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Alan Davidson's home recording project the Kitchen Cynics has released a vast number of albums (over 100, I believe) over the last 20-odd years, initially on homemade cassette and subsequently vinyl and CDR. There have been Kitchen Cynics tapes out on various DIY labels, including Bi-Joopiter, Acid Tapes, Bacchanalian Revel, Best Kept Secret, and my own Bliss label, as well as Alan's own label Les Enfants du Paradiddle. Vinyl releases followed on a variety of labels. Alan continues to release material on CDR and vinyl via Les Enfants du Paradiddle, and I have received a selection of the label's recent releases.

The 100th LEdP release, Yesterday, Perhaps: Songs of the Kitchen Cynics, is a vinyl LP of Kitchen Cynics covers by various psych-folk, alt-folk and experimental folk artists, many of whom are established, respected names within the genre. It is quite remarkable - perhaps even unprecedented - that a band that started out in the tape label scene and has remained resolutely DIY ever since should be influential enough for psych-folk pioneers such as Tom Rapp to cover their songs. This proves just how important the Kitchen Cynics are, and should act as a wake-up call to anyone who has previously dismissed DIY artists whilst knowing nothing about them, due to the ignorant assumption that if a band 'has to' put out their own music, and/or appears on homemade tapes or CDRs, then they can't be any good.

All the artists here have completely reinterpreted the tracks, adding much of their own sound to Alan's songs. Josephine Foster's interpretation of Winter in Her Bones is psych-folk with an eerie, otherworldly feel, incorporating harp, cello and Portuguese guitar. Tom Rapp's Richard in Bedlam is a raw, minimalistic piece with the feel of a traditional folk song. Alasdair Roberts' The Horseman's Word is fantastic electric folk with flowing psychedelic guitar and energetic rhythmic percussion. Major Matt Mason USA's version of She's Growing Old Disgracefully is indie-rock with a punky chug, given psychedelic overtones by the use of vintage synth. Kathleen Baird's Lichen is a wonderfully atmospheric and artistic experimental folk piece with pulsating synth, piercing guitar noise, and woodwind. Adam Leonard's The Place You Hid combines the 60s singer-songwriter sound with a hint of contemporary underground folk. Humour is injected into the lyrics and there's some nice vocal harmony work.

PG Six's The Heroine, Jane Whyte is absolutely superb. It sounds convincingly like a traditional folk song, and includes some effective use of flute. Sharron Kraus sets When Father Hanged the Children to an effectively minimal keyboard arrangement. Jeffrey Alexander's Restless Morning combines delicate folkiness with harsh, intense noise. Adrian Crowley's If I Was A Good Man sets a traditional-inspired folk song to an ethereal and dreamlike arrangement. Electroscope are a band I remember from the 90s; good to know they're still active. Here they cover Jock Sheep, in which spoken male vocals, otherworldly female vocals, woodwind and drones are combined to produce a fine slice of creative experimental folk. Finally, Rory McIntyre provides a version of Rue Bonaparte with bendy, woozy guitar, coming across like a warped, experimental form of blues. This is a great album that highlights both Alan Davidson's songwriting talent and the diverse, creative sounds coming out of the underground folk scene at present.

Yesterday, Perhaps is also available as a CDR that features not only the covers from the LP but also the original recordings by the Kitchen Cynics. She's Growing Old Disgracefully is the least folky track among the cover versions, and the same is true of the original version, which is a kind of DIY pop complete with tinny lo-fi drum machine. The other tracks are a very lovely variety of psych-folk, very creatively arranged with nice use of recorder, mandolin, atmospheric psychedelic guitar, and more. When Father Hanged the Children includes some pulsating whooshy/hissy sound effects, along with echoey tinkling sounds from a heavily processed glockenspiel. Restless Morning features (I think) a psaltery, or some other similar stringed instrument, its bell-like tones adding an ethereal effect to the song. Jock Sheep is more melodic than Electroscope's reinvention of the track, but no less atmospheric with its hypnotic, floaty arrangement and the pulsing sci-fi synth noises that appear at various points throughout the song.

The latest album from the Kitchen Cynics is the vinyl LP The Orra Loon. As with the covers album, it's pressed on high quality heavy vinyl, which allows the full expanse of the sound to come through. The album cover shows a sense of historical continuity, with Alan on the one side and his great-grandfather on the other, both standing in exactly the same location. I Am The Orra Loon is told from the perspective of a farm labourer, but don't expect prettied-up bucolic escapism; there are decidedly dark and eerie undercurrents running through this song. There's a new version of Jock Sheep, with nicely meandering and atmospheric psychedelic instrumentation. There's a minimalistic acoustic version of Richard in Bedlam, taken from a live radio session. The delicate folkiness of the song masks its gruesome lyrical content dealing with insanity and violence, inspired by the life of Victorian artist Richard Dadd. The Wilhelmina Gabb also deals with a grim event from history. The eponymous ship ran aground at Cowie, its crew being helped by local residents who became infected with cholera caught from one of the sailors, turning Cowie into a ghost town. Neoclassical piano courtesy of guest musician Susan Matthew provides an air of bleakness and melancholy befitting the song's subject matter.

In Flies, spacey burbling sounds and ethereal recorder take the harsh edge off this poignant song about friends who lost their lives too soon. Pressed Flowers is an instrumental mood piece with piano, glockenspiel, cello and psych-rock guitar. It's a very fine example of aural art that bypasses straightforward musical conventions. Now's the Time is one of Alan's older songs from the 1990s, dedicated to Nick Drake, who is simply credited as 'Nicholas' on the sleeve and in the lyrics. The song has been re-recorded with the effective addition of sitar from guest musician Philip Johnston. Alan doesn't flinch from exploring life's harsher realities on this album. There is much bleakness and darkness in the lyrics; death is a recurring theme, and particularly the death of people who died too young, whether they be Alan's friends, the residents of Cowie, or Nick Drake. Yet he still manages to make songs that are things of beauty out of these unsettling topics.

Wooden Bird... Plus is a CDR reissue of Kitchen Cynics' 2011 album Wooden Bird, originally released as an LP on Italian label Almost Halloween Time. It also features 7 additional tracks which are new recordings from 2013. There's a version of the traditional nursery song I Had a Little Nut Tree, with vocals from Susan Matthew. The discordant tinkling and whirring sounds that make up the instrumental backdrop conjure up a vivid 'haunted toy shop' image. Early Birds, 25th May is an improvised instrumental, but completely free from the all-over-the-place, abstract nature of much improvised music, favouring instead a gentle, ethereal approach which is really soothing. Scales features two sets of vocals, one sung, one spoken, and a folky guitar melody, over an atmospheric wall of sound somewhere between shoegaze and ambient. The intro of Dawn reminds me somewhat of Blueboy, but that's where the similarity ends; the rest of the song is very lovely psych-folk incorporating woozy soundscaping and expressive recorder sections. There's a superb electric folk version of Robert Burns' Now Westlin' Winds. One of the bonus tracks is the traditional folk song The Cutty Wren, accompanied solely by electric piano, which actually sounds surprisingly psychedelic. Beetles in the Bark is a psych-folk gem; despite its spooky lyrics, its overall sound is oddly comforting. The Original Joan is off-centre DIY synthpop with fantastical futuristic lyrics; very different from everything else here but it works well. Another really excellent album from the Kitchen Cynics!

As well as the Kitchen Cynics, Alan is also involved with two other projects, Kitchen Cynics Orchestra and Matricarians. Kitchen Cynics Orchestra have a CD entitled Four Score & Ten. Alan is the sole band member on four of the tracks, whilst on the other five tracks he is joined by Claire Harkins and Jan Stewart. The music of Kitchen Cynics Orchestra is a kind of experimental instrumental music, very different from the Kitchen Cynics. Barefoot in the Fog is best described as 'ambient folk'. It combines relaxing drones with atmospherically played accordion and a stringed instrument with a bell-like tone, that sounds like it could be a kantele. A Breeze on the Gallowgate is a sound sculpture that brings together droning, whooshing and pulsing sounds with guitar and (I think) zither. Cats of the Edwardian Era features discordant tinkling from several music boxes being played at once, bee-like hums, and juddering sounds. Whilst this description perhaps makes it sound like a pointless and cacophonous racket, it's actually very soothing. Slum Kisses is a woozy, ethereal piece with cello, recorder and flute, taking on board aspects of ambient, experimental, psych and folk. Familiar Albums is an epic live track 26 minutes in length, in which swelling ambient drones are combined with semi-abstract, minimalist piano, more of that instrument that may or may not be a zither, psych guitar, and various other odds and ends, creating nothing less than an aural art masterpiece. This is a really creative album that sidesteps musical conventions yet avoids falling into the 'messy jumble' trap that tends to happen when far less talented people try making experimental music. There is a definite sense of purpose to these recordings, and lots of engaging things going on that make the album a real feast for the ears. This is in fact one of the most enjoyable experimental albums I've heard for a long, long time, perhaps even ever.

Matricarians is another experimental band that comprises Alan Davidson, David Mackay and Susan Matthew. I have their CDR Birdsandburns. Ambient drones, piano and psychedelic guitar come together in Transitory Planes. In Three Jays and a Woodpecker, a glockenspiel tinkles away abstractly like a broken music box, alongside the sound of a buzzing insect, and various piano parts that range from jaunty to angular. Found Sounds - The Huntly Tape, Part 1 features speech taken from a 1960s reel to reel tape found in a charity shop, interspersed with woozy psychedelic instrumentation. Dragonflies and Bandies is experimental psych-folk with cello, a glockenspiel that sounds like a wind chime, ethereal synth, and all sorts of odd background noises. Birds and Burns o' Blairgowrie 2011 is exactly that - a recording of birdsong and a rushing river, providing a backdrop for freeform, improvisational cello and flute and an off-centre piano riff. Synchro-Swimming in the Gene Pool is a nicely quirky piece of DIY electronica. An eclectic selection of tracks, all held together by an inventive experimental thread.

There are a few Kitchen Cynics albums (though not the ones reviewed here) available at kitchencynics.bandcamp.com. The Kitchen Cynics can also be contacted via Facebook (search for Kitchen Cynics).

UPDATE - Since completing this article earlier in 2014, I have received three new albums from Alan. First up, Kitchen Cynics' Our Photographs. Among the 17 tracks featured here are Requiem for Liam, a meandering and dreamlike psych-folk instrumental that is eerie yet oddly comforting; Make of Me a Mask, an excellent psych-folk song with atmospheric synth; Jack Longshanks, which is set to an experimental soundscape combining a floaty atmosphere with whirring sci-fi sound effects; Blackbird, 4am in February, a film soundtrack-like instrumental interlude; Nettles, setting a traditional-inspired folk song to atmospheric instrumentation; The Tryst Discovered, a melodically and lyrically dark song featuring otherworldly-sounding recorder along with a stringed instrument with bell-like tones, possibly a kantele or otherwise psaltery; and an eerie and convincingly traditional-sounding ballad, Bold Sir Godfrey Wedderburn. Even after what I believe is more than 100 albums, this very prolific project shows no signs of running out of ideas and continues to be counted amongst the best of the dark, experimental psych-folk bands.

Next there is the Kitchen Cynics Drone Trio, comprising Alan Davidson along with Mike Blair and Richard Milne. Their new album is Venus on a Buckie, which is packaged within surreal collage artwork in which Edwardian engravings are rearranged in a bizarre psychedelic style. On the Happy Bus combines a melodic psych-folk instrumental with found sounds. Venus on a Buckie is a massive 18 and a half minute piece with an ethereal and hypnotic atmosphere, best described as ambient-space-folk. Rock, Rock, Rock! brings together tuneful guitar and recorder melodies with swelling ambient soundscaping. Birds of April is an inventive piece in which Alan's voice is accompanied by birdsong and the sound of a rushing river, with wordless choral vocals appearing at intervals throughout the song. Half-Fish Lady is a beautiful traditional-inspired folk song set to a shimmering atmospheric accompaniment. The Kitchen Cynics Drone Trio are perfectly named, as their music has all the hallmarks of the Kitchen Cynics, whilst placing more emphasis on the ambient soundscape qualities implied by the word 'drone'. Another winner from Alan and co!

There's also a new Matricarians album, After the Dancing. Experimental yet melodic, the tracks here bring together folk motifs with aspects of modern art music and film soundtrack-esque compositions. Cheer Up, Cheer Up sets a folky song to a piano and woodwind instrumental. Yonder Star is an eerie and otherworldly instrumental combining pulsating electronics, wind chimes and recorder. Snow Melts the Ericht is an improvisational piece incorporating psychedelic, Americana, and experimental aspects. Things the Waves Would Bring begins as a brooding piano piece combined with shimmering, ethereal electronics, having the feel of incidental film music. Then a synth comes in with a plinky-plonky yet warped sound, like a musical equivalent of a hall of mirrors, along with lyrics combining the everyday with the supernatural. Dance, Crows, Dance is a surreal instrumental with an improvisational quality, having aspects of jazz, modern classical, and found sound-based experimental music. The traditional nursery song Miss Polly Had a Dolly appears here with an appropriately toy-like glockenspiel alongside hypnotic, pulsing electronic music. Piggy on the Hillside is an experimental psychedelic track based around 1980s synth and drum machine. Finally there is the live track Flies, in which Alan is joined by guest musicians Isaac Barnes on theremin and Jan Stewart on thumb piano. Psych, blues, folk, experimental, ambient, and improvisational noise are all combined in this epic 20 minute track. An inventive album that perfectly balances abstract artistic exploration and melodic songwriting.


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Text Kim Harten, 2014.