Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

This article begins a new series, ‘Take Five’, recommending five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. The series will be carried once every two months, and this time, we shall talk of British alternative/ indie albums released in 2012

WHEN it comes to new sounds, the alternative/ indie genre is surely bubbling with innovation. If heavy metal, thrash, punk and rap-rock largely stick to a specific formula, musicians creating ‘non-metal modern rock’ often blend influences as diverse as psychedelic, progressive, folk, electronica and symphonic music to create their own unique sound.

While both the US and the UK have led the way in the alternative scene, 2012 has arguably belonged to the Britishers. Yes, the Americans have produced gems like ‘Some Nights’ by Fun (reviewed earlier in this blog) and ‘Blunderbuss’ by Jack White (very innovative mix of garage rock, blues and folk), but England is obviously brimming with such acts.

Here, we take a look at five such albums released this year. Some are by relatively older acts which have been around for a decade or more, and some are by debutants. None of these albums would have achieved whopping commercial success, but musically, the quality is just up there. What’s remarkable, of course, is that all of them sound totally different, and despite some obvious influences, have a style of their own.

In no specific order, you could check out:

Richard Hawley/ Standing at the Sky’s Edge: The Sheffield-born singer-songwriter-guitarist has been on the scene for a decade now. He’s had a following of his own, mainly for the rich timbre of his voice. But while earlier albums like ‘Coles Corner’ and ‘Truelove’s Gutter’ boasted of brooding ballads straight out of the Frank Sinatra and Roy Orbison style sheets, his latest venture is a trippy diversification into space rock territory.

Wailing distortion-filled psychedelic guitars and effortless rock-friendly vocals characterise this nine-song effort. The opener ‘She Brings The Sunlight’ begins with Indian-styled strings but soon settles into screaming riffs. The title track, which begins with the lines “Joseph was a good man though he killed his wife,” sees Hawley in prime vocal form.

Every other track is a gem, but personal favourites are ‘Down in the Woods’, which has traces of Jesus & Mary Chain, and the mellowed-down and moody ‘Don’t Stare at the Sun’. The final number ‘Before’ starts in a balladsy mood (check the way he sings “It won’t be me who closes the door”) before marvellously picking up tempo, to bring an energetic climax to an absolutely first-rate album.

Alt-J/ An Awesome Wave: Alt J was somewhat rejected by the media till it won the coveted Mercury Prize last week. This Brit indie-pop quartet combines the individual talents of guitarist/ bassist Gwil Sainsbury, keyboardist  Gus Unger-Hamilton and drummer Thom Green to create a heady mix, but it’s vocalist Joe Newman’s distinct vocals that give the sound an edge.

The sound is a smooth cocktail of elements ranging from alternative pop, hip-hop, trip-hop, folk and synthesiser-driven rock. The instant charmer here is ‘Breezeblocks’, with its infectious vocals, strong bassline and neat choruses. Other stand-out tracks include ‘Tesselate’, with its electronica flavour, ‘Something Good’, with its consistent drum beat and groovy synths, and ‘Taro’, which has incredible vocals and melodic orchestrations at the end.

The album may take a while to grow on you, but turns out to be one of the freshest sounds of the year. A well-deserved Mercury.

Spritualized/ Sweet Heart Sweet Light: Fronted by Jason Pierce, Warwickshire outfit Spiritualized isn’t new in the business. In fact, it has been around since the early 90s, and ‘Sweet Heart Sweet Light’ is its seventh studio album, coming after acclaimed efforts like 1997’s ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space’ and 2001’s ‘Let It Come Down’.

The group’s sound is characterised by repeated vocal lines and choruses set against neo-psychedelic sonic structures. The new album has a very offbeat cover which just says ‘Huh?’ One of the highlights is the nine-minute ‘Hey Jane’, also known for its provocative and ultra-violent video revolving around a transvestite. ‘Little Girl’ slows down the tempo, with philosophical lines like “Sometimes I wish that I was dead, ‘cause only living can feel the pain; sometimes I wish that I could fly; you get so grounded that life will pass you by.”

Also worth checking out are the haunting ballad ‘Freedom’, which has the lines “Freedom is your if you want it”, and ‘I Am What I Am’, which blends strong lead vocals with crisp female back-up lines. Finally, ‘So Long You Pretty Thing’ builds up in a very ‘Hey Jude’ manner, complete with the incessant choruses at the end.

One of Spiritualized’s biggest strengths is its lyrics. And aided by a versatile set of songs, they have a winner here.

Django Django/ Self-titled album: The psychedelic quartet, which met at art school in Edinburgh, has recently released its self-titled debut. It won a Mercury Prize nomination, but lost out to Alt-J.

Consisting of drummer-producer David Maclean, singer-guitarist Vincent Neff, bassist Jimmy Dixon and synth-man Tommy Grace, the band relies on vibrant drumming and spacey synthesisers, aided by melodic and charming vocals. Some of the numbers have a dance feel too, broadening their appeal. And if you’re looking at influences, you’ll find a bit of Kraftwerk electronic pop and the Beach Boys’ surf-rock here, mixed with a contemporary club feel.

Adrenalin-filled tracks like ‘Waveforms’ and ‘Default’ were popular even before the album was released in January, but each of the 13 tracks has a certain vibrancy. ‘Zumm Zumm’ begins with the lines ‘Got to get to know… know you’ against strong synthesisers and rhythms, and ‘Wor’ kicks off with a wailing siren against a thumping drum-‘n’-bass line.

‘Life is a Beach’ has an incredible guitar line and snazzy vocals. ‘Firewater’ has a stunning bass backdrop, and vocalist Neff is on great form on ‘Storm’ and ‘Hail Bop’. Finally, the Middle Eastern ambience ‘Skies Over Cairo’ is something to die for. The kind of stuff you can play all day.

Muse/ The 2nd Law: What an album, really! Devon-based Muse is another band which has been on the scene for a while, earlier impressing on the album ‘Black Holes and Revelations’ and ‘The Resistance’. Their latest ‘The 2nd Law’ again sees them at their versatile best, blending alternative rock, space rock, prog-metal, electronica and even strains of symphonic music.

Matthew Bellamy is simply outstanding on vocals, guitars and keyboards-synthesisers, and he’s ably assisted by bassist Christopher Walsteinholme and drummer Dominic Howard. The rhythmic ‘Supremacy’, the freaky ‘Madness’ and the marvellously constructed and chorus-heavy ‘Survivors’ are among the highlights. The two-part epic ‘The 2nd Law: Unsustainable’ and ‘The 2nd Law: Isolated System’ boast of incredible keyboards and conversational dialogues.

The picks of the lot are ‘Animals’, with its tuneful guitar-drum interaction, and ‘Explorers’, with its outstanding vocals and Beatles-ish influence. They are just among the best songs created this year, proving Muse is here to stay.

All five bands are worth checking out. Press play!


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