Tortoise – Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996)
Tortoise deserve a genre named after them. It would at least make things easier for the unimaginative fools (like me) who write about music. Then I could just say: ‘In 1996, Chicago band Tortoise released this landmark album of Tortoise music that took Tortoise in a new direction and changed the way people would think about Tortoise forever. Only Tortoise can play Tortoise the way Tortoise was meant to played.’ It wouldn’t make much sense, but it would be so much easier. Post-rock, Prog-rock, Alternative, Experimental, Electronica, Jazz, Krautrock…none of these terms really seemed to sum them up, even though there were undeniable elements of all those things in their music. The opening song “Djed” was an epic 20-minute long soundscape that evolved – much like humankind – out of the static slime, and grumbled along the ground on bass fins until it merged with the drums and took its first steps on Neu! legs. Then things were happening. By five minutes in, you were compelled to see where this new species of music was going. And it certainly is a journey of an album. A free-flowing wordless trek through the primordial ooze of avant-garde music, from John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, to Can and Faust, to Fripp & Eno, to Neil Young and the future Wilco, to Radiohead and Godspeed You Black Emperor! This sounded like something that was there in the background of all that music. Rubbing stones and sticks together, searching for that fresh spark. “Glass Museum” is a journeying raft on rough waves of slow-motion ocean, sailing off to find new land, and document the various species of life found there. “A Survey” makes camp in the darkness of unmapped forests and braves the night, while “Along the Banks of Rivers” finally heads for home with renewed perspectives, somewhat philosophical now of the fates (and double-edged prizes) that await those who venture into the unknown.
Martina Topley-Bird – The Blue God (2008)
After hearing about 45 seconds of the opening track “Phoenix”, I was sold. If this song had Thom Yorke vocals you could tell people it was a song Radiohead forgot to put on the In Rainbows bonus disc. Or if Portishead hadn’t finally brought out their long awaited Third album, this would still have quenched our trip-hop/downtempo thirst. Although, The Blue God reminds me more of Dummy-era Portishead. So maybe if you spliced 2007 Radiohead DNA with 1994 Portishead DNA, you might end up with an album sounding a little bit like The Blue God. Who knows? I get carried away with nonsense. In 1996 Martina Topley-Bird guested vocals on Tricky’s acclaimed albums Nearly God and Pre-Millennium Tension, and released her debut solo album Quixotic in 2003. Her voice would suit many genres; she could be a pop singer, a jazz singer, a lounge singer, a blues singer, because all these styles somehow leak out in her tones. This is a great album to slap on if you’ve got friends coming around for drinks. This is a great album to slap on late at night and play poker to. This is a great album to slap on while you chop the veggies for dinner. This is a great album to slap on if you like Massive Attack or Air or Fat Freddy’s Drop or Thievery Corporation. This is great if you like a cocktail mix of sweet lullabies and smooth melodious lines with a twist of dark moodiness for atmosphere. I’m amazed this hasn’t become a far bigger album, because I think she has mass appeal, and is instantly likeable for the right kind of fans. But I also like the fact this album is sneaky, and working its mojo slowly. It’s not a ham-fisted album that is leaping down ears trying to impress anyone. It’s an album that is quietly sophisticated, and patient, and waiting to be heard some night when the proper forces align. Perhaps when the moon is full, illuminating the right moment like a blue god.
Kate Bush – Hounds of Love (1985)
For me, and many a prog-rock aficionado the world over, Kate Bush was/is the ‘Cult Queen of Cool’ who became the unofficial premiere female artist in a very male-dominated genre. I know she was having success in the Pop sphere. From her first acclaimed album The Kick Inside (1978) with the single “Wuthering Heights” she was the crazy-dancing doyen of baroque-pop. But she was always an acquired taste. Some people couldn’t stand her. And this designation made us Prog-fans claim her even more. She seemed like one of us. Nerdy, literate, obsessive, out-of-step. And Kate seemed to celebrate her ‘otherness’. She went about making her own unique music, album after album. With Hounds of Love she brought her signature theatricality into a more modern context, utilising the technology of the time to help animate her vision in a broader setting. And it’s a (another) masterpiece. From the opening hit, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”, we’re reminded this is a fearless artist who combines melody, rhythm and structure masterfully, and then matches it with ambitious concepts to achieve maximum results. Her vocal performances are brilliant, and the lyrics thoughtful & crafted, as usual. Only Kate Bush could/would write a song like “Cloudbusting” – sung from the perspective of (radical psychologist/inventor) Wilhelm Reich’s son, who watches his father in awe, and mourns his father’s imprisonment (never to see him again), inspiring him to tell his father’s story. And the second half of the album is a suite of songs that comprise a mini concept album about a woman lost and drowning in freezing waters. The song “And Dream of Sheep” is worth particular mention, coz it’s one of Kate’s most beautiful compositions. The sadness in the melody is heartbreaking, and the lyrics paint an image of calm release and dignified escape from suffering: “If they find me racing white horses/ They’ll not take me for a buoy/ Let me be weak/ Let me sleep/ And dream of sheep”. The fear of dying is sublimated into a simple wish: “I can’t keep my eyes open/ Wish I had my radio/ I’d tune into some friendly voices/ Talking about stupid things/ I can’t be left to my imagination”. The remainder of the album is a swirling watery diorama filled with cut-up sounds, choppy rhythms and ambient chimes that play out like someone’s life flashing before their crying eyes. A great uncompromising album from a great unconventional artist.
By Decoy Spoon