Words: Dominic Valvona

Monolith Cocktail (Dominic Valvona) - Soft Hearted Scientists review

Tickling Our Fancy 038: Venus Fly Trap, Soft Hearted Scientists, Snowball II, Nick Blackos, The Fast Camels, CHUCK, A Hundred Million.

We got all kinds of psychedelic action this month, from the knockabout fuzz-rock of Glasgow’s The Fast Camels to the kaleidoscopic peaceable variant favoured by the Cardiff-based collective, the Soft Hearted Scientists. Moving away from their previous psychedelic glowing haze we have the new single from California’s Snowball II, now stepping back from those halcyon rays for a more stripped-back, intimate and folky sound. Moving even more further away, we also have the new hip-hop video from East London’s burgeoning ONV label, Nick Blackos‘Moonrock’, a back catalogue ‘best of’ compilation from the industrial gothic post-punk band Venus Fly Trap, the wounded lo fi bedroom songs of NY based artists CHUCK – released on Audio Antihero’s new imprint –, and a mysterious track from the clandestine Cardiff duo A Hundred Million.

Soft Hearted Scientists   ‘Golden Omens’

Offering both wondrous and ominous visions of golden age pastoral psychedelia and Victoriana, Cardiff-based collective Soft Hearted Scientists dream big on their sixth LP, Golden Omens.

Quartered into four suites, aping the double vinyl format employed by many bands with grandiose concepts from the 60s, their latest considered opus is a mix of songs, vignettes and incidentals. From the cover artwork itself, the atmosphere is one of an esoteric nature: A strange house, styled between American Gothic and eccentric English Spiritualist meeting place, is superimposed with jellyfish; an hallucinatory collage of images emanating from a séance.

Part one of this 2xCD spread begins with a timeless mellotron like liturgy. ‘Little Gardens Full Of Ghosts’ like many of the tracks on this album fades in and out like passing, fleeting memories; picking up on the vestiges of a haunted past. The first song proper and title track is a jangly psych imbued hybrid of Gene Clark, The Move, Pink Floyd and The Beatles’ ‘Baby You’re A Rich Man’. It’s a template sound that permeates throughout, with the odd tint of The Small Faces ‘universal’ conceptual spirit, on ‘Rue The Day’, The Beach Boys ‘Don’t Go Near The Water’ aquatic wobble on ‘The Creeps’, and the SFA circa Phantom Power and the Britpop era collective Octopus on everything else.

Becalmed and wistful the group takes a quintessential Syd Barrett eccentric view of the world. You can hear it on the whimsical ‘Zeds’, as they juxtapose the infamous legacy of Greek myth’s Oedipus with the resigned sighed dread of an inevitable British winter: “Now Oedipus may have slept with his mum, and pointlessly plucked out his eyes/but at least he bested the evil Sphinx, solved his riddle and then she died.”  Metaphysical lyricism, H.G. Welles armchair time travelling travails and eulogies to the Welsh landscape and history are counterpointed with references to more earthly concerns; including the X Factor effect and isolation.

With twangs of the acid-country, blue Hawaii and even a lilting South American vibe occasionally, Golden Omens softly absorbs the full gamut of psychedelia. Often languorous, melodic, wafting and drifting; yet never outstaying its welcome, nor meandering without purpose, the Soft Hearted Scientists have produced a most pleasant dreamy listening experience to contemplate the woes of the world to.

Monolith Cocktail (Dominic Valvona) - CHUCK review

CHUCK  ‘My Band Is A Computer’
Audio Antihero/ Old Money Records,  9th September 2016

From the inimitable label of hopeless optimism and resigned despair another lo fi songbook of obscure modern idiosyncratic pathos. Released via Audio Antihero’s new imprint Old Money Records this marvelous kooky collection from Massachusetts’s songwriter and multi- instrumentalist CHUCK is a congruous bedfellow of the label’s previous releases from Benjamin Shaw, Frog and Cloud.

Bringing an upstate, more pastoral, lilt to the New York metropolis where he now resides, CHUCK’s quasi-Tropicana Casio preset bed of quirky wounded observations are both funny and profoundly sad; lo fi but ambitious.

Sounding like a frizzy Mercury Rev and MGMT on the opening ‘Happy New Year’s Babe’ bedroom pop sonnet, he starts singing through a cone in lo fi mode before suddenly emerging from a fog with a burst of swirling radiance: like a Los Campesinos waltz. An outsider in some sense; an observer of the foibles and peculiarities of the Brooklyn boroughs, CHUCK paints a reflective, wry and often ironic picture of modern life. His ‘Bushwick Girl’ subject for example hails from one of the recently gentrified parts of Brooklyn, bordering the hipper-than-thou Williamsburg. An artist haven for many years, it has by the sounds of it attracted the same clichés as its infamous adjourning neighborhood.

No surprises that in this contemporary landscape there’s some of those template perceptive if resigned observations on ‘The Internet’; CHUCK listing countless worthless ways to pass the time, scrolling unceasingly through an omnivores affinity of nonsense; drawn into a “big black hole”. Not so much harking or berating to make his point, “The Internet” for its revolutionary potential it remains a Pandora’s box of inertia. On the same page, the most magically dreamy forlorn song on this entire collection is the semi-nostalgic swirling 80s dry ice-filtered malady ‘Pictures’. Like a slacker Laurie Anderson with a Casio double kick drum there’s an air of A Flock Of Seagulls ‘faded memories’ romanticism to it. All too short, this is one of the album’s highlights.

Despite the setting, age-old reflections – the ones that have concerned countless generations – on High School failures and broken dreams permeate throughout the collection. Coming to terms with growing up and failing to meet your goals is a subject matter repeated often here. ‘Wipe Out’ features two old collage friends, long since parted ways (one becoming a Christian along that way) but uniting out of some once common held bond and duty, it’s no surprise that whilst they get on cordially they find it hard to relate to each other: Unwinding the years, killing time, it’s what, as CHUCK sings, we do. Romantically too, the object of crushes and desire in youth pop up in the shape of imagined versions of old sweethearts, now shed of their pedestal held qualities for doomed relationships and realizations of adulthood: those beauty queens not so fortunate now in the world outside their coveted collage years kingdom.

It has to be said. There is a hell of a lot of this about. But CHUCK’s kooky collage-rock and lo fi wonky electronic pop, which congruously flows between The Magnetic Fields, Mercury Rev, Weezer, Apples In Stereo and even The Pixies, absorbs its influences to create a gorgeous, quietly optimistic, kind of melancholy and pathos.

Nick Blackos   ‘Moonrock’

Dropping videos and tracks in an almost clandestine fashion, the recently launched East London label ONV has leaked out their homegrown hip-hop releases on to the internet over the last few weeks with little fanfare. Projects so far from FLICKADOT, MTG (metaltheftgang) and label overseer Nick Blackos have met with favorable reviews and keen interest. Blackos’ latest, ‘Moonrock’, is another subtle but charged kinetic twisting prowler; perched between urban underpass and drone-stalked desert.

Devoid of over-analyses, light of information, the ONV label concentrate on delivering. You can scope for yourselves, find out more (or in this case less) about the label and its retinue via the website or social media channels.

Monolith Cocktail (Dominic Valvona) - Venus Fly Trap review

Venus Fly Trap   ‘Metamorphosis (1987 – 2007)’

Regular followers of my ‘Tickling Our Fancy’ roundups will have recently seen my review of the 1980s gothic post-punk obscurity 5 Against The House by the all too fleeting The Tempest. Re-released by Optic Nerve Recordings, an echo of what was a promising band from the Northampton hothouse that also produced Bauhaus, 5 Against The House shined for only the briefest of moments: being the only LP the group released. Still, it caught the imagination, favorably picked-up by both John Peel and Kid Jensen at the time.

One of the founding members of that band – with a name that sounds like a cooler than cool character from a 2000 A.D. comic strip – Alex Novak, went on to form the Venus Fly Trap at the backend of the 80s. Producing albums sporadically for the next two decades, the last Zenith in 2004, Novak has recently returned to the studio to record new material under the moniker. While idly waiting in anticipation for the fruits of that labour, fans and those intrigued enough can currently enjoy the back catalogue compilation Metamorphosis.

For those less familiar with the ominous grinding Sci-fi buzz of the Venus Fly Trap, the best descriptive summary is by the group themselves: ‘darkened noise that’s accompanied by a flowing sense of bleak electronic rhythm.’

From the very beginning of the catalogue (though a version also appears on 1992’s Pandora’s Box too), there’s the Nick Cave cesspool of abusive morose and Killing Joke industrial menace ‘Morphine’, and the skid row on the tracks ‘Desolation Railway’. Sinewy, dystopian and lurking in the shadows, an embodiment of addiction and languorous resignation, these early tracks show a penchant for gangly post-punk gothics. By 1990, and the group’s Totem album, they’ve transmogrified Cabaret Voltaire, PiL and Sigue Sigue Sputnick on songs such as ‘Rocket USA’. Propelling James Dean into the future shocks, ‘Extra Gemini Lounge’ bares the whip-snap electronic pulse of John Foxx.

After originally taking a hiatus in the early 90s, Novak reformed the group in 95 with Neil Ridley on bass guitar (later replaced by Tony Brooks), Andy Denton on drums and Gray Lennon on guitar. In the aftermath of the cold war, that incarnation of the band produced the album Luna Tide, which featured the “Russkies are coming” paranoia of ‘Moscow Menagerie’: a sort of quasi-Sex Pistols ‘Holidays in The Sun’ for the post rave generation. Elsewhere the band talks the Deutsch on ‘Mercury’, traverse the Sisters Of Mercy and burbling squelchy synth rays on ‘Pulp Sister’ and raise a wry smirk on ‘Human Fly’.

An extension of the exuberant wiry futurists The Tempest in many ways, the Venus Fly Trap progressed with a darker vision of pop art. Escaping numerous radars this ‘greatest hits’ collection is a good introduction to one of the UK underground’s best-kept secrets.

A Hundred Million   ‘Master Of The Ship You Painted’

Little to say about this misdemeanor that made its way to us a couple of months back, only that it’s the debut track from a couple of mysterious individuals based in Cardiff. No information was forthcoming. And it kind of doesn’t matter. Whether this is some clandestine attempt by established artists to take a new directional turn musically without announcing themselves or is a rouse to attach an air of interest remains to be seen.

For now this is all you’re getting from A Hundred Million; a oil drum bass and scuttling stick shoegaze and industrial instrumental – the sort of thing that reminds me of Jezus Factory Records releases – that barely casts a shadow over the two-minute mark is poetically named the ‘Master Of The Ship You Painted’. We run it up the flagpole and wait to see who salutes it.

Monolith Cocktail (Dominic Valvona) - The Fast Camels review

The Fast Camels  ‘Tales Of The Expected’

Formed out of a mutual love for ‘freakbeat’ a decade ago, Glasgow’s The Fast Camel’s continue their fuzz-thrilled heavy psych odyssey with Tales Of The Expected. Less freakbeat more a hazy jangled mix of British Beat Groups and late 60s post-psychedelic rock, the influences at play on this, the group’s third LP, recall concept album The Pretty Things, The Byrds and The Who – especially their Odds And Sods collection, and on the song ‘Chicken B.O.’ a touch of ‘I’m A Boy’. At their most mellow and melodic they do however sound like an abrasive Kaiser Chiefs and Ocean Colour Scene.

Using modern colloquies, the band describe a diorama of foibles and quandaries with a certain wry humour, exaggerating and sometimes even surreally giving the characters in their songs a more colourful quirk. Often accompanied by a spiralling vortex of guitar, tambourine and a purposeful boom bap backbeat, the band has two distinct gears. The first is a more beefed-up fanfare form of revival rock and maximum R&B, as heard on the opening title track, the other a more Piper At The Gates Of Dawn turn of metaphorical hallucinations, as on ‘Madame Matron’. Running throughout, like the March Hare, is a reference to time; whether it’s the sad mournful tale of the protagonist in ‘Dead Celebs’ – given a golden watch to notify not so much a well-earned rest but to lay him in the ground – or the analogy rich psychedelic ‘The Watchmaker’, there are countless markers to the passing of it. You get the feeling the band are themselves out-of-step with it.

In these increasingly automated, synthesised times, The Fast Camels have chosen to get physical, both playfully and intensely. And that’s what this is, a real physical, fuzz-pedal set of knockabout psychedelic rock; lyrically chiming with such wry observers of life as Ray Davis.

Monolith Cocktail - Snowball II review

Snowball II   ‘I Doughnut Want To Live Anymore’
Doughnut Records

Moving away from the previous collage of neon-psychedelica and lush Panda Bear/Cloud melodic washes of their debut ? album, the L.A. group Snowball II, led by Jackson Wargo, have toned and slimmed down their sound for something more intimate and folky.

More Laurel Canyon and campfire yearnings than illuminating psychedelic Tropicana, their new single, released in the run-up to the group’s second album Doughnut Holes, is a lilting dreamy affair, which the band describe themselves as sounding like ‘Sufjan Stevens covering a Bon Iver song.’ And they ain’t wrong. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the new direction.

Keeping to a doughnuts leitmotif, this lulling neo-folk tune is entitled, in pun intended lament, ‘I Doughnut Want To Live’. Closing the fired confectionary circle so to speak, Snowball II have also launched a record label, also called ‘doughnut’.

Still to hear anything other than the leading single yet, so remains to be heard how this ‘dramatic departure’ will pan out – Jackson has warned me the next LP will be ‘manic and full on! If previous efforts are anything to go by and gauge, it will be a sophisticated and impressive musical suite.

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