Birmingham label BEAROS releases an eclectic selection of music, from lo-fi pop to experimental to metal and more. Bearos boss Alan Farmer explains: "I've always chosen to go for variety and quality rather than looking at a niche market". Even though there is no specific 'label sound' with Bearos, there is no lack of quality control, and there's lots to like here if you're open minded about music.
Midlands band Grover have been around since the mid 90s and have had releases on a variety of labels over the years. They have been associated with Bearos since the early days of the label, and their most recent release on Bearos (not including a compilation appearance to be mentioned later) is their second album, Tiny Blue Sparks. Founder member Andy Hall left the band in 2002 and was replaced by Steve Hough (Godflesh, Cable Regime, Torque) who has been a long term collaborator with the band. This album features both Andy Hall and Steve Hough alongside the other original members of Grover, Simon Fox and Simon Rider.
Grover tread the fine line between post-rock and rock. They have always been categorised as a post-rock band but this release includes material which comes the closest to post-rock out of everything they've ever done (in particular, the intro and outro pieces here). This band combine dreamlike atmospheric soundscapes with an off-centre variety of indierock which is usually song-based and if not always song-based then always melodic. Longitude:Latitude shows a more laid-back and quiet side of the song-oriented Grover, although they do throw in a few crescendos here and there, and an out and out crunching noise section at the end, but it remains melodic throughout. They also introduce some brass into this piece, which is very unexpected. This part comes very close to free jazz at times, a genre I normally can't stand, but Grover can somehow get away with it.
Grover have supported My Bloody Valentine and Radiohead, and whilst they don't sound expecially like either of those, I can see how people into those bands would appreciate the music of Grover. This is a very strong album from a very creative band.
Midlands duo Papa November, consisting of Katy Acquaye-Tonge and Stuart Tonge, have a cd out on Bearos, From the Start Line. They make atmospheric electronic pop with hip-hop beats and experimental undertones. Some stuff here (particularly the first couple of tracks) has shades of Portishead and also of Massive Attack, but Papa November are no mere copyists, they have eclectic musical tastes and this shows in the music they produce. Slow Motion is a very distinctive song, bits sound kind of Spanish and then there's some synthetic piano that somehow reminds me of music box tunes, and this is mixed with hip-hop beats and vivid lyrics about Katy's childhood memories. Walking integrates jazz, funk, hip-hop and experimental elements. Soul Star is a mixture of neoclassical music, easy listening, electronica and pop. In Mellow there is a sample of what sounds like a brief snippet of opera vocal, looped and used like another instrument. Gardens of America is an evocative, atmospheric instrumental with bits of cut-up spoken voice. In People's Minds, old movie soundtrack music, electronic beats, spoken word and dreamlike atmospheric music are all combined to great effect. This is electronic pop, but it's intelligent electronic pop, definitely not to be confused with inane chart dance stuff. The band take a variety of past genres, mix them up and produce something forward thinking and highly creative.
"When I started Bearos Records 5 years ago, I never thought that I would be working with members of L7 and Babes in Toyland, let alone someone from Bananarama/Shakespear's Sister!" says Alan. Well, now he has done, as Bearos has released the compilation CD that coincided with Ladyfest UK 2003. This event was part of an ongoing series of festivals promoting female musicians. Packaged in a striking black & white cover which owes something to 60s psychedelic poster art and Art Nouveau, this album features a diverse collection of female artists, ranging from punk to synthpop, but with a general emphasis on the former. Ladyfest has its roots in the Riot Grrrl movement, so as to be expected from that, most of the music here is of a noisy nature - punk, grunge and related styles. But that is not always the case, as will be seen.
Katastrophy Wife is the current band of Kat Bjelland (ex-Babes in Toyland), and as you may expect, their track here is very much a grunge thing. The Suffrajets do aggressive punkpop. We Start Fires do a quirky mixture of punk and melodic pop, with spacey synths. Little Girl With Cherries aren't the twee indiepop their name suggests but noisy and angular post-rock. The Kitchen is Manda Rin of Bis' other band (Bis themselves also appear on this compilation). They do a more underground-friendly version of the dancey synthpop thing. Hooker do shouty punkpop. Carina Round does sophisticated and slightly off-centre pop with noisy bits, which is very impressive. Kirby are an unusual mixture of mod, country and noisepop. The Shocker is the new band of Jennifer Finch, formerly of L7. I was never a fan of L7 but The Shocker sound good - kind of off-centre punkpop. Siobhan Fahey was a household name in the 80s, with Bananarama and subsequently Shakespear's Sister. The style of music she's making these days is not all that surprising - dancey pop with a strong 80s influence. Gertrude do a kind of off-centre noisepop. The Flamingo 50 are punkpop. Motormark have the aggression of a punk band, but use entirely electronic instruments - it's good stuff. Angelica are part melodic indiepop, part screamy punk. Bis seem to have moved away from the disco-punk they were known for in the 90s, and replaced this with a more traditionally mainstream dancey pop sound.
Worth checking out if you're into angry punkpop in particular - and what's more, buying this album will be helping a good cause as profits from its sale will be donated to rape and domestic violence victims.
Bearos 40 is a compilation cd released to celebrate the label's 5th anniversary, which is being sent out free to everyone on Bearos' email list. Anyone wanting to receive a copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org (hopefully they'll still have some left as it's very limited). The majority of the tracks here are exclusive to this release, except for a handful taken from albums on Bearos, and the Owen Tromans track which is from his album From A Lost Library on Sacred Geometry. The stuff here is very diverse, ranging from experimentation to indierock to folk and more besides.
Dept Noise X Terror are experimental, but neither extremely noisy or terrifying; this is experimentation with a sense of purpose, with some degree of melody and structure (if nonconventional), instead of being a messy amateur jumble like some experimental 'music' that's out there. Owen Tromans does slightly off-centre indiepop with meaningful, story-like lyrics. Baxxter do chaotic noisy indierock with lots of shouty bits. Dreams of Tall Buildings do sound-effect based experimentation. Grover appear here with a non-album track, which is the post-rock meets indierock that's expected of them, this time in instrumental form. Grandscope have a post-rock instrumental which is equally melodic and atmospheric, and goes beyond standard post-rock by introducing a funk influence into the whole thing. Super A do summery indiepop. Kluster B cover a track by another Bearos band The Starries. This sounds unlike anything I've ever heard from The Starries though, it's experimentation with spoken word samples. Og's Bunkadoo Band do off-kilter music that's hard to pigeonhole - it's got bits of psych-rock, pop, folk and post-rock and is very impressive.
Baker Boys Meets Guitar is Gavin Baker (Billy Mahonie/Glider/Jet Johnson) and his dad Dave Baker, doing a trad folk instrumental with mandolin and guitar. The Regulars do great old-school indiepop. The Starries do a particularly off-kilter version of punky indierock that flies off at frequent tangents. The Toques do impressive alt-country. The Treble Kickers are an indierock band who are actually Jameson in disguise, with a live track. The Splendid do an unusual mix of post-rock, indiepop and 70s-style rock, with lots of time changes. This is the first I've heard from this band and I'd like to hear more. Papa November's track is taken from their album, and as mentioned above they make a creative variety of electronic pop. San Lorenzo's track is taken from their The Sea Is A Map album, reviewed a while ago in Aquamarine. This is post-rock with a short sung section, but most vocals are spoken and are forcefully recited. Ben Calvert has an excellent song from the more laid-back/melancholic side of indiepop. Lots of great stuff on this compilation - if you can still get it I recommend that you do!
Dreams of Tall Buildings' records have some of the most inventive packaging ever, for example the 7" packaged with a genuine X-ray, and the 7" bolted between two squares of wood! Bearos have released a live CDR by DOTB, recorded at the CBSO centre in 2001 (but released 3 years later). The packaging of this might not be as bizarre as two planks of wood with a bolt through the middle, but still has a creative and personal touch. The brown cardboard sleeve has hand-drawn artwork, as does the CD itself. A pocket inside the sleeve contains an envelope containing the tracklist, which is individually typed on a manual typewriter (not photocopied). The sleeve is sealed with an embroidered Dreams of Tall Buildings nametag, like those tags used to label school uniforms with the child's name. All of this is then wrapped in crinkly brown paper, hand stamped with the band name, album title and catalogue number, and tied up with string. I do like it when bands go to such an effort to package their releases, it shows they're serious about what they do.
One of the people from DOTB is Justin Wiggan, formerly of Subaqwa, but you don't really need to know this as the style of this band couldn't be further away from Justin's previous band. DOTB are an experimental band and their music would come as a shock to anyone expecting the song-oriented guitar music of Subaqwa. Whilst I have heard a couple of DOTB tracks in the past that have been too abstract/devoid of tune for my taste, in general they make the positive, creative kind of experimental music. DOTB show that there is such as thing as very good experimental music, it just requires a lot of creativity and talent. All too often, people with neither of these try to make experimental music and it just sounds an amateurish mess, but this band know what they are doing. The music here combines drones, sound effects, percussion, and melodies that are often subtle but strong enough to hold the attention. They even use a typewriter as an instrument, alongside piano and wind instruments, in the beautiful and dreamlike track Unapproachable Light. A very impressive and original band.
STOP PRESS: After writing this review I found out from the Bearos site that this is now sold out! Still, much of what I said above applies to DOTB in general, and I recommend you look out for anything by this band.
The Workhouse have had records out on a number of labels - Bearos, Rocket Girl, Awkward Silence, Earworm offshoot Great Pop Supplement, and Fierce Panda offshoot Livid Meerkat. They return to Bearos for their album The End of the Pier, which is predominantly instrumental music that's somewhere between post-rock, dreampop/shoegazer and old-school indiepop. Melodic guitar tunes contrast with atmospheric noise, creating music that is simultaneously tuneful and soundscape-like.
John Noakes is more upbeat than their usual sound - an excellent piece of instrumental noisepop where chiming guitars meet atmospheric sound, and which ends with a burst of searing noise. Stoichkov is another standout track, a strongly tuneful piece which later introduces the band's trademark atmospherics to accompany the main melody. Never Kill Your Dreams does not bring in any noisy accompaniment, focusing instead on the melodic side of the band's sound. Vienetta is one of only two tracks here with vocals. The voice is appropriately fuzzy and distorted, matching the atmospheric noise alongside it.
Goodbye Gudni is another track that leaves out the noise. This is a very beautiful melancholic piece with chiming guitars. The End of the Pier changes style several times. First it's an upbeat noisepop bordering on indierock instrumental. Then it's a laid-back melodic instrumental. Then it's a very strong song with atmospheric instrumentation; sounds rather like a shoegazer band covering a Subaqwa song. Then there's a period of silence, before some chiming guitars, thumping drums and ethereal (possibly synthesised?) 'aah-aah' vocals come in.
I saw Og's Bunkadoo Band live a few years ago and thought they were very impressive, and their tracks on Bearos' Lord of the Rings-inspired compilation album (reviewed a while back in Aquamarine) and on Bearos 40 were amongst my favourite tracks on there. So it's great to see that they now have a full album available. They may have an off-the-wall name that suggests some kind of comedy band or something irritatingly wacky, but this just isn't what they actually sound like. The album Mengekai Muriarte is a limited edition CDR, with just 100 copies available. The music is an amazing creative mix of psych, prog, post-rock, noisepop, indierock, spacey sound effects (in Adverse Camber) and folk-rock (in the intro to The Reckoning of Boromir), with lots of time changes, mood changes and so forth.
Some of the more bizarre prog moments with jerky, quirky rhythms are reminiscent of bands like The Monsoon Bassoon or Cardiacs, and in fact some of the guitar work in Adverse Camber sounds straight out of a Monsoon Bassoon song, but if you look at this album as a whole you'll see there's much more to Og's Bunkadoo Band than just a band who base their sound on The Monsoon Bassoon. This element of Og's Bunkadoo Band's sound is only one part of a much bigger picture, though I should think they would appeal to fans of bands of that style.
There are only 5 tracks here but they are all rather long, as you may expect from a prog-influenced band. The longest track here, Adverse Camber, is a massive 35 minutes plus! But as the songs incorporate so many different elements, they never get boring. It's a shame that there are only 100 copies of this available - although this is definitely music for a very specialised audience I feel enough people could like this band for them to have less limited releases available. Hopefully Bearos - or someone else - will release a 'proper' album by Og's Bunkadoo Band at some stage.
Another limited edition release is Effortless by The Regulars. This is a CDR but is factory pressed with on-body printing. It's a retrospective compilation of a band who existed between the mid 90s and early 00s and whose type of music was categorised as 'tweecore'. That's a pretty apt description as they combine elements of delicate, summery, old-school janglepop and gutsy punky stuff. Sometimes these two elements are distinct and contrasting whilst within the same song; at other times they are blended to produce a particularly tuneful and uplifting brand of powerpop (as in tracks like Try and University of Rain). They also leave the noise out altogether on tracks such as Saturday Song and From a Dark Room, sticking to a more straightforward jangly pop style. Many of the recordings here are rather raw and lo-fi, but the strength of the tunes shines through. This band made some really great, well-crafted and ultra-melodic pop songs, and it's a shame they are no longer around. Still, they left us this and their two 7"s on Bearos, all of which are a must for lovers of catchy indiepop and noisepop.
Ben Calvert is another impressive Midlands artist with a limited edition CD on Bearos, this being nicely packaged in a slim DVD case. The CD is called The Leafy Underground. Some tracks here feature guest appearances from Gordon Maguire and Kieran Petvin, of the vastly underrated band The Palantines, and another track has percussion from Fuzz Townshend. Ben's own music has little in common with these artists' usual music though. Some of his songs are indiepop, usually the minimal and/or melancholic variety; others are more of a folkpop thing.
'Nick Drake' is usually journalist shorthand for anything melancholic with an acoustic guitar - regardless of whether or not it actually sounds like Nick Drake. Ben Calvert however actually does make songs that have things in common with Nick Drake. Counting Carriages is very reminiscent of him, and Hours Fall is a little reminiscent of him as well. He also has a lot of songs that don't sound like Nick Drake, but lazy journalists would no doubt claim otherwise, as they are still in a melancholic vein. These songs are, however, much more of an indiepop thing than a Nick Drake thing. Think of minimalistic and/or melancholic indiepop like Brighter or Frank Peck, but these are really just vague references to give you an idea of the sort of music this is; Ben Calvert doesn't sound exactly like either of those.
And then there are songs here that fall outside both of those categorisations. The Leafy Underground is a gentle instrumental with flute and acoustic guitar. Safer Than Houses has a more upbeat and less minimal sound that I've never heard from Ben before. Ides of March is a beautifully sombre song accompanied by piano. Starlight is another very beautiful song with folk tinges. Ben Calvert is a very talented songwriter whose poetic lyrics paint vivid pictures. Another artist who deserves more than a limited edition release.
Formerly with San Lorenzo, Owen Tromans is now a solo artist, and his third album Place is out on Bearos, following two limited edition albums on his own label Sacred Geometry. This was recorded in Italy with a group of Italian guest musicians. There are a variety of sounds here but they all hold together well; this album is not so diverse that it sounds more like a compilation. Like Rheticus is indiepop with tinges of American folk. Swiss Army Song is a kind of folk-pop with lyrics that hark back to a bygone century, with its talk of 'blood on our swords'. Yet this is contrastingly paired with a most non-medieval spacey and atmospheric synth backing. St Teresa Inbetween is on the meatier side of indiepop, with an effective addition of glockenspiel. The Spanish Flag is a folk-tinged acoustic song, as is Some Black Plan, which bridges the gap between folk music and melancholic minimalistic indiepop. Upstairs is an instrumental track that begins with the sound of someone writing fast and turning pages over, then you get a guitar tune that's part folky, part off-centre, which is backed by glockenspiel and military-sounding drums. John's on the Bridge is sombre indiepop of epic proportions; it lasts for 10 and a half minutes but never drags.
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UPDATE - Just after finishing this article I received 3 new limited edition CDs from Bearos. I decided to add the reviews to this article instead of waiting until next issue to review them; as they're limited edition they might not still be available by then.
First up - Action: Re-Action by Baxxter. This is a 21 track CD containing the band's entire collection of studio recordings from 1997 to 2002, including remastered versions of their Bearos singles, as well as 4 live tracks. Baxxter's music is raucous punky stuff, often having an offbeat and atonal approach, with quirky chord sequences, ranted vocals and twisted lyrics like 'I wanna fuck your severed head'. The intense hardcore screeching can get a bit much after a while, but there is some variety on this album, in the tracks that combine the shouting with more melodic vocals, the more tuneful noisepop tracks, and then there's Brian, an irreverent take on sugary 60s pop. They even do a riotous brass-powered version of Silent Night! After recording this material they took a two year break, but reformed in 2004, so watch out for more new stuff from Baxxter.
The Starries also have a new compilation album out on Bearos, Our Darkest Hours, collecting material recorded in the same time period as the Baxxter album. The Starries mix punk-pop, post-rock, indiepop, modern prog (as in offbeat, time-changey stuff, not pompous 70s influenced stuff) and shouting - sometimes too much shouting for my taste but overall they are an excellently off-centre punk-prog-pop band. The final track, untitled on the cover, is a lo-fi live recording of their interpretation of The Bangles' Eternal Flame, complete with chaotic guitar noise and raucous yelling.
Richard Burke, one of the original members of The Starries, has a solo album called Roscrea. This is VERY different from The Starries, replacing the chaotic and off-centre sound with some really excellent melodic indiepop that's melancholic yet uplifting. Sometimes the songs are minimalistic, sometimes with more of a full sound, always showing an impressive songwriting ability. Although I described this album as indiepop, I use that term loosely, as Richard never sticks to one formula. You'll hear an occasional country-ish twang (The Secret), a folk influence (Out of Breath, Signal, So Quick) and a post-rock sound (Thomas B). A really great album.
BEAROS RECORDS FREE DOWNLOADS - try before you buy site with tracks from most Bearos CDs.
BEAROS RECORDS SINGLES CLUB - monthly downloadable split single complete with artwork.
OL' TAMARA'S PARTY - another site set up by Alan at Bearos, this time featuring downloads from 10 labels - Antenna, Artists Against Success, Bearos, Fortuna Pop, Line Out, Pickled Egg, Static Caravan, Vacuous Pop, Victory Garden and Where It's At Is Where You Are.
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