28 Dec 2016

Magic Shoppe - Wonderland

Reviewed By Todd Leiter-Weintraub (Hop On Pop) and Joseph Murphy

After teasing us with a 4-track EP earlier this year, Boston’s Magic Shoppe has unleashed its newest full-length, and it’s a corker. Blending together the modern psych sounds of bands like The Brian Jonestown Massacre with the full-on sonic assault of The Warlocks, it’s one of those albums that reveals more and more of itself with each listen.

The album opens with the nasty fuzztone and wah-wah riffing of “Stars Explode”—pure heavy psych a la The Warlocks. But when the arrangement shifts just a little, all sorts of nifty harmonic constructions reveal themselves, reflecting the influence of nothing so much as "Daydream Nation"era Sonic Youth. “Head On the Floor” follows, with the same kind of SY riffing, but here it’s the bassline that drives the song forward. Yeah, the guitars are front-and- center, of course. But when I find myself bobbing my head, it’s to the rhythm of the bass guitar. “Kill” explodes out of the speakers next. It’s a 12-bar blues-based vamp with super-saturated reverb-heavy vocals over a tremolo guitar—Rock, with a capital “R.” The beautifully arranged guitars are stacked on top of one another like the layers of a delicious cake made of fuzztone and rhythm. It’s easy to get lost in this one.

It’s also easy to get lost in the vocal harmonies of “Hearing Voices.” Those vocals, while intriguing, are buried in the mix, so as to beckon the listener closer. As you do get closer, the song sucks you in to its sonic landscape and wraps you up in warm, fuzzy layers of guitars and reverb. Full immersion.

“Blowup” gives a bit of a respite from the fuzz. Some great staccato riffing, punctuated by tambourine reminds me a little but of what The Limiñanas have been doing on their recent albums. “Sister Burden” has some quieter moments, but those moments are more like floating in the sea of sound, before the song kicks back in and, again, you’re swirling in the whirlpool.

I’m supposing you get it, dear reader, that the operative words here are “fuzz”, “layers”, “guitars”, and “reverb.” Magic Shoppe has concocted a glorious wash of sound that envelops the listener; pulling you in, and bringing you into the band’s world. But then, less than 30 minutes later, when the album ends and you’re thrown back to reality, all you want to do is dive back in again. It’s a nifty trick, indeed. And it’s a really, really good record. (TL-W)

Boston’s Magic Shoppe has been around for a while. All that time, they have quietly released subtle, layered – and often noisy – rock albums. Yet this year’s releases – “Interstellar Car Crash EP” (reviewed here) and most recently “Wonderland” – feel like a breakthrough for the experienced group.

Since their first EP, “Reverb,” released way back in 2010, Magic Shoppe has made significant tailoring to their repertoire of sounds. While “Reverb” sampled their many branches of influences and possibilities, their most recent releases are a testament to their honing of their skillsets, which inevitably developed into what has become their singular trademark: tone-perfect rock. But, of course, some things remain the same, seeds of things apparent even on “Reverb”: on “Wonderland,” guitar still reigns, and all guitar sounds are put through a gauntlet of effects, amounting to a sprawling reverb that cavernously shimmers but grinds when necessary too.

Opener, “Stars Explode,” jumpstarts the record, pounding hypnotic rock grounded by tambourine and light-handed vocals. It paves the way for equally propulsive songs such as “Kill,” while still setting up for a few of swaying, spaced-out pop songs that really make the record great.

Standouts “Blow Up” and “Sister Burden” channel West Coast shoegazers such as Brian Jonestown Massacre or Medicine equally. Melodic, upbeat, “Blow Up” plays with standard structure – and our expectations – both in vocal delivery and a searing, dense passage of guitar between verses. While “Sister Burden” saunters across similar ground, it leans toward chilly washes of guitar sound over the warmth of its predecessor. It experiments further with structure and layered landscapes as a means of exploring mood and content; and it works quite well here.

All in all, “Wonderland” is a joy for close listeners, pitch-perfect and finely tuned. This one’s a necessity for those headphone clutchers.  (JM)

“Wonderland” is available digitally or on red vinyl.

23 Dec 2016

The Final Active Listener Sampler

As we limp towards our retirement here at the Active Listener we have one final sampler for you (for now - who knows what the future holds?) - this one has a $1 download charge (to try and cover our bandcamp costs), but as always you're very welcome to stream for free.

I've loved putting these together over the years, and it's gratifying to know that these are enjoyed by so many.

Time is pressing so I'll just say thanks to Paul Thomas for the splendid sleeve art and all of the featured artists (and all involved with previous samplers).

We've still got a few reviews up our sleeves but after that things will go quiet for a wee while.

In the meantime live well, be kind and curious, and have a fabulous Christmas and New Year from the Active Listener xx

21 Dec 2016

Gravy Train - Staircase to the Day / Quiet World - The Road / 9.30 Fly - S/T

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

These pages often feature reissues from Cherry Red Records' Esoteric Recordings imprint, but I don't think I've ever specifically given them a pat on the back. This simply will not do, as the label are providing an amazing service to collectors of lesser known progressive rock, and to the artists that created these albums originally.

They've been systematically rescuing gem after gem from shady quasi-bootleg reissue labels, remastering from the original master tapes whenever possible, and ensuring that the artists and copyright holders are paid royalties for their troubles - something that a lot of fairly well known genre reissue labels that you'd assume were legitimate have chosen not to do in the past.

Their latest batch of releases are a typically intriguing bunch:

First off the blocks (and following on from last month's "Second Birth") is Gravy Train's fourth and final LP, "Staircase to the Day". "Staircase" is probably the band's least progressive outting but in terms of songcraft it's still got some chops. "Starlight Starbright" is a big, bombastic opener, while the earnest "Bring My Life On Back To Me" sounds like it could have become an FM staple if it had been attached to a more widely recognised name (or a label with a greater promotional budget than Dawn Records could muster).

The female backing vocalists (including PP Arnold) give much of what's on offer here a proto glam twist which is very much of its time, something that they'd investigate at even greater length on their final single (appended here as a bonus track) which sounds a little like Cockney Rebel.

The flute and fuzz guitars are mostly toned back a little more than I'd like but there's no arguing that the title track is one of their best tunes - almost as if Metallica's "Call of Cthulhu" had been written by the Alan Parsons Project.

And that Roger Dean sleeve is exquisite.

Quiet World's debut "The Road" is one for all of the Genesis fans out there, featuring the guitar work of Steve Hackett although those expecting the complexities of his work with Genesis may be surprised by how direct he is here (his first time in a studio).

"The Road" is a heavily orchestrated proggy concept album spearheaded by brothers John, Lea and Neil Heather. The Moody Blues' "Days of Future Passed" seems to be a major influence, but this is much less gentile sounding.

The religious slant of the concept is likely to get on the tits of some, but there are some effective songs contained within this suite.

Last in this batch, and pick of the bunch in my humble opinion is the sole self-titled album from the puzzlingly monikered 9.30 Fly. Chiefly a vehicle for husband / wife duo Michael and Barbara Wainwright, this is usually referred to as a progressive folk album, but it's folky tendencies seem minimal to me, the only real qualifier being the extensive use of acoustic guitars and Barbara's vocal phrasing.

It's got that great UK early seventies vibe that makes me think of musty books and rain in a similar way to Ginhouse's excellent sole LP, and a surprisingly progressive vibe given its reputation. This isn't any of that busy Yes style prog though, think slow, majestic builds with effective instrumental passages that make the most of clever arrangements to cover up a minimal recording budget.

Both Wainwrights sing, with Barbara stealing the show more often than not. Her simplistic keys offer some effective shading here and there too, with extensive mellotron usage on "Brooklyn Thoughts".

Highlights though come in the shape of "Unhinged", a brooding menace with lovely lyrical guitar leads ala David Gilmour shrouded in Barbara's wraithlike harmony vocals. Very striking. And the much more upbeat "Summer Days" isn't too far off the pace, especially when it stretches out into its luxurious instrumental passages.

This one was a bit of a surprise and a real grower - I find myself subconsciously reaching for it which has to be a good sign.

What will Esoteric have in store for us next I wonder?

13 Dec 2016

The Seed Coat - Gentle Mindspeed

Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan

On their third full-length outing, The Seed Coat have come from the land of the longships and the rune stones to steal your mind and alter your consciousness. That isn't a threat, it's a promise as once again Swedish psych takes centre stage in Active Listener's London HQ.

'Read My Mind' kicks things off in a suitably promising fashion taking aim at rewriting 'Spirit in the Sky' from the perspective of someone trapped in a K-Hole after three or four days of solid chemical abuse with only a bottle of water and a Spacemen 3 record for company. Its stealthy and nauseatingly hypnotic to the point of being a hugely impressive sonic event. Things change up a gear with the second track, "Reflections of Your Mind" - its rippling paisley underground vibes wrapping up your frontal lobes in a beautiful haze of guitar, keyboard and breathy vocals. This is the sort of song that should be blaring from radios across the world and in every discotheque from Katrineholm to Kathmandu. Awesome!

The mysterious depths of 'The Ripples in the Kara Sea' submerges the listener into a watery submarine world of 80's indie-psych where sonar guitar lines probe your ears and cautionary verse keep you from venturing too close to the palace of Neptune. 'Wonderland' is all scratchy frequency searching diodes and slack-jawed spliffed-out-in-waltz-time wondering. Its a sky in search of a cloud. Sweet.

Things get really trippy when we dance around the 'Obstacle Tree' which has a distinct Broadcast feel to it (as does quite a bit of this record), with much fuzzy warbling, stun distort-guitar riffing and unexpected keyboard led breakdowns which are just drop dead gorgeous. I also get the feeling that the 'Obstacle Tree' concept has something to do with the front cover of this record which to my sonically battered and addled psyche is the product of a sick mind that wants to scare me and control my thoughts.

"Are You Dreaming Alone" jolts the active listener back into the flow of beatific almost devotional musing and Balearic beat which one could easily float away on into the blue. 'Travelling in a Capsule' starts off with some seriously synapse-rippling sound manipulation before settling into an almost menacing vibrato and keyboard wash twilight world of whispered vocals and time stretching snare beats with fabulous delayed recorder led (!) fade out - it's another real high(point). In fact at one stage during listening to this track I felt like I had begun to levitate whilst simultaneously my third eye opened and was astrally projecting me over the rolling forests of southern England. It was that kind of trip, frankly. And I didn't want to come down.

'How You've Been' fundamentally is all Bo Diddley on Valium and magic mushrooms as played by a bunch of recently released psychiatric hospital inmates (with some chops) and features an outrageously simple but stunningly effective guitar break, the likes of which I would like to be looped for about 5 hours and fed to me every night whilst I was asleep to keep my dreams sunny side up. It's so far out it's almost in.

Matters are brought to a suitably deranged and baffling end by the enigmatic 'Wonderland: Reprise' which exists in sound form just long enough to disturb your alpha rhythms before evaporating in front of your very scrambled senses.

So there you have it, not content in 2016 with already unleashing the startlingly excellent Lejonslaktet record (still available folks, track it down) Fonomonik Records now present the equally psychedelic sounds of The Seed Coat. Get down with the 'Gentle Mindspeed' on limited vinyl and other less beautiful but equally effective formats.

Full stream or download here:

7 Dec 2016

Look To The North - You're A Séance Old North

Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

Look To The North, a long distance collaboration between Ireland's David Colohan (United Bible Studies, Raising Holy Sparks and Agitated Radio Pilot) and America's Zachery Corsa (Lost Trail), have previously impressed with their debut '5000 Blackbirds Fall Out Of The Sky', a beautifully detailed slice of psych folk ambiance. It is a significant degree of expectation then that greets 'You're A Séance Old North', which is repaid handsomely and repeatedly throughout what is a unique and truly special recording. This is an album that lives in the hinterland, the twilit liminal space between seasons and seems purpose made for the chill autumn sunsets and approaching winter darkness.

Essentially an album of two instrumental extended pieces, albeit with many subtle changes and junctures ebbing and flowing throughout, this is a deeply immersive album in which the listener can crawl into and inhabit for the space of its duration. And you will want to do so time and again; the opening track, the excellently titled 'Where You Vanished Off The Edges Of A Cul-de-sac, Like Falling Off A Map' feels like entering a hazy, blurred and slightly off kilter dream or memory. Choral drones drift and retreat amongst bird and cricket song, but this is no gentle or new age ambience, instead there is a pleasingly unsettling ‘Twin Peaks’ air to this landscape. Colohan's autoharp picks out a fragile, ghostlike melody as the drones recede into the sound of radio static and muffled, long forgotten voices from the past. Corsa’s piano then haunts the emptiness that remains until an angelic mellotron choir descends; this is a haunted house of an album, a subconscious filled with the sounds, tears and hopes of yesteryear, both sepia tinted and dust covered. Electronic pulses conjure a solar, electric wind upon which a solitary harmonium wheezes and weeps, a chance meeting of several possible timelines at once. Washes of old radio chatter and utterly lovely chiming drones and peals roll in like waves, not unlike a heavily slowed down Cocteau Twins, the music's quiet power utterly beguiling and bewitching.

An elderly man's voice enters and reflects biblically on the fate of the world before the second piece 'Harriet Was Here, Less So Now' begins with a whirring, looping vocal sample to be joined by piano, guitar and a growing torrent of static and feedback. Where the opening track was spacious and sacred, its sister piece is disturbed and storm wracked. All storms must break however and this soon quietens into delicately picked autoharp and further sampled religious dialogue which adds an unnerving post apocalyptic tinge. Wind and rainfall rise to the foreground, the sound of the woods and the creatures within reverberating, merging with spectral conversations and melodies that seem plucked from beyond the veil, as if the curtain between the worlds is thinner here, where this album inhabits. Footsteps on leaves are closely followed by an unearthly breathing, of something not human until the welcome static returns and the autoharp notes cascade like tears over disembodied recollections from voices from the distant past. Again, eerie and unnerving sounds weave through the woodlands, a wraithlike choir not far behind as dark, impenetrable waves of guitar and echoed howls grow to obscure all else. A lone voice emerges through the shortwave crackle to exclaim 'It's still here' and the transmission suddenly ends. Both unnerving and curiously beautiful this is an album that is also an immersive experience; the silence after it has finished feels loud and tangible, as if emerging from a hypnogogic or a wakened dream.

Both Colohan and Corsa are experienced and renowned composers and this album is rich with nuance, detail and gentle, emotive resonance. For those who admire the work of Richard Skelton, Richard Moult and Michael Begg's Human Greed, this is an essential acquisition. Special mention must go the exquisite packaging from AOsmosis Records; a limited edition stitched 16 page booklet replete with transparent and paper prints along with the accompanying poetry of Zach Corsa. Handmade and a genuine thing of beauty, Aosmosis have done themselves proud and a serious enquiry into their other releases is recommended.

Available now as a download or limited CD.