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I am not a number

I recently regained access to some of my earliest written reviews that I did for the sadly now defunct Spotisfaction (I will be posting these on here at some point just to keep my writing in one place) and I was reminded that on Spotisfaction I was required to give a score for the albums I was reviewing. I remember that at the time this was a little odd for me as I tend to write about how an album makes me feel and not rate it on some scale and seeing the reviews again has made me revisit my thoughts on ratings.

Now if you go to pretty much any review site whether it’s film, TV, gaming or indeed music and you will see that they have ratings on their reviews. I understand that ratings are a quick and easy way for someone scanning the site to see what the reviewers think are good albums to listen to, good films to see or good games to play but what do these ratings actually mean?

If a friend of mine comes up to me and recommends a movie to me I know this person and they know me, they know my tastes and I know theirs so if they are saying that they think I’ll like the movie then there is a good chance I will. But if I look at the rating of the same film all it’s telling me is how much the reviewer liked the movie on some arbitrary scale, or if you are a cynic how well the reviewer was rewarded for giving a high score.

Here we begin to see my problem with ratings. Firstly there is the scale. There are generally three ways of giving a score on a review, a score out of five, a score out of ten or a percentage. For the ratings to be useful you need to have some sort of bench mark. This is where it all starts getting tricky, do you assume that as with a lot of things the scoring will be along a bell curve with the majority of scores falling within a range with the exceptional few off to one end and the exceptionally bad off to the other? If this is the case the sensible thing to do would be to put the top of the curve in the middle of your scoring set. If you do this you’ll find the majority of the reviews score two, three or four out of five, three, four, five, six or seven out of ten or in the range of thirty to seventy percent. Nothing wrong with that in principle but you try telling someone that a movie, book or album that has a score of less that half of the scoring matrix is a good album and you’ll find some disbelief.

With this in mind you’ll find that a lot of sites and publications skew their scores up the scale slightly. For those that deal with big publishers, film studios and record labels this is a good thing because if you keep giving scores of three out of five or five out of ten you may find your early review access to material being rescinded, this may not seem like a big thing but the impact it has on ad revenue can be significant if your review of the latest blockbuster comes out a week or two after everyone else.

So where does this leave us? If you are working with a five star rating and you are having to give most scores above the median then you devoid of options of scores you can give unless you start giving half stars in which case why not give a score out of ten or partial stars in which case why not just give a percentage.

You may now be thinking that I am in favour of percentage scores but with a percentage you have a greater variance in the scores you can give but then you are stuck with defining what a single percent is worth. For example take Radiohead’s catalogue, is King of Limbs five percent worse than The Bends or ten percent? Is OK Computer one or two percent better than Kid A? The nuances of fine tuning a score in this case can be very difficult.

Does all this mean that I am against ratings in reviews? Not entirely. The point I have been trying to get to is that ratings are massively subjective. Most reviews tend to be of some form of art, whether it be music, acting, writing or anything else, and appreciation of all these things comes entirely down to taste, what one person may like someone else may hate. So in order for a review to have worth you need to know the reviewer, you need to know what they are like and what they like.

And do you know the best way to get to know a reviewer? Read their reviews!

If you do this you’ll get a better understanding of why they like or dislike what it is they are reviewing, from their comparisons to other material you come to understand where their tastes which you may find correspond with your own and may lead you to discover other books, films, TV shows or bands that you had no idea about.

So don’t go for the instant gratification of seeing that something has a score of seven out of ten from some unknown reviewer instead go out and read various reviews from various people, find someone whose opinion you generally agree with (it is unlikely that you agree fully with anyone as everyone has different tastes) and use them as a starting point. You will find that if you have similar tastes in one area you will often have similar tastes in other areas and if you actually read their full reviews, blog posts and other materials you will come across references and recommendations to things you may never have considered if all you look at was a simple star rating

Essentially this is a long winded way of me saying that I don’t put scores next to my reviews, I generally only write reviews of things I like so scores are pretty redundant. But if you happen to like something that I have reviewed then check out some of the other things I have written about as maybe you’ll find a gem or two.


The Drawing of the Three - Broken Walls

The last time I wrote about The Drawing of the Three it was to review their stripped back acoustic EP Explosions in the Sky but now with their first full length release they are back in their full indie rock glory.

The first thing I will say about Broken Walls is that this truly is an album. Unlike a lot of modern releases that feel more like a collection of individual singles all ready to download this is a proper old school album where all the parts combine to create one singular piece of art. And what those parts create is fantastic. The ebb and flow of the tracks is paced perfectly to make the time taken to listen to the album seemingly fly by.

That is not to say that the album all sounds the same as there is actually a lot of variety throughout the album however the differences compliment each other so well that the changes feel natural and happen almost without you noticing.

Broken Walls as a whole is a truly wondrous ensemble piece but there are also many standout moments as well. Chief amongst these is the track Paper Hearts, this is a fantastic bit of songwriting. Lyrically it is a moving tale of lost love but what really makes it stand out is the wonderful musical rise and fall, and if I hadn’t just ruined the surprise the sudden step up in tempo and intensity for the chorus is definitely unexpected and is only bettered by the equally unexpected drop into the simple base line at the end of the chorus.

Though not quite so dramatic a change of pace is again displayed in Three Words, a lyrical antithesis of Paper Hearts this is an upbeat love song of an immensely catchy nature that helps the Drawing of the Three stand apart from the many moody indie bands and highlights that positive emotion can be as much a creative force as negative ones.

But radical beat changes is not the bands only go to move on this album, there is a lot more variety to the songwriting than that. In this respeact Modern Life stands out as something quite different. Seemingly like a mid-album break this is a ‘Choose Life’ style mantra as if performed by an OK Computer era Radiohead which shows that the band doesn’t just have a single formula for writing songs but instead are willing to try different paths.

Veering between indie tracks like This City and No Change Girls and slightly heavier, rockier tracks like God Is In The TV and Outlines this album quite literally hits all the right notes. Builts upon catchy riffs, strong base lines and some thoughtfully provoking lyrics this is as good an album as you’ll hear from any artist this year and as a debut gives The Drawing of the Three a lot to live up to with any future releases

The August List - Handsome Skin

There is a lot of folk music around these days. Or at least there is a lot of music that marketing executives would describe as folk music around these day so that they can jump on one of the latest bandwagons that is trundling through town. 

This genre simplification may be great for these marketing executives and other people who don’t understand the nuances of musical styles but for the rest of us it can easily give the wrong impression of what an act will sound like.

The August List could easily be described as a folk duo which would conjure up an idea of the band that would be doing them a massive disservice as the depth of their sound is so much more. The base of their music is more American folk with hints of blue grass, country and blues and all of it sprinkled with some good old rock and roll. 

With the liberal addition of guitars, mandolins, harmonicas, kick drums and other instruments there is such variety that it’s hard to imagine when listening that there is just two people playing as this husband and wife combo make a sound more akin to a whole troop of musicians.

That being said they are also able to strip it back to basics when required. The a cappella intro to opening track Bird House Song is a perfect example of this as well as a fantastic way to highlight Kerraleigh Child’s vocals. This is a pure country track and Kerraleigh’s voice fits perfectly with the simple guitar riff, mandolin and bass drum.

The second track definitely has country roots as well but Death Penalty has decidedly rocky edge to it and the combination is a foot stomping triumph. The delivery has a seemingly effortless gusto that can only come from someone that has put their soul into the music. This is carried over into Forty Rod of Lightnin’. Here Patrick Child takes lead with Kerraleigh supplying backing vocals and Patrick’s gruff vocals are perfect for this more blues inspired song.

To finish up this all too short EP The August List tone it done with the slower Homeland, a wistful tale that shows how these two can produce something more thoughtful and intimate and not just go a hooping and a hollering through their songs. It’s a beautiful piece to end on, poetic and graceful it gently brings you to ground and leaves you to ponder on what is truly important in the most sublime fashion.

The Cat Empire - Steal The Light

Summer has come to the UK. You can tell it’s summer as it’s slightly less cold and wet than it has been. Whist the weather may not be be putting us all in a summery mood a good upbeat tune can always lift the spirits. The Cat Empire’s World Music inspired, salsa infused melodies from their first few albums were full of tales about partying, drinking and having a good time and were pretty much guaranteed to put a smile on your face and get your toes tapping.

Three years ago the bands last outing, Cinema, echoed the growing maturity of the band with a decrease in youthful exuberance but an increase in musicality and thoughtful lyricism.

With Steal The Light however The Cat Empire have managed to achieve the best of both worlds as the album is not only fun but also a well written and diverse collection of songs.

The bands usual latin, reggae and jazz influences are still present but there is also a definite ska edge to this album with the brass led Still Young and Am I Wrong being a perfect examples. 

These tracks sit as part of the core of the album next to Wild Animals that whilst great on the album you know will be fantastic as part of The Cat Empires renowned live shows. In fact most of the first half of the album has a fun upbeat get your feet moving feel.

The latter end of the album has a slightly different feel, it’s still fun and enjoyable but there is a more laid back groove to the music epitomized by the extremely simple and minimalistic closer All Night Loud

Throughout the album, whether it’s the upbeat or slower tunes, the one thing that is constant is the effort of the bands fantastic rhythm section. With it being ten years since the Cat Empire’s debut the energy within the songs is different but in it’s stead the songs are heavily rhythm led. This means the songs may not be as jump up and down frenetic as they once were but the rhythm still gets your feet moving.

Another thing that has changed over the decade that the band has been playing are the lyrics, there is less talk of partying and drinking here instead a message to not let life, the man, modernism get you but but instead enjoy yourself, have fun and see the positives around you.

With all this combined the Cat Empire have produced what is possibly their best, most complete album to date. There is diversity aplenty through the album but with no weak tracks to be seen there is a cohesion to the diversity that makes for one fantastic whole. 

La Fin Absolute Du Monde - Descend EP

It wasn’t that long ago that if you went to a gig and on to stage came one singer and one guitarist that you’d know exactly what you were about to
experience and that experience was going to be some sort of acoustic folk.

Modern technology though now allows these duos to do a lot more than those simple acoustic stylings. Drum machines, loopers and samplers give these twosomes to make sounds that you’d normally expect from a much larger band.

This same technology also allows for experimentation with sound that wouldn’t have been achievable with just a guitar meaning that these small bands can touch on genres you wouldn’t have expected.

And this is where La Fin Absolute Du Monde come in, this duo is certinaly experimental and definitely don’t play acoustic folk. La Fin instead play their own brand of neo-noir music. This is essentially indie electronica with hints of their many and varied influences throughout and those influences include, punk, pop, trip hop, downtempo, grunge, in fact you name it and they’ve probably played around with.

Often eschewing standard musical structures La Fin create compositions that are profoundly different to anything you may be used to, tone, mood, tempo, anything can change within the confines of a single song which will forever keep you guessing as to where they are taking you. The heavy rhythms of album opener Descent Into Madness are deep and brooding to be followed by darkly tinged dream pop (nightmare pop?) inspired tracks. All in all it’s an eclectic mix of genres that are blended together seemlessly and artfully with a level of dynamism that is rarely found anywhere. The changing music is greatly complemented by the wonderfully crafted vocals that are delivered in fashions that are as disperate as the music itself.

The real achievement is that despite all the mixes, changes and blending of styles the music works, somehow it all melds together into an outstanding final concoction that is truly musical medicine.

and all this doesn’t begin to touch on what they are like live. If you ever get a chance to see them play I would highly recommend going and I’m sure you wont regret it!

Vienna Ditto - Liar Liar EP

Vienna Ditto are a genre defining band. That is to say that they have defined their very own genre in Voodoo Sci-Fi Blues. It only takes one listen to understand why Vienna Ditto needed to do this as they certainly don’t fall neatly into any predefined musical genre.

What you have in Vienna Ditto is a mixture of influences mixed together in ways you wouldn’t normally expect.

The blues that is mention in the genre name is easily identifiable on tracks like The Undefeated which opens with some classic blues guitar and if you are listening to the limited edition version of the EP which includes previous single I Know His Blood Will Make Me Whole on top of the blues guitar you also get some wonderful gospel blues vocals from Hatty Taylor.

However neither of these tracks stay as blues for their entirety, as both break down in their latter stages in ways you wouldn’t expect. On I Know His Blood the simple guitar and vocals vie with the growing drum beat which is joined by electronic samples before dropping into a dance like beat before being rejoined by the earlier elements for the finish. On The Undefeated the simple guitar and vocals are joined by a drum beat before dropping into a dubstep like segment before returning to the simple guitar and vocals.

These descriptions may seem overblown but it is hard to put into word the intricacies of what Vienna Ditto create. With only two members and a single guitar the sound is created by sampling, looping and mixing vocals, guitar, drum beats and other samples to create multiple layers of sound which allow the merging of the variety of tones, beats and genres from which the band draw.

The changes are sometimes subtle, sometimes stark, but no matter where they are taking you on the journey it is never discordant which highlights the craftsmanship that is put into the tracks.

Whilst this may all be sounding like a beautiful mess Vienna Ditto can create songs that are as simple as they are dramatic.Taylor’s vocals can be as varied as the music but often only have a simple accompaniment which allows the vocals to have emphasis as they are usually delivered clearly and without effects which allows you appreciate the honest and expressive lyrics.

Experimental and different but also thoughtful and intelligent this is music that will move and uplift those willing to take the risk and take the road less travelled and have Vienna Ditto as their soundtrack

Near Light - Near Light EP

Post rock is not a genre that everyone understands. With whole albums of completely instrumental music there are some people that are left wanting more and equate what they have heard to “elevator music”. But lyrics aren’t everything. For those that take the time to immerse themselves in the music they can come to appreciate how expressive sound alone can be. Ranging from the mellow and atmospheric to the fast and frantic post rock instrumental music can convey the whole gamut of emotion.

Near Light are a four piece from Bournemouth who have placed themselves towards the atmospheric end of the spectrum with their self titled debut EP. Many Post rock bands that play this style have a tendency to meander through some of their tracks, continuing long after most people would have given up, however at just over 25 minutes for 5 tracks Near Light have been quite restrained by comparison.

But brevity does not reduce the intensity. Emotionally fulled the tracks draw you in to a seemingly endless swirl of melodious wonder. Near Light have managed to weave a mesmeric soundscape with the EP, the tracks rise and fall spectacularly and blend together almost seamlessly to create a greater feel for the EP as a whole rather than just a series of individual tracks. 

Subdued starts often explode into life only to fall back into a soft reverie, subtle repetition creates an almost hypnotic ambiance, simple guitar riffs and drum beats entwine to create a more complicated whole, the EP is a collection of little touches and techniques that are woven together in spellbinding fashion to formulate the kind of music that you can happily lose yourself in and forget the world around you.

The Drawing of the Three - Explosions in the Sky

The last time I wrote about Explosions in the Sky I was writing about one of my favourite post rock bands but what we have here is an entirely different kettle of fish.

Explosions in the Sky this time is an acoustic EP from Cheltenham three piece The Drawing of the Three and if inspiration for band names is an indicator of the type of music they play then in sharing a name with a Stephen King novel you might expect something dark, moody and mysterious from The Drawing of the Three.

And you’d be partially right, there is definitely a moody feel to the EP both musically and lyrically.The lyrics drip with emotion and touch on the darkness of the feelings of loss and loneliness, of disassociation and dejection, but despite this the EP isn’t depressive, more melancholic and wistful.

The song writing is extremely expressive and at times manages to be so without the use of a lot of words. Painting the outlines and creating hazy images with the lyrics the songs allow the listener to fill in the details and subtly immerses them in the music.

The stripped back acoustic sound is reminiscent of Turin Brakes or Kings of Convenience especially in the harmonies, but this isn’t simply acoustic folk-rock as the bands Indie origins are clearly present with guitar riffs influenced by the softer Indie music of the last decade adding profound depth to the tracks.

A simple sound doesn’t mean the music is simplistic, the minimalist aesthetic just highlights the qualities of the bands playing. The percussion is simple and unobtrusive, helping to emphasise the vocals rather than over power them. Meanwhile the guitar, with it’s mix of simple riffs and intricate fills, acts as a fantastic counterpart to the plaintive vocals.

Overall the EP doesn’t rush at you with power and energy but instead washes over you with a more intimate and intricate touch that lifts you up and allows you to drift in a contemplative cloud which, being only 5 songs long, is gone far too soon.

Little Specks of Blood Lust Blood - A Beautiful Equation

Little Specks of Blood Lust Blood are a two piece outfit from Brighton but listening to their music you’d think there was more of them as this pairing produce a sound that is broader and certainly louder than you would expect.

Trying to place Little Specks into a genre isn’t easy. A starting point would be electro-rock but that is no where near a fitting description. At times ambient, sometimes cranking out the rock riffs whilst at other times pumping out great dance beats. This is an eclectic experimental new wave mix with gothic undertones that would make the likes of David Lynch smile.

There is a definite avant garde nature to A Beautiful Equation but Little Specks achieve this without drifting into pretentiousness. It’s a mix of ideas, forms, feelings and emotions, it’s essentially a stream of consciousness in musical form.

While Little Specks may have no bassist and no drummer this doesn’t stop them utilising a drum machine and other electronic wizardry to produce some fantastic bass lines and driving, intricate drum beats. But through all this and most often at the fore are the vocals. Even when effects are added the vocals are clear and crisp allowing the meaning of the well crafted lyrics to be understood. The vocals themselves have a mainly innocent, dreamlike feel but occasionally reveal a slightly devilish nature.

Overall the album is a seamless melding of styles, with no element feeling out of place, which is paced to perfection, reaching the end before you know it but without feeling rushed and leaving you wanting more.

In addition to the above review I would like to thank the band for giving me a new insult; from now on if I call you a bastion of idiocy you have Little Specks of Blood Lust Blood to blame

For a few singles more

A few more reviews of followers of mine on Twitter where I was only able to listen to a single or two

Old Colours - Giants

After the Canadian flavoured tracks in my last selection this time I start off with a band from the UK with the indie folk rock stylings of Old Colours.

Zoe Meads ephemeral vocals waft over the song like a more comprehensible Elizabeth Fraser. The similarities to the Cocteau Twins doesn’t end with the vocals as the twinkling folksy percussive rhythm of the track could have been lifted from Blue Bell Knoll and even builds through the song in much the same way. However what Giants builds into is less dream pop and more indie folk especially with the effects laden guitar and crashing drums. There may be similarities to the Cocteau Twins here but this track has a broader, more cinematic scope, there is a mix of styles and sounds that in the end gives Old Colours a unique feel and a track that you can easily slip onto repeat

Dawn is Broken - Fixed on Dynamite

Reading through my reviews you could easily think that I only like alternative and experimental music. This isn’t the case, you don’t have to push the boundaries in order to be good, sometimes you can do something that is tried and tested and still stand out, all you have to do is be very good at whatever you have decided to do.

This is where Dawn is Broken come in with their single Fixed on Dynamite. This pop punk rock track isn’t breaking new ground, they aren’t pushing the extremes of the envelope, but what they are doing is being extremely adept at what they do.

Comparisons could easily be drawn to the likes of Green Day or My Chemical Romance. But that is not to say that Dawn is Broken are aping any other acts more that there is a large similarity in sound amongst acts in this genre especially with the guitar riffs and drum beats which can be heard on this single, but there is enough variation here to think that Dawn is Broken are treading there own path. Fixed on Dynamite doesn’t explode with originality but at the same time isn’t totally secured in the same old formula

Colour of Bone - Sympathiser

I’m not sure where to start with this track so I’ll take the obvious step of starting at the beginning. Grungy blues rock guitar and thumping drums start what you would then expect to be a traditional hard rock track but this then changes to slightly softer, more melodic riffs as the vocals join, vocals that I have to say remind me greatly of Pop Will Eat Itself. The fuzzy guitars always come to the fore between verses but drop back so as to not overpower the vocals. It’s a nice blend and helps maintain the raucous energy of the track.

This is rock with an experimental edge, there is an obvious desire not to be constrained by the expectations placed on a particular genre but to try different things and see what can they can add to the hard rocking beats and produce a sound that is forceful and yet intriguing

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