Smoke Fairies' this time round, with flute samples on Your Own Silent Movie and closer Are You Crazy and possible strings on Want It Forever.
Take a Minute (2010, 42.30) **½
|Take a Minute
Sally's Song (the Legacy Goes on)
If I Can't Love You
Let's Do it Again (the Hangover Song)
Nothing Hurts (Like a Broken Heart)
Friends Will Be Friends
The Biggest Lie
|I Don't Want to Lose You
Can't Change the Past
This is Wot I Did
'Til the Grass Grows Over Me
Most Brits of a certain age will remember Smokie; mid-'70s chart regulars, their long(ish) hair and denim-shirted image promised something considerably more 'rock' than they actually delivered, which was, er, mainstream pop of the era. Unbelievably, the band have never really gone away, although iconically throaty-voiced frontman Chris Norman has long gone (don't worry; replacement Mike Craft is a vocal dead ringer), 2010's Take a Minute being something like their twenty-first studio release. It's a country/pop/rock album of the type guaranteed to appeal to a certain kind of middle-aged record buyer, vaguely akin to Rod Stewart's early '70s work; professional to a fault, 'rootsy' enough to avoid accusations of (complete) blandness, most of its material being catchy enough to stick after a few listens, while never challenging their heyday in any meaningful way.
Keys man Martin Bullard allegedly plays Mellotron, but I'd love to know where, as it's utterly inaudible, all violin parts being real, unless they're referring to the clearly sampled strings on Nothing Hurts (Like A Broken Heart)? If so, I can barely even call them 'Mellotron samples', as they sound entirely generic. The band's website modestly states, "great music, great band", but all I hear is something that can only aspire to be middle-aged dadrock. Harmless, yet ultimately unsatisfying.
When It's All Over We Still Have to Clear Up (2001, 47.34) *½
|Never Gonna Fall in Love Again
Ask Me How I am
Black and Blue
Last Ever Lone Gunman
If I'd Found the Right Words to Say
Batten Down the Hatch
One Night is Not Enough
|Chased by... I Don't Know What
An Olive Grove Facing the Sea
When It's All Over We Still Have to Clear Up
Make Love to Me Forever
Maybe surprisingly, Snow Patrol formed as far back as 1994 and while usually referred to as Scottish, are actually comprised of Northern Irish guys who were at university in Dundee at the time. They fit neatly into the Coldplay/Travis area of 'insipid indie', characterised by ineffectual vocals and rhythmically- and harmonically-poor music, all infused with a kind of low-level misery that's no doubt a hangover from the inexplicably massively influential Smiths. Oh dear, I seem to have come down on one side of the fence, haven't I? Again. That isn't to say that everything they do lacks energy; they frequently pick up the pace, but still manage to sound like complete wusses while doing so.
When It's All Over We Still Have to Clear Up is their second album and their last pre-major label release, and you can see why Polydor went for them. Dull, lifeless, stuffed full of fake 'emotion'... A surefire success in what passes for the UK's crummy music scene. I'm sure the label execs could already see the stadiums full of confused teenagers of the 'arty' variety sobbing into their plastic cups of piss-weak beer over Gary Lightbody's over-emoting voice and 'sensitive' lyrics, and that's just the boys. Believe me, AC/DC they are not.
"But what about the Mellotron?", I hear you cry. Well, both Lightbody and now ex-member Mark McClelland are credited with playing it, but I'll be buggered if I can hear where. An Olive Grove Facing The Sea, the title track and Firelight could all possibly have some secreted away, but then, they could be actual strings (there appear to be some on the album) or synths - who knows? Anyway, nothing obvious, so it gets a big fat zero on the 'Tronometer. It should probably get one for the music, too, but I've been generous and given it a whole *½; count yourself lucky, boys, it's more than it deserves.
Doing the Distance (2004, 44.23) ***
Master of Forgotten Works
The Boso (the Kickdown)
Snowglobe's second album, 2004's Doing the Distance, contains an intriguing mix of powerpop, mainstream '70s rock and Americana, plus elements of mariachi, of all things (it's all in the brass), their eclecticism actually recalling the experimental mindset of the mid-'60s Beatles. I imagine they'd be quite pleased by the comparison... Highlights? Ms. June, the brief, gentle Calculating Fades and the is it?/isn't it? joyous Rock Song, although the six-minute Medium goes on a bit. Actually, although it isn't that long, as albums go, they could've lost a few tracks and improved the overall feel, albeit possibly at the expense of the aforementioned eclecticism.
Tim Regan is credited with Mellotron, but the dodgy strings on Ms. June and upfront choirs on Changes are fooling no-one. (Cue outraged e-mail from band etc.) Can I recommend this to powerpop fans? Cautiously, yes, but don't expect to immediately like the whole record. One to dip into, perhaps.
A Year at the Movies (2004, 35.42) *½
Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)
Cats and Dogs
As Good as it Gets
I Was Wrong
No One to Save
Social Code's first album under that name (they released their debut while still known as Fifth Season), 2004's A Year at the Movies, is a painfully mainstream 'alternative' (to what?) effort, post-punk without being, y'know, post-punk. The nearest the album comes to 'good' is Whisper To A Scream (Birds Fly), because... it is, of course, a cover of Ian McNabb's Icicle Works' classic, while particular horrors include the awful Miss You and I Was Wrong, although, if truth be told, there's little (read: nothing) about this album that makes me want to revisit it at any time in the near (or even distant) future.
If Greg Collins' 'Mellotron' consists of the vague, background strings on Everything's Fine, all I can say is: don't take the piss; that's nothing like a Mellotron. This album's one saving grace is its brevity, but that's not saying much.