Home

reviews

album list

Samples

Starofash  (Norway)

The Thread  (2008,  41.51)  ***

Starofash are metal gods Peccatum's vocalist Heidi Solberg Tveitan's solo project, whose second album, 2008's The Thread, contains a gothic blend of atmospheric piano work, whispered vocals and muted band performances. Highlights include brief, vibraphone-led opener How To Invent A Heart, the string-laden The World Spins For You and the gentle-yet-slightly-disturbing The Snake Pit, although there's nothing here that should offend those into the darker side of life. EM musician Markus Reuter allegedly plays Mellotron on Him And Her, but given that he already has an album listed in 'samples', it comes as no surprise that the choirs on the track are too smooth by far. Overall, a pretty decent effort, if rarely in danger of being 'groundbreaking'. Definitely no real Mellotron, though.

Ringo Starr  (UK)

Vertical Man  (1998,  52.39)  ***
I Wanna Be Santa Claus  (1999,  44.29)  **½
Ringo Rama  (2003,  49.53)  ***
Liverpool 8  (2008,  45.08)  **½

If you're out of your teens and Richard "Ringo Starr" Starkey needs any introduction whatsoever, you've not only come to the wrong site, but probably shouldn't be reading anything to do with music whatsoever. I always used to describe him as 'the luckiest man alive' or somesuch, until the Beatles' Anthology series was shown on the telly and I realised he was actually a pretty decent drummer. Saying that, he didn't actually need to be that good - his rôle has always been that of inspiration; literally millions of players first picked up a pair of sticks because of Ringo. Name one other drummer who's had that effect; go on... What's more, he was (briefly and strangely) the most successful ex-Beatle for a while, racking up a string of hits in the early '70s, while managing not to kill himself drinking, unlike his pals Keith Moon and Harry Nilsson.

All of which brings us to Ringo's more recent solo career. Beginning in 1989, Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band have toured regularly, with Ringo bringing in various really quite big names (the time I saw them, he had Joe Walsh, Todd Rundgren, Burton Cummings, Dave Edmunds and Nils Lofgren), playing a mixture of Beatles, solo Ringo and the biggest hits of his collaborators. After releasing a good run of albums throughout the '70s, he only released one album in the fifteen years before 1998 (1992's Time Takes Time - now there's a Ringoism...), when Vertical Man appeared. It was the first time he'd used Mellotron sounds himself; despite rumours, he never owned a MkII in the '60s, although John Lennon did, his machine famously living on a half-landing in his house. It's pretty much what you'd expect; pop/rock with a generally retro feel, neither exciting nor shite, just... Ringo. Best tracks are probably Mindfield and Without Understanding, though nothing stands out especially. Worst? The good-time reincarnation of Love Me Do - horrible. Mellotronically speaking, King Of Broken Hearts is a vaguely Beatles-esque ballad, with plenty of flutes and pitchbent strings from either Mark Hudson (ex-Hudson Brothers) or Starr himself, with more of the same on the title track, although, on re-playing, it sounds sampled.

In a massive burst of activity, Ringo followed it a mere year later with his Christmas album (aargh!), I Wanna Be Santa Claus, which is pretty much as bad as you'd expect. It starts promisingly, with the full-on circa '73 glam-rock stomp of Come On Christmas, Christmas Come On, but most of the material is rather anodyne and more than a little sentimental. So what did I expect from a Christmas album? Not a lot, really, so I wasn't that disappointed. Samplotron on one track, apparently from Ringo and Hudson, though I'm not sure why it took two of them to play it... Anyway, Pax Um Biscum (Peace Be With You) is a bizarre, eastern-flavoured track, with more than a hint of It Ain't Half Hot Mum about it (awful UK '70s TV show, set in wartime India, clearly filmed in a gravel pit in Surrey), with some background flutes and maybe strings, along with real ones. Four years on, Ringo Rama is something of an improvement, with various Famous Friends guesting, not that you'd know it if you hadn't read the credits. David Gilmour slaps a fiery solo onto Instant Amnesia and Van Dyke Parks is his inimitable self on Elizabeth Reigns, but overall, the album plays it pretty safe, though you don't buy Ringo Starr albums looking for innovation, so I can hardly slate him for not providing it. Samplotron on two tracks this time, from Hudson again, with backgrounds flutes on What Love Wants To Be and the same on Love First, Ask Questions Later, heard clearly on the dying seconds of the song. After a break, Liverpool 8 is another rather backwards-looking Ringo album and (I believe) his last with Mark Hudson, as the two appear to have had some kind of falling-out. It's a typical enough effort, the title track effectively telling Ringo's life story, with the rest of the album either having a vaguely '60s feel or sitting pretty firmly in the 'middle-aged pop/rock' category; harmless, but unexciting. Hudson plays samplotron, with strings on Gone Are The Days and the faintest of faint flute parts on For Love and Love Is.

State Radio  (US)

Let it Go  (2009,  57.38)  **½

State Radio have been described as 'alternative rock', but what I hear on their fourth album, Let it Go, is a ska/punk band flirting with reggae (several tracks) or a bargain-basement Clash (Knights Of Bostonia), which isn't really going to recommend it to anyone who reads this site with any degree of regularity. For what it's worth, the band are politically savvy, but then, so are Rage Against the Machine. I rest my case. Bassist Chuck Fay allegedly plays Mellotron, although it's entirely inaudible, which is almost as irritating as Dylanesque opener Sybil III, which is one of those tracks that you can only hear by rewinding the CD from 'zero'.

Steel Prophet  (US)

Dark Hallucinations  (1999,  52.46)  **
Book of the Dead  (2001,  40.50)  **½

Steel Prophet have a problem. A big problem. And that problem is, they sound exactly, make that exactly like Queensrÿche. I don't mean, 'influenced by', I don't even mean 'God that's close'. I mean exactly like them, down to the last vocal nuance and twiddly guitar bit. Now, I like Queensrÿche, or rather, I like '80s Queensrÿche, when they still wrote great material and didn't pander to the prevailing 'heavier or lighter' ethos, where the bulk of what would once have been just heavy rock bands had to decide whether to go the Metallica or Bon Jovi route. Talk about the devil or the deep blue sea... Grim days, the '80s; even most of what little prog was being made sucked. Queensrÿche somehow managed to persuade people, not least the cloth-eared record company brigade, that intelligent, thoughtful hard rock was a viable career option and for a while, they were right. It seems to me that hard rock always had two kinds of audience: the blokes who worked in factories and the chemistry students; Queensrÿche managed to capture the latter. All of which is absolutely no excuse for another outfit to rip their signature sound off blind a decade later. I mean, what's the point? I'm not making any great claims of originality on Queensrÿche's behalf (they began as a straight amalgam of Priest and Maiden, the latter themselves influenced by Halford's Heroes), but to churn out a straight copy, minus the great songs, seems wilfully stupid.

Enough bitching about why Steel Prophet are a waste of time. 1999's Dark Hallucinations and 2001's marginally better Book of the Dead have credits for 'Mellotron', to which I say, "You have to be joking". The former has no more than some vague string sounds on a few tracks, although the latter manages a few Mellotronlike string chords on Anger Seething, plus a couple of other possible parts, but this doesn't sound to me like a band who hauled an M400 into their studio because they love the crankiness of an original machine. This sounds like a band who own an eMu Vintage Keys, or at best, Roland's Vintage Synth module and sensibly keep its grotty approximations well in the background most of the time. Saying this, I'll probably get an irate e-mail from the band saying a) the Mellotron's real, and b) why have you slagged us off?

I'll freely admit that I don't listen to a lot of modern metal and Steel Prophet are a perfect illustration as to why. I'm not saying that originality is a must; I listen to stacks of fairly derivative prog, but most bands manage to put at least a little of themselves into what they're doing and not just slavishly ape someone else's sound, hook, line and sinker. I wouldn't mind quite so much if the songs were good, but they're not. I'm sure there's a market for Steel Prophet, but it's not one where I buy my fruit and veg. p.s. Amusingly, guitarist/mainman Steve Kachinsky HAS written to me, chiefly to say that he hates Queensrÿche and they've never been an influence. Strange... He was very gracious about me slagging their albums, too, while confirming that the 'Mellotron' is definitely sampled.

Jeffrey Steele  (US)

Somethin' in the Water  (2001,  48.39)  **½

Country dude Jeffrey "Steele" LeVasseur went solo after his band, Boy Howdy (presumably named for Creem magazine's iconic cartoon character, itself named for a commonly-used American expression) split in 1996, although it took him five years to release his solo debut, Somethin' in the Water, an earlier album having been rejected by his label. It's a decent enough mainstream country/rock affair, avoiding the AOR or schmaltzy excesses of many of his contemporaries, although you'd hardly call it alt.country. Opener Tip Your Hat To The Teacher namechecks just about any country act of note, including, strangely, Creedence Clearwater Revival, quoting Born On The Bayou; ironic, given that neither Steele nor any of Creedence are Southerners, all having been born in California. Other better tracks include She Loved Me (classic country lyric) and bar-band boogie closer Hollywood Girl, but it's not really what you'd call classic stuff. Scott Baggett and Tony Harrell both play samplotron, although why it took two of them to play the quiet flute part on 3 O'Clock Flight is beyond me.

Stephanie's Id  (US)

Grus Americanus  (2007,  48.55)  **½

Stephanie's Id (originally stephaniesĭd; they've used several spelling variants, largely due to finding themselves mis-spelt as Stephanie's ID) are a 'pop-noir' outfit with a rotating lineup from North Carolina, led by Stephanie Morgan and her husband, Chuck Lichtenberger. Their second full album, 2007's Grus Americanus, starts well, but this listener quickly tired of their schtick, which is probably more due to his failings than theirs; as a result, its best tracks appear to be clustered near the beginning, notably opener Wash Us Down With Sea Saline and the (relatively) raucous Blue. Collaborator Vic Stafford is credited with Mellotron, but the cellos on Blue and Unmistakably Love don't sound especially authentic to these ears. Pre-M-Tron, sample sets were usually limited to the basic strings/flutes/choir, but now you can access pretty much anything (did I hear some brass at one point?); saying all that, it's probably real... Anyway, while mildly diverting in places, I'm afraid this failed to grab me in any meaningful way (so to speak).

Stereo Total  (France/Germany)

Cactus Versus Brezel  (2012,  40.51)  **½

Cactus Versus Brezel is an intentionally cheap-sounding electronica/synthpop album, complete with intoned French female vocals and robotic rhythms. File under 'retro synth music'. Brezel Göring's 'Mellotron'? I can only assume they mean the stupendously-obviously sampled strings on closer We Don't Wanna Dance. Top marks for shittiest samples ever.

Stereophonics  (UK)

Performance and Cocktails  (1999,  50.56)  ***
You Gotta Go There to Come Back  (2003,  59.35)  **½

Stereophonics are quite determinedly UK indie, in its late-'90s incarnation; think Oasis (but only if you absolutely have to) crossed with, er, someone else in the same field. What amazes me about this stuff is how much heavier it is than '80s indie; as metal became more extreme, it seems the indie merchants took over the Gibson-through-a-Marshall hard rock sound, unfortunately mixing it with the weak-as-water rhythm sections and whiny vocalists the '80s scene coughed up. I'm really not a fan of this sort of stuff (what, you'd guessed?) and I have to say that I'd rather listen to, say, Blur or Supergrass in preference. Saying that, Stereophonics do a passable job on Performance and Cocktails, while being slightly less irritating (and plagiaristic) than some, although Kelly Jones' sixty-a-day vocals do grate after a while. I have to say, however, after seven or eight tracks, I found myself wishing the album was rather shorter, as in, only seven or eight tracks. Co-producer Marshall Bird is credited with Hammond, Rhodes, piano and Mellotron, the last-named on closer I Stopped To Fill My Car Up, with a pleasant little repeating flute part, sounding sampled.

Two albums and four years later, Stereophonics released You Gotta Go There to Come Back, which sounds like business as usual, at least to my ears. It's the standard mix of uptempo and slower numbers, with the requisite level of 'authentic' third-hand soulfulness, like a low(er)-budget Paul Weller; Christ, this makes Oasis sound like they mean it. I really can't think of anything else to say about such a lacklustre release, so I won't even try. Samplotron on two tracks, apparently from Kelly Jones, Tony Kirkham and Jim Lowe, who between them managed to lay down a short strings/flute part towards the end of Maybe Tomorrow and some flutes amongst the real strings on Rainbows And Pots Of Gold. Masterful.

Becca Stevens Band  (US)

Weightless  (2011,  59.01)  ***

Becca Stevens has collaborated with Brad Mehldau and Taylor Eigsti, amongst others, although her own style, at least on 2011's Weightless, is more of a folk/Americana cross, full of mournful harmoniums and acoustic guitars. Unfortunately, this is one of those albums that sounds fantastic for about three tracks, but its sheer length (far too long at an hour) and repetition grind down all but the most dedicated listener; a real shame, as a good edit would've improved this enormously. Liam Robinson plays sampled Chamberlin, with chordal strings and a flute melody on There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.

Jon Stevens  (New Zealand)

Circle  (1996,  43.05)  *½

Jon Stevens is a New Zealander who, like so many of his musically-inclined countrymen, is frequently mistaken for an Aussie, although his early career took place in his homeland. After co-founding the apparently very successful Noiseworks, Stevens went solo in the early '90s, eventually releasing his fourth (though second post-Noiseworks) album, Circle. Well, what can I say? Horrible. Truly horrible. If this is 'adult pop', you can bloody well keep it - this is complete drivel. Most of the tracks are ballads, with those horrible '90s programmed drums, and... Oh look, just steer clear, OK? Samplotron on Candles, from the enigmatically-name Barbarella G, with some typical 'Strawberry Fields'-style flutes. Um, that's it. Do not buy this album. Oh yeah - Stevens joined the appalling INXS for a couple of years in the new millennium, as if you needed any other incentive to run away, very fast.

Pete Stewart  (US)

Pete Stewart  (1999,  44.07)  **½

Frontman for the recently reformed Grammatrain, Pete Stewart (collaborations include TobyMac), released his eponymous debut solo album in 1999. Unsurprisingly, it treads the same Christian alt.rock path as his band, making for an uninspired, yet not completely awful album that largely drifts by without ever really impinging itself on the (or at least, this) listener. Stewart allegedly plays Mellotron on Don't Underestimate, but I'd be amazed if the weedy string part with which the song is blighted emanated from a genuine machine. So; dull, albeit with a thankfully low-key Christian message. Amusingly, it seems that Stewart is now an ex-botherer, so Grammatrain are having to attract a secular audience. Good luck, guys...

Still  (US)

Always Almost  (1997,  50.17)  ***

After US prog great white hopes Echolyn split in the mid-'90s (what happens when you trust a major label), three members, Brett Kull (vocals/guitar), Paul Ramsey (drums) and Ray Weston (vocals/bass) formed a power trio, Still, releasing one album, 1997's Always Almost. It's barely 'progressive' at all, whatever you might take that to mean, being more a psychedelic heavy blues effort, better tracks including Loveless and Calculated Truth, although nothing here really stands out. Incidentally, the last track, the bizarre, folky drinking ballad Sometimes I Drink Too Much is listed as a 'bonus', but since there wasn't a version without it, I'm not quite sure what's supposed to be 'bonus' about it. John Avarese plays piano, accordion and Mellotron, supposedly, although the strings on Calculated Truth barely even sound like samples, let alone a real one, highlighted by the solo section at the end of the song. Mellotron? Actually, guys, that's taking the piss. Anyway, a reasonable release, though not even remotely as good as Echolyn's work. Incidentally, the band changed their name to Always Almost (confusing, eh?), releasing God Pounds His Nails later the same year, featuring Avarese's samples again.

Andy Stochansky  (Canada)

Five Star Motel  (2003,  44.56)  **

It's a shame Andy Stochansky's music is so insipid, as he writes a decent enough lyric and you can't even blame it on '90s blandness. '00s blandness? Five Star Motel is his major label debut, though third album overall, not to mention his '90s backing musician career, chiefly with Ani DiFranco, and it's... bland. Sorry, but this 'adult contemporary' stuff or whatever you call it is simply the Death Of Music; OK, not quite James Blunt (aarghh!!), but not good, either. Nice, very specific credits, with several alleged Mellotron tracks, mostly from Ian LeFeuvre. A high string line and (uncredited) quite upfront flutes on Paris, cellos on Here Nor There, although you probably wouldn't spot them if you didn't know and a rare Mellotron clarinet that you really wouldn't spot on 22 Steps. Inaudible strings on One Day, under the real ones, from Tom Beckham this time, with the same going for the 'intro Melotron [sic]' on Miss USA, while the strings and choir on Mavis Said... are (you guessed it) inaudible. Samples, says I.

Chadwick Stokes  (US)

Simmerkane II  (2011,  58.49)  **½

After reaching the public ear via his membership of State Radio, Chadwick Stokes Urmston kicked off his solo career with Simmerkane II. A kind of indie/Americana/singer-songwriter effort, its main failing is a lack of consistency, although better tracks include opener Adelaide, Back To the Races and Spider And Gioma. Peter Adams plays rather un-Chamberlinic 'Chamberlin' flute lines on Crowbar Hotel and Spider And Gioma.

Roine Stolt  (Sweden)

The Flower King  (1994,  70.36)  ***½
Hydrophonia  (1998,  67.47)  ***½
Wall Street Voodoo  (2005,  115.08)  **

Kaipa's young guitarist, Roine Stolt, was still only in his late thirties in the early '90s, when he decided to have a second stab at the progressive scene, after years of reputedly dodgy albums. Then again, who didn't release dodgy albums in the '80s? Suggestions on the back of a used banknote to the usual address. The Flower King, on top of naming his new band, was a fine return from one of Sweden's major progressive talents, containing at least one song (its title track) that was to stay in The Flower Kings' set for years. Actually, in retrospect, it's rather less exciting than it seemed at the time, though there's some decent enough material on board, not least the first of many, many epics Stolt was to write over the succeeding decade, Humanizzimo (with its outrageous Yes 'borrowings'), also in early Flower Kings' sets.

I didn't know for a while whether or not the 'Mellotron' on the album was real, although after lending the band my own machine for a UK gig back in '99, I was assured that they'd never used anything but samples, so the same is very likely to be true for solo Stolt. Strings and/or choirs on most tracks, with some flutes, tastefully used, unlike some other sample users I could name, who just slap the things all over their records like (to quote my friend Doug) 'an ill-fitting wig'. If you want to know what all the fuss is about with Stolt/The Flower Kings. this isn't a bad place to start, though don't go expecting anything like the other early-'90s Swedish prog explosion outfits (Änglagård/Anekdoten/Landberk). Nice (fake) 'Tron, too.

Stolt spent the next few years spitting out huge chunks of Flower Kings music, not finding the time to record another solo album until '98's Hydrophonia. Given that The Flower Kings' work was already on the slide by this point, I'm amazed to find that much of the album is wonderful, uplifting instrumental prog, especially closer Seafood Kitchen Thing. In fact, apart from a couple of slightly dull pieces around the middle of the album, this is actually very good indeed, although possibly not consistent enough to grab a full four stars. Plenty of 'Tron samples on the album; not just the standard strings, flutes and choirs, but also brass on Wreck of HMS Nemesis, so worth it if you want to hear more of The Beast without caring whether or not it's real. Roine concentrated on the Flower Kings (oh, and Transatlantic...) for the next few years, finally releasing his third solo album proper, Wall Street Voodoo, in 2005. And it... sucks. A horrendously overlong double-disc set, it largely consists of long, boring blues-rock jams with the odd progressive styling thrown in to keep his regular audience happy, with the occasional bit of pseudo-'Tron on most tracks. This really is an album you want to avoid, having none of the charm of Stolt's earlier work. Run away, fast.

Kelley Stoltz  (US)

Below the Branches  (2006,  39.29)  ***

Kelley Stoltz is a lo-fi San Francisco-based singer-songwriter with an environmental bent - he 'offset' the electricity used to record his first Sub Pop release, 2006's Below the Branches. Said album is reminiscent, in places, of Brian Wilson and other pre-psych '60s songwriters, the Bowie-esque The Sun Comes Through probably being the most interesting thing here, although he gets the phrase 'barometric pressure' into Winter Girl. We get faux-Mellotron strings on Memory Collector, although that seems to be it on the fake 'Tron front. Not a bad effort, then, although Stoltz's lo-fi approach may deter some listeners.

Angus & Julia Stone  (Australia)

Down the Way  (2010,  66.01)  **½
Angus & Julia Stone  (2014,  60.14)  **

Angus and Julia Stone are a brother/sister duo from the Sydney area, whose second album, 2010's Down the Way, is more than a little reminiscent of that '70s West Coast sound, all muted pedal steel and tasteful electric, in full-on Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac mode. An Aussie No.1 album, this is best described as a singer-songwriter/country crossover effort, with the occasional folk influence (the mandolin on On The Road, the fiddle on a few tracks) making itself felt, although the whole is not helped by Julia's irritating 'little girl' voice. Julia and Tommy Elchmann are credited with Mellotron, with background strings on opener Hold On and flutes on And The Boys, with more flutes on final 'hidden' track Old Friend, all sounding sampled. Angus & Julia Stone sees a stylistic shift to modern, lighter-than-air indie, doing the duo absolutely no favours whatsoever. Any better tracks? Two, to be precise: the haunting Death Defying Acts isn't too bad, while they have a surprisingly decent stab at channelling Neil Young on lengthy regular release closer Crash And Burn. Three credited Mellotron tracks, three players. John Solo plays distant strings on Please You, in a pleasingly non-chordal way and Thomas Bartlett plays strings on Main Street, although whatever Ed Roth supposedly adds to bonus track All This Love is entirely inaudible. Samples, anyway.

Stone Axe  (US)

II  (2010,  39.32)  ***½

Stone Axe (thanks for the UK spelling, guys) are the US duo of vocalist Dru Brinkerhoff and musician Tony Reed, who, amazingly, plays all instruments in the studio, a bassist and drummer being added for live work. Their second album, er, II, is clearly influenced by that late '60s-to-mid-'70s period, touchstones including Foghat (On With The Show), The Who (Ainít Gonna Miss It) and Procol Harum (closer Turned To Stone, which pretty much cops A Whiter Shade Of Pale), while Chasing Dragons features that 'glam rock boogie' feel that's considered so unfashionable these days, not to mention Slade-style 'gang' backing vocals. Reed (of course) plays an occasional samplotron string part on Turned To Stone.

Storm Corrosion  (UK/Sweden)

Storm Corrosion  (2012,  47.51)  ****

Although Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson and Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt have worked together on several projects since 2001, Storm Corrosion are their first full-blown musical collaboration. Recorded in 2011 and released the following year, Storm Corrosion caught many fans of the pair on the hop, its dark orchestrations having more in common with Scott Walker and Talk Talk than any of their previous work, even Opeth's all-acoustic Damnation. Attempting to isolate highpoints is fairly futile, as not only are there no real dips, but the album is clearly intended to be listened to as a whole, although Lock Howl might be fans' first port of call. On the samplotron front, we get distinctly sampled-sounding choirs on Drag Ropes and strings on Hag and (particularly overtly, with inauthentic pitchbend) Lock Howl. Unsurprisingly, a little sampled Mellotron is no reason to buy this album; its invention and breadth of vision, however, are.

Stratocruiser  (US)

Stratocruiser  (2002,  40.28)  ***½

Stratocruiser (who apparently have a Doleful Lions connection) play powerpop the way it's meant to be played: like The Beatles, effectively. Their eponymous debut is stuffed with songs of the quality of opener Wallflower (always open with your best track!), the Rickenbacker 12-string jangle of Straight And Narrow and the Wurlitzer-driven Wonderful Sun, although, truth be told, there isn't a bad track here. Neither is there a particularly original one, but that sort of goes with the territory, as it does with most genre-orientated acts these days. Mike Nicholson is credited with Mellotron, although the only sightings are possible background strings on Something Funny, a few seconds at the beginning of Superstar Of Cool and similar at the end of closer Mornington Crescent, all sampled. So; Stratocruiser's an excellent album of its type, as long as you don't object to its originality bypass surgery.

Will Stratton  (US)

What the Night Said  (2007,  33.28)  **½

Will Stratton was all of eighteen when he recorded What the Night Said in 2005, although it didn't gain a release for another two years. I hate to say this, as he seems extremely sincere, but it's a terribly dull modern singer-songwriter effort, better (i.e. less irritating) tracks including Oh Quiet Night and the harmonium-fuelled Sunol, but nothing here's likely to excite fans of, say, Nick Drake, of whom Stratton is quite the fan. Stratton is credited with Mellotron, but did he really have access to one? The chordal flute parts on opener Katydid and Sonnet suggest not, frankly, being too clean for their own good. I've actually heard a lot worse than What the Night Said; Stratton lacks that appalling habit of suddenly breaking into a 'heartfelt' falsetto, which has gained this a good half star, but it's still somewhat on the wet side.

Strawbs  (UK)  see:

Strawbs

Einar Stray Orchestra  (Norway)

Politricks  (2014,  42.56)  **

Einar Stray Orchestra's third album, 2014's Politricks, is a largely unappealing halfway house between post-rock and modern indie, combining the worst features of both genres. Is there a best track? Possibly the a capella For The Country, chiefly due to its total lack of droning instrumentation. Mellotron? Hasse Rosbach is credited on Montreal and Qualia, but I can't even hear samples.

Stroppy  (US)

Pipi & Margo Go to the Graveyard  (2007,  21.30)  ***

Stroppy remind me of The Dresden Dolls in general and Amanda (Gaiman) Palmer specifically, in their twisted cabaret approach to music-making. Well, you just knew that something called Pipi & Margo Go to the Graveyard wasn't going to be your average singer-songwriter effort, didn't you? In a burst of honesty, Margo Lauritzen credits herself with M-Tron, sticking mournful strings all over opener Helicopter.

Mark Edgar Stuart  (US)

Trinity My Dear  (2015,  35.16)  ***½

Memphis session man Mark Edgar Stuart writes intensely personal songs which he then records in a style I'd describe as 'old-school Americana'. His second, 2015's Trinity My Dear, covers several bases, from oddball, baritone sax-driven opener Ms. America through the pedal-steel country of Wasted to the electric Myra Gale, complete with slightly misplaced Clavinet. Best track? Maybe Joe Is Enough, although I Was So Crazy runs it a close second. Al Gamble is credited with Mellotron, but the flutes on We Were In Bloom don't convince, I'm afraid. This is a pretty decent record, if perhaps slightly too eccentric for the mass market. Then again, I doubt whether Stuart really has his eye on a mainstream audience, although I can't imagine that he (or any of us, for that matter) would object to the sales.

Submarine Silence  (Italy)

Submarine Silence  (2002,  46.20)  ****

In their eponymous debut, Submarine Silence have made what must be the most heavily Genesis-influenced album I've heard in a very long time; the opening solo piano piece, The Door, is played on a Banksian Yamaha CP70, and David Cremoni's acoustic work is Hackett to a T, although his electric playing has unfortunate elements of Marillion's Steve Rothery in places. Even the cover's painted by sometime Genesis sleeve designer Paul Whitehead. Submarine Silence is entirely instrumental, which neatly sidesteps 'dodgy vocalist syndrome', not to mention the language problem, as in 'which one to sing in?'. Despite its all-too obvious influences, this really is rather good, although it's not really what you'd call a challenging listen. Cristiano Roversi (better known as keyboard man with Moongarden) is credited with 'Mellotron', though I've now had it confirmed that it's samples from EMU's Vintage Keys; they're too smooth and consistent, and some of those hanging notes are held way past the eight-second limit. Loads of it, anyway, with several lush string intros, and bits of flute and choir work scattered throughout for good measure. Actually, I think 'lush' is the watchword here, so don't go expecting any dissonance; hey, the reformed Van der Graaf have just put an album out if you want that... So; very nice indeed, if a tad unoriginal. Given that the band were apparently put together by Mellow's boss to record tracks for their Genesis tribute album, should we be surprised?

Subterranean Masquerade  (US)

Temporary Psychotic State EP  (2004,  17.20)  ***½

Subterranean Masquerade are essentially the duo of Tomer Pink and Jake DePolitte, whose gameplan seems to be the recording of a trilogy of concept albums in a (roughly) progressive metal style, although they incorporate all kinds of other influences. Their 2004 EP, Temporary Psychotic State, is presumably the first release in the trilogy; it's a shame in many ways that it isn't longer, as some of their ideas (not least the heavy use of violin) are well ahead of most of their contemporaries. The disc opens with fairground sounds, morphing into an acoustic guitar passage, before gently picking up the pace, the violin taking the lead, not hitting the 'metal' pedal until the four-minute mark and then only gently. The second piece carries on in a similar vein, making for one of the more original prog efforts of recent years. Andy Winter guests on samplotron, Temporary Psychotic State (A Recollection Of Where It All Began) featuring the choirs, while Observation Through Metamorphosis is mainly flutes.

Nikki Sudden  (UK)

Treasure Island  (2004,  61.56)  ***
The Truth Doesn't Matter  (2006,  58.51)  ***

Adrian "Nikki Sudden" Godfrey formed legendary post-punk crew The Swell Maps in the '70s with his brother Kevin ("Epic Soundtracks"), going on to work with a slew of other artists, not least members of The Waterboys, The Barracudas, R.E.M. and even the Stones. He also released the better part of twenty albums in around as many years during his prolific solo career, before his untimely death in early 2006, a few months before his fiftieth birthday. 2004's Treasure Island appears to be his last album released during his lifetime, a collection of rock'n'roll and country-influenced material recorded over an eighteen-month period over the preceding two years, highlights including the raucous rock'n'roll of opener Looking For A Friend, the balladic Stay Bruised and the title track. Although John A. Rivers is credited with Mellotron on Sanctified, the string line on the track (heard unaccompanied at the end) is quite clearly nothing of the sort, so scratch this one.

2006's The Truth Doesn't Matter was completed shortly before Sudden's death (which was, with excruciating irony, quite sudden), written and performed in a decidedly similar vein to its predecessor. Best tracks? Opener (again) Seven Miles, the marvellous Green Shield Stamps' very British nostalgia, Jet Star Groove and the acoustic The Price Of Nails, amongst others. Sudden is credited with Mellotron on The Ballad Of Johnny And Marianne, but, once again, it's clearly fake. It comes as no surprise (to myself, at least) that a Nikki Sudden collaborator, Dave Kusworth, has also played with the 'none more rock'n'roll' Dogs D'Amour, although, going by these two albums, Sudden was more about the song than the bandanna/eyeliner/attitude. Or, it would seem, the Mellotron. R.I.P., Nikki.

Sugarfoot  (Norway)

Big Sky Country  (2014,  74.41)  ***

At nigh-on seventy-five minutes, Sugarfoot's Big Sky Country is actually two albums thrown together, a lightweight country record and a country-rock one, the tracks sequenced to display their versatility. It doesn't start well, but Safe As Houses is vastly better than the first two tracks, a kind of country/powerpop crossover with hints of prog (!) about it, while Dolphins [sic] Hotel channels Neil Young, other better material including A Horse Called Your Love and Byrdsian closer My Friend. Motorpsycho's Bent Sæther is credited with Mellotron, but the background strings on Lady Waltz really aren't. An album of two halves, then.

Sugarland  (US)

Enjoy the Ride  (2006,  42.25)  **

These days, Sugarland are the good-looking C&W duo of Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles, although some controversy surrounds the departure of Bush's original musical partner, the openly lesbian Kristen Hall, presumably seen as a barrier to mainstream acceptance. Their second album, 2006's Enjoy the Ride, despite its indie-ish sleeve, is a very typical modern country album, featuring the obligatory arena rock influence alongside the pedal steel and ten-gallon hats, difficult to review objectively without wholeheartedly embracing the country music culture. Tony Harrell plays samplotron on two tracks, with some near-inaudible strings on Want To and something entirely inaudible on These Are The Days.

Sula Bassana  (Germany)

Dreamer  (2002,  44.46)  ****
Sula Bassana & the Nasoni Pop Art Experimental Band Vol. 1  (2006,  50.30)  ***½
Disappear/Waves  [as Sula Bassana/3AM]  (2014,  46.23)  ***½
Live at Roadburn Festival 2014  (2015,  49.11)  ****

Sula Bassana are yet another of Dave Schmidt's psychedelic projects (Liquid Visions, Zone Six), this one sailing closer to the trippier end of Hawkwind than the others. Sula Bassana is actually the nom de plume Schmidt goes under for the project, but it seems to make more sense to file them under 'S' than 'B', so here they are. Dreamer appears to be his/their first album under this name and is a pleasing amalgam of tripped-out jams and the 'rock' part of 'space rock', mixed with a little electronica. Top track? Probably the lengthy Ananda, but there's no slackers here. Schmidt allegedly plays Mellotron, but the major string part on the title track with the suspiciously long choir chord at the end and the strings on Baby Blue Shuffle In D Major sound a bit forced, shall we say. Samples so heavily suspected that this goes here until/if I should find out otherwise.

2006's Sula Bassana & the Nasoni Pop Art Experimental Band Vol. 1 is quite possibly actually Vol. 1 by Sula Bassana & the Nasoni Pop Art Experimental Band; it's hard to tell. Anyway, a rather lesser album than Dreamer, at least to my ears, droning on for ages without ever really going anywhere. Doubtless the point. Anyway, the credited 'Tron strings on The Terrascrew and phased strings and choir on Daydreams both sound fake as hell, particularly the former, hurling this into this section without passing 'Go' or receiving £200. Many years on and Disappear/Waves appears in 2014, split with 3AM, so actually only twenty minutes of Sula Bassana. Their contributions aren't bad, but 3AM's Waves is the most original piece here, drum-free, based around the rhythm supplied by a delay unit. Samplotron on one Bassana track, with choirs and cellos (spot the double bass note) on Smoof. 2015's Live at Roadburn Festival 2014 chronicles a blistering set, showing the band at their coruscating best over a fifty-minute set. Not a lot of samplotron, only upfront strings on Dark Days. Best SB album yet?

Sullivan  (US)

Hey, I'm a Ghost  (2006,  45.02)  **½

Sullivan were a band at the noisy end of U.S. indie, who released two albums in the mid-'00s, the first being 2006's Hey, I'm a Ghost. You know that slightly punky American indie thing? It's like that, but worse, with appalling, whiny vocals. Sorry, guys, but this really isn't any different to a thousand other bands out there; The Charity Of Saint Elizabeth's about the best thing here, but that isn't really saying much. Vocalist Brooks Paschal plays samplotron, with possible strings and definite choirs on Gardens, real cello and samplotron strings on Promise Me, while Under The Watchful Eyes Of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg (a Great Gatsby quote, apparently) opens with a string part before it gets noisy.

Sulo  (Sweden)

Rough Diamonds  (2003,  50.52)  ***

Sören "Sulo" Karlsson is best-known as vocalist with '90s Swedish outfit The Diamond Dogs (interesting name; wonder what inspired it?), associated with the better-known Hellacopters. His first solo album, 2003's Rough Diamonds, features various members of The Hellacopters, the Backyard Babies and his regular band and contains a reasonably appealing mix of punk and powerpop in typical Swedish style. Its highlights are possibly more apparent in its influences than the actual material, not least the Pretty Vacant quote on Inflammable 69: er's fadeout, the Beach Boys-esque backing vocals on R'n'R Declaration and the Teenage Kicks-alike riff on I'll Be Your Monkey, the songs themselves being largely competent-yet-slightly-unexciting garage rock, Dullsville Girl probably being the cream of the crop. Tomas Skogsberg plays what just might be some background samplotron string section on Vegas Vamp.

Mark Sultan  (Québec)

Whatever I Want  (2011,  38.54)  **
Whenever I Want  (2011,  39.20)  **

Whatever I Want and Whenever I Want hail from the same set of home recording sessions, so can, essentially, be viewed as a double album. Home recording? No shit. Thankfully, Sultan can (just about) play the drums, but the playing, production (such as it is) and overall vibe are determiedly low-fi, for better or (probably) worse. There's definitely an audience for this stuff, but it doesn't include me. Cole Alexander's credited with Mellotron on both releases, but there's precisely jack shit on the first, with no more than obvious samplotron strings on Party Crasher on the second, which also, amusingly, opens exactly like (The) Status Quo's 1968 hit Pictures Of Matchstick Men, the song for which, bemusingly, they're still best-known in the States.

Sum 41  (Canada)

Chuck  (2004,  41.41)  **½

Sum 41 are possibly Canada's top entry in the pop/punk stakes, releasing their first album in 2001, '04's Chuck being their third. I suppose it does what it does well enough, but it's pretty derivative; Some Say sounds like an Oasis outtake, while The Bitter End rips Metallica something rotten, never mind all the ones I didn't spot. Are there any 'best tracks? Possibly 88, but the bulk of the album falls a bit flat, I'm afraid. Vocalist/guitarist Deryck "Biz" Whibley is credited with Mellotron, but if the faint, time-stretched strings on Pieces and 88 come from a real machine, I'll be stunned. So, not so much a disappointment, as a 'what I expected', both on the musical and (non-)Mellotronic fronts.

Summer-Winter  (US)

Bewildered  (2011,  36.15)  **½

Going by Bewildered, Terry O'Hara's dark indie/folk project Summer-Winter make the kind of records where the first two or three tracks are quite a tonic, until boredom sets in. This has its moments, notably Americana opener Yer Dead and Drink Till The Drinking, but its overly-downbeat approach ground this listener down well before the end. O'Hara's credited with Mellotron, but the solo flutes that open Out Of Reach really give the sample game away, also heard on TV Glare, Drink Till The Drinking and others.

Sun City  (Australia)

Sun City  (2013,  30.45)  ***

Sun City are an Australian powerpop outfit, occasionally crossing over into a more mainstream pop/rock thing on their eponymous 2013 album, at its best on New World and People In The Seventies, maybe. Casey Diiorio plays samplotron flutes on None Of This Is Happening and People In The Seventies.

Sun City Girls  (US)

Funeral Mariachi  (2010, recorded 2006?  37.12)  ***

The Sun City Girls (apparently named for a retirement community in Arizona) formed in 1979, keeping a consistent lineup from 1981 to 2007, when they split after drummer Charles Gocher's untimely death. Exponents of '80s cassette culture, the band began the slow switch over to more conventional formats with 1984's eponymous release, their first CD appearing in 1993. Due to multiple-format releases, reissues and the like, it's difficult to say how many albums they've released in thirty-plus years, but according to their website, 2010's Funeral Mariachi (presumably recorded around 2006) is their 57th LP/CD. It's actually extremely difficult to describe, but I'll have a go. Lo-fi world music? Atonal psychedelic folk? Outsider western swing? Does that explain my dilemma? It's apparently the nearest they ever came to 'mainstream', which makes me wonder just what, exactly, the rest of their output sounds like. Alan Bishop, who, together with his brother Richard, made up the other two-thirds of the trio, is credited with Mellotron, but the only thing I can hear that even might be one is an odd organ sound on This Is My Name that 'hiccups' like a badly-adjusted Mellotron. Hammond (actually Lowrey) organ tapes? Samples, I'm quite sure. Anyway, while clearly highly accomplished in its genre-of-one, I'm not sure I can recommend this to most of you, either for the music or the Mellotron, though not in a bad way. I'm glad bands like The Sun City Girls exist, if only to act as the grit in the oyster shell of the music business.

Bo Sundström & Frida Örhn  (Sweden)

Den Lyckliges Väg  (2007,  32.54)  **½

Den Lyckliges is your standard wet singer-songwriter guff, Swedish division, at its least bad on Ett Enda Ord Är Mitt. Fredrik Jonsson's 'Mellotron'? Inaudible.

Sunflow  (Ireland/US)

Under the Stars  (2008,  32.48)  ***

Irish/American (as against Irish-American) duo Sunflow's remit is to make 'music for parents and children to enjoy together', the end result being a sweet singer-songwriter album, typified by the deeply McCartney-esque Eve's Lullaby (My Little One). What could've been no more than a twee experiment is actually oddly affecting. Job done. Duncan Maitland plays Chamberlin samples, with strings and cellos on Daisies And Orchids, with more cello on Goodnight.

Sunny Day Real Estate  (US)

The Rising Tide  (2000,  52.00)  **

Sunny Day Real Estate are apparently 'Emo', which is nothing to do with legendary weirdo Emo Phillips, although it might be a lot more fun if it was. 2000's The Rising Tide was their last album (of four), and is a properly insipid piece of bilge, I have to say. I can't really find anything nice to say about this wuss-fest, so I won't even bother trying. Maybe it's that I've heard worse. Mind you, haven't you always heard worse? Bassist/frontman Jeremy Enigk allegedly plays Mellotron, although aside from the two tracks with credited strings, all I can hear is the odd not-very-Mellotronic string part that could, at a pinch, be samples. I suppose it could, technically, be a real Mellotron, but I rather doubt it. Please don't bother buying this record either way.

Sunshine Collective  (US)

Wanna Play?  (2010,  31.45)  ***

Rather appropriately, Sunshine Collective play cheery sunshine pop, clearly designed for 'family listening', if not exclusively for kids. Not my bag in the slightest, but they do it well. Brian Arbuckle is credited with Mellotron and Chamberlin, with vaguely Mellotronic brass here and there, notably on Fun Fun Fun (not that one, sadly), plus definite strings, with more of the same on A Thousand Notable Things and flutes on Interlude and is that Mellotron piano on Together? All obviously sampled, to no-one's surprise.

Sunshine Fix  (US)

Age of the Sun  (2002,  59.19)  ***½
Green Imagination  (2004,  38.39)  ***

Sunshine Fix are ex-Olivia Tremor Controller Bill Doss' new band, although he used the name prior to the formation of the OTC. It would be fair to say they have a distinctly psychedelic sound, although they're far from purist sixties-heads, with more than a nod towards the OTC's Atlanta, Georgia scene, alongside Neutral Milk Hotel, The Apples in Stereo et al. Their first 'proper' album (ignoring a pre-OTC cassette, later reissued on CD), Age of the Sun, is a charming pot-pourri of psychedelia from various eras, top tracks including the title track, Everything Is Waking and Digging To China, although the only really irritating track is the strange, 20-minute disc filler Le Roi-Soleil, which seems a rather pointless way to finish the album. Doss plays what I take to be samplotron, with flutes on Hide In The Light, Sail Beyond The Sunset and Cycles Of Time, although the mess of instrumentation on 72 Years makes its credited 'Tron' not obviously audible. Their follow-up, Green Imagination, is perfectly good, but unlike some other contemporary psych acts, it somehow failed to really grab me, although maybe it will several plays down the line? Only one obvious 'Tron' track (from Doss), with somewhat background flutes on Rx, although it's possible that the background sounds on a couple of other tracks are also 'Tron-generated. Overall then, not bad, not great, not much 'Mellotron'.

Superdrag  (US)

Regretfully Yours  (1996,  41.39)  ***½
Head Trip in Every Key  (1998,  49.46)  ***½

A quick glance at the cover of Superdrag's debut album, Regretfully Yours, is liable to make one shudder and think, "Indie-schmindie time". While it isn't entirely true to say that nothing could be further from the truth, they're actually a really good punky powerpop outfit with great melodies and an obvious love of The Beatles, although they must have Hüsker Dü and The Replacements posters on their bedroom walls, too. I'm sure repeated plays would bring out the album's subtleties, but on a single listen, no one track particularly stands out (OK, N.A. Kicker is pretty good), although the overall effect is of tuneful but energetic pop/rock, with not a trace of that terrible indie wussiness so many of their contemporaries insist on sporting (anyone say "Bright Eyes?"). Samplotron on Truest Love, from vocalist/guitarist John Davis, with a melodic string part slightly buried in the mix. They followed up, two years later, with Head Trip in Every Key, which starts badly, then picks up quickly with track two, Hellbent, keeping the quality up for the bulk of the rest of the record, other top tracks including Sold You An Alibi and Pine Away. Although Davis is credited with Mellotron again, I've no idea where it might be; the strings on Amphetamine and The Art Of Dying are real, so unless it's buried somewhere deep in the mix...

Supergrass  (UK)

Life on Other Planets  (2002,  40.45)  ***½

Along with Pulp and maybe Blur, the Oxford-based Supergrass are one of the more literate outfits to've risen from the Britpop 'movement' (more of a music press construction than any real meeting of minds, to be honest). I believe their previous album was something of a letdown, but Life on Other Planets was hailed as a return to form on its release and it isn't difficult to see why. The songwriting's good (these boys know how to construct a song properly), the influences are impeccable, the musicianship stands up well... Beat that, Oasis! Highlights? Hard to say, but Za is a strong opener and Brecon Beacons impresses, too, but there really isn't a bad track on the album. Saying that, little of it is 'classic', either, slightly reducing its star rating, but it's still worth hearing for those of you into intelligent, witty pop. No credits anywhere, but I believe the heavily-featured keys are played (as ever) by mainman Gaz Coombes' brother Rob, the band's unofficial fourth member. I'm not sure what his reasoning is for refusing to become a full member; maybe it pays better this way? Anyway, aside from the Hammond, piano and monosynth parts, Coombes (if Coombes it is) plays a few samplotron flute chords on the raucous Never Done Nothing Like That Before, and sounds like he's probably doubling the ethereal 'rub a bottleneck across the string' part on Run with a brief single-note string part.

Susanna  (Norway)

Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos  (2007,  48.10)  **½

Susanna Karolina Wallumrød is a Norwegian singer-songwriter, whose debut album, 2007's Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos, has a certain quiet beauty about it, while simultaneously being so relentlessly downbeat that, after the first few songs, listening to it actually becomes a bit of a chore. I really don't like to say this, as her transparent, open-hearted honesty should be applauded, but when an album becomes hard work... I'm not asking her to suddenly throw a polka into the mix, but after a while, a dozen very similar tracks begin to sound... very similar. Motorpsycho's Helge Sten plays 'Mellotron' on Better Days, but if the background flutes and strings on the track have anything to do with a real machine, I'll be stunned. So; an album to bring out your inner depressive, although a track or two at a time can be quite uplifting, in a strange kind of way.

Swans  (US)

To Be Kind  (2014,  121.13)  ***

Michael Gira reformed New York noiseniks Swans in 2010, 2014's To Be Kind being the second coming's third release. As a non-fan, I find it difficult to even attempt to describe the two-hour album. Ambient punk? Psychedelic post-rock? Quiet noise? Some of the material (opener Screen Shot, A Little God In My Hands) make at least some kind of musical sense, but the 34-minute Bring The Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture really is only for hardened fans of Gira's unique worldview, I feel, which isn't to denigrate the music, merely to state that I don't understand it. Since Gira collaborator and supposed Mellotron player Bill Rieflin plays keys on the album, it seems likely that he provides the Mellotronic choirs to be heard on the closing title track. However... Not only are Rieflin's previous 'Mellotron' credits potentially bogus, but it really doesn't sound like a real machine's been employed here. Correct me if I'm wrong... Anyway, one for Swans fans of the old school, but probably few others.

Andrew Sweeny vs. Everything is Fine  (Canada/US)

Marrakesh / In the Black MP3 single  (2004)  ****

Canadian Andrew Sweeny and Americans Everything is Fine both fit the 'acid folk' tag pretty well, at least going by the tracks they've contributed to this virtual split single on Hinah, officially credited as Andrew Sweeny vs. Everything is Fine on the 'A' and the reverse on the 'B'. Two good songs that probably sound better late at night than driving along with the top down; a compliment, as only The Beach Boys can get away with that without being shit. Marrakesh is the gentler of the two, boding well for a full album, while In The Black is more ghostly, not to mention more out of tune, not that it seems to matter that much. Samplotron cellos on In The Black from the mysteriously-named Burzinski, decent enough but ultimately not adding that much to the track. Given that these are freebies, you might just as well download them to see what you think, if modern psych/folk's your cup of tea in any way at all.

Michael Sweet  (US)

Truth  (2000,  55.06/63.21)  **½

Michael Sweet: ring any bells? Nope, nothing to do with the vastly more talented Matthew, or Mikey (below). Remember Stryper? Yeah, 'course you do; ludicrous Christian hair-metal buffoons? Threw bibles out into the audience? Yeah, you remember. Well, our mate Mikey was the singer. He's toned his image down a little, but it seems the message remains the same. Truth (yawn) is a Christian rock album, sounding pretty contemporary for 2000, not unlike reluctant god-botherers King's X in places, but without everything that makes that band the phenomenon they were and are. Most of the material chugs along well enough, apart from bilious ballad Stone that closes proceedings, but it's all rather uninspired, to be honest, in a 'modern rock' kind of way; y'know, a bit downtuned, a bit riffless metal (see: Alter Bridge et al.), a bit... well, dull, really. Bob Marlette (is that a small Bob Marley?) allegedly plays Mellotron on a track or two, with near-inaudible strings on the album's most King's X-ish track, Lift My Head (er, Over My Head?) and more upfront ones on Achilles Heel, though whether it's real will have to remain a mystery, no doubt like God's love etc. etc. I think we'll say 'samples'.

Mikey Sweet  (US)

The North King  (2014,  33.21)  ***

Nothing to do with ex-Stryper buffoon Michael Sweet (above), Mikey Sweet's The North King is a very acceptable country-rock release, probably at its best on the breezy Americana of Bethany and closer Guitar Mike Robenson. Paul McNamara plays obvious samplotron flutes on opener Let It Go.

Richard Swift  (US)

Walking Without Effort  (2005,  30.09)  ***½
The Atlantic Ocean  (2009,  40.28)  ***

Richard Swift was briefly a member of US indie types Starflyer 59, playing samplotron on their 2003 album, Old, before leaving to record his debut solo album, 2005's Walking Without Effort. How to describe this? Melancholy, almost 'old-time' music, maybe, with waltz times abounding, faint hints of old country here and there, though nowhere near enough to fit this neatly into the 'Americana' bracket, although I can imagine listeners of that style finding things to interest them here. Since Swift played samplotron with Starflyer 59, it seems reasonable to suppose he plays it here, too. In places, it's difficult to tell where it's being used; is that muted brass on Mexico (1977)? Is it a Chamberlin? Has it anything to do with tape-replay at all? Definite fake-replay on several tracks, with muted brass and cellos on Walking Without Effort Theme, strings on In The Air, a poly flute part on Above And Beneath and strings elsewhere. By 2009's The Atlantic Ocean, Swift's shifted into a kind of quirky singer-songwriter style, mixing folk, indie, big band stylings and synthpop into something that's a lot more interesting than yer usual nonsense, but less likely to sell in any quantity as a result. I can't honestly say this appeals to me very much personally, but at least it's well-crafted and (relatively) original, a quality at a premium in most music (most art forms?) these days. Samplotron from Swift and Pat Sansone, with strings on R.I.P., more obvious ones on Hallelujah, Goodnight! and The First Time, the latter sounding as if it's doubled with a real violin, plus a descending flute line on A Song For Milton Feher.

Taylor Swift  (US)

Red  (2012,  65.17)  **

Speaking as A Man Of A Certain Age, Taylor Swift means very little to me, unsurprisingly. Turns out she began as a country singer, quickly shifting into a country-inflected R&B/pop area, which, combined with her 'confessional' lyrics, has made her a superstar, largely amongst young women. Red (is she aware of King Crimson, I wonder?) is her fourth album, a typical mainstream pop release, with occasional oddities thrown in, chiefly the ukulele-driven Stay Stay Stay; super-pro, yet near-unlistenable to anyone used to music with more substance. Still, it isn't aimed at us, is it? Once again (see: The Starfolk), someone else called Andy Thompson is credited with Mellotron. Unlike my good self, however, he's clearly happy to use samples, particularly shitty flute ones in this case, on the Ed Sheeran (aargh!) collaboration Everything Has Changed.

Swirlies  (US)

Blonder Tongue Audio Baton  (1993,  42.32)  **

Swirlies are apparently often compared to the UK's My Bloody Valentine, but going by their first full album, 1993's Blonder Tongue Audio Baton, they're nothing more exciting than rowdy indie, occasionally descending into noise. I know this kind of stuff's popular in certain quarters, but they're not the quarters I inhabit, so I don't mind saying, 'I don't get it'. Although both the band's guitarists, Damon Tutunjian and Seana Carmody, are credited with 'Moog synthesizer and Mellotron', I can quite honestly say that I didn't hear a note of 'Tron across the entire album. I'm not saying it isn't there, only that I couldn't hear it. It may well be buried in some of the album's washes of noise, but it could just be Moog, feedback or something else entirely.

Switches  (UK)

Heart Tuned to D.E.A.D.  [a.k.a. Lay Down the Law]  (2007,  37.25)  ***½

Going by their third (and last) album, Lay Down the Law (also the title of their first single, two years earlier), Switches sat in the middle ground between indie, powerpop, Britpop and psych, amongst other related genres. Stuffed with songs of the quality of opener Drama Queen, Coming Down, with its irresistible synth hook, Every Second Counts and Stepkids In Love, the album still managed to fail commercially. Too good, chaps... You didn't dumb down enough, did you? Vocalist/guitarist Matt Bishop plays samplotron, with, er, something (distorted flutes?) on The Need To Be Needed and are those single choir notes on Every Second Counts? Anyway, one for those who always thought Supergrass were better than Oasis and melody beats moaning.

Syd Matters  (France)

Someday We Will Foresee Obstacles  (2005,  51.16)  ***

Syd Matters (named for a loose cross between The Floyd's Syd Barrett and Roger Waters) are based around Jonathan Morali, a French singer-songwriter who sings in English, also sometimes personally known as his band's name. His/their third album, 2005's Someday We Will Foresee Obstacles, is a perfectly pleasant, folky effort, although few of its songs especially stand out, better tracks including gentle opener City Talks, Flow Backwards and English Way. Someone irritatingly calling themselves Funky Chicken plays samplotron, with uncredited flutes on Someday Sometimes, although whatever's credited on the amusingly-titled Watcher (it's a Genesis/Mellotron joke) is inaudible, leading me to think that it's a mis-credit.

Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter  (US)

Reckless Burning  (2002,  42.31)  ***½

Jesse Sykes plays a particularly spooky kind of alt.country, haunted by the ghosts of failed relationships and death. Her debut album, Reckless Burning is a minor triumph of the genre, filled with mournful songs like the banjo-driven (at 0 m.p.h.) Doralee or Lullaby and an overall 'late-nite' vibe, to use a well-worn cliché. It's one of those albums that's actually going to take more listens than I can currently find time to give it to describe it properly; suffice to say, if you're intrigued by the more downbeat end of the Americana spectrum, you're almost certain to like this. Steve Moore guests on piano and samplotron, with strings on Lonely Still and strings and flutes on Drinking With Strangers and, while there may be cellos on another song or two, there also may not; it's rather hard to tell.

Syn  (UK)

Soundwave Traveller  (2002,  71.35)  ***½
Thru the Syngate  (2003,  63.42)  ***½
Synphära  (2003,  74.54)  ****
Sonus  (2004,  78.46)  ***½
Skyline  (2005,  76.48)  ***½
The Glass Bridge  (2006,  74.29)  ****

Which comes first, chicken or egg? David T. Dewdney is best known 'round these parts for running an EM label and for kindly reviewing Edgar Froese's Mellotronic output for this site some years ago. However, it turns out that he's a renowned synthesist himself, releasing albums as Syn (ho ho), mostly solidly in the 'Berlin School' style (i.e. heavily influenced by Tangerine Dream), the first of which is 2002's Soundwave Traveller. And it sounds like... a Berlin School album. Sorry, Dave, but I think I've exceeded my limit with mainstream EM; it's almost all good, but except to the hardcore fan, it's essentially all the same, which is why I give most albums ***½. Good, but entirely generic. As the sole musician, Dewdney plays (or sequences) the clearly sampled Mellotron himself, with the usual heavily echoed and/or reverbed strings, choirs and flutes across all three tracks, a choir chord on Freefall holding for a rather unfeasible several minutes, but there you go. The only 'unusual' (if unMellotronic) sound on the album comes nineteen minutes into Sonus (Part 3), where he suddenly uses the 'Leslied piano' effect from Pink Floyd's Echoes (you know the one), the difference being that it's s sampled piano and a Leslie emulator. Oh, and Pink Floyd did it first.

The following year's Thru the Syngate (Syngate being his new label) is, er, another Berlin School EM album, its one 'non-standard' track being Heart Of Orion (Edit), complete with ungeneric, quite startling crashes and overwhelming synth leads. Plenty of samplotron, natch, some of the choir chords again held forever, nice to hear but exceedingly inauthentic. Later the same year, however, Synphära is a minor revelation, plus points including the programmed percussion, the ghostly, spectral voices on Utopia Planitia and the Yamaha CP70 piano (or reasonable facsimile) on Olympus Mons, plus the usual samplotron. Very listenable indeed, sir. 2004's Sonus is a more reflective six-part single track, not actually rhythmless but never really breaking sweat, much of it sounding a little like the intro to Floyd's Shine On You Crazy Diamond extended to full-disc length. Surprisingly little samplotron, too, the most overt part being the strings on the relatively short Part 6.

2005's Skyline is, essentially, another EM album, albeit one absolutely stuffed with sampled Mellotron. It'll come as no surprise that lengthy opener Mellotropica is a total sample-fest, led by strings - certainly Dewdney's most samplotron-heavy piece - while the other four tracks are no slackers, either. Nothing particularly new on the musical front, then, but an awful lot of samplotron. The following year's The Glass Bridge is an album of quiet beauty, at least on two of its three tracks. The title track is the most rhythmic thing here (also the track with the most samplotron use), while the half-hour Shadowfall is, as you might expect from its title, a dark, reflective piece (although never tipping over into discord), leaving the drifting Heart Of Orion as the album's best evocation of the interstellar reaches. Why is this man not soundtracking SF films, I ask?

I haven't heard Syn's 2007 offering, 61 Cygnus-Alpha (and any subsequent releases?), but Dewdney refuses to disappoint on the pure Berlin School front. Although I've rated two of his albums slightly more highly than the rest, they're all quality releases. Worth hearing.

The Syn  (UK)

Big Sky  (2009,  51.27)  **½

The Syn were originally the otherwise little-known '60s outfit who gifted Chris Squire to Yes. They reformed in the early 2000s, initially with Squire, although, by their third release, 2009's Big Sky, they had, bizarrely, teamed up with Francis Dunnery. I hate to say this, but this is no more than mainstream pop/rock of a couple of decades back, like, I dunno, something by Sting? Or all the filler tracks from a modern Yes album, fittingly? A good (or, at least, representative) example is New Reality, which drags on for an excruciating seven minutes-plus, having outstayed its welcome after three. With three keyboard players credited, no idea who plays the samplotron. Tom Brislin? Anyway, background strings all over the opening title track, possible ones on Devils And Demons, flutes and strings on Mile and string section on the title track's closing reprise.

Syndromeda  (Belgium)

Last Days on Earth  (2006,  69.38)  ***

Danny Budts, a.k.a. Syndromeda, is a Belgian EM artist who crosses over into the New Age realm at time; his website has a section entitled 'relaxation with crystal singing bowls'. Hmmm. 2006's Last Days on Earth, is something like his tenth album (well, you know how it is with EM artists), mostly rhythm-free, although the sequencers kick in during closer Too Hot In Hell and do I detect a techno influence here and there? Budts adds a powerful fakeotron string part to The Sense and more background ones to Too Hot In Hell, but, as usual with samples, it's just another sound source, rather than a timbre that really stands out. One for genre fans then, but nothing that's likely to convert the unbeliever.

System 7  (UK)

Limited Addition  (1994,  33.20)  **½

'System 7' is the answer to the question, 'what did Steve Hillage do next?' Actually, it isn't exactly; he spent most of the '80s working as a producer, forming his new project with long-term partner Miquette Giraudy in the early '90s, their name probably inspired by Apple's then-current OS. I was bemused at this turn of events at the time, although, in retrospect, it's blindingly obvious; the whole 'hippy' thing was always about hedonism, really, including ecstatic dancing. How much more ecstatic can it get than the early '90s dance scene? 1994's Limited Addition (ho ho) EP seems to be a variation on that year's Sirènes four-track 12", both containing the same two mixes of the title track before diverging. It's... well, it's trance, I suppose; if you like the style, it seems to typify it, conversely... Carl Craig plays samplotron on Sirènes (System 7.1), although were it not credited, you really wouldn't know that the background strings on the track had anything to do with fake-replay.