There are some bits of Bristol which I very rarely visit these days, but which were once frequent haunts in my youth. One of these is Stokes Croft, most recently famous for local efforts to resist a new Tesco store and now something of a bohemian, multicultural enclave. As I waited to head for tonight’s performance I reminisced about the area and – I’ll be honest – it wasn’t always quite like this. My own memories focused on bewilderingly threatening graffiti, grimly dangerous pubs, methadone queues and creeping dereliction. But following a walk through what was once an isolated, sunken network of subways and which is now the newly christened ‘Bearpit Open Air Gallery’, the revitalised and re-sited Café Kino is something of a surprising triumph for localism. Upstairs, all manner of culinary delights are served alongside good Fairtrade coffee and organic beer while downstairs is a sizeable performance space with a low stage, plenty of seats and a bit of ramshackle charm. All of this run under the auspices of a successful Social Enterprise too. The ideally defiant and unusual venue then for another Hooops! night – by my calculation the fourth in fact. Tonight’s show once again used the familiar formula which has worked well so far – taking advantage of artists passing through on tour, and combining this with local opportunities. Whether by happy accident or design these Hooops! nights manage to become significant events in their own right and this was, after all a double record launch event which coincided with Record Store Day. However, that event with all it’s fetishistic vinyl releases meant that tonight was almost a launch night without any records, as the few remaining pressing plants creaked with the demand of producing special editions for tomorrow’s festival of retail.
Tonight’s opening act harked back to Bristol’s past too in some ways, invoking something of the guileless honesty and simplicity of the city’s indie-pop past and the spirit of Sarah Records. The Middle Ones are Anna and Grace tonight, although I understand there are sometimes others too depending on where and when they convene. For this evening, their set-up is simple – a single guitar, two voices and lots of nervous giggling. As one of the duo hails from Bristol, there is something of a local following and it’s good to see their set getting a great response from the small but growing crowd. The charm of The Middle Ones lies in those little off-mic whispers, the occasionally fluffed guitar chord and the sometimes wayward vocals. Because, when these two start to get comfortable within a song, when their voices manage to do the strange, twisting and turning around each other thing, and when suddenly it all shifts into focus this is really rather good. Bands just don’t sound like this just now, perhaps because it’s not hugely fashionable to – or perhaps because this kind of exposed, heart-on-sleeve artistry is actually pretty hard to get right? The short set touched lyrically on just the areas that perhaps you’d expect – love found, love lost, love unrequited – but it did so in a surprisingly frank and down-to-earth way, that managed to avoid contrivance and cringing. That’s no small feat for this embattled old hack, and there is something refreshingly uncomplicated about The Middle Ones which makes me feel both much younger and much older all at once. They just don’t make music like this anymore.
I wondered if seeing Seamus Fogarty performing twice in the space of a week would detract from the experience, but I’m happy to say it didn’t at all. A quietly polite, unassuming gent, it’s sometimes easy to forget Fogarty‘s fund of tales and experiences. Far from that straightforward and woefully inadequate description singer-songwriter, once again he used this to support a set of beautifully spun songs which seemed to emerge from chaos and confusion, coalescing into mesmerising, quietly beguiling pieces of music. Despite having set up a complicated mess of electronics, he once again decided to focus on his guitar and voice. While he told his strange, sometimes almost surreal stories to the rapt, silent audience he would tune the guitar. Sometimes this would go on for quite a while, but suddenly without even realising it had begun and the song would emerge slowly and quietly from the tuning. Fogarty‘s storytelling skills were effortlessly extended into his songs, and while some familiar material from last week’s Eye o’ The Dug performance re-emerged, there were new delights too. This included a hark back to his “country phase” with a curiously misogynistic ballad which he assured the audience wasn’t representative of his views these days. Seamus was keen to promote his new album “God Damn You Mountain” which had arrived just hours before the show – but perhaps not for the self-gratifying reasons you’d expect. Rather, he was dreading the experience of persuading Ryanair to carry even a gram of extra luggage without him parting with a huge fee. This meant the hugely frustrating experience of seeing, touching and very much wanting a record but knowing that my own copy is still winging it’s way to my home from rural Fife. So near and yet so far, and made all the worse by the fact the album is a very beautiful artefact in itself. Tracks from the tantalisingly close at hand album made up much of the rest of the set with “The Waterside” forming a surreal and lovely highlight with its curious images of “birds with dinosaur bodies“. On record this is a jittery, busy shuffle of a track, but here it’s delivered slowly and reflectively, with Fogarty‘s voice no less brimming with emotion and gravity than when he’s tackling darker lines. While you hope Seamus got his albums home safe, it’s hard not to wonder if that story too will crop up sometime, buried in a song and delivering the little moments of light relief which pepper this warmly and genuinely appreciated set.
Headlining tonight, and due to the manufacturing delays sadly minus the Fence “Chart Ruse” EP that he was here to launch Delifinger took the the stage with his stony-faced but highly effective band of musicians. Looking much more relaxed in this more intimate setting Matthew Lacey began a set which pulled off exactly the remarkable trick he manages on record – that is, to take the popular music of the last four decades, throw it into a blender with a little of the oddness of his other project OLO Worms and some vintage electronics, and to turn out something much greater and far better sounding than the sum of these varied parts would suggest. The new “Escapes EP” was aired in full with “Take It Slowly” becoming a collision of easy-listening, country, pop and strange, warbling synth sounds which worm their way dangerously into your consciousness. In fine voice, Lacey switched moods and delivered the sinister “It’s Not Going To End Well For Me” against an ominous rumbling bassline provided by Paul McGuinness who quietly patrolled the back of the stage. The title track, “Escapes” is as edgy and pensive as on record with weird shudders of electronica supplied courtesy of Rich Amino who emerged from behind the worlds tiniest electronic drumkit to do the honours. It’s sometimes hard to determine whether this is a futuristic take on music from the past as filtered through a fine record collection and an ear for a cracking melody, or whether perhaps this is what they seriously thought music would be like in the future? I can picture Delifinger on Tomorrow’s World, representing how life will change by 2012. But the star turn here is the songwriter, with his simple but atmospheric tunes and mildly disturbing but always affecting words. If there is ever a Delifinger album – and mid set I’m almost convinced I should start seeking the finance to make sure there is such a thing – it will, just like tonight, sound like a time machine. An odd, clattering and whirring thing which once it has reached the correct operating frequency hums and sings wonderfully through the ages of pop. Timeless is an over-used word in the reviewer’s lexicon, but for Delifinger tonight it’s a highly appropriate one.
Sadly, all too soon it was time to pick my way through the seething mass of humanity which Stokes Croft had become during the time I’d spent in the strangely soothing bubble of Hooops!. Leaving folks chatting about Record Store Day, and then seamlessly moving on to obscure heavy metal picture discs and classic local gigs of the past, it was very tempting to stick around and miss the train – but I’m getting too old for sleeping in subways, even if it is now part of an art installation. Whilst this was a quiet, relaxed and understated sort of evening it was also a chance to witness some musicians who seemed to be enjoying absolutely doing something a little different from the norm. If these nights have a guiding philosophy at all, then that’s probably the part that appeals to me. Gigs that no-one would ever dare put on, here in Bristol. You’d be a fool to miss this…
I awoke to bright sunshine and a distinctly fuzzy head, and decided that the only remedy was to get out into the fresh air and wander around St. Andrews. For a Sunday morning things were surprisingly busy, with irritatingly fresh-faced students already striding around town, some clearly having already done energetic, sporting things. Noticed a few more familiar faces looking distinctly green though, and slinking into Tesco to emerge with paracetamol and lucozade in their shaky grasp. I decided to make the best of my situation with a fine walk to the ruins of the Cathedral and around the town. I don’t get to be a tourist very often, and it seemed like a good way to remove cobwebs. Pleasant though it was, it didn’t quite manage to shift the fug, and it was with a mixture of delight and relief that I spied the Fisher & Donaldson’s van arriving at Younger Hall as I found my way there a little before events recommenced, conveying it’s ever-welcome cargo of guaranteed hangover-busting baked goods. This was tempered though by the sight of King Creosote unloading vast amounts of booze from the back of a car. Things were about to start all over again…
Today’s events were to take place in The Younger Hall, from the outside a vast grey Greek temple of a place sitting on North Street amongst the tight knot of attractive, ancient university buildings. Inside it had a strangely reverential air – the venue for graduations and classical recitals, it was covered in wood panelling and huge gleaming organ pipes, save for a huge, strangely abstract Eye o’ The Dug banner which adorned the back of the stage. Somehow it felt a little more like the mixture of halls and spaces in Anstruther which are appropriated for Homegame use, and once I’d got my bearings in the sprawling building it felt like a fine place to see some of the acts on the bill today, which would likely be a little less energetic than last night’s performances. However, openers Randolph’s Leap had absolutely no intention of lacking energy – bursting into life with the gusto and pomp of a headliner rather than an opening act, Adam Ross was accompanied by an expanded bunch of co-conspirators, including trumpet, trombone and strings. From the outset this was pretty special – fresh from public opprobrium regarding ‘tweeness’ and the whole Briangate affair, this band was resolutely not that – going as far as a hilariously poor Josh T. Pearson impersonation in their efforts to prove the case. There was no need at all, with the big, bold sound suiting Ross‘s compositions perfectly. Rollicking through a set including highlights from recent cassette release “The Curse of the Haunted Headphones” along with some unfamiliar new material, there were even outbreaks of spontaneous onstage dancing. Finishing up with a triumphant big band recasting of early relase “Crisps”, the audience stomped and yelled for more. What a way to shake off the last of yesterday’s cobwebs. With more of the audience beginning to drift into the hall following the excesses of last night, latest Fence signing Seamus Fogarty took to the stage. Having not managed to catch his performances previously this was something of a revelation to me, as he unravelled strange tales over gentle guitar backgrounds, strange echoing electronics or sometimes almost acapella. His voice, a gentle but emotion-cracked wonder, soared over the silent crowd and into the hall – all the more amazing as it came from the distant figure on the big, churchlike setting of the stage. Some of the material was familiar and bodes well for the imminent album – not least “The Wind” which has recently seen a haunting Geese remix, and the compelling semi-autobiographical storytelling of “Christmas Time on Jupiter”.
We shuffled downstairs next to the strangely shaped and rather cramped Stewart Room, which seemed to be directly underneath the main stage above. It was perhaps the perfect intimate space in which to witness Barbarossa – an artist from the early years of Fence who has been involved in all manner of other musical outlets over the years. Recently reactivated, James Mathé‘s own singer-songwriter project drew a huge audience from among the faithful for his beautifully soulful voice and simple, guitar and keyboard arrangements. I’m not ashamed to admit that this was new to me, and I was slack-jawed in mute appreciation along with many of the other casual listeners who hadn’t known what to expect but were now hushed and reverential. Some gentle backing vocals from Rozi Plain just added to the sense of quiet wonder in this fantastic set. I can’t wait to hear the forthcoming EP, which an informed guess might suggest will be a future “Chart Ruse” subscription effort. After struggling back up to the main hall – and realising just how awkward the building was to get around was despite it’s great acoustics and atmosphere, we were treated to a set by The Pictish Trail. Johnny Lynch confessed a little later that with all the work to get this event up and running, he’d not thought a great deal about what to play. In the event, he turned in a warm and memorably emotional solo performance which will remain with me as an Eye ‘o The Dug highlight, making this look impossibly effortless in the process. Mixing older tracks like “Words Fail Me Now” with the existential angst of new material like “Of Course You Exist”, Lynch worked the audience like a consummate showman. Amid the heartstring tugging though were plenty of laughs, and a little audience participation was called for on “Not To Be” extended greatly from it’s brief appearance on the “In Rooms” LP last year. As the song ended with exaggerated Pictish Trail vougueing and the audience yelling responses back at the stage, it wasn’t hard to see why this essentially one-man-and-a-guitar act can pack the main hall here. There was just time before scattering off to find refreshment in the short break to catch James Yorkston performing with the lightning-fingered Jon Thorne accompanying him on double-bass, though sadly visa issues prevented Sarangi player Suhail Yusuf Khan from joining them. As ever, Yorkston was grimly humourous and darkly self-aware and his anecdotes and observations alone could have made up a suitably entertaining set. He too chose to use this opportunity to showcase new material, and the songs which made up the set varied between self-immolating guilt ballads to spirited rants, all of them accompanied by Thorne‘s dizzying playing. There were genuinely affecting, lump-in-throat-moments aplenty too, and as I cast an eye around the hushed Younger Hall, I could see I wasn’t alone in being transported by James‘s muse. It was magical stuff for sure, delivered humbly and almost apologetically.
Suitably refreshed after a variety of hostelries and eateries had been rapidly besieged by Dug-goers, people began to drift back towards the venue and there was for a moment, a rather pleasant lazy feeling to proceedings as musicians and festival-goers alike sprawled in late afternoon sunshine and waited for things to start up for the last session of the day. If there was one tiny hitch in proceedings it was the extended soundcheck in the main hall which kept people confused and waiting to know quite what to do. As entrance to the Stewart Hall was also via this room, there was no clear idea where to queue. Eventually, some of us were lucky enough to be directed out of the building and into a mysterious door leading downstairs, just in time to catch Monoganon‘s set. Their set commenced with a couple of new songs which continued in the vein of last year’s “Songs To Swim By” album, combining passages of delicate folky loveliness with crashing walls of noise. In the confines of the smaller room, Monoganon in full flight were a force to be reckoned with and happily, as the soundcheck issues upstairs resolved themselves albeit with a huge delay incurred, a steady stream of people managed to get down to catch the blistering end of their set. Another unintended consequence of the delays was that it was possible to stay downstairs for much of Kid Canaveral‘s set. My deep, near embarrassing love for this band has been detailed here before and the prospect of them clashing was a difficult one to consider, with the logistics occupying a bunch of us all weekend. With the room now full to bursting they struggled up to the stage with Dave MacGregor posing briefly as KT Tunstall. This interest should probably have been predicted by their triumphant set at last year’s Homegame, as they proceeded to induce instant dancing in the already uncomfortably packed room. Beside the occasional bob of a Canaveral‘s head, I couldn’t see much but I could hear new songs effortlessly tumbling out of this talented foursome, and on this basis the new album is going to be packed with the kind of moments which once again today induce involuntary smiling in even the sternest audience member. Even some of the security staff looked mildly entertained, and that was no small feat!
With upstairs still rather behind schedule, we were able to make the final ascent in good time to pitch up directly in front of the stage. The choice here had been terribly difficult – with Withered Hand and FOUND closing things downstairs. However, I’d been gently persuaded over the past few weeks that it would be good to see KT Tunstall. I’d never seen her play live, and my only contact with her work in recent times had been via the radio. Contrary to popular myth, I don’t think there is any great rift between Fence fans and KT at all, but the rumour persists and there are some I think who like to keep it running. But, tonight at least, back on a familiar stage in their home town KT and some old friends were going to play together again. Whilst I regret what I didn’t get to hear downstairs hugely, I am very happy I stayed for this. Like others, Tunstall had elected to play a set of new material – so new in fact that this was the first public airing for these songs. Accompanied by the simplest of band set-ups, including a fantastic steel guitar player, she picked her way through a set of bewitchingly beautiful songs. The tunes were often dark – countering her self-confessed “perky mofo” reputation – and far more anchored to place too, with several of the songs seemingly about the area and in fact the town where we were hearing them. The security guards’ burly image had now slipped entirely, with a pair of them jostling each other at the side of the stage to get a good shot of KT on their camera phones. I’ll confess that despite my reservations and probably some vestiges of inverted snobbery, I was utterly spellbound by KT‘s voice. Recalling only hearing it belting out big radio-friendly things – which she is, it must be said very very good at – it was a genuine pleasure to hear this, her more considered side. And any sense that the audience wouldn’t be up for this was dispelled by the huge reaction the set garnered – and a quick glance over the shoulder showed that there were a fair few regular Fence folks up here too. Despite any concerns Tunstall had managed the never easy trick of delivering an entirely new set of songs and still pleasing the crowd. It was another of those Eye o’ The Dug moments no-one will forget in a while. The news that she will soon be recording in Arizona with Giant Sand genius-in-chief Howe Gelb was also very significant, and the results could be very interesting indeed. The songs performed tonight, stripped back and delivered in the dry desert air, could be some of her finest work yet.
It will probably surprise regular readers to hear I had reservations about King Creosote and Jon Hopkins too. Having heard “Diamond Mine” performed a few times, and having played the record until it was almost worn through, this album has sort of absorbed itself into me – and oddly I’ve found it strange and difficult to listen to live. However, this was going to be something special. For starters it was the first time that it would be performed in full in the Kingdom of Fife – the geography which inspired and runs inextricably through the songs. Secondly, the band which assembled to deliver this was pretty special – with Geese providing strings and drums and KT Tunstall assuming additional vocal duties. Kenny Anderson shuffled on stage to a tremendous, warm reception, hushing the crowd as Jon Hopkins began to pick out the notes of “First Watch” on the absurdly large grand piano which had been shifted onto the stage for the occasion. What followed is almost impossible to explain in words… With no breaks for between song banter, and with an audience showing the utmost respect for the quiet, delicate nature of the songs the album was reinvented. Anderson was in fine voice, stretching for notes it was surely not possible to reach and lifting onto tip-toes to catch them. Tunstall‘s counterpoint vocals were utterly beguiling too, and the moments where she and Kenny harmonised and made eye contact should have melted the hardest heart – there is no animosity in Fife, just a genuine love for the craft of musicianship. As the other musicians left the stage, Anderson and Hopkins were left to deliver perhaps the most wrenchingly lovely versions of “Your Own Spell” and “Your Young Voice” which I’ll ever hear, before an absolute explosion of appreciation from the rapt audience. Mercury Prizes, even Scottish Album of the Year Awards might be important – but this kind of immediate, emotional feedback must surely transcend all of that critical acclaim?
It was left to King Creosote and Jon Hopkins to close things, and they did so via a clutch of non-”Diamond Mine” material which delighted a crowd which probably didn’t think it could be any happier, including a storm through “Spystick” and a superb take on “Home In A Sentence”. It could have gone on all night, but as they left the stage again to a thunderous reaction Eye o’ The Dug was all over, bar the post match drinking and the mournful “I don’t want to go home” tweets, of which more than a few were going to be mine. During his set earlier, Johnny Lynch had asked the audience if this event had “killed the spirit of Fence?”. With tongue perhaps firmly in cheek, he reasoned that yes, it had a bit – but that was OK. As scores of happy faces straggled along North Street heading for the after party or their much needed beds, I don’t think anything died. In fact, this weekend, something might just have been reborn in this quiet corner of Fife.
“I don’t want to go home…“
“I don’t know where to begin…” sings The Pictish Trail, bathed in purple light in the sepulchral surroundings of Younger Hall – and he’s right. Where do I start trying to describe this weekend? Do I describe the huge party, the meeting-up with friends old and new, and one of the most eclectic line-ups of any festival you’ll see this coming summer? Or do I got for the almost mystical qualities which these Fence events seem to possess – the build up, the strangely happy bubble we inhabit during the event, and the difficulty in readjusting to real life for days afterwards? Perhaps I’ll start right back at the beginning… There’s a strange feeling which descends sometime around the beginning of the year. Life is just winding back up to normal speed after the traditional Christmas sluggishness, and the frankly heartbreaking vista of a new working year is opening up. People are tetchy and can’t explain why, there is a sense of ennui everywhere. It’s around this time usually that emails start to bounce around, tweets are twittered and panic booking of East Neuk accommodation is suddenly rife. Because it’s around that awful, gloomy turn of the year when Homegame is announced. So, imagine a year when you enter those dark first weeks knowing that it won’t be happening at all this time. It’s almost unbearable – and then Johnny Lynch almost casually announces Eye o’ the Dug. A few miles up the road, a bit of a different pitch, but essential it marks the gathering of the tribes in the north once again. It was always going to be an interesting weekend…
My own Eye o’ the Dug experience began on Saturday, having skipped the pre-party due to being an old fart and not reckoning I’d make it through the trials and tribulations of the next couple of days intact if I started too early. I’d enjoyed a day of lounging around, revisiting old haunts, drinking coffee and watching the curious and ancient university tradition of the Kate Kennedy Parade taking place in St. Andrews. But another parade was under way too – as the crowds drifting along Market Street began to feature more familiar faces… This was going to be a big event – indeed huge by Fence standards. Rather like press reports of protest marches, estimates seem to vary about the total number – with some sources suggesting as many as 1200 attending. As the weather took another bizarre flip from soft evening sunshine to snowstorm, I entered Venue 1 – part of the sprawling Student Union building – not quite knowing what to expect. In the event it was a fine venue – spacious, plenty of bar staff and lots of opportunity to catch up with people in comfort. The security guards were a bit bewildered by the odd mix of people I think, but aside from some curiously fastidious crowd-control they left everyone mostly alone and concentrated on looking fearsomely detached. Meanwhile, Dewars were concocting evil tasting whisky-based cocktails and dishing them out mostly for free. Hence, a lot of people were in party mood from the outset. They were rewarded with Conquering Animal Sound, who delivered a icily cool set of new material which added new layers of complexity on the brittle, crystalline sound which defined “Kammerspiel”. I’d never seen the band look or sound more confident, and it was interesting to note Anneke Kampman relying less on effects and sonic trickery and often letting her voice do all the work. Skipping effortlessly from a whisper to a howl, she was accompanied by some frenzied sound manipulation by James Scott who spun between his various instruments without ever letting his ever-secure top button slip. As the relatively lesser known act on a fairly high-profile bill tonight, I think Conquering Animal Sound won a few hearts among the student population and reinforced the reputation they had garnered at last years’ Homegame with the Fence folks. What was also increasingly apparent was that with copious alcohol consumption and outbreaks of spontaneous dancing, it was getting harder and harder to evidence the ‘two crowds in one place’ theory of Eye o’ The Dug. It seems the gamble had paid off!
Next up were Frànçois and The Atlas Mountains, and I was forced to confess that I’ve never quite got this band completely, and I’ve found it equally hard toput my finger on why not. However, it also occurred to me today that I’d never properly watched them live – and I was struck right away by the sheer energy which the band pour into their art. It was a set packed with shimmery, ecstatic washes of noise and sudden twists and turns. As Frànçois spun and jerked around the stage, squeezing seemingly impossible notes from his guitar, I finally understood what people were seeing here. They’ll never be my favourite band I’m sure, but this was an incredible, intense performance which managed to whip the crowd into near frenzy. And that perhaps is what these Fence events do best – presenting you with something new, different and unexpected when you’re at you most receptive. Things were getting a little hazy by the time Dutch Uncles arrived on stage. A band I knew virtually nothing about, but had heard discussed in hushed tones earlier in the day. In the event, they deal in a strange brand of synth-pop with sudden jitters and crunches of big, meaty guitar. Musically, they were interesting and had a neat line in turning-on-a-sixpence shifts in pace and time, but I never quite came to terms with the vocals which were a strange mix of buttoned-down, white boy soul and Bryan Ferry. The audience however, loved them and it was impressive to look out across Venue 1 and the sea of bobbing heads and actual, proper dancing going on.
Doing this also made me feel strangely queasy however, and I became aware that once again I’d been led off the straight and narrow by a Fence event. My physical and mental condition degenerated further during the extended DJ set by Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard of Hot Chip fame. Somewhere in the middle of this, the fire alarm sounded. Potentially the slowest evacuation in history followed, and squished into the narrow space leading from St.Mary’s Place into the building, it became apparent just how many people were here. Despite the minor inconvenience, and thankful for the virutal face-slap of fresh, cold air I plunged back into the building for Django Django. I’d been looking forward to this after falling unexpectedly under the spell of their delightfully odd, eponymous debut album a few weeks back. Dressed in dizzingly matching shirts, they stood behind their machinery coaxing out remarkable noises. Again, it seemed to perfectly hit the spot for both of the sections of the audience, which had in any case mostly melded into a single, sweaty mess on the jammed dancefloor. All thoughts of this event being somehow outwith the ‘spirit’ of Fence, or too big to be as intimate as usual had entirely fallen away. In the midst of the shuddering beats and deleriously proggy sounds emanating from the stage, old acquaintances were renewed and new ones made. Even the stoney-faced security types were managing a smile by the end of the Django‘s set.
However, for me I realised that food and sleep beckoned. Having seen Errors fairly recently, and given that I was pretty much incapable of coherent speech I decided to leave it to the younger and fitter ones. As I surveyed the carnage for one last time before stumbling out into the cold night air, I was struck by how well all of this had melded together into an incredible event. The floor was filled with dancers, a conga led by a wheelchair wound it’s way through the crowd, various musicians who were due to be performing in mere hours were comprehensively enjoying the evening, and would surely never be up in time? It looked, sounded and ultimately felt fantastic to be a part of this.
When Fence Records announced their most recent grand scheme for making music just that little bit more special, I felt a familiarly strange mixture of excitement and heart-sinkingly blind panic. Because, when Fence tell you something is limited it genuinely is going to be a scare pleasure. Be it the finite number of precious Away Game tickets, or “Chart Ruse” – this subscription-based series of 7″ EPs all playing at 33rpm to squeeze in as much music as possible, the announcement is followed by blind panic among the Fence faithful. For me, this meant desperately competing for a terrible internet connection at a freezing East Croydon station, imagining the innocent passers-by accidentally stealing my PayPal password over the airwaves. It was worth the chaos and concern however, as so far lucky subscribers have received Withered Hand‘s splendid “Heart Heart” EP, and will shortly get their hands on this new release by Delifinger.
Delifinger – also known as Matthew Lacey – is part of the OLO Worms. That curiously complex Bristolian collective which is going to be responsible shortly for one of the most dizzyingly varied debut albums of the year. As one of the songwriters which provide some form and structure to the otherwise strangely scatter-gun approach which the OLOs take, Lacey‘s craft needs to be subtle and versatile – and this EP showcases this very ably indeed. There are hints of his other work here too, as title track “Escapes” edges in gently with ominous beats and strange electronic noises. Lacey‘s delicate multitracked vocals take on a strangely traditional, madrigal-like quality in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the track. Somewhere in the midst of this, the droning equipment comes to the fore and the guitar takes centre stage. Since there is just a hint of summery west coast pop buried in here too, it ends up being both ancient and modern all at once. Meanwhile the more upbeat “Take It Slowly” is a gorgeously odd nugget of country pop, complete with a bassline borrowed from a Johnny Cash hit and a swooning chorus reminiscent of Gene Clark at his lyrical finest. Harmonising effortlessly with both his own rebounding voice and that of Anneliesa his wife, Lacey‘s simple but effective guitar is augmented by charmingly low-budget organ sounds in these sections too. Again I’m struck by the timelessness of Lacey‘s writing – and this could just as easily be some late-sixties psyche pop single spinning on the deck. It’s simple, direct and incredibly enjoyable.
When we reach the portentously titled “It’s Not Going To End Well For Me”. Delifinger has entered the strangely reflective zone where he is often at his best. The musical backing here is perhaps more reminiscent of his work in OLO Worms with fractured sound fragments sliding in and out of a soundtrack constructed from rumbling bass sounds and synthetic drums. Lacey sets out the dark territory he’s going to explore with the opening couplet “There’s too much on my plate/my bones deserve a break“. This is a tale of being stretched too far, and the danger of being on the edge of your patience and tolerance. As the hiss of tinny percussion sounds slides in, the vocals slip even further into the background and start to shatter and fragment. Clipped, weird yelps and spectral moans echo around and everything becomes just a little bit disconcerting, as somehow this is the soundtrack to an inner monologue which you get the sense you really shouldn’t be hearing. While this reflective approach bewildered me a little in the live performance at The Fleece, it makes much more sense here, reverberating spookily in my headphones. The organ which heralds the coming of closing track “Mining” rumbles equally ominiously, and rather surprisingly that is just about the size of it – a brief, strangely gloomy drone fading out as the needle lifts.
Atmospheric and far more complex than the simple instrumentation might imply, Delifinger has turned in a strange, sometimes impenetrable but always compelling EP which is a very worthy addition to this series of Fence releases. It will of course come with a remix by another Fence type by the time it reaches subscribers, and will be subject to the witheringly defiant approach to digital releases which means a download code might follow, at some unknown future occasion. Until then, the rare pleasure of lifting a real, tangible audio artefact out of it’s beautifully designed sleeve and placing it onto the deck should be celebrated. The fact is that Delifinger will transport you to a place where formats just don’t matter.
In deference to the concept behind the “Chart Ruse” series, there will be no audio preview at the end of this review. You’ll just have to take my word for what strangely subdued pleasures await with the “Escapes EP” – though you can watch the video for “Take It Slowly” here. Non-subscribers can pre-order the EP from Fence Records directly here. Delifinger shares a launch with Seamus Fogarty at The Wilmington Arms, London on Thursday 19th April, and in his native Bristol at Café Kino on Friday 20th April.
Having relentlessly complained about having little time to write here, I find myself with the unusual luxury of a long weekend and a few extra days of leisure before my journey to Fife – and in typical style I’m finding all kinds of diversionary activities to prevent needing to actually do any of the things I ought to. Having managed to spend yesterday speeding around the country largely without purpose, and today idly breaking and fixing this computer more than once, one common theme has emerged – and that’s the soundtrack to my procrastination. It strikes me as I write this that I Build Collapsible Mountains have achieved the unique distinction of appearing in both of the Songs Heard On Fast Trains end of year lists to date, despite never getting an article to themselves. Whether this is down to my inefficiency, bad timing, or the peculiarly low-key approach to releasing music employed by Luke Joyce, its very clearly an oversight which needs to be corrected with the release of this new selection of songs.
This, the third collection of IBCM material, develops the simple premise which Joyce established on “A Month of Lost Memories” and last year’s “The Spectator and The Act”, delivering perhaps even more emotionally charged narratives via sparse instrumentation focused on his acoustic guitar playing and underplayed, sometimes almost spoken vocals. This is of course a world away from the massive, near-orchestral post rock compositions of The Gothenburg Address where Joyce‘s talents have previously been put to work, but there is easily as much drama and tension bound up in these simple but often battle-scarred vignettes. The title track opens proceedings, beginning with gently strummed downbeat chords which support Joyce‘s sometimes laconic but always enigmatic voice. As he almost whispers “this will be my last song for you” there are hints of American Music Club at their damaged, intoxicated best in the delivery. Notably briefer than the sometimes extended tracks on the two previous releases, things shift a little more uptempo if not lyrically upbeat on the appropriately swirling “Carousel”. This one is for all of us who’ve ever been in, or perhaps more frustratingly watched from the sidelines those relationships which endlessly repeat and recycle the same barren ground. There are points in these songs which are almost too graphically, personally harrowing and there is a particularly voyeuristic element to “The Method Actor” where a refrain of “with skin pale and hope lost/you burst like nails in me” is painfully near the bone. Echo-laden percussion is drafted in to sustain the fragile tune through to its ending, as if it too might just expire without urgent assistance.
Some of the most poignant moments here are the simplest and lowest in fidelity. With just a gentle picked guitar and a raw vocal echoing in an empty room “An Exit” is briefly, quietly gorgeous – an unravelling tale of uncomfortable conclusions with “not a word spoken for days now“. But there is some wonderfully complex, proficient guitar work here too, especially in the playful and explorartory end section of “Stressing for Midnight” which is a breathlessly dizzy relief in the midst of the record, with delivery not dissimilar in style to RM Hubbert. “Double Dares” is a hark back to more expansive, traditional structures and songwriting, and as such is a reminder of the brace of collections of music Joyce has already released under the IBCM moniker – both like this one quietly, almost apologetically slipping out into the world. Detailing a range of painful trade-offs typified by the line “your beauty is the punch I take“, there is a perversely gleeful turn to the melody and even a tinkling of mocking glockenspiel. And then the realisation hits that this is about as backhandedly positive as “Songs From That Never Scene” becomes. But things soon return to type, and my personal highlight “Promenades” is something very special – a bass rhythm beaten out on a single string and flecks of sparkling guitar mark out a sparse, gentle and lovelorn lament, charting the minutiae of a long and convoluted relationship. Joyce starts already battered and broken and slips further from our grasp as the song unfolds. Then when all appears utterly beyond redemption, the track closes with a short burst of joyously complex, almost flamenco guitar playing.
As the album slips away with the repeated refrain of “lets go to the sea” which closes “Swan Song”, it seems Luke Joyce and IBCM are at something of a crossroads. With The Gothenburg Address emerging from a couple of years on hiatus, it’s possible that this dark, lyrically rich outlet for his songwriting may possibly take a back seat once again. Whilst making us choose between these two fine projects seems deeply unfair, “Songs From That Never Scene” sits as a testament to some of the most vivid, emotionally intelligent songwriting I’ve heard in a very long time.
You can buy “Songs From That Never Scene” exclusively via the I Build Collapsible Mountains Bandcamp page, and its predecessors can be found via US label Burning Buildings Recordings. Luke Joyce is currently in the midst of a number of Scottish live dates, taking in Ediburgh’s Pleasance Theatre on April 11th, The Captain’s Rest in Glasgow on April 12th and Dundee Doghouse on April 29th.