ALBUM REVIEW: Sophie Hutchings – Wide Asleep

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Rating8In recent years there has been a wealth of composers that fall into the loosely-aligned world of modern-classical, post-ambient, avant-electronic and instrumental post-rock. They draw from all of those styles and explore their compositional meeting points. Locally, our leading light is Sophie Hutchings and on her third album she again finds new and fascinating ways to create cerebral and emotionally rich and ornate arrangements – led by her piano but greatly enhanced with strings and ghostly, layered voices.

The album title suggests the deepest state of sleep where our mind is both at its most imaginative and vulnerable. Suppressed thoughts are exposed and tested, fantasies are lived out in suspended reality and our fears are briefly made all too real in dream. Memory I feels like a wash of romantic nostalgia, a light dance through the past while Memory II adds choral voices to the increasing tension like a rising anxiety entering the fray before subsiding to a slow calm. Falling and Living Light are high points with their contrasting approaches to twilight melancholia and fine examples of the way Hutchings varies her technical approach to her instrument. Flurries of notes can either form ethereal phrases or bolder statements, merely through variations in pressure and intensity. There’s a lyricism to her piano playing that draws you in, providing equal fascination for how she plays and what she is playing.

Hutchings’ ability to work in the light as eloquently as she explores darkness marks Wide  Asleep as her most expansive and resonant work to date.

Chris Familton

Wide Asleep is out now via Preservation Music

LIVE REVIEW: Shihad @ The Factory Theatre, Sydney (15/07/16)

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Shihad have been investing a lot of time in revisiting their back catalogue in recent years with reissues, tours of their best albums and greatest hits shows. That threatened to cement their place as a band built on past glories until the brutal and re-energised FVEY album came out in 2014. This night, though focused on celebrating their self-titled yet commonly known as The Fish album, served to reinforce the band’s history and their intense and still beating collective rock ’n’ roll heart and spirit.

The Vanns played to a near empty room yet they still played with youthful exuberance, matching skilful chops with a bluesy hard rock sensibility that was an attractive collision between Kings of Leon and Hendrix. They know their pop smarts and know how to match them with earthy hard rock.

Adelaide trio Grenadiers were a harder beast to pin down. One minute they were pounding at the door with post-hardcore intensity and aggression, the next they were decidedly mid-90s alternative rock and punk, channeling everyone from The Bronx to QOTSA. Energy-wise they lifted the temperature in the room but in terms of memorable hooks and songs they were left in the shadows when the headliner hit the stage.

Nothing much changes with a Shihad live show. Frontman Jon Toogood is still the limbs-askew crowd-rousing vibe merchant. He was constantly calling for the audience to bounce up and down, clap along and SCREAM! Behind him, the band bristled like a pre-match cage fighter, on their toes as they played their four favourite songs from their self-titled (Fish) album. The songs showed the balance between melody and riffs they were searching for in the mid 90s and those best examples proved they were on the right track. From there it was a trip through the rest of their back catalogue with the conspicuous absence of anything from the three albums between 2005-2010. The General Electric is still an undeniably monstrous rock song but it was the latter part of the night that cemented it as a superb show. Four songs from their excellent FVEY album before an encore of Factory (at the Factory of course) and the sledgehammer You Again. At their best Shihad are a brutal marriage of metallic swagger and bittersweet melodicism and they’re very much still alive and kicking in 2016.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Community Radio – Look Now You’re Cursed

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Rating7.5Boasting two members of Sydney band Youth Group, the debut album from Community Radio finds them capturing the essence of their elegant and skewed indie guitar pop.

The melodies are endlessly autumnal, melancholic and often heavy hearted while the guitars chime and weave hypnotic, riffing patterns. The rhythm section show plenty of inventiveness making this an album on which all instruments sound like they’re simultaneously approaching Cameron-Emerson Elliott’s songs from different and fascinating angles. Oasis heads into Stereolab blank-cool territory while the contagious pop of Love To Get High and the soft-psych of Real Transformation finds them channelling both The Go-Betweens and The Chills.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Bryan Estepa & The Tempe Two – Every Little Thing

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Rating8Bryan Estepa returns with album number five and it continues the rich vein of effortless 70s singer/songwriter vibes, a dose of soulful yacht rock and the sweet and lonesome side of country music.

Every Little Thing finds Estepa reconfiguring his band (The Tempe Two) to a trio of bass, drums and guitars and it was a good call, it suits his songs perfectly. It allows the songs to breathe more, strong vocal harmonies ringing out and hanging in the air while the rhythm section finds a wealth of interesting paths to explore – from lightly swinging funk to tumbling, propulsive rhythms.

Sensitivity in songwriting is nothing new but it so often descends into soporific and saccharine sentimentality or self-absorbed wallowing. Estepa successfully walks the fine line between that and a bruised, honest and often resolute romanticism. Over a finger-picked guitar and strings on At Least You Didn’t Know he recalls Elliott Smith, while on Sooner Or Later he dials in a wistful, dreamy melancholy that quietly screams optimism.

The yacht rock sound that Estepa explored on his previous album Heart Vs Mind are again present, though they are now more subtly absorbed into the songs and indeed the album as a whole. Steely Dan and Hall & Oates are updated with the kind of sweet and soulful sounds that Wilco do so well and though there are clear antecedents in Estepa’s songwriting style, from the Beatles to The Jayhawks, he never falls into the trap of replicating the style of his heroes. He acknowledges and references them with a clever chord change, a vocal reach or a knowing groove; always keeping his own stories and voice at the forefront of his music. Every Little Thing is beautifully recorded and stacks up as Estepa’s most complete and concise set of recordings to date.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Witch Hats – Deliverance

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Rating9Their third album and first in five years, Deliverance is a consistently impressive encapsulation of the evolution Melbourne’s Witch Hats have shown across their records. There’s plenty of dark, lurching rock ‘n’ roll with howling dirges and claustrophobic angst. The bass is deep and heavy, anchoring the songs as they stagger off into Stooges proto-punk, and nihilistic post-punk. The key is the melodies that still burn a hole in the gothic, swampy vibe. They’re firmly in the realm of The Clash, The Drones and The Gun Club yet they’ve dug their own hook-laden hole and decorated it with all manner of exceptional dark pop and bruised, gutter-punk blues.

Chris Familton