Powertool Records, based in Auckland, New Zealand, puts out a good variety of underground music on nicely produced CDRs (and the occasional CD) with a strong sense of visual aesthetics, the cover art being often based on hand drawn/painted pictures or collages.
Come Down Kid, the recording project of Simon Mallett, has a self-titled 5-track EP on the label. The music is a very strong, accomplished variety of melodic alternative rock, of a quality and style to rival that of much more well known bands. The EP covers a variety of moods; the forceful Locked and Loaded, the country tinges of Falling into Pieces, the soaring, anthemic Fade Away, the acoustic Don't Stop, and the touching love song She Makes This Place Home, with its effective use of synthesised orchestration. Whilst the music falls into the alternative sphere, it's the sort of alternative music with crossover appeal, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Simon Mallett goes on to make his name as a big name songwriter - if of course that is what he's aiming for; a lot of underground artists are not.
One such artist is Nick Raven, whose CD Love and Lomography has sleeve notes proclaiming the true underground spirit: "This is not an electronic album made by machines. Nor was this album written for commercial gain. I wrote this album because I love writing music. I am releasing this album to attempt to connect to people. This is music for the soul from the depths of mine". YES, THIS. Having been steeped in underground music for getting on for a quarter of a century (!) now, I have grown accustomed to artists for whom it's all about the music. They are not prepared to compromise the music they love in order to fit into commercial trends, and music for them has no connection with seeking a career. Music for them is a labour of love, completely separate from their day job. It disappoints me when I come across artists who are prepared to compromise, expecting to gain fame and fortune from their music, and even watering their music down to fit in with popular tastes. It's like they don't really love music at all. I found it reassuring to see Nick Raven's musical manifesto laid out on the cover of this album; it shows that there are still people around who are purely motivated by a love of music and the need for creative self-expression. The music itself is laid-back psych-rock with folky undercurrents. It's homemade and often fairly minimalistic, with nice use of atmospheric, echoey effects here and there. Whilst I've used the word 'rock', it must be stressed that the music is not heavy or noisy at all; many of the tracks are very relaxing, and Hello Mr Sky explores the more whimsical side of psychedelia. There's a lot of beauty and creativity in the album, and I will be looking out for more by this artist in future.
AJ Sharma's album You Are A Traveller comes with minimalistic artwork based around close-ups of hessian, tree rings, and one of those huge heavy-duty carrier bags used for collecting garden waste. The titles are laid out on the cover as though they have been spat out by a malfunctioning computer, a surrealist statement that needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. The music is lo-fi, stripped-down songwriting, with lyrics about off-centre, uncommon subjects. Accompaniment is mostly sparse, repetitively strummed acoustic guitar, with occasional use of noisy electric guitar, piano, percussion, ethereal effects, and something I thought was a synth but would appear from the sleeve notes to be a bassoon. It's hard not to smile at the quirky observational lyrics about tattooed egg sellers, snails inching through the grass, tractor engines, and whatever else happens to grab AJ Sharma's attention. A recording full of idiosyncratic DIY charm, with no mainstream pretensions whatsoever.
One Man Bannister, the recording name of Matthew Bannister, has released a Beatles tribute album entitled Evolver, which as the title suggests comprises cover versions of the entirety of Revolver. Must admit I have mixed feelings about The Beatles; as a youngster, prior to discovering underground music, I listened to my mum's 60s records, which I often found more interesting than the mainstream music current at the time. This was after all the mid-to-late 1980s, when the charts were dominated by acts from the Stock Aitken and Waterman stable, and various other electronic pop outfits that sounded pretty much indistinguishable from each other. I liked some, though not all, of The Beatles' music back then, with Rubber Soul being my favourite of the Beatles albums my mum had. As I got older, I started to find The Beatles rather overrated. Their music is so ubiquitous, whether in its original form or as an obvious influence on more recent bands, both mainstream and underground. When you hear a song, or even a style of music, this often, it can cause you to lose interest. Aside from a few notable exceptions, it's often the case that when music becomes overly familiar, it is no longer exciting.
However, I was still curious to hear what One Man Bannister had done with these Beatles songs. As an underground artist, I would expect him to be responsible for creative reinterpretations rather than carbon copies of the originals, helping to breathe new life into the old songs. I'm pleased to say my expectations were not in vain. There's a great psych-rock version of Taxman, which as far as I'm concerned knocks spots off the original. Eleanor Rigby is reinvented as a faster, psyched-out number, completely blowing away the excessively familiar nature of the song itself. Love You To appears here as powerpop with psychedelic guitar soloing and quirky time changes. Here There and Everywhere is delicate acoustic pop with a cinematic string arrangement. And Your Bird Can Sing appears as folky pop with almost classical use of piano.
One thing that struck me about the album is how modern the songs sound. With the exception of Tomorrow Never Knows, they don't sound like an obvious product of the 60s. Stripping away the 60s production and presentation reveals The Beatles' songs to be essentially timeless, and it is easy to understand how their music has endured for so long. I'm not convinced however that the songwriting is streets ahead of that of many of the bands I normally listen to; bands who are destined to remain underground as their music hasn't gained the approval of the fashion police, and I do find that rather unjust. One Man Bannister's reinterpretations of Beatles songs are worth a listen, even if you're not a Beatles fan. One Man Bannister is an accomplished musician who puts his own stamp on the songs rather than creating a tired old rehash, and this is something I really appreciate. I would be interested to hear what his own songs sound like.
Dan West has an album on Powertool Records, Hot Corners, which features cover photography by DIY recording artist Azalia Snail, who ought to be a familiar name to anyone who's been following underground music from the 1990s onwards. Dan West plays all instruments here, except for bass on two songs which is provided by Chris Tristram. Lifeless combines a melodic song with squalling, riotous guitar noise and synthesised orchestration. Everywhere I Go is retro pop with psychedelic touches and a country-ish twang; sounds very Californian, and no surprise then that the album was recorded in Burbank, CA. One Kiss brings together the chug of powerpop, the ethereal nature of dreampop, and a very lovely undulating synth sound adding extra atmosphere and texture to this excellent track. U&I, WE R 1 is a forceful and original combination of noisepop and vintage rock, combining harsh noise with bubbling and whooshing cosmic synth. The Sprawling Sun is jazz-tinged sunshine pop viewed through a decidedly off-centre psychedelic lens; a very inventive piece. Silicon is a hazy, dreamlike song incorporating sitar, retro-futuristic synths and electronic beats, all combined in an original and artistic manner. Bedroom Revolution is lo-fi minimalistic folk-pop with vocal harmonies and a melody that tugs on the heartstrings. Dan West is a very talented artist with lots of original musical ideas; am keen to hear more from him.
Mia Schoen has a long history in the Australian underground scene, with her bands Sleepy Township, New Estate, the Mia Schoen Group, Driving Past, Molasses, Possum Moods, and Huon, the latter of which also included Mia's husband David Nichols, also of various bands including The Cannanes, Crabstick, and Blairmailer. Mia Schoen is currently in the band Enclosures, with Kerrilee Dixon, Marc R-M, and Natalie K. They have an 8 song mini-album on Powertool entitled Scotch Mist. The cover art was assembled by Mia Schoen from collages by Kerrilee Dixon and photography by Natalie K. Enclosures specialise in an off-centre brand of noisepop that takes in aspects of drone, post-rock, and screamy punk. There's a furious, chaotic, manic energy about the music. Please Like Me sets pained, ranting vocals to similarly ferocious musical accompaniment. Little Mo is a more melodic track, but no less off-kilter with its unusual drumming that resembles the sound of industrial machinery, and its combination of retro-futuristic synth and drones that brings to mind the soundtrack to a dystopian sci-fi movie. Strike Breaker combines atmospheric post-rock with full-on fierce noise. The Man is a dissonant, wailing noise piece, with recited vocals pouring scorn on repetitive, mundane work and those who subscribe to it: "You do it every day ... it's not a job, it's not a job!" Time It's Taken is a melodic lo-fi noisepop song with woozy atmospheric effects. Unusually for this band, the track is 8 and a half minutes long, rather than the short bursts of noise heard elsewhere on the album. Enclosures have an exciting sound that not only puts some real NOISE back into noisepop but also adds creative experimental aspects to the genre. This album is a million miles away from straightforward noisepop, and it's an album that proves it is possible to do new things with this style.
Psychic Maps' 1st (Second) Lo-fi Record is a 20 track compilation of this band's recordings from 2010 to 2013. Unashamedly DIY, the songs were recorded using a variety of equipment including mini-disc, 4-track, and even standard tape recorder. The cover art is similarly homemade, with scrappy typewritten text (yes, produced by a real manual typewriter!) and pen scribbles, looking like something from one of the more chaotically-designed old-school cut 'n' paste fanzines. Also featured on the cover is a bizarre fantasy painting of otherworldly figures by James Robinson. The songs are generally brief, around a minute long, and cover a variety of musical approaches, many of them bringing together combinations of influences I have never heard anywhere else and which may even qualify as unique. Magnetic Waves combines shoegaze and jazz, My Immaculate Swan is sound collage meets angular noise-rock, and Waxeyes is best described as improvisational psychedelic reggae. There are also a number of tracks that are easier to categorise, whether as lo-fi indiepop, noisepop, psych, or raucous garage rock, but their relative ease of categorisation doesn't make them any less enjoyable. The album shows a healthy disregard for genre barriers, and a reassuring commitment to the homemade underground ethos.
The latest Powertool release I have is More Songs About Girls and the Apocalypse by Vorn, who is multi-instrumentalist Vorn Colgan with an assortment of musical collaborators. The spoof Parental Advisory label on the cover proclaims "This album contains lyrics"! The lyrics are included in the booklet and show Vorn's songwriting style to be largely based around off-centre, dark humour, as well as lyrics designed to shock. The music itself has a similarly Dadaistic approach, taking all manner of genres with mainstream appeal and using them in a surreal way that is anything but mainstream. Flint and Tinder is sophisticated orchestrated pop with a certain off-kilter nature. The War Cry of J. Alfred Prufrock is a surreal take on rap that's a lot of fun. Repentance Song nods towards Motown, 1950s pop balladry, and country music, and must surely be the only song in existence to include the line "pure as driven coke"! The subject matter of Drowning Kittens is as gross, tasteless and disturbing as the title suggests, the lyrics describing the kitten-drowning process in literally gory detail while deliberately incongruous New Romantic synths bleep away in the background ... I don't think I have felt this disturbed by a song in a long, long while. She Keeps Monsters is an absurdist prog/punk hybrid. The Story of My Fucking Life is a witty, rude song about a chap whose existence comprises a whole series of bad decisions and bad luck. Right at the end there's this operatic section that has the air of being really profound, until you realise the choir of angels is actually pouring forth a stream of obscenity in Latin! Little Flame is one of the few songs here that doesn't use facetious lyrical imagery. Its arrangement is an ethereal form of prog rock with floaty synths, a rare moment of beauty among all the zany humour and sledgehammer subtlety. The album shows that being musically accomplished does not have to equal taking yourself too seriously. It goes without saying that this isn't an album for those who are easily offended. Whilst the rude humour is no big deal to me, Drowning Kittens requires a VERY strong stomach.
Powertool Records is a label bursting with underground creativity. There's lots of artists here doing their own thing and coming up with musical ideas that genuinely sound new. Check them out at www.powertoolrecords.co.nz
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