A Disaffected Wave: Exploring Darkstar’s Slow-Build Melancholy.

Huddersfield (UK) dance duo Darkstar are very much a vibe act. James Young and Aiden Whalley operate in the soft, synthy underbelly of dubstep, producing mood-led, slow-building tracks that ebb and flow, their sum greater than their gently-fused parts.

There’s a melancholy to that sound, personified in hit single ‘Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer’ and third album ‘Foam Island’. It’s vibe that the DJ pair have riffed off in recent years as they’ve pulled back on the live shows, becoming a club dancefloor mainstay, and taken the time to drop it all in favour of projects that take a deep dive into the pair’s tonally beautiful disaffection.

“We were approached about putting together a project on migrant communities in inner-city Liverpool,” Whalley says of their latest project away from the decks, Trackbed. “We liked the idea of it, and spent a few months working on it. It’s been our main focus. I think it’s hard at times to just crack on making tunes.”

“At times it gets too cyclical, and we just wanted to try something else. We liked the idea of scoring things, putting installations together. It makes us think about things rather than sit in a studio. Obviously politically it resonates, too [the pair are noted for their left-leaning approach to social issues].”

“In Trackbed they kind of had a concept in mind for us, but we’ve also done work about young people in Huddersfield.” The duo have named a number of releases after Huddersfield postcodes, in fact, in tributes to their origins. “I think the idea, though we didn’t want to explicitly say it, was to look at how little they care about politics, how disaffected they are.”

The Liverpudlian production saw Darkstar taking a break from the new album in order to soundtrack an electronic exhibition in the city that focuses critically on the UK and India’s shared history, zooming in on heritage and migration. It was the product of a long-standing residency at Harthill Youth Centre in the city, and went on to be aired at London’s Barbican Centre.

The band’s sound has subtly evolved in the meantime, presenting new challenges to Young in particular, who appears vocally on tracks for the first time. The band traditionally shy away from personal focus, preferring dingy atmospherics, and to let their sound do the talking, so this is quite a change.

My Top Five Books of 2017

A snowstorm is a perfect chance to write the blog posts I’ve been meaning to do since the turn of the year, right? Belatedly, then, here are the best books I read in 2017 (picked from just under 50 I managed to work my way through), and just why I loved them. I decided to make this an annual thing in part because I’ve already flicked back to last year’s post half a dozen times to check the names of certain authors whose other books I’m dying to read (good memory and a young child don’t go well together, it turns out), but also because I’ve found reading has edged to easily on a par with music for what fills my free time (free time – haha) these days, and a good 90% of this website is about music. So, you know, balance or something. As with last time, these are not necessarily books released in 2017, they’re simply books I read in 2017. More importantly, these are some great books. Go read them!

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (link)

This is a chunky enough book to put off the casual reader (it was only after seeing more than half a dozen people absolutely raving about it online that I was willing to commit to 600-plus pages), but what a fantastically imaginative and evocative tale it is. Starting in rural Cork, with a young woman pregnant by dubious means and very publically expelled from her community, it weaves through the lifetime of the child, which encompasses much of the time of the existence of the modern Irish state. Cyril Avery’s winding tale is picked up at various key moments of his life, incorporating key political events, the progress of the gay rights movement, the influence of the church and – critically to the enjoyment of the story – a poignant and unforgettable tale around the main character.  I was sad when it ended, which is saying something for a novel of this length.

Pirates, Punks and Politics by Nick Davidson (link)

It’s hard not to be a touch disillusioned with football these days, which can be hard as a lifelong fan of the game, but the levels of imbalance amongst clubs and the sense that the vast majority are there to be also-rans sits heavy, and it’ll take more than a Leicester premier league title to convince me otherwise. I was lucky enough to catch German club St Pauli play against Union Berlin in Hamburg a few years ago. Whilst not the only ones, they are the stand out club that convinces me football still has its soul. Pirates, Punks and Politics is the story of an Englishman falling in love with the club (I’d be on that boat if it was within the realms of life’s realities, to be honest), and their story is incredible. Born out of the harder edge of what’s now the city’s party district, the Reeperbahn, the club has been at best modestly successful (they typically, and currently, sit in the German second tier), but play with an ethos of left-wing politics, social equality, anti-abuse, atmospheric protest and progressive views that is encapsulated in this book. I can’t help loving them, though I dread to think what the parties are like.

Gorgon City: Building A Dance Dynasty

Accessible London house act combine beats and an intelligent approach to building their business in an effort to take over the world of chart dance, and flit into the underground, too.

In a world where some of music’s biggest artists are commercialising their work in – from a fan’s perspective, at least – all the wrong ways, it’s refreshing to see more of an ethos-driven, hard-working and multi-faceted approach to slipping seamlessly into the big time.

London house music duo Gorgon City are not quite a household name yet, and a far cry from the growing world of high-cost VIP meet and greets or ticket sales linked in with buying a small heap of merchandise. In their world, though, they’re edging close to the summit, and the story of their rise is about far more than 2014 hit single ‘Ready For Your Love’.

The duos sound is always beat-driven, taking much of its inspiration from the deep house and garage scenes, but adds chart colour with a series of special guest vocalists. In the past, their tracks have incorporated anyone from MNET to Klaxons, Wyclef Jean to Jennifer Hudson.

Performing both live and as DJs, and perhaps most importantly as part of a heavily franchised, multinational radio show, the pair have developed their music in a series of directions, also splitting their sound into what they see as their chart-ready, accessible angle and a more underground, edgy buzz that comes out in DJ sets and in their popular, franchised radio show.

“The radio show still feels new,” Kye ‘Foamo’ Gibbon tells us ahead of their return to Dublin club District 8. “It’s been exciting to have a radio show in a lot of countries where we’ve never actually played. It’s led to a lot of new bookings coming from places like South America, Asia and Eastern Europe.”

“It’s also a really cool project,” he continues. “It really keeps us on top of new music, and helps us work towards the development of our own label. We hope to be releasing stuff from other people before too long, and we’re keeping a close eye on quite a few up and coming producers.”

The Free-Wheeling Reincarnation of O Emperor

Returning to the scene after a break of a couple of years, O Emperor leave behind their hang-ups, delving into a free-spirited, avant-garde, industry-ignoring new phase. The Waterford act are back, but not as you know them…

When they burst onto the Irish music scene with major-label debut Hither Thither, O Emperor were a band known for their meticulous attention to detail. They wrote beautiful, haunting indie-pop songs that meandered wonderfully, every note carefully adjusted in agonised-over studio recordings.

That startling attention to detail was a blessing and a curse: at times a constraint on the release of the band’s music, but creating a distinctive and much-loved sound that propelled them to national attention. In hindsight, frontman Paul Savage admits “We needed to let that perfectionism go and accept that at a certain point what we’ve done is actually fine. We used to obsess over things like the exact level of reverb. Looking back, I don’t think other people really notice or care about things like that.”

After a couple of years away, O Emperor returned having done a full 180. New single ‘Make It Rain’ is the first offering from an as yet untitled new album, and the first of a series of pre-album singles set to come out over the course of a year. The band also completed their live return with first show in some time last week at Cork’s Quarter Block Party.

“We did most of the recording two years ago, but we’ve only got to mixing now,” Savage explains. “We’re very bad at taking our time with things. We got a notion to go ahead with it now, though, so we’ve gone ahead. We’ve gone really rough and ready with stuff. It’s actually written live. It’s just live jams. We recorded two to three hours of us jamming and picked out bits we liked, and chopped up and constructed some bits in the edit. Then we added the vocals later, but even the vocals were kind of made up on the spot in some cases.”

“It’s influenced by things like Sun Ra, Can, and krautrock stuff, and really concentrates on atmosphere. It can actually be quite difficult to reproduce live, and it’s really radically different to anything we’ve done before. It’s already evolved quite a lot from the record in rehearsal and in the live show, as it’s very difficult to actually reproduce what you did before. There are clashed notes, odd chords, stuff like that.”

“We’re trying to base the live show in a framework and jam around that,” he continues, “which can be hard to do, especially where you’re nervous. It’s easy to mess up on the spot, but it’s really exciting to do.”

Music Magpies: the Eclectic Indie Beats of Django Django

Having bounced from a bedroom-DIY debut that brought a Mercury Prize nomination, to a follow up they seem to have dismissed as an uninspired blip, Django Django – an almost impossible band to peg – are back with a third album, ‘Marble Skies’, and heading for Dublin..

Django Django have been hovering around the edges of a burgeoning indie scene for years, hard to define but easy to love. They draw in aspects of straight-up indie rock, electro-punk, mild psychedelic tendencies and plenty of varied, often-sampled beats.

The entire concept seems to hang on limitless experiment, something that’s evolved strongly through their careers, and now revolves around a large practise room in Tottenham (North London), crammed with their monstrous vinyl collection and all the instrumentation they need.

“We have to take it a little differently now,” frontman Vincent Neff – a native of Derry – says of the band’s everyday life. “When we’re back in London, it’s very much a normal working schedule, as some of us have families, so the whole all-night, up drinking while we write music thing is largely a thing of the past. That’s totally different on tour, of course, but when we’re recording we have to consider family life.”

“What we produce comes largely from a lack of belief in genre. Dave [Maclean, the band’s producer and drummer] has a crazy techno record collection, while the other lads have other influences. There are five or six new records coming into the practise space every week. Growing up in the 90s you were going to a gig one night and a rave the next, listening to the Happy Mondays and hard house. I don’t really understand how anyone can just be into a genre, and come out with stuff like ‘I just listen to techno’. That idea eroded for us a long time ago.”

There are difficulties with that variety, of course, not least in Django Django’s textured and nuanced sound being extremely difficult to reproduce live. “It takes a long time to sort,” Neff admits, laughing. “You get onto the stage and it sounds different. There are definitely some songs we just can’t do, and others that are different live, that we change the rhythm of, or use different instruments.”

“Some songs we try for a few minutes as a live setup and it’s immediately obvious it’s just not going to work. Others we kind of stumble on solutions.”

Bags of Talent: the Offbeat Charm of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers

Red Hot Chilli Pipers – an award-winning Scottish bagpipe band not to be confused with the Los Angeles rockers who inspired their name – are famed for their live show. With more than a dozen bagpipers and drummers on stage, they cover Avicii and AC/DC, Coldplay and Journey, whilst explore trad traditions, and absolutely pulsating with bouncing energy.

It didn’t start like this, though. In fact, the group leapt to prominence as the star of ‘When Will I Be Famous?’, a sub-X Factor TV show. They were a fantastic novelty, but one that was clearly going to have to adapt to survive the usual post-show drop-off. And adapt they did.

“When we won the TV show, we didn’t even have a website,” bagpiper Willie Armstrong recalls. “We got lots of offers to play and it was an incredibly exciting time for us all. Bear in mind most of us had other jobs, so it did get a little stressy.”

“The big difference between our band and the many other acts that have been through the same thing is that we are incredibly hard working. We realised very quickly that the fan base was really driven by the TV show; people were fans of the TV show and not necessarily fans of the band. We still had to build a fan base.”

“If we had nothing to offer, the gigs would have dried up quickly. We had to make sure our product was strong enough that people would come back, and they’d come back with their friends.”

The live show, then, has become the band’s thing. Naturally, that leans on a certain amount on the recognisability in their tracks, but also on the unique twist that the bagpipes and drums put on them.

“We have invested a great deal in the production side of our shows,” Armstrong explains. “Our lighting engineer flies in from Poland, and we have the two best sound engineers in the business. The equipment we use is all top of the range. Every part of the live show is recorded and then dissected after each performance. Nothing is left to chance as we have too much respect for the paying audience.”

Take out the calipers: the thick-skinned return of Paddy Hanna

Having put aside his demons and tackled the dramas of recording an album that really didn’t go to plan, Paddy Hanna’s had a rocky road to his sophomore release, but he’s staring proudly over those roadblocks.

Castleknock native Paddy Hanna has been in a fair few bands in his time, but over the last few years, he’s been operating under his own moniker, drawing the crowds through the distinctive vocals of his leftfield indie-pop ditties.

A former core member of popular and borderline-defunct DIY collective Popical Island and frontman for one of their key acts, Grand Pocket Orchestra, Hanna released his debut album ‘Leafy Stiletto’ in 2014. Years later, his return with his latest ‘Frankly, I Mutate’ might be greatly delayed, but has already drawn the attention of the likes of NME and Stereogum through its early singles. His style is one of emotive vocals, gorgeous yet jarring instrumentals and slow-building, dramatic peaks.

It’s been a difficult road for Hanna, though, who’s never been afraid to speak his mind on the problems musicians face. “Things are totally different this time,” he tells us. “I’ve had line up changes and life changes. I’ve tackled some mental health issues; spent some time on finding things that work. I started working on this album when I went onto medication. I was looking at things with a new clarity.”

Things were to go a little haywire, though, with the recording process brutally interrupted, and the album release – originally planned for last year – heavily delayed. “I lost my manager half way through the two weeks in the studio,” Hanna recalls. “It was strange, as he’d introduced me to Daniel [Fox, the producer who was to be heavy influence on the album’s style], and really set this project in motion.”

“The wall of sound affect Daniel introduced is an essential element on the new album. It was our project, in many ways, but my old manager decided half way through that he didn’t want to carry on. It’s a funny one. You’ll hear it on the album. Half the tracks are me excited about being back in the studio, and have that feel to them. The other half are very different. After the manager left there was some drinking and some really wasted vocal takes. I guess the contrast is part of the mystique of it.”

Astonishingly, the studio was to close shortly after Hanna’s recording, too, meaning a number of tweaks to the record had to be done elsewhere, further complicating the process by the requirement for a new studio a fresh set up. Eventually, the seasoned performer – at something of a loose end – hooked up with Galway music legend and Roisin Dubh main man Gugai, who will release ‘Frankly, I Mutate’ on his Strange Brew label.

Future Stars? 2018’s Most Likely in Irish Music

As we edge into another year, we can’t help but look ahead to 2018 in Irish music, casting a glance the way of the country’s great hopes. There’s plenty to be excited about, from a rising hip-hop scene to plenty of impressive and lairy rockers, but we’ve narrowed it down to just seven rising stars. Here are our picks for Ireland’s most likely breakthrough artists for the next twelve months…

Jafaris

Ireland’s hip-hop scene seems to get better by the day, and while Rusangano Family are the much-acclaimed kings, Jafaris – who played Ngig in Sing Street – is coming up fast on the outside. With a quick quip constantly to the ready and a live show that seems to wow everyone before him, the Diffusion Labs rapper is working on a 2018 album as a follow up to the sensational Velvet Cake EP. Add the man to your ‘must see’ list before he starts playing anywhere bigger: when a vocalist delivers this kind of cuttingly intense honesty together with the boisterous on-stage persona that Jafaris has made his own, the result is certain to fly. [website]

Bitch Falcon

After a patchy 2017 that saw the three-piece undergo a personnel change, this grungy Dublin outfit are all set to fly once again. They seemed to be everywhere for a little while, with their pounding, intense live show backed up with an early single nodding to obscure parts of the body (TMJ) amongst a sprinkling of lairy, crafted riff-laden tracks. They have a cult-like following on the Irish guitar scene, and November’s new single ‘Of Heart’ created some buzz in the UK music press, too. And who wouldn’t want band merch with that particular band named emblazoned all over it. In a word, ferocious. Brilliantly so. [website]

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