This month marks the 10th anniversary of my arrival in Manchester, and it seems fitting that I’m introducing a new band tipped by Dan Parrott, one of the many unsung architects of the modern music scene here. We first crossed paths back when he was working as music producer on Channel M – a much missed local station that gave debut television broadcasts to the likes of Deerhunter and Laura Marling. His label Love & Disaster, released early tracks from Everything Everything, Dutch Uncles, Delphic and the criminally underrated Airship.
Now running Low Four; a multifaceted music project utilising a beautiful and iconic recording space in the old Granada Studios – Parrott is once again putting his energy into helping new artists. With a focus on music programming/online streaming, it’s undoubtedly going to help re-affirm Manchester’s international reputation, as well as give a home to some of the city’s brightest talents. Having already recorded a live session there on the basis of a handful of demos, synth pop act Koalas are one of the first to benefit.
Led by composer and vocalist Samuel Jones; it’s clear that Koalas songcraft has been patiently and lovingly honed, with debut track Home Heart immediately hitting all the right notes. Co-produced by Brendan Williams (Dutch Uncles/GoGo Penguin) the hidden complexities of the track slowly reveal themselves, fluttering between ideas and textures fluidly to create a reassuringly warm and nostalgia tinged sound. Influenced by Caribou and Boards of Canada; an appreciation for sonic experimentation is balanced delicately with the desire to tug at heartstrings with gorgeously subtle pop harmonies. Vocalist Rachel Waters hushed words merely tease at her true abilities.. but then a little bit of mystery only adds to the allure. In contrast Jones’s chorus swoons and shimmers, dancing nervously around, waiting for an opportunity to break free.
When producer and visual artist Ben Pearson returned home to Manchester after a year living in Melbourne, fragments of ideas began to blossom into a fully realised project. Ultraviolet, the debut Espher LP, might have began life under a familiar industrial skyline, but it’s clear the world created is both expansive and beautifully imagined. Moments of highly personal introspection intertwine seamlessly with dream-like sequences which float into the unreal.
Album opener Zenith is an 8 minute introduction of cinematic proportions, slowly revealing the scale of Pearson’s ambition; a bold artistic statement that reaches far into the depths of a bleak universe, before pushing at the edges and breaking, exploding, scattering across the sky like dust. Bringing to my mind at least, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine… where humanity finds itself on the brink of oblivion. Themes of life and death, time and travel, technology and nature are intelligently woven throughout Ultraviolet in a lucid electronic tapestry.
Lunar Light Rays are shafts of light that shine through the gaps and cracks in crater walls to illuminate the moon surface. After the apocalypse must come hope. Pearson’s inventive production here is so playful and free – almost like dandelion seeds floating through the wind that you can’t help but be swept along. It’s this ability to marry the light with the dark that makes Espher such an intriguing proposition; everything is lovingly connected.
There’s a sense of looking back with regret on the spiritual Within. Pearson’s blank vocals and brooding melancholy are strangely comforting; ghosts of the past carrying you reassuringly into the next life. Taking influence from James Blake’s gospel-infused electronica, it’s the first moment where I truly felt like I was part of the Ultraviolet story, rather than watching from afar.
For someone as technically accomplished as Pearson undoubtedly is, and with so many individual and contrasting components at work, it’s a miracle he has managed to make Ultraviolet sound cohesive… but always full of surprises. Together is a heartbreaking collaboration with the mysterious Shy Heavens. Lyrically dealing with grief, loss and faith – this is a great pop song hidden in the bloodstream of Ultraviolet’s body.
The album’s true highlight is Mångata; a devastatingly personal reflection, mesmerising in it’s own simplicity. Pearson’s relationship with his piano is one that echoes the minimalist ideals of Nils Frahm and here it takes centre stage – giving emphasis to raw human emotion; loneliness, frustration and a voice that wishes to be heard. With tracks like this, it will be. Sometimes it’s the quietest moments that make the biggest noise.
There are great dancefloor anthems here too. The gloriously propulsive Orchid wouldn’t feel out of place on Jon Hopkin’s masterpiece ‘Immunity’, beats bouncing around like charged atoms waiting to collide with each other, whilst Sufi glows in glorious ambient swirls. Ultraviolet is a triumph in sonic exploration, and Pearson’s arrangements are able to move both your heart and feet; shifting the direction of travel effortlessly from vulnerability to self-belief, from pleasure to retreat.
A trilogy of songs build momentously towards a dizzying grand finale. Machina, a glitchy, androgynous masterpiece, with traces of Kid A era Radiohead – makes me imagine digital raindrops falling to the ground, panic setting in… almost like a dystopian nightmare and an awakening from a dream. Pelog urgently ushers in the end, the ticking of life’s clock and crystalline heartbeats hurrying you towards the brutal and beautiful Guardian … a song that confronts Pearson’s isolation head on, an emotional climax that pirouettes between fear and euphoria. Ultraviolet, although full of individual brilliance, was designed to be heard as a whole – musical chromosomes tied together to form a living, breathing organism.
Ultraviolet by Espher is available now on digital download and limited edition C54 tape
via Ramber Records http://www.ramberrecords.bigcartel.com/product/ram_010-espher-ultraviolet
“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?”
– Voltaire, Candide
It was always going to take something truly magical to awaken me from my writer’s hibernation. With every passing month, it’s felt harder and harder to find the right words. I bought a desk in an attempt to commit myself, but the desk soon became littered with half-finished articles and a sense of frustration. I kept making excuses and finding new distractions…. and I think for a while, I might have even fallen a little bit out of love with music. That seems like such a strange and horrible thing to admit now, because in truth, it took just a few seconds of ‘Candide’ by Parade, to know that this was THE song to make everything right again.
A beautifully imagined debut by one of Manchester’s most promising new artists; ‘Candide’ is seemingly seeped in an old fashioned romanticism, a celebration of regret, despair and longing. Every moment is tenderly crafted by an artist determined to find hope in the darkest of places. Produced in the now mythological SWAYS Bunker.. or for the unenlightened, the spiritual home to some of Manchester’s greatest modern outfits (MONEY, Kult Country, Bernard & Edith and PINS) it seems like the stars might be aligning for Parade to break beyond the confines of the crumbling white walls that stand defiantly opposite Strangeways prison in Salford.
Having been a member of the confrontational and enigmatic post-rock outfit, Hartheim; a band which ended in the most tragic of circumstances with the untimely passing of guitarist Gaz Devreede, one could have almost forgiven Parade’s Nic Townley if he had disappeared off the radar completely. But this is a fascinatingly personal vision, full of hunger, desire and a dream-like innocence that clings lovingly onto every piano chord. With a vocal tone reminiscent of the unashamedly emotional quiver of Jeff Buckley, Townley has a remarkable ability to draw the listener into his world, and keep you there. Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek invited Townley to sing on stage with him during last year’s RNCM show; an unreal moment for an unknown artist, but one taken confidently. Candide is one of the most heartbreakingly perfect pieces of work I’ve heard in forever.
It feels somewhat appropriate that I’m writing an article about Mancunian hip hop artist Abnormal Sleepz at 4am in the morning, having spent most of the night tossing and turning because my brain wouldn’t have the decency to silence itself for a few hours. Luckily for me, Reece Samuels has the sort of voice with the ability to heal – introducing himself with 2015’s The Meditape – his debut mixtape demonstrated both intelligent wordplay and a love for experimental production.
It’s sequel The Meditape Two is an engaging, fearless and lovingly crafted piece of work that points to an artist of serious promise. Nearly every track on The Meditape Two has a different producer, yet it still manages to retain a cohesive atmosphere throughout… and this surely isn’t by luck. Samuels has cherry-picked and surrounded himself with some of Manchester’s most exciting new talents (G.S One, HMD, Piddy Py and Two4Kay) and brought them together to form a close-knit unit. His willingness to collaborate is by no means unusual within Mancunian circles, but by consistently pushing his ideas to new places, feelings and situations – I get the impression Samuels is not going to rest on his laurels.
It would of course be brutally unfair to compare Samuels to Kendrick Lamar, but there’s enough to be found here to connect the dots together – they certainly share a similar delivery style for instance – although my love for Samuels undeniably northern English tone and dialect is endless. The Meditape Two focuses on a person’s capacity to recover, learn and grow – it’s a refreshingly positive collection of material to enjoy and unravel, reaching deep into his personal experiences. The question remains, what direction will the Sleepz project take in the future… there’s a lot of darker subject matter out there to explore, and with everything going on in the world, we need artists like Samuels to try and make some sense of it. For now though, close your eyes, relax and discover a sleeping giant.
Sometimes all you need is a spark. When Grey Collective’s Adio Marchant (Bipolar Sunshine) and Gaika started expressing a keen interest in the music of HMD, it led to an interview on Manchester’s influential underground radio station Reform Radio. As a regular listener of late night show ‘The Witching Hour’; I was immediately drawn to the story of Hamdi Hassan, who spent his formative years in a small rural town in Denmark. Hassan was kicked out of art school for disruptive behavior in music class, and then consequently became addicted to MTV whilst he waited an entire year to get another placement. Eventually finding his way to his now adoptive home in Manchester; he discovered hip hop, grime and a supportive musical community – as well as his first recording studio, which was stationed above legendary nightclub Sankey’s in Beehive Mill.
HMD is beautifully representative of the new Mancunian order, where a growing number of young black artists are finding their voices being carried far wider than the limits of the city borders – and slowly dismantling any outdated perceptions of what a Mancunian artist should look and sound like. Latest release Dayz, a tender collaboration with Ruby-Ann Patterson (another artist making a name for herself with hip hop/soul band Family Ranks) feels like a breakthrough moment for both of them . HMD’s sparse but pretty production gives them both the freedom to showcase their rich vocals. Remiscent at times of Sampha, this is raw, emotive and utterly magical. Sometimes all you need is a spark.
When my facebook feed was suddenly overloaded this evening with beautiful images of ethereal landscapes, dilapidated boats and a towering volcano over a field of green, I knew that one of my friends had been visiting Iceland. The friend in question happened to be underground music journalist Cath Aubergine, who in all honesty has been one of the most important (and unsung) figures for promoting new artists in the last 15 years. She was in Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves Festival, and I thought I’d be foolish not to explore some of the many gigs she had been documenting. It was here, hidden within her photographs, that I discovered the heartwarming story of Steinunn Jónsdóttir.
Making electronic music under the playful name of asdfhg, Steinunn Jónsdóttir’s debut EP ‘Steingervingur‘ (2015) was written and recorded in her parent’s basement at the tender age of 16. Pseudonymously uploaded to bandcamp and shared with just a few close friends; it was accidentally unearthed during a late-night listening session by one of the judges of the Kraumur award – an Icelandic grassroots art prize. After a little investigation, Jónsdóttir found herself revealed and catapulted into the spotlight, unexpectedly winning one of the awards against some of the more established names. Now, just a few months on, and working with fellow musician Orri Úlfarsson, the project has taken on a life of it’s own, with 2016 already seeing the release of two stunningly crafted EP’s in ‘Skammdegi‘ and ‘Kliður‘.
The delicate dreaminess in September’s ‘Kliður’ is surely evidence enough of their remarkable talent together, but with a growing confidence in her voice, it seems like Jónsdóttir is tantalisingly close to producing something that breaks beyond Iceland and into the larger musical world. ‘Steypa‘ is the track I keep coming back to; hypnotic in it’s movement and an eternal state of innocence in it’s sound. But don’t be fooled by that, there’s a darkness here too… a lonely, insular sort of feeling that separates her from the whimsical and into the magnificent. Perhaps it wasn’t so accidental for Steinunn Jónsdóttir. Some things are meant to be.
Thanks to Hrefna Björg Gylfadóttir and The Reykjavik Grapevine.
When modern icon Kendrick Lamar performed a surprise secret show in Manchester recently, he also found the time to cypher with local talent at a workshop organised by Brighter Sounds. Clearly inspired by the opportunity to impress K.Dot; 21 year old Layfullstop rose to the challenge, holding her own on the mic against the Grammy-award winning star. It was the kind of attention-grabbing statement that she could only have imagined making the night before… but for those in the know, it’s just a matter of time before the spotlight takes on a more permanent fixture.
Currently one of Manchester’s best kept secrets, 21 year old Lay Nathan has already been exciting audiences with her genre-defying performances; experimenting with elements of neo-soul, jazz, electronica, hip hop and grime. Living in a city which naturally encourages collaboration, it’s no surprise to discover her recorded output is equally as expressive; as a member of urban collectives Roots Raddix and Cul Dé Sac, her talent is clearly being nurtured lovingly by those around her.
As a solo artist, Lay. has continually played with her artistic identity; there’s a real sense of freedom to her work, which from a purely technical perspective, displays a high level of skill and confidence… but, it’s the emotions behind her voice that truly make her something special. Latest release Angel Halo feels like it could be breakthrough moment, a track that mixes old school soul and injects it with modern hip hop – harking back to those 90’s R’n’B halcyon days, when Aaliyah, Lauryn Hill and TLC were ruling the charts. Produced by Keziyah, the intelligently subtle and sophisticated production gives the track breathing space and allows her to reach for moments of beauty with her sultry and distinct velvet harmonies.
To my mind, the most exciting creative force in Manchester, if not the UK right now, is undoubtedly the GREY Collective. Comprising of Bipolar Sunshine, Gaika, August&Us and Jazz Purple; together they have been slowly changing perceptions of Mancunian identity, confronting the idea that black artists have to sound a certain way to be heard and achieve recognition. Historically, Manchester has of course been a city noted for it’s role in the rise of British hip hop – from early pioneers The Ruthless Rap Assassins and Krispy 3, right through to the present day where we find The Mouse Outfit and Levelz deservedly ruling the roost. But GREY are at the beginning stages of a new musical awakening, with the spotlight flickering from one artist to the next, revealing a different and perhaps more liberated vision for Manchester’s future; one that shuns the expectations of both industry and the audience.
Bipolar Sunshine was the first to break down the barriers, with a handful of beloved and beautifully crafted alt-pop singles, before Adio Marchant’s self-belief and persistence was finally rewarded when ‘Middle’, his collaboration with DJ Snake, crash-landed it’s way into the top 20 of the US billboard charts. Talk about making a statement.
Gaika may never have the same mainstream appeal, but I don’t think that’s ever been his intention; instead he’s chosen to walk his own path, introducing us to a dark and brutal electronic landscape, that has already been compared (quite wonderfully) to a Basquiat painting. Debut mixtapes ‘Machine’ and ‘Security’ are seismic in their ambition and scale; politically charged and hyper-real, a veritable treasure chest of sounds and ideas. With roots in both Manchester and London, Gaika is soaking up his surroundings and turning them into a visceral audio/visual experience.
Which brings us in timely fashion to Jazz Purple, the blossoming project of Ola Modupe-Ojo; a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and producer with unlimited potential… and Mancunian swagger to boot. Having intrigued me with early release,’The Chronicles of Jazz Purple’; an electronic/rock/RnB fusion with grand ambitions, and then later being transfixed by the lucid, hazy production on show during ‘Do You’, I’ve been excited to see where Jazz might take us next. It turns out Intentions is pretty close to being pop perfection, drawing on the spirit of 808’s and Heartbreak era Kanye; there’s enough romance, soul and introspection here to justify any hype. The truth is it’s hard not to admire Ola’s confidence and ambition, and in a week where we lost the greatest Purple musician of them all, it feels somewhat fitting another Purple star is about to write his own chapter.
In what might be perceived as a linguistic nod to their Melbourne peers HTRK (pronounced Hate Rock), emerging electronica trio RKDA (pronounced Arcadia) have named themselves in a similarly obscure and minimalist fashion. As first impressions go, debut single ‘Spaces’ left it’s mark by playing with industrial textures in a dark seductive atmosphere. It was a bold artistic statement that (whether knowingly or not) referenced the work of Karin Dreijer Andersson, blurring together elements of femininity with machinery, and avant-garde pop music with experimental noise.
New release Quartz is a beguiling creation that hints at a more organic progression, whilst retaining much of what made ‘Spaces’ so intriguing. Beginning with a freshly discovered tenderness, and underpinned by an almost Joy Division influenced post-punk drum sample, ‘Quartz’ builds quickly in both tension and depth, managing to delicately balance melancholy with a powerful primal feel. These are tiny steps towards a bigger world, and RKDA are making them with a growing confidence in their own identity, and a defining clarity in their ideas.
Quartz is taken from forthcoming EP CS, which will be released digitally and on vinyl via Riot Expert Records at the end of April.
Over the years, Laurie Hulme has graced many a Manchester band with his irrefutable talent. From the Felt influenced indie-pop of Golden Glow, to the raucously fun post-punk of Beat The Radar. He’s one of those musicians that has quietly gone about his business with an undeniably modest and warm approach to life. Now, after 5 years in the making, his touchingly personal project Songs For Walter deserves all the plaudits it has already been receiving. A masterpiece in storytelling; he’s worked hard to create a collection of songs that pay fitting tribute to his grandfather and their relationship. A beautifully relatable piece of work – I couldn’t help but think about my own grandfather Idwal; a slightly eccentric Welshman whose wonder and magic has remained firm in my memory long after his death. Laurie has been kind enough to talk us through the album, delving deep into Walter’s life, and giving us some fantastic insight’s into Walter’s life:
Useless is about my Grandfather’s dabbling with communism in the 1930’s. He worked at the same biscuit factory as his father, Walter senior. Word got out that young Walter had been attending communist meetings and my great grandfather was told that the both of them would be sacked if this continued. The whole lyrics are from the perspective of Walter senior, rollocking his son!
My Grandfather would often tell us stories form WW2. One of his most repeated stories was of the evacuation of Dunkirk. He described it as a very well organised affair with sergeants separating people into strong, weak and non swimmers. He always claimed he’d smuggled a bottle of whisky into his uniform which he and his comrades enjoyed as they sailed back to England, escaping with their lives. This is one of oldest songs to appear on the album, dating back to 2011.
Meet Me At The Empire
This song is about my grandparents’ first date. After winning a 3 legged race (more about that later) at their work’s sports day they were awarded a prize of two tickets to the Empire theatre in Liverpool that evening. My grandmother wasn’t sure if her very strict family would allow it and so Walter agreed to wait at the Empire that evening to see if his date would arrive. She did and they were a couple for the following 74 years!
The Joint World Record Holders
My Grandparents literally went for a day out, every day for the best part of fourty years! This song tells a true story about them unexpectedly driving form their house in the suburbs of Liverpool to the north of Scotland. It was released on an early EP and I always felt it was missing something – turns out the shuffley drum beat was what it needed. In the back ground is a recording of my old car’s engine, I remember getting odd looks off the neighbours as I held a mic over the bonnet. At the start is a recording (done on my mobile) of Walter telling me, as he drove about putting some “juice” into a car battery! I’d planned to put more of such recordings into the album but sadly lost them all when a computer unexpectedly died.
There’s a great story behind this song …My Grandparents got married during WW2 and unfortunately Grandad’s regiment had been infected with a rare case of scabies. The choice was to either call off the wedding or be painted from head to toe in a purple iodine solution! You can guess what happened. This was first song that started off the SFW project, written on a really old three stringed guitar that lived at my partner’s parents house!
Moon/Two Out Of Ten
Walter hated space travel! He thought it was a waste of money when the world is in such a state. He had a subscription to National Geographic magazine and would give scores to all the articles. Any article concerning things beyond the Earth’s atmosphere would never get more than two out of ten.
The Three Legged Race
My Grandparent’s met at a Sports day put on by their employers (Crawford’s biscuits.) The pair chose each other to run together in the three legged race and they won! This was the very start of their 74 year relationship! It was the same day that the Mersey tunnels opened. This is a really old tune dating back till about 2009. Originally, I was hell bent on starting the record but it’s just not a suitable opener! The electric guitars were recorded at a ridiculously high volume.
Flowers On The Windowsill
Another early song that details the eccentricities of Walter Hulme, written shortly after he died. Whenever I went to visit a great deal of time would be spent re-arranging floral displays on the windowsill of his living room.
Watch The Dogs
I wrote this one in 2011 right in the midst of my total obsession with Smog/Bill Callahan I was influenced by how abstract BC’s lyrics are and yet how they are often tied to a theme. I guess some of the lines are about the influence of Walter on me but people can interpret this one however they like!
Competition, Diffidence and Glory
I was very close to my Grandfather but we fell out for a brief spell after I became very involved with politics. I went to protests and switched my university course to politics from geography. Walter was not impressed. I was labelled an anarchist and accused of damaging the fabric of society. The second verse “…you give that shit up…” is a direct quote! He also was a firm believer in revenge hence the “eye for an eye line,” something I don’t necessarily agree with. The title is a famous quote from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, a book I studied at Uni. It was written on the guitar and then covered on to Banjo later!
This song concerns the last year or so of my Grandparent’s lives. My Grandmother’s health declined rapidly in the last few years and Walter took on the roll as full time carer (and he wouldn’t have had it any other way!) I’d often ring him and he’d say he’d been up in the night eight, nine times putting her on the toilet etc. It must have been an exhausting time for him. He didn’t really ever complain about it, it was just something that he had to do. When he died my Uncle and Dad wrote a brilliant eulogy that really influenced the lyrics and titles of this album the title of this was lifted from there.