Sunday, February 21, 2010

ailsa craig - a silent no : 19-10-09

The 25th release from Leeds, UK's Squirrel Records is a CD of 12 songs from a collaborative calling themselves ailsa craig. The album, titled "a silent no : 19-10-09" is predominantly the brainchild of producer/programmer and musician Matt Robson. However, singer and lyricist Caroline McChrystal, who formerly sang with the much loved Manhattan Love Suicides and now with it's offshoot band The Blanche Hudson Weekend - could be considered an almost equal collaborator here as she provides all the vocals as well as writing every lyric you hear. Additional significant contributors include the bass guitar work of Lee Hooper and guitarist Darren Lockwood (also a primary member of The Manhattan Love Suicides and now The Blanche Hudson Weekend). As a whole, this is music more for kicking back and listening to, as opposed to the more straight up rock of Caroline and Darren’s previous bands. You probably wouldn't put it on at a dance party either. However, if you are like me - and hunger for something "interesting" - something that breaks the monotony of the bland and tired same old same old - you might find this record to be just what the doctor ordered.

"Nine Times Table" is the curiously titled opening track. "Where can we go and what can we take from this?" asks Caroline. "I'm starting to see, you look away when we kiss," she continues. "Well, you can just leave, go away anytime. I don't want you here, if you are no longer mine." A “breakup" song, certainly - but, what else is going on?

Musically, the first change section has these great background vocals – “Ahhhhhhs” "I don’t care where we go now, but something’s gotta change,” Caroline sings.

For his part, Matt Robson's effects-laden drums and samples create an interesting electronic percussive bed. Additional layers of guitars begin to fill out the sonic textures as the piece progresses. Initially driven by a basic, simple keyboard line, by the time you reach the finale, there is active, solid layers of carefully placed keyboards, guitars and percussion. The guitar work of Gavin Montgomery provides additional "shimmer". “It’s so dark in my dreams,” states Caroline, providing a glimpse into mindset behind this lyrical theme.

"Plans You Made" is almost funky in its initial rhythmic presentation. "It’s so hard to find out dreams are broken," Caroline starts. "And your thoughts can go on unspoken," she continues. "Take a stand make it strong, you’ve got one shot" is the rallying cry.

As the song moves into a change, the vocals are delivered against a rising melody line, driven by synth keyboards - "Don't try to tame free minds. Chasing Ghosts is so hard," is the sentiment told. This ultimately leads to a poignant synth and piano interlude, suggesting introspective thoughts. Serving to set up Caroline’s voice coming back – studio manipulated and FX laden – matched with a robotic percussive pattern. The drum sounds at this point dispense completely with any attempt at sounding like a traditional kit, embracing instead the electronic world. Though I've been told that all the drumming is "real" and everything was "played by Matt" - there is certainly ample room for studio manipulation after-the-fact. Which is all fine and good as far as I'm concerned. It's the finished product that matters, and I'm not really all that concerned with how the results were achieved. The song now gets even better – with a dominant guitar line emerging and lifting it all higher.


"Don’t Hijack The Scene" is a somewhat catchy percussion and keyboard instrumental. Like something Depeche Mode might have done in the 1980’s. At 5:45 in length, it goes on a bit long from a purely active listening standpoint. However, it is the type of thing that might fit well as soundtrack music for a movie or tv show.

"If It’s Not Lost" presents Caroline’s vocals to maximum effect in the studio. She’s singing out fully now, not whispering – and is the most impassioned performance from her here yet. Matt Robson's melodica playing makes it's first (of later multiple) appearance here on the record. “Where are all the good times that we once had? I know I’d like to see them again,” Caroline muses. Musically the song structure and sound design evokes memories of The Cure. Caroline's delivery is measured, while her voice is pitched perfectly with just enough multitracking to create a worthwhile listening experience.

"Finding The End Of The Line" finds me revisiting a song I first reviewed on The Manhattan Love Suicides 2008 release "Burnt Out Landscapes." It was included on that collection because of Caroline and Darren's substantial participation on it - even though it was credited to an artist going by the name of Random Number (who would turn out to be Matt Robson). At that time my impressions were that it was predominantly an electronic piece, with a basic structure some might classify as slower moving "techno" or "house" music. Since I had been into the true electronic pioneers like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno for years - and then their pop evolutionary offspring like Depeche Mode or their harsher counterparts like Nine Inch Nails or even Ministry - it was no great leap for me to "get" this music. Making comparisons to David Bowie’s evolution from first "Ziggy/Alladin" - then "Station To Station" - then to "Low." The version here has been remixed, and now armed with additional background information, I can hear Darren's guitarwork more clearly. The guitar notes in the verses have strong delay effects on them. The fast strumming, heavily reverberated by Matt, creating a sound that is part mandolin, and part muted buzzsaw. Lyrically, Caroline suggests you "go for something that you never liked."


"Only Anger" is a slow and deliberate affair. With significant guitar contributions from Darren again, and a co-music writing credit with bassist Lee Hooper, the song serves to provide an emotional center to the album. "Her temper is getting shorter and now there’s nothing you can say," Caroline starts out. "Your gonna have to leave him, your only getting in the way. And even when she gives up, she has got a fight in her," is how the story evolves.

Musically, the song opens with a gentle pizzicato plucking on a muted stringed instrument, credited as "lead bass" to Hooper in the liner notes. In addition to the already established electronic percussion, there are also more natural sounding snares and cymbals, providing a warmth that drums played by an actual person can only provide.

There are appropriately understated Melodica sounds that enhance the overall ambiance. Darren's first musical appearance begins halfway through the first verse, with his "reverse reverb guitar" creating an almost keyboard-like sound.

The big bridge buildup employs a clever studio technique where Caroline’s voice comes in via a stutter/staccato style that leads to the lyric “there’s no beginning, there’s no ending.” This is where Darren’s dramatic, rough and powerful fuzz guitar line comes in behind Caroline's vocals. Its a dramatic moment and the high point of the song.


"A Different Path" is a short, gentle instrumental. Reminding me of the instrumental interludes of the late 1980’s album “Earthed” by Church frontman Steve Kilbey. Acoustic guitar and harmonica’s are the dominant sounds.

Hyperactive, percolating percussion and a sturdy descending bassline serve as the driving entry for “End It (Part 1)” ‘Leaving so fast, you don’t know what you’re getting,” sings Caroline. Matt Robson is credited with something referred to as “lead sample guitar” and evidence of it can be heard throughout the song.

Of note is a particularly hooky chorus sung by Caroline that goes “I can’t go on like this – you must end it”

A surprising and delightful rapid sequenced keyboard line emerges, which leads into Paul Elam’s powerful fuzzy guitarwork.

A Silent No” The actual title track is an introspective piano piece in the traditional sense. It sounds quite “live and organic” (that is to say, unsequenced or enhanced by computer clocking help).

Lee, Matt, Caroline

Wonder Crunching” introduces Flugelhorn as a sonic enhancement that separates this track from the others. “Watch yourself, it’s getting hotter – don’t get burned,” Caroline cautions. Fans of David Sylvian and Harold Budd might find this a like-minded track.

Echo Through” credits the music writing here to Robson, Hooper and Elam collectively, while McCrystal is responsible for the lyrical content. Hooper in particular makes his sonic presence felt with his “uni-string bass guitars.” Caroline’s lyrics and vocal delivery have a somewhat ominous tone to them. Contributing to this overall feel is Andrew Staveley’s Flugelhorn, which completes the mysterious vibe.

End It (Part 2)” An under 2 minute instrumental, is played entirely by Robson on Melodica, piano, programming and his altered voice. It stands as the perfect summation to the albums overall feel. A period at the end of deep and rewarding journey, for those who take the time to explore it.

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ViewFromSpookysDoghouse said...

"Boredom is bliss" she sings. I think I'll be pondering that phrase for awhile. Hear four of the twelve songs Dave reviewed over at the Ailsa Craig myspace page. I liked the instrumental keyboard duet section of Plans You Made prior to the percussive interjection, though that was interesting, too. I'm also curious to know more about the "reverse reverb guitar."

Anonymous said...

Great review ! Love all those descriptions

Mr Smork said...

nice. first album i i get to read from dave. i got to admit the intro was - perfect. couldn't find better way to do it. :)
description of the songs was nice as well. well as i already check that band out (with the proper links given) i would describe that music in different way (good that dave described in his own way, cause my way isn't so mature) :)
the band: i remember mls and i am glad that this band doesn't cover their music with echo as did mls.
thought the music might seem a bit melancholic (especially as i did a green day listening session before hearing this) but the mastering of the songs sounds interesting. all songs did very technically. i think i could listen this kind of music.....
in general: something new mean writing not about some event. and the band with a bit depressing songs, but this time i would say - i am not mind to this kind of depression. :)
feel the free everybody!

DaveCromwell said...

Interesting commentary, people. I'm pleased to read your own unique thoughts on it. Inevitably, I am now motivated to listen again and check out what it is that *you* heard (and chose to detail in your comments). It makes the listening experience that much more rewarding.

x said...

Great and detailed review- but the music itself could have been be much, much better if given other treatment.

If I was to decide, I would give the vocals more space and power, there's way too much whispering. I'm really used to very powerful female vocals, like those of Shirley Bassey so I feel a lack of energy in the band's vocals and music (which reminds me of Air a little).

I expect music to be like a drug that makes my heart beating twice the natural speed- it doesn't mean that I want distorted guitars and screaming all around 'cayse Pink Floyd's "High Hopes" is such a drug for me even though it's very silent.

Anyway- they've got a potential and I hope they use it better in the future.

DaveCromwell said...

To be fair, Rad - it's meant to be a bit more "laid back" in places. Have you ever heard any of Daniel Ash's (of Love & Rockets) solo albums? I think he is a master of the "whisper vocal". Caroline does it extremely well here too.

The album also tends to grow on you with repeated listenings.

I appreciate the feedback, though.

x said...

Well yea, I understand the idea behind the music but understanding something doesn't always generate liking it ;)

And nope- I haven't heard any of the Daniel Ash's albums. I will give it a listen and will get back to this stuff after a while. Like you said- it can possible grow on me. I remember listening to Tool's "Lateralus" for the first time and I was like: "WTF? I hate this music!" And now it's in my top 5 albums of all time so there *is* a chance of me liking Alisa Craig's music ;)

Matt said...

Hi Radek,

Thanks for your constructive comments, but I’m afraid that “powerful female vocals” are really not to my taste, which is one of the reasons why I specifically wanted Caroline to sing on this project.
I think there’s quite a lot of material already out there already which caters for that style of music anyway (such as La Roux, Ellie Goulding, Little Boots etc) and we definitely wanted to provide a bit of antidote to that kind of thing; maybe try to do something a little subtler with the whole female-fronted genre.

I can understand that you want that “heart beating twice the natural speed” thing, but sometimes you can create an emotional connection with a listener without bludgeoning them with sheer volume (not that volume is a bad thing! I dig stuff like Fugazi and Sonic Youth just as much as the next man) but there is a broader palette of musical expression out there which is all equally valid for exploration…surely the impressionistic tone-paintings of Christian Fennesz can sit comfortably in a record collection next to the likes of Merzbow or Lightning Bolt?

Matt said...

By the way,

Maybe check out Bracken's "We Know About the Need" album on Anticon Records, it's a big influence on what i'm trying to do with Ailsa Craig.

Anonymous said...

Wow what a fantastic plethora of new music to dive into! Fantastic review!
I'm sold!

DaveCromwell said...

Hey Matt, thanks for popping on and posting.
shleegyrocks - I appreciate the comment.