Oceansize – Frames (2007)

FramesThe other day I wrote about how Mark Eitzel’s 60 Watt Silver Lining would be top of my desert island disc list. Also on that list would be an album by Oceansize, but of their four albums  I’d be hard put to choose between any three of them on any given day.

But, right now, it’s their third album, 2007’s Frames.

Manchester progressive rock / post-rock band Oceansize tick many musical boxes for me. Musical elements that I’ve also loved when encountered in other music earlier, and that I’d often use when writing music myself. Complex time signatures, shifting rhythms, and songs that build – often through the use of increasing layers on repetitive refrains – towards vast codas of either noise or beauty (often both).

And that’s very much the style of this album. Coming off a vague attempt to be a bit more commercial on their second album, Frames saw Oceansize with a new bass player and a new intent to make an album for no-one but themselves. So they let themselves write long, often repetitive songs, allowing each song time and space to develop and build into a massive wall of sound.

Oceansize’s sound, particularly on this album, resembles New Zealand’s post-rock icons Jakob meeting Radiohead. Most of the tracks could probably survive quite well as post-rock instrumentals, but Mike Vennart’s vocals and lyrics tie the band’s sound to something a bit more progressive than post-, and can often be very sing along-able.

Sometimes sinewy, sometimes screamed, often layered and soaring, joining the guitars, bass, keyboards and drums in the wall of sound of yet another gorgeous climax.

And, wow, the drums and the drumming. Unlike Jakob (but like Radiohead), Oceansize don’t spend a lot of time sitting in a 4/4 beat. The album’s controversially-titled (and sort-of-censored on the cover art) opening track, ‘Commemorative 9/11 T-Shirt’ is named not due to any lyric about the terror attack, but because the song moves back and forth between 11/8 and 9/8 time signatures. Drummer Mark Heron’s lays down complex, fascinating patterns here and throughout the album. Even a song that sits consistently in 3/4 or 4/4 may appear trickier due to his choices of where he lays the emphasis; often in counterpoint to the rhythm followed by the melodic instruments.

The sound is huge, and often vast. The band make more use of synthesisers on this than any of their other albums, and a few tracks also feature beautifully arranged strings. ‘Savant’ and ‘The Frame’, in particular, are songs that conclude with massive walls of synths, strings, guitars and long-held vocal notes sitting down within the mix.

It’s a beautiful album. And if ever I feel sad that Oceansize decided to disband shortly after the release of their fourth album, 2010’s Self-preserved While The Bodies Float Up, I just put this on and bask in a band who knew how to combine both soundscapes and songs into a uniquely massive sound.

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Hopstock 2014 part 2

You’ve probably worked out by now that I like beer, and I like music. I like walking, too, feeling this pretty city of Wellington under my feet. I’m also an introvert, who needs time to recharge after being around others in social situations. And, putting all those together, day 3 of Hopstock 2014 was a near-perfect day for me.

I’d gone out on Thursday night, but that was mostly to be social. I was able to tick off three more of the Hopstock beers during the evening: Tuatara’s ‘Conehead’ IPA at D4, Dale’s Brewing Co’s ‘Fresh Hop IPA’ at Hashigo Zake, and, at Malthouse, the ‘Fresh Hopped Rudolph’s Pique’ red ale from Wairarapa’s little Peak Brewery. The Dale’s IPA stood out the most for me, being a very clean, very well made and well balanced example of the West Coast IPA style. Nearly flawless.

But, really, the night was for being out with friends. But, with the town full of what was essentially a Friday night, all the pubs were crowded and noisy, and by the time I got home I was very ready to spend some alone time, recharging.

So, just before 11 on ANZAC Day morning, I put in my earphones and set out from my home in the southern hilltop suburb of Kingston. I first walked over to Bebemos, a Latin-American influenced restaurant / bar in Newtown that I’d heard many good things about but never gone out of my way to visit.

Well, I’ll be back. The place had a lovely feel, the menu’s very interesting, and there’s a great range of beer on tap and in the fridge. I brunched on the moqueca, a superb Brazilian fish stew served with spiced ‘biro biro’ rice and drunk the ‘Autumnal Harvest Ale’, a collaboration between Bach Brewing and Shakespeare Brewhouse. The ale is brewed in the saison or farmhouse style, and there’s an appealing spiciness under the tangelo flavours of the hops. It proved a perfect match with the peppery fish stew, a chance combination that I’d love to try again.

After a walk down Adelaide Road and across the Basin Reserve, it was The Hop Garden for 2014’s fresh-hopped version of 8 Wired’s ‘Hopwired.’ Unsurprisingly this was a massive hop bomb, with huge citrus aroma smacking into the nose, and a big clean taste of sweet lemon. But it faded a bit quickly, leaving a bit of an astringent aftertaste, and I wonder if it might’ve needed a bit more oomph in the body, with a bit of more malt solidity to balance the huge hops.

But, just to show it’s all subjective, a guy I chatted with while tasting the beer thought it was perfect. Ah, it’s all subjective, isn’t it?

Hopwit IPA from Mike's Organic Brewery.

Hopwit IPA from Mike’s Organic Brewery.

Next, a walk over to The Southern Cross for the ‘Hopwit IPA’ from Mike’s Organic Brewery. Look at it. Cloudy as an orange juice. Lots of juicy apricot flavours from the Nelson Sauvin hops sitting above an excellent sour wheat ale body. I love sour beers, and so do the brewers at Mike’s, and they’ve never let me down yet.

Then it was a walk down Cuba Street to Golding’s Free Dive, always a favourite place of mine to visit. Here the Hopstock beer was ‘Waifly’ by Baylands Brewery. Oh my god. Hops. Hops hops and more hops. I’m glad I only had a taster, as I could feel it killing my tastebuds. Not my thing, I admit, but for those seeking extremes of hops I bet this was their favourite of this year’s Hopstock brews. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a beer quite so tongue-stripping. I bet Neil Miller loves it…

Thankfully, I had a chance to refresh my palate after that, as my next destination was another bar I’d never visited before; the Kelburn Village Pub. I hopped on the #23 bus up the hill, past the university into a suburb I’ve never visited since graduation. Weirdly, it seems to have not changed all that much in the last 15 years…

The Kelburn Village Pub scored immediate brownie points by me for their snack menu (or “tapas” as they called it, but really, it’s not). Because as well as chips, dips and breads, they offered a small bowl of salad in the same price range. Perfect. More pubs need to do this; while there’s always a place for fries, pizza and chicken wings, I love a good salad or lighter, healthier light meal, especially during the day.

Hopstacle Course

‘Hopstacle Course’ golden ale from Golden Bear Brewing, and a delicious little salad at the Kelburn Village Pub

The salad, the cosy interior, and friendly staff made me very well disposed towards the ‘Hopstacle Course’ golden ale brewed by Mapua’s brew pub and brewing supplies company, Golden Bear.

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a huge fan of hoppy golden ales anyway, and this one was delightfully clean, crisp and refreshing. Another great combination of food, beer and environment.

Finally, through Kelburn, down the steps and down Tinakori Road to Sprig & Fern for their fresh-hopped ‘Harvest Pilsner.’ It’s a favourite lager of mine, and with the addition of fresh Motueka and Nelson Sauvin hops, it’s bright, vibrant and fruity while the solid biscuit-like malty base never disappoints.

It was a lovely way to spend an autumn day. About five and a half hours, about ten or so kilometres walked while listening to music, popping into six different bars to chat with bar staff or fellow drinkers, with some nice food and interest beers on the way. A day that was good for the soul.

Well played, Hopstock 2014, well played.

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (2011)

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

PJ-Harvey-Let-England-ShakeI didn’t get Let England Shake at first. PJ Harvey was singing in an unusual register. The instrumentation (autoharp, parping saxophones, minimal arrangements) sounded awkward, I couldn’t make sense of the lyrics. There was violence and sadness within the words. But I couldn’t pin down what they were about, what they meant.

Still, I persisted. I put the CD on, one dark cold night, driving out to a hospital to visit my ailing mother. And, as the windscreen wipers lulled me into that state that comes with driving at night, I heard these lyrics:

Death was everywhere,

in the air

and in the sounds

coming off the mounds

of Bolton’s Ridge.

Death’s anchorage.

*Click*

“Bolton’s Ridge.” I remembered that name. Gallipoli.

I remembered reading about it while reading of the Gallipoli Campaign, the bloody military disaster that forms so much a part of the national identity of both New Zealand and Australia.

With that awareness, I skipped the album back to the start, and it all became clear. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake is an album about war. Drawing from the First World War, with many songs directly speaking about the Gallipoli Campaign, but speaking broader, about what war does to men and countries. A horrific album, with the minimalist arrangements laying bare lyrics full of dismembered bodies and bloodied earth.

Visceral.

Even now, as I listen to the album, it is like a bucket of cold water to the face. Harvey keens in an unusual register, singing of men dying under a harsh sun, of how man’s murder of each other scars the earth long after the battles have ended.

On Battleship Hill’s caved in trenches,

a hateful feeling still lingers,

even now, 80 years later.

Cruel nature.

Cruel, cruel nature.

The cruellest, blackest moment, the album’s shocking heart comes at the end of the lead single, ‘The Words That Maketh Murder.’ “I’ve seen and done things I want to forget,” Harvey sings, “soldiers fell like lumps of meat.” She paints a picture of bloody horror, of rotting flesh quivering in the heat, of swarming flies and the stench of death. Of the horror, the absolute horror of war.

And then she springs perhaps the blackest musical joke I’ve ever heard, as the song turns and concludes with the refrain from Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’.

What if I took my problem to the United Nations?

A feel-good summery tune we all sung along with during some golden childhood turned into a bleak, pathetic appeal to an authority that has no ability to stop the slaughter we inflict on each other. Futile. Awful.

Never again. Lest we forget.

– ANZAC Day, 2014.

Hopstock 2014 part 1

And it has begun, Hopstock 2014. 17 fresh hopped beers across 16 bars around Wellington city and nearby suburbs, over the space of four days.

I kicked it off with a glass of the Cassels & Sons ‘Fresh Hop’ pale ale with a delicious Caesar salad for lunch at Bin 44, and right from the start it was revealed that fresh hopping does not mean full-on hop-bomb insanity. This light little pale ale was gentle and sweet, very easily drinkable, a nice light beer. The hops adding a gentle bit of lift and freshness without doing damage to the taste buds.

Fork & Brewer 'Hopstepper'

Fork & Brewer ‘Hopstepper’

Then, after the working day was done, the ‘Wet Dream’ at The Bruhaus. A collaboration between Behemoth Brewing and The Twisted Hop, Wet Dream is more your traditional monster imperial India pale ale. Big, sticky and bursting with sharp gooseberry flavours from the Nelson Sauvin hops.  In contrast, the ‘Hopstepper’ American pale ale, brewed on site at Fork & Brewer was very malt-forward, hitting with a big burst of sweetness from the thick complex body before a the pine and grassy bitterness came through, with a nice touch of an almost minty aftertaste from the US Cascade hops.  My favourite so far, I think.

Up the road at Little Beer Quarter are a pair of collaborative beers between Townshend’s  and Liberty, two of my favourite brewers who seem at times poles apart. Martin Townshend tends to brew perfectly made variations of styles that have the malt as the centrepiece, while Jo Wood from Liberty is usually all about the hops. But, together, they just nailed it. Adding fresh Riwaka hops to the ‘Oldham’s Pil’s gave the pilsner a bright, summery zest with almost a suggestion of cider, while fresh Green Bullet and Nelson Sauvin hops in the delicious ‘Last of the Summer Ale’ extra special bitter turned that ESB into something with an aroma and finish that was deliciously Sauvignon Blanc-like.

Finally, just across the road at The Taphaus was the hoppiest of the day. Renaissance’s ‘Fresh Hop Grandmaster’ imperial India pale ale was positively glowing with hops, a massive aroma of lemon and lime lifting off the very pale and gorgeously clear beer. Coming in at 8%, this was a deliciously citrusy boozy thing, a delight to sit on and sip gently, marvelling how different flavours (including mandarin and mint) started to appear as the little glass warmed.

Despite owning the beer Bucket Fountain t-shirt, I missed last year’s Hopstock due to illness. And this year, the presence of so many beers across such a large area of the city had me thinking that collecting the entire set would be an unachievable and likely dangerous task. I’ve changed my mind about that, now.

Renaissance Fresh Hop Grandmaster

Renaissance Fresh Hop Grandmaster

Sticking to half-pints or tasters, drinking slowly, eating food, and enjoying the walk as much as the beer has made the idea of visiting all of the bars over the next few days very attractive, and very achievable. And, as the five beers I tried yesterday revealed, it’s not all about death by humulus lupulus. There’s different styles of beers, and only two of the five I tried would be described as ‘extremely hoppy.’ The rest used the fresh hopping to emphasise or alter certain tastes within the style.

And it’s looking to be a good way to get a feel of bars I haven’t been to, or been back to for a while.  I hadn’t set foot in The Bruhaus for over three years after a disappointing first experience, but I was very pleased with the feel and service of the place now.  It seems a nice little bar, in a part of the city that needs more good little bars.

So, tonight, I might round off most of the other inner city bars on the trail, then over ANZAC day and Saturday I’ll pick off the outliers. And if you’re in Wellington up to the 26th of April, I recommend you head on off to the Hopstock website and pick up the trail yourself.

It really is an education in fresh-hopped beer. Now, when’s the malt and yeast festival..?

Mark Eitzel – 60 Watt Silver Album (1996)

60 Watt Silver Lining If push comes to shove and, on threat of death or Miley Cyrus, I was forced to name my favourite band or artist I’d have to name Mark Eitzel, and his band American Music Club. Both Eitzel as a solo artist, and the albums he’s made with his former band. So, even with the threat of murder by Wrecking Ball I still couldn’t choose just one…

And if I’m needing to choose five albums that I’d take with me to a desert island, I’d likely hum-and-hah about four of them. But without a moment’s hesitation, I’d choose Mark Eitzel’s 60 Watt Silver Lining to top the list.

Recorded and released soon after the first break-up of American Music Club, the band going its separate ways in 1994 demoralised and deeply in debt after being critic’s darlings for a number of years but receiving no commercial success or widespread acclaim. The album marks a significant departure, sound-wise, from Eitzel’s former band. Where American Music Club had backed Eitzel’s distinctive baritone and wry lyrics with a complex palate of styles ranging from rock, country, noise and alternative, on 60 Watt Silver Lining he recorded with a number of San Franciscan jazz musicians (and Bruce Kaphan, American Music Club’s multi-instrumentalist).

The result was a surprisingly smooth, West Coast jazz-tinged album, that framed Eitzel’s voice and sometime sweet, sometimes tragic lyrics perfectly, allowing the songs, characters and stories to stand front and centre.

The album opens with a cover of Carole King’s “No Easy Way Down”. And with the lyrics “we all love to climb to the heights, love, where our fantasy world can be found / but you know in the end when it’s time to descend that there is no easy way down” Eitzel sets the tone for the album to follow. Eleven of his own songs penned over the years spent with American Music Club, all with a deeply personal bent. Eitzel, a veteran of San Francisco’s punk scene and survivor of the city’s AIDs epidemic, a wry, quiet observer, sitting in a gay bar nursing a drink, watching, thinking.

He sings of bartenders who have the gift of pardon, of fag-hags with an unfounded belief in love and a heart a little bigger than politeness can endure, of watching sun glitter off the tidal flats at low tide wishing the sea would make all his decisions for him.

Some of the tracks are upbeat, some sombre, but all bring the sound of sitting in a bar as the night creeps on. There’s a band playing something jazzy in the corner, and perched on a stool is Eitzel, not engaging with the audience, just singing these songs hoping someone in the bar will stop talking for a moment and let themselves hear the experience, pain and hope he sings of. But he’s outside, beyond, seemingly distant, even in this small, smoky bar.

This weird perspective won’t let me breath in the smell of Eden

In your eternally open eyes, I barely see you

I barely see you, and everything is beautiful,

But not you or me.

The album’s centre is the heart-breaking “Mission Rock Resort.” Over a sombre, slowly pulsing swing, Eitzel sings of someone – a friend? an ex-lover? – who he’s bought a drink for in a bar that has seen better days, who is trying to manipulate him into something the junkie needs. “It’s sad when you try to manipulate me,” he whispers, “it’s sad when it doesn’t work anymore.” Because Eitzel is tired; he seems to love this person, but he’s unable to struggle anymore. And when they reveal that they’re worried that they forgot to use bleach on a needle, his only response is a sad, exasperated “well, so what, so what, so what?”

It’s a song of saying goodbye, of realising that some people may be beyond help, that nothing you can do or say will change who they are and their path towards self-destruction. And, with the refrain, “nothing changes, nothing changes, nothing changes, not ever” you can hear Eitzel’s heart break.

Powerful and poignant, the product of a late-night singer-songwriter at his absolute peak.

Liberty Brewing Co ‘Yakima Scarlet’

Is craft beer too expensive? Maybe it is. I guess the turning point comes on what you consider to be “too”. Undoubtedly, craft beer is expensive, especially compared to cheap wine and beer booze options, but is it “too expensive”?

I’m inclined to say it isn’t, because you get what you pay for, and with the price comes quality (for the most part). But I also need to acknowledge I’m gainfully employed in a decent paying job without any dependants to support (apart from a cat), so I’ve got more money to spare on nice beer than many others.

But, this blog isn’t about the price of beer, not really. But if you are interested, there’s some good reading on the subject elsewhere. Stu McKinley from Yeastie Boys wrote this neat little explanation of what makes up the price of a pint of Gunnamatta a few months ago, and it is certainly worth a read. And the infographic is priceless.

And Epic’s Luke Nicholas has written a good little thing picking apart New Zealand Herald’s beer expert Don Kavanagh, who had a bit of a whinge about the price of a pint. Somehow Kavanagh managed to apply thinking that might (might) apply to the big boys to reach the conclusion that craft beer brewers and craft beer retailers are creaming it. Now, that’s a Tui ad.

yakima scarletBut mentioning the price of beer is a useful segue into writing about the first beer from Liberty Brewing I tried (if my memory serves me right), their ‘Yakima Scarlet’.

Liberty don’t brew cheap beers. You’d be lucky to get one of their 500ml bottles at a supermarket for less than $10, often a few dollars more. At a bar, you’d expect to be set back at least $20 for a bottle, and their pints normally sell at around the $12 price point.

And they’re worth every bloody penny. It has been said that if you feel taken aback by the price of a craft beer, think in terms of how much you might spend on a good quality bottle or glass of wine, and compare that to the price of the beer.

That comparison may not hold true for each and every beer, but it certainly does for Liberty’s brews. Jo Wood makes interesting, high-alcohol beers, from the best ingredients and crafted to perfection.  (Though, that said, recently they’ve also started to bring out more moderate beers, available in six packs of 330ml bottles, that tend to retail around the $22 mark or so).

Liberty’s big beers are beers you’d buy in a bottle to share with someone else over food, or to last you an entire evening by yourself. Its beer you’d probably be wise to buy at the pub in a smaller bulb than a shaker pint, both to bring out the best of the flavour but also to ensure you don’t get smashed off your face from your first pint of the evening. It is beer you’d be wise to treat and think of as a good wine, and enjoy it with the same sense of responsibility and thrill of sensuality.

As I mentioned, Yakima Scarlet was the first of Liberty’s beers I tried, a few years back. It’s an unusual beer, best described as a “hoppy red ale” but, as Jo writes on the label, even the brewer isn’t entirely sure what style it is. It is absolutely a hop-bomb, full and sticky, with a big smell of fresh cut grass from the American hops and a huge bergamot aftertaste.

Yet it’s also very malty, the rich, sweet very red body giving a scent of toffee and a big slightly-burnt caramel sensation in the mouth. It lingers, on and on and on. The hops with their hint of orange and the desert-like sweetness of the malt sit there on your palate for what feels like an age, delicious, relaxing.

A very fine sipping beer. Perfect with roasted meat, or as a long afternoon drink, slowly whiling away the hours with a friend. Just one of many beers made by this company that I’d make that recommendation for.

Jordan Reyne – Mother, Maiden, [CRONE] (2014)

I’m a huge fan of Jordan Reyne. Ever since encountering her while I lurked on the outskirts of Wellington’s alternative and goth music scene in the 1990s. Her singing has long enraptured me, a powerful, soaring, Celtic-tinged voice, capable of evoking heights and depths of emotion, sensual or terrifying.

coverShe’s just released her most recent collection of songs, the Crone EP, the first of a trilogy of EPs titled “Mother, Maiden, Crone.” Collections of songs about how women are perceived at different stages of their life, starting off with with the crone, the invisible woman ignored by a society that no longer values her appearance.

Mother, Maiden [CRONE] contains five songs, all built from a core of vocal harmonies, Reyne’s voice is layered and looped, used as the primary rhythm and accompaniment while she sings the lyric over and around. There’s some looped percussion with a tribal feel on a few of a tracks, a bit of low rumbly synth and a bit of guitar texture, but mostly it’s just Reyne’s stunning voice.

‘Dear John,’ the opening track, features what might the most sweet and soulful vocal Reyne’s ever recorded. With gentleness and warmth her character sings to a man, a guest, invited into her home, a pretty major-progression vocal riff flitting above a beguiling vocal. But, as the song progresses, it becomes revealed that the invite is more an acknowledgement that the man is there to take from the woman and the other guests what he wants to taste, without acknowledging the source of the feast.

As this is revealed, Reyne starts to constrict her voice, a palatable menace seeping into her singing, before she releases and lets the voice soar, revelling in beauty as the character seems to be revelling that knowledge of her situation gives her power over it. A stunning opening track, quite unlike anything I’ve heard before from Reyne.

In ‘The Shadow Line’ Reyne’s back to Celtic-mode, with deceptively complex percussion underlying the close-harmony vocal loops with Reyne repeating the phrase “I won’t see red.” Until, by the song’s end, where the girl she sings of has aged and been stripped of even of her name, the refrain becomes “I see red”. You can sense the anger and determination in every syllable as Reyne’s voice soars towards the conclusion.

‘Servitude’ creeps in with menace, with percussion, vocal loops and synth building, slowly, surely. Close-miced, this is Reyne at her most threatening, constricting her voice to convey the threat implicit in the character she’s singing, a man – a religion? – who offers hope to women but only rewards them with subjugation. And here, Reyne does that thing she does quite unlike anyone else I’ve heard, letting her voice loose as the song reaches its climax, sending it soaring, to dizzying heights. Harmonising with herself, discordant and complex, hair raising, very sinister, very stirring.

A video’s been made for ‘Servitude’ (see below), and I’d recommend not watching at night by yourself. Very creepy, very disturbing, and a very good example that a cheap video made with one camera, a projector and good make up can be just as effective as any big-budget thing.

‘Turning from the Light’ follows with a sombre vocal loop sweeping the narrator along as she sings of her weariness but of refusing to accept the comfort of the “inimical light.” Before the EP comes to a close with ‘Dishonour Among Thieves’, another masterful example of how looped vocals can let important words linger and meld together following phrases and concepts, to bring together as a whole an indictment and an incitement to resistance against “the men who won’t be blamed.”

This is a profoundly good collection of songs. A quintet bound together by layer upon layer of Jordan Reyne’s incredible voice, charting a progression from the sweet to the sinister. Strong, confident songs, strong and confident lyrics, encompassing extremes of light and dark.

It’s probably been sixteen years or so since I first heard Reyne sing, and I feel that she’s probably singing better on this EP than she ever has before. And her song writing is just getting better with age, too.

I’m very looking forward to the Mother and Maiden EPs being released soon.  But, in the meantime, you can buy the EP from Jordan Reyne’s bandcamp page, along with all her other albums.  I recommend them all.

Beer match:  Parrotdog’s “Sleuthhound”. A Scottish ale / wee heavy version of their Bloodhound, this one’s rich, sweet, darkly red, with a hint of smoke.  For some reason thinking of Reyne’s Celtic-tinged, at times smoky voice and red hair made me think fo this.  Odd how my brain works.

 

Postscript: I’ve just learned that ‘Dear John’ is aimed at John Key, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, the privileged man taking what he wants from others, invited to a dinner where it turns out the other guests are his food.  Excellent…