When roses were violet

One of the great LPs of the Post-Britpop warp is getting a re-release today to mark its 21st Anniversary. AOTGL is unusual in that it remains a cult classic to this day while at the time being a No.1 chart-topper, a bizarre mix of audacity and subversion, and granite-strength ambition. Here’s a short retrospective I did for (the late, great) State Magazine about a record that, along with In It For The Money by Supergrass, was a pinnacle of that era. 

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Mansun – Attack of The Grey Lantern
(1997, Parlophone)

IN 1997, as Oasis’s gluttonous Be Here Now euthanased Britpop, a mutation occurred in the UK rock gene that has since yielded great things. Two events signalled that lairy lad anthems and Wellerdom were to take a back seat in favour of art, perversity and tension. Radiohead’s OK Computer was one. Attack Of The Grey Lantern knocking Blur off the top of the charts was the other.

It’s hard to pick what was strangest about Mansun. Was it the chain of frantic, over-cooked EPs that preceded AOTGL? Maybe it was the lyrics about cross-dressing vicars, small-town deviants and the smut behind kitchen-sink England. And what the feck was this precocious mix of glam, goth and groove doing on a debut (a concept album if you don’t mind) by a bunch of nobodies from the UK’s armpit? The Beatles were an influence, but so were The Bee Gees, Prince and The Carpenters (or so they told us). Never-the-less, bombast and weirdness may be two-a-penny in today’s rock vista, but in 1997 it was only to be mocked, and Mansun’s precociousness went largely unsung by a music press who chose to throw stones at them for not fitting in.

Today, AOTGL resounds with relevance and weight. There’s no doubting that the quartet’s embrace of rock’s absurdities – concept albums, segueing, silly song titles – was leader Paul Draper’s artistic defence mechanism. In him, they had a dark-hearted pop writer, able to bleed swooping classicalisms (glorious opener ‘The Chad Who Loved Me’) into icy smoothness (‘Mansun’s Only Love Song’) and on to hard-nosed, arena-courting rock (the evergreen ‘Wide Open Space’). Elsewhere, ‘Disgusting’ layers clacking drumsticks over washes of synth and Draper’s softly spat accusations (“You’ve been disgraceful / it’s so regretful”). Melodically, it’s as strong as pop gets, but then Dominic Chad’s acrobatic guitar will haunt the ominous fringes alongside sequencers and samples. Hard to categorise, let alone describe, even all these years later.

The release of the progged-up Six in 1998 was proof Mansun were as bold and brilliant as they were stubborn. Band relations disintegrated following troubled third LP Little Kix and they split in 2003. But they’ll always have AOTGL. Like Television, they seemed to hover in when they were most needed, drop an essential record down to us earthlings before crash-landing spectacularly.

First published in State Magazine

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Girl Band, you know it

They were to attack Dublin’s Button Factory this Saturday night but have cancelled the rest of their tour. Sooo… thought I might repost a recent review I did for State.ie of Girl Band’s unforgettable debut LP Holding Hands With Jamie. 

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Having a song called ‘Heckle The Frames’ might be an indication of Girl Band’s attitude to “serious music”. Similarly, when you manage to piece apart the frantic yelps and adolescent wails of frontman Dara Kiely you might register mentions of Nutella, corn on the cob and garlic cheese chips. “Kids today,” you might harrumph, but why then do these nine songs from the Rough Trade ruffians feel like the one of the most straight-talking and expertly measured rock debuts in recent memory?

Controlled chaos defines Girl Band’s oeuvre. Take ‘Pears For Lunch’, which chips and taps with post-punk drill bits before pushing you down a pit filled with staccato guitar lacerations and brain-jamming bass pecks. Album opener ‘Umbongo’ is a straight-up aural mugging, a vicious industrial acid test for scenesters thinking the Dublin quartet could be their latest trendy Spotify search. “Survive this, and you can stay,” it screams. ‘In Plastic’ pulls a neat trick of a doo-wop rhythm and nightmarish guitar discord from Alex Duggan, as if some grand malignancy is being kept at bay via incantation. Brilliant bassist Daniel Fox slides around woozily on the primal pummel of Adam Faulkner on ‘Paul’, lurching towards a death disco riot that would send The Horrors scarpering for cover.

And then there’s Kiely. On the near eight-minute litany of outbursts that comprise ‘Fucking Butter’, the vocalist flits between an array of settings; a white-noise scream; a giddy, spit-flecked yelp; a slack background rant like a regretful reveller ejected from a Minor Threat gig for slam-dancing. He’s free associating at breakneck speed as ‘The Witch Doctor’ hurtles this astonishing album towards the cliff-edge. He might just be serious so seat-belts are advised.

4/5

Royally impressed…

They’ve topped the charts, announced an Academy date and are resulting in a few more guitars going in the bin. From a couple of weeks back, this is my State.ie review. I called it first!

 

WHEN it emerged that it only took two people to be as loud as war – see Jack and Meg White, Death From Above 1979 and The Black Keys – the suspicion was that riff-happy duos would start popping up all over the landscape, but this has not been the case. It appears that while three-pieces require a cut above in terms of ability, duos must be of a different category of multitasking altogether to get the same rock results as more crowded outfits.

So with the above acts either disbanded, reformed or stuck in a holding pattern, the arrival of Royal Blood is timely. The Brighton combo of bassist/singer Mike Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher here blast out a riff manifesto on their debut of the like not seen since long before Queens of the Stone Age began needing Elton John to make records.

Kerr dashes about the fret and pedal boards to make something as mundane as a guitar a superfluous idea. From the opening bars of ‘Out Of The Black’, the riffs, each elastic, bludgeoning and smart, hammer forth. Scuzzed-up, megaphone vocals hitch a ride on pulsating, buzzsaw basslines on slick single ‘Figure It Out’ before breaking into an outro rampage. ‘You Can Be So Cruel’ is a more glam cousin of Queens’ ‘Do It Again’, while ‘Blood Hands’ slows things to a hard, bluesy lurch. Only half of ‘Little Monster’’s title is accurate.

The playing is imperious. Overdubs aside, Kerr’s bass, like Jesse F Keeler before him, does the work of three men, and in Thatcher, a new granite-hard percussion talent is revealed. But a key ingredient is that vocal; like a battle-hardened Dan Auerbach or an Anglian Tim Vanhammel, Kerr – an admitted Jeff Buckley disciple – brings vital contrast to the sonic testosterone with wild, huffing yelps, melody and perk. There’s a fair whiff of adolescence about it all, but if Royal Blood stick around and their sound calcifies with age, you can imagine a whole generation pairing up and ditching six strings for four.

4/5