Exploding Machine

Thursday, February 09, 2006



The Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band On Acid

Part whatever

Introduction

I started this exercise, hidden away in my old blog, back in July 2004 as some kind of exorcism or explanation, and the fact that it’s still continuing some 19 months later is, quite frankly, alarming and a little worrisome. Especially when one considers that by May last year when the final installment arrived I had almost completely run out of steam with it. My sub-Ian MacDonald labour of love isn’t some kind of definitive socio-cultural document detailing a profound revolution that encompassed much more than music – it’s much more personal than that. Because this is wholly about one band’s music and how I react to it; there is no cultural impact, no social revolution, by-and-large (although I could touch on a few things). Just tunes. There have been more important bands (most assuredly) and there have been better bands (arguably), but there have been none who I care about as much as this band. And I’m not sure why that is, but it is, and it is what it is. From first hearing them at the dawn of 1997 and taking tentative steps to document and explain their music and my relationship with it by starting up a fanzine, to being asked to officially document it last summer, albeit in a minor way, there has been something different about this group, about how they made me feel, about what I hoped for from them.

Of course they’ve had critics – there’s outright hatred from some parties – and some of the criticisms hold water, but I’m of the opinion that it’s easier to explain what you dislike than to understand why you do like. And I’ve never been one for hate, not really. Criticism is too often offered forth on the platter of objectivity, as if it is real-ity rather than thought. I’m guilty of this myself, and no doubt will remain an of-fender in the future. What separates us from animals is our ability to elevate our thoughts, and therefore our reactions and behaviour, from our instincts, right? But what makes us human is the fact that we don’t always do that. Instinct and emotion are powerful things.

I’m measuring myself. This is not what I do, not what I’m good at. Not what this is about.

I love this band, above and beyond any other, and I don’t know why, and that confuses me and kind of pisses me off, because I’m very good at figuring out why I do things. People hate them, some people really fucking hate them, and that upsets me, because it makes me wonder if my feelings are irrational (they are, of course they fucking are!) or invalid (which is far, far worse). I would quite gladly tell some-one that their love of Mariah Carey or Haven or Futureshock was invalid because only an idiot could accept their substandard washes of someone else’s art or their clumsy, painted-with-a-spray-can emotion. And I’d do it in verbose and profane and (either) convincing (or massively offensive) style, too. And I wouldn’t give two shits. But I know what the other end is like.

I wish I could make an argument for Embrace being the best band in the world, but any argument would be predicated on the world in question being, first and foremost, my world. The location and topography of anyone else’s world is incidental. But if you’d been at the front of the crowd for the Astoria gig in January 2000, or sitting in the wings with me and Karim at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in September 2004… If you’d pumped “Feels Like Glue” through your earphones as loud as you could stand while perched on top of a 100-foot sandstone boulder in the sea. If you’d played “Blind” as many times and as loudly as I had… I can forgive the little MOR moments, I can ignore the people at gigs who I’d have been scared of a few years ago. They’ve given us a lot of songs over the last nine years. I doubt you could find many bands of their stature who’ve provided more. And I’m pretty certain you’d not find any more diverse in their range, both emotionally and sonically, despite what some people might claim to know about their oeuvre.

Anyway, I’m rambling. Which is what this is, obviously. But I know what you want. You want me to talk about the songs, specifically the ones that very few people know just yet. I may, over the next few months, go back over what I already said about the others elsewhere (both the old blog and also here), realign my opinions, add some perspective perhaps, now that some of the songs I covered in a rush have had time to settle in and find their places in my own personal one-band-canon.

Here are some words about some songs.

No Use Crying
If the opening triumvirate of Out Of Nothing are hewn from metaphorical granite, then the opening triumvirate of This New Day (yeah, the title’s a bit wet and the artwork’s a bit contrived, but a; titles only become good once given context of content, and b; the photography’s really beautiful even if the idea’s a bit Wenslydale) are hewn from metaphorical Vimto. That is to say that people said this was like “Ashes”, and it is, except that “Ashes” is a rock song and this is a pop song. Less austere, more hyperactive. Less desperate, more joyous. That riff, for a start, which gets teased in and then is allowed to run riot for twice as many bars as they would once have dared. It’s faster, it flows a little better (less of a panicked jump to chorus, easily assimilated middle 8), it’s a minute shorter. It’s a pop song, spiraling string sweep and all. Lyrics? They’re nice enough - “I’d take a bullet / Jump a speeding train”… talk of chasing, either doing it yourself or watching someone else do it, which will be a recurring theme this year. You have to understand that lyrics without melody are rubbish, that melody is ALL as far as lyrics are concerned, certainly in the context of this, a superfast pop song. It’s an adrenaline shot to start the album.

Nature’s Law
Yes, it’s a bit plodding. Yes, the title is a bit hokey sentiment wise, and also sounds too much like “Nature Is The Law” by Richard “dickhead” Ashcroft. The lyric is also a touch simplistic and Wenslydale, perhaps - and also features the "big simile cliche" that concerns me slightly in Danny's recent lyrics; “like a something something” is a motif that recurs far too often lately (“sound of tapping from a sinking ship”, “firefly in the big black sky”, “broken record”, “gem on a coalface”, “mile-high neon sign”, etcetera). There's not much to it in the way of excitement or event, no single big moment in the tune where you think WOW like the end of “Retread” of the break in “The Love It Takes” or the “blue skies” bit in “Feels Like Glue” or the end of “Out Of Nothing” or the chorus of “Near Life” or the sheer weight of guitar in “Blind”. It re-minds of both “Wonder” and “Gravity”, neither of which I like much at all. But the record company people and the radio people love it, and they have their jobs for a reason.

On repeat listens, to be fair, it’s a grower, worming its way into your brain and staying there. The melody isn't stunning but it is memorable after a few listens, which is more than I can say for anything I’ve ever heard by Starsailor. At least it has a riff, which is more than “Gravity” or “Come Back To What You Know” managed, and if you close your eyes you could almost pretend it was Embrace having a stab at Talk Talk circa the anthemicism of Colour Of Spring. And from the middle 8 onwards it does very nearly become a stormer - the string swell under “rise again” is a moment of pure drama which I wish was made more of. It’s a good song, nothing more.

Target
Confused nomenclature historiography notwithstanding, this is fucking awesome. It makes my heart skip, makes my stomach tighten in anticipation. A certain ivory tinkler told me it was like a cloud lifting, like “someone you secretly fancy the pants off spending the whole day and night with you in the summer and everything is perfect”. It is. You get that feeling inside the first few bars. It’s a glorious, monstrous wonder. OK, so the cynic says it sounds too much like U2 because of the taut, echo-y guitar, but get how the drums occasionally skip a little, get the efficiency of that groove, get the way the melody opens up the versus. Bono could never write a melody as unashamedly pop as this. Get that enormous chorus and that stellar middle 8 - middle 8s are something Embrace are becoming very good at indeed. I didn’t imagine when Embrace began writing as a unit that they’d be producing better “Embrace” “songs” than they had before - I guess I thought that “Out Of Nothing” and “Near Life” were the destination, that kind of drawn-out, star-scraping angst and wordless catharsis, but this is something else. A pop song, gloriously conceived and executed. Praise be. Still don’t get why he’s going on about taking a swim in the chorus, mind you.

Sainted
This tune highlights a problem Embrace have had for their entire career - not enough fucking bottom-end in the mix. Never, ever enough, except, just possibly, during a few songs from the DFM era. Go and listen to the “OBF” remix for proof of where they ought to be aiming, get that solar plexus thump that makes you a little delirious. It’s a problem simply solved though - adjust your amp or sub, stick your iPod on the “Bass Boost” EQ setting. I have, for the first time ever, done these three things with my main listening devices - namely hi-fi separates, iMac with JBL Creature II satellites and sub, and iPod. I felt incredibly guilty doing it because of some frankly irrational belief that “if they’d meant it to sound like that, they’d have mixed it like that”; which is bollocks, of course, because as soon as I start listening the manner in which I want to hear things becomes more important than any platonic essence governed by a mix engi-neer or mastering dude. Public domain, isn’t it? As soon as This New Day bursts from speakers around the country (world?) it no longer belongs to the band, but rather to the listeners. So listen how you wish.

The tune? A dirty disco-metal thing with a nasty groove, a big chorus, slightly nausea-inducing guitar (listen on good headphones late at night, get that weird spatial placing). Some people have been waiting several years for Embrace to do a tune like this. Namely me. And Ramsay. And others. DFA could remix this quite easily, for example. Not the sound of a Coldplay-lite MOR band. Most satisfactory. I need to know what the opening lyrics is though – “I’ve always been a harlot”, perhaps?

I Can’t Come Down
The ballad. (“Nature’s Law” is a mid-tempo pop song, in case you were wondering.) Verse taken from “Effortless Now”, chorus and middle 8 taken from Jim Steinman - I’m not entirely kidding, and even if I was- well, I kid because I love. This is moving in the same way that “All I Wanna Do (Is Make Love To You)” would be if you let it be. Oh I dunno… it’s got a guitar solo like Noel Gallagher used to play when he still had ideas to steal, and it’s great. Hokey, but beautiful. People will walk down the aisle to this and it’ll be a Meatloaf moment. It’s a proper song, in that it moves and has sections and the melody develops rather than just repeating and, frankly, you can imagine someone like Robbie Williams covering it, and as such is a darn site better than Coldplay can manage when it comes to cheesy ballads. People who complain about this song, and some will, are miserable gits. This is Embrace, after all, in case you hadn’t noticed. A McNamara/McNamara composition, rather than Embrace & Glover.

Celebrate
This is filler in the same way that “Wish ‘Em All Away” is filler except that TND is most definitely not OON Take 2, despite what some people (who notably have not heard the record) have surmised. Which means that instead of a slightly clumsy harmonica rif, this has a rather wicked piano riff, and instead of being a BIG, SELF-CONSCIOUS anthem, this is a pop song. Get that bassline. Get that melodic shuffle which repeats across both the verse and the chorus. Get the fact that the intro is like 45 seconds long (two intros!) and the whole song is fast and over in 3.32. Yes, it’s another superfast, post-“Ashes” pop song, but it’s bloody good, and I’d much rather they use this as filler rather than “Hey What You Trying To Say” (nice as that arrangement is). In many ways “Celebrate” is characteristic of this album more than anything else on it - it has vitality, groove, effortless melody, ideas… cross OON with DFM, maybe, tighten it up, paint a stylistic coherence beneath the bones of it. I’d love for this to be a single. Totally triumphant. (I don’t know why I’m comparing it to “Wish ‘Em All Away” – it has much more in common with “Spell It Out”.)

Exploding Machines
Big pyrokinetic rock thing, amirite? I’ll say more in the section on the title track.

Even Smaller Stones
I don’t mean to sound strange, but this is my song. I’m so pleased it’s here, and so much more pleased that it’s wicked. It evolved around the same time as “Flaming Red Hair” from one of the band’s jam sessions that, post-Youth’s involvement, became writing sessions rather than practice time. I might possibly have the original jam that it came from. They played it live at the tail-end of 2004, and I acquired a couple of bootleg MP3s of it. In early 2005 I was asked if I could send these bootlegs and the original jam to someone via email because “the band have forgotten how it goes” and were in the studio with Youth again, preparing what would become TND. When I first saw it live, it blew me away. Savage, vengeful, groovesome, big nasty slashes and squalls of guitar… Recorded? Well, as I said about “Sainted”, the bass could be deeper, but other than that… I cheekily mentioned to Richard in an email last year that backwards guitar was wicked and they’d never used it, why not? The verses are textured with little flecks of backwards guitar here, over the itchy groove that lies in the centre of Mike, Steve, Rik and Mickey. That makes me happy. Danny said to me jokingly, backstage after one of the Shepherd’s Bush gigs last year, that he was so sure I’d love the stuff they were working on for this album that they were gonna call the record Nick. This song, not just this song though, is proof that he was right, however cheeky he may have been being. I had been under the impression that it wouldn’t be included because they had other songs that did the same thing better (namely “Contender”). I’m so glad it’s here. Those other songs can wait. Knock me out again. In the final third the guitars go off, proper Nick McCabe-style. The ending takes your breath away - I wont say how. Another thing about this record - there’s some fucking beautiful decay - piano, strings, fading guitar chords, all dying in the name of song.

The End Is Near
I can spot a b-side at 300 paces. You could say I’m quite… anal… about them. Which is why I was asked to write the liner notes for Dry Kids, I guess. This is a b-side. I hope that, if you’re reading this, you know who I am and realise what a compliment that is. This was written (by McNamara/McNamara rather than by the band) for the “Ashes” b-side sessions, but was left over because it was felt to have potential. It feels like a b-side, if that makes sense… almost under-written? It’s deceptively simple. Another beautiful piano riff, more 4/4 drums to get adrenaline going. Simple, simple versus – hearts will crack when Danny repeats “I’ll be there / I’ll be there” in the verse. The chorus, again, deceptively simple, almost to the point of being retarded, but somehow right in spite of that. It’s like (whisper it) Coldplay with a shot of testosterone, perhaps. I can hear this on radio. It may well be a lot of people’s favourite on the record, at a hunch – I think it’s Richard’s.

This New Day
Probably the least “last song” last song they’ve done, in many ways. Of course “Exploding Machines” was meant to be the title track, and probably the opening track too, and had it been then, even if the contents were the same, people’s perception of the record as a whole would have been different. What machines are being exploded? The human body is the first machine, arguably (discounting, you know, dinosaurs and amoebas and things) – Danny feels the power of a sun inside him, a bit like Grant Morrison’s Xorn character in his run writing New X-Men. Exploding Machines is about epiphanies, about breaking your own understanding of who you are. As is “This New Day”. The whole album is about chasing and catching something. Another record about a record? About making records? You could see it like that; the band aware of their own narrative now and constructing it from the inside out.

“This New Day” starts beautifully, dappled guitar and piano leading to a voice and then a jerking arrival of drums which tears the song from where you thought it was going. “You know your best will never be enough / it’s nothing you can’t change”. There’s a section, not a middle 8 but almost another chorus, a couple of minutes in that feels almost out of place, a minor-to-major leap possibly (someone who knows better will soon correct me, no doubt). The final minute is catharsis, exhortation. Nowhere near as unexpected and spectacularly redemptional as “Out Of Nothing”, nor as laden with the pathos of denouement as “I Had A Time” or “Satellites”, and not as unifying as “The Good Will Out” (which, as you know, I think is a weak imitation of “Hey Jude” anyway, but there you go – the punters fucking love it). The title track, the imposter title track, is a strange beast. The lyrics are again a little forced, rhyming rush with push, and hint at deep meanings without ever fully detailing specifics. But that’s what Embrace do. It rocks, certainly, has a little of that “Too Many Times” swaggering clatter and a little of the propulsive development of “Red Eye Shot”, from beauty to beast. It trounces almost anything from OON that people would bitch about, it is a move forward, it rises and falls unexpectedly but effectively, and that final minute – keep dreaming, breathing, beat demons – is incredibly powerful. But it doesn’t quite feel like an ending. Which is good because it impels you to hit “play” again, cycle back round at 5000rpm to that outstanding pop rush that begins the album, and go through the mill once more.

And it is a mill, a trial, a challenge. This New Day is Embrace’s shortest, fastest, punchiest album. Their darkest album, and also their most upbeat. It’s positive but also destructive. There’s nothing like “Looking As You Are” here, even remotely. Instead we get “Sainted”, we get “Celebrate”, we get “Target”. Higher highs… more lows, perhaps, not necessarily lower though. (I mean mood, not quality.) Drop “Nature’s Law” from your iPod tracklisting and stick in “Near Life” if you want – they have the same initials after all. Switch “I Can’t Come Down” for “Too Many Times” perhaps, or whatever ends up on the b-side when “Nature’s Law” hits the shelves (no, I don’t know yet, but I’ll tease you as soon as I do). There are some songs left over for the next record – “Contender”, “Heart & Soul”, the disco pop one with mad strings. “Contender” is their “Fools Gold” and their “Begging You” at the same time. But we don’t need it now, we’ve got enough to be going with.

Is there a sense of frustration in this, a feeling that, once again, they’ve played it safe? Not really. TND is, and I know you’re expecting me to say this because you think I’m obliged to, their most consistent album. Is it their best? It’s my favourite at the moment. This may change, of course. “Near Life” and the title track are the two I revisit most often on the last album, with fleeting glances at “Someday” and “Spell It Out”. I can see me going back to 60% of this record, with fleeting glances at 20% more, in two years time and being just as satisfied.

Any questions?

NJS

Thursday, February 09, 2006

4 Comments:

Blogger sadken - 12:07 pm

if you had to rate each Embrace album on a 1-10 scale, what would you score this one?

 
Blogger Nick - 1:25 pm

I'd put this at 9, DFM and Dry Kids 8, OON 7, TGWO and IYNB 6. But numbers are reductive!

 
Blogger sadken - 11:20 am

reductive they may be but it gives me an instant idead as to what the new album will bring

 
Blogger HOLT - 10:20 pm

Q: Why does Nature's Law sounds like the theme music to an American hospital drama?

A: Because it is tepid MOR shite, that's why.

I'm so disappointed by it.

But your post restores some hope for the remainder of the album. Loving your word ordering, as ever.

 

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Nick Southall was born in southwest England at the tail end of the 70s, and is the youngest of three brothers. He has a degree in popular culture and philosophy and has written about music for Stylus Magazine, The Guardian and Drowned In Sound, amongst others. He likes red wine, expensive headphones, spicy food, and the Hungarian national football team of the 1950s. His favourite record is the last one he listened to. You can contact him by email via sickmouthy @ gmail dot com should you so wish.

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