Album Review Round-Up

Musical excavations and explorations from Kevin Ayers & co, A Year In the Country and Marcus H.

It’s always nice when a package arrives from We Are Cult Towers, dispatched in the hand of our fair editor, Gentleman Gent. “An assignment!”, thought I, as some CDs landed on my bare foot. A download link also arrived, thankfully not on my bare foot. And so I surveyed my homework, and elected to start wearing socks indoors again. What to start with? Ambient dream-fuel? Prog-Hippie mysticism? Or a concept album about the scrapyard of space exploration. Or I just listen to all of it and write a review, which I’m pretty sure was what James wanted me to do, rather than writing a smug, waffly intro.

Kevin Ayers/Lady June/Ollie Halsall – ‘The Happening Combo’

The Happening Combo is a collection of home and studio demos by Kevin Ayers, Patto guitar-savant Ollie Halsall, and poet-scenester Lady June Campbell-Cramer. Compiled by long-time Ayers accomplice, Marvin Siau recorded between 1980 and 1997, songs feature from Ayers, Halsall, and the less-known Lady June.

The rub is that The Happening Combo isn’t really a combo. The demos are all solo demos from three distinct projects, a 1980 New York studio session for Ayers with a full band featuring Halsall on guitar, Halsall’s well-crafted one man band home demos from the late 80s, and Lady June’s poems, set to music abetted by Siau during the 90s. The release, from Market Square is named after a blurry 1980 picture of Ayers, Halsall, and Siau messing around at Ayers’ home in Deia, Spain, but you only learn that from the back of the CD. You also have to go looking for this photo, as the picture itself is reproduced , very small, in the booklet, without explanation or a label.

Muddled presentation aside, the music itself is interesting. Ayers’ banging Speeding Heart is the standout track, the strutting love child of Macca’s Jet and Suffragette City, with added New Wave zip. That said, Ayers’ bizarre version of Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay was probably best left on the shelf. Halsall’s trademark brilliant fusion guitar scrawls are largely absent, but his songs, including the prototype version of Ayers’ Ghost Train are cute, treading a line between Harry Nilsson’s mellower efforts and McCartney Cherry Album whimsy. Lady June’s efforts are a harder sell, but the wee hours chill of Sea Cake is nicely haunting English whimsy. It’s rounded off by the wonky, lo-fi demo of Another Time Before by Siau himself, a song later appropriated by Ayers as Another Rolling Stone.

It’s hard to knock this release. It’s clearly put together with a lot of love from tapes carefully guarded by the faithful Siau, but calling it a combo is a bit of a stretch.

Kevin Ayers/Lady June/Ollie Halsall – ‘The Happening Combo’ is out now from Market Square Music, RRP £9.00

A Year In The Country – ‘The Quietened Cosmologists’

A collaboration with a much firmer foundation is the latest themed effort from the A Year In The Country collective, The Quietened Cosmologists. The fourth release this year, it’s cracking collection of electronica that could be seen as a less grand response to Public Service Broadcasting’s The Race For Space – it’s all about the abandoned, uncelebrated, and unrealised attempts to reach the stars.

The mournful, ambient Lonely Puck by Pulselovers and Grey Frequency’s Phantom Cosmonauts are both oddly affecting, while David Colohans desolate Landfall At William Creek perfectly evokes lonely space junk rusting in the wilderness.  It’s not all sombre stuff, though – ringleader A Year In The Country’s The March Of Progress/Frontier Dreams is an inventive mix of pulses and static-y skittering drums, while the glammy stomp of Keith Seatman’s 093A-Prospero is best described as a sort of interstellar Lieutenant Pigeon.

It’s testament to the strength of these collections and their themes that AYITC keep it fresh and interesting considering their prolific release-rate.

A Year In The Country – ‘The Quietened Cosmologists’ is available from bandcamp, RRP £4.95 or more

Soiled (Marcus H) – ‘Phonic Grafts’

Similar musical ground is mined in Phonic Grafts, the latest album from Soiled, aka ambient maestro Marcus H. It’s eight tracks of scratchy, trippy, distressed soundscapes, with electronic scrapes and washes weaving deftly in and out of spare, spidery snatches of guitar. The whole thing’s a beautifully crafted bit of uneasy listening, but the last three tracks are the highlights. Submerged In Non-Thoughts is a six minute odyssey into the subconscious via a spoken word contribution (from the late Rob Scilliano, according to the sleeve notes), and some acid rock drums. The scathing square waves (well, they sound square, anyway) of Wolf Biter are truly menacing, while the closing Shadows Of Bowker Vale is all dislocated shards of snarling guitar and slabs of musique concrete, reminiscent of the intro to the Stones’ 2000 Light Years From Home.

Soiled (Marcus H) – ‘Phonic Grafts’ is available from bandcamp, from £2

Having listened to all three of these albums and dropped some of them on my feet, I recommend you do the same, although in the case of The Happening Combo, don’t let the variable quality, vague packaging, and slight ring of false advertising spoil your experience. Let the music do the talking, except in the case of Kevin Ayers’ cheesy version of Lay Lady Lay, which is best skipped.

 Martin Ruddock has written for ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, the ‘You And Who’ series, and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He lives in Bournemouth with a beautiful, very patient woman and teetering piles of records and nerd stuff. He loves writing, and may write something for you if you ask nicely.

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