SJD – Saint John Divine (2015)

SJD - Saint John DivineSean “SJD” Donnelly may never have really troubled mainstream New Zealand’s musical consciousness, beyond the quirky tune or two that were sold for use on television commercials. But over the last decade or so each album he’s released has been critically acclaimed, deservedly so. And this run of superb song writing and production continues with the release of Saint John Divine, his seventh album.

SJD’s prior album, 2013’s Elastic Wasteland, won the Taite Music Prize as New Zealand’s most creative of that year for its collection of dark bedroom synth-pop. But where Elastic Wasteland swaddled Donnelly’s masterfully whimsical and moody songs in claustrophobic and bleak synths and drum machines, for his latest album went into Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studio with a full band, including Finn himself.

The album that’s resulted, Saint John Divine, showcases Donnelly’s songs in perhaps the most produced and confident fashion yet, but with all the warm atmosphere and all the rich arrangements squarely presented in service to the songs themselves.

The album’s opener, ‘I Saw The Future’, harks back to the melancholy beauty of Berlin-era Bowie; a sparse, almost shapeless lament; “I saw the future, summed up in a few short lines”, before a staccato riff of strings ties the track before it shifts into the gorgeous bouncy pop of ‘Little Pieces’. But this smart little pop duet with Julia Deans reveals and revels lyrically in a morose subject matter, of things being pretty messed up, of lovers and friends who let you down.

That’s always been SJD’s way, he’s too smart and too thoughtful to let his lyrics slide into the trite or meaningless, he’s a song-writer first and foremost, as well as a masterful producer of pop and electronic music.

And so it goes with Saint John Divine. ‘Jet Planes’ yearns in a very New Zealand manner for travel to foreign places most of us will likely never see. Strings join Donnelly’s plaintive voice, before in the chorus both strings and voice soar in joy, excitement, as the character Donnelly’s singing through expresses excitement about one day riding jet planes and bullet trains to places you’ll never know, and may never go.

The upbeat, almost-garage rock of “I Want To Be Foolish” comes close to a Lou Reed-like snarl in places, this character Donnelly is voicing want to kick out of the softness of middle age by a trip to the pub and a bit of controlled chaos.

‘Helensville’ perhaps forms the centrepiece of the album; moody and gothic, drenched in reverb-laden guitar which conjures a rainy night away out northwest of Auckland, while Donnelly sings of being left behind, abandoned in a small town. There’s a desperation to the sound, even as the intricate and rewarding arrangements propel the listener forward into the next stage of the tale, in ‘Invisible Man’. Donnelly appears to write mostly in the voices of characters who aren’t him, though might almost be. But, with ‘Invisible Man’ he seems particularly personal as he sings about playing bass guitar in sixteen bands but still no one knows his name.

That’s probably true, however. For despite how good Donnelly is as a songwriter, and how superb each of his albums has been, how respected he is by his peers and by his cult audience, he’s probably never going to get the name recognition afforded the likes of Neil Finn or Don McGlashan – despite being a frequent collaborator with both, and both being happy to sing his praises every chance they get.

Donnelly’s body of work deserves that praise, and Saint John Divine might be his best yet – and being able to surpass the superb chamber-pop genius of 2007’s Songs From A Dictaphone is no mean feat. And, happily, the listener is left with a sense that Donnelly’s not done yet, because Saint John Divine ends with ‘Was I Always Here’, one of the most beautiful string-driven songs you’ll ever here; uplifting spirits and ensuring this album will stick in the mind and the heart as an emotional journey and a musical celebration of one of New Zealand’s finest talents.

Beer match: Well made, touching on “commercial”, but made on a smaller scale and, perhaps too smart and just too good to ever be accepted by a mainstream that likes things simpler. An alcoholic equivalent of Saint John Divine might be found in one of the beers put out by North End Brewing, a small brewery nominally based out of Waikanae (but, at the moment, contract brewing at Panhead in Upper Hutt until North End’s kit is installed and ready to go).

North End’s Keiran Haslett-Moore knows his beer, and knows how to make good beer, and appears far more interested in making beer that is reliably good rather than jumping out to grab the latest trend or to make over-the-top beers featuring outrageous ingredients – just as SJD knows how to write a good song to a particular song-style, without needing musical stunts to sway the audience.

Saint John Divine, then, might be accompanied by North End’s Amber. Like the album it’s almost a mainstream commercial product but – and it’s an important ‘but’ – it’s made superbly, with smarts and personality that result in it perhaps being both too good to ever really break out to be a best seller. But, maybe, one day one of North End’s beers; like one of SJD’s songs, will make that breakthrough. They certainly deserve to.

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Beervana ‘14

A cluster of North End’s rare and delicious Blanc De Houblon, in Beervana 2014 glassware, with tasting notes and other beer-geek sundries.

The last week and a half has featured a lot of life lived, including some great new music and good beer drunk at the source at breweries in both the North and South Islands. But those things were all just the entrée to the main event: the 2014 edition of Beervana, New Zealand’s biggest beer festival.

And, lo, it was good. Very good. The best Beervana I’ve been to yet.

This year the festival had expanded to take up almost all of Wellington’s Westpac Stadium’s concourse, and the resulting spreading-out of the crowds and bars was noticeable and delightful. I encountered almost no bottlenecks, the crowds far less jostling than in recent years, and lots of seating and spaces to sit down, enjoy the beer, chat with friends, and take some notes.

I guess a complaint could be made that it was now too big. I simply didn’t make it down to the Portland Bar before session’s end. But that was my fault, for deciding to spend over half of my session seated with friends near the Beervana, Festive Brew and Media Brew bars, sampling the beers based over on the newly expanded “Harbour Side” of the Festival. And I did get to try the Portland Beers later, when I worked that bar for the fourth and final session, so it wasn’t as though I missed out entirely.

It goes almost without saying that there was some truly excellent and / or interesting beer available too – but this is a beer blog, so I’ll list some of those that stood out for me.

This year’s Festive Brew was themed to commemorate 100 years since the outset of the First World Way by means of requiring the brewers to use two ingredients integral with ANZAC biscuits: rolled oats and golden syrup, and with encouragement to use additional ingredients such as flour, coconut and butter or more.

It was a challenging brief, and ended up with most of the beers I tried tasting much the same, but it was apparent why Behemoth took home the trophy for their ‘Brave Bikkie Brown Ale’. This 6% abv brown ale nailed the brief completely; with a rich aroma of biscuit baked with coconut and golden syrup, and a rich, sweet and chewy mouthful carrying a dark roasted oats and coconut flavour. A beer that not just tasted like an ANZAC biscuit, but was deliciously drinkable too.

Over at the Media Brew bar the brewers and their collaborators brewed to the theme of “Spring”, with the requirement to include at least one “intrinsically or native New Zealand ingredient”. This led to many interesting and, sometimes, delicious flavour combinations – but truth is I’m not really that keen on beers that taste like cold roast lamb gravy.

Imperial AT-AT PilsnerBut other variations existed – Beer & Brewer Magazine’s Neil Miller and Kereru Brewing made a huge 11% abv pilsner that somehow managed to deliciously combine the aroma of malty Weet-Bix with the flavour of a full, sweet, citrusy Belgian Ale – all under the suitably geeky name of ‘Imperial At-At Pilsner’. Meanwhile, the fellows from the Beerhive Blog worked with Monteiths to create a ‘Raspberry Lamington Wheat Beer’. And it was; sticky, sweet and full of coconut. Though, personally, I tasted more Fluffy Duck than a red coconut sponge cake. But, perhaps that is the “Food of the Unicorns“?

But moving away from the themed one-off beers is where I really began to find my festival favourites. Ever-favourites North End Brewing really impressed with their complex yet refreshing ‘Blanc De Houblon’. This Belgian-style ale had a fascinating contrast between an aroma of lemongrass, bergamot and clove above a flavour of grapefruit and liquorice. Bitter and tangy, lingering long, the complexity playing through the mouth long after you’d swallowed. I’d love to see more of this ale available, but it’s expensive to brew and the yield is small. But, oh, delicious.

I’d never heard of Napier’s Zeelandt Brewery before Beervana, but their Dunkelweizen was my surprise of the day. This dark Bavarian wheat beer wafted an incredibly intense banana and clove aroma, but delivered a soft, effervescent soufflé of chocolate and caramel on the palate. I’ll look for this one again.

And then there was the ‘Rewired Unchained’ from 8 Wired. I adore Søren Eriksen’s Rewired Brown Ale, and this barrel-aged version, loaded with funky Brettanomyces, was just delicious. The tartness of the infection somehow turned the robust brown ale into something full of caramel, while pushing the hoppy aroma of cut grass and summer fruits even more forcefully above the beer. And it was a pleasure to congratulate Søren personally, as he stood behind the bar pouring his beer.

But if I was to be forced to commit to a favourite beer of the festival, it’d have to be a beer I didn’t get to try more than a few mouthfuls of. As I wrote above, I didn’t manage to make the Portland Bar at the other end of the concourse during the one session I attended as a drinker; but before the doors opened for the session I was behind that bar I was able to try what was on offer. And one, the ‘Volta Saison’ from Gigantic Brewing Company just blew me away. Fruity, spicy, and vibrant. Fresh, with an aroma of lip-smacking sour fruits, and a taste of spiced fruit punch and lingering tartness.

It caught my attention immediately, but for me the true reflection on its character came as I served it during the hours that followed. If ever I was given the opportunity to suggest or recommend one of the Portland-sourced beers to a punter, I’d recommend the Volta.

Some people were eager, some wary, some had never heard of the style or tried a Saison before. But each time I encouraged someone to take a punt on the Volta, they’d sniff, then taste and a huge grin would cross their features. Some even returned to thank me for the recommendation, or for a second serving. And that made me happy – if more people expand their horizons and get to taste a good saison (which can be difficult to find in New Zealand, unfortunately), then I’d consider that a success.

Moving away from the beer, there was so much else about Beervana 2014 that I loved. The festival’s always provided great food, but this year was better than ever. The Fire Truck impressed with a fragrant pulled-goat curry served inside a soft warm sourdough bread roll, and while I again lamented the lack of a good range of fresh green options, the smoked chicken Caesar salad from Boulcott St Bistro was superb.

But then there was the Portobello mushroom ‘Double Down’ from Grill Meats Beer; two big grilled flat mushrooms sandwiching a filling of Halloumi, beetroot relish and a crispy fried onion fritter. Amazing; and a great way of providing a vegetarian option that met the popular demand for salty and fatty ‘beer festival food’.

Even the festival glassware for 2014 was a step above – a robust and pretty plastic tasting glass was provided, ensuring punters would be able to take them home without breakage. Tulip-shaped, and slightly bigger than the maximum 250ml serving, it allowed aromas and flavours to develop fully.

And I haven’t even mentioned the plentiful supply of water, and the big, well-stocked merchandise stand at the middle of the concourse’s arc. Or the four new beer / brewery t-shirts I now own…

It was a great weekend, and I enjoyed my time on both sides of the bar. Would Beervana again!

First beer of the day - the Behemoth 'Brave Bikkie Brown Ale', with the author wearing a suitable t-shirt.

First beer of the day – the Behemoth ‘Brave Bikkie Brown Ale’, with the author wearing a suitable t-shirt.

SOBA Winter Ale Festival 2014

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Yeastie Boys ‘The Sun Before Darkness’ with my dearly departed notes, tasting glass and pen. RIP.

I went up to The Hunter Lounge on Victoria University’s Kelburn campus on Saturday, for the 2014 edition of SOBA’s Winter Ale Festival. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a disaster. A neglectful oversight threw a pall over the afternoon.

I left my programme with all my notes on the table we’d been drinking at! And, by the time I’d realised my mistake and rushed back to collect it, the table had been cleaned and cleared.

And, that’s about the only bad thing I have to say about this particular beer festival!

Fortunately, I’d checked in about 2/3 of the beers I tasted on Untappd, so I do have some idea about what I enjoyed (and didn’t) amongst a plethora of excellent and interesting ales. And I do mean ‘ales’, if my memory serves me correctly there was only one lager being poured that afternoon.

This was the first year I’d attended what had formerly been known as the ‘Matariki Beer Festival’, the winter beer fest put on for a number of years by the Society of Beer Advocates. But I’d heard many of my beery friends rave about it, about how well it was organised, how the focus was really on the beer first and foremost, and how brewers and drinkers alike mingled together in beery friendless.

It was all that, and more. Friendly, happy crowd, with each trip circling from our table to one or other of the taps being punctuated by running into brewers and drinkers worth having chats with.

Andrew Childs of Behemoth Brewing was there, looming large as only he can do, providing fun tales of his recent move into brewing and selling his beer full time. The fun and intensity he also puts into his full-flavoured beers – with their names straight from the inside of a fourteen year old boy’s locker – was also ably demonstrated, with Behemoth’s ‘Nut Milk’ hazelnut stout packed full of sweet hazelnut flavour. The play between the lactose smoothness and the woody bitter nuttiness was very more-ish; it’s the sort of beer that would be fun to have in a float with some vanilla ice-cream. Delicious, really, and I’m not just saying that because the brewer gave me a free t-shirt.

Stu McKinley of Yeastie Boys was also in attendance, mingling and joking and living up to his “one of the loveliest of New Zealand’s many lovely brewers” title which I just made up here and now (perhaps I should commission a trophy). Like Andrew, Stu’s also recently given up his day job, indicating that maybe there is a future in this good beer lark.

But putting it all on the line has not bought about a lurch into sensible conservatism for the Yeasties, because their three beers on at the Winter Ale Festival were all fascinating experiments, brewed with candi-sugar made from botrytised viognier wine.

The three ales are part of the Yeastie Boys Spoonbender series, the name coming from their idiosyncratic habit of describing collaborative brewing as “spooning.” This time, they were playing the big spoon to Australian winemakers Some Young Punks, who provided the sweet and tangy desert wine that was reduced down with added sugar to create the big crystalline slabs of candi-sugar.

Candi-sugar is often used in the brewing of Belgian beers, where it can boost the alcohol content without thickening up the body of the beer. And, with the sugar made from a fungus-infected sweet wine, all sorts of interesting flavours came kicking along with the alcohol as well.

‘The Sly Persuader’ lived up to its name, coming through at first as a very “business as usual” Belgian-style pale ale until, sneaking along at the end came a huge wine flavour, very dry and lingering, very much like the viognier itself.

The presence of the candi-sugar showed with a huge alcohol flavour in the notably boozy (10% abv)‘The Last Dictator’, an imperial porter. There was a nice complex richness here, but alcohol was the predominant note – I reckon this one could do with a bit of aging in the bottle to really come into its best.

The third Yeastie Boys Spoonbender, ‘The Sun Before Darkness’, was an odd beast indeed; certainly the most unique beer I tasted at the festival. The aroma was incredibly sweet; like sticking your nose into candyfloss. But in the mouth it was very tropical, full of sweet fruit flavours, and an intoxicating spice and saltiness. There were hints of rose petal and lime, and flavours I ended up as describing as tasting like chunks of mango stir-fried with a bit of fish sauce. I’m sure I’m not doing it justice, and I can’t wait to try it again to see if I can pin down further what on earth is going on here. Fascinating stuff – and quite drinkable!

And so many other excellent beers were tried, too. A pinot-barrel aged version of Parrotdog’s lovely Otis turned that milk stout into a beer that tasted of a robust and tannic pinot noir, if lighter and smoother.

North End once again hit their mark in creating another delicious take on an English style; with their ‘Southerly Front’ full of distinctly lemony hop flavours. Brewed to be faithful to a 1930’s style Burton Ale,  North End brewer and local beer identity Kieran Haslett-Moore turned up dressed to the era, with tie and shirt under a cardie, a Homburg perched on his head.

Baylands’ ‘Black is Black’ was chock full of Black Doris plums. I found it a bit dry and pummelling, but showing that it’s all subjective Black is Black managed to be voted the favourite beer by the punters in attendance – well done, Baylands!

And, despite its name, 8 Wired’s ‘Flat White’ coffee milk stout contained the richest coffee aroma I’ve yet encountered in a coffee flavoured beer. This was perfectly balanced with the smooth sweetness from the lactose, resulting in a beer with the aroma and flavour of an superbly made sweetened long black.

All these, and more, in a venue perfectly set out for a medium-sized beer festival.

I was particularly impressed by the way water was handled – if you wanted a clean glass (and, if you cared about the beer you’re drinking, you would) then you’d pop over to a counter where you’d exchange it for one containing water. An excellent way to encourage moderation and hydration from the festival goers, and to ensure that each beer had the best chance to show its wares when poured into a fresh glass.

A lovely beer festival. Would festival again!

SOBA Winter Ale Festival

The author at the SOBA Winter Ale Festival, complete with beer-geek-essential beard and t-shirt.

Eagle Vs Dog Brewery ‘Episode 2: Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster’ and a few North End beers

Fuck this weather. I mean, seriously. One fine day out of the last ten? It’s really not on.

Nonetheless, last week I headed down to Little Beer Quarter where all of North End Brewing’s beers were on tap, with the full intention of trying them all. It was a fun (if damp and cold) evening, catching up with friends and enjoying a few beers with one of the brewers (who was loving the weather, I’m sure). And I was far too busy being social to worry about such things as taking notes or photos!

When it comes to putting out consistently good beers that don’t rely on massive ABV or huge stunt flavours to win over fans, I think North End may be up there with the very best brewers in the country right now. They’re still a fairly small operation, but hopefully their plans to expand and ramp up production should see their beers more widely available than lower North Island soon. Do check them out if you get the chance.

My favourite North End beer, their Extra Special Bitter, was being poured from a cask sourced from Garage Project, and the touch of wood flavour from the barrel suited that warm and sweet ESB perfectly. I also tried their saison, Le Chaleureux Rivage, for the first time. Deliciously tart and bright. The season for a saison is supposed to be summer, but this one stood up to the cold and wet of a miserable autumn night to bring along a bit of brightness. Certainly very raved about by those I talked with about the beer, even those who say they generally don’t like saisons.

I have a theory about that. I’ve tried a few locally brewed saison-style beers aren’t all that good, to be honest. Often a lack of fruitiness and spiciness, or off-flavours that indicate  indicate the yeast hasn’t behaved itself as the brewer hoped. And Belgian imports can be expensive, and who knows what sorts of abuse in the container and in the bottle the beer’s been through before it finally gets opened down here on the other side of the world.

But, when presented with a hoppy, bright, and well-made locally brewed saison, everyone I spoke to was of a similar mind – very very nice! And a good lesson to not write off a beer before tasting it, despite “not liking” the style. Because, maybe, it’s not the style that’s the problem, it’s your experience of it.

We had another funny lesson in how subjective drinking beer can be when we were all raving about how hoppy, full and delicious the Pacific Blond, North End’s new world kolsch, was tasting. How it was such a delicious pale lager. Until it was revealed that we’d actually been drinking the Hoppy Wheat, (due to a mix-up during ordering). None of us had noticed, despite some of us having had both beers before. Sure, the beers aren’t that dissimilar, but it does illustrate how what is going on in your own head can have a huge effect on what you brain thinks your tongue and nose are telling you.

I mention this, because last week I also had one of those ‘beer love’ moments, falling at first taste for a beer I hadn’t tried before. And it was a beer I’d been a bit leery of trying, for a not very good reason.   Eagle Vs Dog Brewery is a collaboration between Christchurch-based brewers Golden Eagle Brewery and Raindogs Brewing Co, and their (rather ridiculously named) ‘Episode 2: Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster’ imperial brown ale has interested me every time I’ve seen it on the shelf. Both due to the style (I love brown ales) and to my beloved Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

But, still, I’d never spent the dollars and bought the beer, because somewhere along the line I’ve decided that I don’t really like Golden Eagle’s beers. I wish I could be more precise as to why, but it just seems to be ‘one of those things.’ And I didn’t even realise, until I was staring at this very attractive bottle on the shelf, asking myself why I’d never purchased it.

So, rational brain managed to triumph over the subconscious for a moment, and into the basket went the bottle. And bloody well done, rational brain, because this beer is delicious.

Thick and attractively dark brown in colour, there’s a lovely fruity aroma of hops lifting off the top. But the party really starts in the mouth, where the malt comes into play. Long and sweet, big toffee and nutty flavours that then fade back to a delicious taste of bittersweet fruit. It’s got all the flavours of a well-made brown ale, but turned up to 11 to match the 7.5% abv. It’s just “more,” in every respect – more hops, more body, more malty sweetness.

It all hung together wonderfully, very well balanced.  And slightly reminiscent of having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.

Perfect for a wintery evening. And hopefully has pushed a reset on my only-recently realised prejudice against one-half of this collaboration. More please!