Men Singing

choir

Back in September 2015 the Crotchety Man blog carried a brief review of the Free Henry Fool EP. At the time I said I would be exploring more of their work “very soon”. Being an honest, upright citizen and a man of my word I did, indeed, do a little research and added their 2001 album, Henry Fool, to my collection soon after. The 16 tracks on that eponymous album didn’t disappoint and I put it down for an Album of the Month slot. Unfortunately, though, the Henry Fool album is not available on Spotify and YouTube was banished from these pages back then¹. Consequently, the Fool was unceremoniously kicked into the long grass bearing the label “requires further research”.

Talking of long grass… There’s a primitive tribe of pygmys living in deepest darkest Africa where the grass grows tall and strong. Anthropologists call them the Fukawi. Sightings of the Fukawi are extremely rare. They shun modern society and hide in the undergrowth when strangers approach. Occasionally, though, a small head has been glimpsed as one of the tribe’s lookouts jumps high in the air to see above the green fronds and tassel heads of the indigenous vegetation. All that is known about them is their tribal name which comes from their piercing cry of “We’re the Fukawi!”².

Like those Fukawi lookouts Henry Fool pops up into view once in a while. I spotted his proud head again recently and it reminded me that a full album review is long overdue. So, here are a few words about the band’s second album, Men Singing, which (as you will have gathered from the active link) is on Spotify.

cover

Artwork from the Men Singing album cover

Let’s start with the track listing, which is:

  1. Everyone in Sweden
  2. Man Singing
  3. My Favourite Zombie Dream
  4. Chic Hippo

That looks awfully short. A mere pygmy of an album. But the first and last tracks are over 13 minutes long and the two 6 minute tracks in the middle take the total time up to just over 40 minutes. Not the most generous of offerings by today’s standards but enough to stop the buyer from feeling short changed.

Everyone in Sweden is a longer version of the first track on the free EP. It rocks along contentedly, harking back to the carefree Canterbury scene of the seventies: early Soft Machine, Caravan, Hatfield and the North. If you believe the stereotypes everyone in Sweden is supposed to be this laid back except, perhaps, for the odd angst-ridden detective in a thick knitted sweater. It’s a track for chilling out but it rewards more focused listening, too.

Next up is the not-quite-title-track, Man Singing. This is ambient flute and synthesiser music embellished with crisp percussion, solid bass and gritty guitar. We may still be in Sweden but there’s a deeper, more serious side to the detective story now. Perhaps there is more to the plot than we imagined but there are no words to unravel the mystery – in spite of the title, this is another instrumental.

At this point a dark figure comes shambling over the horizon. He shuffles uncertainly towards us under a lowering sky. Brief flashes of light illuminate his face against the distant hills. His eyes and mouth are moving but his features are horrifyingly devoid of life. Our canine companions shrink away and cower in the shadows. Behind him more half-dead bodies lurch along as if towed in his wake. The air is full of eerie sounds. Is this zombie music? It does wander rather aimlessly and seems to have been drained of the melody of life. No, I have to confess, this is not my favourite zombie soundtrack.

When we finally wake from the nightmare we are treated to a violin serenade over a characteristically gentle Henry Fool backing track. It is morning but we are still sleepy and not yet ready to face the day. The violin poses an idle question and it is answered by a saxophone. An organ joins in the conversation and then a guitar. One by one the instruments murmur disconnected thoughts as our mind drifts somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. This close to slumber even the lumbering of a hippo seems chic. And we wish we could stay like this forever.

henry fool

Henry Fool

So that’s Men Singing. Four tracks, ironically none of them with vocals. Ambient, Canterbury scene, progressive rock and jazz blended into a smooth and satisfying package. The zombies may lack a little vitality but overall this is a fine album that fully deserves to be the current Album of the Month.

Notes

  1. It looks as though all the tracks on the Henry Fool album are in the YouTube topic here.
  2. There is some dispute among the experts about the language being used here.

Cantorum

penguin choir

This is the second instalment in my campaign to introduce a new term into the dictionary of musical styles: orchestral beats. That tag first appeared in my review of the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra in November of last year. Then last week’s Release Radar included something that sounded very similar: Cantorum by Penguin Café. As far as I know there is no connection between the two bands. That they sound so alike must be a case of convergent evolution.

musicians

Penguin Café is a continuation of the Penguin Café Orchestra project started in 1972 by the guitarist, composer and arranger Simon Jeffes. The original ensemble released 5 studio albums and two live albums between 1976 and 1995. The music on those records is difficult to categorise. Imagine a small dance orchestra that plays an assortment of folk, classical and dance pieces from various parts of the world. The PCO, however, were known for their unfettered approach to music as much as for their material. Their most well-known tune, Telephone and Rubber Band, features the simultaneous ring and engaged tones of an old-fashioned telephone when there was a fault on the line. They were not a band who would be confined by the straitjacket of musical conventions.

In 1997 Simon Jeffes died of a brain tumour and the PCO formally disbanded. Several members of the group reunited in 2007 and continued to perform the PCO’s back-catalogue, first as The Anteaters and later as The Orchestra That Fell To Earth. Then, in 2009, Simon Jeffes’ son, Arthur, formed an entirely separate group to continue his father’s project. The new band included musicians from the Royal College of Music and members of Suede and Gorillaz. It was called, simply, Penguin Café.

Crotchety Man has lent his ears to much of the PCO and Penguin Café portfolio. Generally speaking I find the early material a little too twee for my taste. But it gets better. Penguin Café‘s two albums to date, A Matter of Life (2011) and The Red Book (2014) are quite listenable although I wouldn’t describe them as stunning. The latest release is Cantorum, a single from the forthcoming album, The Imperfect Sea, due out on 5th May and to my mind it’s the best track yet.

In tone and texture Cantorum is an ambient orchestral piece but there’s enough of a beat in the background violins and the piano to unlock a sleepy grandma’s eyelids and have grandad tapping the arm of his beach chair as he absent-mindedly watches the children playing on the sand. Its 7 minutes 22 seconds pass in no time, like a breath of warm sea air. As it plays a lifetime of memories are reflected in the old man’s eyes, and the ghost of a by-gone era watermarks his wife’s contented thoughts. For Cantorum is the song that knits their lives together.

Penguin Café don’t quite reach the summits scaled by Hidden Orchestra but they are now on the same path. And two climbing parties originally from opposite sides of the style mountain must, surely, justify giving this proud peak a name. So I ask once again, what could be a more appropriate tag than “orchestral beats”?

No Reason

It’s a bright, but frosty morning here in the East Midlands region of the UK – a day in which the rising sun should be welcomed by peeping out from the bedclothes with a sleepy smile and snuggling down for another twenty minutes while the central heating chases away the overnight chill. It’s Sunday. There’s no reason to get up early.

No Reason is an ease-into-the-day track from Bonobo‘s latest album, Migration, which was only released earlier this month. The track and the album are, of course, new to Crotchety Man. The artist is new to me, too. In fact, even the words for the genres associated with Bonobo‘s music are new to me. I have tagged No Reason as ‘ambient’, ‘chillwave’, ‘electronic’ and ‘trip hop’ because those terms are all associated with the artist and they seem to fit the song. But I may be using them inappropriately.

bonobo, live

Bonobo is the stage name of Simon Green, a Brit now living in Los Angeles and most often described as a DJ. He seems to have emerged from the electronica and dance scene of the 80s and 90s, first as a DJ and then as a musician and producer.

Now, back in the dim dark days of Crotchety Man’s youth a DJ was just a guy who played records, usually 45 rpm singles, and his only creative input was in his announcements of the song title and artist. When some idiots started deliberately scratching the discs and driving the turntables with their fingers Crotchety Man turned his ears the other way. Yes, it did allow the DJs greater scope for artistic expression but their creations were poison to the sacred art of music making. To me, the sound of a diamond-tipped needle scraping over the much softer grooves of a vinyl record constitutes cruel and degrading behaviour and, as such, is banned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It damages the records and it tortures the listener.

My antagonism towards those first ‘creative’ DJs meant that I have been almost oblivious to the way the role of the DJ has evolved. Until very recently I was only dimly aware of DJ consoles: the specialist equipment that allows a DJ to mix music from vinyl discs, CDs and computers, to change the speed of one track to match the beat of another, and to add electronic effects. Over the years DJs have become more and more like producers and their work has, finally, become a truly creative art. It is no longer an insult for me to label someone a DJ.

There was another reason the Crotchety ears were deaf to the work of the early DJs. Their habitat was the clubs and the discos where young people went to dance, the girls to look pretty and the boys to impress. In those dimly lit halls a strong beat was essential and the DJs knew it. The trouble was they took it too far. When all you can hear is booming bass, thudding drumbeats and pulsing electronics you lose the music. I like to hear a tune as well as a rhythm, harmonies as well as a beat. Dance music has its place, I suppose, but there’s no place for it in the Crotchety collection.

Bonobo, though, is not a boom and thud merchant. There is neither ‘DnB’ nor ‘dance’ in the tag list. His music sits comfortably at the beat end of ‘ambient’. No Reason is a good example of Bonobo‘s general style but it’s atypical in that it features a guest vocalist (Nick Murphy, fka Chet Faker), who does a rather good job on this track. At the end of a long day it works on the brain the way a massage works on the body, easing away the stiffness and gently untangling the Gordian knots of frustrated ambition. And it works equally well at daybreak, too, to shake off the fog of sleep and prepare us for another day.

Postscript

No Reason is available as a free download here. Migration is currently at number 5 on the UK album charts.

Familiar

Familiar - cat

The ‘classical’ tag appears in these posts from time to time. Sometimes it refers to music from the years 1600 – 1900 but more often it indicates modern music in a style that owes a substantial debt to that period. Familiar is one of those more recent compositions. It is a single taken from Agnes Obel’s forthcoming album Citizen of Glass which is due to be released on 21st October 2016.

Old Man Crotchety had never heard of Agnes Obel until a few days ago when Familiar was played on the BBC’s 6 Music radio station. In my ignorance I was able to listen without any preconceptions, entirely free of expectations that might have coloured my judgement. If I had known that Agnes Obel is a Danish singer/songwriter/pianist known in Denmark and a few neighbouring countries for her ambient piano pieces I might have hit the mental mute button. If you had told me that her first album was entirely composed of pieces for voice and piano inspired by the likes of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Eric Satie I might have stopped for a coffee break. It wasn’t that I dislike those composers (I don’t) it was just that I wasn’t in the mood for something in a late classical style.

Familiar - owl

The track was introduced simply as “This is Agnes Obel and Familiar“; there was no clue to what might be coming. A gentle, slightly echoey piano introduction leads into some ethereal singing. Agnes’ voice is firm and natural. It doesn’t have the power of Shirley Bassey but neither does it suffer the debilitating weakness of the vocals in the average girl band. The overall effect was rather pleasant and the first line was intriguing.

Can you walk on the water …?

Unfortunately, too many of the words are indistinct to extract much meaning on a first listen. Looking up the lyrics on the Internet afterwards I found two or three different versions, none of them terribly enlightening and some definitely wrong. It’s hard to tell whether Agnes’ command of English is imperfect or whether her poetic language has just been lost on me.

While trying to make some sense of the words Crotchety Man’s ears missed the strings in the background until the prominent rasp of a cello takes up the theme and the subtle sigh of a violin adds delicate harmonies. The song has developed a lovely soft, velvety underbelly. Then, out of the blue, airy male voices swoop down and blend with earthy plucked strings for the chorus.

And our love is a ghost that the others can’t see.
It’s a danger.

I was reminded of Mogwai and of Gotye at his most inventive. This is ambient alternative music that demands to be listened to. Agnes Obel is not just another girl singer. She is also a talented composer and pianist, as her two previous albums (Philharmonics, Aventine) have demonstrated. Judging by Familiar she is now becoming an accomplished arranger, too. If she can just find some English words that can be understood without a supplementary explanation she will have the full complement of song-writing skills. Crotchety Man will watch her future output with considerable interest.

A Glorious Dawn

Crotchety Man was brought up in a semi-religious environment: born in a (largely) Christian country, educated in Church of England schools, singing in the church choir, but growing up in a family for whom religion was essentially irrelevant. I was immersed in Christianity but not a part of it. Given no guidance I was left to find my own way, to develop my own philosophy, to choose my own religion or none.

Sermons and Bible readings in church and Religious Instruction lessons at school provided me with a reasonably good understanding of Christianity. I found some of it compelling: love thy neighbour, for example. But I never found a reason to accept the Christian God. “Does God exist?” was a question with no satisfactory answer. Both “yes” and “no” make perfect sense and there is no objective way of deciding between the two.

A Glorious Dawn - BHA LogoSo I adopted Christian morals, which I saw as universal, but rejected the idea of a supernatural being. It wasn’t until I was nearly 60 that I stumbled on the website for the British Humanist Association and discovered not only that my approach to life is shared by many others but that it has a name: Humanism.

The website listed some of its more well-known members, which included many eminent scientists, comedians and public figures – people I already deeply respected for their intellect and ethical values. I had found my moral niche and I joined the organisation immediately.

The BHA publishes an email newsletter with links to other resources, including a closely associated website called Humanist Life. There, back in 2012, I found a “Songs for a Humanist” playlist and in the list there was a YouTube video that featured Carl Sagan, an astrophysicist and science populariser most famous for the American TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. (For British readers, Sagan was the U.S. equivalent of professor Brian Cox.)

Curiosity piqued, I played the YouTube video. It starts with a few self-deprecating words from Carl Sagan over some gentle notes from an electric piano. “I’m not very good at singing songs but, er, here’s a try.” Sagan then starts to make some peculiar noises: “Whoop, awww; whoop, awww, awww…”. You have to agree him; he’s really not very good at singing. Then you realise his voice has been sampled and is being played as a rhythmic base for the ambient piano music. And it’s a catchy piece.

A Glorious Dawn - Carl Sagan

The voice continues. It is Carl Sagan speaking but the video maker has adjusted the pitch of the sampled speech to make a tune that fits this original composition. It’s a manufactured singing voice and it’s inviting us to make an apple pie.

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch
You must first invent the universe.

The video is a lesson in cosmology (space is filled with a network of wormholes), a hymn to the human race (the first moment in human history when we are … visiting other worlds) and an ode to the universe (The Cosmos is full … of the awesome machinery of nature).

The piano is joined by electronic drums and deep, rippling synthesiser notes creating a big, spacious soundscape.

A Glorious Dawn - Eye

Looking up from the Earth, in the night sky we see the myriad stars of the Milky Way and beyond them the unimaginable vastness of space with its countless galaxies stretching 13.8 billion light years away. Human beings are only just beginning to explore it and there are untold wonders waiting to be found.

The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean;
Recently we’ve waded a little way out
And the water seems inviting.

The video is called A Glorious Dawn. It was created in 2009 by John D Boswell, a composer of electronic music and a highly accomplished constructor of video mash-ups. This particular video (according to Wikipedia) notched up a million views in its first six weeks and was one of the top-rated videos of all time. YouTube is currently showing 9,988,235 views.

A Glorious Dawn - John D Boswell

John D Boswell

A Glorious Dawn is one of a series of videos on science topics that form part of John D Boswell’s Symphony of Science project, which is available from his website on a pay-what-you-like basis as either videos or music tracks. All the Symphony of Science pieces are worth listening to. As an album of ambient electronic music it stands up well in comparison to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells or Pink Floyd’s Endless River. I often played it at work when there was a lot of background noise and I wanted to concentrate.

The words are those of eminent scientists: Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Richard Feynman, Brian Cox, Robert Winston, David Attenborough and others. If you listen to the lyrics they will take you on a journey through many areas of science: fundamental physics, cosmology, biology and evolution. A Humanist Life can take you to strange and wonderful places.

A Whisper …

Tuesday morning. Barney is almost here.

Whisper - storm UK

This year the UK’s Meteorological Office is naming the storms that hit us. Abigail, the first storm of the season, brought floods last week; Barney is now following in her wake. The forecasters have promised us strong winds and more heavy rain; there is likely to be some disruption to transport. But Barney isn’t as angry as Abigail and here in the East Midlands we will probably escape the worst of it.

Abigail, though, was noisy; she kept me awake at night. Blustery wind howled between the houses, whined through the trees and rattled the climbing rose against the window. What she was ranting about I do not know. One moment Abigail would rail loudly against some unfathomable injustice, another she would be quiet as if her anger was spent and she had forgiven us for whatever transgressions we had perpetrated.

It wasn’t the noise that kept me awake, it was the unbearable tension of the silence between the outbursts – the feeling that, any second now, Abigail’s temper would flare up again and she would burst into another tantrum. Restless hours went by as episodes of peace and turmoil alternated throughout the night. Abigail was a troubled soul and there was nothing I could do to help her.

Whisper - Tom Griesgraber

Crotchety Man’s Album of the Month for November is both a perfect accompaniment to quiet interludes and an effective antidote to the distraction of a noisy environment. It is A Whisper in the Thunder by Tom Griesgraber and, as it’s relatively unknown, I’ve awarded it the status of a Hidden Gem.

Tom Griesgraber is one of the foremost players of the Chapman Stick. The Stick comes in several different forms; the version Tom uses looks like the fretboard and head of a wide-necked 12-string electric guitar. Six of the strings are tuned in a treble register and six in a bass register. The strings are tapped onto the railboard and a large diagonal pickup converts the vibrations to an electrical signal.

The Chapman Stick is a versatile instrument. Because the strings are tapped rather than plucked it is possible to play bass, melody and chords all at the same time, like a pianist. Because the player’s fingers press directly on the strings the musician can easily bend the notes or introduce vibrato. As Emmett Chapman, its inventor, explains it’s an easy instrument to play physically, but far from easy mentally because it offers immense scope for expression.

In the hands of an expert like Tom Griesgraber the Stick sounds like a whole band and A Whisper in the Thunder illustrates this rather well. Although there are other musicians on the album they mostly contribute drums and percussion; Tom’s Stick and soothing synthesiser effects do the rest.

Whisper - glider

The result is mesmeric. We are up in a glider, its wings outstretched, almost motionless. We are floating in the silent sky; up here we cannot feel the wind. Green fields and forests sweep away below us over the hills to the horizon. Fluffy white clouds hang around us and drift by like airborne whales whose songs enter our brains without passing through our ears. Time has no meaning. All is quiet.

There are nine tracks on A Whisper in the Thunder. All are different, but all have that same sense of inner peace. Like Abigail in her quiet moments there is no thunder, only mother’s whispering as she rocks her baby to sleep.

Whisper - landscape

Wednesday night. Barney did come.

He was noisy for a while but he observed the midnight curfew, hurrying away again like Cinderella, and I slept soundly last night.

Free Henry Fool

Burning ShedWhile looking for Bill Bruford CDs I was directed to the Burning Shed website. Burning Shed publishes CDs and vinyl records on behalf of a few select musicians and hosts the online shops for various artists/bands. Two things make Burning Shed admirably different: 1) the copyright of the works they publish remains with the artist and 2) it focuses on Singer-Songwriter, Progressive, Ambient/Electronica and Art Rock genres.

When I say “a few select musicians” I really mean well over 100 artists/bands including Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Phil Manzanera, Steven Wilson and, of course, the aforementioned Bill Bruford. That’s a list that warmed the cockles of Crotchety Man’s heart and prompted me to wander around the Burning Shed searching for the cool flames of innovation and creativity.

Henry FoolMy eyes were drawn to a section labelled ‘Henry Fool’. The name appealed to me, a brief review of an EP intrigued me and a tasty ‘free download’ morsel dangled enticingly in front of me. Without hesitation I swallowed the bait. A few minutes later I had created an account on Burning Shed, downloaded the Free Henry Fool EP and was relishing a cosy blend of progressive rock, jazz and atmospheric sounds. Strongly reminiscent of Canterbury-scene bands, it was every bit as tasty as it looked.

For now the free EP is all the Henry Fool I know but I will be exploring more of their work very soon. In the meantime, I thoroughly recommend the free taster download. If you have fond memories of Caravan, Soft Machine and the unknown Axis, sign up, download the EP and enjoy my Album of the Month, September 2015.