Friday, 26 February 2010

Metal Flowers In The Desert

Wherever you go in the world you find the Metal. I've walked through Malaysian jungles and found kids living in stilt villages wearing Metallica t-shirts. A chum of mine ended up having the most frightening night of his life in a Maori Heavy Metal bar in New Zealand, and being a hairy beggar I regularly get similarly hirsute folks the planet over coming up to me, giving me a hug and shouting the bonding cry "Heavvvvvy Metaaaaaaaaaallllll!!!" at me like I'm a long lost brother.

So I shouldn't have been surprised to discover that Bahrain has a thriving metal scene. What I wasn't expecting was how darned unique and inventive it was. I stumbled across a fantastic band called THEE PROjECT during one of those massive MySpace click through sessions you do (well, I do), and  I was immediately hooked. Not the formula widdly guitar solo hair-shaking pose for these boys. Neither the wedge-haired and angular-elbowed screemo that seems to be digesting the planet. No, these boys were thoughtful, original and quite entertainingly dark.

Swathed in woolly black balaclavas (which must be an effort enough in such a desert setting) and pounding out a fractured mix up of the stop-starty metal chunk favoured by Dillinger Escape Plan and their chums, with a dark punky alt edge, and occasional forays into reggae, folk and local folk musics, they claim, rather pleasingly, that they follow a three-point formula in their musical creation process...

"1. Make each song a different style than the previous.
2. Try to cover different genres of music.
3. Boost it up by making it head-banging friendly."

And they certainly succeed in their refreshing musical plan. Each song has a complete and distinct universe of its own, while still retaining an over-arching feel to the music that suggests it could only come from a single source. They've just released a blisteringly good new album called Thee Art of Mehyawa, that's packed with ace noise and a dark and wry sense of humour. I heartily suggest that you track it down like a dog and get it while you can.

While Bahrain is one of the more liberal of the Gulf states, it can still be classed as a conservative state by our fancy dan European standards. A loose mob of Metal fans calling themselves Bahraini Rockers have been trying to put on gigs, but their shows are frequently cancelled by the authorities, with stories of kids being turned away from the shows by security for wearing too much make up and what they call 'satanic t-shirts'. So it's a wonder that any kind of scene has managed to survive - let alone thrive in such an interesting and exciting way.

And THEE PROjECT are just the tip of the iceberg. More traditionally loud and doomy acts like The Mushroom Massacre, Motör Militia, Smouldering In Forgotten and the amazingly brutal Arabic-language Death metal mob Narjahanam are cropping up all over the island - and every one of them begs a listen. And when you find them, keep clicking through on their friends lists and see what other wonders you can uncover!

All photos © lays with the owners
Videos from YouTube. Underlying © lays with the owners of the clips.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Armenia's Apricot Army

Now there are many, who when the subject of Eurovision is raised, dismiss it with a cursory "Of course it's all political." What they are touting is usually the misguided and paranoid idea that nobody votes for the UK because everyone hates us, and there's some manner of fit up among all the other countries against us. Of course, they are wrong. The only reason nobody votes for us any more is because we send lazy-assed songs firmly rooted in the Eurovision of the past. However, in some instances Eurovision can claim to be a highly politicised beast - none the least out in the Caucasus.

Case in point is this year's Armenian entry, Apricot Stone by Eva Rivas. On the outset it sounds like nothing more sinister than a nostalgic ditty about the old days, the pretagonist's mother telling her how good life would be once she'd grown up - kind of like Ke Sera Sera with a skipbeat. But a little bit of delving will uncover all manner of mischief making.

For a start, take a look at that Armenian flag up in the top right corner. See the orange band at the bottom? That's not orange, that's apricot. The colour on the flag relates to the fruit considered to be the symbol of Armenian nationality. This thing goes back centuries, with Armenian generals going into war carrying banners and effigies made in the colour of the fruit, and the country's favourite folk instrument, the duduk (the very instrument that Eva's song begins with) is made from the wood of the tree. So perhaps the song is a call out to the diaspora of up to six million Armenians scattered around the globe in order to garner a few teary-eyed votes?

Maybe so, but some commentators are claiming yet more symbolism within the song's lyric. Some say that the mention of the fruit's stone refers to the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian enclave within the borders of Azerbaijan. These two very different nations have been niggling about this neighbourhood ever since the Russians poked their noses 90 odd years back - but would they extend their beef to something as seemingly innocent as Eurovision? You better believe it, because these two have form.

Last year the Armenians had their singer from the previous year, Shirusho, read out their scores. But look carefully and you'll notice that both on the backdrop and on the back of the very clipboard that she kept cheekily flashing at the camera was a picture of the Tatik yev Papik momument in Nagorno-Karabakh - a symbol of Armenian nationality in that area.

Following that, it was reported that 43 Azeri residents were questioned by their Ministry of Security after it was found that they had made the very unpatriotic move of voting for Armenia in the 2009 competition in Moscow.

Obviously feelings are still running very strong between the two countries, and they're playing their local politics out in the living rooms of a hundred million viewers across the continent. And with Azerbaijan yet to choose their song in this year's contest, we suspect this one could run and run. Keep them peeled, 'cos that Saturday night at the end of May could prove to hold more political intrigue than the casual viewer could ever imagine!

All photos © lays with the owners
Videos from YouTube. Underlying © lays with the owners of the clips.

Friday, 12 February 2010

He's a One Man Band...

Around the turn of the century I was editing an entertainment and lifestyle website for the student market. Most days I'd have a barrage of record company PRs calling me up and trying to sell me their latest big thing - which for the most part only proved to disappoint. But one midweek afternoon when one the few that I trusted to tell me if anything was any good or not - you know, really good - rang me to enthusuastically expouse the joys of one of his new charges, I thought it was time to pack up all this lark and get into plumbing.

"I got this act called Petit Vodo - you're going to love him!" Tell me more, I instructed. "Well, he's a French one-man band... but he's a lot better than I can make that sound. I'll send you a copy of the album." He wasn't wrong. Despite a description that held less promise than an old pair of damp socks, that album, Monom, rocked like a bastard.

Imagine the refuelled delta blues of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, without any of the ego or knowing irony, and steep it with an innocent gallic charm, some dynamite slide guitar and all kinds of bonkers-in-the-nut samples and you're part way there. "He's playing down Dingwalls with Gallon Drunk in a couple of weeks," explained my Vodo go between, "do you want to see him?" Heck yeah, I replied - if only to see if he could actually play any of this stuff live. Surely he had a band, or merely relied on overdubs and recording trickery on the album.

It would seem that he didn't.

Up in Camden, right by the canal, a tiny, unassuming man in spectacles and a flying helmet toddled speculatively onto the stage. With a massive guitar over his shoulder and a harmonica perched around his neck, he settled in behind the drumkit and started to play - everything. Strumming the open chords with his right hand and hammering the snare with his left, while hooting out all kinds of strangled vocalisms through his harmonica - and at the same time triggering scatter-shot sampled with his elbows. Once in a while he'd even take the stick and slide it up the fret like a bottleneck, while he still pounded out a beefy rhythm on the drums with his feet. The sounds he was making were glorious, unique and quite quite beautiful.

The partisan Gallon Drunk didn't seem too fussed by such a wonderful sideshow, serious souls that they were. But every now and again someone would walk into the room, stare hard at what was going on before them, and give that confused look that said "How the heck is HE making all THAT noise? On his own!!!"

The next album I got my hands on, Sixty-Nine Stereovox, held more of the same delights, and rarely left my stereo for a number years. Then for a while I kind of lost track of his exploits, until a recent websearch told me that he was still thriving, and still making his delectable swampy racket. Lately he's been accompanied by the glamorous Miss Caroline on drums, but it doesn't appear to have made him any less interesting or unhinged.

And you'll be pleased to hear that the good fellow is playing a few dates in the UK in March. So hunt him down like a dog and bathe in his magnificent otherness. You'll be pleased you did.

All photos © lays with the owners
Videos from YouTube. Underlying © lays with the owners of the clips.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Music From The Top of the World

One of the first things that you notice when travelling around India, apart from the oppressive humidity and the persistant smell of plasticine, is the music. Pumping out of practically every building and vehicle, the familiar playback style wafts along alleys and highways like a fragrant wind. Those slightly distorted and overdriven vocals so familiar from Bollywood movies soon become engrained in your consciousness, and inside days you'll find the pace of your walk has changed to match the skip of the music's beat.

It's pretty much the same wherever you go, but venture North and the musical landscape begins to make a few subtle changes. Travel up the country to Kashmir and more Arabic influences begin to appear. But once you pick your way through the mountain passes and enter the Himalayan region of Ladakh, you'll notice a sudden marked change. Gone are the pulsating skittish off beats of the dholaks and maddales. Instead a more organic, insistant skip of a rhythm takes over. Sing the phrase 'tummba-tiddily tummba-tiddily' to yourself gently under your breath and you'll get an idea of how it sounds.

And it's so happy too. Ladakh offers a stunning but bleak terrain, and many parts are completely cut off from the rest of the world in the long winter months. Rainfall is minimal, and as such the crops are spartan. And yet its people, predomenantly Buddist, and more akin to Tibetans than they are to any Indian nation, are some of the most cheerful I've ever met. So it's no surprise that their pop music is among the most whimsical and optimistic on the planet.

From what I could gather there are three main themes to the Ladakhi pop song: either a young soldier boy is stationed in the mountains and thinking of his girl back home in the village; a young girl walking around her village, seeing things that remind her of her soldier boy up in the mountains; or lastly the boy and the girl are together and thinking of their future and the landscape that they live in. And that's it. Every song sounds much the same as the last, and they all appear to be recorded not only in the same studio, but by the same plinky plonky keyboard, probably esconced in some chap's ad hoc studio in the capital Leh. But the music is so infectiously sweet that you'll find yourself longing to hear it for years after you visit the area.

The videos, too, are impossibly cute. Always filmed outside, and taking in the glorious scenery and unearthly light, the sweet-faced singers are always gently revelling in their surroundings, and dreaming of their loved ones as they're about their daily business. And you see them everywhere. Compilation discs of the lastest faves are played on tiny boxy screens in restaurants, bars, tourist offices and trinket shops. Ladaki pop is the heartbeat of the region, and the moment you begin to head South again, and the music pumping out of the massive, but always slightly damaged speakers on the buses shifts to more traditional Indan pop sounds, you feel like you're leaving behind an old friend.

There isn't a single Ladakhi pop act that I could recommend, they're all so reassuringly similar. Just listen to and watch some of the videos throughout this post, as they'll give you a flavour of the glorious sounds and images of a remarkable part of the world.

All photos © lays with the owners
Videos from YouTube. Underlying © lays with the owners of the clips.